Tag Archive for writing

With thy needle and thread (and dictionary and word processor)

A few weeks ago, Maura Cunningham wrote a fun post for GradHacker called “My Dissertation Sweater.” In it, she compared her experience writing a diss to knitting her first full sweater; although I don’t knit, I read it & nodded – both for the feelings about being a grad student in those final throes, as well as for the feelings evoked when I thought of the embroidery I do (and how it relates to my professional life). I also just finished an enormous (by my standards: 21″ x 10″ or thereabouts) embroidery project, which I’ve been working on in earnest between teaching, editing, writing, researching, and general living since July – something that’s made me reflect in general on Big Projects (like manuscripts – I’ve been throwing myself seriously into my first the past few months).

I’ve been cross stitching since I was 4. A great aunt taught me during the Thanksgiving holiday; I have the product of that first foray into needle, thread, and Aida cloth (it’s a Christmas ornament, a rocking horse with somewhat sloppy stitching – but, I was four!). I’ve drifted back to it over the years, going through periods where I finished (or almost finished) pretty big projects, periods where I would put a few hours of effort into something & then give it up, etc. I did some cool stuff in grad school – like a Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex OST album cover (this was given to a  then-SO), or a logo from Final Fantasy X (this still resides in my office). I wrote a how-to guide for Kotaku on charting & creating non-sprite cross stitch. When I got back from my research year in China, the sister of my significant other at the time was about to have a baby, and I wanted to embroider some kind of “birth announcement.” Now, if you have any familiarity with the types of kits available at your average craft store, they’re pretty sickly sweet (if you’re lucky, it’s a relatively non-saccharine version of Noah’s Ark. If you’re not, well …). So I started looking for something … interesting. Something that someone could conceivably hang on their wall at a much more advanced age & not be embarrassed of (e.g., not blocks, bears, or Noah’s Ark; something that perhaps had more intrinsic artistic value, at least as I defined it).

10550813_10100117091973801_5877238373363768657_nAnd so I discovered the world of what I refer to as “high-end” cross stitch: patterns and fibers that are stocked at specialty shops, not your local chain craft store. This includes a pretty wide variety of patterns, from antique reproductions to super-modern patterns (I tend to gravitate more towards the “antique” side of things; perhaps this is lesson 1: historians often like old things); there are beautiful linens in addition to the more typical Aida cloth; fibers go way beyond plain cotton DMCs (I myself have a great love of hand dyed, over dyed cottons and silks, where one of the real draws is the often subtle variation in shade). It’s the one part of my life where I find myself consistently drawn to the high-end, the slow-made, the handmade, the produced-in-small-quantities. The one place I will consistently shell out for the luxury of something artisan crafted (a skein of mass produced DMC cotton thread generally runs about 30 cents; hand dyed cotton, $2 or more; silks – luscious and bouncy and just wonderful feeling, a real splurge! – $6 or $7). Well, that and artisan goat cheese.  But to set aside smart-ass commentary, spending a lot of time with needle & thread has taught me a lot about myself & the ways I prefer to work, as well as some of my deep-seated anxieties and concerns.

Lesson 1: If you spend enough time with something, you’re going to constantly pick apart its flaws. 

Every time I post pictures of my embroidery on Facebook or Twitter, friends invariably comment on how pretty it is! Meanwhile, I’m sitting at home going “OH MY GOD, I can’t believe I was so lazy that I let that stitch slip by … Doesn’t anyone notice that weird blending there? Why didn’t I rip out those flattened stitches? WHY did I leave this sitting in a frame for too long, I’ve ruined it.” When you spend a long period of time with your nose pressed up against something, you’re bound to notice its shortcomings and have a hard time viewing it objectively. Although I recognize this (with research, too: I’ve played the genuine cheerleader while a friend has commented negatively on their own work, seeing that they’re just too close to view it objectively), it’s hard to get over. I’m trying hard to get over it (as I am with all these things). I am (frankly) too lazy when it comes to embroidery – something I do for fun and relaxation – to fret too obsessively about it, but my perfectionist tendencies can really stymie getting good writing done, because I’m often afraid of making a mistake.

Lesson 1.5: Getting some distance is good, and will help you see past those flaws.

