We’ve been imagining the end of the world since we inherited it, and in most of our mythologies the world ceases to exist before it can begin. Zeus and Odin had to wage total war on their forebears to make way for man. The story of Noah’s ark prefigures many modern fantasies of interstellar colonization. Paleontologists tell us of five major extinctions, the last of which was brought to a head, in theory, by a mischievous asteroid that did in the dinosaurs and coated the world in a thin layer of iridium-rich sediment 66 million years ago.
That we’re now in the midst of a sixth extinction, as the title of Elizabeth Kolbert’s best seller has it, is accepted by those not in denial, and the best we can say about the Anthropocene is that we’ve matured enough as a species that we no longer need the intervention of a god, an asteroid or belligerent aliens to bring about the end of the world. Whether we’re mature enough to save ourselves from ourselves is an open question.
In contrast to “worldbuilding,” I’ll offer the term “worldconjuring.” Worldconjuring does not attempt to construct a scale model in the reader’s bedroom. Worldconjuring uses hints and literary magic to create the illusion of a world, with the reader working to fill in the gaps. Worldbuilding imposes, worldconjuring collaborates.
Let me make a necessarily incomplete analogy to another platform. In painting, worldbuilding is like Renaissance art that attempts to create realistic figures even when they are cherubs, demons, or god. Worldconjuring is a spectrum of other techniques: Matisse implying dancing figures with a few swoops of the brush, Picasso creating a chaos of objects to summon the horrors of Guernica, Magritte shattering our vision with impossible scenes. We should enjoy realistic paintings, but we shouldn’t impose their standards on every school of art.
Anecdotes often shed light on the way we see art and literature. A few weeks ago, I was skimming through Rachel Corbett’s book in the Paris metro when a young man came toward me and asked me whether the title, You Must Change Your Life, referred to some sort of self-help book. I first smiled at his comment and then thought that the title was somewhat deceptive. As the young man was still staring at me, I had to explain that Corbett’s book was actually about the story of renowned French sculptor Auguste Rodin and Prague-born poet Rainer Maria Rilke. The man was still unsatisfied, so I further explained that the title, derived from a famous Rilke poem, hints at the way creation requires the young artist to overcome his fears and reshape his life. In what I took for a sign that creation, effort, and culture are all intertwined notions, my conversation with the stranger ended at the station Bibliothèque François Mitterrand as he stepped off the metro and gave me a last nod of gratitude.
Later on, when I finished reading Corbett’s book, I thought again of my hasty reply to the stranger and realized that his guess was probably right. Indeed, the moving story of Rilke and Rodin is worth as much as the best self-help books and manuals, and one could definitely learn a lot from their relationship. If Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet stands as an acclaimed and oft-cited work, his encounter with Rodin is definitely less known.
“Hamburgers,” my uncle said, pointing at me from across the table at New Jersey’s only decent Chinese restaurant. “Lisa loves hamburgers. Right, Lisa?”
It didn’t matter whether I said yes or no. I was the first in my family to be born in the United States, so the decision had been made for me. I was expected to betray Chinese food for American food: junior Whoppers, Quarter Pounders with cheese, White Castle sliders with onion breath. And that I did. For my relatives, Chinese immigrants from the Philippines, this was evidence of how I’d assimilated and they hadn’t.
I was a victim of laughter.
They set the alphabet
like a river
into which the names of God
bound by letters