Worldbuilding: Clouds and Caves

I know I’ve threatened so much to get back into writing, but this time I’m actually taking a whole class about it, so hopefully something will come of it!

The class I’m taking (via Atlas Obscura, a site I’ve fangirled about for a long time) is focused on Facts-Based Worldbuilding, which right away intrigued me. I’m writing and developing multiple shows right now which involve elaborate worldbuilding, so the timing of getting that email notification about the course couldn’t have been more excellent. I’ve also struggled a lot with writer’s block (hence the vast silences on this here blog, and my previous and long departed one). I think part of it is that I’m so hung up on needing a plot and storyline – without really recognizing that the worldbuilding aspect is usually what lures me in. I’m hoping this will kick my ass AND help me rediscover my love of writing – it’s not a chore, it’s a form of escape! (And literally the only one I have access to, in these COVID-times).

Here’s an exercise we were given during our first class. It was very brief – we had about 5 minutes to come up with this world! – but I kind of like some of what I came up with, and want to keep workshopping it. So here it is:

The prompt: a world which has thick clouds that block out most outside light.

How did it get that way? A series of nuclear explosions as well as ill-timed volcanic activity. (Basically this is a post-apocalypse Earth).

No one presently alive really knows or remembers this, but a lot of folklore alludes to some terrible event brought about by moral misdeeds, resulting in the sky exploding.

The physical environment is mostly dark, icy tundra all over the planet’s surface. Some parts are more arid than others. But for the most part, everything is dark and cold, except on occasion when there is a brief break in the clouds and flashes of bright sunlight shine through.

There is not a huge diversity of flora and fauna that lives on the surface. Most of the plants are ones that thrive in low light, eternally damp environs. There are many species of fungi.

One of the sentient species of this world (what came after humans, essentially) are creatures that are kind of Gollum-like in terms of physique. Huge eyes that are fairly nearsighted. Not much muscle mass or fat. Elaborate nostril systems for filtration of impurities in the air, both on the surface and below.

Below is where this species mainly prefers to dwell, although they are required to come up to the surface every now and then for the limited supply of oxygen up top. These creatures inhabit homes in elaborate cavern structures. They mostly subsist on fish and algae. Movements are low, slow and deliberate – to us, this would look a lot like skulking around, but to the creatures this is totally normal and reasonable walking.

Culturally, they have developed a fear of the outer surface, even though they need to come up to survive. The wind is a source of fear and anxiety; rock and earth is where they draw comfort. In many religions and spiritual traditions, “hell” is conceived of as a place that exists in the sky above – a bright, windy horror. In contrast, “heaven” can be found in the heart of the planet, closer to its core. Only worthy ones are chosen to descend deep into the core.

“Flighty, airy” people are considered to be not just unreliable, but deeply immoral and suspect. Those who transgress against societal norms are often flung out of the caverns or, in circumstances prompting capital punishment, yeeted with extreme prejudice off a cliff.

Nightmares

The light turned red, so I pulled my bicycle to a stop at the intersection. A woman materialized on the sidewalk corner next to me: her hair in a beautiful head-wrap but the rest of her clothes rumpled and dirty, her face wrinkled in what seemed like a permanent rage. She set her giant plastic bags down on the ground and laser-stared at me, the only person around not encased in a car. “You were in my dream last night,” she yelled. “You tried to be my friend. Why would I be your friend? You murdered my kid. You make me sick.”

“Be well,” I said, rolling on my way through the still-red light. “Uh huh,” she said, her voice thick with disgust as she continued, her screams eventually receding into the city and construction soundscape.

As I rode on my merry way to get an arm-length swab inserted into my nasal cavity, I wondered about the possibility of some reality existing in which I had, in fact, murdered this woman’s child. A vivid image of me throttling a toddler, lurking within the dead and dying dendrites of this woman’s brain. As I rolled onwards down the hill, I thought about the starkly disparate realities she and I inhabit.