Cross stitch often looks a lot better from far away than it does close up. Is anyone going to see those slightly smushed stitches when this is hanging on my wall & they’re glancing at it? Probably not. A better example is my Final Fantasy X logo, where I tried the “blended thread” technique (using two different colored threads in one needle). As it turns out, I really (really) don’t like the effect, but it’s a lot more muted (and more harmonious) when viewed from a distance, and I’ve never had anyone look at it and go “My god, that’s hideous.” I suppose it’s possible they thought it, but more likely is: they saw it from a distance and thought it looked nice, because they haven’t spent a million hours mired in it. Even I – now that it’s been many years since I spent many hours mired in it – think it looks nice from a distance. The first six months after I defended my dissertation, I couldn’t open it without crying. I was ashamed of myself for producing such a half-baked, horrible piece of scholarship (and the typos! Oh my god, the typos). With some distance, I’ve managed to come around to seeing its good points and its flaws. I needed some time away from it before I could appreciate what I had done.

wachet backLesson 2: Getting from nothing to completed work often looks kind of ugly on the backend.

There are some kinds of embroidery that are designed to be viewed from both sides equally. The “Holbein stitch” – so named because it appears in a lot of Tudor-era Holbein portraits – is one such stitch; it needed to be the same on both sides, since it shows up on collars and cuffs that didn’t just sit in one place. My embroidery, on the other hand, goes on a wall, or on an ornament, or on some other object that is going to be viewed from one side and that’s it. I try to keep things as neat as possible (carrying threads too far, or leaving excessively long tails of thread, or making knots does have an impact on the final impression from the front), but I could frankly care less whether or not it looks the same on the front as it does on the back. Some people can in fact do ultra-neat embroidery that could be displayed equally on the front or the back, but I am not one of those people. Likewise, I am not a perfect researcher or historian. I have bad habits. I am often a disaster in progress on the backend, and often feel perilously close to nervous breakdowns (friends who have been on the receiving end of one of my tear-filled ‘I am incompetent & I’m never going to be able to do this!‘ meltdowns can attest to this). But when it comes down to it, I get the job done, and get it done well (even if I do have to tell my students “Do not follow my example! Don’t do it! I’m telling you from experience!”). I’m always looking for ways to be a little “neater,” but it’s never going to be a totally smooth process and that’s OK.

Lesson 3: Mistakes happen. They’re not the end of the world, though they sure can seem like it.

10552518_10100117848058601_4105017966663198818_nI’ve had to rip out an insane number of stitches in my years of stitching. It’s inevitable: you get motoring along, you stop counting as carefully as you should, and the next thing you know, you’re half a count off and the whole project is in danger of being off kilter. In embroidering on linen, I most often count over two, which means that mistakes are not always immediately apparent (part of the image at left is half a thread off: can you see where?). It is downright painful to spend hours ripping out many hours worth of stitching (as I did on the section shown), but sometimes you can fudge and redirect, sometimes you can’t. It’s usually not the end of the world. I suppose one of the nice things about being a historian is that often, when you run into a wall, it means a shift or redirect – not a “failure.” Kind of like figuring your way out of a half-thread mistake on a piece of linen. Sometimes it means a few hours of ripping out those stitches you so carefully put in … sometimes it means figuring out where you can shift a little here, shift a little there, and …

Lesson 4: Things sometimes look stitched together to you, but it’s often not that noticeable … and just part of the process.

10623351_10100165843724901_3606760155800218901_oThe latest piece I finished was a band sampler – different horizontal bands put together vertically. In retrospect, the smart way to do this would have been to embroider each horizontal band, moving down the sampler. I didn’t do this for a variety of reasons. This means that there’s a pretty clear dividing line running through the middle of my project … or is there? I mean, it’s definitely there, but going to point 1, I’m not sure how many people would really notice (some time with an iron also seems to help this). I’ve read academic work and been able to see the “seams,” but most often, the author needs to note those for me. And when it comes down to it, few projects just spring fully formed from someone’s head – particularly a first project, often based on one’s dissertation and article(s). The author (you) is going to notice the Frankenstein aspects of how everything fits together, but the average viewer isn’t going to see those seams – or at least not to the degree that you do. And pulling things together is just part of the process.

Lesson 5: Your stash can be the best motivation to get through something.

I have a giant stack of projects I’ve stashed in anticipation of getting to them … someday. I sort through them occasionally just to give myself an idea of what comes next (and to stop myself from adding to the stash). But really, one of the biggest motivators in getting through a piece in progress is the idea of starting something new – something that’s really exciting, and has caught my attention! While I guess it would be great to take all the time in the world to see my dissertation through to its (hopeful) conclusion, I have things in my academic stash – projects I’m incredibly enthused about, but can’t get started on until this one is done.

Lesson 6: Appreciate the fact that there are wondrous things that only you are going to notice.

