The Library of Selves

When I read my favourite book for the first time, I was in Malacca, on holiday with my family. We had rented the top floor of a dim apartment by the shore, where it rained almost constantly. The sea pressed in through the windows and seeped in under the doors and squeezed itself through cracks in the walls.

At night I crept out of bed and trekked through this book under a yawning circle of light in the living room as the thunder grumbled to be heard over my father’s snoring. My sister slept on a mattress on the floor; the door was held closed by a leaning chair, because the lock was broken. In the black static of the falling rain I read with a ferocity that was like sobbing.

I remember all of this as well as I remember the book, the calm blue idyll of the cover persistently lying about peace and a happy ending; the pages which I swallowed as if I had been starved, reading on my stomach and then on my back and then my stomach again, my body aching with good reading.

Most things I own today have multiple functions, to help me streamline life. I have a Kindle, a laptop, a phone, all of which I can read on. So why books, still? Why books, really, when we have already done better and quicker and lighter?

I can download any book I want instead of ordering them to me across oceans in padded envelopes or requesting that they wait demurely, on hold, among library bookshelves.

A book is a book. Its singular purpose is, simply, to be read. It does not organise my day or notify me about train breakdowns or convey to me news about the Middle East. It has no other function. It is inert, almost romantic, outdated.

And yet—books, books. Even the word sounds like one falling to the floor or a hardcover slamming shut. A huge, hollow, heart-thud, like a giant walking.

When you are surrounded by stories, reality becomes a sleight of hand. Did I read this world, or did I dream it? Has everything that happened to me truly happened to me? On a screen, pixels recycle themselves over and over again on a lit surface, making it impossible to organise what you have just read, or the time and place where you read it. They are ephemeral, uncertain, untrustworthy, too often re-used in every other part of your life.

But books: they devote ink and paper, magnificently unnecessary real estate, to incremental moments of discovery. They are reassuring and inexplicable souvenirs, somehow one book for one story, like an algebra letter assigned a sole numerical value: one book, read here, for the first time, at this point in my life. Here, this crumpled corner, where I wept. Here, this line at the bottom, a signpost for laughter. Here, the cover water-warped, because I had been caught in the rain. They’re ticket stubs to Chihiro’s spirit train, absurdly mundane, stamped with a time and a date, even as the stories themselves swirl, rise, ebb throughout my life.

This one I bought from a seaside town and carried with me for thirty days in the bottom of my bag.

This one I woke up at 6 am to queue for, and read over a chicken pie and a cup of tea as the sun rose.

This one I lent to a friend, and received in return with a dark tea-stain over two of its pages.

Who was I when I read this?

When I run my palm across the spines of my books, I am grazing a library of older selves.

Books: they’re semaphores in our hands, signal flares. I see someone reading a book that I love, and I love her. They’re pets, children, flowerbeds. I find copies of my favourite books homeless in secondhand bookshops and I buy them, compulsively. I can’t leave them there, abandoned and unread.

There’s something about books that’s slyly sentient, half-alive, almost threatening. I remember that people war and love and die over their contents.

Books are evidence that reading is a sensory activity, a physical one, a reminder that I am mortally housed in a body which laughs and weeps and anticipates and dreads. That the ache in my throat is connected to the ache in my fingers, that time is remembered only when I raise my eyes to the clock, that books must be carried or put aside when I reach my stop, my bag poking impractical angles into my hip.

What were the loose cursives of our open hands made for, if not for holding a book? Or why the angle of the insides of our elbows and forearms made perpendicular, if not for cradling books?

Books give me the ability to physically grip—and pretend I can master—the things that require living to learn: love and death, grief and joy.

My room burrs and bristles with everything. My room blossoms with books. They sit shelved or in stacks or in boxes or balanced by my bed, over my sleeping head. They are wrapped in plastic or thoughtlessly creased, bought fresh or bought yellowed, dog-eared and unkempt. Some I have read many times, some only once, and some I will never open at all.

They are the confirmation of all I know, and the reassurance of all that I have yet to learn.

/ published in the supplement to I Have a Room With Everything Too, an exhibition of 200 rare print and design books in Singapore. The Substation, until 12 July, 12 pm – 8 pm.

on off centre, dir. by oliver chong

some very tousled [spoilery] thoughts:

