Guest blogger and author Ray Hecht on what it means to ‘connect’ in the 21st century

ray-hecht-headshotIn this post, I feature my first ever guest blogger, Ray Hecht, an American writer who has published books about Ohio, California, Hong Kong and Shenzhen, where he has been living since 2008.

You can find out more about him through his blog: https://rayhecht.com/

 

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”

The quotation above is taken from the end of a novel titled Howards End, written in the 1920s by the British novelist and critic E. M. Forster.

It is also exactly the kind of quotation that gives literature a bad name.

Unlike Dickens, it is sentimental eloquence without human agency; unlike Nabokov, it is purple prose absent of brainteasing allusions; unlike Bellow, it is highfalutin didacticism sans emotional fervour.

collage_forster-dickens-nabokov-bellow

And yet, for the longest time, I’ve held it to be my mission statement, as someone who has always believed in the power of words to fine-tune the tendons of our empathy, and to move closer the tectonic plates between you and me in what seems like a gradually fragmenting world.

I know what you’re thinking: There she goes again, ‘sermonising’ with her lofty platitudes when all she’s really doing is spitballing behind a screen and doing very little by way of action.

And you would be right.

This is why, as a fellow lover of words and a hopeful advocate of literature, Forster’s quote at once resonates and despairs, because the global developments in the past and present century have exposed the idealism in his belief, the belief that “human love” could be elevated simply by connecting the prose with the passion.

This is especially so in our digital age, for why do we even need ‘passionate prose’ when typing out a stream of emoticonsciousness (red heart smiley face green heart purple heart monkey palms over eyes red heart) makes you far more endearing to the person on the other end?

❤😀💚💜🙈❤👹

Mind you, this isn’t one of those ‘O what has the state of modern culture come to’ lamentation posts, so I’m just going to leave this question here for us all to mull over while I refresh my latest Instagram feed and feel bad about my puny follower count.

instagram-screenshot

Yes I like emoticons and alliteration of the ‘b’ plosive

Facebook, the networking behemoth of our generation, makes ‘connecting the world’ its guiding imperative, but let’s not be fooled: Zuckerberg is no inheritor of Forsterian humanism. This is because technological ‘connection’ stands in contradistinction to the kind of human ‘connectedness’ Forster writes about, which stems from one’s internal energy and exudes beyond into the world, and is a local before global, felt but not ‘friend-ed’ principle for community building.

Friendship in the real world is not the end product of a click, but an organic, time-intensive process that requires palpable and emotional investment. This process exposes one to the fear of being exposed, hurt or shunned, but while the result may at times be ungainly, what is at least guaranteed is the promise of authentic intimacy, which I suppose always brings with it a certain amount of risk and pain.

To me, writing, especially about human relationships, is what offers a comfortable middle ground to navigate between the rigours of real-world connection and the limitations of virtual ‘connectedness’.

writing-check-phone

A while ago, I was introduced to the writer Ray Hecht through a friend and colleague. Hecht’s novel, South China Morning Blues, is a unique take on the cultural and romantic intersections between ‘expats’ and ‘natives’ living in the Pearl River Delta region, where the author himself is currently based. He has also recently published a new e-book titled This Modern Love, which touches precisely on the gives and takes of forming human bonds in an era of digital communication.

ray-hecht

Photo credits to http://www.rayhecht.com

Curious about how a fellow (but far more accomplished!) writer and cross-cultural enthusiast understands the idea of human connection in the 21st century, I decided to ask Ray to share with me his thoughts in the form of a guest blog entry, the result of which is his insightful post below. Enjoy!

 

* * *

What is it about connecting that is so important to the human experience? Why do we need these things?

There is no question that humans are social animals. Things like hierarchy, family structures of various kinds, and romantic entanglements seem to be wired into our primate DNA. On all sorts of levels, nobody likes being alone.

