‘A Little Life’ (Hanya Yanagihara) Review: Humanity’s Beauty Amidst Depravity


Humanity’s Beauty Amidst Depravity
(Spoiler Free) Review of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Out of the 3,000 or so books I’ve read in my 24 years of living, never have I read a novel that has affected me this deeply. It’s the most fucked up novel I’ve ever read (I felt so sick at the halfway point of p.350 that I had to stop reading and couldn’t pick it up again for 3 weeks)… and also the most beautiful.

Chronicling the lives of four friends in New York—Willem, JB, Malcolm and Jude, the last being the central character—we witness their lives from college to old age. It’s also deftly interspersed with flashbacks from Jude’s dark (an understatement) past which is revealed gradually and painfully over the 720 pages that make up Hanya Yanagihara’s brilliantly written tome and masterpiece.

If I had to describe A Little Life in one word: DEPRAVITY. Hanya doesn’t shy away from portraying the depravity of humans, rather detailing every abominable act relentlessly—and this comprises 95% of the novel. I kept getting angry, upset, even nauseous, over and over and over. So why did I keep reading? What made me persist?

Because of the other 5%. Because of its belief (albeit wavering) in the beauty of humanity. Because Hanya clearly believes in the saving power of love in the face of utter hopelessness and desolation. Because the love showered unconditionally upon Jude by his friends, especially Willem, reflects a pure and sacrificial love that is close to the truth. Because no matter how irrational it may be, no matter how little we understand why and how and what for, it’s worth living, worth fighting to live, even when logically it makes complete sense to die, to end our lives. Because even at the end of the fight (even if only slightly), there’s even a chance at redemption (even if only pretension).

Depicting such extreme and horrific realities doesn’t allow for a neutral response. The world is fucked up: this is unambiguously laid out and instinctively comprehended. We all differ in our understanding of what is “right” and what is “wrong” on the spectrum, but A Little Life produces a unanimous: ‘this is SO WRONG’. Thus explains the backlash and controversy, but also its unabashed acclaim: the former readers must have had their buttons pushed in a discomforting manner, while the latter were led to head in the opposite direction towards hope (which though faint is naturally magnified by our innate desire for grace and salvation). Either way, every reader is forced to confront the presented reality and make a response. And whatever our beliefs, whatever our stance on life, I find that the majority of us will discover we’re too damn stubborn on continuing to live to give up or succumb to despair, because we want to believe that somehow, in some way, life is beautiful.

I cannot lightheartedly recommend this novel to everyone. In fact, there are many to whom I wouldn’t recommend it at all. I give you ample warning: this is not an easy read. But at the end of the day, I’ll also say it’s worth reading, and that I wholeheartedly recommend A Little Life, that is, only if you’re ready to face life’s toughest realities and deepest questions.

Disclaimer: this book is sure to change your life, as it did mine.


‘Why do I write?’

A question I’ve often asked myself, and have tried to answer many times, e.g. “to influence others for the better” or “to improve society” or (from my most recent MA personal statement) “to challenge others through my fiction by shining light on both the beautiful and ugly aspects of society to bring about positive change” or… yet none of those ever felt complete. I felt like I was missing a vital piece—the core reason.

I’ve always loved writing, but only in my senior year in 2009—when out of the blue, my friend Lillian prophetically exclaimed, ‘You have a way with words!’—did I finally realise it was my destiny. I have an unwavering confidence and assurance that I have been called to write for the rest of my life.

Last night, James 3 from the Bible came to mind, particularly verse 8: ‘The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer.’ (The Message)

Recently, several people have noted and remarked, ‘Justin, I appreciate the way you speak. You’re always careful with your words.’ This encourages me, for I consciously aim to be careful. Our words, whether in written or verbal form, have the power to steal, kill and destroy. I have seen it happen. I have caused it to happen. It has also happened to me.

I always try to do the opposite, precisely because I deeply comprehend the terrifying power of words. ‘No human being can tame the tongue’ (James 3:8, ESV) which is wholly capable of both ‘blessing and cursing.’ (James 3:10, ESV) Since that’s the case, I view it thus as my responsibility to tame the words that are produced by my tongue.

Then it hit me, finally—call it an insight or epiphany or revelation—the answer to my own question above: ‘Why do I write?’

I write to bring life, and not death.

As a writer and storyteller, I seek to ensure that the words I pen, that emerge from my mouth, bless, and not curse.

How will that look like practically? How will it materialise? In what form, through what content?

I don’t know. It depends. It’s sure to change each time.

But for now, I am content.

(To me it was profound, to me it brought clarity. I wonder if my fellow writers can relate and understand? Please do share your thoughts and conclusions, dear friends.)

Stories of the Third Culture Kids

READ Research in English at Durham

Transect-LogoIn a multicultural age, people’s passports do not necessarily convey the full picture of their multiple origins, ethnicities, or national identities. Rather, the lives of Third Culture Kids inspire more complex stories that cross cultures and languages. A new magazine offers a home for fiction and poetry of the TCK generation, transecting the barriers of traditional English publications. We caught up with the founders, Justin Lau and Alexandra d’Abbadie.

Where did you get the idea for Transect from? How did the editors come together to find a vision for this new magazine?

Justin: As with all my best ideas… in the shower! In my final year
as a Durham English undergrad in Jan 2015, I received a Facebook
message out of the blue from Alexandra, a fellow Durham English
student whom I hadn’t met before. She had found my blog and wanted to
connect so we met for a cuppa at Vennel’s Café –

Alexandra: Possibly the…

View original post 1,053 more words

Top 10 Books Read in 2015

A little late, but better late than never: here are my top 10 books I read in 2015 (not books published in 2015 but simply read)! I posted a similar list for 2014 after I read 174 books that year. A bit too ambitious to match, but 103 books in 2015 isn’t too shabby either.


