Tale of life

Someone who only knows me online (and whom I don’t know at all) shared a personal story with me with a remark, “Unlike you, my life consists of only sad stories”

“I’m sorry for what you have been through. I wish you a wonderful life ahead,” I responded.

But if I had an opportunity to say more, I’d say this:

I’m sorry you feel that way. You don’t know me and my life’s stories, but I’m glad that I reflect what the happy life looks like. However, in reality, every single person on earth has sad and happy moments. Life, I think, is neither about sad nor happy stories. It is a single tale that stretches across the breadth of time. Happy or sad depends on how we tell it and which part of it we choose to tell. More importantly, what happens within that tale isn’t simply given, a fate, or a mere luck. We’re not the sole author of it, but we play a central role in writing our own tale of life.

As for my own, I can summarise it in one phrase, “It is such an exquisite life.

m, ottawa may 2022

Creating Amidst Sorrow & Pain

Ten year ago, in 2012, I published “Clicks, Cabs, and Coffee Houses: Social Media and Oppositional Movements in Egypt, 2004–2011”, a writing that eventually became my most cited article (cited 880 times on 21/04/22). Honestly, I don’t think it was my best. The piece was personally historical, but not because it’s highly cited. It was the first of a series of articles I published around social media and the MENA uprisings, that attempted to challenge techno-centrism that dominated academic and media discourse at that moment. A move that wasn’t new for myself as I had started criticizing techno-determinism since I published for the first time ten year earlier, in 2002. The difference is, this time it was dramatically noticed by many. This moment of recognition, to a certain degree, shaped the latter trajectory of my career in academia.

Continue reading “Creating Amidst Sorrow & Pain”

#Pandemic: Ketika Semua ini Berlalu /When it is Over

Sometime last year, I wrote a series of short pandemic narratives in English. Then they were translated into Indonesian, to be recited as part of the Virtual Concert (of Indonesian community) “Senandung Merdeka”. In this 3 minutes video, I weaved these narratives into one continuous pandemic narration titled “When It Is Over”–in Indonesian with English subtitles–and illustrated it with my own one-line-drawings.

I hope you find a spark of hope in it.

Tahun lalu, saya menulis beberapa narasi pendek seputar pandemi dalam bahasa Inggris yang lalu diterjemahkan ke dalam bahasa Indonesia dan dibacakan dalam acara Konser Virtual “Senandung Merdeka”. Dalam video 3 menit ini, saya menjalin 3 narasi menjadi satu narasi pandemik yang berjudul “Ketika Semua ini Berlalu”–dalam Bahasa Indonesia dengan subtitles Bahasa Inggris–yang diberi ilustrasi coretan-coretan satu garis.

Selamat menyimak and semoga menambah asa.


I walk following a particular route in my neighbourhood three times a week. Passing small streets and rows of houses. Making the same turn on the corner of a small neighbourhood park. Crossing the road at the same intersection. Walking over the same bridge and climbing the same hill. Over and over again. I have done the walk, Merlyna’s solitary walk, over a thousand times. But the walk never gets old.

I walk the same walk in all four seasons. In the spring, when little birds begin to sing, and the buds are bursting out. In the summer, with the warm sun casting on my bare shoulders and grass needles crunching under my feet. In the autumn, when the leaves are in their last line of life, and my heart leaps into a sombre mood as they wither and drop away. In the winter, when every breath I take is turned into a tiny drop of misty cloud, embraced by frigid-fingered air as cold as death.

I walk the same walk in many seasons of the heart. When love is in the air. My heart bursts with joy. A smile on my face. Butterflies in my stomach. When sorrow reigns. My heart is bleeding. My soul is crushed. Drowning in tears. My feet follow a near-identical circuitous route. But each walk is distinct. Each is always worthy. It never fails me.

But there’s nothing more solemn than a solitary walk in the snow on gentle winter days.* I simply walk on the field, looking at the vast space of emptiness. There is no one soul on sight. Treading on the snow that is as white as powdered chalk. My footprints follow me like a shadow as I walk. Trees that once had leaves are bare, stand like skeletons against the sky. The plants and shrubberies are in deep slumber, hidden under a soft snowy blanket.

At that moment, my whole universe seems composed of one thing and one thing only, the snow. I become one with its solitude and quietude.

It’s pristine, it cleanses.

It’s serene, it nourishes.

It’s tranquil. It heals.

m, Ottawa, 02.01.2022

Photos from my walks over the Mooney’s Bay Park, viewing the same bridge. Top: on the last day of 2021; Bottom: on the first day of 2022.

* *This writing is largely about a walk, my own solitary walk. It isn’t about a comfortable walk on a magnificently beautiful weather. In fact, Ottawa winter isn’t comfortable. It’s harsh, severe, and miserably long. But one finds a way to survive it. I consider the winter is gentle when it is warmer than -5 Celsius degree. My favourite is when it is just about zero.

It’s been twenty years …

12 April 2001 – 12 April 2021

Two decades ago, I packed my bag and took a trip to a faraway place, leaving Dayeuhkolot, a place where I grew up, my family and friends behind. What began as a 4-months excursion had turned into an exquisite journey of life.

Two decades is such a long time, I ended both of my 20s and my 30s during this journey. Not only I survived it, I thrived in this endeavour, thanks to the love and kindness of friends, colleagues, and strangers I met on the way.