As a writer, it often surprises people when I explain how important it is to be left alone for very long periods of time. The ‘civilians’ out there often don’t understand that. At this point in my fledgling career I have written a few book-length works, and each one took countless hours alone in the silent late hours past midnight to accomplish the feat of completing an entire novel. It’s not easy.

So why was I drawn to a lifestyle that leaves me seemingly so unconnected? Part of it may simply be explained by the classic ‘extrovert-introvert’ dichotomy. Extroverts, as we know, get their energy raised by being around groups. Introverts, who are not necessarily shy people, can stand to be around others, but need to ‘recharge their batteries’, as it were, by being alone. For me, the latter has always been the case. Taking up the hobby of writing somehow came naturally to me; although let me be clear: writing well may not come naturally – I am referring to the mere act of putting pen to paper.

For me, part of the dream of being a writer or an artist has always been to make a living by working at home all by myself. Just definitely not in an office!

The ironic thing is, once I started my professional path, I did end up working in an office for a newspaper company. Even worse, once my first book was published, I discovered that I had to go out and *shudder* promote. I kid, it’s not that bad promoting at book festivals by selling oneself in front of a crowd, as it can be very rewarding to interact with readers. But it was interesting to find how the traits of writing in private and the skills of self-promotion in public could be so completely different.

All that being said, I believe that writing is, on a deeper level, very much about forging intense human connections. Instead of having a usual group of friends to meet up in person, writing is about broadening out to the whole world in many other ways. I think this is important.

If nothing else, the act of writing – at least, writing with the intent of sharing – is one of the most powerful methods there are to connect. An author creates worlds from his or her own imagination, and then shares it as directly as possible with potentially hundreds and thousands of readers. This creation may not be given face-to-face, but in a way, its value could be so much more communicated via the powers of two minds – those of the writer and the reader.

I believe this is the key takeaway of all art. To communicate the important things and not just tell those we are close to but to tell the entire world what we deem important. Record a song. Publish a poem. Exhibit a painting. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t always work. But it’s worth a try, to remember that we are not alone in the universe and that human minds can share something meaningful.

My latest book, called This Modern Love, is about these very challenges, all heightened through the access of modern technology. It is about how our phones, websites, and all forms of media have made the 21st century such a hopeful, yet terrifying, place. These things can both help and hinder the possibilities of finding someone to connect to. Told through the prism of love and sex, the story revolves around four people: two men and two women. Each person represents a unique demographical archetype of new, tech-savvy citizenry who all strive to connect in unique ways. Introverts and extroverts, seekers of love vs. partakers of “hookup culture.”

Jack is the kind of man who utilizes every app to meet women in the most shallow way possible, which he does in an attempt to fill the void within his soul. His roommate, Ben, is the kind online dater who looks for deep relationships, yet can’t ever seem to get it right and only feels all the more ashamed after failing each time. Over on the other side of town, Andrea is a cynical woman who takes advantage in any way she can in an attempt to quell her nightmares. Her younger sister, Carla, is a different sort, a blogger who tries to remain true to herself and grow as a person despite all the challenges of the modern era.

As Jack, Ben, Andrea and Carla pass each other by throughout the day, they miss opportunities to forge connections while the hectic pace of life constantly distracts. Conflict ensues and hearts are broken. And yet, whether they fail or succeed, at least they tried.

Because it’s always worth a try.

collage_hecht-books

Hecht’s published works

* * *

You’re killing the moment
The window is closing
It’s only supposed to be two of us
Put that phone down
Please, put that phone down

Lost Kings, ‘Phone Down (ft. Emily Warren)’ 

[Photo credits: Blacksmiths Books, Ray Hecht, Polar Magazine, Penguin Random House]

Retrospective: 2016 – A Poem in 3 Acts

As I take my digital labour of love – Classic Jenisms – into 2017, I have decided to take part in my first WordPress Discover Challenge.

In the spirit of a brand new year, the challenge is titled ‘Retrospective’, and the Editors are asking us bloggers to “look back over our past years’ worth of blogging… to build on or synthesize our best work of 2016”. Since I’ve only ever published prose on this blog, I figured that it’d be a nice change for me to write a ‘found’ poem using lines from my 10 most popular posts to date. For ease of reference, I have hyperlinked all of the lines to their original posts.