10155660_10100158462551831_1018454225360675027_nI ran out of a dye lot of thread halfway through the project. As it turned out, the new dye lot (of the same “color” thread) had the most glorious shade of lavender in it: I mean, really spectacular. I spent a long time just looking at the thread when I started using it (even though it didn’t “match” exactly – going back to point 4). I tried to photograph it and failed (though you can probably see a little of the variation). I loved the way the pale blue ran into darker blue then into pale purple – just exquisite. I was thrilled with the way it stitched up, and thought it added a nice pop to the project. It’s something I think most people wouldn’t even notice. But I know it’s there, and I take delight in that subtle shade shift. In much the same way, everyone’s work is sprinkled with things they – experts on whatever it is they are writing on – are going to notice, and the rest of us won’t. Friends often query after I read a draft: “Oh, did you think such-and-such part was funny? What about this? Did you notice that turn of phrase? Did you like it?” I usually answer: “Ah … no? I didn’t notice? Was I supposed to? I’m not saying it’s not clever, just that it flew right by …” Most of the time, I’m just not in on the joke, because I’m not the one that has spent a billion hours with the sources and subjects. In much the same way, I still take an unholy amount of pleasure in some of the stories I relate (“Isn’t this spat between high level Marxist intellectuals over this minor point of historical materialism as applied to the Cowherd and the Weaving Girl just HILARIOUS?”), and I just have to come to terms with the fact that they make me smile (because I’m the one that’s been wallowing in them for a period of years), and that’s enough.

Lesson 7: Take pleasure in the mundane joys of work.

Cross stitching is fundamentally pretty boring work. By which I mean: it’s repetitive. I have a pattern. I have one stitch. It is not thrilling from the perspective of changing from moment to moment. There are color changes … and the patterns can be complicated … but it’s not some crazy exciting process. And yet I take great joy in it on a number of levels. It’s productive (you can see progress!). It’s pretty. It’s soothing. It’s comfortable, and something I enjoy. Research, to me, is much the same: sometimes it’s wildly exciting, often it’s not, and sometimes it can be one hell of a horrible slog. But there’s something comfortable about it, and it is something I really enjoy (even when I’m grinding my teeth in anticipation of the end). As I’ve dug into my manuscript, I’ve found myself reminded that I do enjoy the mundane process of nosing around sources (not even things holding exciting finds: just filling in holes here and there), and I especially enjoy writing. It’s a terrifying process, but also one that reminds me of why I’m doing it in the first place – I enjoy this. I’m good at this. For all the inevitable flaws, I’ll be able to do this. It’s just a matter of transferring some of those lessons from needle and thread to dictionary and word processor.

I often feel oddly bereft after finishing large projects, be they embroidery, research, or editing - what do I do now? I like keeping projects around for a little while after finishing, so I can take a peek back and look at all the hard work I’ve done, before moving on to something else. I’ll be taking this latest piece down to the framer’s next week, but until then, I’ll keep it in a safe place to look at and touch now and again. I’m a very tactile person, though it’s not something I often get to indulge in with my research. But there’s something about running my fingers over the surface of an embroidered piece (even though you’re not supposed to; skin oils are bad for fibers!) – it’s a nice sensation, something I can’t quite describe – or feeling the peculiar weight of the fabric once a large design is mostly or entirely stitched onto its surface. It’s a wonderful, heavy feeling – the weight of progress, I guess.


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On the minor agonies & ecstasies of editing and being edited

pillow book-sei shonagonLast night, I finished a third and (hopefully – barring minor skims) final major read through/edit job on a friend’s manuscript. I’ve been a little surprised with myself: it’s been a rather emotional process, and I’m not even invested in it beyond investment in the person who’s written it. It won’t go on my CV, and it’s not like this is the project of a grad school friend, which I’ve watched from its inception. I came in at the point at which it was mostly done, marked things up, asked stupid questions, dispensed advice (as if I knew what I was talking about), wrote “clunky” a lot in the margins, and stole the techniques of my advisors, when they reminded me I was being repetitive in my prose. I frequently felt bad he was stuck with me as an editor, she of stupid questions – I could see parallels to my own academic universe, and ferried loads of books over to him (“Cite this! Look at that! This is a really important book, what do you mean you’ve never heard of it?”), but couldn’t comment much on content beyond my initial reactions (I was terribly pleased with myself upon catching a typo relating to the Crimean War: about the extent of my abilities when it comes to Russian or Ottoman history). Oh, I like this. How interesting. Reminds me of X. I’m confused. Don’t assume your readers know as much as you. I only watched the last part of the process – cleaning up a mostly final draft, being offered a contract by a press, getting edits back from the copy editor. It’s been terribly instructive, as I start plinking away at my own nascent manuscript, waiting until I’m hopefully in the same final throes.