Going through my Goodreads Reading Challenge 2015 list elicited several ‘Oh yeah, that one!’ Since finishing my BA in June, I was free to read whatever books I wanted so I struck a few famous ones (hits and misses) off my to-read list, as well as focusing more on world literature in order to learn how people write about non-Western cultures, characters and dialogue. It’s proven immensely helpful for my own planning and writing of my novel set in Japan.

Notable book moments that come to mind:

  • Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman: Overture came to a close in 2015, which started off promising (I mean, I didn’t expect to live through a Gaiman-penned Sandman series!) but was ultimately disappointing. Maybe multiple readings will help me appreciate it (just like the original run).
  • Many friends whom I respect often cite C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy as their favourite books. I’m a fan of Lewis, growing up with Narnia and enjoying his theology books, e.g. Mere Christianity. Imagine my disappointment when I find Out of the Silent Planet a drag. But it can only get better, right? Or so I thought. Perelandra was so boring that I finally gave up halfway through. Tedious reads where the story is compromised by the excessive and blatant theological themes. I know Philip Pullman was directing his criticism towards Narnia, but it applies wholly to the Space Trilogy as well (though Pullman did no better in the last two books of His Dark Materials trilogy, with his anti-theistic agenda compromising his storytelling prowess).
  • Finally got around to reading Junot Díaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao which was recently named by US critics as the best book of the 21st century so far. I appreciated what Díaz attempted to do, particularly envious of his unabashed usage of Spanglish and impressed with him pulling it off (I still have a dream of writing the first Japlish novel). But ultimately, it fell flat for me—a bit all over the place, relying more on gimmicks (e.g. elaborate footnotes, obscure sci-fi/fantasy references) than the actual story. Also surprised to discover the novel’s about his family more so than Oscar Wao himself.

Top 10 books I read in 2015… here we go!

1. Caleb Williams (aka Things as They Are; or The Adventures of Caleb Williams) (William Godwin, 1794) [Read: Jan 2015]

514u96iY4JL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I chose to read this novel for my Literature of the Romantic Period module (avoiding all the poets on the course meant having only a handful of novelists to choose from) and was unexpectedly entertained by it. Unveiled through Caleb’s eyes as he discovers the horrific past of his master, Falkland, it turns into a cat-and-mouse game of life and death. A remarkably thrilling and engrossing political-mystery novel that is eerily contemporary in its presentation of the psychological complexities of humankind. But then again, I suspect it seems contemporary because the corruptness of human nature has always remained unchanged.

2. Possession (A. S. Byatt, 1990) [Read: Jan 2015]

possession-book-coverOne of the most ambitious novels I’ve read. I don’t quite know how Byatt managed to create such a work so epic in scope and variety. Following the pursuits of two academics who examine a previously unknown romantic relationship between two fictional Victorian poets, Byatt blends poetry and prose, letters and diaries into one deftly interweaving, postmodern novel (historiographic metafiction). In fact, she even composed all the poems for the fictional poets—that’s 1700 lines of original poetry! And you’ll be surprised at just how passionate it is: Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte’s letters are utterly romantic and heartbreaking. Oh, the feels.

3. Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces (Angela Carter, 1974) [Read: Mar 2015]

198487Some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever read. It’s purple prose, all right, but it’s good, pleasing purple prose. I picked this short story collection up because I’d heard Carter had lived in Japan for a while, making it the setting of several stories. Needless to say, I was surprised to find just how dark, twisted and creative her imagination is. Carter intertwines exquisite writing with content wholly disturbing, even shocking, yet does it most elegantly. Unforgettable stories. Not for the fainthearted.

4. Lighter Than My Shadow (Katie Green, 2013) [Read: Mar 2015]

51IO4rcznuL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_An autobiographical graphic novel about Green’s struggle with eating disorders. Brutally honest and unflinching, I was riveted from start to finish, all 500+ pages of it. The simple artwork helps to soften the impact of the heavy content, but it’s still gut-wrenching. The most beautiful and powerful graphic memoir I’ve read since Craig Thompson’s ‘Blankets’.


5. Letters & Papers From Prison (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1951) [Read: Apr 2015]

51MBMXsepSL._AC_UL320_SR190,320_Bonhoeffer left behind a powerful legacy characterised by his firm, unwavering faith in God. In this collection of letters to his family and friends, you get a rare glimpse into his poignant moments of vulnerability and heightened sensitivity in the final days leading up to his death at the hands of the Nazis. His correspondence with his family is lighthearted in order to reassure them, but it’s only in his letters to his closest friend that you see his raw, genuine state of emotion. Revealing doubts and struggles which you won’t find in his other polished theological works, his profound observations of life and human nature will challenge your own way of living a life of faith.

6. TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age (Andrew Byers, 2013) [Read: May 2015]

418JiEfkRRL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Never have I read a theology book with such beautiful, poetic prose. I have the honour of knowing Andy (we went to the same church in Durham) and I’ve always been impressed with his flowing rhetoric when he preaches. It contains valuable insights and a fresh perspective on how God uses various forms of media, aka TheoMedia, to communicate with us. More conceptual than practical, but provides a solid foundation upon which to build and formulate methods of engaging with contemporary media issues.

7. number9dream (David Mitchell, 2001) [Read: Aug 2015]

6820Speaking as someone who grew up in Japan, this is the best novel written in English that’s set in contemporary Japan. Remarkably observant for a foreigner and thoroughly entertaining. Mitchell worked in Japan for several years as an English teacher, also marrying a Japanese—which would explain how he knows and incorporates so many satisfying trivialities and minute details that only those who’ve lived in Japan would understand. Unique but masterful prose as always, he’s crafted a fast-paced entertaining story of boy trying to find his father. Bravo, David Mitchell.

8. Paradoxology (Krish Kandiah, 2014) [Read: Sept 2015]

61RccGC9VUL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A brilliant and invaluable book exploring how Christianity’s multiple paradoxes (and there are many!) can build up, rather than be detrimental, to our faith. Wholly accessible without compromising theological depth. The chapter subtitles alone (e.g. ‘The God who is consistently unpredictable’, ‘The God who is indiscriminately selective’, ‘The God who determines our free will’) reveal that Krish Kandiah (President of London School of Theology) isn’t afraid to tackle controversial issues head-on – and he does it with a surprising degree of sensitivity, insight and success. Highly recommended.