I hope you enjoy it, and in contrary to my customary urge of offering ‘literary critique’, I will leave you, dear readers, to ‘interpret’and glean from it whatever you will. 🙂

 collage_2016-retrospective

Retrospective – 2016: A Year in Tough Loves

Act I – At home

Sometimes, I just want a place to read while chilling out or waiting for friends.

Well you go right ahead and move away then, Missus, if you think you’re so independent and shit.
“Mom, are you crying?”
“You’re a bitch.”

Want to ditch
law school and write the next
Booker Prize-winning biographical novel on Shakespeare?

Dream on.

“Oh, your colleagues welcome you.
Your students admire you, are loyal (now). For three
Or four months they will
Depend on you, they will
Accompany you, they will
Grow fond of you, and then they will go
Away.”

Act II – At work

Miss Jen
I wish the pores on my nose were smaller;

Miss Jen
I wish I was better at maths;

Miss Jen
I wish I could transition from being a ‘playground bête noire’ to a self-fashioned ‘walking dictionary’

Like a mother’s bosom, this place suffocates us with love –

But –
No?
You don’t care??
Who’s Shakespeare???
Shakespeare is but a knee-jerk apotheosis of women, or worse, a glib cop-out that attempts to mollify us modern-day bluestockings with slapdash flattery. 

What the Dickens?!

Miss Jen –

What else do you know but wax poetic about dead poets in highfalutin terms that no one really has to know to get by in life, and why would you be concerned about the boring basics of human living?

Surely
You think that shit always straightens itself out in time?

Listen up:

No one – high or low, black or white, young or old – is exempt
From the literary ‘curse’ of being flawed,
Of being all too human.

But how could such a flawed human be capable of so much feeling loving thinking –

Never thought I’d say this but
I owe a lot of who I am today to

Paedophiles, womanisers and alcoholics.

(Duh)
They are flawed humans.

(Ahem)
They are humans before their flaws.

Their cracks and crevasses
Equivalent to sewage pipes in a palace:
Hidden underneath a polished façade, but
No less existent in the very edifice on which the façade

Depends.

Act III – In the moment

In the moment
Your thoughts layered up
Like the skin on a callus, as a spot of bother
That grows into a sand dune of
Discontent.

As we set foot in the car, a sense of inertia burgeons, and silence,
Being inertia’s auditory kin,
Takes on a second, material nature as I imagine it
Transmogrified into a Chinese wall, splitting

apart

the gearshift to

atom-

-ise the car

into two, separate halves:

One
Of me in the shotgun,
Thinking

About all the things you’re not thinking about,

And the other
Of you in the driver’s seat, still
Tapping,
Tapping, tap-pa-tee-tap-tap-tapping away while you cruise on, tapping
Still,

wordless.

And I clammed up, channelled my inner nerd and stocked up on novels and memoirs about people who couldn’t be more different than me and went through them one after another allowing myself no breathing space in between like a bunny on steroids:

friendly-but-not-too-chummy people
hilly-but-walkable environs
cheery-but-never-cheesy ambiance
peopled-but-not-too-crowded streets 

I’ve come to find structure to be a strange source
Of solace,
Especially at times when life has given me lemons and
I don’t even like lemonade.

After all,

When your bedtime agony is about deliberating
Between
A ‘micro and ball-fiber pillow’
and a ‘feather and down pillow’,
That’s how you can tell humanity has made
Real leaps and
Strides
Since the d-
o-
-wn of time. 

Eu amo meus 

[                    ].

 

The top 10 posts referenced here (+ 1 bonus): 

6 surprising things I learned about New York in 6 days

new-colossusNot like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

– Emma Lazarus, ‘The New Colossus’ (1883)

Have you ever experienced moments in life when you feel restless and reckless, like there’s something you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t yet got round to doing because of [insert excuse 1][excuse 2][excuse 3]?

