We're not in Iowa anymore, Toto

Best. Parking lot. Ever. || #SpaceCenterHouston #spaceshuttle #SpaceShuttleIndependence #carpark #parkinglot #Boeing747 #shuttlecarrieraircraft #shuttlecarrieraircraft905

The International Writing Program wrapped up just over a week ago, so I'm on my own again, in the sense of not being surrounded by writers from 30-plus other countries. It's a bit strange to slip so easily back into my own life and my own friends, but now there are also WhatsApp chat groups that light up my phone screen at odd hours of the day, sending photos of living rooms and cats and faraway city streets.

I'll reciprocate with Singapore scenes when I get back. For now I'm loitering in New York to visit with friends, overdose on museums and soak up the chilly weather. Iowa City was great, don't get me wrong, and a lovely place to spend a couple of months – but I'm a city girl at heart, and it felt like coming home to be in a place where there's the constant chatter of many non-English languages on the streets and subway, and where lots of restaurants routinely stay open after 9 p.m.

This week I made a side-trip down to Houston to visit the Space Center, because when else was I going to get myself there. On top of all the space geekery I expected (and let me tell you right now, if you're a space geek like me, the Level 9 Tour is totally worth springing for), I also had a rather unexpected encounter with what a friend has termed the "technological sublime": seeing the Faith 7 spacecraft, the last of the Mercury programme spacecraft to take a human being into space, and then the Apollo 17 command module, which was the last spacecraft to transport humans to the moon and back.

And the #Apollo17 #commandmodule - the last #spacecraft to transport humans to the moon and back || #latergram #SpaceCenterHouston #NASA #spacecraft #spacehistory #spaceship #ilovemuseums #museum #exhibit #Apolloprogram

This tops off the Apollo 11 command module I saw at the National Air and Space Museum a couple of weeks ago, and the Gemini 12 capsule at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, way back in August. I didn't have a laundry list of NASA spacecraft that I wanted to see at the beginning of this trip, but things accidentally (perhaps, serendipitously) worked out that way. The same friend describes it as a "back to the future" encounter: each one of them a spacecraft, seemingly from the future, in terms of what it represents, but in fact an artefact of the past, something already consigned to the history books. Past and future at once in the present, not to mention the fact that its materials have been exposed to a literally alien and off-world environment, yet here it is with us today. The word "sacred" keeps inching into my mind, even though I don't like to use it.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, I'm writing this blog post in Houston's William P. Hobby Airport, where my return flight to New York has been delayed for five hours and might be delayed further, depending on weather conditions in New York. I'm grateful for the device charging points and free wifi here – this is way better than being bounced around in turbulence or rerouted to some other regional airport – but never does an airport feel like more of a non-place (in Marc Augé's sense of the word) than when its passengers are in an indefinite, incalculable limbo.



The seasons, they are a-changing

#Iowa #farm life || #latergram #Americanlife #schoolbus #autumn #fall

After being in Iowa City for almost two months, on Thursday I finally figured out (with the help of another writer) how to get the bus to the nearby mall, so I could watch The Martian in the cinema before it ends its run. It's for research, but also for fun; at heart I'm a big science fiction geek, as you know. I've already made plans to check out Riverside, Iowa (the future birthplace of Captain Kirk) before I leave Iowa in November.

Also in the works: a visit to a nearby vineyard and whisky distillery, dinner with Singaporeans (there are Singaporeans in Iowa!! who've been here for almost 20 years!!), a presentation to a literature class on why I write what I write, and as much research, planning of the new novel, rewriting of the old novel and other writing as I can squeeze in before we have to pack our bags and vacate our rooms. We're down to our last two weeks in Iowa City proper, just as we were getting used to the routine of readings and panels and having time to read and write and laugh and drink over multilingual/multicultural conversations. People are getting homesick, people are also realising this will end all too soon. It's a funny emotional and psychological space to inhabit.

I think it was a bit surreal for much of the programme because it's been an unseasonably warm autumn. As of last week, there were still days when I could wander around comfortably in a T-shirt, skirt and slip-on shoes, and one evening we even dined al fresco without any heaters in the vicinity. We made a hiking trip to Effigy Mounds National Monument last Saturday and many of the leaves on the trees were still green, which didn't seem to be what the locals expected. It's feel like summer's still holding on, when of course it's almost Halloween already.

A dash of #autumn || #IowaCity #fall #autumnleaves #fallleaves #fallcolors #fallcolours #autumncolors #autumncolours #trees

Wish I could send some of these blue skies (literal and metaphorical) over to Singapore.

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Halfway point

Wilson's Orchard. #Iowa #nofilter #summer #latergram #flowers #chrysanthemum

As several writers and residency staff have noted, today marks exactly one month since the International Writing Program started. We've had a month to unpack, set up bank accounts, attend readings and panels, prepare for readings and panels, meet students, meet other writers, buy books, watch films, explore the library and the river and the town, drink wine, drink beer, play pool, befriend the wine guy, dance to a jukebox, go to music gigs, attend a barn party, drink apple cider at an orchard, go rambling in the woods, celebrate Grito de Dolores (Mexican independence day), and soak up lots and lots of sunshine.

Oh, and write. Lots of that too, truly. My own writing is proceeding at a snail's pace, as usual, but I can't say I don't have the time to sit down and think and read and write.

