On fictional memories

If I look back, happy moments are often those I explored fictional worlds, in books, video games, film or TV. Two days ago, I decided I would revisit my favourite anime, Saint Seiya. I have since watched a dozen episodes. As I did, sudden elements of my childhood came to mind: a game I played at recess, the face of a classmate, the furniture in my bedroom.

Other stories have similarly joyful associations, and bring back sensorial recollections as I bring them to mind. It is a mild afternoon of early July in Strasbourg, I am thirteen, lying in the grass, holding a yellow paperback – and at the very same time, I am with Angelique, wandering from Turkey to Quebec. I am in a physics class, holding a white paperback on my lap, and as I learn about the periodic table, I am sailing among icebergs, heading to the South Pole. I am in a car, driving across Gippsland to a Christmas lunch, and I am walking through the woods of Lorraine with Lucien Leuwen, the petty conversations of provincial aristocrats echoing around me.

We may think of stories as evasion, whether mediated through words on paper or moving images on a screen. They take us away from the world. The paradox is that, as I look back, these moments of deepest absorption in a fictional world are simultaneously moments of deepest physical presence. Arthur Gordon Pym and my Grade Seven Physics class are forever intertwined, as are Angelique and a bedroom in Benidorm, or the first floor of a Hangzhou Costa Coffee and the gay plotline of Glee. As I recall the faces of the characters and the progress of their adventures, colours and feelings come back, sharp and vivid. Such is the strange way that the mental worlds of past and fiction retrospectively merge, as two faces of a shiny ribbon twirling through time.

Fiction-guilt – in defence of TV shows

‘Glee is my guilty pleasure’. A dear friend of mine recently wrote this on a racing facebook comment trail about a new website called ‘help me write’. And I side-tracked into a line of thought I’d like to share here.

I’ve heard the feeling often: watching TV series is associated with feelings of guilt – whether it’s Glee, Gossip Girl, True Blood, Dexter, Mad Men, Six Feet Under, or ealier Friends, Buffy, 90210… watching the lives of imaginary characters and their complex evolutions is experienced as guilt. As if this was a worthless use of our time, as if there was ‘better to do’ than engage with fiction. Or maybe we should read, hey?

Then I realised, this is not new rhetoric – except it once applied to novels. Jane Austen denounces it in Northanger Abbey – others do too. Novels should be taken seriously: they’re a school for emotional intelligence, and they make us happy. So do TV series: they explore moral dilemmas, take us to imaginary worlds, relieve boredom, and make us think. What is there not to like? Sure, they might take us away from ‘productive pursuits’ – but then should our lives be devoted entirely to productive pursuits?

I would like, more precisely, to think about the role of fiction – imaginary worlds and crafted imaginary situations where imaginary characters make ethical decisions. I think in a future post, that’s what I’ll do – for the moment, I shall leave this reflection here.

What changed in 2013?

It has become common, as the new year comes, to publish a list of one’s recent ‘achievements’ – discrete items completed over the last year cycle, that – may – go down in our personal history like a string of baroque pearls. In parallel some will publish a list of goals or resolutions for the year to come – which, when the time come, will become new pearls on a new year-string. I do not much like the productive metaphor that underlies this yearly ritual – but would rather reflect in a more holistic way on how my situation transforms from year to year, and what new changes I expect from the coming cycle. Let’s call it, present consequences of last year’s achievements.

So, this is what changed for me since last year, in no particular order.

My linguistic competence changed, and with it my capacity to talk and engage with people. Last year, I was not confident enough to join in a semi-professional Mandarin discussion. I struggled to read, and could not write a short message or email without an electronic translator and dictionary at hand. I am now able to do all of this – still not with perfect confidence or fluency, but well enough. This means I now think of Chinese people as potential conversation partners, and can start imagining direct interactions with them, face to face, through social media or email.

My relationship to China changed. After spending four months in Nanjing as a resident, after visiting five provinces and twelve different cities, I have a much more intuitive and personal understanding of the size, diversity, and historical depth of this country. By living here, I have developed friendships and trusting relationships with a number of Chinese people from different places and background, and can now confidently contact them for advice or help. Both at the emotional, imaginary, and practical level, I am now more able to project myself into China, and make sense of events or situations involving Chinese people from a range of local perspectives. 

