Monday, April 14, 2008

Manna for the Desperate Writer

Day 57 and I finally caved. Only after I get back to the guest house do I realize that I'm pretty much exactly at the midpoint of my trip. By the time I'd counted the days, the deed has been done. Am I proud that I made it this far, or am I disappointed that I wasn't able to hold out for longer? Ask me again in a minute...

I'd wondered who it would be. In the end, I remained loyal, even a million miles away, to the first man who tempted me down this writing path.

At age fourteen, adrift in hormones, others' decisions about my life, and general feelings of inadequacy, I had read Paul Auster's Leviathan and had immediately followed it up with Moon Palace. For three days, I had pretended to be sick so I could stay home, finish them in one go. When I'd come to the end, I had read them again -- this time with breaks in between for school, friends and other distractions -- excited and terrified by the ideas and emotions the books had sparked in me.

I wanted to write, to see my name on spines of my own, to make people feel the way I had making my way as quickly and as slowly as I possibly could through those two novels.

Auster was the first. Few followed, but those who did -- Romain Gary, Milan Kundera, Oscar Wilde, Jorge Amado -- became my touchstones: books and authors that I returned to for advice, courage, comfort. I wanted to write, but had no idea where to start. Who was I to think I could accomplish anything even close to what these masters seemed to do with such ease? My few attempts seemed so desperate, so over-the-top and amateurish that I preferred to dream rather than put any creation of my own out there. Instead, I read. Only when I had no choice, when the words I was trying so hard to keep inside, poured out of me despite my best intentions, did I do any actual writing.

I remember the first time I showed a friend of mine a short story I had written. He is a really good friend and a "real writer": someone who gets paid to see his name in print.
"You should see my first stories," was his feedback, "they're even worse than yours!"
It wasn't exactly the response I'd been looking for. Then again, I can easily admit now that what I'd shown him was a first draft. At the time, I felt that to be able to make it as a writer, my stories would have to come out perfectly formed from the first words I threw down on paper -- or not at all. After my friend's reaction, I didn't write another short story for a good few years.

Since then, my writing has evolved as have I. I may or may not be able to call myself a writer, but I do write. Along the way, I have picked up all sorts of interesting advice and tidbits, my favorites being:
- first drafts are supposed to be shit
- we treat our writing the way we were treated as children.
- it's not the world's fault you want to be an artist, now get back to work! Get back to work!

I keep my favorite books by my bed and though I rarely pick them up anymore, I do look to them often, like a wink to an old friend who is about to sing a bad karaoke song. Auster has pushed me to keep moving when I have felt paralyzed and stuck, Amado has cheered me up, reminded me not to take it too seriously, Gary has grounded me in the reality of what writing means, how it fits into my life.

When I was packing for my trip, the stack of books I planned to bring along included more than one of my well-read old friends. I was planning to bring them along as toddler would a security blanket or a teddy bear. Unfortunately, my backpack was already too unbearably heavy to include any lightness of being; and the only moonrise I would be enjoying would not be in print but rather in person.

In the end, I took only one book with me: a non-fiction, badly written manifesto about embracing the wild woman each one of us supposedly carries inside. By week three, I'd left it behind, tucked into a shelf, between Robert Ludlum and Ekhart Tolle, for the next self-seeking Farang to endure. I was starving for fictional characters whose lives I could immerse myself in when I needed a break from the alien reality around me. I drifted between the occasional outdated Western magazine, my own writing and a fantastically enlightening but not very entertaining book entitled "Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom." The goal had been to read as many of the literary classic as I could while away. But instead of reading for pleasure, I busied myself with the pursuit of heart openers in yoga, meeting all kinds of wonderful strangers, and much much much soul-searching.

Over the past three years, I have gone back and forth about reading fiction as I write my own. At times, it has been impossible to imagine reading someone else's work as I struggled with my novel and then there have been moments when reading a piece that somebody actually finished has spurred me on. As my novel makes this trip with me, it's been growing, expanding, changing yet remaining the same - much like its author. It too has had its ups and downs as well as suffered and reveled in new cultures; and it too has yearned for a good dose of the familiar authors who have lent it so much encouragement and inspiration.

