Happy New Year’s eve! I haven’t been doing a good job of posting stuff, but am now at the airport furiously using up the last 300mb of my mobile data before I fly home. It’s been a productive residency, and I’ve figured out a lot about myself, and my relationship with the world, sitting alone in Rumah Balai.
We did an event on Dec 29, where I invited people to come read my joss paper poems and then burn them. The idea was to see if this can form a special contract between writer and reader – the readers become a kind of community, bearing witness to the writing, which disappears once rendered into ashes. Some lessons:
- I wasn’t as sad as I thought I’d be, watching the joss paper poems being incinerated. It was actually quite liberating to let them go – now I can write more! I don’t have to worry about shepherding them through the world like I do the published works. I didn’t even much care what the readers thought of them. The words existed, then they were gone, and that was enough.
- Some of the readers felt sad while burning the poems. It was one of the intentions of the project to examine these sorts of emotions: that immense guilt of destroying someone’s words and idea – but tempered by the knowledge that this is the writer’s wish. Do we do tribute to the living this way? Do we honour the dead and the spirits? My son, nine, wadded his up in his palm and refused to burn the slip of joss paper, until I said I would do it with him. I held the lighter while he touched the paper with the flame. He was the last “burner” and it felt fitting we were doing it as mother and child. Although *I* felt guilty for letting him play with fire and singe his fingers.
- Burning a book is harder than it looks/sounds. The weather was so humid that the paper was really damp and wouldn’t catch fire easily. It took a lot of effort and patience just to burn a few pages. Proof that it isn’t so easy to destroy a writer’s work or mind. And proof also that the readers who attended the event were really nice people who helped to see the project through, despite mozzies attacking us in the dark.
I’m going home with at least two short stories, a poem (not burnt), some leftoverd from the joss paper project (message me if you’d like to read and burn one, I will send it to you), pages from a memoir about my late aunt, and lots and lots of memories. I used to think I wanted to be a hermit and move to the mountains on my own. But I have also realised that I do appreciate people and the inspiration they spark. I scattered the ashes of the joss paper around Rumah Balai. So, hopefully, if you ever visit Rimbun Dahan, you can feel ever so slight a trace there – maybe in the way the trees grow a little taller from the extra fertiliser.