Not here, not there

Hey, that’s no duck ... • #latergram #BostonPublicGarden

I've been in Boston for two weeks and in my apartment for one. It's been a little unreal, living between identities: no more in work-writing mode, not quite in tourist/traveller mode, not yet an MFA student proper; away from Singapore, yet not familiar enough with Boston to avoid mixing up Beacon, Brookline and Boylston Streets. Living in interstitial spaces: a comfortable but soulless Airbnb room for a week (add that to your list of non-places, Marc Augé), then a small apartment that I spent the last week pulling together--diligently, deliberately making it over into a place where I can live and write.

Morning light. • #latergram

How to ease entry into Boston when moving on one's own:
  • Move a couple of weeks before the annual hellish moving extravaganza (because the vast majority of Boston apartments turn over on September 1)---before the Target and Bed, Bath and Beyond stores are overrun with anxious parents and their antagonistic freshman-offspring, before the internet installation services are all booked out, before the banks and mobile phone service shops are tied up with international students needing new accounts.
  • Walk everywhere. If nothing else, one soon figures out which road is which and which road leads to where (I quite like the fact that Boston isn't on a perfect grid).
  • Have a helpful property manager who has a stockpile of Bed, Bath and Beyond coupons and other handy neighbourhood tips.
  • Price things by going to shops and taking notes---which confirmed, for instance, that when it comes to Asian groceries, H Mart is indeed more expensive than Super 88, which is more expensive than C Mart (which also sells refrigerated ma lai gou that one can re-steam at home, be still my beating heart!).
  • Have a friend who's lived in Boston for years, and is helpful with money-saving/dollar-stretching tips and adept at karang guni'ing stuff.
  • Also have a friend-of-a-friend who generously handed down a kitchen's worth of barely used household items even though we've never met.
  • Trawl Facebook Marketplace obsessively every few hours for apartment stuff. Buy only what one needs, not all the cute/unusual/quirky/amazing stuff that's out there.

The most amazing #lamppost, and a purple house. • #latergram #Boston #JamaicaPond

Unexpectedly, what I've often thought of as the Singapore-honed skill of spotting where the shade is and sticking to it has come in handy in Boston. It's been fiercely sunny almost every day, and this week it's been 30ºC and up, with a heat index of 37ºC to 40ºC, according to the National Weather Service. I even had to buy sunscreen.

I know it won't last, the weather, this limbo. University stuff starts on Thursday, classes start on Monday, I have to write a complete short story for one class by next Thursday. But tonight I watched the moon climb above the horizon outside my window, and I wondered how high it would go.


Wake me up

Packing to move to Boston. See blog for details.

Dusting this off to say: I’m moving to Boston. Next month. To work on an MFA in creative writing. At Boston University. For a year and a bit. During which I hope to finish my novel as well.

Obviously, I don't remember how to blog anymore.

I haven’t touched my novel since Xmas because of work and I miss it dreadfully, as I’ve been saying to anyone who asks. Don’t ask me when it’ll be published, I need to finish the manuscript first.

Other things that excite me about Boston: the Boston Public Library, indie bookstores and cinemas, free astronomy nights at the campus observatory, all the modernist architecture on the MIT campus, rereading Robert Lowell and The Peregrine (because peregrines at BU!), hiking, and, um, living five minutes from a Trader Joe’s.



Residency routine

Rainy and gray again today, so here's a pic from inside the #MaverickWritingStudios building from two days ago. • #latergram #VermontStudioCenter #Vermont #JohnsonVT #insideout #fromawindow #fromthewindow #reflection

At Vermont Studio Center, they feed us three times a day: 7:30-9:00 am, 12:00-12:45 pm and 6:00-6:45 pm. At home I usually wake up at 8 am, but here I try to be at breakfast by 7:45 am and try not to linger beyond 8:30. I figure since the dining hall is a one-minute walk from my residence (two minutes in the morning if I have to wait at the T-junction for the elementary school buses to pass), and since the residency has freed me from the time I would spend cooking or thinking about what to eat or ordering food, I should make the most of what they're providing and get up earlier to extend my work day.

