Adventures with rogue lit journo Jen: Covering the HKU Open Forum on ‘How, What & Why Do Writers Write?’

“How do I write? Why do I write? What do I write? This is what I am writing: I am writing Mr. Potter. It begins this way; this is its first sentence: ‘Mr. Potter was my father, my father’s name was Mr. Potter.’ So much went into that one sentence; much happened before I settled on those eleven words.”

-Jamaica Kincaid, ‘Those Words That Echo… Echo… Echo Through Life’ (1999)

Two weeks ago, I went to a writer’s open forum hosted at the University of Hong Kong, titled ‘How, What and Why Do Writers Write? A Conversation between David Tang, Hannah Rothschild, Simon Winchester and Wilbur Smith’.

hku open forum shot

(From left to right) Simon Winchester, Hannah Rothschild, David Tang, Wilbur Smith

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What I learned from one year of being ‘Miss Jen’

“The word ‘education’ comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul.”

-Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1999)

In the past two weeks, I’ve clocked a total of 60 teaching hours.

In a month’s time, I will have reached my one year anniversary of being a teacher.


In hindsight, it doesn’t feel like that much time has passed, which I guess is a good thing. Time flies when you’re having fun and all that. If anything, I find it scary how quickly time flies by these days.

Every morning, as I make my way up a semi-slope that leads to my workplace, I feel like a walking locomotive chugging a brainload of stuff, some useful, others confused, but mostly just mush.

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An Interview with Tammy Ho, founder of ‘Cha: An Asian Literary Journal’

Stop all the clocks, Hong Kong people.
That which we hold dear about this city

is likely to end in 2047.
But if we do not recognise the objective

passing of time, might we stay
in the present?

– Tammy Ho Lai-Ming, ‘2047’ (2016)

If Hong Kong poets writing in English are few and far between, then female Hong Kong poets writing in English would be the human equivalent of unicorns here, given how uncommon a species they are in this 7.3 million-people city.

But if you think they’re rare, then you’ve not met Tammy Ho Lai-Ming, who is not only a locally born and bred prize-winning poet, but also a Dickens scholar, an English professor, an academic editor and a literary journal co-founder. Prior to completing her PhD in English Language and Literature at King’s College London, Tammy gained a First Class Honours degree in English Studies and Translation at the University of Hong Kong.

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A Portrait of My Father as a Practical Man: Introducing Papa Chan

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

– Robert Hayden, ‘Those Winter Sundays’ (1966)

Lately, I’ve been obsessed with Jungian psychometrics.

MBTI chart

Basically, this means I’ve been bugging everyone around me with requests that they take the Myers-Briggs test, after which I’d compare their result against my prediction of their ‘type’. I’m sure it’s just another one of my passing fads, but apparently this fascination with clinically profiling psychoanalysing people is a very ‘INTJ’ thing to do (my Myers-Briggs type).

Yesterday, I sent my dad a link to the test, and was not surprised when he told me he got ‘ISTJ’, which is exactly what I had expected his type to be.

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Stop looking at me! What I learned from having a swollen eye

We shall not attempt to give the reader an idea of that tetrahedron nose – that horse-shoe mouth – that small left eye over-shadowed by a red bushy brow, while the right eye disappeared entirely under an enormous wart – of those straggling teeth with breaches here and there like the battlements of a fortress – of that horny lip, over which one of those teeth projected like the tusk of an elephant – of that forked chin –

– Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1833)

I woke up this morning with two red, saucer-sized welts under my left eye. Swollen and sore to the touch, I grabbed the nearest reflective surface in alarm.

After ten minutes of microscopic self-inspection before the mirror, the first thought that crossed my mind was:

I might as well go back to bed.

If I sleep for long enough, maybe there’s a chance that I could sleep these Welts Brothers away.

Wanna be back in bed

Uh, fat chance, more like.

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Falling in love with dead white men

We read fiction because it makes us less lonely about being a human being. We read about what other human beings feel – what they are driven to do, how they often work for their own destruction, how they are in the grip of appetites that are beyond them and they can’t control or harness.

– John Updike, ‘The Post’, 1998

I’ve come to notice that a lot of people don’t read fiction.

To each his/her own and all that, but I can’t help feeling a bit sad about this. Not trying to convert any Freakonomics fans into Frankenstein buffs here; it’s just that those who ignore what imagined words and worlds can offer are missing out on a whole other dimension of human experience. Long story short, your life becomes all the richer for having read fiction, for you having ‘lived’ multiple lives, ‘inhabited’ multiple landscapes, and ‘stepped into’ multiple pairs of shoes.

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A series of uncanny events: on the relationship between 2 recent reads and 2 current students

Passion is the privilege of the insignificant… You are insignificant because you are finite. Yet the more finite a thing is, the more it is charged with life, emotions, joys, fears, compassion… So try to stay passionate, leave your cool to constellations. Passion, above all, is a remedy against boredom.

