At Home in a Bookshop

One of my poems calls home a four-letter word.

I write about that four-letter word a lot. Often through a nomadic lens. A longing, or a feeling, as brittle as an idea, as tight as a knot in your stomach, a noun passing as a verb. My various interpretations of home is the poetic equivalence to being strapped on a mediaeval torture device and having it stretched beyond its means (and meaning.)

Having recently relocated to the other side of the world, my homesickness is of a peculiar kind. Mostly tied to people and food, and not just from Hong Kong. From Sri Lanka too, where I was born, and the Philippines where I spent several formative years. Sometimes the longing is to travel back to places I have only visited. I had the most decadent vegan (!) feast of my life during a stay at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand. Another recent desire was to go back to Siem Reap and meander through the temple ruins of the Angkor civilisation. I was bewildered to learn of an overlap between the Angkor and Mayan civilisations. I knew considerably more about the latter, though the former was a mere 90 minute flight away. The bizarre familiarity of Singapore, a casual extension of Hong Kong because of friends and loved ones scattered across both cities. Adjusting my peripheral vision to Melbourne, and then eating my way through the city. The many shades of green, and warming hospitality of Ireland. Business trips to London. Reading poems on a stage, anywhere.

I feel far away, further every day from many of the places I have known and loved, a common feeling as this pandemic bleeds into the second year. We are discovering, albeit slowly (because safety first) the many delights of our new home in Switzerland, but COVID has also cheated us from the goodbyes we owed and hellos we are yet to have.

There is one particular pining for an at-home feeling that has become an itch I can’t wait to scratch, and that is, quite simply going to a bookshop. Or more accurately, finding my bookshop here.

There are few simple pleasures I find as thrilling, and have been wired like this ever since I was a little girl when my mother would deposit me in the nearest one whilst she shopped. (Something I secretly hope my own family would do!) I never found the time I ‘killed’ at a bookshop wasted. The excitement and low-grade anxiety at finding ‘the one’ for the weekend, or as a present for someone else (I don’t need the hand-wringing that comes with this but is still my favourite thing to gift people.) I miss it all.

Here are some of my favourites from around the world… starting with my home town of Hong Kong.

Bookazine is where you would find me cross-legged on the floor as a child and popping in often on my lunchbreak as an adult. It’s been very cool growing up with Bookazine, although I would concede that their glow-up has been far snazzier than my own. Younger me would be delighted to know that I eventually launched my own book there, and I will admit openly and self-indulgently that seeing it in their branches all over the city remains a personal highlight. I have seen people glance over it, pick it up, give it a once over and put it down, and thrillingly, once someone took it to the counter. I considered saying something for a nano-second and was so embarrassed by the thought I ran out of there to the relief of my bank balance.

Bleak House Books is effortlessly cool, an indomitable spirit and a literary light in the city. They sell both new and second-hand books from all over the world with enviable curation prowess. Some of my most treasured books originated from their shelves – a vintage copy of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and the graphic novel ‘Rosalie Lightning,’ for instance. They also carry the largest collection of pocketbook Penguin classics I have seen in Hong Kong. In normal times, Bleak House Books host multiple events in support of the literary community and are a real asset to and amplifier of the Hong Kong literary scene.

Flow Books is a scavenger hunt disguised as a second-hand bookshop. The floor-to-ceiling gravity-defying tetris of books is a wonderful visual metaphor for the Central/Soho neighbourhood it is based in. There is extreme danger of doing some damage to your neck as you crane horizontally and vertically looking for a gem amongst the bestseller duplicates of the last two decades. I have knocked over more towers of books than I should publicly admit, but have also discovered some real gems. Oddly, a 700+ historical account of the Vietnam War is one of my prized possessions from Flow.

Onward to Singapore!

Books Actually – I have never felt so gobsmacked by the sheer volume of Asian literary talent and how front-and-centre-shout-from-the-rooftops celebrated local authors are. I made a rather non-human sound at the poetry section alone, which was prominent, well-stocked and expertly sourced. A browse around the shop is an education in how diverse bookshelves can be. Brain candy, wherever you look. The most prominent feature (for me) was a book vending machine in front of the shop. The books in the vending machine are uniformly wrapped, with only the briefest of lines about them to entice you to purchase. I regret not doing so, convinced it wouldn’t be long before I returned (with a bigger suitcase.)

Finally, to London where pleasure always mixed with business, certainly where books were concerned.

Persephone Books is justifiably a cult favourite. Both bookshop and publisher, Persephone re-publishes 19th and 20th century books from predominantly female authors whose work gets a second life where they may have been under-appreciated the first time around. The books are limited, numbered, and printed in signature cool grey covers, and walking into the shop is a minimalist, feminist dream. The end papers are unique to each book, and comes with a matching bookmark which as you can imagine, is deeply satisfying. Their free catalog is sent all over the world and has become a favourite way to spend an hour or so with a giant marker and an even bigger cup of tea. They aren’t just beautiful books. The variety is wonderful, and there really is something for everyone. Outside of lockdown, the staff are extremely knowledgeable and though I have never visited at 4’o clock sharp to confirm this firsthand – the shop stops for tea and cake precisely at this time every day. I could do a whole series just on the books I love from Persephone Books, but will save that for another time.