9. Half of a Yellow Sun (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2006) [Read: Nov 2015]

book2--310x465Hands down, best book I read in 2015. It’s utterly brilliant. From the very first line, Adichie’s masterful, natural prose grabs your attention and refuses to let you go even after the novel is finished. Set in post-colonial Nigeria in the 60s during the Biafran War (civil war), it’s a novel that begins with a warmhearted, humorous story of cross-cultural love in the fascinating context of Nigerian culture, quickly descending into shocking chaos and destruction. I suspect the reason the war atrocities are so hard to read about is because you quickly develop an affinity for the characters. Wholly responsible for inspiring my own novel-in-progress, I love this so much I wish I’d written it.

10. Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2013) [Read: Dec 2015]

71mRvAXV8fLYou know you’re witnessing one of the greatest writers of our generation when two of her books end up on your top 10 list. I immediately ordered Adichie’s latest after Half of a Yellow Sun, eager to devour Americanah after hearing so much about it. It didn’t quite match up to its predecessor but neither did it disappoint, containing some of the most observant, explicit commentary on cross-cultural racial tensions. There’s not much of a story, serving more as a medium for justified criticism regarding ignorant perceptions of race in America, but for me it was a delight to read. Sure to be an important work in this age where more and more people realise there’s more to the world than just the West, it was refreshing to see Adichie dealing courageously with issues usually taboo and left silent. But not anymore—this is a voice willing and worthy to be heard.

Honourable Mentions:

(11.) The Art of Fiction: Illustrated from Classic and Modern Texts (David Lodge, 1992) [Read: Apr 2015]

69926Indispensable for readers and writers who want to delve deeper into the art of literature. Lodge is an acclaimed novelist who wrote one of the funniest books ever (Small World: on last year’s list), but he is also first and foremost an academic. He draws from fiction all throughout history and in short, concise, accessible chapters, explains different literary techniques demonstrated by the greatest writers in the English language. Fascinating.

(12.) 火花 (又吉直樹, 2015) [Read: Aug 2015]

41IUgeZHdNL._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_I haven’t read a Japanese novel in a long time, but it seemed fitting to try this novel written by a famous comedian (Naoki Matayoshi, part of the comedy duo Peace) whom I’ve respected and which ultimately won the Akutagawa Prize, one of Japan’s most esteemed literary awards. The story follows two comedians who struggle to make it in the competitive world of entertainment, discussing the philosophy of comedy. It divided critics upon its release, but I personally enjoyed it especially since I’m well acquainted with and a huge fan of Japanese comedy. I actually ended up reading it in one sitting (can’t remember the last book I read throughout the night).

(13.) The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes, 2011) [Read: Aug 2015]

The_Sense_of_an_EndingI’ve known of Barnes for a while but just hadn’t gotten around to reading his works. Finally picked up his Man Booker Prize-winning novel and found myself thoroughly engrossed. His prose is natural and smooth, each word chosen very carefully and meaningfully. Containing mystery elements, I enjoyed the unreliable and confused narrator’s recollection of his childhood as we discover, along with him, memories and secrets initially meant to stay buried but were bound to emerge; for we all know, the past always catches up to the present.

(14.) Money, Sex and Power (Richard J. Foster, 1985) [Read: Nov 2015]

9780340413937Foster doesn’t present theoretical fluff but rather theologically sound, wholly practical advice for right Christian living regarding the widely discussed and debated topics of money, sex and power. Handling these controversial issues with sensitivity and authority, this is a must read for all Christians. Personally, Foster’s teaching on sex, chastity and fidelity is the best Christian instruction I’ve ever found. Just brilliant.


Agree or disagree with any on my list? What were your favourite books you read in 2015?

Semantic Change in the English Language: Evolution of Words

‘Want to grab a pint next weekend?’

‘You mean this weekend?’

‘No, I mean the weekend after that… next, next weekend… two weekends from now…’

I don’t remember the number of times I’ve had this sort of conversation. It’s common. It’s frustrating. Which is why Ivan Cash and Jeremy Knight have created a new word to describe, not this coming weekend but the following, in order to eliminate the usage of the ambiguous ‘next’ altogether: oxt.

‘Want to grab a pint oxt weekend?’

‘Yeah, I’m keen!’

Simple. Easy. Revolutionary. Still confused? Here’s a graphic from their Oxt Weekend website (visit their site for an interactive graphic):


And it’s not just for weekends. ‘Oxt Friday’ means the Friday after this Friday, and ‘oxt week’ means the week after this week.

Yes, it may seem a bit odd, but if it catches on, it’ll be just one of many words that have been created and inserted into the English lexicon. Flexible and malleable is our unique, bastardised and beautiful language.

I wrote an essay examining various types, examples and motivations of semantic change in my first year of university (already 3 years ago!—forgive the poor writing). Have a read—it’s a fascinating dissection of a language many speak without realising how complex and tumultuous its evolution has been!


Semantic Change in the English Language: Evolution of Words
by Justin Lau

In order to grasp someone’s attention immediately, as in with the opening line of an essay or the first words of a speech given by a presidential candidate, one must generally employ words with a commonly accepted meaning by the majority. This is perfectly sensible if one desired to efficiently communicate with another without misunderstandings. Gustaf Stern asserts that the speaker must conform ‘to the ruling language system, in order to be understood by his hearers’.[1] But throughout the history of English word meanings have undoubtedly changed, be it drastically or not, and this has certainly impacted the way people speak today. Even T. S. Eliot, in his poem entitled ‘Burnt Norton’, observed the manner that ‘Words strain / Crack and sometimes break’.[2] To an assured extent, words have indeed undergone incredulous transformations which threaten the security of ‘correct’ definitions. But why does such a phenomenon exist? Stern states: ‘Every man has […] thoughts and feelings to express that are peculiarly his own’.[3] This is one of many theoretical reasons for the flexibility of language and the freedom accompanying a multitude of words previously understood differently. Semantic change can be classified into groups of specific types as evidenced by various examples of commonly used words that have evolved over time. Though the list is not exhaustive, one can easily see the more characteristic types permeating extensively through English and culminating in unforeseen processes of word meanings. Although there is no one explanation behind the inevitable change of meanings, it is possible to infer important motivations for the language shift and spread.

