I read so much in my 2020 stay-at-home — and watched and listened to so much stuff — that I decided in early December to create a list, just for me, to keep track of it all. When I did so, I discovered that it was shareable.
On this list are things that came out in 2020 that I consumed in 2020. Of course, there is a lot more that wasn’t 2020, and there are many things in 2020 that I have not yet read, heard, or watched. That’s what 2021 will be for.
And thus began a social media onslaught, of the order of Sianne Ngai’s Theory of the Gimmick (which I haven’t included, though it is a 2020 title, because I haven’t finished it yet). As I said then, nobody asked for this list. It only follows that I feel compelled to flood my friends’ feeds with it. It’s what social media is really about and for. Also, I was done grading at the time. That was the real reason.
To have it all in one place, I’ve decided to copy and paste the extended version of my reflections. Each of the links on the titles will take you to my Instagram, where the writing is a bit more concise.
1. Jamieson Webster, ‘End Notes: What Palliative Care Looks Like in a Pandemic’
I would begin this list by saying that there’s no particular order to it. Alas, I am starting with a psychoanalyst.
I encountered Jamieson Webster’s piece on her volunteering at a hospital with covid-19 patients just as the 2019-2020 school year was wrapping up. We had gone online halfway into the semester. At an obscene speed, Slavoj Žižek had written his pandemic book. It was not bad for a guy I no longer take seriously, especially with its roundup of theorists commenting in the early days of the coronavirus’s global spread. It was also just really predictable. Obscenely, there is also a sequel now.
There is some transference, I admit, to my attraction to Webster’s writing. My dad is a hospital chaplain. Here, Webster does the work of what amounts to spiritual accompaniment. I didn’t know anything about her work at first; in fact, I didn’t know she was a woman, much less Filipina. It’s just that I felt something when she wrote about the families she accompanied, the nurses who yelled at her, the general panic in the New York hospital where she volunteered.
Quickly, I got her books. I’ve never been in analysis myself. I suppose I have had a relationship with the idea since I was in high school reading Joyce with Freud in freshman honors English. But I don’t think I really caught onto the relevance of Freud till I read Alenka Zupančič’s What Is Sex two years ago in a taxi cab in Chicago. It’s an analysis of the psychic cut in Freud from which sexuality and desire emerge. When I learned of Webster’s familial history with the Philippines, I was reminded that I did not get into the reading of psychoanalysis through Ljubljana. Instead, it was through Asian Americans like David Eng, Anne Anlin Cheng, even Frank Chin’s critique of the whole enterprise. In fact, I could tell the entire story of my being hooked into analysis through Aiiieeeee!
What Webster does is to up the ante. If psychoanalysis takes as its primary phenomenon the transference, then she understands everything as wrapped up in such conversions. Hers is an analyst whose main practice is self-analysis. She points out over and over again in her books that what psychoanalysis is — and why it’s always being debunked and discredited — is that it really comes out of Freud’s self-analysis. But what that really means is that though patients come seeking expertise from their analysts, the ethic of the analyst, as Lacan put it, is to know nothing, and to do that, the analyst must always undergo an analysis of her own, including in the self-analytical act of writing.
The writing in the New York Review of Books is the cut through which I entered into the void of Webster’s self-analysis. Something interesting began to happen when I did. I had been struggling with my own writing. But what I read Webster — and as I’ve come back to her through quarantine, and through her, to Lacan and even Freud, and then back to Aeschylus and Sophocles, both of whom I read obsessively while at home — I began to write again, first my own self-analysis, and then the book itself.
Read Webster’s beautiful piece here.
2. Edgar Garcia, Signs of the Americas: A Poetics of Pictography, Hieroglyphs, and Khipu (University of Chicago Press)
I read this book because my friend, the philosopher of education Sam Rocha, said he was going to. I don’t know if he has. Anyway, I’m not including his stuff in my 2020 count because his album Anamnesis is from 2019 and The Syllabus as Curriculum (Routledge) is 2021. He tells me that the latter is actually 2020, but it means I still have time to process.
But the entry point is similar enough. I actually first encountered Garcia’s book on The Chronicle of Higher Education. He says that what drives his scholarship are these signs in the Americas that point to the presence of multiple worlds. Those worlds are enacted by poetics that you don’t see on your average college curriculum, he says.
That hooked me. I’ve been trying to keep up with what the late Saba Mahmood calls in her book on Coptic Christians ‘the burgeoning field of secular studies’ (the Copts are very popular in this field of ours; Angie Heo also writes on them). It’s such an interdisciplinary field with many twists and turns, theologies and anthropologies, that I hope I’m able to do my intervention justice in the book I’m working on. I call this field the ‘postsecular,’ though just about nobody else seems to like that term anymore (which is why I use it). It’s also gone beyond the opening critiques of, say, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Alisdair MacIntyre, John Milbank, and Charles Taylor. There is, as Darryl Li puts it in his own 2020 book The Universal Enemy, a critique of the universality of the secular by other universalities — in his case, jihad.
Or maybe not, as Garcia intervenes. Maybe the alternatives are not as much ‘universal’ as they might serve as a ‘metalepsis’ and an ‘analepsis’ to the colonizations of capitalist modernity. They interrupt the easy use of the word ‘world’ in ‘world literature’ with the possibilities of many worlds existing. As he takes us into the poetic worlds of languages, scripts, and until-very-recently unreadable rope knots, he shows how these other worlds are not only not subsumed by capitalist materialism — they attempt to subsume even the most destructive forces into their worlds and transfigure them in new language. This is the ‘pacha,’ Garcia writes, which reminded me of that rad-trad Austrian guy who raided the Vatican after the Pan-Amazonian Synod to throw the ‘Pachamama idols’ into the Tiber, then resurfaced as a comrade to Taylor Marshall. Colonists sure are fragile. One often wonders if they know just how implicated they are in the secular modernity they decry.
In any case, this was a book that helped me think about how I construe my scholarly projects while 2020 was going on. It was nice to think with, especially in it bringing literary studies and anthropology — humanities and social sciences — together on the question of the secular, which popularly translates into ‘world’ (although everybody knows it really means ‘age’). I hope Sam gets around to reading it too, if he hasn’t already. There’s a reason I posted it on what he knows in the Latin Church as the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. He has a reflection in Our Sunday Visitor about it.
Oh, also Garcia has this other book of poetry where he reads the journals of Christopher Columbus before he goes to bed for three months and then writes out his dreams. Pretty cool. I’m glad he did it so the rest of us don’t have to.
3. I Will Make You Mine, dir. Lynn Chen
As the credits rolled, Goh Nakamura took out his guitar and played a new song that is so apt for 2020. ‘Hold on to Your Humanity,’ it’s called. I sat there for a good ten minutes after it was all done. Then I got onto up a thing on my Facebook on how I felt. Lynn Chen saw it. Then she put it on Instagram.
I was over the moon. I’ve been invested in the Surrogate Valentine trilogy since grad school. My wife knew. We watched the movies together, and then one day, we saw Goh Nakamura and Yea-Ming Chen in an airport. ‘Is that…?‘ my wife asks. We cornered them by a bathroom. They could not escape. But they had no DVDs of Daylight Savings to give us either. That felt right too. It fit the vibe of those first two films.
Lynn Chen’s thing is that same world, but it feels like a whole other one. Told from the perspective of Goh’s three women lovers, the movie opens up far beyond the tired trope of the ‘manic pixie dream girl,’ if that can be used for anything besides Elizabethtown. The ‘post-patriarchal’ order is just patriarchy with a twist. Besides, nobody believes that there is such a thing as ‘post-patriarchy’ after Trump anyway.
There was a time, I think, when what we might call ‘Asian American representation’ was a lot less ideological. My students used to tell me that they’d never seen themselves represented on television. Did they miss Min with Barney, Trini with the Power Rangers? It occurred to me recently that they were too young for that — indeed, too young to even feel something when the Yellow Ranger died in a car crash in real life.