  • SITI KHALIJAH ZAINAL, light of my life, was wonderful as saloma. impeccable comic timing, but exploded into furious mania when it was called for; made a lot out of a quiet, mousy character. her body language is so precise–saloma has this tick where she smooths her hair hard down her ears, as if she’s trying to regain control, or shut out the world–and she switches effortlessly from narrator!saloma to character!saloma. siti khalijah is excellent and one of my favourite theatre actresses–so much versatility and range!!!!!  
  • the personification of saloma and vinod’s mental health issues–the people in animal/human masks–was INCREDIBLY FRUSTRATING to watch. firstly, it was so, so, so over-used that i groaned inwardly towards the second half of the play every time i saw the curtains rustle, signalling that they were coming out again. secondly, it was often used to very poor effect. some scenes in ‘off centre’ are shocking — the scene when vinod hits saloma, the scene where vinod is shouting again and again, “I HAVE BALLS, SIR! I HAVE BALLS, SIR!” in national service, etc. they’re packed and powerful and it’s inherent in the script, and a director should trust the actor to convey these moments without too much help. it was completely unnecessary to have these animal masked people beating each other up to the right of vinod and saloma physically hitting each other, and completely unnecessary to have a masked person leaping around with a gun as vinod is losing control. it’s over-the-top and it distracts from the central piece of the play and it’s a goddamn shame because these scenes are the ones that are the ones which are most visceral and most shocking. they don’t need any more dressing!!! they’re scenes that would stun even if they were played in a bare room.
  • that said, sometimes the masked people were used to great effect, such as: the first appearance at the restaurant (gave me a huge shock), the final scene at oasis club where they’re all dancing, or running around uncontrollably just prior to the void deck fight scene between vinod and saloma (added such great urgency and a sense of spiralling out of control–although all that thumping was super distracting and drowned out the lines–please please wear socks or go barefoot y’all :'()
  • i just wish directors would be more prudent with their staging: emily suffered from too much sound/light meddling, too
  • the sound design was extremely uneven!!! sometimes it was beautiful, particularly the minimalist scoring when vinod and saloma are on the phone and talking about aeroplanes (that was a stunning scene–it was still and quiet and eerily lit and DID NOT HAVE masked people lurking in the background–i am still sore that saloma and vinod’s earlier bird/statue conversation was so weakened by all these extra people running around!), or the wonderful, wonderful sound/light during the scene when emily gan visits vinod and shows him saloma’s room. minimal, understated, and complemented the acting and the lines instead of drowning them out
  • using pop songs is always a risk. we did not need to hear coldplay during almost every scene transition. additionally, pop songs already come packaged with their own private and individual meanings for each audience member. like, the repeated usage of ‘the scientist’ may have been effective for some, but all i could picture was chris martin moving backwards, and it dampened the play for me. same for sam smith’s ‘stay with me’. i just wish they had stuck to the minimalist, tinkly scoring throughout, because i barely noticed that music but it added so much to the atmosphere, vs. when they began playing coldplay and i felt like i had to shake myself to get back into the world of the play.
  • the girls behind me said that the symbolism was really patchy throughout, and i agree. at one point the mask of one of saloma’s animal creatures fell from the ceiling to the floor. it made me jump, but it also frustrated me, because a) i was having trouble grasping the symbolism, and b) the symbolism is laid on really thick, so i was less and less inclined to figure out what it fundamentally means as it accrued more and more confusing layers of meaning.
  • erwin shah ismail plays a number of secondary characters but he’s great in all of them. he conveys so much with his body, his gaze, his voice, despite minimal lines. one of my favourite scene was when he gives saloma his curry puff. damn.
  • ebi shankara was much, much better in the second half than the first–maybe first night jitters? i liked him, although i didn’t think he conveyed the hyper-literate aspect of vinod’s character very well–he sounds like he’s repeating poetry or lines from books instead of quoting them with intention and understanding, for instance. i wish that vinod and saloma had had more chemistry (as friends).
  • the final scene is still brilliant, surgical theatre. having saloma–the ‘weakest’ character in the whole play, the most obviously ‘crazy’ one–sit on the chair and stare the audience down and dismiss them: “you can go now. you are all very busy working right? you can go.” is powerful as fuck. i’ve read it, and read accounts of it, but watching her wave goodbye as the house lights come on and to walk past her on your way out was absolutely chilling and perturbing for many of us.
  • THEATRE IS MAGIC!!! i just want to excise some of these masked people’s scenes out of the play and also lower the goddamn sound because the loud gritty booms to indicate mental dissonance got really tiring after a while but the bottom line is that this show reminds me never to presume understanding (and hence a sense of mastery) of someone else.

big picture

as i write this lit review, a little too sleepless and a little too caffeinated, i find myself thinking of some things the way people dream of holiday vacations at their work desk: grace smiling over her whiskey at midnight, ana telling me about trekking through northern thailand and the himalayas as we drove through the night, cat’s face outlined in the blue glow of the projector screen, mo sitting across from me on a peeling white swing in the botanic gardens.

i’d like to live a life where i have stories to tell. right now i seem to always be telling other people’s stories. i seem to be living so small, so neatly. i’d really like to tell my own.