It is firstly important to comprehend the definition of semantic change. The English language constantly changes, whether daily or over long periods of time, but semantic change refers specifically to the change in meanings of particular words. According to Joachim Grzega and Marion Schöner, this differs from lexical change in that ‘no formally new creation occurs, but an already existing form is extended in use.’[4] In other words, semantic change is not the formation of completely new words never used before, but rather a transformation of currently used words. Stern simply describes it as ‘when a word is employed to express a meaning which it has not previously expressed’.[5] It shows the acceptance of a continually changing language system apparent even in individual words, as well as suggesting the possibility of any person being capable of personally altering such a widely spoken language on a greater scale.

Bethlem_Royal_Hospital_Main_building_view_1 copy

Bedlam © Wikimedia

Now that the definition of semantic change is clear, one can now examine specific words that have changed over time. Many words currently used with a particular meaning did not possess the same meaning, or even connotation, years ago. One of the most widely accepted change types is the extension of meaning, which involves ‘the widening of a word’s signification until it covers much more than the idea originally conveyed.’[6] Take, for example, the word lovely, which according to the Oxford English Dictionary, described someone ‘deserving of love or admiration’ during the period of Old English till the mid-nineteenth century.[7] Now it has extended, or generalised, into a word with a wider scope, used very often to describe anything as delightful, enjoyable, and simply nice. If lovely had retained its original meaning, one would most likely hesitate in using it to describe a nice chair, unless he were truly infatuated with it. Bedlam conveys another occurrence of extension: originally the name of an asylum for the mentally ill belonging to London’s Bethlehem Hospital in the sixteenth century, it has now come to mean any scene of madness or lunacy.[8] One can sense the emergence of its new meaning stemming possibly from both convenient usage as well as social allusions. It is rather unfortunate for the hospital’s legacy to transpire in such an infamous manner.

As expected, the opposite of the widely encompassing function of extension is narrowing, which in contrast restricts the range of meanings.[9] Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable examine the word doctor: though it technically refers to ‘learned man and women’ in ‘theology, law, and many other fields beside medicine,’[10] it is now commonly presumed to mean the person in a white coat who prescribes drugs when people are ill. Girl, in its Middle English form, referred to a young person of either sex, but now solely means a female child or young woman.[11] Leonard Bloomfield gives another example of a narrowed word: meat. In Old English, mete denoted all forms of food, especially evident in the King James Bible, which described the herbs and trees as meat to eat:[12] ‘I have given every green herb for meat’.[13] But meat subsequently came to indicate ‘edible flesh’,[14] strikingly reduced to a mere partial definition as compared with its initial capacity and application.

Metaphors are literary figures of speech that serve to compare and present a similarity between two separate objects. This device, interestingly enough, also contributes to the patterns of semantic change. Lyle Campbell describes metaphor as an extension of word meanings to entail ‘a semantic similarity or connection between the new sense and the original one.’[15] For example, root was originally associated with a plant, but it is now often used in correlation with words, algebra, and even to mean ‘source’.[16] In the nineteenth century, the word broadcast referred to the scattering of seeds,[17] but now many people only know the modern, metaphorical sense: to disseminate through radio or television by ‘the diffusion of radio waves through space’.[18] A lot of semantic change has occurred not just over the centuries, but also in recent years. The slang word drunk ‘involves being saturated with liquid’; thus the terms ‘pissed’ and ‘soaked’ are used likewise.[19] These words prove the extensive variety of connotations one single word can conjure up, demonstrating the rich vocabulary of English.

Hoover © Wikimedia

Hoover © Wikimedia

A change type often linked hand-in-hand with metaphor is metonymy, which unlike the former does not involve two completely separate objects, but rather concepts that are ‘near each other in space or time’[20] and are ‘neighbours’.[21] These new senses are not entirely foreign to the original meanings, but rather an addition of related associations. The Old English word cēace initially referred to the jaw, but as time went on, the word cheek meant the side of the face below the eye.[22] Campbell provides another example with the word tea, which ‘in addition to the drink’ can also allude to ‘the evening meal’.[23] Grzega and Schöner elaborate upon a more specified type of metonymy known as eponymy, which happens when ‘a proper name is taken to serve a concept’.[24] For example, the company Hoover was such an important producer that its name generally refers to any type of vacuum cleaner;[25] similarly Kleenex now refers to any facial tissue.[26] Subsequent brands will unmistakably have a difficult time replacing already accepted names with their own.

Two further types of semantic change are degeneration and elevation. Degeneration, also termed pejoration,[27] results in words losing particular meanings, and at times, even attaining a less favourable and negative sense.[28] Elevation, or amelioration,[29] has the opposite effect, in which words attain an increasingly positive meaning as compared to its original understanding.[30] Vulgar is an obvious form of degeneration where presently it describes someone as offensive and uncultured, as opposed to centuries ago when it simply referred to anything in customary practice or belonging to the common people.[31] Another famous example is knave, which now mainly means a crafty rogue and a fool, but comes from the Old English cnafa, meaning a boy or servant.[32] On the other hand, the Old English word cniht, which also meant a boy or servant, underwent the counter effect of elevation and resulted in the word knight, a noble and proud attendant to the King.[33] It is intriguing just how two words initially meaning the same thing ended up on opposite ends of the spectrum. Praise, which simply meant appraise ‘put a value on’, now means ‘value highly’.[34] One hopes God will understand that people praising him intend to glorify, and not to blasphemously put a price on his worth.