This process of editing – this particular round, which was on a pretty tight deadline for both of us, and the stakes seemed higher than ever because it all seems so final (I assume once this version gets shipped off, that’s more or less it: what you see is what you get in hardback) – has been difficult, and made me ponder my own work and working patterns. I don’t take criticism well, by which I mean I usually want to throw up before, during, and after reading it. It’s not that I don’t like getting feedback on my work, or that I don’t incorporate ideas (indeed, I often find it difficult not to attempt a fix on all the problems reviewers point out; I want to answer all the questions – even the big broad meandering ones, not really designed to be answered so much as point towards future research possibilities – they pose). But I often read reviews with my fingers splayed over my eyes – so I can cover them if the sinking feeling in my stomach gets too much to bear. This past year, I served as a referee for journal articles for the first time, and I tried to be so very careful in my comments and critiques. But with someone I know well (or at least, better than the anonymous-to-me author of a journal article), with my pen at the ready – and knowing I have the possibility of (as we usually do) flipping through it and boiling down my main points in person – I am much less restrained. “You’re doing it again!!” I’d write in response to some individual quirk of prose that had driven me crazy on previous drafts.

Why is this here? What does this mean? Footnotes 24 and 25 are missing. This is muddled. This should be moved to your conclusion. Move this to chapter 2. Clunky. Awkward. Rephrase. Awk. What? Weird phrase. I don’t agree with your terminology. Clarify. Confusing. I don’t understand.

Things I had perhaps thought of when reading those anonymized journal articles, but wrote carefully crafted narratives – utilizing the general formula many of us try to deploy with our students, say something good, say something critical, write how they can improve next time – to counteract; narratives that softened the blow of the criticism, of that final line saying revise and resubmit, or anything less than an enthusiastic accept for publication.

My friend called the other night, right after I’d finished reading a chapter that he’d told me he’d improved greatly after a lot of work, and the conversation seemed to go something like this:

“Hey, what’s up? What’re you into?”


Of course, I didn’t actually say that (nor did I think it). He sounded tired, and a bit defeated, and I wondered if I should’ve just burbled pleasantries about all the things I liked at him. After we hung up, I sat and stared at my lap desk, with a manuscript – the written embodiment of years and years and years of work and sweat and tears and research and hopes and all sorts of things – spread over it, marked up with cranberry ink, and thought about all those times I had read comments on my work, from the advisors I both adored and was terrified of, from between splayed fingers.


My undergrad mentor has, as I’ve explained, been a veritable font of wisdom from the first years of our acquaintance (about a decade ago, which seems crazy!) to the present. Her advice and commentary while I was in grad school always came with an extra bit of weight attached to it: we went through the same PhD program. Especially in times of crisis, it can be terribly comforting to hear from someone who’s been right where you were (literally! In the same seminar room!); someone who comes in with a certain specific perspective, not simply generalized from their experience at a different institution, with different advisors. It’s pretty rare, even in the small world subfields of disciplines can be, and it was a great comfort for me, a champion worrier.

At some point after my second year, I was grousing generally about the program and where I thought I fit into it, wondering why – despite working my tail off and making some real improvement after my first year! – it seemed like there was always something else to fix, something else to do (that I wasn’t doing), and nothing ever seemed to be good enough to garner a (desperately wished for) intellectual pat on the head. She told me something I now tell my own students: there comes a point in life where you won’t have anyone – no advisors, no fellow grads (who read your work because they have to, it’s part of seminar) – reading your stuff, giving you feedback (good and bad), and being generally invested in making you the best you can be, from the earliest days of a project. So enjoy it while it lasts; also remember that you’re going to have to rely on yourself in the future, without the protective casing of seminar. And so those years of “never being good enough” are actually good training for taking a critical look at your own work, in the absence of a room full of smart people looking at it for and with you. In academia, sure, you wind up with external reviewers, or anonymous reviewers, for this that and the other (and even the anonymous ones may, in fact, know who you are, and you may, in fact, be able to figure out who they are), and you’re generally getting feedback on your work at a certain point. But this is very different than working through the early drafts with not just luminaries in your field reading them (as your advisor – someone invested in your success), but six or seven or eight other people who are in the trenches with you.

