• What does good writing mean to you?
Good writing can have many faces, each of which can be interesting, or thought-provoking, or well-executed. It's hard to argue with clear, concise, carefully curated language, sharp as a knife. My favourite writing, though, is more a matter of the senses than the rational mind. It flows from the gut.
One of the most gratifying compliments I’ve ever received about a piece of my writing is that it has BO. Body odour. Good writing smells. It's pungent, like compost. It’s sticky and viscous, it leaves a film. Put your ear to it and you'll hear it humming. It writhes like woodlice under a garden gnome.
Reading, consuming good writing, is more than an intellectual pursuit. When reading, I want to be transported. I want my body to be in it. I like to see, hear, and smell whatever I'm reading about. That’s a powerful thing, because in an instant, our senses can sieve the tucked-away corners of our own narratives, of history, memory, and childhood, for kernels of meaning. And they tie us to what we’re reading in the most intimate way.
Say you're reading a short story about a Chinese farmer. In this story, he recounts the comings and goings of his days under the Ming Dynasty. In all likelihood, your life couldn't be more different from his. And yet, you know exactly what soil smells like, or the water used to boil rice in. You know how leaves sing in the rain, or how dry wood crackles in a fire, or what it feels like to have cold toes. And you’re instantly closer to understanding another being in a profound way.
I think, in this way, good writing, whether you’re writing or reading it, helps us practice empathy. It connects us to a shared human experience that is bigger than ourselves. It's some kind of current, an antenna of humanity we can reach out and touch.
• What do you do when words fail to express?
I spend much more time than I’d like to admit falling into TikTok rabbit holes, emerging hours later with a frazzled attention span and virtually no recollection of the tsunami of stimulation I’ve just willingly drowned myself in. It’s a part of my reality I don't like, and I try to wean myself off of it.
I like long walks. Recently, I’ve been gravitating to classical music on my walks—Vivaldi, Stravinsky, Mozart's violins, Bach's cello's, Shostakovich's Jazz Suites, Mahler's Fifth—particularly in summer, when everything is teeming with life. I practice hot yoga, a fixed sequence of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises in a room heated up to 45 degrees. It’s a vigorous exercise, but a particularly grounding one, that leaves me feeling like a puddle of sensation trickling peacefully into the rest of the day. I read a lot, although that can become frustrating when I feel stuck with writing. I like pickling and fermenting things, from onions or dill pickles to kimchi and sauerkraut.
I enjoy photographing people I love, doing ordinary things. I’m not particularly good at it—I have a simple point-and-shoot and no technical skills. But film photography is a slow practice, and requires me to slow down. I like the feeling of finally finishing a roll and not being entirely sure what’s on it, then getting it back from the lab and remembering, and sending the photos to my friends like tiny gifts.
I’ve also recently moved into a place with a small garden. As I’m writing this, the edible flowers I’ve sown in the garden bed are sprouting. Checking in on those brave shoots is a new-found pleasure.
• Can you share a tip on how someone can write better?
I’d have to come back to the senses here. When writing, be aware of what you’re seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, and of the connections those perceptions make in your mind.
Maybe the smell of a honeysuckle bush you see draping over a garden wall reminds you of your grandmother, who had one just like it. And now, you're thinking of your grandmother. Maybe you're picturing the dark brown, burnt smell of her favorite instant coffee. Or the fistfuls of shredded cheese she put in her signature onion soup. Perhaps you're remembering her mouton retourné gloves, the way the leather was soft and worn in the crease where her hand wrapped around the handle of her bike. Maybe you're seeing the scar on her left wrist, the one she got when she was a girl, when she cut herself on a broken perfume bottle that fell off the bathroom shelf when a bomb fell just a few metres away from the house she grew up in, right in the middle of a muddy turnip field. Now, suddenly, you’re standing in that turnip field, the mud is up to your ankles, and you’re in a different era altogether, a different place and time. All because of a honeysuckle bush.
There is wealth, abundance in our own memory, in the stories we make and are made of. Start there and the well will never run dry.