In-depth examinations of the words sophisticated, gay, and literally bring to light interesting insights about initial meanings and the fascinating processes thereafter. Sophisticated first meant ‘adulterated’, ‘not pure or genuine’, and even ‘falsified’; the OED provides an example from 1673 by John Dryden: ‘I love not a sophisticated truth, With an allay of lye in’t.’[35] Nowadays, lies are rarely associated with sophisticated people; though it previously ‘had an evaluative meaning, implying disapproval’, the word ‘has now lost its disapproving sense’.[36] Dick Leith reveals that in the 1960s, the word was ‘used to describe technologically advanced weapons […] with the sense “elaborate” or “highly refined”.’[37] The change was soon apparent and widespread, causing the definitions of ‘refined’ and ‘cultured’ to be identified with people.[38] Denise Robins wrote in 1957: ‘She preferred smooth sophisticated young men like Keith who amused and flattered her.’[39] Interestingly, what is now used as a compliment could easily have offended many just a few centuries ago. Eliot’s description of words changing because of ‘merely chattering’ voices is illustrated by this term,[40] where the original meaning could not resist its modification brought about by consistent and evolving use through a universal epidemic of small talk and chatter.

Gay is widely known as a term for a ‘homosexual’ but many are also aware of its earlier meaning from the fourteenth century: ‘light-hearted’, ‘cheerful’, ‘merry’.[41] Yet most are oblivious to its seventeenth century meaning, where ‘light-heartedness’ was soon ‘interpreted as frivolity’;[42] thus this inclination for ‘social pleasures’[43] resulted in the use of gay to describe ‘people who lived immoral and dissipated lives.’[44] This downward path only progressed rapidly. ‘A gay woman was a whore’ in the nineteenth century, and so it came to be that ‘a gay man’ meant a homosexual.[45] Not only are people ‘scolding’ and ‘mocking’ others with this term, but they ‘assail’ the word itself,[46] shaping its meaning to fit their very purposes of derogatory disdain. Gay is a word tragically endorsed by societal pressures, converting from one of pleasant connotations to one filled with malevolent spite.

© Flickr

© Flickr

The extreme developments that produce completely opposite meanings as originally proposed is most recently beheld in a word familiar to all: literally. What was designed to mean ‘in a literal, exact, or actual sense; not figuratively, allegorically’ now signifies exactly the reverse: ‘metaphorical […] to be taken in the strongest admissible sense’.[47] Michael Israel says this is ‘self-contradictory, insisting on a literal interpretation when […] a figurative one is intended.’[48] Indeed, it is not uncommon for one to hear a friend exclaim, ‘I am literally dying of hunger!’ One would, in response, only nod in detached acknowledgement, but only because of the word’s present status. This is precisely an example of one of many words, as Eliot accurately depicts, which ‘Decay with imprecision’.[49] One can only speculate about its constant misuse despite common knowledge of the paradoxical meanings, and furthermore hypothesise with uncertainty which radical direction it eventually takes.

The reasons for the boundless semantic changes in the English language cannot be simply explained by one sole factor. In fact, studies on semantic change are multiple and ceaseless as there is rarely a unified answer. Then what can prevail as a rationale for, as Eliot poetically illustrates, why words ‘will not stay in place, / Will not stay still’?[50] Encouragingly, there exists a predominantly accepted conclusion about the occurrence of shift in meanings and the motivation behind them. Andreas Blank rephrases the words of George K. Zipf: ‘the main motivation for speaking is to achieve success.’[51] Humans speak with the intention to communicate, to influence, and to accomplish their goals. Elizabeth Closs Traugott and Richard B. Dasher agree, saying the issue is about ‘purposeful negotiation’.[52] Stern reinforces this idea,[53] and even Knud Schibsbye says change occurs when speakers make an effort ‘to get his thoughts across.’[54] It might take ages before somebody discovers the exact motivation behind a changing meaning. But whether the change was gradual or sudden, someone intentionally thought it more convenient or beneficial to use a word in an unconventional way. As for the dispersion of new meanings, the spread can be accredited to people, who upon hearing the new usage believe the word to be the ‘normal way of using speech’ and begin a process of imitation.[55] Thankfully, not everyone doubts and questions the meaning of words used in daily conversations, allowing for the peaceful progression of English.

The repetition of this phenomenon allows the English language to expand, alter, and continually develop. The rich diversity of its vocabulary is astounding upon each renewed observation. It is exciting when meanings change and new words come into play, for it opens up a fresh approach for one to use common words to express common issues in an experimental, inventive manner. As words undergo an evolution, people’s worldviews expand simultaneously. Words incite emotions and have the power to influence tremendously. Meanings have expanded, narrowed, gone through metaphorical and metonymical changes, yet have all undeniably carried power. The study of semantic change will continue for years to come, especially since new meanings are formed even in this modern age. Israel argues that the ‘notorious misuse’ of the word literally is only but ‘a natural development from its orthodox usage’ and that it is ‘a case of semantic change in progress’ that ‘still has a long way to go.’[56] One will intriguingly follow such words to see which paths they take as they develop due to their constant exposure to the complex introductions of innovative usages. Never will people tire of such an elaborately heightening sense of vocabulary. The use of this beautiful English language to communicate our fears, aspirations, and dreams is bound to last for ages.