Marco Polo Project changed. We now run a reasonably respectable website, with an established editorial line and a core group of identified authors. We’ve got full models for events, and are ready to grow partnerships. Our operations are now clear, and we’re ready to increase our productivity. My own professional status changed along with Marco Polo Project. I raised 38,000 dollars for two different China-related project, and for the first time, will pay myself a small salary from this sum next year to run them. My public profile also changed. I am now introduced more often as ‘founder and CEO’, and was invited to speak about related topics at a few public events in Australia and France. I am not a solid authority yet – but slowly, I am being recognised as someone worth listening to when it comes to learning languages online, the multilingual internet, and all things China.

My personal situation changed. My partner completed his degree, and will be teaching English at Ivanhoe Girls Grammar from January, in a role that he loves, and with a comfortable enough salary.This means the end of a very tight financial year for both of us, and the excitement of a new profession starting.

My personal networks changed – I made new friends, and deepened older friendships – each of them opening a new window for me to understand the world, potential for joint projects, or the simple pleasure of conversation and company.

My nationality changed. I became an Australian, which means I no longer have to gather documents or engage with the immigration department; which means I can get a visa to China without much hassle; which means I can work for the Australian public service; which means I can legitimately reply ‘I’m Australian’ when people ask me where I come from.

My own psychological balance changed. Last year, I started with a lot of energy , but little experience and understanding of what lay ahead. I’m starting this year more tired – certainly the result of four intense months in China – but better connected, and with significantly stronger systems in place.

I am not sure yet what changes will happen in 2014, but here are a few directions I will work towards. Cosmopolitan short fiction. Personal productivity. Delegation. Mandarin speed and flexibility. Weaving Australia, France and China. Portfolio career. Regular day-breaks.

And we’ll see next year what actually changed.

Multicultural story-sharing

At an amazing post-festival drink party with the Emerging Writers Festival people, while discussing straightmenkissing.com and Melbourne storytelling projects, I had an idea that could feed into the Marco Polo Project. Why not create a platform where Chinese speakers (and maybe Japanese, Korean, and Spanish speakers too) could share their experience of Melbourne as a place where they lived as international students.

I spoke with a guy there who works at Melbourne Uni, and said ‘these international students, they come here, but they stay together, they don’t really meet the locals, they might as well stay home.” I said,” Not so: they do meet people they would never meet home. People from Beijing meet people from Shanghai, and Chongqing, and Tokyo. How would they meet them, at home? It’s like the Erasmus yer for Europeans, you meet other Europeans, often some from your home country; and it’s extremely formative – even if it’s not a proper encounter with the country you live in.

So, yes, why not provide a platform where these international students could tell the stories of their time in Melbourne – and, maybe, share it with locals (or we could translate them, and spy on them); like Americans tell of their time in Paris. Melbourne as a playground for cosmopolitasians – why not?

User Stories

Yesterday, I’ve been working on drafting ‘user stories’ for the information architecture part of the Marco Polo project. It’s an interesting process: in order to develop the architecture and navigation plan of your website, you imagine a fictional user – giving him or her a name, an age, a profession, as well as a motive for visiting your website; then, you describe, in all details, the interaction between that fictional user and your intended website.

It a a fabulous visualisation technique, and suddenly raises many questions you wouldn’t ask yourself otherwise: she wants to input text but is not logged in – what action triggers an error message? is she redirected to a registration page? She wants to register, is that instant, or does she receive an email with an activation link? Little details and decisions you need to make.

I was reminded of things I read about architects – how the art of architecture is about building daring shapes in space, inspired from dreams or animals. But their art is, also, that of the mason, build something that holds together; and something even more down-to-earth, a kind of simple commonsense, or knowledge of the human – make sure there is a pathway to each room. Build in windows, plumbing, ventilation. Think where your doors will be.

But for a fiction writer, this process is more than just about making a blueprint. Believe it or not, I grew attached to my characters. I started wondering, will their life be changed by this website? Will they, or will they not contact another user? Will something happen then? It was exhilarating, to imagine as fiction something I want to bring to the world. Dangerous also – probably – taking me far from the mundane drafting of a business plan or of a budget, into my own fantasy-world, where volunteers jump in, enthusiasms feed each other, yet everyone does, to a point, exactly as I tell them.