Lit Books

*belated post

I went to visit Lit Books in Petaling Jaya, and spent a nice morning chatting with the owners Min Hun and Elaine, both former journalists with The Edge. They are now living the dream, running their beautiful bookshop together.

The selection’s really cool and I was green with envy at the Folio Society boxed sets they had brought in. Gorgeous!

Elaine can often be found behind the counter of the little in-store cafe, and she’s fun to chat with about all things literary. She estimates that, between the two of them, the couple have read 60% of the titles they stock. A section on mythology takes centrestage once you come in the door.

There’s a kids’ book section, but you won’t find any Harry Potter titles, as Elaine explains that they would rather use the precious shelf space for titles that cannot be easily found elsewhere.

In the end, I left with a second-hand hardcover copy of The Odyssey (RM40), from the library of Min Hun’s late uncle Michael. I loved that there was a personal connection to these well-kept books. I also bought a card game about Malaysian elections, called Politico. And a couple of fabric book covers.

There’s a gourmet supermarket nearby, so in Auntie fashion, I stocked up on groceried before taking a Grab back to RD.

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Goodbye, RD and KL! Thanks for the memories!

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

My son, Lucien, on our last day at Rimbun Dahan

National Visual Arts Gallery (Balai Seni Negara)

As with many of my excursions out of Rimbun Dahan (I spend most of my time scribbling in my little house from 12pm to 4am – okay, there’s a lot of daydreaming), my visit to the Balai (as the national gallery is affectionately known among artists) came about because I tagged along with RD’s other artist-in-residence right now, Chua Shu Rei, to a talk there.

I did like a brisk-walk and still didn’t manage to see everything. Am working on a series of monologues now called “Brisk-walking in the Balai”, based on the works I saw.

A Drive-by Tour of Putrajaya

Much has been written about the administrative headquarters of Malaysia, in Putrajaya. I read an essay about the architecture of the centre of government here and had to see it. One observer had written that the Prime Minister’s office and the Putrajaya Mosque abutting it was in the style of Moroccan, Egyptian neo-Islamic grandeur which projected an image of Malaysia and then- (and now) PM Dr Mahathir as an economic and international power. (I’m trying to pick my words very carefully, as I definitely don’t want – as a guest of a Malaysian arts community in Malaysia – to be construed as spreading criticism of their country.) In any case, I find it super interesting what public architecture consciously and subconsciously says about national image and psyche (Singapore has its share of ministry monu — sorry – totally pragmatic headquarters.)

Xeem, Rimbun Dahan’s arts manager, was headed to Putrajaya to interview an architect. She very kindly agreed to drive me there and around the sights.

Here’s Xeem, a trained architect and former architecture lecturer, at the wheel of her brand-new little red Myvi (which still has the new car smell) – “You can call me Miss Information!” “Okay! And I am your very good and attentive student, Miss Understand!”:

My frantic attempts to photograph everything while in a moving car, trying not to drop my phone onto the road, while the rain came in through the window:

Me: “What is this?” Miss Information: “Gosh. New. I have no idea.”

Me: “Hey, that bridge looks like a kite!” Miss Information: “Really? It looks like a bejewelled vagina. Especially when they light it up at night.”

Driving at a crawl down the avenue towards PM’s building

Ministry of Finance, with a facade down which rainwater cascades gracefully, evoking the abundance of wealth

Miss Information: “This is the supreme court –” Me: “Wahhhhh so nice!”

After the tour, we headed to IOI mall for Xeem’s appointment, and – apparently like most local people who have no business there – immediately got hopelessly lost. It takes a long time just to drive one round around the area, round its moat-like artificial lake, to get back on the right track. And thus concluded my very fun and unscientific investigation of Putrajaya.

Petaling Street, KL

Malaysian artist Wong Xiang Yi, a really cool painter in the Chinese ink tradition, is on a year-long residency in Rimbun Dahan until February 2018. She works out of a studio near the main house, where I would find her on top of a big table, working on a large canvas.

She needed to go to Kuala Lumpur city to buy a big container in which to transport her artworks, and kindly agreed to let me tag along. We made a fun half-day of it, cutting through KL’s Chinatown, where migrants not from China peddle fake designer handbags and other bric-a-brac. After we stopped at Wisma Selangor – an amazing building chockful of traditional Chinese calligraphy supplies like brushes and paper.

We ate fried mee tai mak at a retro (not hipster but just original) eatery.

We stumbled into a bar that looks like a toy store in front, where the decor was cute, the drinks delicious and the menu in the form of exercise books that you’d want to steal.

We went to see Paranormal String Quartet at Raw Art Space.

Then we ate fried koay teow at a mamak stall, where Malalysians were glued to the AFF finals between Malaysia and Vietnam.

It was pretty late by the time we were done. In the Grab car, the driver couldn’t quite believe I was asking him to go off-road into the Rimbun Dahan jungle to get to my house. “Are you sure there’s a house there?” he kept asking incredulously as we urged him to drive deeper into the compound, along the unlit path to my house. In the end, to convince him that we were not pontianaks, Xiang Yi had to shout: “Saya orang! Saya orang!” (I’m a person!)

The Neighbourhood

Had a poke around Rimbun Dahan after lunch at the warung one day. The vibe along the main road is sort of industrial, dominated by tyre and car repair shops. There are a few satay and tomyum restaurants, as well as a smattering of provision shops and minimart. It was interesting enough for a short stroll, but there’s no pavement to speak of, so I’d retreat to the safety of the grassy aprons next to the road shoulder whenever a big truck comes barrelling down at 100km/h.

