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Babel - R.F. Kuang
You're in the place where magic is made. It's got all the trappings of a modern university, but at its heart, Babel isn't so different from the alchemists' lairs of old. But unlike the alchemists, we've actually figured out the key to the transformation of a thing. It's not in the material substance. It's in the name.
The English made regular use of only two flavours - salty and not salty - and did not seem to recognize any of the others. For a country that profited so well from trading in spices, its citizens were violently averse to actually using them; in all his time in Hampstead, he never tasted a dish that could be properly described as 'seasoned', let alone 'spicy'.
But what he felt was not as simple as revolutionary flame. What he felt in his heart was not conviction so much as doubt, resentment, and a deep confusion.
He hated this place. He loved it. He resented how it treated him. He still wanted to be a part of it - because it felt so good to be a part of it, to speak to its professors as an intellectual equal, to be in on the great game.
'History isn't a premade tapestry that we've got to suffer, a closed world with no exit. We can form it. Make it. We just have to choose to make it.'
'You really believe that,' said Robin, amazed. Griffin's faith astounded him. For Robin, such abstract reasoning was a reason to divest from the world, to retreat into the safety of dead languages and books. For Griffin, it was a rallying call.
If only one could engrave entire memories in silver, thought Robin, to be manifested again and again for years to come - not the cruel distortion of the daguerreotype, but a pure and impossible distillation of emotions and sensations. For simple ink on paper was not enough to describe this golden afternoon; the warmth of uncomplicated friendship, all fights forgotten, all sins forgiven; the sunlight melting away the memory of the classroom chill; the sticky taste of lemon on their tongues and their startled, delighted relief.
'I'm sorry.' Letty sniffled between sobs. 'I'm sorry, I'm so sorry...'
Ramy and Robin watched, unsure what to make of this. On someone else it would have been performative, sickening even, but with Letty, they knew it was not a charade. Letty could not cry on command; she could not even fake basic emotions on command. She was too stiff, too transparent; they knew she was unable to act in any way other than how she felt. So it did feel cathartic, seeing her break down like this, knowing that at last she understood how they all felt. It was a relief to see that in her they still had an ally.
Still, something did not seem right, and Robin could tell from Victoire's and Ramy's faces that they thought so too. It took him a moment to realize what it was that grated on him, and when he did, it would bother him constantly, now and thereafter; it would seem a great paradox, the fact that after everything they had told Letty, all the pain they had shared, she was the one who needed comfort.
Robin wondered then how much of Anthony's life had been spent carefully translating himself to white people, how much of his genial, affable polish was an artful construction to fit a particular idea of a Black man in white England and to afford himself maximum access within an institution like Babel. And he wondered if there would ever be a day that came when all of this was unnecessary, when white people would look at him and Anthony and simply listen, when their words would have worth and value because they were uttered, when they would not have to hide who they were, when they wouldn't have to go through endless distortions just to be understood.
'We have to die to get their pity,' said Victoire. 'We have to die for them find us noble. Our deaths are thus great acts of rebellion, a wretched lament that highlights their inhumanity. Our deaths become their battle cry. But I don't want to die, Robin.' Her throat hitched. 'I don't want to die. I don't want to be their Imoinda, their Oroonoko. I don't want to be their tragic, lovely lacquer figure. I want to live.'
She fell against his shoulder. He wrapped his arms around her and held her tight, rocking back and forth.
'I want to live,' she repeated, 'and live, and thrive, and survive them. I want a future. I don't think death is a reprieve. I think it's - it's just the end. It forecloses everything - a future where I might be happy, and free. And it's not about being brave. It's about wanting another chance. Even if all I did was run away, even if I never lifted a finger to help anyone else as long as I lived - at least I would get to be happy. At least the world might be all right, just for a day, just for me. Is that selfish?'
Her shoulders crumpled. Robin held her tight against him. What an anchor she was, he thought, an anchor he did not deserve. She was his rock, his light, the sole presence that had kept him going. And he wished, he wished, that was enough for him to hold on to.
'Be selfish,' he whispered. 'Be brave.'
Beautiful World, Where Are You - Sally Rooney
I just never really had a thing about it. Whether someone is a guy or a girl. I know for most people it’s like, the one big thing they really do care about. But for me, it just doesn’t make any difference. I don’t go around telling people all the time because actually, some girls don’t like it. If they find out you’ve been with guys they think you’re a bit not right, some of them. But I don’t mind telling you since you’re the same yourself.
She took a sip from her wine glass and swallowed. Then she said: For me I think it’s more that I fall in love very intensely. And I can never know in advance who it’s going to be, whether they’ll be a man or woman, or anything else about them.