I spent my first year and a half of grad school on heightened alert, my already defensive tendencies magnified by my fear, anxiety, and shame about being the worst grad student ever (in retrospect, I was certainly not “the worst ever,” but I was still pretty damn bad on most counts). It made the peer review section of our research seminar excruciating. I was essentially told by an advisor to knock it off; that I was smart, and probably had a future, if I stopped shooting myself in the foot by being reactive and defensive. So my second year, I tried really, really hard just to be open to those sessions, not take critiques of my work as a critique of my considerable failings as an academic and human being, and soak up all those comments. The product of that was quite good, my first foray into Li Huiniang. I still hear one of my advisors saying – in response to a first or second draft of some section – “You write like you speak – stream of consciousness!” when I’m writing. That comment didn’t fundamentally alter the way I work – my early drafts are almost always waterfalls of prose and it’s just the best and easiest way for me to work, to at least start getting ideas down – but I hear that comment when I’m editing, too. I internalized all those comments, the years of hearing feedback from known, trusted people who knew my work (and more importantly, knew me), and can generally apply it to my solitary editing activities. But I do miss those voices, and the process of sitting around our familiar table (where it seems I spent so much of my twenties; certainly spent a lot of time growing up).


BerlinThe process of writing a dissertation is the first exercise in that lonely world of going it (mostly) alone, albeit with the safety net of advisors and committee. But a lot of us wind up far afield from the physical location of our grad school, and it can be isolating – the three years of being a PhD candidate were pretty miserable for me, and a lot of it boiled down to being lonely and wanting people to talk to about my work on the level I was used to from coursework. I was (and am) lucky for having a friend (also far afield from her grad school & cohort) who has been the world’s best editor. I’m pretty sure she knows my work better than I do, or can at least articulate it better!

I went to visit her in Berlin a few summers ago, and had a week of glorious weather and very long walks (she is a marathon runner; I am chubby and out of shape, but love to walk and walk and walk, especially in beautiful places like Berlin’s Tiergarten). We did a lot of walking and a lot of talking and enjoyed each other’s company; it was also good for my work. And, in a period where I routinely went weeks without leaving the house, she was my lifeline to some semblance of sanity, and also my faithful critic and conscientious editor, albeit on Skype (the Tiergarten was preferable, but one takes what one can get). She didn’t just get a singular sentence of thanks in the dedication section of my dissertation, she got a whole paragraph on my thankfulness for her work on my behalf, and the fact she exists in my life, and those times spent in the Shanghai Municipal Archives, and that we had a really wonderful golden week of walking and talking and drinking Weissbier and eating cassis sorbet, and how much I wished we could do that more often.


I talked recently with another friend about the necessity of doing things without the expectation of something in return right now (what we term “service” in the Ivory Tower). I noted I’d been thinking about it while doing this editing, and some other things this summer and over the course of this past year. I’m probably a bit too quick to say yes to things that don’t even earn me a line on my CV or on my annual review like “service,” and all those articles on the Chronicle about life as a woman in academia make me think sometimes that maybe I’m falling into that trap. But I have a hard time being extremely protective of my time – I am protective enough, but I also know myself well enough at this point to know that locking myself away with no distractions generally leaves me staring at blank walls, blank Word docs – in short, not being particularly productive despite shuffling everything off my plate. It seems that people are constantly telling me to shuffle more and more off, to focus, focus, focus!, and all I can think is how boring that would be, and how lonely, and I already went through that with the dissertation, and I think another round of that misery might well kill me.

And really, when I total up the time I spend on those minor things – saying to a colleague, “Yes, I’ll help you set up your website,” for instance – or even more major things, like “Yes, I’ll read your manuscript,” they don’t really take up that much time. I’ve poured a lot of effort into this final draft because I care about the person who wrote it, and want the final work to be the best it can be for his sake; but I’ve also dedicated so much time to it because it’s summer, and I’m flitting from task to task in any case, and I can afford to pour six hours a day into combing through prose. There’s a fixed deadline in sight; this won’t go on forever; and it would be horrendously selfish of me to say “Do it yourself.”

I don’t think saying “Yes, I’ll read your manuscript on a subject I know nothing about” last November was a sign of being saddled with or internalizing certain expectations that come with being a female academic (that we’ll be nurturing and helpful, for instance); it was more that I understand the value of having someone read your work and give you feedback. It was a kind thing to do, and I suppose it was a generous thing to do; but I’ve benefited from having people do the same for me, and it didn’t really occur to me to say no. I generally assume people will approach my requests in something of the same manner. And if they don’t – well, I know to dial back the amount of effort I’m willing to put in for them.