I tweeted quite early on that being in this programme "is like being at a really great writers festival everyday." Which it still is. It's rare to be in a social group where everyone intuitively understands what everyone else does, even though we all do it in different genres and languages and styles, and in such varied and contrasting social situations. If nothing else, these are all fascinating people whom otherwise I would have never had the chance to meet. And the nice thing about it being such a long residency, in addition to giving us time to write and develop ideas, is that there's also time to sit and chat and develop conversations and friendships, in ways that are simply impossible at regular literary festivals when people are always dashing from one event to another.

Tomorrow we're off to Chicago on a mid-residency trip. I've heard that they insert this trip so that people don't go stir crazy from being in Iowa City for ten weeks straight.

The things you find on an urban ramble. #IowaCity #latergram

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Passion, near and far

Tonight, I saw what is, as far as I can remember, the first Mongolian film I've ever seen : Passion (2010), by fellow International Writing Program participant Byamba Sakhya. It was at once about Mongolia and about  art in the world, and also about politics and archives and history and why creative types of people do the things they do.

As you watch the film, you sink into what I imagine (though I might be mistaken) is a state of mind that is nurtured by the sway of the steppes and the lull of the big sky (and despite having seen Nebraska as part of the programme last week, I did not truly think of the sky being so impossibly big until I saw Passion tonight). What I mean is: time slows, breathing eases, the story rolls on but at its own unhurried pace, one that is far from frenzied modernity and the madding crowd.

I said to another writer afterwards that the Mongolia of the film --- which Byamba said looks very "natural" to him, the landscape he's known all his life --- looks very alien to me (and then I had to whip out Darren Soh's photographs on my phone, to show her the Singapore landscape I've known all my life). But in a good way. You sink into it, and also the story it tells, and it feels like it could keep going for eternity, just like the Mongolian horizon seems to.

The film trailer is on YouTube, but you really have to see movie on some kind of big screen to appreciate the scale --- great and small --- of its story.

I really want to drive across Mongolia now.




Lamp-post landscape, in front of the Old Capitol. Bonus: helicopter flying west (I don't know why there are always so many helicopters overflying #IowaCity).

Things I have had to remind myself how to do again, since I'll be in the US for the next few months: convert temperature in Fahrenheit to Celsius, not just say "Hi" in greeting but chirp "Hi, how are you?", save quarters for laundry, leave a tip, read Greek letters (for fraternity and sorority symbols, I'm not studying ancient Greek), write the date in the order MM-DD-YY, look left first when crossing the road, clear one's own cups and dishes at cafes and casual eateries, bemoan the dearth of instant noodle options at local supermarkets, walk more slowly.

It's been almost 20 years since I spent an extended amount of time on a college campus, and American guys still love their baseball caps.




University of #Iowa #nofilter #sunflowers #summer

I drove four hours straight from Chicago to get to Iowa City yesterday, and I swear I got a tan on my arms because the sun was out in full glory and the temperature was almost as hot as it gets in Singapore. This last gasp of summer that I've caught in Chicago and Iowa City has been quite splendid indeed. While reading in an al fresco area of a cafe today, I kept getting distracted by the insects that were flitting in and out of the planter box beside me.

That said, there was a massive thunderstorm in Chicago a few nights ago when I was there, not to mention tornado warnings. So I've downloaded Weather Bug on my phone and recalibrated my brain to understand Fahrenheit again.

I don't know why I'm talking about the weather so much, except that maybe during the four years I spent in Chicago, I remember it being mostly grey and cold (which wasn't necessarily a bad thing), and all this sunshine and warmth is such a revelation. Also, as I told everyone before I left Singapore last weekend, it'll be such a novelty not to perspire for a few months.

Tomorrow, the International Writers Program that I'm here for kicks off proper. Our first activity is a walking tour, so I hope the weather holds. Here goes!



I flunked the written

Between trains, Dhoby Ghaut #MRT #station, North-East Line platform. #nofilter #Singapore #subway #staircase #underground #commuting #weekend

The past six months haven't been very productive for me in terms of fiction writing, but there are three non-fiction pieces I've written that I'm pretty pleased with.

It started in March when Juria Toramae asked if I would write a short foreword for the catalogue for her art exhibition, "Points of Departure" at the National Library. The foreword's not available online, but you can borrow the catalogue from the library.

After that, my friend Ernest Goh was staging a solo art photography exhibition, "Breakfast at 8 Jungle at 9" at Objectifs – Centre for Photography and Filmmaking, and he asked if I would write some kind of introduction or commentary on his work. The result: I wrote an essay [PDF] about the three photography series he presented at the show, in which I managed to weave in a couple of my own recent obsessions with ancient humans and the Holocene, alongside a reading of Ernest's work.

That was in May. In June I whipped out another piece for the upcoming TwentyFifteen.sg photography exhibition at the Esplanade. I've been the project's resident text editor since it started in August 2013, working with an excellent (all-volunteer) team, and it was nice to kick back (metaphorically speaking) and reflect on the project as a whole. The exhibition opens only on 6 August, but my essay "Points of View" is already online.

Justin Zhuang's essay for the same exhibition, "Picturing Home, Wherever We May Be", is also online and it is just beautiful. So read that, even if you don't read mine.

I must thank Juria, Ernest, and my old friends Tay Kay Chin and Darren Soh of TwentyFifteen.sg for having faith in me and letting me build words around their images and artworks. I don't think I could've dived into this mode of writing and found my groove so quickly without their encouragement and openness in discussing their work with me.

I'm planning to switch gears back to fiction writing for the rest of the year, but there's one more exhibition essay I'm stewing on. Also, watching 7 Letters at the newly-restored Capitol Theatre on Friday night got my brain humming about some things.

And hey, it looks like #sgelection is on the cards.

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