Keropok shop
If you’re in the market for cheap footwear…
Roadside coconut stall (unmanned)
Some mansion
Interesting traditional-looking house
Barber

Washing machine graveyard/repair shop

There’s a lane next to Rimbun Dahan that runs its length and I can sometimes hear vehicles going by on the other side of the compound wall, so I decide to investigate. Mostly vegetation until you get to the end, where there’s a cul-de-sac of half-built three- or four-storey houses guarded by some very sleepy dogs. At this point of my walk, it started to pour, so I headed back to Rimbun Dahan, a little soaked by the time I got there.

Some books from the Rimbun Dahan library

Checked out some books from the library over at Rimbun Dahan’s artisy lounge to keep me occupied (when not writing) over the weekend.

“The Khutbah Diaries” by Shanon Shah, in New Malaysian Essays 2 (Matahari Books, 2009, edited by Amir Muhammad), is a fascinating and engaging read. A Muslim’s heart-felt response to some intolerant and narrow views expressed in Friday khutbahs in Malaysian mosques and beyond, this essay reminded me of how little I know about Islam despite living my whole life in a multi-cultural society.

Malay for Everyone is a Malay language text, so you can see how determined I am to improve my Bahasa Melayu. Vita is a biography of writer Vita Sackville-West, and I can’t wait to get stuck in it (not least for the quotes from letters that say: “I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia [Woolf]…”

But I am probably most excited about Animal Architectute, about the wondrous creature-made structures in our world, like the huge nests of the spinifex termite.

Whoever said crickets…

…chirp when it’s silent knows nothing. The crickets at Rimbun Dahan are LOUD. They sound like a buzzing metallic orchestra. Like supersonic car alarms going off in unison. I’m wearing ear plugs right now, I kid you not. When it gets a bit hard to think, I yell “Enough!” to no one in particular in my little house. They ignore me, of course.

On the upside, who says it gets lonely around here?

Daydreaming at the Warung

The first rule of the Malayan jungle is: You do not stop in the middle to take a selfie.

If you do, you will find yourself quickly transformed into a feeding post for mosquitoes. Even if you are as well-wrapped up as I am, in parka and long pants (sons of bitches go for your phone-holding hand and idiot photo-taking face). Imagine here then a photo of the ripe jackfruit clustered at the bottom of the nangka tree that I saw on the way out to lunch.

Walk purposefully instead, down the muddy ruts made by the tyres of cars coming and going from the musicians’ hideout at Penang House. Keep going until you see the green avenue leading to the main road – the moss-green cobble-stone lane shaded by tall trees of your dreams. Keep going, until you narrowly avoid being run down by a three-tonner and dodge traffic to cross a dual carriageway.

There, you’re at the Warung Selera Ria. Where a plate of nasi campur plus a can of Coke is costing me RM10.50 (S$3.50). Where the head-scarfed ladies working here smile at me and are amused by my uncovered buzzed hair and complete lack of Malay conversational skills beyond “makan” and “minum”. I do the tourist thing and sit, dawdling over my rice, watching people come and go: a woman dressed in a completely white uniform, down to sensible white shoes, whom I assume is a nurse, buys a packed lunch and then drives off business-like in a little blue hatchback; a dude with sunglasses too small for his face, in a Manchester United jersey, arrives to drink teh halia with a friend; assorted pakciks shoot the breeze with clove cigarettes between stained fingers.

If this were a Wong Kar Wai movie, it’ll be 1994 and a long shot of the protagonist sitting, elbows propped on table, while the world flits by on sped-up motion would ensue. I’m warung dreaming.

Elsewhere, crowds gather this weekend at rallies in KL city.

My half-eaten lunch (not a food blogger, yo)
A view of Rimbun Dahan’s main gate from the warung

Home for the next 26 days

My home until the end of December is Rumah Balai, which roughly means House of the Hall in Malay (I google-translated it). It used to be a balai, which is essentially an open-air shed/studio for artists before it was turned into cosy accommodations for one. According to Xeem, the arts manager here, writers like Rumah Balai for its peace and quiet – it’s in the back compound, further away from the main building and main road.

The first night here, I had a shit-load of crickets screeching outside for company. Then a bunch of musician/dancers from Germany moved into Penang House across the compound, and now I can hear them practising their violin. Sometimes, I see one of them having a smoke on their verandah and we wave hi. So it’s really pleasant.

I keep the windows closed to keep out the mosquitoes (mosquito coil once a day really helps), but the house has latticework under the roof so ventilation’s really good. With the ceiling fan going, it even gets quite chilly at night. Here’s where I sleep:

And here’s where I write:

Not super neat, I know, but everything’s within reach.

Dining:

And kitchen:

Most of the time, I’m sitting here, fanning myself like a towkay while I think:

There’s a warung across the road where I eat my lunch with my newspaper and try to pretend I can understand Malay (“teh o is limau, minum” is the extent of my spoken vocabulary). And there’s an artist lounge-cum-staff office where I pop by when I need to borrow books or crave quick human interaction.

Other than that, I’m pretty much left to my own devices. There’s a supermarket about 10 minutes away by Grab. Nothing fancy – the mall’s called The Store – but you can get pretty much all the groceries and sundries you need there.

It’s been raining most of the time since I got here, which is great, because I love the sound of rain. In fact, another thunderstorm is preparing to come down on us as I type this. Okay, back to the grind.