But for those of us who began to come of age in the mid-2000s, we looked to Wong Fu on the one hand and Saving Face on the other (ok, maybe Better Luck Tomorrow too) not because we could see ourselves, but because they told us what was possible. Our stories could be told, especially because they were messy. ‘Asians Americans can be whoever the hell they want to be,’ Roger Ebert thundered at the premiere of Better Luck Tomorrow, and even I felt something when I heard that. The burden of the model minority myth is not ours to carry. Indeed, its cracks are where we enter. This was the schtick with Lynn Chen’s blog too, The Actor’s Diet, and then the podcast, and then the mental health stuff with Thick Dumpling Skin.
Somehow, that time feels like another age, another world ago. In the time between, I navigated a job market just like ‘the Professor’ in the film, who ends up a visiting assistant professor just like me in those years. What ever happened to these people, these stories, as ‘Asian American representation’ became ever so key to a liberal ideology that couldn’t tell a messy story to save its life?
I Will Make You Mine caught me up that one night in quarantine. So this is where we are. It brought closure finally for me to the Surrogate Valentine trilogy. But the story isn’t over. The move from ‘I Will Make You Mine’ to ‘Hold on to Your Humanity’ at the end signals that it’s but the close of a chapter. The story continues, and the world continues to unfold.
Also, can I just say this? I think this might be my favourite movie ever made.
4. Mok Zining, The Orchid Folios (Ethos)
When Mok Zining first sent me whatever The Orchid Folios was titled when it was in draft form, my first thought was honestly oh no. Zining is a former student of mine. I knew her writing as a student was no joke — she had written a very funny creative nonfiction submission for the course she took for me (for some reason, she did not take me up on the interpretive dance suggestion) — but she told me that she was now writing poetry. I hate student poetry. and I did not have the heart to tell her.
That’s about the reaction I got when I advertised the book to Diana Fu, the other former student I teach in my courses here. Diana is actually poet laureate of Pleasanton in 2013. Cool beans, said I when I first learned that; why am I even teaching people like Zining and Diana when I am clearly out of their league? Also, both Diana and I are from Fremont, California. We have a kind of quiet, reflexive, informal cynicism about us. If we don’t like you or your work, we’ll become passive aggressive friendly at you. Reluctantly, Diana agreed to read Zining’s book. She texted me back almost immediately. ‘Ugh,’ she said — and I have permission to quote her — ‘that first poem is stunning.’ Bay Area prickliness disarmed, expelliarmus and all.
The first poem, in the series entitled ‘Floristry Basics,’ goes, famously, ‘A word is a cutting, / a sentence / a bouquet.’ I remember when I came across these words in the draft. I sat straight up. This was not student poetry. This was somebody who loves words, who dwells on them, who opens up world through them.
I say this as somebody who is new to Singapore and is still learning the ins and outs of how things work here. There’s a field of literature called ‘singlit,’ and I immediately ordered a bunch of stuff to see if I could use that to contextualize what I just read in Zining’s book. Students like it when I make references, say, to Ng Yi-sheng, Amanda Lee Koe, and Teo You Yenn. They feel like I’m trying. I hope I’m not trying too hard.
But Zining is a writer’s writer. She wanted me to get into the good stuff, so she sent me her old Northwestern teacher Eula Biss’s On Immunity and told me to pay attention to her syntax. She had me re-reading Cathy Park Hong, Esmé Weijuan Wang, and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. She dropped Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Sonny Liew’s Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen as if everybody had read them already, duh. Sheepishly, I’d order them and do my homework. My other writer student Irina Huang caught on. ‘Justin, you’re reading a lot of creative nonfic these days,’ she’d tease. There’s another former student and dear friend who writes better than me.
It’s because I was trying desperately to get back into writing myself. My sentences were tangled and overdetermined — ‘too intense,’ Zining would say. She’s the best writing teacher I know. She, through The Orchid Folios (which I keep on my desk and read every time I get stuck now) and in her personal feedback on my work, literally gave me writing rehab this 2020. It’s not too much to say that, thanks to her writing, the teacher has been taught. She made me breathe. She told me, as Eula Biss had taught her and Irina and many others, to ‘follow the heat.’ Her words opened up worlds and dreams in mine.
Wow, I said as I was getting the treatment, this is what poetry is for. There’s no writing without poetry. I can write again.
Late one night, I went on YouTube and found hania rani’s video of a song called ‘Home.’ I was vaguely familiar with some of her prepared piano work, the kind where you can hear all the hammers and levers working. But I was not prepared for the sheer force of ‘Home,’ with its lights, aesthetics, and clarity of vision.
Home is hania rani’s second album, after Esja, which is itself a kind of spellbinding strap-you-to-your-seat re-imagining of what Bach would sound like if Chopin were playing him in the twenty-first century. In Home, she sings as well as plays. It’s a worthy sequel, one that attends like the first one to what the materiality of the earth sounds like. The concept is a little bit like what the American bassist Esperanza Spalding does in 12 Little Spells. hania rani opens the sonic dimensions of the body and its ecologies.
Riffing off Dipesh Chakrabarty, this to me is what the younger generation of a ‘provincialized Europe’ might be said to sound like. In the same vein as the environmental activist Greta Thunberg, much of the younger scene in current European classical music calls for a new ecological attentiveness — what Chakrabarty is now calling a ‘planetary consciousness’ — starting from how the vibrations of the music set the mood. I’ve listened to a lot of this music to get through the pandemic this year, with names like Vikungur Ólafsson, Ólafur Arnaulds, Seong-Jin Cho, and Alice Sara Ott working through my playlists. How does the earth vibrate? What is it conveying through its moods? How does sound travel through the body? It’s as if these people are revealing that such questions animated Bach and Chopin’s music all along.
hania rani goes one step further. In the tradition of Fryderyk Chopin — literally herself a graduate of the academy named after him in Warsaw — she writes her own music and publishes her scores. But in her collaborations, which move everywhere from music that has been featured in the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter protests to her revelatory reworking of Ólafsson’s take on Debussy à la Rameau, she suggests that I’m not crazy to think of her kind of new sound as rooted in a long tradition being re-animated by younger artists. Really, gridding her framework onto Ólafsson’s profound 2020 playlist approach to mixing Debussy and Rameau opens up the possibility that not only is Debussy influenced by Rameau’s flair (and if you want to hear that flaunted, see also the soprano Sabine Devielhe’s all-Rameau first album), but also both of them, like the Chopin and Bach that clearly influence hania rani’s composition and technique, are attending to what Mahler called ‘the song of the earth,’ featuring songs he learned from Tang poets like Li Bai. The significance of these songs have also not been lost among this generation in classical music this year; Vladimir Jurowski has a stunning new recording of Das Lied von der Erde.
The source texts here include Bach and Chopin, Rameau and Debussy, a nod to Mahler. Here the emptiness of orientalism is transfigured as Europe is provincialized, and earth as our common home privileged. Home here is not nostalgia. It is ecology — indeed, the ecological vision we need in 2020. Listen to hania rani.
6. Alicia Keys, NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert
NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts are how I learn about artists I should know. It’s how I came across Summer Walker clutching a stuffed animal as she deals with anxiety, Black Pumas channeling Tower of Power, and Monsieur Perine with the most sublime Colombian music. I heard the Taylor Swift I have loved since grad school, though her two 2020 albums folklore and evermore aren’t on my lists because I don’t quite understand them yet. It’s through Tiny Desk that Chance the Rapper showed me how little I understood of Stevie Wonder when he covered ‘They Won’t Go Where I Go’ from Innerversions.
Very late one night in 2020 quarantine, I turned on YouTube and saw that Alicia Keys had a Tiny Desk. I was intrigued. Alicia Keys has been a presence in my life since high school, though of course I did not know it. I was a classical musical fundamentalist for the longest time, the kind of Asian kid who did not listen to anything besides classical. I always feel these days that Alicia Keys has been trolling me. She is, after all, a classical musician in the tradition of Beethoven and Chopin, mediated through the blues of Black women and the beats of Jay-Z and Kanye.