back to december

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when you travel alone it’s always you and the place you’re in. i remember new zealand: i remember pulling the car along the neck of the mountain, as if i were draping a long scarf, stopping, getting out to tuck my bare feet into glass-cold water, scrambling up the bank grasping fistfuls of dirt like a small child. i remember it in a way that i can’t articulate and never have to, because new zealand belongs to me alone.

but when you travel with someone else it’s the someone else that you remember. your trip is refracted, your version of reality must co-align with someone else’s. i won’t remember bangkok without cat, sitting by the roadside stall licking our spoons clean of mango rice; i won’t remember penang without ying, following her thin shoulder down the hot roads of georgetown; and i won’t remember sydney without my cousins and sister, walking through luna park in the summer sun. i won’t remember australia without mo, that one afternoon we sat out of the wind in esperance, eating subs. the sky was so blue and the wind was so strong and the water was so clear. i dropped a piece of an olive on the ground and a wandering scout ant hoisted it up on its back — i think of that joanna newsom line, with hydrocephalitic listlessness ants mop up their brow — and began its laboured way home.

for thirty minutes mo and i squatted by this tiny ant, urging it on. we batted away larger ants and insects which looked like a threat. we cupped our hands to shield it from the wind, as if it were a birthday candle. we cheered when fellow ants bustled forward to help. the olive was too large to fit into the crack between the tiles of the empty canoe renting house we were sitting outside of: we tried to press it in, to help them. i don’t know what we did when these poor ants finally succeeded. probably we kissed in triumph.

it’s a small story, a comma that punctuated our trip, but it reminds me of how holidaying can shatter your perceptions of time, of appropriate behaviour, of social norms, of creating a space like a glass snowglobe…

we ate cheese and crackers in the front seat of our car, watching the sun set. stopped and looked over a desert that used to be an ocean floor. ate hot pies dripping down our chins. marvelled at expensive vineyards. drove recklessly, often speeding. sometimes it was rainy and cold, like when we got lost in walpole looking for tingle trees or in albany when we waited for trains to pass and waved them along with shouts of well wishes. sometimes it was warm in the sun, like in eucla when we battled through thistle and thorns, the sea maddeningly close in our noses and ears but so far away.

when i travel with large groups of people, i relax, i become less observant. i read once that a mark of a long-term couple is when they begin to share the burden of memory-making — they tell stories together, because they have experienced stories together; they don’t have to remember their lives individually. when i travel with a group, i leave them to photograph, sometimes to read maps, to make decisions. but when you travel alone, or when you travel with one other person, somehow it becomes imperative that you take an active role in the documentation of your own life…

do i miss australia? no, not really, because i have mo, and maybe that’s where australia resides: the long dreamy conversations in the car, feeding each other gummy bears and chocolates, the mutual sigh of relief when we walked into the pulse of cities like adelaide, perth, melbourne, after days of being on the road, the wonderment in candy shops, and me spotting mcdonald’s outlets for him and him spotting libraries and bookshops for me. but i do miss new zealand: last night i dreamed about it, dreamed i was getting ready for a run to the auckland domain, dreamed i was walking through wellington’s wind-blown streets. i suppose if mo holds pieces of australia for me then i hold my own pieces of new zealand, but therein lies the risk and the fear of forgetting.

the things i love and am good at

the work is hard, and i’m scared–scared that for one job i’m way in over my head, and for the other, well, i’m just stressed about spending commutes, nights, breaks, and lunches working all the time. stressed about bank accounts, government portals, and tax statements.

but how lucky am i to do the things that i love, and am good at.

how fortuitous this combination is, how grateful i am for these particular chances that have come my way, how proud i am to have made my own luck, and how grateful to learn the things that i am learning, and to meet the people that i’m meeting.

the joy of seeing a piece spring from a fragmented two-line pitch and take shape in 1000 words, and the privilege of meeting men and women who have staged street dramas, led protest lines, collected research data, made speeches, undertaken hunger strikes to pursue a cause that they believe in.

to think constantly about how people read and why they read, and to think constantly about the art of writing–of conveying information both responsibly and meaningfully, of expressing a truth beyond data and facts.

my work has meaning to me. although i may be tired or frightened or worried or stressed, i never feel unfulfilled or unchallenged or bored. how many people can say that they’ve found something like that?

and alongside all of this, the trees continue to be beautiful whenever i walk beneath them, and the hdb blocks are the same familiar wonderful pastel colours, and the weather is sometimes perfect, and sometimes i just stand and watch the swans in the botanic gardens lift their lengthy necks like an endeavour, and twitch their wings, revealing the petticoat white underneath.

