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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A good weekend

More #writerly gifts, this time from a thoughtful friend. The #Moleskine #Voyageur will be handy when I'm in Iowa. 7 weeks to go!

I just bought an annual multi-trip travel insurance plan for the first time ever, which is pretty much a commitment to what I want to do in the next 12 months. The insurance kicks in next month when I leave for the International Writers Program at the University of Iowa, and sets me up for some other travel plans I'm hatching for November and part of 2016.

Now all I have to do, theoretically, is find the money and willpower to make those plans happen.

I blame all this firmly on Adri, by the way. We had drinks on Tuesday night and while she didn't say anything directly, something about hanging out with her must've nudged my brain cells in a certain direction, which is how I ended up saying out loud, "Maybe I should go to Cuba."

Buying the travel insurance, mundane as it sounds, caps off a pretty unexpectedly top-notch holiday weekend. Nothing earth-shatteringly special, but the simple pleasures of spending time with family, friends and an indulgent amount of Lana cake.

Today the #Lanacake came with pink and orange ribbons, lovingly crimped by the auntie in the shop. #nofilter #Singapore #cake #comfortfood #Singaporeboleh #oldschool #hungryalready

Other achievements unlocked during this weekend:
  • Went for a morning run for the first time in over a decade --- admittedly, only because I was already awake to got visit Sungei Buloh, and then the friends who'd organised the outing had to bail because one of them was sick. But hey: I went for a 2.6 km run anyway.
  • Spoke for about an hour about the social history of Capitol Theatre to an almost full-house audience, who'd turned up for my talk at the right place and the right time (the Urban Redevelopment Authority function room at 10 a.m.), even though I'd cheekily titled the talk "Meet at Capitol Lobby, 6 p.m.". I might've used the word atas too many times in the talk without explaining it for the benefit of non-Singlish speakers, though (it's Malay for "upper", used to connote "high-class" or "snobbish").
  • Learned about Schera's Algerian-American Restaurant in Elkader, Iowa, which so far sounds like the most interesting place to stop for lunch on my way to Iowa City.
I seem to be tweeting a lot more lately, so follow me there while I still try to figure out what this blog might be good for.

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Checking in

I'm nowhere as hardworking as the esteemed Mr Wallace, but here's what I've been doing for the last four and a half months since I posted a blog entry:

Sunday in the park at Bishan

Unrelated to work, I have also been:
  • Running at the splendid Bishan Park.
  • Drinking an awful lot of tasty cocktails and whiskey.
  • Taking short vacations in the region (in fact, I'm off again tomorrow).
  • Watching movies in the cinema (Mad Max: Fury Road on the big screen --- oh yes).
  • Dealing with various personal things, as you do.
If you want more timely updates, I'm mostly on Twitter and Instagram these days. Also, I don't necessarily write in bullet points.

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