What I’m saying here is not a controversial claim, and definitely not me trying to be cute about my emerging musical tastes. Alicia says it herself, and if there were any doubt about her credibility in the salon, her 2016 live concert at La Blogothèque, A Take Away Show, put that to rest. ‘You Don’t Know My Name,’ she sings in Paris from the Diary as she moves down the scale, and as is always the case in classical music, the scalar movement is the progression of life, as her audience knows as they move from swaying to full-out dancing as if lost in a trance. Hilary Hahn knows this about Alicia too. Her celebration of Black musicians on her Instagram in solidarity with Black Lives Matter positions as Alicia as queen.
Alicia Keys has a new book out this year, as well as a self-titled album. I can’t stop listening to the album, frankly, and I look forward to getting the book in the mail. But it’s here on the Tiny Desk that I finally understood just what a presence she’s been in my life. Hers is a participatory music, one that calls on the audience to join in the chant ‘Show Me Love.’ ‘Gramercy Park’ turns the meditation to authenticity, and ‘Underdog’ is what I have on repeat when I do not have the confidence to write.
But it’s in revisiting ‘Fallin’ that I realize just how much Alicia Keys has woven her presence through my life, from those beginnings with Songs in A Minor and The Diary of Alicia Keys to Girl on Fire and Here. Her backup singers hit that chord, and electric fire went from my gut to my head. From the piano through her band, she opens a portal into the intimacies of love. I realize in watching this that all that we were trying to do as evangelicals leading worship from the piano was to be Alicia Keys. I’ve often joked that cantoring in the Kyivan Church is like matching Mariah’s handmotions with Whitney’s power, and of course this quarantine, you could say that arrived back at Alicia via Mariah and Whitney too. I’d say those older than me would have been formed by the last two songstresses of the nineties. I came of age as a millennial at the millennium. Even though I denied Alicia’s formative influence on my musical sensibilities, it is she who is ubiquitous in my unconscious. There can be miracles when you believe.
Alicia’s Tiny Desk surfaced that which had been repressed. I keep on fallin’ in and out of love with you. What was submerged in the unconscious of my adolescent mind has been brought to the fore of my adulthood. I realized when I understood that that I have not had access to a piano for ten years. In the next decade, I’d like to fix that. My life depends on these keys.
7. Xenia Chan, The Space Between
I grew up in Fremont and went to church in Hayward. This was geography as I knew it as a kid, the small part of the Bay Area where anything outside the Tri-City area of Fremont, Union City, and Newark was considered far, which meant that I was always lying when I said I was from ‘San Francisco.’
Growing up there, I always secretly wanted to be Chinese Canadian Christian. My father moved to Regina, then to Winnipeg in the early 1970s. In 1980, he married my mom, and then they went to Calgary before ending up in Vancouver, where they had me. Because of that, all our family history was up in Canada, and the stories they told of Chinese Canadian Christians, who started college fellowships and evangelical churches and taught them everything they knew as adults about what Christianity was and how it was practiced, made them sound like the big heroes, the 大俠, of the wuxia novels.
Canada, I knew at young age, was where I was from. It’s why we were living on green cards in the U.S. Our congregational bylaws came from a legendary church in Richmond. I took French in high school because I wanted to feel just a bit more Canadian, and when I found out that one of my friends in that class sometimes tuned into the CBC, so did I. We often discussed the Liberal Party’s ‘scholarship scandal’ at lunch. Neither of us knew what we were talking about.
When I read Xenia Chan’s blog The Space Between, all of that history and longing — and the fact that I more than did my time in Vancouver as a Chinese Canadian Christian for nine years, and then some on the job market (I even became Eastern Catholic, which is its own kind of Chinese Canadian Christian when you’re in Richmond) — is validated. Xenia is a PhD student in biblical studies at the Toronto School of Theology; improbably, given her name, she does not practice the Byzantine tradition, though she seems to know an awful lot about it, and more. She would, too; she’s competent in Hebrew, Greek, and just about every other language I wish I were good at but didn’t learn because I became a geographer. She also knows a ridiculous amount about Hong Kong, which makes sense because she was a journalist at one point too, and that, after working in Canadian politics.
Xenia, in other words, has lived, and it shows in her writing and reading. She’s got reflective pieces on her spiritual journey chock full of prayerful insight. She has weekly roundups of her voracious interdisciplinary reading appetite. She has guest posts where her friends post on their experiences of Chinese Canadian Christianity.
I easily lose myself in The Space Between. The thing you must know about Chinese Canadian Christianity is that Western and Eastern Canada are fundamentally different worlds. The weird part is that while my experience is almost entirely West Coast, with the ‘Winnipeggers’ as the stuff of legend in shaping our consciousness as Chinese Canadian Christians, Xenia’s experience is rooted in the Greater Toronto Area. And yet, I still feel seen, even validated both in my childhood longings to be seen as a child of these Chinese Canadian Christian heroes of the past and present and my extended adolescent disillusionment when they all turned out to be all too human and flawed.
It’s such a beautiful blog, informed by original languages, prayerful discernment, and also the practice of therapy. Xenia and I discovered this year that we both really like Bessel van der Kolk’s Body Keeps the Score. In fact, we concluded based on our affinity with trauma studies that we basically read the same books and work in different disciplines.
At least maybe she might think that. On my end, I felt like I finally found a friend who reads so much that I’d better keep up my end of the reading to be able to remain in conversation. It’s why I’ve ended up reading voraciously in 2020 too. Xenia’s friendship, mediated in part by her blog, has been very good for me. It opened up for me the world of reading at a point in my life when I wondered if I had time for it. But because of The Space Between, I have now realized that if I don’t read, I don’t write either.
8. Chenchen Zhang, Guo Ting, Yao Lin, and Andy Li, Shicha 時差 Podcast
My heart is split between two languages. They are Cantonese and Mandarin. The canto will not surprise most people. It’s the mando that often takes people aback, like I’ve got some kind of dominant language fetish.
Look. I grew up going to church and Chinese school with mando speakers. My dad was the Cantonese pastor there. The split happens. English is a second-order language for me. I feel, think, and pray in canto and mando.
What that also means is that mando is one of those languages that if you speak it to me, I will automatically develop transference with you. It happens. At the church I go to right now, they double the epistle reading in English and Chinese, and depending on who’s there (we Eastern Catholics are not a picky people), that’ll be canto or mando. Unfortunately, we are not competent in Hokkien and Teochew. Working on it. Someday I hope to learn Shanghainese. It’s the language of my grandfather of blessed memory.
Shicha Podcast is one of these things I started listening to in 2020 that unearthed all of this. I confess I did it because Ting Guo — my friend, partner in crime, sister in postsecular social science, and everything else — is one of the co-hosts. As soon as the conversation started, I was drawn in through the transference. It sounded like a bunch of aunties and uncles talking, though obviously they are all my age and around my career stage.
I have often wondered if the Shicha hosts know that they do this to me, and if to me, then to a lot more other people too. The reason I say this is because they really stretch mando to its limits. The struggle for modernity in this language has been going on for over a hundred years, at least; I like to date it at May 4, 1919, but others will pick other dates. Shicha covers topics that people in my generation want and need to talk about — identity, feminism, transnationalism, diaspora, cybersecurity, queerness — and in so doing, they’re always trying to find new words to talk about what they are thinking and feeling with these concepts. It makes me feel like I’m not the only one who struggles with mando. Everyone in my generation struggles with it, and not because some of us are more competent in English. It’s rather the question of how you talk about stuff you need to talk about when it brings you to the limits of a language.