For all the stultifying effects that a life of routine poses on the mind, thoughts of reckless abandon hit me on a regular basis, but if I were to act on them every time they came knocking on the door of my consciousness, I would probably be the poster child of millennial bohemianism by now, living like a troglodyte in a ranch ten thousand feet below some random Idahoan mountain for half a year and jet setting in a perennially airborne state for the other half, courtesy of parentally accumulated mileage points and savings.

Continue reading

This is a book you will either love or hate

“Life’s great happiness is to be convinced we are loved.”

– Victor Hugo, Les Miserables (1862)

Among the many types of mental fallacies, confirmation bias has got to be my favourite. Mostly because I’m so often guilty of it. Confirmation bias means the tendency to seek out information that validates your assumptions and beliefs, in the process screening out those which don’t.

The example most relevant to this blog would be my awareness of a constant uncanny ‘echoing’ between my daily reading and my daily living, which I’ve written about here and here and here.

As much as I’d like to think of myself as some Minister of Literary Humanism, deep down I suspect that these ‘coincidences’ are less so manifestations of an uncanny ritual, as they are simply a testament to the fact that I read a lot of humanistic fiction, which, of course, is made up of events drawn from this activity called human living.

Continue reading

3 things I learned from reading 50 books in 15 months

“Your library is your paradise.”

– Desiderius Erasmus, circa 1520s

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”

– Jorge Luis Borges, 1955

When Henry James dissed Victorian novelists for writing “large, loose baggy monsters”, he kind of had a point: in an age where distractions abound, the idea of spending time on the nitty-gritty ins and outs of imagined people does seem quite cavalier. What is the use, what is the point, what is the objective end goal target achievable of reading fiction etc etc.

And yet, utilitarian checklists, dull and soul-sucking as they may be to some, are beautiful in their slavishness to time efficiency. As such, the combo of boxes-and-ticks is often the boon of corporate-minded souls, or just people who find solace in structure and reassurance in the regimental.

Continue reading

What’s wrong with science fiction?

Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic.”

– Frank Herbert, Dune (1965)

Rockstar outta space penthouse hideaway
Fountain blue getaway King of Diamonds where I lay
Yeah, fresh wheneva we wanna play free band A.1. LBG man we global
Yay, yay yeah we selling plenty coke have a drink have
A toast nigga we don’t brag or boast so Rolls Royce
Lamborghini doors suicide open up your brains now your casket closed
Im in NASA outta here 3 carats in my ear
I can make you disappear drape like a chandelier
Astronaut when I shine racks on racks
Now Im understanding crystal clear

Future, ‘Space Cadets’ (2012)

How often do you notice the presence of irony in your life?

For as far back as I can remember, things usually happen in series of ironic ‘echoes’ for me. What this means is I’d be aware of something that hasn’t happened for quite a while, or someone who I haven’t seen for quite some time, only to – lo and behold – find myself experiencing or encountering these somethings and someones shortly thereafter.

Call it the sixth sense, or a ‘woman’s intuition’, but despite the regularity with which this pattern occurs, I’m always slightly taken aback or bemused (or freaked out – context depending) whenever it does.

Continue reading

What it feels like when someone tells you to “just sit there and not speak”

                             )
(                                           )
(                                )
(
(

(                                                              )!
“(                                                           )?”

(
(

-Andre Le Toit (Koos Kombuis), ‘Tipp-Ex-Sonate’

Ever since I (re-)started my cardio routine one year ago, I have – miraculously – become more Zen and Namaste about things in general.

In the grand scheme of personal growth, this can only be a good thing.

yoga_zen

In case you’re recoiling in horror at the thought of Jen having become a Gillian Michaels-quoting, juice bar-hopping, Lululemon-wearing gym bunny, I can confirm that I would still pick a cosy library corner over a Protein Shake-fortified-ego-filled space any day. So, no, I’ve not changed.

Continue reading