I don’t know what the future holds. But I look forward to continuing the journey, if I am granted the luxury of time to do it. And hopefully still thrive in it, and wish to do so with love, kindness, passion, compassion, wit, and humour.

m in ottawa

The Evolution of Intellectual Freedom

I’m presenting “The Evolution of Merlyna’s a Critical Monkey’s Intellectual Freedom” (bottom) 😆.

It was part of my last public lecture which basically attempted to provide an alternative imagination of possible career/life pathways. It’s my take vis-a-vis a (valid) critic of the state of intellectual freedom in academia by a brilliant Jorge Cham/PhD comic in 2011 (top). I think Cham’s is on point, but luckily his comic doesn’t apply to me.

~ eh, ini beneran lho dari slide kuliah umumku 😆 ~

I believe in (trying my best in) being curious, having fun, and staying critical. Also “naughty” — and becoming naughtier as I get older 🙈😋. And never stop to be really bothered by injustice–hey, a critical monkey can be really angry, too 🙊. No, never follow the “money” or the “safest” pathway. No, it’s not easy or smooth; sometimes you fail and/or people/institutions failed you, but speaking for myself and myself alone, I never and will never regret this choice. FYI, I am one of the lucky ones who survived academia and became a tenured professor several years ago by fully exercising my own freedom, doing research that I believed in. I hope to swing up-side-down while holding a banana when I am an emerita professor (if I ever become one someday) and grin satisfactorily when I RIP 😝😎.

~ aku katanya kelakuan mirip monyet, tapi ngga suka pisang sih 😆 ~

I made an initial drawing, then my talented artist-friend Rivi Rian 😍🥰😍 decorated it with beautiful viney leaves.

p.s. some grad students who took my class probably had seen this critical monkey appeared in their assignments 😁.


“You can be anything you want to be” — we hear and read this a lot: in the media, in the (Hollywood) movies, in “successful” people’s biographies. This phrase has become a motivational mantra for success.

I did not grow up with “you can be anything you want to be” kind of way of thinking. My parents’ philosophy was: “No, you can’t be anything you want to be”. They always reminded me to be very mindful of what my limitations were and what I was not good at. They also pushed me to be realistic and to be aware of inherent constraints built into a(n) (unjust & unequal) system. For my parents, even “good” was not a good enough reason. “You need to be twice or even thrice as good, and even then it does not mean you’d beat the system” they said. With that message in mind, my formula was to pursue what I was “pretty darn good” at, work hard and focus on it, with a hope to outsmart the system and, eventually, prevail. No, I don’t say that it is the most ideal way of thinking or parenting. If fact, they were pretty much dream killers. Fortunately, their formula worked for me. It was a workable survival kit for me, someone who was born as a baby girl to lower income parents of a double minority in a developing country. In the end, I managed to pursue my dreams, be everything I wanted myself to be, and proved my parents wrong.

Don’t get my wrong, I am not saying we should stop pursuing doing what we love. After all, like what I wrote elsewhere, I believe we all need to and can be the best version of ourselves (see “Who are you NOT to be brilliant“). However, we need to be clear and sensitive about unequal and unjust societal system we live in.

At the other end of the spectrum is the “you can be anything you want to be” doctrine which, at glance, sounds wonderful and positive. This might be true for those who are economically and socially privileged. For most, however, it stays a myth. In reality, especially for those at the bottom, climbing the steps of the socio-economic ladder remains an arduous or even impossible journey. For every “rags to riches” story are thousands of others who are trapped in low-wage jobs and poverty. The privileged can tell their kids that they can be anything they want, precisely because the privileges they were born into and the system that is postured to protect the privileged.

Oh, let me remind you one of the side effects of this “you can be anything you want to be” credo: the rise of self-entitled mediocre privileged individuals, including self-centered-politicians, greedy-unethical-CEOs, journalists-without-integrity, racist-low-quality-talk-show-hosts, and arrogant-but-mediocre-scholars, to name a few… and, don’t forget one more, the most unqualified presidential candidate in the history (of America). In this context, I am so thankful to my parents for not encouraging me to be one of the mediocre as***les ;D

Probably parents and teachers should start saying: you can be anything you want to be, only if …………….. (fill in with a long list of criteria 😃). And in the meantime, collectively we need to work in a pursuit of justice and equality in the world, so someday when we tell our children and grandchildren “you can be anything you want to be” we are inches closer to telling the truth.


Twelve years ago

#throwbackThursday #Kamisnostalgis

Early this year, in a conference where I presented a keynote address, a young researcher approached me and said,”Professor Lim, I’m a fan. I read every single work you have published, including the very old one from a long time ago.” I was flattered but also felt like a 100 year-old professor.

Continue reading “Twelve years ago”

Does Tempe have politics

[This edited version is published by the Jakarta Post on February 2nd, 2008)

What is this thing called tempe? / This tasty thing called tempe…/ Just who can solve its mystery?/ Why should it make a fool of me?

I saw you there one wonderful day/ You made me drool but now you’re gone/ That’s why I ask you guys in Jakarta’s throne../ Why take this thing from me….

– adapted from “What is this thing called love” by Cole Porter, 1930


That ‘thing’ is called tempe. No, it’s not the big Tempe in Arizona where I live. It is something that is so dearly familiar to almost each and every Indonesian. Continue reading “Does Tempe have politics”