I made my way around Thailand and Kerala, trying to keep as much valuable space in my backpack for local treasures: spices, bracelets, and other souvenirs that I wouldn't be able to pick up as easily as I would books back home. From time to time, however, I would allow myself to browse one of the many second-hand English bookshops that are everywhere. The shelves overflow with everything from Shakespeare to New Age, thrillers to Danielle Steele, catering to the backpackers and tourists who, in turn, keep the inventory well-stocked. I would browse the racks sometimes for the better part of an afternoon, forgoing temples and other sites in order to read a chapter or paragraph of anything I thought might help combat the homesickness, the fear, the loneliness. I would pick up whatever book called to me at that moment, let it fall open to whatever random page. I looked for messages, clues as to what to do, feel, where to go next. It's like tarot for the desperate writer.

Second-hand bookstores have always been a passion of mine -- the smell of old paper, the overlooked gems. Usually I have trouble holding back. Not on this trip. I wanted to touch the covers, flip through the pages, but I had no problem walking out empty-handed: with so many options, who could I choose as my temporary companion -- the question felt too large for a concrete decision.

In every shop, I encountered copies of my beloved favorites but I resisted, feeling it would be silly to buy an overpriced version of something I have not only read a few times but, more than likely, own more than one copy of already.

But by the time I returned to Thailand from India, I was ready to pick up a few novels I was supposedly interested in. What did I have to lose? In theory, this was a great step forward, but in reality none were meant to be: each book I bought was resold at half price, unread, as I prepared to move on to my next destination.

Before heading off to stay with my Thai friends, however, I lucked out: after thoroughly enjoying "A Tale of Two Lives" by Vikram Seth, I had become curious about him. "A Suitable Boy" was too thick, too heavy to drag along, so I settled on "An Equal Music". And as is the case with all literature that transcends its author's experience, the book could not have been more appropriate for me at that exact moment in time.

"An Equal Music" is about music and love. It is about what our senses remember when everything else feels strange. And that is exactly what I experienced living with my Thai friends.

Have I mentioned that I reek these days? After five days of ingesting everything from pigs' ears to gecko (or more likely lizard), MSG to fish sauce to every color in the curry rainbow (not to mention more sugar than I have consumed in the last five years), my digestive system has officially gone on strike. I don't recognize the scent of my body. If I was stuck in a dark room, I wouldn't be able to pick myself out. For five days, I ate what they ate, slept how they slept, bathed how they bathed. And I loved every second of it though none of it -- except for the constant blasting of the television which reminds me of Israel -- felt in any way related to my day-to day.

We spent five days journeying from Jim's family to Auon's family, from the city to the country. I slept on the floor under an old lady's feet, and shared a bed with an infant. I watched my dinner get slaughtered, and made incense-infused wishes for the dead.

For five days, I was pointed at, laughed at, I committed faux-pas after faux pas, and tasted everything they handed me. Though they warned me that the food was "Pet Pet", spicy, I ate what they ate, with only a few more used tissues to distinguish between us.

The only thing I did not compromise on was that, unlike the Thais who use a small shower hose to wash after using the loo, I carried a roll of toilet paper with me wherever we went -- and I used it!

Jim, Bom, Auon and their friends are roughly the same age as me. But they have families to support -- two or three generations: from their children to their grandparents. The day after we arrived at Jim's mother's, she pulled out three large bags of cash, the past three months of wages from the restaurant. They dumped the bags all over the floor and started to count, making piles of one hundred Baht, groups of one thousand Baht. Ten minutes later, I was the only one still at it as everyone else had found better things to do.

That night, Jim's entire family arrived -- brothers, half-brothers, aunts, uncles, nieces with boyfriends, and countless "cousins". The Celebration of the Dead was the next day and in preparation, we crammed into the house, most sleeping on the floor in any corner where there was space.

