Where you're from

On memory and physical place

They tell me that in the US, the first question someone will ask you is, “what do you do?”; in Europe, they ask, “where are you from?”. This is usually given as a slight on the workaholic culture of the U.S., but as someone who hasn’t had the “where are you from” question asked in the best of contexts, I’ve always questioned its function.

It’s Christmas time and suddenly we’re all from somewhere. Doesn’t what you do with the majority of your day describe yourself better than where you happen to have grown up?

“Where are you from?” It’s a question I’m asked all the bloody time.

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I’m from West Auckland, I say. The place with the ugly brown wallpaper and ugly brown carpets that clashed just so that they must’ve supposed to match somehow. Those houses where there’s a garage and kind-of-lounge on the ground floor, and a concrete path leading up to the main living space on the first floor, bordered with metal fences that were always either rusted black or painted white — usually both.

The kids of the family we were staying with had a collection of lasers with interchangable lenses that projected different images. We’d wait ‘til late, hide out in the bedroom and project pictures of dragons and naked ladies onto the neighbouring house. Their house looked just like ours, a Minecraft iteration with all the same features in slightly different places.

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There is something about physical place that becomes indelible in the mind. Like when a smell transports you back to a memory so vivid and real you could relive it again. Place and smell are potent drugs, hitting all the right neurons to elicit that which you thought you’d long forgotten.

That’s the fear, isn’t it? To forget. To live a life but not know that you’ve lived it. And that’s the joy that comes with memory — the relief that, yes, I was there, I did that. I remember. I have lived.

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I’m from Dunedin, I say. I swear the sky looks bluer here. It’s darker, more saturated. And when there wasn’t a sheep truck leaving a trail of stench through town, the air down south is the freshest thing I’ve ever breathed. Inhaling deep southern air is like taking a long drink of water, realising in the middle of a gulp just how thirsty you were.

Things felt semi-permanent — like nothing was meant to last. You could be stupid and make mistakes, and everything would be alright.

In autumn, when the leaves started to turn, a mysterious wind would shake them from their branches. I was once walking to lecture, (late, as usual,) and Kashmir by Led Zeppelin started playing on my iPod shuffle. The slow beat and heavy, whining guitars made the leaves fall in slow motion and the wind warm and ominous. It was much too epic for a prelude to PHSI232.

In winter, if you were lucky, it would snow. The morning after, the sunlight would catch on that gross, green-tinted safety glass, and reflect stark teals onto the melting slush. It was magical, until you had to be somewhere.

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An immediate bond can form between two near-strangers when they realise they’ve both lived in the same place, once upon a time. Physical place provides a context unmatched by anything else — an unspoken understanding that despite everything, to have lived where you both have lived means deep down, you’re made of the same stuff. I have yet to find anything else that endears people more efficiently than the memory of a shared place.

Of course, this in turn makes me wonder how conversations over dinner and drinks will change as we become increasingly detached from the physical world. Would you say you were from UseNet? LiveJournal? Facebook? What does that even mean, to be from a space so temporary, so fleeting?

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I’m from The ’Naki, I say. It’s proof that despite my indoors branding, there’s something immutable within that longs for salt on the wind and the pull of the ocean.

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Also known as a “memory palace,” or the “roman room”, the method of loci is a mnemonic technique that puts information in a real or imagined physical place. To recall this information later, one imagines oneself walking a path through the spatial construct. Nine out of ten “memory champions” use this method to remember vast quantities of unrelated information.

Dating back to Greek poets in the fifth and sixth centuries BC, the link between spatial processing and memory has been well documented. Modern studies in cognitive neuroscience point to the hippocampus underpinning both our ability to navigate, to form and recollect memories, and to imagine future experiences.

Maybe that’s the function the “where are you from?” question serves. As a neuronal shortcut to rich, lush contextual information about who you are, or at least, where you’ve been.

(I guess on some level, those are the same thing.)

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I’m from China, I say, to the rare few who I can be assured won’t hold that against me. Grandmaster Ip Man lived and trained in my birthtown, where lush greenery provided welcomed respite from the summer heat. As a toddler I’d climb up a precarious ladder to the rooftop of our cement apartment building, where my grandpa would practice his forms. We grew watermelon vines, hung out sheets to dry. The roof cement was light, it reflected sunlight everywhere and made my eyes squint. I ran around at full speed, not worried even a little that I was five storeys above the earth. At that point in my life, that rooftop was the biggest playground I knew.

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“Where are you from?”

Throughout my life the question has been a weapon to highlight difference; a sharp blade to effectively cut out and ostracise. “Where are you from” carried the subtext of, “you couldn’t possibly be from here.”

But as I move from place to place, and as my relationship with the concept of belonging shifts, becomes more complex; “where are you from?” can also be a question of commonality. It can instead carry the subtext of, “are you from somewhere that I am from, also?”. A pursuit of a thread so inexplicable and unbreakable, linking people together.

We know what it’s like to be from this place. We have, in some small way, lived the same life. And deep down, we’re made of the same stuff.


Has it really been three months since I last sent something out? Oof. Lots has happened since October. I was offered and accepted a job at Google Chrome in Munich, Germany. It still feels surreal, even though Greg and I have spent the last three months preparing for a move to the other side of the world.