I often think about these divergent pathways. The City and the City, one of my all-time favorite novels and probably the one that has had the most impact on my thinking, increasingly feels less like fiction. If you haven’t read this – I definitely recommend that you do, especially if you’re a fan of speculative fiction. The main conceit is the setting: it’s like if East Berlin and West Berlin, instead of being side-by-side and separated by a physical wall, were co-located in the same space. Right on top of each other. Citizens from Ul-Qoma and Beszel can literally physically be standing right next to each other, sharing the same air, but functionally existing in very different worlds.* The distinction between the cities is enforced very strictly, by some vague unseen force referred to as “Breach,” and the mechanism by which Breach functions is left ambiguous.

The actual plot itself – a murder mystery – is pretty boilerplate as far as murder mysteries go (dead girl, grizzled inspector rebelling against authority), but the fractured city and its rules I found endlessly fascinating. How would it even work? Short of magic or forcibly blinding people, enforcing such a boundary seemed frankly ludicrous – how could even the most oppressive government regime stop its citizens from seeing what was directly in front of them?

Kolkata was where I first realized the feasibility of unseeing a whole other segment of society. It was jarring to me with an outsider perspective, but within days, as a mere tourist, I too began to unsee the many street beggars. Then I moved to Baltimore, another fractured city. I could walk out of my apartment in a cut-up Bolton Hill mansion with manicured gardens, cross one street and walk right into a world of vacant boarded up buildings (ghosts from ’68), shattered glass, and thin wiry junkies frozen in mock statuesque stances. I started to keep track of the many cross-hatched areas (places of adjacency or near overlap between cities). The Black Butterfly and the White L are Baltimore’s Beszel and Ul-Qoma.

The city I inhabit is worlds different from where this woman dwells. In some places, the curtain that separates the two cities is paper thin, and light peeks through, in a distorted way. I, the murderer of her child, am hopefully long gone from her mind.

Later, I came home and read this article about people inhabiting a truly different planet than either me or this woman. In this magical realist world, the pandemic is fake and Donald Trump is somehow the savior of trafficked children. Truly, I have no words for this.

But yes – I now no longer think that the concept of people just willfully refusing to see things is fantasy.

* in these pandemic days, I wonder how in the hell a pandemic would play out in a fractured city setting. Crime solving was impossible enough – how people would even begin to approach contact tracing completely blows my mind!

Djalia

Once again here in the COVID times I sit here teary-eyed, and this time it’s because of the passing of Chadwick Boseman.

I never see movies. Most people I meet get quickly exasperated with me about this. “What do you MEAN you haven’t seen” x or y movie? For me and my limited attention span, it’s hard to get me to go sit still somewhere for 2+ hours.

I saw Black Panther in theaters twice. I thought it a magnificent experience. I don’t think I can describe how energizing it feels to see people of color – I’m not Black. But I hadn’t realized how much I had, deep down, yearned for portrayals of heroes and fantasies reflecting non-white experiences. Not just a token character here or there, but a fully realized world. (Also, I nearly shouted in the movie theater the first time, at the car chase scene in Busan, in a truly bizarre fit of homesickness. 한국 사랑해요!).

If the film had that much impact on me, a thirty-something Asian woman, imagine the impact on a young Black child growing up in this world.

I’ve read that Chadwick had been diagnosed with cancer in 2016 – meaning that he had likely been on set and filming as the cancer ravaged his body. He knew how important this role was; here is a shining example of someone literally giving all they could, to art:

I can’t quite fully deal with knowing that Chadwick knew he himself had cancer, while writing letters to these children. It’s too much.

Lately I’ve been interviewing people about death. (It’s development, for a show, which is what I love to do and what I always do). In COVID times, people can disappear from life and you just get a text, and maybe there’s a Zoom funeral with everyone in boxes muting and unmuting, and it can feel vaguely unsatisfying. But we also have more time than we did, time to sit in our feelings and process the rift.

