Ethos' 2021 Favourites (Vol. 1)
I hope the past year has been kind to you, or if not, that these final few months will be.
Here at Ethos, we're returning to our tradition of rounding up our favourite things of the year. In an uncertain, increasingly exhausting time, we've turned to things that make us feel, nostalgic things that we used to love, and things that ground and nourish us for a more hopeful future.
We hope they bring you some warmth too!
I spent a lot of time this year listening to Halsey’s 2019 Live album, “Badlands – Live at Webster Hall”, in which they perform their entire 2015 album, with long, heartfelt “talking breaks”, to the people who grew up on and with Halsey. There’s something so cathartic about live music; someone exposing every inch of their tired soul to an audience of hundreds, and millions more listeners at home. 2021 for me has been a year of being stuck deep in messes, of periods of intense happiness over constant nagging emptiness, and it’s been helpful to process my own emotions through someone else’s raw anger, sadness and complete honesty whenever I can’t find it in me to be vulnerable.
On long commutes home, I alternated between their albums in anticipation for the 2021 masterpiece, “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power”. In it, an older Halsey sings about themes and concerns far different from their earlier albums about being young in America. Yet the pain in each song is more condensed, more focused, more visceral and complex. Grief and heartbreak are no longer about fleeting lovers, but over the anticipated pain of losing one’s partner and child. They continue to toe the line between self-destruction and self-preservation–a line I myself have lost completely–but with a confidence that they will be okay. This is an artist who’s been through the wringer over and over and has always, will always, come out okay.
Even while crying to gut-wrenching music, a part of me is incredibly happy to have good music that moves me so. It’s gory, it’s painful and honest, but it’s hauntingly beautiful. The album ends with “Ya’aburnee”, an Arabic word that describes the hope that one will die before another person because how unbearable it would be to live without them. “Letting all my insecurity/ Devour me with certainty/ That love is just a currency/ So take my pockets, take me whole/ Take my life and take my soul.” Wouldn’t it be lovely to spend love like water, freely and knowing one’s love only nourishes and could do no harm?
Additional plus points: The album is produced by Nine Inch Nails members Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, so it’s experimental, it’s gritty, it’s “alluring and spectral”. Dave Grohl of Nirvana/Foo Fighters plays drums for the song “honey” and it is a m a z i n g and answers the question “what if Halsey did punk?”, which is all I ever wanted and didn’t even know it. Give it a listen if you want to sit with your grief, but also hope for things to get simpler and better.
One of the fondest memories I’ve made the past 2 years has been watching a shaky camera bootleg of the Spongebob Squarepants musical over video call with one of my best friends (it was unironically great!). I’ve always liked musicals because I love to feel feelings and get emotional, and musicals are precisely about that–emotions, ideas and things that are so great that they cannot be said, they must be sung.
After watching that, I had a renewed interest in hunting for the next musical soundtrack that I’d become obsessed with, and I found Hadestown. The soundtrack is more than enough to paint a rich picture in your head because it’s a fully sung-through musical, and my goodness, the song-writing and vocal performances in Hadestown are SO GOOD! Despite its name, this is a retelling of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice (with Hades and Persephone featuring too) which fleshes out the characters and adds layers and twists (like its jazzy, Depression-era setting) to the original myth through beautiful storytelling and lyrics. Whether you have a casual interest in mythology, doomed love stories, or just want to feel sad and feel hope, I recommend listening to the soundtrack from start to end here on Spotify. Have a good cry!
Games: Dragon Quest XI
For my Ethos Favorites pick this year, I’m going to go with one of the best games I have played in recent memory. I’ve sunk over a hundred hours into this game, and it was my first committed venture into a JRPG since the likes of Golden Sun back on the Gameboy Advance.
Dragon Quest is a Japanese video game franchise that has been around since 1986. The first entry in the long-running series, Dragon Quest, is arguably the most widely accepted candidate for being the first JRPG title ever. It established the basic formula for subsequent Japanese console RPGs.
What really drew me to this game at first was the familiar art style, which was done by Akira Toriyama–the same manga artist that created Dragon Ball. The free and really, really extensive demo also helped tremendously in finally convincing me to spend about 26 SGD to get the full game. The game itself had fairly simple mechanics that I quickly picked up on, and the low difficulty made it comforting to just hop on and play after work. The memorable characters and quirky monsters that populated the world made for a very enjoyable experience through the game’s storyline. I also really liked the graphical direction that the developers had chosen, as it just looked really crisp and vibrant on my PC. All things considered, it was just really nice to be immersed in a fantasy world for a while again.