I also published my first piece of writing in a literary journal, which for some reason is just as surreal. Writing was never really something I thought I could do seriously, so this was super weird! Nice, though, to have people connect with what I write. I’ll try and keep writing, even though next year is shaping up to be hellishly busy!

Reading I’ve enjoyed lately

And just like that, it’s New Year’s Eve. 2019 has been such a strange, transitional year for me — a year where it seems like nothing has happened; like I’ve done nothing, achieved nothing. I know people will be quick to correct me on this, but acknowledging that that’s how I feel gives me some insight into what I consider success to be, and how I should perhaps work to change those underlying assumptions.

How was your 2019? What were you most proud of? What are you looking forward to leaving behind?

I, for one, am going to soak up as much of the kiwi summer as I possibly can, before departing for winter in Munich in late Jan.

Much love and happy holidays,
Serena

I am afraid of becoming a writer

On reality, culture, and simulation.

Earlier this month, I went out on an internet-free trip with friends. We spent a long weekend in a house up in the mountains, and exiled our phones in the attic. It was the most few blissful days I’ve had in a while. Naturally, upon return to society, the anxious, compulsive behaviours returned too.

My first thought was: hey, this is interesting, let’s write about it. Like many people, I write to organise my thoughts. But as I wrote, a familiar panic entered my mind. Was I… mining my life and friendships for “content”? Even if it wasn’t my intention, wasn’t that what I was doing, anyway? Who am I becoming? A black scribble of shame and fear grew in my mind. I stopped writing.

This panic happens every time.

Previously I’ve written about creative burnout, and how our late-capitalist, hyper-individualist world can strip the joy out of existing. But, why? Why do we focus on these things? What compels us to do so?

The truth is this: I am completely, irrevocably, constantly afraid of becoming a writer. I’m afraid of becoming a podcast host, or a YouTuber, or an artist, or whatever. While I love to create, I am afraid to create. I am afraid because as someone who makes stuff on the Internet, I feel the strings that pull.

There is a perversion of our ecosystem of ideas. The systems and incentives around content perpetually demands more, more, and more, until you have nothing left, and then demands more. It compels people to obsess over volume and consistency and audience retention. I worry that one day, I’ll be so entombed in the ‘creator’ mindset, I start thinking about how the present moment would translate itself to essay, or art, instead of, y’know, living in it. I’m afraid that I’ll live through life only to admire its shadows and reflections.

Our lives are constantly more about the simulacra — the symbols and representations of reality, rather than reality itself. Thirty-eight years ago, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard imagined stages of disassociation with reality, eventually taking up all of our attention and leaving a “desert of the real”. Eighty-seven years ago, Aldous Huxley imagined a society that passes the time by going to the “feelies”, in lieu of feeling real emotion.

I wonder what they would say if they could see the world right now.

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The most popular post on my blog is a memoir where I describe my struggles with identity, self image, and school bullies. I think stories like this are, on a societal level, important, and should be shared. But at the same time, I want to be selfish: I want to yell into the void: my suffering is not for your consumption! My true memories are not ‘feelies’ for you to experience. I am a person who lives, not a story to be read.

And yet.

Why don’t you just do what you love, and fuck the rest?,” croons the naïve voice in my head. Because in 2019, that isn’t enough, you baby. Culture is inextricably tied to the economics of capital. And with the proliferation of the Internet, all information can be given numerical value. I wish I could write and dance and sing, not because it might pay the rent one day, but because that’s just what people do. Yet I cannot put pen to paper without knowing that eventually, numbers will stick themselves upon me and my work. Even if I don’t look, even if I’m unaware. There will be clicks and views and shares and The Algorithm will decide its place. There is nothing I can do about it.

Just as how anti-capitalist sentiment can be profitable and function under capitalism (in fact, some anti-capitalist content might be necessary for capitalism to survive), even the act of opting out of this system generates “value” under the same system. There is no escape. We are trapped within an ecosystem where rebellion is not only expected, but welcome. An amorphous blob that eats up dissenters and supporters alike, growing more massive and all-encompassing with every post, like, and subscribe.

The crappendipitous collide of late-capitalism with the rise of Internet technology form the foundations of a society-wide cognitive dissonance. We’re tired of performative bullshit, all while lapping up the best performances.

I think this cognitive dissonance, this tension between the representation and the real, is what is at the heart of the current “cancel culture” debate going on now. On one hand, people are real, and deserve compassion, relevant education, and room for growth. On the other hand, people are not real — not celebrities — and increasingly, not you or I, either. They function as symbols, representations of ideas and values. Our historical cultural obsession with celebrity is nothing more but the personification of these ideas and values. Ideas — and consequently the people embodying them — have power, and thus responsibility. And when that power is abused, misused, or corrupted, it is perfectly reasonable for the public to question whether that personality should continue to represent the values they symbolise.

It is important here to hold two ideas in our heads: First, that there is a difference between the representation, and the real. Second, that the representation is so powerful, that it must be taken just as seriously as the real. Capital and currency are mass societal delusions, yet they have been more powerful than any weapon in history.

While we as a society aren’t disassociating completely all the time, it’s not unthinkable. The representational world is lush and alluring, a deep abyss of conformity or rebellion — whichever you want. And like all abysses, it calls for us to jump.