– Joseph Brodsky, ‘In Praise of Boredom’, 1989

“So who’s heard of Charles Dickens before?”

“I’ve read his stuff.” One of my favourite students pipes up. “Like, Oliver Twist and Huckleberry Finn.”

“Ah, well done on the Twist, but Finn isn’t by Dickens. Does anyone know who its author is?”


“Here’s a clue. His first name is Mark.” I put down ‘Mark _________’ on the whiteboard.

4 blank stares v. 1 blank space; 4 Generation Z teenagers v. 1 Generation Y teacher. Just as I’m about to answer my own question, crestfallen, another student calls out in a tone that suggests he’s reached an ‘Aha’ sort of epiphany:

“Oooh I know!” Yes – I think to myself, score! Let’s have it! Let’s hear the names of literary greats trumpeted loud and clear in this classroom! Hail to the American novel tradition! Hail to the Victorian realist canon! Hail to –

“It’s Mark Zuckerberg, amirite??!!”


There’s an uncanny link between what I do for a living and how I live.

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To Read or Not to Read (in Hong Kong), that is the Question

“Ah! I’ll never, never meet such a man again. You ought to have heard him recite poetry—his own too it was, he told me. Poetry!” He rolled his eyes at the recollection of these delights. “Oh, he enlarged my mind!” “Goodbye,” said I. He shook hands and vanished in the night.

– Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1899), Ch. 3

I’m sat in a coffee shop at one of Hong Kong’s biggest book stores, waiting for my interviewee to show up. Just as I suspect he’s going to stand me up, he arrives looking slightly sheepish, both hands holding onto a copy of Balzac’s Father Goriot. This makes it difficult for hand-shaking, but we give it a half-arsed go anyway. I notice that his hands are cold. I apologise for not specifying the locale while he tries to make himself comfortable in a seat that’s too big for him. He fails, and his discomfort translates into more ways than one. His eyes are shifty. His arms are crossed. His torso is turned to an awkward angle. Negative body language code red alert. He’s expecting the Spanish Inquisition treatment, and we’ve not even started yet. This is going to be a tough nut to crack, I think to myself, but we’ll play it by ear and see how it goes.

blog_11octThere’s been a marked change in the way I interact with others these days. Where I used to be on the receiving end of questions from cross-examining parents and sceptical professors, I seem to be the one asking all the questions lately – both inside and outside the classroom ambit.

My targets range from high school students to unpublished writers, who I approach in the semi-professional capacity of a teacher/interviewer-cum-friend. It’s a kind of legitimised nosiness, I guess, having carte blanche to probe the other person’s brain while being able to absorb and mull over all kinds of exclusive, ungoogleable information.

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Why Ain’t Nobody Got Time to Write/Read

Every year is getting shorter never seem to find the time.
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over,
Thought I’d something more to say.

– ‘Time’, The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), Pink Floyd


One of my many clocks on one of my many bookshelves

As a teacher, one of the most common retorts I get from students is ‘I don’t have time.’ I don’t have time to finish my homework, they say. I don’t have time to write ‘you’ a 400-word essay, they say. Every week, I see gremlin-sized ain’t nobody got time for that memes staring me live in the face.

Whenever that happens, I leave half an hour at the end of my lesson for them to write me an essay on ‘Why I Didn’t Have Time to Write an Essay This Week’, titled in glorious capitals. New pedagogical insight: Punitive karma is best served meta – take my word for it.

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Why I Write the Way I Write: Part II

Part II: The anxieties I’ve faced & the changes I’ve made in developing my style 

“Literature’s worth lies in its power of mystification, in mystification it has its truth; therefore a fake, as the mystification of a mystification, is tantamount to a truth squared.”

– Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveller (1980)

big words_1

The look I’d get whenever I used words like “obsequious” or “nefarious” when “brown-nosing” and “wicked” would have sufficed

“Tennyson’s aesthetical imperative renders the emotional expression in ‘Mariana’ an effusive endeavour.”

That’s the title I came up with for my first ever undergraduate essay.

If you don’t understand what it means, then congrats – you’re perfectly normal. I’ll also let you in on an embarrassing secret: I didn’t, and still don’t quite know what that sentence means. Being classic Jen, however, I went ahead and waxed faux scholarship on Tennyson anyway, thinking that my gung-ho efforts marked the instauration of a path to glorious professorship.

Eh, fat chance. The feedback that I got from my tutor Hannah was at best a kind of baffled bemusement, and at worst the worldly disdain of someone who’s ‘seen it all before’. Let’s just say it took me an entire year to convince her the way I write isn’t symptomatic of a “worrying lack of conceptual rigour” – a comment which I received in my first term report. And a most sobering one at that.

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