When my grandmother died – when we went through the days long Buddhist funeral process and when the monk gestured towards our heads, signifying that we could remove our headbands – I felt the moment that she stopped being my earthly grandmother, the woman who fed me bread with laughing cow cheese and laughed so softly, and moved on to becoming my ancestor.

Now Chadwick Boseman joins the Djalia, the collective memory of a people. Where the distinction between past/present/future holds less tyranny than it does here, where we are told time and time again that racism and fascism are relics of the past and to just get over it. Here, where Black people are shot dead in their houses, immigrant children are torn from their parents and locked in cages. Where I’m a virus.

I’ve been an atheist since the age of 14. I was a lot more rigid about that in my high school and early college years, having formed almost a sort of identity about it, in response to being surrounded with mostly white Catholic and Protestant types all throughout school. These days, my views are a lot more syncretic and fluid. I read tarot. I have a happy Buddha statue on my mantle that I pray to sometimes, when the anxiety gets to be too much. I give offerings for the dead.

In some way or other, the ancestors do watch over us. I hope to add my art to the collection, and to fight for the visions that our ancestors revealed to us. I hope to live the rest of my life in a way that does justice to their time on earth.

Homesick

Woke up this morning feeling homesick – a feeling I’ve had off and on ever since shelter-in-place started. On its face, this feeling is so patently absurd – how could I be homesick, when I’ve never been anywhere but home for these past six months? – and I actually love being here, and am grateful that the sequence of events in my life led me to spend so much time in this beautiful apartment with gorgeous bay windows filled with plants and sunlight.

When I visualize longing in this way, it consists of scenes I’m not sure I’ve actually seen in real life. I’m pretty sure they’re pastiches of different elements I have seen, and filed away in the deep recesses of my brain – an alley way here, a corner of a building, a fire hydrant and a post box and maybe a utility pole. An illegible street sign. Steam rising from vents. Shadows of a couple, merging and separating. A streak of sunset. Smells of sugar, of garlic, of something heavily fried, briefly contaminated by the smell of raw sewage. Puddles. Looking up in the middle of a busy train station. The awkward moments where my eyes meet those of a stranger’s, and we briefly make connection before moving on. The ineffable something created by the combined chemistry of strangers passing through the same space. Faraway conversation, laughter.

The world has shrunk so much, and my previous lives feel like a distant dream. I’m at peace with it. I’ve been so marvelously lucky to have experienced even an eighth of the things I have seen on my thirty-seven years on this Earth. I have my memories, both real and imaginary.

I sure do still miss home, though.

Blender Pizza

Last night, as I was doing my usual doomscrolling of social media before bed, a cousin on my dad’s side reached out to me. “Hey is your dad all right? We’ve been trying to reach him. Tell him to call Uncle in California.” At first I thought maybe something had happened to Uncle, and then realized that my relatives were worried about my dad! A bit alarmed, I called him and got this weird robot message: “the number you have dialed has calling restrictions.”

I messaged him and emailed, texted my stepmom – nothing. I figured it was late, so I probably wouldn’t hear from him till morning; I told my cousin this and tried my best to go to sleep. I really don’t talk to my dad that often, though I had just texted him last Wednesday. He’d sent me a truly cheesy heart necklace for my birthday, in the style of one of those Facebook t-shirts, with every cheesy and generic dad sentiment crammed into wavy font lines, and it was simultaneously sweet and cringe. I stashed the heart pendant into one of my many cluttered drawers, next to random USB cables. I had texted him a thank you, but was too busy arguing with people on the Internet to give him a proper call back.

Of course, 2020 being the WORST YEAR EVER, the worst case scenarios kept cycling through my mind. Could I send one of my cousins or aunties to go check on him in Wichita? What if both he and my stepmom had COVID, and then exposed my aunt? What if a serial axe murderer had gotten to them? It’s not like that sort of thing is totally unheard of in Wichita. I kicked myself for not ever taking a photo of the list of emergency contacts in my dad’s cupboard, which included his neighbors’ names and phone numbers.