We got to the cemetery by eight the next morning. Days start early in Thailand, and by ten, I usually felt the sun should be setting. There were about twenty of us but hundreds of people crowded around the other graves. A few had plaques, but most were simply large mounds of sand that people were decorating with streamers, flags and confetti for the celebration.

Every family had brought along a feast. In our case, Jim's mother and aunts were laying out fresh crab, king prawns, whole chickens and ducks with heads still attached, mountains of fresh fruit, rice, a multitude of sauces, drinks, a single beer, and a pig's head. It seemed strange to me to offer up such a vast quantity of food while there were so many of us that needing to be fed.

Breakfast was as much of a production as lunch and dinner: spicy catfish, boiled fillets in a vinegar sauce, crab, shrimp in sweet ginger sauce and, of course, the mandatory bowls of kaw -- the never-ending supply of white rice that is spooned out of one of the three immense rice makers. Rice is cooling and balances out the spicy, hot properties of the spices used in Thai cooking.

I wondered what was going to happen to all of the food they had laid out, but everyone seemed busy and I was offered no explanation.

Throughout the five days, we were either driving for hours on end or thrown on someone's floor, hanging out, chatting, doing not much of anything. This was also the case at the cemetery where we stood around for a few hours after everything had been set up. There were no prayers or chants, or ceremonies. Suddenly someone lit up the fire crackers Bom had strung from one of the trees, and we were off! People hurled themselves at the food and shoved it in the back of the pickup truck that had been waiting, its hatch wide open in anticipation. They grabbed what food they could off the trays shoving half-peeled prawns into their mouths, noodles, oranges, whatever was closest. And there was always a hand holding something to eat stretched at me.

The crazy aunt whose feet I'd slept under the night before was downing the by then surely flat, warm beer with relish. She let out a loud burp and followed it up with a sliver of jack fruit.

Jim's mother who speaks not a word of English climbed into the back of the truck, put her hand around my waist and pulled me onto the back of the pickup truck as it started moving away. I handed her half an orange as a thank you.

After lunch, I stretched out on the floor with my book assuming they'd probably want some time to be with the family without having to answer my hundreds of questions. I'd started to nod off, contented by the feeling of melancholic London that Seth describes so beautifully when Jim burst into the room.
"You ready?"
"Ready for what?"
"We go!"
"We go to Auon family"
"Five Minute!"
My bag was stacked high with everything I'd pulled out in search of a scarf to cover my shoulders at the cemetery. Five minutes??? I shoved everything in as quickly as I could, and rushed to brush my teeth in the gutter. Within about four and a half minutes, I was ready and waiting.
Five minutes turned out to be quite a fluid concept.
Two hours later, I was still waiting. Thank God for my book.

After a couple of detours to Big C and Makro -- huge Western warehouses that sell everything from pens to apples wholesale -- we arrived at Auon's parents'. They live far outside the city, and the house couldn't be more different from Jim's mother's. There are no window panes, only wooden shutters, and creepy crawlies of every shape and form wind their way around many of the surfaces in greetimg.

Auon's father has built the house and everything in it. He obviously doesn't sew: every surface, including where we sit, is either cement or wood. It is beautiful and rustic but very uncomfortable. The guys retire to the tool area and crack open their first beers of the day.

Auon's sisters speak a little English -- they are both school teachers -- I sit next to them to watch as they make dinner on the kitchen floor. One of them is pounding spices for a curry paste, the other is chopping up half of the pig's head that Jim has brought as a gift from her family. Children run in and out. Men appear from time to time to grab rice and a snack.

Outside, Auon catches one of the chickens and slits its throat. It will be our Tom Ka soup. they will use every part of the bird, discarding only the feathers. His father jumps on an old moped and returns fifteen minutes later with wild honey that he has just climbed a tree to collect.

I am chopping pig's ear.