[1] Gustaf Stern, Meaning and Change of Meaning: With Special Reference to the English Language (Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1975), p. 174.
[2] T. S. Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’, Four Quartets, last accessed 10 March 2013, <http://www.coldbacon.com/poems/fq.html >.
[3] Stern, Meaning and Change of Meaning, p. 162.
[4] Joachim Grzega and Marion Schöner, ‘English and General Historical Leixcology: Materials for Onomasiology Seminars, Onomasiology Online Monographs vol. 1 (Germany: 2007), p. 41.
[5] Stern, Meaning and Change of Meaning, p. 163.
[6] Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable, A History of the English Language, Fifth Edition (Oxon: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 2009), p. 308.
[7] Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, last accessed 10 March 2013, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/110598 >.
[8] OED, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/16879 >.
[9] Baugh and Cable, A History of the English Language, p. 309.
[10] Baugh and Cable, A History of the English Language, p. 309.
[11] OED, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/78475 >.
[12] Leonard Bloomfield, Language (London: Henderson & Spalding, 1955), p. 425.
[13] The Bible: Authorized King James Version, ed. Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), Genesis 1: 30.
[14] Bloomfield, Language, p. 426.
[15] Lyle Campbell, Historical Linguistics: An Introduction (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998), p. 258.
[16] Campbell, Historical Linguistics, p. 259.
[17] OED, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/23507 >.
[18] Robert J. Jeffers and Ilse Lehiste, Principles and Methods for Historical Linguistics (Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1980), p. 128.
[19] Campbell, Historical Linguistics, p. 258.
[20] Bloomfield, Language, p. 427.
[21] Elizabeth Closs Traugott and Richard B. Dasher, Regularity in Semantic Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 27.
[22] OED, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/31127 >.
[23] Campbell, Historical Linguistics, p. 259.
[24] Grzega and Schöner, ‘English and General Historical Leixcology’, p. 42.
[25] Grzega and Schöner, ‘English and General Historical Leixcology’, p. 42.
[26] Jeffers and Lehiste, Principles and Methods for Historical Linguistics, p. 128.
[27] Thomas Pyles and John Algeo, The Origins and Development of the English Language, 4th edn. (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993), p. 245.
[28] Baugh and Cable, A History of the English Language, p. 310.
[29] Pyles and Algeo, The Origins and Development of the English Language, p. 246.
[30] Campbell, Historical Linguistics, p. 263.
[31] OED, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/224849 >.
[32] Campbell, Historical Linguistics, p. 261.
[33] Bloomfield, Language, p. 427.
[34] Pyles and Algeo, The Origins and Development of the English Language, p. 246.
[35] OED, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/184763 >.
[36] Dick Leith, A Social History of English (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul: 1983), pp. 76-7.
[37] Leith, A Social History of English, p. 74.
[38] OED, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/184763 >.
[39] OED, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/184763 >.
[40] Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’, <http://www.coldbacon.com/poems/fq.html >.
[41] OED, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/77207 >.
[42] Leith, A Social History of English, p. 76.
[43] OED, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/77207 >.
[44] Leith, A Social History of English, p. 76.
[45] Leith, A Social History of English, p. 76.
[46] Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’, <http://www.coldbacon.com/poems/fq.html >.
[47] OED, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/109061 >.
[48] Michael Israel, ‘Literally speaking’, Journal of Pragmatics, 34/4 (April 2002), 423-32, at p. 424.
[49] Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’, <http://www.coldbacon.com/poems/fq.html >.
[50] Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’, <http://www.coldbacon.com/poems/fq.html >.
[51] Andreas Blank, ‘Why do new meanings occur? A cognitive typology of the motivations for lexical semantic change’, Historical Semantics and Cognition, ed. Andreas Blank, Peter Koch (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1999), 61-90, at p. 63.
[52] Traugott and Dasher, Regularity in Semantic Change, p. 25.
[53] Stern, Meaning and Change of Meaning, p. 172.
[54] Knud Schibsbye, Origin and Development of the English Language II: Morphology and Syntax Verbs With an Excursus on Semantic Change (Copenhagen: Nordisk Sprog- og Kulturforlag, 1974), p. 11.
[55] Stern, Meaning and Change of Meaning, p. 177.
[56] Israel, ‘Literally speaking’, p. 424.



Primary Sources:

  • Baugh, Albert C. and Thomas Cable, A History of the English Language, 5th edn. (Oxon: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 2009).
  • Bloomfield, Leonard, Language (London: Henderson & Spalding, 1955).
  • Campbell, Lyle, Historical Linguistics: An Introduction (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998).
  • Grzega, Joachim and Marion Schöner, ‘English and General Historical Leixcology: Materials for Onomasiology Seminars’, Onomasiology Online Monographs vol. 1 (Germany: 2007).
  • Jeffers, Robert J. and Ilse Lehiste, Principles and Methods for Historical Linguistics (Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1980).
  • Leith, Dick, A Social History of English (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul: 1983).
  • Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, last accessed 10 March 2013, <http://www.oed.com/ >.
  • Stern, Gustaf, Meaning and Change of Meaning: With Special Reference to the English Language (Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1975).

Secondary Literature:

  • Blank, Andreas, ‘Why do new meanings occur? A cognitive typology of the motivations for lexical semantic change’, Historical Semantics and Cognition, ed. Andreas Blank and Peter Koch (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1999), 61-90.
  • Eliot, T. S., ‘Burnt Norton’, Four Quartets, last accessed 10 March 2013, <http://www.coldbacon.com/poems/fq.html >.
  • Israel, Michael, ‘Literally speaking’, Journal of Pragmatics, 34/4 (April 2002), 423-32.
  • Pyles, Thomas and John Algeo, The Origins and Development of the English Language, 4th edn. (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993).
  • Schibsbye, Knud, Origin and Development of the English Language II: Morphology and Syntax Verbs With an Excursus on Semantic Change (Copenhagen: Nordisk Sprog- og Kulturforlag, 1974).
  • The Bible: Authorized King James Version, ed. Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
  • Traugott, Elizabeth Closs and Richard B. Dasher, Regularity in Semantic Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

© Justin Lau, 2015

Transect Magazine: Behind the Scenes (Part III: Launch and Beyond)

Transect Logo[Read Part I in which I detail the humble beginnings of Transect, a new international literary magazine that showcases fiction (short stories, poetry) written by multiculturals/cross-culturals/TCKs from all over the world, launched by me and Alex. Read Part II in which I detail the long, arduous but fun process all the way to the launch.]