In so doing, I hear Shicha as the practice of Sinophone studies. The co-hosts talk about this field openly. Founded by Shu-mei Shih, the basic Sinophone idea is that a unitary Chineseness is not real. There are scattered Sinitic communities across the Pacific and around the world. In Wang Gungwu’s words in the autobiographies he’s recently written, it’s the tension between ‘home is not here‘ and ‘home is where we are.’ It’s why Ting was curious about whether I could understand their conversation across their regional accents. Of course, I replied; it’s not like my mando is standard pronunciation either. I grew up with the Taiwan inflection, plus a little bit of my Hong Kong Canto and Bay Area NorCal thrown in. My mando is not from book learning or school study. It’s a maternal whisper in my heart to which I reply, rebelliously, in English. I really am Asian American.
I listen to a few podcasts. They include The Read, Sunstorm, Time to Say Goodbye, Still Processing, Death Sex and Money, C.A.M.P., and a few others. But Shicha gets me in my heart. They understand how much I struggle with living in my Sinophone world, and they want to talk about it and process it with me. There’s an intimacy to that, a being known in what they call the ‘in-betweeness.’
I love Shicha Podcast.
9. E. Tammy Kim, ‘Transnationally Asian’ (Columbia Journalism Review)
FINALLY. Geez, finally. It might have taken covid, but finally somebody is not recycling the old tired trope of Asian Americans deciding whether we’re more Asian or American or assimilating or acculturating or generationing or gendering or whatevering. It’s informal transpacific networks that matter a lot more in everyday life. That’s E. Tammy Kim’s ‘Transnationally Asian’ on Columbia Journalism Review is about.
When I learned about this phenomenon ten years ago in grad school, I was already late to the party. Asian American studies, unlike popular Asian American discourse, has been talking about this since the 1990s, like in Gary Okihiro’s Margins and Mainstreams and Lisa Lowe’s Immigrant Acts. Henry Yu was the one who taught me Asian American studies in a coffee shop; his Thinking Orientals attempted to move the map toward the Pacific, and so did Kandice Chuh’s Imagine Otherwise. I was also schooled in migration studies, which was going through the tail end of the transnational orthodoxy. Arif Dirlik was already questioning the term ‘Pacific Rim’ in the 1990s. In 2014, Janet Hoskins and Viet Nguyen (of Sympathizer fame) proposed that we use the term ‘transpacific studies.’ Really, the talk in the field is whether this term ‘transpacific’ does the ‘Pacific’ enough justice. As Nitasha Sharma and Jinah Kim like to point out, there are people who live in the Pacific too. There are islands there; you can’t just go across it and pretend that people aren’t everywhere.
What I’m saying is that those of us doing this work in academia can hardly be called ivory tower academics. If anything, we’ve been ahead of the curve in terms of transpacific everyday lives. Still, better late than never. What E. Tammy Kim is talking about is what Shu-mei Shih calls the ‘minor transnationalisms,’ the small practices and networks that don’t get noticed because more often than not they’re informal. They’re your relatives warning you on KakaoTalk, Whatsapp, and WeChat about covid and what to do; of course, whether the information is all true is another question, but at least they care. They’re young journalists and academics actually reporting from the ground about social movements in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia. They’re those of us who do not share the daddy issues of the white dudebro leftists who want us to choose between American or China as if there’s some new Cold War going on.
E. Tammy Kim sees all of this, and writes it up as only a Columbia Journalism Review article can be written. It’s a review of journalism, which means that you get more of where that came from in Lausan, New Bloom Magazine, New Naratif, China Storytellers, Korea Exposé, and so on. Really, CJR has been itself a balm for my soul in 2020, with its news roundups I can actually trust (I don’t know why this is amazing nowadays, but it is). So has the podcast Kim is on called Time to Say Goodbye!, for that matter. That’s a conversation among three Asian American journalists about America and the world — from a perspective that might as well take as normative Gary Okihiro’s dictum ‘Asians did not go to America; America went to Asia.’
What that means is that none of us who live along the Pacific are not implicated in America’s global moves, and the direction of that movement tends to be Asia, which catches us all in its ambit. We’re all transnationally Asian now.
10. Carmencita Sipin-Aspiras, HSTL Foundation — Rachmaninoff-Kocsis, Schubert, Brahms
My piano teacher in Fremont made an album this year. She doesn’t make recordings. She was coaxed into it by a foundation in Manila that is developing younger pianists. She had to do it.
I’m glad she did. I’ve been searching for Carmencita Sipin-Aspiras’s actual sound forever in my piano escapades. Like, there are approximations I can think of. She went to school in Vienna, and when she used to talk about Martha Argerich, Nelson Freire, and Mitsuko Uchida as her contemporaries — or Edwin Fischer and Friedrich Gulda as her elders — I did not realize that that was a flex.
But the ‘Great Dame of Elegant Pianism,’ the darling of Manila’s concert piano scene, is not like other pianists. I still remember our first lesson. She was teaching me Bach. and she said that one strategy is to pluck the keys, as if they were strings. I’d never heard of that. Now I know it’s her own thing — I figured it out, actually, when she told me to do the same thing with Chopin — which is why I have searched for her sound in vain. She told me to attend to the inner voices in the music. She said that you can play Bach any way you want, but Brahms you have to play like you’re tipsy.
All of this I hear in her new album. The thing about a teacher like Aspiras is that she treats her students like dialogue partners about the music. I’m not sure why she did that with me; all I had to offer was sentimentality, fantasies of self-expression, a moody brooding adolescence, and plenty of wrong notes that she never excused. But this is how I know what her ideas all were too. It’s because they came into collision with mine. It’s my learning style. Aspiras knew that I was a closed-minded person and taught me accordingly. She even set me up with a masterclass with San Francisco Conservatory piano prof Mack McCray once. I played a Beethoven sonata, and he asked me to imagine it in a colour. I didn’t know enough about Hélène Grimaud then to know what he was doing. But Aspiras was so proud. She bought me a self-instruction book for the piano, wrote me the best note about my performance, and signed it.
The point is that ever since leaving Fremont, I’ve realized that nobody plays these keys like Aspiras does. Nobody has the combination of the gravitas, and the string plucking, and the attentiveness to not only the inner voices but the ways the hammers and levers are working, and the entirety of her spirit going into the music as she sings along. I didn’t know what I had, and now I don’t know why I deserved to study with her. She always complimented my first piano teacher for setting me a great foundation. That’s how I told her the story of vomiting on that teacher’s baby grand. It’s not why she sent me to study with Aspiras. The truth was that she said that she didn’t have much more to teach me and referred me out. Aspiras was on the list, and we saw her play an all-Chopin program in Palo Alto, which blew us out of the water. Unlike the other teachers on the list, she was ok with me practicing only an hour a day, as opposed to the required two for the others. Ain’t nobody got more time for the piano than an hour. She understood that and let me do my thing. Why did I deserve her? Or, put another way, why did she keep me around for five years and not fire me?
Anyway, this is her album. I continue to learn from her. I hear that tipsy Brahms she taught me to play. I hear her pluck those keys. But I also see her appreciation for Schubert, and when that happened, that sent me into a Schubert kick for months during quarantine. And then the Rachmaninoff. How did she know that that ‘Vocalise’ — sung by Anna Moffo, with Leopold Stokowski conducting — got me many a late adolescent night working on my AP classes?
But the best part about acquiring this album was that the only way to do it is through her manager. It’s a by-donation album. When I got in touch, her manager asked me to record a video to show my appreciation to Aspiras. I did that, recounting all her lessons. That was a highlight of my 2020.
11. Elīna Garanča and Malcolm Martineau, Lieder: Schumann and Brahms
I got into opera during quarantine. I am not into opera, have never been, have despised it all my life. That’s what 2020 did to me.
Elīna Garanča was the gateway drug. She came up on my news feed at the beginning of when everybody was hopping onto zoom. She was doing the mezzo parts of Mahler 2, the ‘Resurrection Symphony.’ It’s a piece that has a special place in my heart for me. I first heard it at the last performance I was at in San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall the night before I left the Bay Area for Vancouver. Isabel Bayrakdarian, the Evenstar herself from Lord of the Rings, was the mezzo in that outing.
