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  • Nathanael Lai

On Documenting Life as Politics


This piece is a testimony to living in the crucible of political crises.


It uses a fictionalised blend of narrative and visual forms to simultaneously engage with multiple themes. It mulls over the lived experiences of those navigating increasingly constricted political landscapes, and it imagines how one might chronicle and do justice to these life histories. It also contemplates the obstacles to preserving them, wrought precisely by state surveillance and subjugation.


Therefore, this piece might be read in several ways, though they are by no means the only vantage points. The diary itself might serve as an intimate window through which to probe the everyday politics enacted by those living under conditions of authoritarian rule. What goes beyond the text itself—the way the diary was penned, transported, edited, and brought into the light of day with tact—might illuminate the perplexities and possibilities of documenting life even in times of political turmoil. Finally, by thinking with an erstwhile reader and paying heed to their annotations, we can imagine what might have been a chance discovery in the archive. It affords a wealth of insights, but it also signals the fact that, as with a great deal of archival evidence of present-day political repression, the original manuscript seemed to be lost or on the move.


In all, this piece reflects on questions surrounding everyday resistance, life and historical writing, and documentary practices in the context of political upheaval. Perhaps in doing so, it is also an attempt to circumvent—confront even—the volatile political climate of our times.


Read the full work through the slideshow below or access a PDF version here.

On Documenting Life as Politics_Nathanael Tsun Sum Lai
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Nathanael Tsun Sum Lai [2021] is a PhD candidate in History researching the socio-cultural linkages of Chinese communities in 1950s Southeast Asia. Past projects explore contentious politics in colonial Hong Kong and its Southeast Asian connections.

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