Never in my life have I wanted to be a vegetarian as much as I do that night. I would have gone hungry, however.

During those five days, I reach for my writing whenever I can. It's more like a way of staying in touch with what I know, with my own life, like the comfort of coffee and a cigarette at breakfast, than because I have anything specific to jot down. I try to note all the details of what's going on around me and even though the content is, for the most part, totally new, the familiar action of writing itself is what I'm grabbing hold of.

The group of kids squashing cockroaches with rotten planks of wood. Auon's mother who blushes and runs away every time our eyes meet. The two sisters who seem to forget and remember their English depending on who is in the room with us. That night, I sleep between one-year-old Pow and drunken Bom on the living room floor, staring up at some sort of reptilian worm that has attached itself to the ceiling directly above me as I listen to Auon slurp slugs out of their shells at two in the morning.

"If I can, I change with you," Jim says to me more than once. "You can go everywhere, I have to work to get money for my family."
Jim's children will grow up living with her mother because they work too hard to take them to school. There is no time in their lives for the hours of questioning. What would they do with doubt? How could their lives be different if their answers changed? It doesn't matter; they don't have that luxury.

It's about keeping your feet clean and enjoying a good laugh, about tasting the sweetness of the cherries you find on the tree under which you share your lunch, about keeping the baby happy by bouncing him up and down rather than parking him in front of the television, I think to myself rather condescendingly on the first day.

Throughout the five days, there are times when I admire how they live, and times when I would give a good big wad of Western cash for bits of Western luxury. The bathroom, for example, is located right next to the kitchen and though there is a door, it is not sealed up to the ceiling, so everything is audible. While I've become quite astute at squatting and aiming into the small hole in the ground, I am unable to reconcile the privacy I am used to with doing my business within such clear earshot of so many others (not to mention having to walk out into the crowd immediately following my performance). I don't mind having to wash in my sarong, or the lack of hot (running) water, but I could do without the dead bugs in my bucket and along the walls at night when I try to sneak in a private loo run.

I take every opportunity to return to my book, delve away from the heat and humidity, back to the rain that seems to always be falling in London -- at least in this book. The grey skies, I remember those. I look up at the jackfruit tree above me. There are huge green sacks of ripe fruit hanging down ready to be cut. Stray dogs roll around in the sand. The children have found an old jute bag that they are using to pull each other around with. In the book, the string quartet has finished a performance and the protagonist is wandering through the drizzle thinking about his long lost love. Once in a while, I'll look up and have to remind myself of where I am, the worlds being so different from each other. I wonder how I will combine everything I have seen and done, everything I have become with who I was three months ago, who I am in London. Will there be a noticeable difference, or will it remain inside me like a memory?

There it was, symbolically sandwiched between Leviatan and Moon Palace: Auster's recounting of his struggle to make it as a writer. I had already bought one book by an Indian first-time novelist. Still, I had to have it. I needed suddenly to read his particular voice: that emotionally charged, stunted reporting of "fact" that, even in his fiction, makes me wonder how much is real; the feeling of destiny being followed and inevitably fulfilled in each paragraph; the way he recounts misfortunes and joy in his same detached tone. At least I hadn't read it before, I justified it to myself. It didn't matter, it doesn't matter. Auster is Auster -- in his worst novels (of which I'm sad to say there are quite a few) he can spiral into taking himself too seriously while his best work uses that intensity to create tension and weave his unique point of view into fantastic yet painfully realistic journeys. I feared for the first book I'd purchased and considered reselling it within ten minutes of having paid for it. Instead, I made a deal with myself that I would read that one first, leave Auster for afterwards, knowing as I decided it that that would be impossible.

Between starting this post and publishing it, I have devoured Paul Auster's book. The other is patiently waiting until I get on the train to Bangkok tomorrow, where I will be meeting up with D after having been apart for 68 days. Though I had every intention of holding off, after five days with my Thai friends followed by the twenty-five hour train ride to Chiang Mai, I had earned a few hours with an old friend.

No comments: