Back to school because my lit, lit life leads me there, perhaps more often than I want. Bookstores used to be why writers traveled, but given the rise of E-Books, online book tours can be more efficient “travel.” Many festivals and writing conferences wouldn’t happen without university support, and even academic conferences admit a writer or two.
So I’m on my way from Melbourne to Sydney, ruminating on the global-lit journey that has brought me back to these two major Australian cities after 32 years.
Here are two reasons:
Authors Robin Hemley & Des Barry
You’ve met Robin in my blog before—we’re counting the places in the world we’ve had a drink together. The list grows longer with each passing moon cycle. Robin is the reason that I’m in Australia, and teach creative writing, and have this second parallel university career with my writing life after 18 years in international marketing & management.
So this past week that lit, lit life took me first to Bangkok and then to Kyoto, two cities where I’m decidedly “foreign” even though I am mistaken for “local.”
But first a pause to recall Han Suyin who died at the age of 96. Never heard of her? That’s the problem with “global characteristics” for that lit, lit life because light fractures, refracts, wanes. But she is remembered by both the U.S. and China in equally lengthy obituaries.
Way to go, girl!
A Many Splendored Thing remains one of the more progressive “fictions” of transgressive love, of hybridity, of the ravages of war on ordinary lives. Now if only some publisher will bring it back in print???? It took forever to obtain permission to include a small excerpt in City Voices, an anthology of Hong Kong writing in English I co-edited (2003).
Here’s the paperback version I read as a girl in Hong Kong.
You’ll find the book second hand and in most libraries.
My aspiration in life is to loaf. These days, life seems to be much ado about aspiration, or so the brand-marketing-image-makers would have us believe. We aspire to fame (and living forever, as that song goes) and wealth, stardom for a second on YouTube, regardless.
Me? I want, like Larry, an American character in The Razor’s Edge, to loaf. A novel first read when I was maybe 15 or 16. If you grew up in Asia and aspired to write in English, the journey demanded W. Somerset Maugham as a fellow traveler. He was everything a lit, lit lifer (with global characteristics) wanted to be—sexually active and fraught, famous and egotistical, financially successful, an intrepid mind traveler who physically traveled (and lived) in luxury. Prolific, he penned some forgettable stories as well as incredible, literary gems. Could be worse. Plus he was an Aquarian, like me.
There was a time I traveled without checking in luggage. Business trips. Harrowing schedules. No time to wait at carousels when you could be speeding to your next meeting to harass a supplier or fawn over a client. Now that I’ve left that life behind in favor of this lit, lit one, I travel with large, empty bags to be filled with goods from other lands. Books. Shoes in half sizes (hard to find in Hong Kong). Affordable organics. Etc.
Not entirely unlike the “parallel traders” that worry the residents of Sheung Shui and create headaches for both the Chinese and Hong Kong governments.
Myriad headaches abound lately for these Chinese governments and societies with wannabe democratic characteristics. “Moral and national education” in Hong Kong schools that the government finally gave up on. Uninhabited islands over which Asian nations squabble that send protesters to consulates in a patriotic fervor. The burning and tearing of flags. The waving of signs with just enough English for international media cameras. Somber, silent or stumbling officials who say too much, too little or the wrong thing as they choreograph photo ops.Continue Reading
Good morning. It’s a day for an air walk on that lit, lit sojourn. Coffee? Here’s the view above my tatami mat, one of Liu Zhen’s “Landscapes of the Mind,” a lacquer painting.
Liu Zhen is a talented, and unusual, young (b. 1970) Shanghai-based artist. Unusual for his patience in one so young. Working with lacquer takes time, and making each of his works reflects a discipline of process.
But let’s step out the front door. Hong Kong Island’s due south straight ahead.
I used to live in Singapore. In ’94, just before my first book was released, a corporation moved me to this tropical, island city-state. It still feels like home whenever I fly into Changi at the eastern end of the island. Prison neighborhood. The street where I lived. My house was quite unbelievably beautiful, according to journal-me, a month into the move, high ceilings, lots of light and space, lots of air, a front and back garden, papaya trees with very sweet papaya, birds of paradise out back, frangipani out front. It’s a very royal setting. The site used to be a Buddhist temple . . .
My book, a “novel” my former publishers named it, but really, connected stories, could have won global awards for the most disappointing, dreadful, disgustingly dumb book cover of forever (hence, “former”). Fortunately, that version’s vanished, replaced by the 2nd paper edition and E-book. (I really, really like my backlist on E-books, from Book Cyclone- especially when royalty checks roll in :).
Shades of pink at Café Gray’s bar where I met the omnipresent Nigel Collettfor drinks. Nigel fits comfortably into my lit, lit life. For one thing, we’re contemporaries. As much as I love writing “this younger writer,” as I did last blog, it’s reassuring to bump into others on this same journey who actually remember Neil Armstrong (R.I.P.) on the moon because we weren’t still in a womb (or awaiting conception) somewhere on the planet.
For another, we both live lives that let us age slowly because we simply need more time to get everything done!