Otherwise

by Jane Kenyon

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

metaphors

missing someone feels like accidentally skipping a step when you’re going down the stairs

when i hear to ‘cayman islands’ by kings of convenience, i remember the first time i heard it — i’d bought the album, put it into my dad’s computer, was watching the speakers as the music poured out, and it felt like something inside me was cracking open all kinds of windows

when i run, the world skitters by me in photograph flips, and i am the one that is still

Freight Cars

by Stephen Dobyns

Once, taking a train into Chicago
from the west, I saw a message
scrawled on a wall in the railway yard—
Tommy, call home, we need you—
and for years I have worried, imagining
the worst scenarios. Beneath the message
was a number written in red chalk,
although at eighteen who was I to call
and at forty-six who is left to listen?
But Tommy, I think of him still traveling
out in the country, riding freight car
after freight car, just squeaking by
in pursuit of some private quest.
That’s the problem, isn’t it?
Coming into the world and imagining
some destination for oneself,
some place to make all the rest
all tight, as we cast aside those
who love us, as they cast aside others
in their turn, and all of us
wandering, wandering in a direction
which only our vanity claims to be forward,
while the messages fall away like pathetic cries—
come back, call home, we need you.

the things i want to remember

lying in the dark in mo’s room, and then hearing through the clear night the crackle of a skype conversation. falling asleep to the sound of a mother in bangladesh talking to her son in singapore.

*

the women whom we met at the leong liew geok talk. the whole room full of women, mothers and daughters. like a knitting circle, imagined cups of tea at our feet. long windows letting in long light. we were talking about poetry and then we were talking about being women. one said, ‘i loved being married, but i missed being single. i came to life only after my husband died.’ ‘i saw that happen to my grandma, too. for so many years her life was about raising her children and caring for her husband. and then he died and she blossomed. she went for classes, she made friends, she travelled the world.’ ‘don’t have children too young. children will exhaust you. children will demand everything from you.’ ‘i raised my daughter to be feminist. i told her, don’t get married so soon! but she doesn’t agree with me. i guess we all rebel against our mothers.’ i listened and listened and listened, hungry. here are the lessons i will only learn when they come to me, but hearing about them now was like falling sideways into a timeslip, a glimpse into the future.

i think about the poem we were talking about, ‘women without men’.

womenwithoutmen

i think mostly about the last lines of the poem, this edenic world of old women who have outlived men. i have never truly been denied anything because of my gender, because i’ve always been backed up by my class, my youth, my race, my linguistic ability. maybe that’s why feminist poetry today–in comparison to leong’s work–is so introspective. selfies instead of landscape portraits. a focus on the body. a sense of dissolution, ambivalence, confusion. an emphasis on queerness, on sexuality. as a well-off chinese girl in singapore with everything at her fingertips, what do i have to fear? nothing. not violence nor discrimination nor being told i can’t have a job because i’m a woman. at most facebook comments and news articles. i walk on clouds.

i fear most being caught in a marriage, caught in a family. caught in trying to please people i love because being a woman means this or means that. caught and held still. staying still. settling. caught not in love but in life. tethered to a house and loans. tethered to people. tethered to myself, my desperate attempts to make everyone around me like me and be happy with me and be at peace with me. i am scared that in fifteen years i’ll have children that i did not really want in a job that requires just my third- or fourth-best in a house i can’t pay off in a country i want to leave. that i will just settle and then coast. these are common fears but they are also gendered fears. they are fears because you know yourself and you are your own cassandra, the terrible knowledge of your inevitable weaknesses unarticulated to anybody. not being single and not being alone means i cannot up and leave. i would like to up and leave. to love is to tether. a tether can be a chain or a kite-string. can i be both selves at once? can i live irresponsibly and extravagantly, to just go without looking back, as if i am utterly alone and without obligation? how do i do this while respecting and cherishing the people who love me? if i lived for myself would i spend the rest of my life apologising? do i draw a false equivalence?

“what is the story you’re trying to tell?”

Today I talked to a woman in a flower-print tudung and a heart-shaped face her daughters share, who spent two years working for an old woman whom she called ah ma. Unhappy with the way she was mopping the floor, ah ma yelled at her so often that one day the woman cleaned the house top to bottom, made lunch, packed her luggage neatly and then pulled it right out the door, walking down the hot streets of Singapore towards her employment agency. 15 minutes in, ah ma gave her a call on her phone.

With little grasp of English or Mandarin, they talked in Malay. Ah ma told her about how she had grown up in Malaysia as a young girl. The woman with the heart-shaped face told her about how she was saving up money to build a house back in her Indonesian kampong. “Don’t sell your house when you become old,” ah ma said, and cried. Lonely women in a house far from home.

“She had a good heart,” said the woman in the flower-print tudung, “even though she would complain…” and she made chirruping sounds, like a bird that never learned to be silent. “When she died, I cried,” she said, putting a hand over her heart. “Ma’am, she’s nice, but ah ma was my friend.”