We officially launched Transect and its first issue on Friday, 31 July 2015.

It was beautiful. It is beautiful. Yes, it’s our own website which means there might be a slight bias… but it turned out far greater than we had ever imagined. And feedback was immense. People were well impressed and congratulated us on a job well done. For us, it was far from a tedious job but rather truly a passion project—it was quite possibly the proudest thing that either Alex or I had ever done, to the point where actual tears were shed.

[Issue #1: Birth] consists of 10 works of fiction—7 short stories, 3 poems—as well as 10 accompanying pieces of artwork by people representing an impressive total of 9 countries: Armenia, Finland, Ireland, Japan, Mauritius, Singapore, UK, USA, Zimbabwe! (We’ve certainly nailed the ‘international’ aspect down.)

A snippet from the introduction of [Issue #1: Birth]:

The pieces in Transect’s debut issue explore the conflicting affairs faced by those who have multiple birthplaces and experience multiple births. From arid, dusty African lands to wintry Finnish forests; from the cobbled streets of Oxford to the rainy coasts of Japan; from transitory frustrations to fleeting drama at airports—be prepared to be transported to lands beyond your imagination.

Whet your appetite? Well, what are you waiting for? Go check out [Issue #1: Birth]! You’re bound to find a story or poem that resonates and moves you, hopefully allowing you to ‘question and challenge the (un)defining importance of your very own birth.’

I’ve got to squeeze in a plug, don’t I? I wrote a story entitled Ashes in the Wind for Transect’s first issue as well, a farcical tale of a baby being born on a plane. I can’t give anything else away, but it’s short, humorous, shocking and entertaining (so people tell me!). Please read it and let me know what you thought!

Special shout-outs to the artists who contributed their gorgeous photographs/illustrations that accompany each piece. It makes the website look extremely professional and downright stunning.

It’s been such a pleasure and honour to work with everyone involved. Not once did Alex and I receive any complaints; it was full cooperation from start to finish. Thank you everyone who contributed in some way (you know who you are)—we couldn’t have done it without you, and that’s the truth.


What makes our literary magazine unique? What makes it stand out from the rest? Well, like I mentioned in Part II, we didn’t know any lit mags dedicated to showcasing multicultural fiction. Because we embrace everything cross-cultural, one of the unique aspects of our magazine is that we allow other languages. Here’s a description from our About page:

All writings are based in Englishes, but we allow the usage and incorporation of different languages, giving multilinguals the freedom to tell their vibrant stories in various or mixed tongues.

Don’t get me wrong, this lit mag is based in Englishes. But wait, you might ask… what do you mean by ‘Englishes’? Simple. There is no more just one single defining ‘English’ anymore. In fact, the English language is being shaped more by non-native speakers than native speakers, resulting in what is known as World Englishes (read my essay explaining this fascinating phenomenon here). So yes, English is our common unifying language, our lingua franca, but we’re also not stubbornly limiting people’s writings to just British English or American English, which would defeat our very purpose of being multicultural. In fact, you can write in any form of English you want as long as you specify which one in your submission.

The stories we can tell in English are vast, but imagine how many more stories you could tell, how much more you could expand if you were able to use other languages! In this day and age, there are more multilinguals than monolinguals. I speak English and Japanese, but I also speak Japlish, a hybrid of the two. Alex speaks English and a French Creole wholly distinctive of Mauritius. All of these language forms manifest different tales.

As long as you provide translations, you’re free to include words, phrases, sentences, even paragraphs in languages other than English. What does that look like? Check out Lines of Flight (Finnish), La Naissance d’Une Langue (French), Across Rivers and Pillars (Japanese) for works in our first issue that have taken advantage of this and utilised other languages. It makes for a unique and intriguing reading experience.


On 31 July, the day of our launch, we hit a whopping 982 views after sharing Transect widely on social networking sites and media. It’s been 18 days since our launch and we’ve passed 3,500 views! Thanks to everyone who’s shared it. We’re relying mainly on word of mouth for the lit mag to spread and gain recognition. You can find us on Facebook and Twitter, so be sure to like/follow us.

Just to point out a few highlights since our launch:

Neil Gaiman Twitter

  • Neil Gaiman, global literary superstar and one of the most prolific authors on Twitter with 2.28 million followers (and one of my favourite authors as you’d know if you read my blog because I mention and reference him all the time), gave us a retweet shout-out! Utterly astonished, couldn’t believe my eyes. Such a pleasant surprise, thanks Neil!


  • Neon, a renowned and well-established lit mag, added us to its list of literary magazines! I’d already been indebted to its founder, Krishan Coupland, whose page on how to submit to lit mags helped me when I first started out (his invaluable advice inspired my post: ‘Submitting to Literary Magazines‘). Be sure to check out the full list for even more great lit mags.


So what next? What future goals or ambitions do Alex and I have for Transect? Well, being completely honest, it’s not money or fame we’re chasing. I truly believe we wouldn’t have gotten this far if that was our main aim. Rather, we sincerely wish to provide an accessible platform for cross-cultural writers to showcase their fiction. That’s it. If Transect starts making profits or becomes world renowned, we’re not going to complain. But we’ll never lose sight of our original goal.

So right now, we’re planning and taking baby steps. Currently, we’re working on producing a PDF booklet of our first issue so people can download it for free. We also plan on printing a few copies to distribute to certain people who might be able to spread the word (please let me know if you’d like one and could possibly help us with our marketing efforts).

We’re currently open for submissions for our forthcoming second issue revolving around the theme of ‘Sea’. If you’re a multicultural writer or artist, do submit your cross-cultural short stories, poetry and artwork! Please read the guidelines and quote prompts for further details.

Finally, we need your help. Please spread the word about Transect. Share it on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc. Share it with your friends and family and loved ones, your acquaintances and neighbours and random people you meet on the street or at the café. Share it with people who love to read, who love to write, who love all things multicultural. (Share it with people who don’t like to read and write—this might do the trick.) Share it with people whom you think should broaden their mindset and expand their worldview.