I made a hasty, not-thought-through plan to drop off Oliver at my sister’s and drive cross country. A bit of a rough solo trip prior to COVID, but in these times? I don’t love the idea of being Asian and having to stop at truck stops in redneck areas to get gas or use the bathroom. (Silver lining, gas is cheap?)

In the morning, I tried to do yoga and not feel immense daughter-guilt at not having called him. I was trying to do downward dog and holding back tears, when suddenly the Facetime call came in. It was my dad, and he was fine – he had just done a very him thing and had blocked ALL incoming calls because he was getting tired of robocalls about the upcoming election. “Okay, Dad, but you had us all worried there.” 😂

We then caught up – he’s doing fine, except his face is still a bit swollen from some tooth extraction he had the last time I’d talked to him. Again, given that we don’t chat that often, I found this a little alarming. He’s been understandably wary of going in for procedures in COVID-times, but he does have a check-up scheduled at least. He complained about eating nothing but soup and Ensure for the past few months. “I miss meat,” he said. (He can’t have fresh veggies very easily either, but doesn’t miss those).

“I tried to eat pizza,” he said, and when I quizzed him about how, he mentioned that he had blended a pizza in the blender. Pepperoni and grease and all. “How in the world did that taste?” He said “it all right, not too bad,” which can’t be at all true. He is also thinking about trying the same experiment, but with a banh mi sandwich, which he also misses.

Despite being third-party witness to this food crime, I’m ever grateful to have my dad here on Earth – still being, you know, my dad. 🍕

“Ask, and ye shall receive”

Two things in my head this a.m.:

  1. When I go to blog, my fingers retain the memory of my old defunct and dead badmetaphor, and still type that in. I wish I had done a more responsible job of backing that data up…
  2. This amazing breakdown between “Ask” and “Guess” culture. It describes two types of communication styles – “Ask” being the more direct, straightforward, ask for what you want; “Guess” being the more indirect. I grew up in “Guess” culture for sure, and that’s the communication style I’m most comfortable with. But communicating that way has caused me so many issues in my relationships throughout my life. Lately I’ve been pushing myself to be more of an “Ask” person, but it definitely feels psychically draining, like an introvert trying to be an extrovert. Having this vocabulary and perspective would have been supremely helpful ten years ago, if not even earlier.

Clouds

Michelle Obama, our First Lady Forever and Queen, mentioned recently that she is suffering from a low-grade depression.

Off and on since the start of the pandemic really hitting here, I’ve felt waves / phases of just overwhelming fatigue. At first I was convinced it was a COVID-19 symptom that hadn’t been discovered yet, but a friend of mine pointed out that it was probably depression, and yeah, he’s probably right?

It feels like being trapped in very dense cotton. I have things to do but my body and my mind won’t cooperate. It’s frustrating, or really should be, but instead of the feeling of frustration, there’s just a big ol’ void of nothing.

I feel extra empathetic towards anyone I’ve ever collaborated with or worked with who has gone through this, and still pushed through. This is…not great! These waves usually pass, though, and that’s something to hold onto.

Addendum

I miss blogging! It’s kind of nice to have a safe space to vent and curate my thoughts, and/or vomit them into the aether, for passersby to read or not (most likely, not). Anything tagged “detritus” will be just stuff that’s brain vomit, a demon I had to let seep out via jabbing a tamping iron in my head. Anything that’s “longform” will be things I thought about over and over again, and will probably have a minimum of 1,265 post edits. You can maybe guess which one this is before looking at the tags.

On the Blog Again

I’ve been making some changes to the layout of this site, mainly to get it portfolio ready. I’ve only been dragging my heels about this, for a year? To document all the art and things I’ve been doing. The biggest hurdle being the feeling that this site must be fully formed, sprung from my forehead a la Athena; meanwhile I’ll put any damn thought that flits across my mind on Zuckerbook. Instead of my own site, which I pay to maintain? Because of course that makes sense.

Look for more content in this space! (And please don’t be mad at me if it’s not here, and I fall through again. It’s…a challenging time.)