Armstrong was a modest man, a former military man, like Nigel (military and modest, that is) who has led his own brand of a remarkable life. Not only has he lived all over the world, he learnt about a gazillion languages (Nepalese, Pakistani, Baluchi, to name a few, and when I say “learnt,” enough to produce dictionaries). Then, he leaves the military and writes a startlingly readable biography of Reginald Dyer – The Butcher of Amristar.
Which is how our paths crossed a few years back. Okay, I’m not normally a reader of biographies or military history, but in the interest of supporting theTongzhi Literary Group (TLG) which Nigel founded, I read his book. And simply couldn’t put it down.
Tongzhi 同 志, or “comrade” in CCP (Chinese Communist Party) discourse, actually means the same will or purpose. It has been coopted as the term for the Chinese LGBT community. The TLG is the first literary group in Hong Kong to successfully and continuously embrace a bi-lingual (English-Chinese) literary ethos. You would think this latter emphasis a no-brainer in this tri-lingual city (Cantonese, English and Mandarin) but nooooooo, not if you’re a former British colony (Nigel is rolling his eyes here) given to separation of the races.
But on history and contemporaries, Memory Lane. (Nostalgia, yea – beware o younger writer, ye too shall age) In my thirties, before I published my first book, I met a slightly older American writer – Robert (Bob) H. Abel - who first found his way to China back in 1987, after having published several books and won the Flannery O’Connor award for fiction. We became literary pen pal for years, until email killed our correspondence, but I saved every one of those letters that arrived by post.
That used to be the tenor of the lit, lit life across the globe. Yes, yes, I know, paper, trees, etc., but, but, but.
Neverrrminddd, as Roseanne Rosannadanna of Saturday Night Live fame used to say, alias Gilda Radner (1946 – 1989), another star, sadly, extinguished too soon.
But back to Bob, who is alive, semi-retired (although who on that lit, lit life ever “retires”) and busily producing these amazing silk-screened images. As one who has remained engaged with China, he makes an interesting note about language on his website:
“What has fixated my interest in China, however, goes past the politics, economics and history, and even the language (which I have been struggling to learn for 10 years with minimal success) to the people I have met there and through their generosity come to know – to the degree that such relationships can be forged across cultures, personal histories, differing perspectives, and the ever-present dangers and drama inherent in translation.”
His novel Riding The Tiger graces my bookshelf and is one of the most profound and deliciously wicked satires of China. A romp of a read.
Curious, the machinations of memory. I had not meant to recollect and memorialize but I did love Leslie Cheung and Gilda Radner. These passions keep you going.
The problem with global characteristics is how often you’re reminded of the razing scythe of globalization and its ability to obliterate the maps that guide us.
Not always though. We still have words (and music) to break the bones of that Gray-Grey shaded side of life.
* * *
So now, a musical interlude from the recesses of memory, Monty Python’s Life of Brian:
Monty Python, a weekly pleasure of teenage life back in that British colony.
* * *
Pythonesque, it’s taken an unconscionably long 15 years for the Ang-Am (Anglo-American,what else??) lit world to catch up, but finally, an English translation of the novel Atlas by leading Hong Kong author Dung Kai-cheung 董 啟章
Atlas goes on the bookshelf as one of the next must-reads.
* * *
But I promised the story of the revenge of the Garuda, didn’t I? For now, here at least is the shadow of the Garuda as he flies past the coast of the Americas, headed undoubtedly to Asia.
I sighted him on the way to French oysters and New Zealand chardonnay with John Stewart, the Sri Lankan oysterman (not Jon who broadcasts news on Comedy), when I briefly looked up from the pages of The Collective by Don Lee. As Nigel says, such lives we lead. He heads to Bangkok soon; I join “Women on the Move” in Singapore from where I’ll blog in next.
And then you say you will / And then you won’t . . . “Undecided” (1938) by Sid Robin & Charlie Shavers
About itineraries, here’s Robin Hemley’s: He was going to stopover in Hong Kong, and then he wasn’t, and then he was, wasn’t, and finally did because a typhoon swirled in Manila and his flight was postponed. Lit life hazard 101 (with Filipino characteristics).
Ella Fitzgerald at 22 could have been singing about our airwaves:
We caught up at our watering hole on Knutsford Terrace that muggy Monday night. I had just returned from Byron Bay and Robin had just arrived from Iowa City.
32 years. That’s how long it’s been since I last set foot on Australia’s east coast. Byron Bay was a soft landing after the long absence, because here was a surfer’s paradise, a gourmet’s paradise, a wine aficionado’s paradise . . . okay, okay so waxing overly lyrical etc., but honestly, you’ll wish you were there too.
Sunset at Byron Bay
Byron Bay’s writers’ festival is indeed a tented sight to behold. VIP’ed my way into the 14th annual one, and they do treat you well. At the Brisbane airport, a man in red bearing my name on a sign drove me south down the highway – you’ll be able to have a sleep, he said – on a smooth, two-hour ride. It was morning when I arrived from Singapore, and customs security was a polite request to step into this line so that the hound patrol could sniff my bags. The indignities of airport security vanish around this adorably cute mutt, and less than two minutes later, you’re on your way.