After breakfast, I pop a slice of lemon and bag of Earl Grey tea into the forest green coffee mug they gave us on the first day ("write your name in permanent marker on the bottom, or you'll get them all mixed up"), top it up with boiling water, then fill my black Zojirushi flask with boiling water, so that I can make more tea in my studio later, and I'm ready to go write. In my second-storey studio, my desk is about a meter wide, bisected by the dictionaries on which I place my laptop (I prefer to keep the laptop screen at eye level, while typing on a Bluetooth keyboard on the desk). To the left of my laptop are my sprawled, handwritten notes, folders and a desk lamp that gives off a warm yellow light; together with the dark wood of the desk, it makes the place feel cosy and writerly (I am captive to Western, Romantic images of what it means to write, I know). To the right of my laptop is an even messier hodgepodge of teabags (Earl Grey, genmaicha, camomile), snacks (nuts, cheese, fruit, Reese's peanut butter cups) and personal items like headphones, lip balm, tissues and a microfibre cloth for cleaning my glasses. I keep nothing in the desk drawers because I'm afraid of forgetting them when I leave at the end of the residency.

The first week I was here, it rained every day, almost all day, and I kept looking out of my window (to the left of my desk) to listen to the rushing water in the Gihon River. From the second week, it has been sunny every day and the water levels have fallen significantly. I could go wading in the river, I suppose, and feel the curve of its rounded, cool stones under my feet. But the river seems to be the domain of the ducks, who show up every mid-morning and every evening around 5 pm and honk to each other, dive underwater to feed or perch on a rock to groom their feathers if the sun is out (there is a rock directly in the middle of the river, that is also directly at the centre of my window view). Often one or two ducks swoop dramatically down from the sky like divebombers. The loud splash with which they land---which is what usually snaps my gaze to the window, I have not yet witnessed the actual dives---belies their panache as they surface, paddle nonchalantly and greet their friends (or maybe rivals, sometimes there is truculent honking and an uncertain fluttering of wings).

Single-digit temperatures and dreamy fog this morning, but by 9 am the sun was out. • #VermontStudioCenter #Vermont #JohnsonVT #sunny #viewfrommywindow

I tried to look up what kind of ducks they are on Whatbird.com, which suggests that they might be garganeys (they don't have the white stripe above the eye, although it could be that my ducks are female, or that my vision just isn't good enough to discern the stripe) or greater scaups. After further observation and listening to the bird calls on that website, I think they might be the latter. I might just refer to them generically as ducks, since I don't actually know any better. At any rate, the majority of them don't seem to have colourful plumage, so they are mostly females.

Last Friday morning, there were two female ducks sunning themselves on the rock in the middle of the river. A male who had been chased by them earlier was loitering around, and eventually dislodged one from the rock. She complained and paddled around the rock to see if there was another spot for her, but there wasn't any space so she was reduced to sulking nearby (she stood on a smaller rock in the water, so she that she could get some sun but her feet stayed wet).

It's noon, I have to go eat.

I'm back from lunch. It's not that I have to eat during the stipulated mealtimes. I could eat at a cafe in town (um, the only cafe in town) or buy something at the supermarket. But the Studio Center provides good food, great company, and after two weeks it's still so nice to be among people to whom you can say, excuse me, I'm going to go work in my studio now, and they say, uh-huh, yeah, okay, because if they wanted to do the same, they would too.

As I walked across the river to get to the dining room, I thought about the last river I was in: Pa'Lungan, in the Bario highlands in Sarawak. I was in that river because we took a boat during the dry season and when the water level was too low for the boat to pass, we had to get out so that our boatmen could push and carry the boat over the rocks and then we got back in again. This usually meant standing up to our knees in the river---although memorably, my colleague jumped out at an unexpectedly deep spot and sank up to her chest.

In Singapore, you don't hear the river. There is too much traffic noise and also too much concrete on its banks, which I'm sure that affects the sound of the water. If anything, you may hear the otters in the river---or, more likely, humans squealing at the sight of otters in the river.