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A few days ago I made my first submission to a literary journal, with the help and support of amazing writer and friend, Rose (go buy her book!). The writing and editing process was joyous — like seeing a mindless block of marble transform into something with a face and a heart. But the thought of people reading it? I was terrified. Writing literary memoir leaves me opened on a table, guts out, ready for strangers to inspect. God I hope they’ve washed their hands.

Eventually the outside world will assign it some increment of value, sure, but for now I can be happy in the creating. And at least, try my best to keep reminding myself the difference between the real and the constructed.

I don’t want to be that caricature of an old man, telling people to go outside, except in this case, I kinda do. After the 2016 US election, there was this dude who literally noped out of The Discourse™, and in some ways, modern life all together. He refuses to read or engage with the news, instead spending all his time restoring the ecology of a nearby lake. At first, I felt annoyed. This rich tech guy can withdraw from society, but I can’t. Neither can most people. We have to keep living here and keep fighting for what’s right. We can’t turn a blind eye to the horrors going on around us — to be silent is to be complicit.

And yet. This weird tech bro has probably done more good for the world than I have, than a lot of us have combined. What has me getting anxious while reading the news off Twitter ever accomplished? Why don’t I just go outside and garden?

This is not to say that activism online doesn’t work — remember that the representational world holds just as much power as the real. But I do think this muddying of the waters between the representational world and the real world is what causes that feeling of being trapped online. You don’t want to be there, but you can’t look away. Sometimes, it feels as though the representational world is all that there is. But that’s just not true.

My plan? Put your phone down. Say hi to another human IRL. Go the fuck outside.


I was only able to crank out this letter because I left my phone in another room and turned the wifi off on my computer in 30-minute chunks. I think there’s something wrong with me?

Texts I enjoyed lately:

I was about to apologise for writing another long essay, but fuck it! This is my newsletter, and the whole point of it is to think deeply about stuff. So no apologies here. Read it and weep, fellas. That’s what I’m doing these days.

If you know someone who might like to read this kinda stuff, feel free to forward it to them. But more importantly, if you have any thoughts on us living our lives in a weird mirror universe, the product-ification of the self and how it relates to burnout, hit the reply button, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

October kicks off the spring conference season, so I’ll probably be seeing some of you this month! I’ll be at NetHui, purplecon, and Kawaiicon in Wellington, and then speaking at Web Directions Summit over in Sydney. Let me know if you’ll be at any of those.

Here’s to daylight in the evenings!
—Serena

We stopped looking at the stars


Ten years ago, I was determined to become a scientist. I could imagine nothing better than spending my days buried in books, staring at the heavens, pondering the higher truths of our universe. It seems like such a luxury now.

Through ancient times, the study of the earth and the heavens was an activity only for the most privileged of the privileged. When you were rich enough to never worry about your next meal or a place to live, you had enough head space to indulge in the intricacies of math and physics. There’s a reason why pivotal names in the history of science seemed to discover so much in a single lifetime. Often that was all they did, and there was little competition. Everyone else was toiling away in the fields.

As we climbed into the industrial age, education became more accessible to the masses. From the 1900s, illiteracy rates fell. Suddenly a huge swath of the population started to be exposed to the studies of the natural universe. As we mechanised our basic needs and the middle class grew, we found more time for arts, history, sciences. Half a century later, we’d put people on the moon.

Last month the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. What a strange and fictional time that feels like, now. As I scrolled through my Twitter feed, lofty tweets praising such a milestone for humanity were interspersed with those talking about concentration camps at the US-Mexico border. ICE officers tearing parents away from their children. Meanwhile, more reports of suicide attempts flow out of Manus and Naru. The UK seems stubbornly set on shooting itself in the face. Surveillance is becoming like air in China. Russia influences world elections with continuing success.

Why would we look at the stars right now? There’s so much shit to deal with down here.

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The Drake Equation is a probabilistic argument to frame discussion around the possibility of extraterrestrial life. It reached its pop cultural peak in the ’80s and ’90s, when we were obsessed with what might be out there in the great beyond.

It looks like this:

It tells us the number of civilisations we could possibly communicate with, given star formation rates, planet formations, the potential for life, and how much the life might progress through their tech tree.

Don’t let the mathiness fool you — there’s nothing exact or even real about this equation. It’s a conversation starter — like that weird art piece in your parents’ house they got after all the kids left. It’s meant to make you think, not make you understand.

I used to think about the Drake equation a lot. I’d imagine zooming out into the expanse, further and further, until the galaxies became fuzzy-looking stars, until those stars started to look like dust particles, until those dust particles formed veins and tree branches and lightning paths by a gravity without the local influence of angular momentum.

And one by one, I’d imagine faint specks of light, igniting and fading like fireflies in the summer dark. The birth of a civilisation here. The death of another there. Every so often the spots would appear close together. Would they ever know of their neighbours? Would they ever reach out?

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Today it seems we’ve retreated back into a familiar past. Space exploration is something to be pioneered only by society’s wealthiest billionaires, while it remains a scifi fantasy for the rest of us. Faced with a dying planet, they’d rather pour their riches into saving themselves, instead of mending the very world they helped to break.

I’m never sure what to say to those who believe we will live to fly among the stars. To settle on Mars. On one hand, investing into space exploration paves the way for so many other sciences and technologies. It breaks down borders and unites countries. It is a uniquely human endeavour, and it reminds us of our special, tiny place in the universe.

Yet on the other hand, leaving the earth feels like the last thing we should be doing. Our planet is in crisis. We’re in the middle of a mass extinction event. There is increasing social and political polarisation and division. It’s hard to feel the same awe and excitement seeing another SpaceX rocket land successfully, when the waters are — metaphorically and literally — rising.

What’s a small civilisation to do?

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The Overview Effect is a cognitive shift reported by astronauts who view the Earth from outer space. It’s a sobering realisation of truly how fragile our planet is; how paper thin the line of our atmosphere, protecting us from the lifeless vacuum of space.

I want you to take a minute to let this effect sink in. Look down at the ground beneath your feet. Remind yourself: you are on a giant rock, hurtling through space. The sheer massiveness of this rock holds you to its surface. It’s not even that tight of a hold — jump, and for a second you’ve overcome its grasp.

Look outside at the sky above you. That is the atmosphere. If the Earth were the size of an apple, that atmosphere would be thinner than the apple’s skin. And that’s it. That’s all there is, keeping us breathing, alive.

At the end of it all, we have no where else but here. No one else but each other. It’s a perspective that reminds us of the pettiness of our disagreements, the superficiality of our everyday problems.

It’s a perspective that feels lacking in modern life. We’re all so busy, busy, busy, all the time. Plagued by never-ending to-do lists, families have started using productivity tools meant for the office at home. Heck, I’ve literally been running my life with Trello and Google Calendar for the last 5-10 years.

Busy, busy, busy. We think about laundry, what to cook for dinner, what to wear to that event. The problems to solve at work, what the “next big thing” is, what movie to watch, what TV series to start. We think about Instagram, and Twitter, and memes, and why is everyone suddenly talking about hogs?, and ah, crap, climate change, and how our lunch will look on a feed, and what emails we need to tend to before we have to open with a “sorry for the late reply…”.

There’s so much down here.

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(If humans were to rediscover the constellations today, what hopes and fears would the humanity of 2019 put up there?

Would we be looking up at the stars at all?)

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I don’t think we’ll be leaving this planet any time soon, and I don’t even think we should. But there is something to be said for the perspective you get, up there. In a cruel twist of irony, it seems we don’t understand how important the Earth is, until we are far away enough to see it.

Yesterday, instead of catching up on work, I spent a good two hours watching videos on various mathematical proofs. I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty — what good is this doing? How luxurious this activity was, indulging in what is essentially mental wankery while the world around me slowly burns. But then I remind myself: maybe it’s important to take moments, here and there, to indulge. To admire art; to think about math; to look up at the stars. To save the world, we must. But maybe, sometimes, we need to be reminded why the world is worth saving.


I can’t believe it’s been a month since I last sent something out! Suffice to say: I do not appreciate the passage of time. I hope this past month was a good one for you. It’s been pretty quiet for me, though last week I was judging at the annual Best Awards (an annual design awards thing), and next week I’ll be off to Canada for a job interview! Wish me luck — I’ve never been to Canada before so I’m feeling the nerves.

Things I’ve read/enjoyed recently:

Alright, that’s probably enough walls of text for your inbox. If you have any recommendations on things to do in Ottawa or Toronto, let me know! And I hope you take some time to look up into the heavens today, and ponder our place in the universe ;)

Much love,
—Serena

On fanfiction and reading

Illustration by the amazing Pepper ❤︎

The year 2000 was a time of beginnings. J.Lo’s “Waiting For Tonight” pulsed through the charts, ushering in a new millennium. There was optimism, excitement — we collectively looked out on the horizon of time, and sailed boldly towards the unknown future. On the World Wide Web, everyone was abuzz with “Web 2.0”. We’d sign each other’s guestbooks, visit each other’s websites and give each other “hits” for our view counters. We’d polish our forum sigs in GIMP or our hastily pirated versions of Photoshop 4. We’d surf the web. 2000 was also the year I started reading the longest, most epic literary piece of work I had ever read — and will ever read — in my life.

And that epic, was a fanfic.

When I was 7, I was obsessed with this cartoon called Card Captor Sakura (or Cardcaptors, as it’s English dub was known). I’m not sure what specifically about this cartoon captured me so. Was it the fantasy-based-in-reality world? Was it the beautiful artwork and design of the cards? Was it the mystery and investigative plotlines of each episode? Whatever it was, I was hooked. And the thing you do, when you’re a fan of a piece of media, is to join some online fan communities, and read fanfiction.

One day, while doing my usual rounds on fanfiction.net, I found a piece that ticked a lot of boxes. The characters and the world felt “believable” (like they were canon), the story was intriguing, it was decent in length, and it was four chapters in (so about halfway through, I reckoned).

As time went on, one by one, the fics I followed ended (or were abandoned). I moved onto other fandoms, other fics. And yet, this humble Card Captor Sakura fic went steady. The world grew and grew. Chapters soon bloomed into book-length features. The author weaved an intricate loom of history, mythos and prophecy. She introduced new characters. She wrote spin-off stories, set in the universe that was now more hers than the original creators. And before I knew it, I had left primary, and then intermediate, and then high school. This story, and its author, who was thirteen when she started writing it, grew up with me, and I with it. I’ve known it for as long as I’ve known my own sister. It influenced my philosophies, my ways of thinking. For something I never spoke about, it became a huge part of my life.

It would’ve been right as I started university when I fell off the bandwagon. With all the readings I had to do for school, and the new life I was experiencing, I didn’t have time for my fanfiction reading anymore. I was ready to grow up, and grown ups have no room for such childish fantasies.

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To be clear, fanfiction is not “good”, in the usual sense of the word “good”.

By that, I mean the things that make literary works professional: impeccable spelling and grammar, a “tightness” in the writing, and knowledge of the unspoken rules — what you can write about and what you can’t. Fanfic is, typically, “bad”. In fact, some of the best-known works of fanfiction out there are celebrated for their absurd “badness”. Fanfic so bad, that it becomes lauded as genius.

Most fanfics, however, are not entertaining in their badness — they’re just mediocre. This is not to slight fanfiction authors, who put in a great deal of work into their texts. Most don’t speak English as a first language. Many are children, just coming into their teens. When I say that fanfiction is “bad”, I mean it as a joking term to describe the aesthetics of fanfiction: the lack of polished grammar and syntax, language-mixing, liberal use of cross-overs and pop cultural references, fourth-wall-breaking, and wildly experimental structures. To read fanfiction is to give up on the guarantee of a certain reading experience. It is to enter The Wilderness. Say goodbye to beautifully typeset pages with a comfortable reading measure, and hello to scrolling through an unformatted HTML document in Arial, or Times New Roman, or Verdana, with no max-width, no page numbers; nothing else but text. (If you’re lucky, the author will use paragraphs.) God forbid you accidentally close your window in the middle of a chapter, else you lose your place and have to scroll through the whole page again to find where you were.

The chaotic neutral alignment of this world becomes part of the appeal; the magic of fanfiction. Fanfiction sites have the atmosphere of a buzzing bazaar, an authenticity of the goods on offer that makes everyone feel psychologically safe. There’s a distinct lack of pretentiousness, and a real sense of community. Authors volunteer their time to “beta” (edit) each other’s works; some others will even translate the more popular works into different languages. Discussion is lively. Feedback is lifeblood.

I tend to gently mock the world of fanfiction, because it feels childish and a bit silly, but deep down I love it with all my heart. It gave me some of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever read. And if I’m honest, the various styles of fanfiction have probably been the greatest influence on my writing as it is, right now.

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Quiet, shy kids will know — we spent all of our time reading. Gobbling up books by the stackload, everything from fiction to non-fiction, drabbles to longform to epics; every possible thing we could get our hands on we consumed. Hungry for escape, for knowledge, we read. Books were explored, treasured, praised, gutted.

I’m not sure how I stopped reading like I used to, but gradually, I did. I suspect it’s a combination of social technologies conditioning our brains for distraction and short-form everything, and late-capitalist pressures that tell us our time should be spent only on extracting “value”. Reading became work, it became a means to an end. Books were no longer a place for solace, for escape, or for curiosity. They became a source of facts, thoughts, tools; things I could use. Things of “value”.

As time went on, my reading moved from books to shorter and shorter articles. From a healthy mix of fiction and non-fiction to exclusively non-fiction. What once was joy became replaced with a cold, calculating, transactional relationship. I would give texts my time, only if they could give me something, too.

It was a couple of years ago when I first noticed my lack of reading. Every new year, I would set myself a resolution to read more. Every year, I failed. In 2018, I aimed to clear the low bar of one book a month. I got up to June. In 2019, I didn’t try at all.

No matter how hard I forced myself to read, I couldn’t stifle this weird feeling of expectation. This nagging voice in the back of my head who kept asking, “what’s the point?”, in the middle of a book. I would look upon my massive list of book recommendations, and fantasize about reading them all. But in the middle of reading, the bad thoughts would creep up again: “is this really worth your time? Is it good enough for you to be reading this one, instead of the hundreds of other books you could be reading right now? What’s the point?

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A few weeks ago, the memory of that long-lost Card Captor Sakura fanfiction came up again. It had been almost a decade since I last read it, but I was curious to see what ever happened to it. I typed in the old URL, a string of characters flowing out my fingertips like an old piano piece I thought I’d forgotten long ago.

And there it was, in all its 2000s-web glory. The table layout, the pastel, tiled background. The Times New Roman font with those horrid royal blue and aubergine purple default link colours. The feeling from seeing that website, a decade later was… weird. Everything felt so deeply familiar, and yet so strangely new. It was like being back in a town you used to live in, knowing which streets to walk down and yet feeling as though you shouldn’t.

I could feel my heart rate climb as I skimmed down the page. There were new chapters . New chapters! When I had left this story ten years ago, in my mind the world halted to a standstill. I can’t describe the joy and excitement to find out that unbeknownst to me, it had lived on all these years.

For all the flack I give modern technology, having access to it is a game-changer. These new chapters averaged around 100,000 words each — the length of a decently-sized novel — and reading them as one long HTML page, like I used to, was not the best experience. So, I printed them to PDF files and downloaded them onto my ebook reader. No longer would I be stuck sitting at a desk at 3am, staring into a CRT screen.

Words can’t quite contain the excitement I felt, diving back into this world of magic, mystery and myth. Overnight I transformed back into my childhood self. I stayed up to read until the wee hours of the morning, eventually falling asleep. I dove back completely in this world, despite the language gaffes here and there, despite some of the cheesier aspects to the plot, despite the blatant exposition-as-dialogue. I didn’t care. I got to live in this fantastical world again, a world I thought I had lost, and that made me happy.

As is customary in fanfiction, each chapter is followed (or sometimes preceded) by an author’s note. Over the past 9 years, she had been averaging about 1-2 chapters a year (which, if you compare that to releasing 1-2 books every year, is pretty impressive). In it, she talks about her life, her work, and her commentary on the events of that chapter. The parts in the chapter which she’s not happy with. The parts she struggled to write. The parts that she wrote years in advance, and how she was finally able to reveal those plot points.

As I finished each chapter, the years flew by in my hands: 2011 (my first time flatting), 2012 (my first time living overseas), 2013 (my honours year). I felt like I was at the end of a movie, where the filmmaker reveals all the events that we had just seen from another character’s perspective. Ten years ago, the title would say, and just like that, we had traveled back in time. 2014 (starting HVNGRY magazine), 2015 (settling into my design job). 2016 (starting a podcast), 2017 (running Rails Girls Supercharged)… and that was it. I had caught up to the present day. And just like that, nine years flew by me, again. And just like that, I was back, staring at the unknown horizon.

Something else happened, too. As I rediscovered the joy in reading fanfiction, I rediscovered the joy in reading itself. Reading not for information, or research, or enlightenment. Reading for the sake of reading. For how the words sound, strung together in their unique ways. For the images they formed in my mind. For the feelings and sensations they evoked. I shed my selfishness. I re-learned how to read with a generosity I didn’t even realise I had forgotten — an openness, a lack of pretentiousness that gives a text your full and undivided attention, without expecting anything high and lofty in return.

I started to gobble up reading again. Longform articles, books, books, so many books. It was like I had emerged on the surface of an ocean, coming up for air after years under water.

Fanfiction saved my joy in reading.

∙    ✧    ✶   ✧   ✶    ✧    ∙

I’m not trying to get you to read fanfiction, here, and if I’m honest, I’m kind of hoping you don’t read the fanfictions I refer to here. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little embarrassed by them. But on further introspection, I think my embarrassment comes from society’s general distaste for Things That Women Like, and the knowledge that these kinds of works are not to be celebrated. Harry Potter is a bona fide hero; Bella from Twilight is a MarySue. (Hey — I don’t have to like Twilight to recognise the blatant double-standard.) There’s a whole internalised misogyny article beneath the surface here, and people much smarter than I have written and spoken about this, so I won’t go into detail here.

What I do hope to convince you of, are the lessons we can learn from fandom. That there is inherent value in the practice of giving up your time, with zero expectations of getting something in return. That expectations about “value” and “quality” can rob you of joy, and the discovery of some real treasures. That communities are more than the sum of their individuals. And that there is a certain nutrition for the soul in silly, childhood fantasies.

(As a fun side tidbit, fandoms solved an information organisation problem that tech companies haven’t. So, there’s that, too.)

These lessons that are more pertinent now than they were 20 years ago. Children book author Gregory Maguire remarked in an interview, “I think the more Google-fied we become, the more we believe that there’s a factual interpretation for everything, and the more we rely on our skepticism and become immune to fairy tales, poetry, and dreaming.” But fairy tales, poetry, and dreaming has its own purpose. An acceptance towards a lack of concreteness and absolutism is exactly what we need to tackle the biggest challenges of our generation. The ability to imagine and accept — without irony, without cynicism — the possibilities of a better world, is the spark we’re missing right now. We cannot make true what we first can’t imagine.

I’m not sure if you’ve been struggling with the same struggles around reading as I have been these past few years. But I hope the reveal of my unspoken fanfic-filled past, if anything else, has been mildly entertaining. And if you’ve been struggling with reading, as I have, I hope this helps you come up for air.


Things that I’ve read/enjoyed lately:

And just like that, we’re halfway through 2019. How have you been? I’ve been cranking a playlist of 2000s music and reliving my childhood, basically. Revisiting old places with new eyes. It’s… A Time.

As always, please forgive my run-on sentences and typos and incoherent ramblings, these newsletters are always written on a whim. And as always, send me your reading recommendations, your thoughts, your feels. I love hearing from you.

Hope you’re keeping warm! (Or cool, if you’re in the other hemisphere!) Here’s to the second half of 2019, and to facing it with our heads held high (and above water).

Much love,

—Serena

Hope for the cynic

Sometimes, when the noise of every day life becomes a bit too much, I like to step back and imagine myself observing the world as if I were a historian from the not-too-distant future. What would they say about this strange time that we live in? What patterns would they see that we would miss?

When I look at the reactionary movements on the right, the burnout and despair on the left, the new language and culture of irony adopted by seemingly everyone — it really does feel like we’re living in an age of cynicism.

Over the years, cynicism has become a cultural shorthand for intelligence. If you want to signal that you are a well-read, independent mind, the quickest way to do that is to espouse cynicism. Repeat the right ironic phrases and you will be deemed a free-thinker. (How ironic.)

Our stories, art, and culture have moved down the same path. Videogames and films must be increasingly violent and sadistic to cultivate an air of “realism”. Our television shows feature “anti-heroes”, painting themselves as nuanced and multi-faceted when in practice it becomes an excuse to indulge in violence and assholery without having to genuinely dissect these actions. And on many parts of the internet, the name of the game is to never be caught believing in what you say. “Trolling” is a thing. Everything is ironic. Everything is a troll. Everything is a joke.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot about the reactionary right: their aesthetics, their talking points, their beliefs. There’s a certain inevitability to it all, a sort of fate that you cannot escape, a hopelessness, a powerlessness. The idea that every part of your life, and who you are as a human being, is wholly determined by things you cannot (without incredible effort) change like genetics, skull shapes, race, sex, and so on. These groups call themselves “race realists”, “gender critical”; adopting the language of the intelligensia, much like how pop culture adopts the same surface-level signifiers without ever interrogating them far enough to say something of substance.

One of the most enlightening explainers I’ve seen to date is Contrapoint’s video on incels. In it, she describes the aesthetics, beliefs and ultimately the motivations of this strangely doom-obsessed community, and distilled it down to what it was: a death cult. The idea that life is preordained by social structures, so much that your current circumstances are eternal, so you might as well LDAR (Lie Down And Rot).

There’s a magnetism about this fatalistic way of thinking, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that I can feel drawn to it too. No, not the weird obsession with skulls, but the idea that everything bad is true, and everything good is a lie. If someone compliments me, a small voice in the back of my head tells me they’re lying to make me feel better. The more harshly someone puts me down, the more I suspect it just might be true. There’s this undercurrent of distrust in the world around us; the suspicion that we’re all suckers at the end of the day, waiting to be duped and taken advantage of by those who have more power than us.

This is not a characteristic unique to right-wing reactionary groups. This is something I see everywhere.

It’s a manifestation of our inner fear and cowardice. While once cynicism and irony was a counter-culture way in which one could critique the mainstream, now it is a pop-cultural mainstay. It’s a way to insulate ourselves with the very criticisms that might be hurled against us. “Wearing our faults like armour” is empowering when those “faults” are not really faults (like your sex, your ethnicity, your love of trashy pop music). But this “wearing your faults as armour” becomes regressive when we pridefully display the faults that harm others, that harm ourselves, that we wholly have the power to change.

And that’s both the power and the problem with cynicism and irony — it is impervious to criticism, while brandishing itself as brave, rebellious, and intellectually stimulating. “Look at how I’ve started this conversation,” it says, shutting the conversation down.

Cynicism tells us that the world we know, right now, is eternal and forever. Cynicism says this is just how things are and have always been, and if you don’t like it then you might as well just Lie Down And Rot.

Cynicism is the dream killer. Cynicism stops progress in its tracks. Cynicism denies us a better world.


“Sometimes despair or grimness calcifies out of honest idealism, disappointed again and again, out of pain at the atrocities unfolding.”

—Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark


There’s a moment in Netflix’s recent documentary, Knock Down The House, where now US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez displays brief moment of self-doubt and vulnerability.

“I’m aware of the cynicism that can come, when people believe in something, put their hearts and souls into something… and then it doesn’t work out,” she says, slowly, deliberately, with such apprehension in stark contrast to how she usually speaks. “I just don’t want to disappoint anyone.”

The burnout that comes with investing energy in any political activity (or even just political belief) is well-known. There’s a reason why no one likes politics: it’s tiring. As Rebecca Solnit points out, things that make effective activism are short, simple, urgent. Something that can be chanted at a protest, tweeted and retweeted in the thousands. But things that reflect change — real change — are often long, complex, and spans decades. If we expect instant gratification like we do everywhere else in our modern lives, we will be disappointed, again and again.

It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine how a world might change.

In some ways, the world has ended, and started again, multiple times over already. I remember those hours right after reports of the shooting in Christchurch reverberated across the country. I remember walking to the vigil in Wellington. Busloads, full of people, flooded the streets. People spilled out of the footpath and onto the roads. People just kept arriving. I had never seen so many people in Wellington before.

In the days after the terrorist attack, everything felt heightened — more local, more immediate, more real. It was strange — I had never felt more connected to the place I lived in. Suddenly I felt the full weight of responsibility of what it meant to be part of a community. The responsibility that we all felt, to shower each other, especially our Muslim whanau, with as much love and solidarity so that no violence could ever touch us again. As if love could protect us from bullets.

(In a big way, it did.)

Three months on, I worry that we’re losing that sense of community. I worry that we’re throwing away the tiny speck of hope and connection that we felt in the midst of such despair.

Things are pretty dark right now. And in a dark time, optimism feels… stupid, to be honest. But I think we all need to remind ourselves: being optimistic is not about pretending things are okay. Things are not okay. Things feel as far away from okay as they have been in a while. Things are fucked.

Being optimistic is looking at just how fucked everything is, rolling up your sleeves, and saying, “let’s get to work.”

