Footnotes from the Void

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Footnotes from the Void is a collection of meditation and dispatches from Kuala Lumpur: pseudo-literary, rambling, and always irregular. 

I’ve written a newsletter on-and-off for the last four years as part of a personal creative practic and a belief in creating the space you want to see for your work. My newsletter is interested in covering deeply local issues from a personal perspective, while also offering a look into Malaysian life.

This newsletter used to live on Tinyletter, until I moved it to Substack. I will be looking to gradually move the archive onto this site, but if you would like to read pieces from the original Tinyletter archive, I recommend starting here: 

read the most recent letters below ︎︎︎

Letter to Al #2: “communion” 

some thoughts from "On Immunity", by Eula Bis

Hello! Welcome to Footnotes from the Void. This letter to my friend Al, who writes the After Tutup newsletter, as part of an experiment in sustaining friendship through correspondence and response.

To read Al’s previous letter, go to this link then subscribe to receive future updates.

Dear Al, 

Don’t you ever wish we lived in far less interesting times?

I feel like everyday a new, terrible thing happens and what follows on is a scramble to make sense of it, to find a way to patch a wound and snuff out infection before it sets in. I am thinking a lot about infection and pain and vaccination (more on that later), and in these panorama-dingdong times, the questions and aimless thoughts are peaking to the point of being nearly overwhelming.

You asked me in your last letter what I had to face, and it’s taken me a while to come up with a good answer to it. I think today, in particular, I am facing the lack of care we have in our community. Everyday a new wound; each week, more unrequited love. More intentional and intended hurt. It’s sobering, but I suppose your Camus would say this is what makes “love of life”.

You turned 30 the other day, and we had a virtual birthday party.

It was so much fun to sit together and hear each other’s voices, and I was thrown back to that same day one year before. Do you remember? I was falling in love with someone terrible then, and we had a party in that swanky hotel suite; we stood elbow-to-elbow slicing cheese, and it was so hot outside, and then there was V’s muddy, melt-in-your-mouth chocolate cake. I was wearing a bronze skirt, and everyone sat higgledy-piggledy all about the room, talking about nothing. The air felt electric and soothing, you could fall asleep knowing you were safe and well-loved.

Which is all to say, happy birthday. I love you. We’re here still.

Image: “Dr Jenner Performing His First Vaccination” (1796) by Ernest Board. Dr Edward Jenner was one of the first doctors to begin inoculating people against the smallpox virus. In the painting, a white man pierces a young boy’s arm as his mother holds him still.

You’ve probably seen the many Instagram Stories I’ve posted about Eula Biss’s “On Immunity”. It’s such a weirdly prescient book to read now, despite it having been written back in 2014. At the time, Biss was responding to the H1N1 influenza that was spreading quickly throughout the USA, and her son was still a young toddler. Throughout the book, Biss grapples with the implications of vaccinating her child, of the meaning of vaccines and inoculation in our collective cultural and social consciousness. There is so much within the text that speaks to our current moment, but the central question Biss continually asks is: what do we owe to each other?

She writes:

If we imagine the action of a vaccine not just in terms of how it affects a single body, but also in terms of how it affects the collective body of a community, it is fair to think of vaccination as a kind of banking of immunity. Contributions to this bank are donations to those who cannot or will not be protected by their own immunity. This is the principle of herd immunity, and it is through herd immunity that mass vaccination becomes far more effective than individual vaccination.

The words “immunity” and “community” do not share a root origin, but it’s impossible not to sense the connection between the two. Without the collective, individual vaccinations have little to no effect. “Herd immunity”, despite what Boris Johnson’s wayward policy might suggest, is not something that can simply take place without the active participation of the citizenry, and I don’t mean that word in relation to things like the state, or passports. I mean “citizen” in the ancient Greek sense: ownership and responsibility and in relation to one another.

In Shakespeare’s Roman plays, there are the main characters and then there are the collectives. The main characters—generals, kings, mutineers—are always conscious of that living breathing mass. The many are more important than the one, Shakespeare seems to imply, and each character is constantly worrying over how to address the many. In Julius Caesar, Brutus and Mark Antony are not trying to speak to each other, to convince the other of their innocence—the subtext of the former’s guilt is plain to see—it’s the crowd on the edge of rioting who matter. When the Titus ignores the citizens’ desire to crown him in Titus Andronicus, he sets off a bloody chain of events. 

To read more, click here ︎︎︎

sidenote #3: “the greats”

today is fake, but i love you. 10/10, highly recommended.

i actually intended to write a bunch of anti-valentine fiction but the week got away from me. so have these (kind of funny???) fragments instead.

One year ago, on this day, we danced on a rooftop overlooking Kuala Lumpur, and my friend who was also the DJ was playing that absolute bop, “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” (close your eyes, and imagine me bopping to it as I write you this). It was exactly one week after Chap Goh Mei, or the Chinese version of this day. I was with my friends Al and Nine and Juan (who I ache with missing). I was also with my friends Deb and Erin and Shah and this American guy whose name I think was Chris who I met in a bar a month before—we got drunk together as we bemusedly watched our friends flirt and (eventually) make out—and at some point there was a drag queen show. We danced madly. Sweat soaked through the tiny crop top and mini skirt I wore.

Image: The Matyrdom of St Albans (not St Valentine; there were no good pics, soz). St Albans was punished for protecting a Christian priest. Apparently when the executioner cut his head off (which, in my opinion was a pretty easy way to get off), his (the executioner’s) eyes fell out. Which tells you everything you need to know about martyring people. Do not recommend. (Source, vis a vis Trinity Library Dublin)

I’m still wondering whether maybe-Chris managed to remain in the city. American as he was (I think), Chris was one of the greats.

I left after midnight but then I’d head over to another party in Damansara Heights where another friend was hosting a party. That one was different because I was definitely the youngest person in attendance, but also someone tried to pole dance with a drainage pipe (don’t recommend this), a bunch of people were trying to play beer pong (everyone was drunk, so I also don’t recommend this). At some point, someone got really high, touched a ghost pepper then his eye (so I really don’t recommend this), and I ran around looking for eyedrops for him, and then a gigantic door fell off its hinges.

Around 3am someone kissed me in the dark, where no one (or everyone) could see. Highly recommended.

That guy wasn’t one of the greats (strongly not recommended), but Al and Nine and Erin and Shah and Chris (Chris!) and Bel and Naz and Jung and a bunch of the other people wearing Hawaiian shirts, collars opened to the navel—they were all the greats.

Which is all to say that if you have to endure this goddamn fake-as-fuck “holiday”, I recommend you get yourself a rooftop, a view, some beers, some ride-or-dies, someone’s fancy house, a creaky door three times your height, a drainage pipe, and the tiniest crop top you can find.

And your greats. Get your greats and have a dance party amid the heat and the dark.

To read more, click here ︎︎︎

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