Afternoon reading spot. • #notanartinstallation #VermontStudioCenter #JohnsonVT #MasonGreen #redandgreen

After lunch, I write for the rest of the afternoon, and sometimes if I've had a big breakfast and a big lunch (like today), I skip dinner and keep writing. There is little else to report. Once or twice a week, there is a slide presentation by artists or a reading by writers, which is a great way to visit the imaginations of fellow residents; I always come away with my mind feeling very full. On Sundays, I have gone for hikes (so far, one short, one long). I took all of last weekend off, in fact, because I'd been writing for nine days straight and needed to rest that part of my brain. But I suspect I will write through this weekend because next Friday this sojourn comes to its stipulated end (of course we all wish we could just stay a bit longer ...).

In the late morning today, about eight ducks were in the water, then suddenly they did the thing where they propel themselves to take off, and for a few seconds they were both flapping their wings and using their feet to kick powerfully on the surface of the water, and for those instants they were fantastically both in the air and in the water at once---and I, the city dweller, was amazed.

Ten more days of this. Go!

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The plan for 2017

I'm not one for writing obligatory New Year's posts, but I told myself this morning that I would tack something here for posterity, so here it is.

I'm going to spend the year being a "writer" writer. By which I mean I'm going to work on my novel and take on very little commercial freelance work. To that end, I'm very lucky that I've been accepted as writer-in-residence at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) for six months (commencing tomorrow!), as well as at a couple other foreign residencies in the latter half of the year.

Objectives for the year: finish a decent draft of the Dakota Project, which I didn't have the time or headspace to properly get into for much of last year, and be very, very prudent about money. Step one of the latter is probably not to go crazy buying all the Chinese New Year goodies that are already flooding the shops.

Actually, my first order of business is to put together the syllabus for the undergraduate creative writing class I'll be teaching as part of the NTU residency. I've taught writing workshops over the past few years, but this'll be my first time back in a formal classroom in over a decade. I'm both excited and prepared to be astonished.

As I alluded to on Twitter earlier today, I'm really lucky to be paid for six months to read books about writing, teach writing and also write. So I'm pretty tingly about 2017, despite the spectre of Trump.

Oh, and if you haven't read it already, check out Kirsten Han's piece, "Lessons From Singapore On Trump’s Authoritarian America".



"I've always hated watching you leave"

I woke up to the news that Carrie Fisher had passed away, and a thousand voices crying out online about it. Inside my head I keep hearing the solitary, soulful notes of "Luke's Theme" from the soundtrack of the first Star Wars movie, A New Hope (the music piece officially known as"Binary Sunset" and later, as "The Force Theme"). In my mind's eye, I see the scene from last year's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, when General Leia Organa (played by Fisher) walks slowly towards Rey and they hug, in a moment of mourning for the recently killed Han Solo.

I first encountered Fisher-as-Princess-Leia in 1983, when I was nine and saw my first Star Wars movie, Return of the Jedi. Despite the execrable slave-girl costume that launched a thousand sexual fantasies, the movie turned me into a fan of a contemporary mythology for the first time. Before it became cool among my peers to like Star Wars or anything else that would qualify as a geek pursuit today, I was devouring Star Wars books and hoarding videotapes of precious, taped-off-TV airings of the films from the original trilogy. Princess Leia became part of my personal pantheon of women in science fiction/fantasy who kicked ass, alongside Commander (eventually Admiral) Lisa Hayes of Robotech (the books, not so much the cartoon series), FBI special agent Dana Scully of The X-Files and and Buffy Summers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the television series, not the movie).

Seeing Fisher-as-General-Leia last year felt like witnessing a small miracle: a post-1980s Star Wars movie that did not entirely suck, a once sexualised character allowed to age realistically – and also exist as a convincing military commander and mother and estranged lover all at once. In contrast, seeing the CGI version of Fisher-as-princess in this year's Rogue One was a disturbing jolt – Fisher immortalised with the earmuff hair buns and impractical flowing white dress from A New Hope.

Funny enough, the one Star Wars action figure I ever owned was of that particular version of Princess Leia, except that the action figure – because of the mechanics of construction – had the princess wearing what was effectively a white pantsuit, with a removable white robe around it. She also had a blaster. All the better to kick ass with, I used to think when I was playing with the figure, sans robe, against my cousins' multitude of (male) action figures.

Fisher was not only the princess, of course. She was a sharp writer, a brave advocate, a memorable actress (When Harry Met Sally is another of my old favourites) and an unabashed personality who perhaps best fit the description of the Rogue One droid K-2S0: "He tends to say whatever comes into his circuits."