I’ve never successfully kept any plant alive or grown anything edible in my life. I’ve always thought that I just didn’t have green thumbs. But Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass has made me realise that perhaps it’s because I’ve been disconnected from the natural world. Kimmerer says: “People often ask me what one thing I would recommend to restore relationship between land and people. My answer is almost always, ‘Plant a garden.’… A garden is a nursery for nurturing connection, the soil for cultivation of practical reverence. And its power goes far beyond the garden gate—once you develop a relationship with a little patch of earth, it becomes a seed itself.”
One day, my mother brought back an oyster mushroom farming kit from NTUC Fairprice, sourced from Kin Yan Farm. We spent the next few days taking turns to spritz the spore bag four times a day with water. It didn’t take long for little buds to sprout from the spore bag. A day after the sprouts appeared, we woke up to a bouquet of pink oyster mushrooms fanning out like the skirt of a flamenco dancer’s dress. I’ve never felt so nourished and grateful for the flourishing of life. That evening we harvested the fungus and cooked it in a hearty stew.
My admiration and gratitude for mycelium is what will carry me from this year to next. They say that plants can speak to each other, and I believe that. Trees in a forest can communicate with each other because they are interconnected through underground subterranean networks of mycorrhizae. If they share nutrients and carbohydrates through these fungal networks, I wonder what other secrets they share. Fungi is what makes our ecosystems, they keep the world going. I may not have a garden yet, and there is much to do to protect our earth, but the seeds (or spores) are there—a quiet, unseen strength—and I intend to nurture them.
On a rainy evening, browsing in a bus full of books, Denise of Closetful of Books recommended me Tomorrow is Beautiful by Sarah Crossan, an anthology of “poems to comfort, uplift and delight”.
In one of the mornings that followed, I encountered this poem that spoke to me, and what I would like to speak to you:
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
From Traveling Light: Collected and New Poems. Copyright 1999 by David Wagoner. University of Illinois Press.
To seeing and finding,
Wen-yi's Chosen (and the Beautiful)
Read: Nghi Vo's Gatsby retelling
Like a lot of other people, I read The Great Gatsby for school. Half the point of Gatsby is that all these rich people kind of suck, actually, but I still found myself drawn to Jordan Baker, a young woman who doesn’t quite fit. She’s often pivotal yet mostly off-page, and appears largely as a fling for Nick and as Daisy Buchanan’s best friend. Jordan defies a lot of the gender roles and romantic problems that govern Daisy and the other women—she’s androgynous, she has flings but no apparent intention of settling down, she’s headstrong and caustic. So when Gatsby’s copyright expired and one of my favourite authors, Vietnamese-American writer Nghi Vo, announced a speculative Gatsby retelling by way of Jordan Baker, I had the book pre-ordered the second I saw that cover. (Look at the cover!!)
It seems like every IP is getting a remake right now, but I think, particularly for classics, literary adaptations are most meaningful when they converse with the original. So much of Gatsby is about secrets and double lives and hidden identities; here, Vo takes Jordan’s ambiguous marginality and amplifies it: her Jordan is a queer Asian immigrant, a Vietnamese child adopted into America’s elite who simultaneously does and does not belong. Vo’s Prohibition-era New York is gripped by dark magic and liquid demoniac—Gatsby may or may not have made an actual deal with the devil—and the magic is largely atmospheric, underscoring the decadent danger and hedonism of the age. Jordan, however, also sees ghosts (like a real Southeast Asian) and possesses a paper-cutting magic from her homeland, one that sets her apart but ultimately also helps her reconnect with her roots and reclaim herself. Here, Jordan and Daisy's friendship gets depth and time to shine; Gatsby's obsessive allure has a darker edge; Nick even has a personality.
Mimicking Fitzgerald’s stylings and following the original plot beat for beat, Chosen feels less like a reinvention than a broadening, casting light on the dark corners and exploring questions that already existed in the original. Vo's Jordan has my entire heart and Chosen did all that I want a reinterpreted classic to do: open it up to previously buried perspectives, explore flipsides, give me a reason to care, and drip it all in dark, dazzling magic.
Looking at the end of the year and going into the next, as we careen with increasing urgency into a world trying to reinvent itself to survive, I think that’s the sentiment I want to carry. That it’s not necessarily about rejecting the original entirely, but finding a thoughtful, more nuanced, and ultimately more inclusive way to craft the narrative.
(From November 27, 2021)