And I think now that even the cranky marginalia is a generous thing, possibly the most generous thing: I realize now, in a way that I didn’t then, that those years of critique, the underlined sections letting me know just how clunky my prose was, the skeptical looks when I was explaining some half-baked thesis, came from a place of really caring about my work. And in some respects, represented a certain amount of belief in my talent and potential: the path of least resistance when editing is the intellectual pat on the head, the “Yes, yes, it’s fine, fine.” But that, of course, is not what leads to any measurable improvement. And I’m very grateful for all the people over the years who have read my work with a critical eye; I hear their comments in my head now, and it makes my work – done now in a much more independent manner – better.

When I hit the last page of the conclusion, I wrote, feeling plucky and pleased with myself for having gotten through the whole thing in pretty good time:


What I maybe should’ve written was what a good book it is (despite my exasperated comments), and how I think it’s an important book, and how I hope people outside of his specialties will read it, and that I think he’s a brilliant person doing pretty singular stuff. But though all of that is true, I think my cranky marginalia is probably a better mark of the esteem in which I hold it: it’s more effort than the platitudes, true as they are.

It took me a long time to learn that. I was tickled when he told me, working on a previous draft, that he could anticipate my response: just like I can hear my advisors and professors and fellow grad students and Amanda! The fact that I carry those voices with me, all those comments written over the years, means that people cared enough about me and my work to want to make it better. It was a gift of a very particular sort, and perhaps not as immediately satisfying as concrete affirmations of my value, but irreplaceable: one of relative self-sufficiency in taking my work and making it the best it can be. Working in isolation, yet not. It’s one I’m immensely grateful for, and one I try – and largely succeed, I hope – to pay forward.

Placeholder & recent writing

From Benjamin Breen's interpretation of a 1981 photo of Hu Zhifeng as Li Huiniang

From Benjamin Breen’s interpretation of a 1981 photo of Hu Zhifeng as Li Huiniang

As I’m currently in the frantic final stages of writing my dissertation (for a 26 July defense – grad school is almost over! I still can’t quite wrap my head around it) as well as trying to get my life in order for a big move to beautiful Bozeman, Montana to take up an assistant professorship at Montana State University (I really can’t quite wrap my head around that – even though I’ve known since December, it’s still baffling and quite wondrous, and I’m thrilled with how things panned out this year), I’ve had less time to write than I’d otherwise like. But I have cranked out two pieces I was rather pleased with & they have both appeared in the past month:

The first was a reworked excerpt on a Chinese proposal, c. 1904, to “reform” the game of mahjong. The piece was pulled from my third year research paper (on mahjong & its social/cultural standing from the late Qing through the Republican period), which I have written about a few times here already. I was delighted to be included in Zoya Street‘s new effort, Memory Insufficient, an e-zine that hopes to encourage high-quality historical writing on games. With Zoya at the helm, we can look forward to a lot of good material & I hope the effort really takes off (it’s off to a splendid start, so I can’t wait to see how it develops). In any case, my piece “Mahjong as edutainment” can be found in the second issue, which is on Asian histories in games.

The second is a piece I’m particularly pleased with, on an important subject of my dissertation: the literary figure of Li Huiniang. I hardly ever say I’m happy with a piece of my own writing, but I’m really tickled with how well my recounting of the tale of Li Huiniang – moving from 1981 all the way back to 1381 – came out in “The Woman in Green: A Chinese Ghost Tale from Mao to Ming, 1981-1381.” Ages ago, Maura Cunningham put me in touch with Christopher Heaney, one of the founders & editors of a new journal of experimental and narrative history out of UT Austin (The Appendix). Chris was fantastic to work with, especially considering I was in a particularly flakey period, and the whole staff is putting out such a fantastically creative publication (I absolutely adore Benjamin Breen‘s take on one of my favorite photographs of Hu Zhifeng as Li Huiniang – a bit of his version is seen above, the original is below). I hope the piece was worth it in the end, and just like Memory Insufficient, I am really looking forward to seeing how The Appendix develops – they have already gathered some really impressive, very creative pieces in their first two issues. I hope I’ll have more fun things to contribute in the future. Getting out of the formal “academicese” box is so very valuable for us (and a blessed break from the dissertation for me).

And with that, it’s back to the grindstone. Where has the time gone?

Hu Zhifeng胡芝風 as Li Huiniang

Hu Zhifeng胡芝風 as Li Huiniang