Most of us, women and men, don't have to contend with being a symbol in addition to being a person. Fisher couldn't help the fact that she became larger as a symbol than as a person, no matter how much she contended with that symbolism and accomplished in her own right. As someone far, far away from her galaxy, all I can say is that the symbol mattered too and mattered greatly – both the princess, and the fiercely honest, fully alive person Fisher seems to have been.



15 October 2016

On vacation in Japan. Spent the day at Arashimaya, thinking about the past, the present, and future pasts and presents.

Spent the day at #Arashimaya, thinking about the past, the present, and future pasts and presents. • #latergram #Japan #Kyoto #Tenryuji #TenryujiTemple #Japanesegarden #autumn #fall #autumncolours #fallcolours #blueskies

And kept running into ojisan (grandfather) types ...

And kept running into #grandfather types ... • #latergram #Japan #Kyoto #Arashimaya #CoffeeShopHirose #cafe #coffeeshop #ojisan

And kept running into #grandfather types ... • #latergram #Japan #Kyoto #KyotoStation #ojisan #Halloween #lightshow

Or maybe it was just me.



Thinking out loud about #NDP2016's "The Legend of Badang"

Nochyet National Day, yet flags haranguing me everywhere #SG50 #sg50zzz #Singapore #windynight #MajulahSingapura #Singaporeflag #thisishometruly

It's National Day next week, so naturally the government propaganda machines are working at full tilt, drumming up interest in the annual National Day Parade. When I saw some posters at bus stops and other public areas recently, I was surprised to see that this year's parade storyline seems to be focused on Badang, a figure from Malay folklore who was renowned for having extraordinary physical strength.

Okay, maybe not that surprised, now I think about it. In the last decade or so, official government narratives have given more attention to the figure of Sang Nila Utama aka Parameswara aka Sri Tri Buana, the mytho-historical 'founder' of a 14th-century settlement in Singapore. As I mentioned in a talk on Singapore history last night, it's good that pre-colonial, pre-modern history is being more publicly acknowledged than before; on the other hand, it still falls into the orthodox 'great men' approach to history by enshrining yet another king/ruler/founder figure in the narrative.

I guess the parade organisers this year decided they had to look for another indigenous figure to excavate from the past. Badang is an easy choice: he's physically strong, a loyal warrior for his ruler, and doesn't endanger concepts of patriarchal masculinity. There's no Delilah figure or embarrassing episode where he loses his strength, and by various accounts he even seems to have had a peaceful death (no political intrigue, no violent denouements).

But of course, the parade organisers had to tinker with the myth some more, in the official National Day Parade video about the legend of Badang.

First off, let's be clear that this is quite an enjoyable, energetic film – certainly sexier and slicker than most retellings of Malay folklore that I've seen. Which is fine. It's entertainment. I get it.

But the film neatly elides folklore and fact in a way that is, in my opinion, unnecessary and reductive of the richness of myth and the intricate ways in which pre-colonial Singapore culture and history is embedded with that of our neighbouring islands and countries. Not to mention the fact that it completely misses the point of the Singapore Stone.

The video begins with the voice-over narration: "This is the folklore behind the Singapore Stone." It goes on to explain how Badang got his fantastic strength and how he used it to serve his people and his ruler, before the climactic moment of him hurling an impossibly large boulder from the top of a hill. We see the boulder smash into a bazillion small pieces, then we are told (at about 3:20 in) that the rock – and inexplicably, we now see the original, large, unsmashed rock – landed at the mouth of the Singapore River.

Suddenly the film shifts to Singapore today, Marina Bay Sands skyline and all. The voice-over continues: "This rock was blown to pieces by the British in 1843 and a fragment known as the Singapore Stone now sits in the National Museum of Singapore." That is the last spoken line of the film.