But most of all, enjoy Transect. Get lost in the stories, be mesmerised by the poems, be dazzled by the artwork. If you come away with a new perspective, feel challenged or inspired, or learn something new—we’ve done all right, we’ve done something right.

Thanks for reading!

Transect Magazine: Behind the Scenes (Part II: All Work and All Play)

Transect Logo

[Read Part I in which I detail the humble beginnings of Transect, a new international literary magazine that showcases fiction (short stories, poetry) written by multiculturals/cross-culturals/TCKs from all over the world, launched by me and Alex.]

When I asked Steph, founder of Denizen, for advice on how to start a lit mag, she mentioned that many others with the same idea had already asked her previously. From what I gathered, very few or none of them had ultimately materialised—as such, the opening was still there. Alex and I knew—to the best of our knowledge—that there wasn’t particularly a standout lit mag aimed specifically at showcasing fiction written by people like us: international, multicultural, cross-cultural, Third-Cultural, etc. (Whatever you want to call us, really.) So that was our initial goal: to get it going before someone else did.

We picked a mighty fine time to start this passion project in February… just a month before our 12,000 word English Literature dissertations were due. Being both practical and ambitious, we decided upon a launch date in the summer, either July or August. So while we were slaving away, pounding out words for our dissertations, we did what we could with initial planning.

A special shout-out to The Library (the pub, not the actual university library) with its bottomless coffee and copious amounts of tea, and Bills in Durham where Alex and I met every now and then to discuss and solidify plans. Don’t worry, if we ever make it big, we won’t forget our roots.


First: we needed editors. Alex and I were the general editors, but we couldn’t do it alone. This would require an editorial team of high calibre who would be free and committed. We both hand-picked a few of our editor-friends to form this special and highly proficient group hailing from around the world (we’re an international magazine, we had to uphold that to some extent) whom we were utterly delighted to work with (for full bios, click here):

Transect Editors

Jack Caithness, Katja Garson, Tom Morcom, Yasser Ali Nasser, Cheriel Neo

Next: we needed writers. We asked the editors to contribute a piece each since they were also solid writers. But we needed more… how were we going to get people to submit to a lit mag that didn’t exist yet? Simple: once again, we carefully hand-picked them.

Writers will always have writer-friends. In fact, writers must have writer-friends. Otherwise, we’ll all solitarily fade into nothingness with no one to spur each other on. And being both writers ourselves, Alex and I knew several quality writers who were very willing to contribute to Transect‘s first issue.

Finally: we needed a theme for our first issue. This wasn’t difficult. It was Issue #1, we were just starting out, so naturally ‘Birth’ seemed wholly appropriate. It’s also a theme thoroughly embedded in the life of a nomadic multicultural. To help the writers, we also picked 3 quotes to serve as prompts for inspiration in case the theme was too broad for people to grasp (see ‘Quote Prompts‘).

After submitting our dissertations mid-March, we sent out a message asking the writers to submit their short stories or poems by the end of May. As the deadline drew closer, we extended it to mid-June, till after exams had finished for all our sake. And before we knew it, we had 10 pieces to begin reading and editing! To our pleasant surprise, although it took up a lot of time, the editing process was thoroughly enjoyable. I won’t delve into too much detail so as not to bore you (do ask me directly if you want to find out more), but one thing I will say: Google Docs.


Last but not least, we needed a name for our lit mag. A title. Something snappy and smart, catchy and easy-to-remember.

This was probably the toughest part of the entire process.

We took a look at the most famous lit mags: Granta, Ambit, Popshot, Litro. We made several observations: all were two-syllabic and had a hard ‘t’ sound. Snappy and catchy.

We tried thinking of two-syllabic words that related to multiculturalism. We tried creating new words, for example (and these are bad): Anglobe (a hybrid of ‘Anglo’ since our lit mag was based in Englishes and ‘globe’), Cultune (a hybrid of ‘culture’ and ‘tune’ as in ‘to tune in with something’), Miscell (I don’t even remember… short for ‘miscellaneous’? Something to do with ‘cells’?).

After 2 months, we were still stuck. We didn’t want to compromise especially with something as important as the title. We knew we’d both immediately just know it was right when we heard it. But we kept digging and digging to no avail.

One day, I asked my good friend, also a writer-editor, Seymour, if he had any brilliant ideas. He said he’d have a think and later sent me 3 possible titles.

And there it was.

I sent it to Alex who immediately agreed wholeheartedly. It was perfect. Its definition—’to cut across or make a transverse section in’—tied in with our desire to cut across borders. Interestingly, opinions divided strongly when we asked others. Some liked it, some hated it. (‘It reminds me of “sects” and “insects” and I hate both,’ said one friend.) But one thing was clear: if it provoked such strong reactions, it was bound to stick in people’s heads.

Thus, the name Transect was born.


We set our launch date as 31 July. The month before our launch went by in a blur. In addition to the editing process, we needed to design and create our website. We bought our domain through Bluehost that brilliantly integrates with WordPress, which we knew we wanted to use for its simplicity and professionalism. We bought a WordPress theme called Blink from Codestag. And we got my good friend and absurdly-talented graphic designer/photographer, E. Devin Vander Meulen II, to design Transect‘s logo:


It’s flippin’ gorgeous, beautiful and perfect.

Finally, we asked a few photographer/illustrator friends to contribute accompanying pieces of artwork to the 10 written works.

And what do you know? After 6 months of planning and hard work (but so much fun, it honestly felt like all play), we were ready to officially launch Transect.

[Continued in Part III!]

Please do check out Transect Magazine. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter. We launched our [Issue #1: Birth] featuring 10 quality pieces of fiction (7 short stories, 3 poems) + artwork (photographs, illustrations) by people representing 9 different nations! We’re also open for submissions for our [Issue #2: Sea] so if you’re a multicultural writer or artist, please submit!