Down and Out in Paris and London
Hi friends. Happy 2023, and happy week one of this newsletter. I’m typing from the London City Airport—I’ve been in Paris and London this week. Both are cities I’ve spent extensive time in before, and both are cities I love for possibly unreasonable reasons. It’s cold and rainy here, but at least it’s warmer than New York, and I’ve had books, meals, art, efficient public transit, and friends to keep me warm. That’s the point of this, no? That’s the point of this weekly list, one that I claimed would only be around five things long… but I’m realizing I shouldn’t limit myself when listing a week’s vitalities and delights. (By the way, feel free to comment your own week’s delights below! This is a space for everybody.)
I love reading books in the same places as their settings, so when packing for Paris, I took along with me the meditative and freeflowing novel Chinatown by Thuân, translated from the Vietnamese by Nguyễn An Lý. The exquisite novel takes place in passionate memory while its main character sits in a delayed Paris metro—her mind moves while her body waits, like my own, reading Chinatown on the metro. It’s like how reading Toni Morrison’s Jazz at the glorious Roy Hargrove Big Band show at NYC’s The Jazz Gallery finally helped me comprehend the book’s improvisational structure. Reading books in the same places as their settings helps me understand the sheer magic of the story.
This quote from Persuasion, which I also read this week (yes, I am in the UK reading my much-loved Austen!): “It stood the record of many sensations of pain, once severe, but now softened; and of some instances of relenting feeling, some breathings of friendship and reconciliation, which could never be looked for again, and which could never cease to be dear.” Sensations of pain, once severe but now softened! May our pain always grow soft, despite.
Visiting Agnès Varda’s grave at the Montparnasse Cemetery and seeing how many people loved her. So many pinecones and lip stains on her tombstone! Her films have always meant a lot to me. I’ve sat in different cinemas at different ages to watch her work with different friends and ex-lovers; I’ve cried over various dialogues and taken notes on painterly scenes. I miss her. I’m glad I got to visit her in death. I hope my life is as wretchedly, vividly colorful as how she filmed—and hoped—life could be.
A phrase from the description of the history of still life art at the Louvre’s Things exhibit: “The depiction of things—a constant challenge for writers and painters…” I chuckled when I read this because yes, it truly is a constant challenge to depict things.
An 1880 painting by Édouard Manet at the Louvre’s Things exhibit. It’s supposed to be a bundle of asparagus, but I could have sworn upon first glance it’s actually… joints.
Live music, twice this week: Bossa Nova for NYE at Bab-Ilo in Paris; jazz on a cold night at the Vortex Jazz Club in London. Babo-Ilo was a basement, Vortex was an attic; both were attended with friends; both shows had me closing my eyes, bobbing my head, swaying in my seat, feeling alive.
Wandering to a used bookstore called Librairie la Sirène in the 12th arrondissement, where I found a French translation of Yu Hua’s novel Cris dans la Bruine, or Cries in the Drizzle. Yu Hua is one of my favorite Chinese writers, whose novels I’ve only read in English and whose short stories I’ve only read one or two of in Chinese. I’ve never seen his work in French, and it felt very lovely to see it there in a fruit carton box outside a bookstore in Paris. There’s magic in loved authors brought alive in different languages.
I had an euphorically delicious meal at Akoko, a West African-cuisine restaurant in the Fitzrovia neighborhood in London. My friend A and I grew up with similar backgrounds—we aren’t used to extravagant, languid, fancy meals. I’m glad we got to experience one together. We treated ourselves to the lunch menu and cried over the butternut squash, mackerel, and honey miyan taushe.
I was stunned by the colossal Haegue Yang piece titled ‘Sol LeWitt Upside Down - Structure with Three Towers, Expanded 23 Times, Split in Three’ at the Tate Modern, made up of over 500 Venetian blinds. I walked around it many times, staring upwards and around. I love art that breaks and builds upon self-imposed rules. I love sculptural works of art that make me aware of my body and how I move through space and possibility. In this Yang piece, it felt like I could simply reach up and open the blinds to let in more light. Maybe it’s always that easy to find light.
Texting my friend who loves to make daal about the warm and delicious Dishoom black lentil daal I had just wolfed down in minutes, only for her to tell me their recipe required over six hours to make. There’s a metaphor for art-making and art-consumption somewhere in there.