Felix nodded slowly. That’s interesting, he said. And it happens a lot, or not that much?
Not that much, she said. And never very happily.
Just because I go on dates doesn’t mean people go around falling in love with me. I mean, we’ve been on a date together, you’re not in love with me, are you?
Placidly she replied: I wouldn’t tell you if I were.
He laughed. Good for you, he said. And don’t get the wrong idea, you’re welcome to be in love with me if you want. I would have to put you down as a bit of a lunatic, but I kind of think that about you anyway.
She was mopping the remaining sauce off her plate with a piece of bread. You’re wise, she said.
The idea of ‘coming to terms’ with your sexuality: this seems to mean, basically, coming to understand whether you like men or women. For me, realising that I liked both men and women was maybe one per cent of the process, maybe not even that much. I know I am bisexual, but I don’t feel attached to it as an identity – I mean I don’t think I have anything special in common with other bisexual people. Almost all the other questions I have about my sexual identity seem more complicated, with no obvious way of finding answers, and maybe even no language in which to articulate the answers if I ever did find them.
Maybe we’re just born to love and worry about the people we know, and to go on loving and worrying even when there are more important things we should be doing. And if that means the human species is going to die out, isn’t it in a way a nice reason to die out, the nicest reason you can imagine? Because when we should have been reorganising the distribution of the world’s resources and transitioning collectively to a sustainable economic model, we were worrying about sex and friendship instead. Because we loved each other too much and found each other too interesting. And I love that about humanity, and in fact it’s the very reason I root for us to survive – because we are so stupid about each other.
I feel so frightened of being hurt – not of the suffering, which I know I can handle, but the indignity of suffering, the indignity of being open to it. I have a terrible crush on him and get very excited and idiotic when he shows me affection. So of course in the midst of everything, the state of the world being what it is, humanity on the cusp of extinction, here I am writing another email about sex and friendship. What else is there to live for?
I was tired, it was late, I was sitting half-asleep in the back of a taxi, remembering strangely that wherever I go, you are with me, and so is he, and that as long as you both live the world will be beautiful to me.
I asked Simon the other night whether he prays to God, and he told me yes – ‘to say thank you’. And I think if I believed in God, I wouldn’t want to prostrate myself before him and ask for forgiveness. I would just want to thank him every day, for everything.
People our age used to get married and have children and conduct love affairs, and now everyone is still single at thirty and lives with housemates they never see. Traditional marriage was obviously not fit for purpose, and almost ubiquitously ended in one kind of failure or another, but at least it was an effort at something, and not just a sad sterile foreclosure on the possibility of life.
I know that you personally feel the world ceased to be beautiful after the fall of the Soviet Union. (As an aside, isn’t it curious that this event coincided almost exactly with the date of your birth? It might help explain why you feel so much in common with Jesus, who I think also believed himself to be a harbinger of the apocalypse.) But do you ever experience a sort of diluted, personalised version of that feeling, as if your own life, your own world, has slowly but perceptibly become an uglier place?
Speaking of which: when Felix saw I was writing you an email, he said, ‘You should tell her you’re Catholic now.’ This is because he recently asked me if I believed in God, and I said I didn’t know. He went around shaking his head all day after that, and then told me that if I go off and join a convent, I shouldn’t expect any visits from him.
I find it hard to believe anything really bad about myself when I consider how much he loves me. I do try to remind myself that men can be foolish about women. But maybe he’s right – maybe I’m not so bad, maybe even a good person, and we’ll have a happy family together.
Bitter Medicine - Mia Tsai
"With your help I've rebuilt my life twice. I have hobbies. I go out, I have friends. What do you do? Who takes care of you? Why do you think you're so unimportant that you can sit there in your misery and call it noble? Then you have the gall to come here and talk about protection when you won't lift a finger to help yourself?"
Blood & Honey - Shelby Mahurin
I'd lied when I'd said I'd made my choice.
In truth, there'd been no choice at all. There never had been.
I loved her.
And if I had to run, hide, and fight for that love, I would. For the rest of my life, I would.
"I implore you to choose carefully," Madame Labelle repeated, rising to her feet. Her face was grave. "Louise's story does not end in happiness. It ends in death. Whether at her mother's hands or her own, she will not remain the girl with whom you fell in love."
Pressure built behind my eyes. "I'll love her anyway."
"A noble sentiment. But you owe no one unconditional love. Take it from someone who knows - when a person brings you more hurt than happiness, you're allowed to let them go. You do not have to follow them into the dark." She smoothed her skirts before extending a hand to me. Her fingers were warm, steady, as she led me toward the stage. "Let her go, Reid, before she takes you with her."