Response: The Ecstasy of Influence

Shortly before my semester ended, my lecturer M.G. Lord (author of The Accidental Feminist and Forever Barbie, and judge for the National Book Awards this year) gave the class this reading by Jonathan Lethem. In it, Lethem discusses the limitations of copyright and pieces together a witty essay in defense of plagiarism by borrowing sentences/paragraphs from other writers. In this case, the medium is the message, and he argues that art is created by building on other forms of art.

In that same spirit, our task was to produce an essay by cobbling 500 words from various sources. At first, I thought it would be a piece of cake. How difficult could it be to just copy stuff from others? Apparently, it takes quite a bit of effort, especially if you aim to be coherent! This assignment turned out to be really fun and, after an afternoon of perusing various books and essays, this was what I came up with:

On Writing

For fifteen minutes I have been sitting chin in hand in front of the computer, staring out the window. Trying to be honest with myself, trying to figure out why writing seems to me so dangerous an act, filled with fear and trepidation. It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. Few of us can remain honest for long, since humans are incorrigibly, self-deceiving, rationalizing animals. So often the “plot” of a personal essay, its drama, its suspense, consists in watching how far the essayist can drop past his or her psychic defenses toward deeper levels of honesty. Likewise, this is my journey of discovery as I essay, as I, through the lens of my writing, try and open up a new flank, locate a tension between two valid, opposing goals, or an ambivalence in my own belief system. As F.Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

When I sit down in quiet meditation, the one emotion hardest to fight against is a longing in all things for the past. It is strange how much you can remember about places once you allow your mind to return into the grooves that lead back. I remember the childhood of my yesteryears, the people, scenes, voices and smells of the food in my house. There is much life in memory. I recently came upon an image, taken by Adam Gormley, an Australian photographer. He had been photographing spider webs when a rainstorm hit, and in the aftermath, he captured an image of an ant trapped within a three-millimeter drop of rain whose surface tension maintained the shape of a sphere. Floating in the middle of that transparent pearl, the reddish-brown body of the ant hunches, its many legs dangling toward the bottom of the raindrop’s curve. Gormley at first thought there was a piece of dirt in the droplet; only when he looked closer did he see the ant. “I shouted out in excitement when I realized what I’d captured by accident!” he said.

Why we remember something is not always immediately obvious: within certain memories lies something hidden, the equivalent of a floating ant. In his book How to Use Your Eyes, James Elkins writes, “Our eyes are far too good for us. They show us so much that we can’t take it all in, so we shut out most of the world, and try to look at things as briskly and efficiently as possible.” Too often we skim over our memories as well. They become stories we’ve told ourselves for so long that we think we don’t need to revisit them in greater detail. Yet, as Elkins writes further, “It’s about stopping and taking the time, simply, to look, and keep looking, until the details of the world slowly reveal themselves.” And that is my challenge when I write – as I delve into history, into the many folds of perception, and attempt to uncover its mysteries.

Sources:
“For fifteen minutes I have been sitting … filled with fear and trepidation.” Split at the Root (An essay on Jewish Identity) by Adrienne Rich
“It is easy to see… harder to see the ends.” Goodbye to All That by Joan Didion
“Few of us can remain honest for long… toward deeper levels of honesty.” and “try and open up a new flank… and still retain the ability to function.” Introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay by Phillip Lopate
“When I sit down in quiet meditation… a longing in all things for the past.” Essays in Idleness by Kenko
“It is strange how much you can remember… return into the grooves that lead back.” Once More to the Lake by E. B. White
“I recently came upon an image, taken by Adam Gormley… until the details of the world slowly reveal themselves.” The Ant in the Water Droplet: Locating the Mystery within Memory by Philip Graham

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I Am Writing A Novel.

So yes, I am writing a novel.

The very declaration still rocks my nerves a little and for a while, I thought that if I didn’t tell anyone about it, it might save me some embarrassment if the pages never see the light of day. Also, I didn’t want people to have the impression that since I am working on a story now, it means that I will have the published book in my hands by the time I graduate — this is the kind of unrealistic expectation that paralyzes more than motivates.

But I realized that there is no shame in attempting something new and working on it, regardless of its success. As Edmund Burke once said, “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.” I love that quote. Writing a novel was way more difficult than I had expected, and while the journey had its low points and I had to scrape draft after draft and correct mistake after mistake, it also has countless high points where the deep sense of satisfaction that accompany a page of good writing makes the tough times worth it. Writing can be a pretty isolated activity, and I am really thankful for the support and feedback I’ve been getting from my fellow writers and lecturers in school. The literary world is as tough as it is so it’s awesome when writers band together to cheer each other on.

My novel, based on a family living in contemporary Singapore, is still in its early stages and is bound to change so I shall not delve into it. But I will continue to post updates on this blog so stay tuned!

In Between Places

In transit at Chicago airport.

In transit at Chicago airport.

Every time I make a trip back to Singapore, I will inevitably feel a sense of displacement. Many things can change in a year. Buildings get torn down, new infrastructures raised. Places I used to frequent no longer look the same or, worse, are no longer there. My church has moved and its old space has been demolished. My parents are not living in the same neighborhood. Old favorite restaurants or hawkers have closed down. Even when I meet up with friends, there is always a little dissonance — as if everyone has moved on in the one year when I was absent.