If I could sum up the most important thing I’ve learned in my adult life, it’s that the structures that govern our lives and ourselves are often unspoken and invisible. The most important thing I’ve learned is that everything — everything — is made up. By people who barely know what they’re doing. Adulthood is just childhood with a brave face. There is no right way that we’re “meant” to do anything.

This can be really scary, because no one really knows what they’re doing. But it can also be empowering. You don’t have to do things a certain way. Like how, when we first came to New Zealand, mum would negotiate the price of everything. People would look at her weird (including me, because internalised racism), but hey, sometimes it would work and she would get a better price. You don’t know if you never try.

As we are born into this world, and as we move from school to work, from industries to communities, we enter already-made environments that come with their own sets of rules and “the way we do things”. We tend to forget that these rules weren’t always the case. Someone made them up. If something doesn’t work, you can change it. You can unmake and remake these spaces in your own vision.

It sounds impossible — and it is, by yourself. But together, it can be alarmingly easy. Together, things are impossible and then suddenly they’re not.

In our increasingly individualised world, it’s getting harder and harder to even imagine true collective action. We see everyone as protagonists of our own stories, individuals with complex feelings and beliefs and goals. It’s hard to imagine bringing together so many unique parts.

But we forget that history is a dance, a school production, a team sport. An intricate weave of interconnected actors, coming together on a stage, in the field, in the world.

We forget that nothing ever ends. It’s not about destroying evil for some happily ever after. It’s about continually building the good.


“We cannot eliminate all devastation for all time, but we can reduce it, outlaw it, undermine its sources and foundations: these are victories. A better world, yes; a perfect world, never.”

—Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark


On the other extreme, there is no easier way to sink into cynicism than to hold up the mantle of perfection. Ideological purity is accidental selfishness masquerading as deliberate selflessness. It is choosing an imagined, puritan paradise in a fictional future, over any real, concrete steps forward in the now.

This is not to say that ideological purity is without its use. It is a north star, a guiding principle by which to navigate to. It is there to inspire us, to connect us, to rally us. Celebrating the increments is not a reason to stop — it is a reason to keep going.

I mean, I get it. I feel the overwhelming disillusionment that comes when you lose more than half of everything you’ve fought so hard to gain. Yet still, you’ve gained.

Here’s something harder to think about than utopia or apocalypse: continuing. We need all be reminded that the future is not set, not ever set; which is scary, terrifying, and inherently hopeful. 

Everyone that terrifies you is sixty-five percent water. Every system that binds you was once a figment of someone’s imagination. Yes, sometimes it feels like we’re shouting into an endless void, and you don’t have a voice when you’re alone — but you’re not alone. Contrary to how it feels, we are not alone.

A year ago, if you had asked me to imagine what success would look like, I might’ve imagined a handful of heroes, with power and influence, pulling the tides of history towards justice. Now, I imagine millions of people. Mostly going about their everyday lives, but sometimes, a few thousand will band together, call their representatives, make sure their neighbours are enrolled to vote. And then they go back to their lives. This will not be their life story. Direct action becomes another thing we just do — like laundry, like taking care of the plants.

Knowing that I am small and insignificant is a little sad. Knowing that everyone is small and insignificant is powerful. There are no heroes — just everyday people, trying their best. All of history’s greatest achievements and worst tragedies were performed by people, so small and insignificant in the cosmic scale, just like you or I.

Lately I’ve noticed myself slip further and further into the dark and warm embrace of cynicism. Oh, how much easier it is to make a smart-ass comment about how broken the world is, instead of banding together and doing something, anything, to fix even just a little part of it.

Someone wise once told me that the easiest way to combat the feeling of powerlessness is to do something. To tear our attention away from the endless projectile vomit that is the news and start with yourself, your rag-tag group of friends who care, and the people in your own communities.


“The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist; a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”

—Ursula LeGuin, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas


Further reading / watching


Sorry about the super-long ramble this week. I mostly needed to get that off my chest, as a self-reminder, as self-therapy, self-soothing? I’m not sure.

Apart from lamenting about how the world is on fire, I’ve been in the midst of a job application — and it is taking forever. Like, it’s been about three months? I know their process is long, but gosh it really does something to your self-esteem, to be towed along for so long. I’ve started sending out other job applications here and there the past few days… we’ll see how well that goes. Me being in New Zealand and applying overseas is probably not helping. I’m feeling a lot of self-doubt and apprehension. But I guess that will come with attempting to get a job outside NZ/Australia, even though I get a pretty consistent stream of offers from inside NZ/AUS. But what is life if not for testing your limits, hmm?

, she says, as she tries to make herself feel better about it taking so long. Ugh.

Other than that, life has been good! I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately, and really enjoying it. Eileen recommended a “no phones in the bedroom” rule, so we’re trying that out, and lemme tell ya, it’s pretty great. There’s a quiet that is increasingly hard to find these days — a quiet in your brain that comes with disconnection from the hive-mind that is the internet, which makes me think about creating more of these spaces in my life.

Anyhoos, before I start on yet another ramble—

Things that I’ve read/enjoyed lately:

Hmm, I’ve been writing longer and longer letters lately — I hope that’s alright. What do you think? Yay? Nay?

Oooh, please hit me with your reading recommendations, too. What have you been enjoying lately? Tell me about the things that make you hopeful.

Have a great week,

—Serena

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