I found it disconcerting, the way the story shifts from acknowledged folklore (the film is, after all, called The Legend of Badang) to empirical fact (when the stone was blown up, where the fragment remains) – as if both are equivalent realities. But that is a matter of storytelling finesse that perhaps the parade organisers felt that they could safely ignore. When the mytho-historical figure of Sang Nila Utama is trotted out in textbooks and at national events, it doesn't matter if he existed; the important thing is that Singapore today is real, and to evoke a sense of pride today in some concept of ancient Singapore. In the same way, it doesn't matter if Badang existed and if the stone he threw (if he threw one at all) was what we now know as the Singapore Stone; the important thing is that the Stone is with us (at least a fragment of it).

Singapore Stone
Source: Yuli Chua

But the story of the Stone, and of Badang, just seems so small in this account. There is no mention that one of the main sources of the story of Badang is the Sejarah Melayu (The Malay Annals) – a text that comes out of the Melakan tradition, and which is thus a shared story of Melaka, Johor and Singapore, among others. Specifically the story of Badang (as translated from the Sejarah Melayu and reprinted in an English magazine in 1822) describes him as living in Saluang in Sumatra when he acquires his strength (not in Singapore, which is what the National Day Parade video states at 0:06).

My point is that Badang is very much a story about a hero of the region, not a man from exclusively Singapore, and this was in keeping with how indigenous people in pre-colonial times (and perhaps, some people today) view their identity and culture as being regional and interconnected, not isolated to one island. From the pragmatic, 21st-century, nation-building, rah-rah-National Day Parade perspective, I understand why the parade organisers have cut Badang down to being a hero of Singapore. But that is a small, small way of looking at Singaporean identity and history, and one that does us a disservice in the long run. It encourages us to see ourselves, often falsely, as a case of Singaporean exceptionalism, rather than as a Singapore that still is, and should still be, intertwined with the region.

As for the Singapore Stone, it appears for less than 10 seconds in the 3 minute, 45 second-long film. We are told that a fragment is at the National Museum, and that's it. We never see a photograph of the actual stone (although there is one on the National Day Parade webpage "Badang and the Singapore Stone"). There is no description of what the stone, empirically, is: an artefact of sandstone, inscribed with a faded, obscured script that has never been conclusively identified, although it bears similarities to other ancient scripts on stones that have been found in the region, from Kedah to Karimun to Kalimantan.

I confess my own bias here: I have a deep love for the unknowability of the Singapore Stone. It is inexplicable to me that we have this magic (and I do not use that word casually) object in our museum, in our midst, and we do not acknowledge it, in everyday discourse, as an emblem, perhaps even a synecdoche, of Singapore history. It is essentially unknowable, a cipher for all time (barring the invention of a time-travel machine to go back and meet the people who inscribed it). It survived at least five centuries (perhaps up to ten), exposed to the ravages of tropical weather, before it encountered men who were more intent on removing it than on understanding it, and then it was desecrated and almost entirely destroyed. Yet one tiny, tantalising fragment is still with us today (a miracle also, given that things are often lost, if only by neglect, when museum collections are transferred from colonial to postcolonial administrations).

It is silent, it is indecipherable, and yet it says so much: about a people who carved words on stone in a time when such things were extremely difficult and painstaking, about a people who had language, and had things to say that were worth carving into the permanence of stone. We do not have the means or wherewithal to access what they said, but that is our burden, not theirs.

Of course, to be in a state of unknowing, or merely to acknowledge that sometimes access to the past is cut off by impatient successor states that have no interest in that past, is not the sort of message that a Singapore National Day Parade would want to deal with. Far eaiser to cherry-pick the useful characteristics of a regional legend – make Badang 'Singaporean', make all his exploits take place here, imply his realness by casually equating the Singapore Stone with Badang's stone – and merge them into an insular new myth, rather than to posit that Singapore could find itself by looking outwards or by embracing uncertainty.

I know, I know – it's just a National Day Parade video. It will be forgotten by the end of the month. I honestly don't remember anything about last year's parade, or the ones before that. It's a spectacle, short-lived but loud and declamatory. It is everything the Singapore Stone is not.

But the parade is still a claim to identity, and a claim to what being Singaporean means, and for all that it has adopted the posture of elevating a figure from Malay folklore (and all that implies in our majority-Chinese society), it really isn't saying anything new or advancing a more open, progressive, hopeful or imaginative vision of Singaporean-ness.

There are many myths and fictions we tell ourselves. I just wish we would start choosing better ones.