So here’s Garanča in her parka doing those same parts, for an online performance conducted by her husband Karl Mark Chichon with the Orquestra Filarmónica de Gran Canaria. I am mesmerized. I have to know who this Elīna Garanča is. That is the proof that I am not into opera. She’s only the biggest thing to hit the opera scene over the last ten years or so.
Look. I am not into opera, or soprano, or any of this stuff. It threatens my male ego. I say this with a straight face as the guy who admits that my piano teacher Carmencita Sipin-Aspiras’s rendering of the Rachmaninoff ‘Vocalise’ in her latest album brings me back to how Anna Moffo’s rendition of that piece, accompanied by Stokowski (of course it was; how many conductors do you think I knew about as a teenager?), moved me to tears many a night spent cramming to AP exams in high school. I’ve always been fascinated by Maria Callas and have never admitted it. I’ve always wanted to get into Schubert’s Lieder; it’s just hard because i don’t speak any German. Maybe it’s because Chinese church aunties who wanted so badly to be European would shriek their soprano voices every Christmas to prove a point. The sharpness of it all threatened me like a knife to my hidden parts.
And so, no, I am not into opera, and I don’t know who Elīna Garanča is, and after I heard her do the Mahler, I went on a tear through Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs, Mozart’s Magic Flute, and Beethoven’s Fidelio. I am now very into Diana Damrau’s Queen of the Night and Sabine Devieilhe’s Rameau. Still, no, I am not into opera, much less into lieder. But because of this trip, I got really invested in musical debates, especially those of the nineteenth century. I read Schumann’s fictional musical reviews with the ‘Band of David’ characters like Florestan and Eusebius against the ‘Philistines’ who advocated for the ‘music of the future’ to be about self-expression as opposed to inner voicing. I got into Hoffmann and Goethe and Das Knaben Wunderhorn, still with zero German competence (quarantine is magic; you speak in tongues after a while). I figured out my relationship with folks like Bernstein, Gould, Barenboim, all through Edward Said, whom I must remind you was a classical pianist. Said’s Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism are love letters to counterpoint. The East-West Divan Orchestra that he co-founded with Barenboim is still going strong, even into 2020.
And then, Elīna Garanča did it. She released this album of songs from Schumann and Brahms, the dynamic duo that was actually a trio with Clara Wieck, otherwise known as the greatest pianist of the twentieth century with her stage name ‘Clara Schumann.’ Garanča takes on the song cycle that Robert Schumann wrote her when he faced down her father’s disapproval at their marriage. Then she does songs by Brahms, the younger man in the relationship who was always in love with Clara but kept it platonic through Robert’s bouts with schizoaffective disorder and even after he passed.
Garanča says that in her whole career, she’s been seen as an opera singer. But in this Lieder album, it’s like another debut. In 2020, she wants us to hear her ascend the heights, yes, but also come down to a whisper. In this way, she settles the debate about the ‘music of the future.’ Wagner and all the rest may be for show. But in the intimacies of the homes where we must stay in quarantine, it is the tenderness of the inner voice that attends to the love we must have to survive. It’s those disappearing melodic lines, the independence of the piano parts, the alterity of the account of women’s love written by men but whispered by a real woman that open up the musical worlds we are invited to enter. I don’t understand any of the German still. But that’s also the point. It’s as intimate as any piano piece Schumann and Brahms wrote.
Maybe the Schumanns and Brahms had it right, then. Here, the contemporary star of the music of the future invites us to an intimacy for which we have not yet known her. Even I can get into that. It’s probably why I, no fan of opera or even lieder, got into it in 2020.
12. Jenna Wortham, ‘How a New Wave of Black Activists Changed the Conversation’ (The New York Times Magazine)
When I read some people recycling the old and tired trope about Black Lives Matter being about ‘identity politics’ this summer, I wrote a few things on Facebook to clarify my support for the movement. They came out of my own life and were really about me processing anti-Blackness in my own life. I’m not sure why I felt the compulsion to write them at the time, except that something was different about Black Lives Matter this year. It really took Jenna Wortham’s piece to articulate why I felt like the whole thing had changed this year.
Most people know Jenna Wortham as one of the co-hosts of Still Processing, with her fellow New York Times culture writer Wesley Morris. It’s two queer Black writers taking on pop culture in the most life-affirming way.
I, of course, found out about the podcast indirectly. I had read a profile that Wortham did on Janelle Monáe that convinced me that I absolutely had to give Monáe a long, deep listen; before that, I only knew her from the bridge, ‘Carry me home tonight,’ from fun.’s ‘We Are Young.’ Monáe is a world-builder, working through an adaptation of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, with Octavia Butler’s science fiction sensibilities, to talk about queer robotic love. Wesley Morris, on the other hand, I read in The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project. He’s got a piece where he talks about a friend who is a ‘incurable’ Pandora listener (I am guilty here too). As he listens along, he finds that all American music is really Black music. It’s a stunning exposé. Everybody needs to read it.
But I especially loved this piece that Wortham did on Black Lives Matter this year. It’s really a profile of a collective called Black Visions in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed. The argument is that they’re doing something new. I remember when Black Lives Matter started, on Twitter in 2013. George Zimmerman had been acquitted for killing Trayvon Martin, which was an event in itself that I had followed since I started blogging in earnest as Chinglican. I latched onto it at the time because of the ambivalence I felt about my position as an Asian American Christian — a Chinglican at the time — in relation to Black communities. My dad had been ordained in the Black church in Oakland, but I would not say that we participated in their community life. We were Chinese Christians. But I also could not deny the formational power of what Cornel West calls the ‘Black prophetic tradition’ on my life. Not knowing how to work through it, I did it on the blog.
Wortham traces how Black Lives Matter grew into an even bigger movement in 2014 with Ferguson. I remember that too. It was around the time when the Umbrella Movement happened in Hong Kong, and those two events coinciding were pivotal to my conversion to Eastern Catholicism. But Wortham is also right to say that by 2015 and well in 2016, things began to fizzle out. People began to burn out. Infighting happened. The words ‘identity politics’ and ‘intersectionality’ became contested terrain. There was way too much noise.
Enter Black Visions, Wortham says. It’s a whole new discourse of social justice they’re offering, she says, except that it’s also resourced by a tradition of queer Black futurity. It’s what you might find in Octavia Butler and Audre Lorde, but for a new generation of people who are calling it ‘healing justice.’ You can’t enact justice with trauma still in your body, the wisdom goes. It’s what Tarana Burke, the real founder of Me Too, says as she recommends Bessel van der Kolk’s Body Keeps the Score. It’s what the healer adrienne maree brown calls ‘pleasure activism‘ and ‘emergent strategy.’ It’s what poets like Aja Monet and musicians like Eryn Allen Kane (I literally healed to a tree planted by water last year) and Jamila Woods (I can’t stop listening to HEAVN) sing through their celebrations of Black women’s bodies.
This emphasis on healing justice was exactly the new thing I heard in this year’s Black Lives Matter protests. There was a lot of noise from people who seemed to think that this term ‘Black Lives Matter’ was a new thing, that it was enacted by ‘trained Marxists,’ and that it was just a passing fad about taking down statues. But take a listen, say, to the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle or to Black Visions in Minneapolis, and the overwhelming discourse is about how traumatized bodies must find rest and healing. This is not an ‘identity politics’ vision, as intersectional as it remains. It’s ecological. It’s saying that Black bodies are rooted in a world that is material, and that this life matters. That’s a 2020 vision, if I ever heard it.
Moved by this vision, I joined the Ukrainian Antiracist Community early on and am now one its blog’s editors. The call was for those of us who are not Black to work through the anti-Blackness of our own communities. Well, the Kyivan Church is mine, and God knows we have plenty of colonial trauma to work through, as does Asian America. It’s for this emphasis that I loved Jenna Wortham’s piece, one that comes from within the movements that have constellated since 2013 as Black Lives Matter and engages it with the critique of love.
13. Chloe x Halle, Ungodly Hour (Parkwood Entertainment/Columbia Records)
Every so often, I get requests for what people should be reading to understand ‘the times,’ like around Black Lives Matter. It’s as if I’m an expert on this (I’m a learner, and a slow one at that), and as if this stuff can be read to comprehension (good luck). Over the year, I’ve been replying to these queries by saying that your playlist, not just your reading list, has to be desegregated.
Here’s one way I mean that. I’ve been into YouTube covers for the longest time. I came of age among the college cohort that saw Asian American representation in Wong Fu Productions on YouTube and all the artists associated with them: Kina Grannis, David Choi, Boyce Avenue, Arden Cho, Jason Chen, Megan Lee, and so on. It’s a straight shot from that to the highly produced videos of Kurt Hugo Schneider, Sam Tsui, Jake Coco, Sara Niemietz. Then there’s Postmodern Jukebox, my favourite of the lot.
But it was not until this year, on the recommendation of a friend, that I got to know of Chloe x Halle. They came of age covering the queen herself, Beyoncé, who noticed them herself when two weeks after her eponymous album, they covered ‘Pretty Hurts.’ I didn’t even know about that album when it came out, the same week I filed my PhD, no less. It took this year for me to get into Beyoncé, Solange, Alicia, Mariah, Whitney, basically everybody who matters. We can go on and on about how Asian Americans are not necessarily anti-Black, and I will admit that my Asian American friends who tried unsuccessfully to get me into Destiny’s Child and Ms Lauryn Hill in high school were way ahead of me. My playlist has been segregated for far too long.
Chloe x Halle are the real thing. Chloe channels her inner Destiny’s Child, while Halle updates Billie Holiday for today. These are all on our regular playlist now; at home, more often than not, we are in the evenings playing Lady Day, Sarah Vaughan, Ella, Miss Dinah, Carmen McRae, Nina Simone. That’s a 2020 improvement on our musical tastes too; basically, the entire ZORA Music Canon is what we do at home. The point is that none of these women sing the same way. Everybody’s got their own thing. Even Chloe and Halle are different from each other. That’s the point. That’s why their sound is incredible, a fusion of timbres that are usually not heard together.
Ungodly Hour is a celebration of their bodies’ desires, from fantasy to actuality. Its relationship with men is to desire us, love us, rebuke us, ignore us. It is, more often than not, a hilarious album with situations that remind me of the call-in section of the great podcast The Read, as Kid Fury and Crissle dish out wisdom on mental health, Zelda, and why that guy who says he loves you but is having a second child with another woman is probably not someone you should be quitting your master’s for.
This has very little, one would say, with the activism of Black Lives Matter, except that the album release was delayed due to the protests. But that is the point. Blackness is not primarily about activism, as much as it is portrayed that way in so many of the publics through which information flows into popular consciousness. It is about what Saidiya Hartman calls the ‘beautiful experiment’ of a life that might be deemed wayward by sociologists, reformers, and evangelists. Its revolution, as Hartman continues, takes place within intimate space. That is where the ‘healing justice’ and what adrienne maree brown calls the ‘pleasure activism‘ of Black Lives Matter and its internal ideological debates must be understood. Seen from a desegregated perspective — one that does not take an outsider’s evaluative role to the movement, but one that is positioned within the intimacies of one’s body, home, and desires — 2020 ought to feel a lot different. Not everything needs to relate to a movement, and certainly the view that ideology is shot through everything it is itself overdetermined. It is life itself that matters.
But this is all getting too serious. Ungodly Hour is a hilarious album about what the sisters will do to ‘busy boys,’ a revelling in their intimate power as Black women all grown up and in charge of their own pleasure. It’s sex for cute people. To top it all off, Halle is the new Ariel in the Disney remake of The Little Mermaid. I’m rooting for that one over pro-cop Mulan.
14. Khyati Joshi, White Christian Privilege: The Illusion of Religious Equality in America (NYU Press)
I am one of the APARRIstas that Khyati Y. Joshi mentions at the end of her book, proudly so. I remember in Claremont a few years ago at that workshop where I joined Khyati, Neil Gotanda, Duncan Williams, and a few others in hashing out some of what’s in this book. It was the Asian Pacific American and Religion Research Initiative (APARRI) conference. APARRI is what got me started in Asian American studies all those years ago when I was still searching for an academic home fresh out of my master’s and coming into my doctorate in geography. These people gave me words to articulate the unease I felt with how my experience was being framed in the academy. I would have no career without them.
Khyati (whom I will refer to as ‘Joshi’ from here on out) was on a panel that I did with Sylvia Chan-Malik, Ji-Yeon Yuh, and Mélena Laudig on Third World Spiritualities, framed as a conversation with Gary Okihiro. It was then that I realized that as much as I loved what I knew of White Christian Privilege as a book, I hadn’t actually read it. Dutifully, I ordered it. By accident, I got two copies. I gave one to a teaching assistant, one who identifies as evangelical. He says that we’re going to talk about it when he’s finally done with it.
What White Christian Privilege did for me was surprising. The first thing was that it revitalized all of my love for the perversity of religious freedom law in the United States, as well as the more general and global argument that secularity is not as shorn of theological presumption as most people who believe in its mythos think. Joshi reviews all these cases — ah, all my faves, I was thinking — not only in religious freedom law, but also in immigration and race too, and shows how religion and race are tied together intersectionally in America. It gave me the same high as when I read Janet Jakobsen, Ann Pellegrini, Winnifred Favers Sullivan, and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, as well as whenever Charles Taylor writes about the Amselem case in Canada. I am this pervert who reads religious freedom law for fun. I used to blog about it even. I’m coming back to it through this book, mostly for my own book. I’m also reading, of course, Sullivan’s new Church-State Corporation.
The second thing was that I loved how distinctively Asian American this book is. In my mind — and mostly because of APARRI — I think of White Christian Privilege in the same way I think of Himanee Gupta-Carlson’s auto-ethnography of her hometown in Muncie, Indiana, and how structures of white Christian normativity there rendered her Hindu experience, with all of its problematic transnational dimensions, as a kind of ‘other.’ It’s the same kind of thing that Duncan Williams talks about in American Sutra, with how Japanese Buddhists were framed as ‘enemy aliens’ in the Pacific War and have not really had their story in the camps told as fully as the Christian ones. Joshi uses her own experience throughout the book too. This is what makes the legal stuff sing with the everyday instances and small interactions that it will take to achieve social justice in terms of religiosity.
Here, Joshi really is an educator. She talks about critical consciousness at the end of the book. It’s so compassionate. It makes room even for me as a reader to process my journey into understanding my complicities with white Christian privilege. I remember being on Minelle Mahtani’s show on Roundhouse Radio in Vancouver and struggling with how to articulate how Christian privilege works and yet how I am still a Christian who studies Christians, with all of my personal meanderings through Asian American evangelicalism, Anglicanism, and now in the Kyivan Church. Joshi offers language and experience for me to struggle with, as well as encouraging reflection for me in terms of how far I’ve come. I live in Singapore now, for example, where it’s not just Christian holidays that are celebrated. I know what she says in terms of overcoming white Christian privilege in the law and in everyday practice is possible, because while nowhere has it perfect, I have caught a glimpse of it in places other than America.
I found especially poignant the end where she talks about how Christmas really should not be erased by ‘happy holidays,’ but that more holidays around the year, especially October, should be recognized in all of their differences. It hit me there that this is really the point of this book. We all have to live together. White Christian privilege undermines that common co-existence, as it has for its entire sordid history of power. And thus, to live, we’d better get busy, Christians included. This really is a good book to get for Christmas, then. So, um, Merry Christmas, I guess. But the Orthodox don’t really say that either. I’m Orthodox. Greek-Catholics are Orthodox, with the added bonus of making the temptation to lust after white Christian privilege open and palpable in our name.
And also, Khyati, about APARRI in Singapore, when this covid thing is finally over, let’s make it happen. Meanwhile, thanks for unmasking white Christian privilege. Those white Christians really need to wear masks.
15. Matthew Thiessen, Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Judaism (Baker Academic)
It was Christmas when I posted this one, but the 2020 picks are still going strong. I figured, though, that if I’m to post today, then it might as well be on the book that’s helping me think through Jesus right now.
‘Jesus,’ Mariah sings on her first Christmas album, ‘born on this day / he is our light and salvation.’ It’s a nice song. That’s also been a controversial claim from the beginning. It’s saying on the one hand that Jesus is the promised Messiah in the Hebrew Bible who will bring about the end of history. It’s also been subject to over two millennia of build-up as to what such messianism could mean, which leaves the field wide open to plenty of exaggeration and overdetermination.
One overdetermining point, my friends in New Testament studies have been telling me for some time, is that people think of the origins of Christianity as a clean break from first-century Judaism. My scholarly interests are nowhere near biblical studies. But one of the interesting things that happens when you’re a practicing Christian who studies other Christians is that you do become friends with biblical scholars, like Sam Tsang. I’m so tight with Sam that I got back on Facebook earlier this year just for him. He said he missed me. He’s my man.
Thiessen is within that vein of New Testament studies attempting to locate early Christian practice within first-century Judaism. A lot of credit goes to Mark Nanos, a Reform Jewish scholar of the New Testament who kickstarted the field known as ‘Paul within Judaism.’ In fact, I was having drinks with Nanos when Thiessen pulled up. Talking with him helped me distinguish between what these guys and folks like, say, N.T. Wright were doing. For Wright, there’s still a way in which Christianity supersedes Judaism. For Nanos, Thiessen, and Tsang, not so much. If anything, Christian orthodoxy for them is exactly what it should be accused of. It’s Jewish heretics attempting to justify their recognition of Jesus as the Messiah as an orthodox Judaism. Good luck is the appropriate response. The record of attempts to do so is called the New Testament, an insight that suddenly made these texts I grew up thinking of as ‘holy scripture’ much more exciting and edgy to read.
I got wind that Thiessen had written a book, like he said he was doing when we were having drinks with Nanos, from Xenia Chan. So I got myself a copy. It is a highly fun read. The general thrust is that the Gospels, for texts seen to be abolishing Jewish ritual purity law, are very concerned with bodily emissions. The argument, then, is that Jesus never came to abolish the law. Instead, he destroys the source of ritual impurity, which is death, and in that way shows himself as Messiah. What that means is that Jewish ritual purity still matters. It is also fulfilled in the healing power of the resurrection.
This insight made me think of all sorts of things over 2020. For one, it sent me back to the Hebrew Bible, Robert Alter’s translation, with fascination. It’s not the first time I’ve been so fascinated; I mean, René Girard did similar things for me when I read him, and so did Mary Douglas, and also Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, as well as Said’s Freud and the Non-European. But I also went on a tear through Sophocles. It turns out that the Oedipus cycle is about ‘pollution’ in the land, with the citizens of Thebes as ‘suppliants.’ The Oedipus complex is in fact a ritual position. In this way, Thiessen is right to say that everyone from the time he was writing about, Jewish or not, thought about ritual purity; it was their way of doing ecology, and it has a relationship with morality, but it’s not the same either. A bodily emission might make you impure, but it’s not the same as sin, though it could still kill you in a holy place.
Thinking about ecology in terms of purity and pollution feels really interesting and important in 2020. This is the year that we discover that secular hubris can still have supernatural consequences. Perhaps Thiessen’s argument about Jesus has implications beyond New Testament studies. He gets to the source of the pollution itself and argues that it must be destroyed. Maybe it is from such postsecular considerations that we reconsider what it means that Jesus is born on this day and that ‘he is our light and salvation.’
16. Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, starring the fabulous Essie Davis (Acorn TV)
When I learned that Miss Phyrne Fisher would be back in a movie, I was beside myself. In late 2018, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, an Australian television show featuring a lady detective and her chosen family of sorts, was the Netflix binge that ended all binges for me. A binge depends on an itch. It is a kind of self-medication where you look to fill a hole that will never be satisfied. The problem is when a show gives you exactly what you are looking for. It’s like what happens when you have single-malt scotch. You’ll never go back to Fireball whiskey.
Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries satisfied every craving I ever have had of a show. It’s a British period drama, so check for me, a Bay Area Asian American Anglophile, which means the more unrealistic the portrayal, the better, for my third-degree colonized sensibilities. It’s openly orientalist, slipping often into a parody of just how pervasive orientalism is to the fantasies across the British class system. It’s slightly scary, but mostly because of the stupid orientalism. The best part is that it features a cast of characters that could only be put together in Phyrne Fisher’s wildest dreams: a super-conservative young Catholic housekeeper Dot, her Protestant constable boyfriend Hugh, Miss Fisher’s own police admirer Jack Robinson, and two communist cab drivers Bert and Cec who live with them. It’s sufficiently pretentious for me, to the point that I know exactly what I am enjoying. It’s trash of the highest order.
Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears makes me wild with fandom abandon. It made me laugh and sob as bad as Star Wars geeks watching The Rise of Skywalker with their mouths agape. It brought me back to why I was so satisfied with the show in the first place, the same feeling I get when I get through a good novel from Agatha Christie to P.D. James, James Bond to George Smiley. All of this stuff has within it a longing to live together in peace, harmony, and true love, amidst a world that somehow operates on a system that can really push people to murder. Nothing compares to Miss Fisher for drawing out the hilarity of this genre, not Father Brown, not The Alienist, nothing. No one is as fabulous as Phyrne Fisher, lady detective. The 007 movie that didn’t come out this year can hold my martini. There’s no time to die.
With Nick and Nora Charles of The Thin Man, therefore, let us offer up three cheers for Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, a 2020 gift that reminds me of the satisfaction that satisfied me so much that I stopped Netflix binging. Phyrne and Jack forever.
17. Hélène Grimaud and Camerata Salzburg, The Messenger: Music by Mozart and Silvestrov (Deutsche Grammophon)
Hélène Grimaud’s concept for her new album from Deutsche Grammophon is that it’s a conversation among four musicians in four times: Mozart, Beethoven, Silvestrov, and Grimaud herself. With an ecological consciousness born of the pandemic itself, Grimaud invites us in 2020 to listen between the notes, to hear what the earth sounds like.
I’ve had the longest celebrity crush on Grimaud, honestly. Ever since I wandered the classical cd aisles of Borders Books and Music since I was eleven, I’ve been too shy to convince my mom and dad to get her stuff for me. Grimaud’s face would be on these albums, staring at the viewer really intensely and invitationally. That freaked me out. She played all my favourite stuff too, and then some.
It really took me until the 2020 quarantine to really get into Grimaud’s stuff as a result. I’ve heard her here and there, not very seriously, but this summer, I really listened. I got myself all the cds I ever wanted as a kid too. It really plugged a hole in the heart of my inner child. It turns out that she has the same sensibilities as me at the keys. She pounds them. She doesn’t accept conventional interpretations. She can go from bombastic to tender in a second. If I had gotten here stuff as a teenager, I truly would have worshipped at her throne. God knows I do now.
Then I heard that a new album was coming out from Deutsche Grammophon. I couldn’t believe what was on it. I’ve had a relationship with the Mozart 20th piano concerto ever since Chailly came out conducting it and Maria João Pires sat there in horror that she’d prepped the wrong piece, only to reproduce the entire thing by sheer muscle memory. It became the unofficial early soundtrack to my postdoc as I faced the crisis of no longer being in school and not knowing what to do with myself in a new relationship with academia; then, I listened to Mitsuko Uchida obsessively. I try to hear every version I can. Martha Argerich’s is among my favourites. Both Anne-Sophie Mutter and Pope Francis swear by Clara Haskil. Apparently, my piano teacher Carmencita Sipin-Aspiras made her Manila debut with it. It was also Stalin’s favourite piece; it was on the turntable as he was sprawled there at the end, dead.
Grimaud pairs that with Valentin Silvestrov’s piece The Messenger, as well as his dialogues with postscript. Silvestrov is a Ukrainian neo-classical composer. The thing about him is that he can really hear what the contemporary world sounds like, and then like my own Kyivan Church, attempts to translate that into music and meditation. Bridging across that are the Mozart fantasias, the same ones every kid like me plays when starting Mozart. Beethoven she gets in by playing his cadenza at the Mozart concerto. Grimaud has had a history with cadenzas. She broke up with Claudio Abbado (musically) over one in 2011.
What I love about Grimaud is that she is a philosopher at these keys. The musical architecture, the silences, the gaps, the very vibrations of the notes — these make up as much of an ecology for her as the colours she sees when she plays and the wolves she can talk to. Grimaud really is the pianist for 2020. She’s helped me feel my way through many of my philosophical struggles and grasping for ecological language this year.
Whenever I hear Grimaud — especially in this gorgeous new album — I say to my inner child that I had good taste indeed at eleven. I was just a fanboy then. Now, thanks to 2020, I am in full-on obsessive fandom.
18. Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half (Riverhead Books)
I literally finished this in two sittings.
The Vanishing Half had been assigned a few months ago for Noname’s Book Club. I get all the good books from Noname these days; that whole collective has revamped all of my 2020 reading. Once upon a time, I could be accused of being a failure of a white theorist apologist. But as 2020 progressed, I found myself reaching for these books to explain the world. Things suddenly made a bit more sense.
The month that The Vanishing Half was the assigned reading, it was paired with Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark. I liked that one. It’s like Morrison and I saw eye to eye, rereading the American literature canon for traces of Blackness and analyzing the function of Black characters in a white fantasy. I can see now why Slavoj Žižek was friends with Morrison; they both agreed on the necessity of ‘traversing the fantasy,’ as Lacan puts it.
But I hesitated with The Vanishing Half. I had lost my taste for fiction some years ago, mostly because I felt like it was a guilty pleasure. The Vanishing Half begins interestingly enough. It’s about two sisters, both Black, growing up in a colourist town in the South. One begins to pass as white as they migrate to the big city. Big deal, said I.
A hundred pages in, though, and the novel turns into a love letter to California. It’s where the migration ends up, and for me, that’s when I sat straight up. Brit Bennett knows her California. It’s not the paradise of California dreamin’. If anything, it’s a privatization hellscape where people from everywhere import their own trauma into its racial and sexual politics. That’s exactly what The Vanishing Half gets right. It needs to be read together with Octavia Butler on the one hand and Mike Davis on the other. These people understand the intimacy of California politics, how it grabs hold of you with its privatized ideology and messes with you until the only therapy move that drives you is to admit where you’re actually from. It’s 2020 in a nutshell, the baptism in the past we all need to be immersed in to develop a healing ecology for the new normal.
The Vanishing Half opened up a new craving for fiction. I began to think again in terms of story after reading it. It altered my writing too. That’s how well Brit Bennett writes. She makes me want to write like her, with plot driving all I do once again.
19. Jiayang Fan, ‘How My Mother and I Became Chinese Propaganda’ (The New Yorker)
It was while sitting in a hawker centre that I read Jiayang Fan’s New Yorker piece about her being mobbed by online Chinese Internet trolls. I was riveted to my phone, and when I got home to my computer, I read it again.
2020 is the year that I became a subscriber of The Paris Review, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker. With all the writing I’ve been reading this year, I thought I might as well go all in. I am, after all, a writer; it is much of what being an academic is, and without academia, I’d probably still be compelled to do some kind of writing. I still remember reading Jia Tolentino this year. It was a revelation, this person who writes in the same cadences as me because she, like me, is a Christian school girl, but writes for The New Yorker.
But the truth of why I subscribed to all these things is related to this piece. It’s because, in fact, the year before in 2019, at the height of the Hong Kong protests over the extradition bill, I started reading a bunch of writers who were writing about Hong Kong not as their home, but as a place that meant something to them as Sinophone speakers. These were people like Frankie Huang, Gina Anne Tam, Ting Guo, and, of course, Jiayang Fan. Some of them also wrote for publications like The New Yorker. This is really why Hong Kong matters. It’s not just that it is home to all the people who live there, which is important and is actually what the protests have always been about. It’s that that home also means something to all of us around the world, signifying a Sinophone world that does not need to have nationalist edges.
Jiayang Fan’s Hong Kong coverage was a combination of sophisticated journalism and absolutely wacky food posts, combined with what seemed to be the never-ending saga of taking care of her mother in a home. That was all going on before the propaganda trolling. As covid-19 began to be a thing, Fan wrote more and more about her concerns about her mom on social media. That’s when she was attacked about Hong Kong, her Chinese nationalism (of which she doesn’t seem to have much) questioned and hung out to dry.
That’s what this piece is about. It’s about the gap between that online mob and the wackiness of her everyday life: the ridiculously late nights, the Taco Bell runs, the ramen adventures. I absolutely love everything about how trash sophisticated Jiayang Fan is. I aspire to her level of messiness. I also love that this article got her a book deal. I hope she continues to tweet and instagram from her late night writing sessions. God knows I need it when I’m writing deep into the abyss too.
20. Cathy Park Hong, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (OneWorld)
I have always been uncomfortable with the designation ‘minority scholar.’ To me, it was like advertising your stuff doesn’t matter. The trouble is that that is exactly what I am. I work on Cantonese Protestants, evangelicals of color, Pacific Rim protest movements, and so on. I am Eastern Catholic.
Cathy Park Hong gave me a name for my pain. You could say that Shu-mei Shih also did that work when she points repeatedly in her Sinophone studies work to Deleuze and Guattari’s rereading of Kafka as a minority literary figure.
The thing is that Cathy Park Hong knows. It’s not just that she was able, through her articulation of all the kids she thought were cool in her Korean church as a kid, to flesh out how the popularity contests in my Chinese church, my ethnoburb, and my Catholic school don’t matter to anybody outside those worlds. She gets deep with me. She knows how much Richard Pryor I watched in those dark nights on the job market. She understands how I squandered my twenties not understanding my friends’ mental health issues. She even articulates the central place of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha in Asian American literary consciousness — by being the field’s shadow figure.
I am not supposed to like Minor Feelings. I avoided it because many of my friends, especially in the Global Asias and Sinophone studies crowd, told me that it was something they couldn’t connect to. I did observe some people here in Asia reading it, which is why I eventually caved. When I did, in a kopitiam, I had major feelings, almost chucking the book across the shop and spitting out my kopi several times.
Look. I get that Minor Feelings is confessional, reads sometimes like a journal, tells jokes in a way that sounds like an Asian woman imitating a Black male comedian. At points, she veers into wishing she were American. ‘Isn’t that assimilationist?’ the people ask.
But this is the point of Minor Feelings. They’re those feelings that you’ve buried precisely because they are minor, too small for a big world. Cathy Park Hong has impeccable transpacific creds, herself a student of Myung Mi Kim, and then the author in her own right of Dance Dance Revolution. Leave this poet alone. This is about her Asian American experience, not the one we wish she had — which itself is revelatory of the one we wish we had. This is not ideology. It is an ideological reckoning.
When I understood that, I came to admit that I too have a bunch of minor feelings. That’s when I had major feelings about Minor Feelings. It’s why I got into the profession I’m in, to write about things from within the communities I have lived. Along the way, I found that the things I had to say didn’t matter to the publics I was addressing. Too detailed, they’d say, and who cares?
There it is. That’s what makes me a minority scholar. That’s what 2020 taught me. I’m glad Cathy Park Hong came along for the ride, in the mess of books I’ve read this year. Minor feelings matter. Repress them, and you’ll get this book.
Or mine, too. More news on that in the next year.