My friend K and I were walking to a jazz bar in Dalston when we passed a sticker on a post that read “Tell your friends you love them.” I hugged the post in delight.
I love receiving letters and postcards in the mail, so I’m trying to get better at sending them myself. I’ve been gathering postcards from various art galleries and bookstores whenever I see one that reminds me of a friend or lover. In between work and fun, or on the train, I write quick notes saying hi, this reminded me of you. I’ll send my postcards off soon. It’s snail mail, yes, and much slower than sending a quick text in my group chats—which I also happen to be really grateful for, as many of my friends are traveling or living away from NYC right now, and it’s nice to text pictures of our goings-on in our respective places—yet I’m still excited to send these postcards, because it’s a gift to receive a reminder that someone is thinking of you, no matter how delayed. I’m excited for them to receive these postcards, and I’m excited for our planned reunions in NYC later this year. I love my friends. I really do. I’m happy to feel less alone. And maybe these postcards will make them feel less alone too.
I got to reunite with my dear friend E at Gay’s the Word, the oldest queer bookshop in the UK. The next time I see E will be in over a month in NYC. It’ll be their birthday! I’m happy I’ll get to celebrate with them. Friendship in adulthood is hard because you’re apart and you’re busy and you’re stressed. But it’s nice to make time for each other, and it’s nice to schedule that time in advance so you have something to look forward to. And it’s nice to go into queer bookstores in foreign cities with a friend who loves to read, where I can buy a book titled The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions.
When I lived in London in 2016, I was so broke that I would walk miles to class because I didn’t want to pay for the tube. I survived off £1 Sainsbury’s soups for most meals. And I hated myself so much—I’d do unhinged amounts of random drugs offered by strangers at techno because it was better than being conscious in my body. Now, it’s 2023, and I’m in a wildly better situation, both financially and mentally. I’m happy, other than my various bouts of grief and bouts of the void. Despite—or maybe because of—my newfound happiness, during this trip to London, I was struck by the perverse desire to walk by my 2016 dorm in East London just to see how I’d feel. It’s like Annie Ernaux returning to the scene of her abortion: “I felt it was imperative that I return to see the street, the building, and go up to the flat where the events had taken place. Vaguely hoping that this past trauma would cancel my present grief.” When I walked past the dorm, I saw that across the street, they had built a new swimming pool with an attached water park made of giant flowers letting out sprinkles for kids to play in. There’s past trauma in my life from my time as a swimmer too (hi, my novel Chlorine) and I’d like to think there’s a metaphor here. (There’s metaphors everywhere!) Of chlorinated trauma turning into a blossoming flower that I can walk past, curious, in London, to cancel out my present grief. I guess it’s worth staying alive so I can keep on walking.
The old, graying, tough guy wearing construction gear, sitting next to me in the airport as I type this. He’s giggling at his phone as he video calls with someone I assume is his partner. How cute. I can only hope we all get to call people who make us silly-smile like a child in the throes of their first love.
See you next week.
By the way, here’s a very kind early reader review of my novel Chlorine from Lia of an Ode to Fiction!
“Chlorine is a love letter to mermaids… The evolution of Ren’s characterization is satisfying to read from start to end… incredibly immersive… unhinged. I would like to dissect Song’s writing process because I am just so immersed and engaged… It’s been a while since a book drowned me… Chlorine is a solid stand out debut that is immersive and atmospheric that is worthy of a movie adaptation. I presume Song’s background in art direction plays a big part in their ability to write a vivid story. Chlorine has become one of my most anticipated debuts in 2023, I can’t wait for people to read Jade Song’s writing. Please support by pre-ordering or requesting Chlorine at your nearest library because this book has exceeded my expectations.”
Chlorine is also a top book the Gay Times can’t wait for in 2023, is on Charter Books’ staff picks list of 2023 books to preorder, and is Austin’s Bookpeople’s June 2023 Book Club pick, among other recent delights. I’m feeling very grateful for anybody who takes the time to read Chlorine, now or later this year, whether they love it or hate it or feel nothing at all.
Lastly, whether you’re a writer, or a reader, or both, please consider following @hcpunion and sending an email to [peopleteam @ harpercollins.com] to let them know of your support for the Harper Collins Union. More info here.
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