When I told this to a friend, she quickly replied, “But you have also moved on!”

While that is true, I guess the difference is that I wasn’t around to witness the happenings (new engagements, weddings, pregnancies, job promotions) and even though I was updated while living overseas, it can still feel a little overwhelming and sudden whenever I meet relatives or friends face-to-face. It makes me feel like we are all really growing up, and there is nothing anyone can do to stop it.

Not that growing up is a bad thing, but with that also comes a longing for the past. Which brings me back to my first point. I find it harder and harder to hold on to the ever changing Singapore, where I am not around to make new memories, and old ones are constantly being torn down.

This time around, my trip back to Singapore was very short, because it was a stopover en route to Ireland where my husband was going for a conference. Nevertheless, I was glad to be able to spend time with my family and meet up with some friends. I was the one who had bugged my husband for weeks to make a trip back to Singapore, and I was so excited to return that I couldn’t sleep the night before my flight. But less than a week after landing, I began to miss LA.

And that is my problem.

When I am in LA, I would long for Singapore. But when I am in Singapore, I would long for LA (#firstworldproblems). And while that may sound like a privilege (and on most days, it is) what also happens in actuality is that I end up feeling like I am always between two places, never belonging to one. Life in LA is much more relaxed, and I must admit that there is a certain appeal, and a certain kind of freedom and liberation, that comes with going to a place where no one knows you. Suddenly, I find myself having all the time in the world without any obligation to anyone. Yet, the flip side is that it can get lonely, especially in the beginning (you will be surprised at how disconcerting it can be to not know simple things like where to get a haircut or buy groceries) and at the end of the day, I am still a foreigner in the States. And believe me, that truth becomes particularly stark when say, you are stopped by a traffic police officer or are in sudden need of urgent care at a clinic. Those were the times when my husband and I wished we were back in Singapore where we were familiar with such procedures.

Many people have asked us (very often, in fact, and understandably so) when my husband and I will be coming back, and if we are coming back at all. Our response is always that Singapore holds our family and friends and that makes it home for us. But at the same time, we cannot deny that living overseas has its perks (lower cost of living, for one!) and ultimately, it depends on what opportunities we will have when the time comes. As for now, I guess the challenge of being in between places is learning to make a third place out of it: to make it as homely and personal as possible, wherever I may be.

On Cataloging the Past

Me, circa 1990.

Me, circa 1987.

Back in the 1960s, my grandmother would push her small wooden cart down the streets of Singapore, calling out to passers-by to try her laska – fat yellow noodles coated in rich spicy coconut milk. My father said that his mother’s laska was one of the best he had ever tasted. Yet, despite how delicious it was, each bowl only earned my grandmother a few cents and she had struggled to make ends meet.

Given how poor my grandparents were and the conditions my parents grew up in, it is not surprising that my parents were not great fans of the arts. Painting, writing and singing were thought to be a pursuit of the rich and my parents discouraged me from taking them seriously. It didn’t help that at that time, the government had largely emphasized on commerce and sciences as key drivers of the economy. Doctors, lawyers, bankers and engineers were the occupations that would secure your future. Writers, designers and musicians were not.

In secondary school, my parents wanted me to study science. I wanted to study literature. We compromised and I did both subjects. When I graduated, they saw that I had zero affinity with Chemistry and Physics and urged me to do business. I wanted to write stories. Again, we compromised and I graduated with a degree in journalism — a career that came with at least a paycheck.

This disinclination toward the arts, however, was not to say that the older generation were devoid of creativity. My mother often reminisced how supple and juicy her late mother’s handmade fish balls were. My grandmother would meticulously debone the fish, smack the meat incessantly with her hands and then painstakingly roll each thumb-sized flesh into a ball and cook them in soup. Sometimes, she would form them into rectangular shapes and fry them as fish cakes. I only eat fish balls because they are easy to get in any supermarket. To make them from scratch is simply too much work. I couldn’t understand why she would spend effort doing that. Isn’t it much simpler to just steam the fish whole? When questioned, my mother paused for a while before simply replying, “She did it so that we won’t be bored eating the same thing every day.”

When I heard that, I had newfound respect for my grandmother. This was a woman who had to go to the market before the crack of dawn, help her husband sell fish, return home, clean the house and look after over ten children. Yet she found the time and interest to roll fish meat into bouncy balls! She was definitely an artist in her own right. I wondered where her passions could have taken her if only she had the resources to pursue them.

In that sense, I consider myself lucky to be born after my parents, at a time when my country is finally taking a broader step in cultivating the arts. More schools and companies have been set up to shape artists, playwrights and athletes in the last ten years compared to my parents’ generation. I find that comforting because this means that the younger generation will have more opportunities and outlets to express themselves. But more importantly, this also means that there is now more ways to catalog our past. As a writer, I am fascinated with the details of my family and often find myself referring to the ways my grandparents and parents had led their lives in my stories; details on how they had made the most of what little they had. It is such anecdotes that define my culture and I find it difficult to separate them from my writing, and count it a privilege to be able to recuperate some of this history back into my work.