Daunt Books is old-world wanderlust meets the most marvellous dark wood panelled library of your dreams. I have only been to the Marylebone shop but enter and you will see what looks like a modern-edging-on-chic bookshop – transform – or rather transport its patrons around the world by way of its ground floor galley. Think ‘Fox Books meets The Shop Around The Corner‘ from the movie You’ve Got Mail, but British, and rather grand. The books downstairs are organised by country of origin and it is easy to be completely enthralled and taken in as you peruse the shelves. There are few – bordering on no bookshops I have visited outside of Sri Lanka with more than just travel guides about the country. Outside of the county-specific selection the general fiction and nonfiction shelves are also rather excellent, or so say the number of cloth bags from Daunt that I possess..

Writing this was a rather cheering, or at the very least, settling. To have stumbled on so many wonderful bookshops in multiple countries suggests it’s not unreasonable to hope that I will be able to add to this list before long. After all, book sales are currently booming the world over according to multiple reports. Looking forward to the day where we can do more than add-to-cart, although having said that, I know at least three of the shops above offer book subscription services worth checking out.

A Post US-Election Dash of Nash.

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I felt it deeply, you know.

For those of us who value diversity and have it reflected in our work, lives and communities, this was a strike against what we believed was the status quo. How has the world’s largest superpower followed an alarming global trend that supports hateful and divisive rhetoric?

I’ve been taught differently since Sesame Street. These ideals were imported in, which is perhaps why I personally felt let down by them. To expect better, to rebel against oppression, to demand more, and to be that change. My instinct tells me to reject anything that challenges these ideals unequivocally. Yet, here we are the morning after, with the realization that I could have done a lot more to understand the societal fault-lines that have brought us here.

The thing is, when you get to half the population that seemingly repudiate the values that many of us hold dear, because these are the same people that feel hard done by a society who they say has left them behind, maybe we should have asked why. This is not about dissent of the ignorant– though they are out there too – people who feel their vitriol is validated. They are part of, but not representative of the silent majority.

This rise of the far or alternative right is steadfast and widespread and I suspect for reasons beyond what is immediately apparent. We can’t blame it all on Caucasian men, or women not having other women’s backs, or anything else that can be explained neatly and tied in a bow. We also can’t blame the DNC and Clinton scandals without looking at why Trump’s were ignored.

When you boil it all down, the republicans had a candidate that its own party reviled, but whom the voters identified with. We saw the opposite with Clinton. Voter turnout did the rest.

We must let ourselves consider that people who vote for the likes of Trump or Duterte were willing to look past deplorable levels of misogyny, because of what more was promised. Those that support Pauline Hanson and Brexited were willing to bear the stigma of intolerance because they felt they had no control. Feelings of disenfranchisement in systems that are leaving them poorer and rallying around characters with perceived authenticity – despite what absolute tripe comes out of their mouths.

Maybe all they saw was an opportunity cost.  (Electing a climate change denier, as an opportunity cost – Holy shit.)

We knew enough to know this was possible, but what I ask now, and what I asked last night at Peel Street Poetry was how could we not know it was this possible. This is beyond policy – this is a problem at grassroots levels.

In Hong Kong, I feel as though we are in the midst of an ideological war. In many ways I live in a bubble within a bubble. When Brexit happened I was scandalized because I expected better. After last night I was saddened not because I was wrong to expect progress to prevail – but because I was so off the mark with what progress meant. I wanted to hear the shards from that shattered glass ceiling fall even here in Asia. That inclusion dispels fear, that love trumps hate. I wanted the US to be that example to buck the trend, not confirm it.

I am afraid of what will come next, but I also feel that this year has helped me realize that there is work to be done. Those imported ideals weren’t wrong, they just needed to be actioned.

I’ll keep doing it the best way I know how. A meeting of minds and merging of narratives. A place for expression and community.

We need our poets and artists, our photographers and storytellers. We need to let the communities we are a part of that are hurt most by this to know that we will validate their sadness,  and we will continue to be on the side of history that visibly and unequivocally stood by them to support equality, social justice and freedom of expression.

If you’re in Hong Kong, come be a part of the conversation. No surprises for next time.

Peel Street Poetry – Every Wednesday except the first Wednesday of the month @ Orange Peel.

#TagPotpourri On Beaches, Art, Connectivity and Innovation

We’re back in the swing of things with back to school, something that my colleagues could have attested to at the beginning of this week to those that watched me scream obscenities – albeit telepathically – at the fax machine.

We ended summer with a final happy day at the beach. The littler of the two wee Gallaghers, on several occasions attempted to walk into the ocean. I tried to get her to help me collect shells but she was more interested in standing at the shoreline and taking it all in. I can’t say I blame her. Her older brother dug a hole, mostly – not wholly unexpected behaviour for your average four year old. As we’re technically in China, I was looking forward to see where the hole would lead to before remembering that we were on a man-made beach and the prospect of more concrete wasn’t very exciting at all – to either of us.

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We’ll definitely be going back soon, for more shells and sand and walks across water and holes to the other side of the world. I did end up with a few choice shells and as I was checking them to make sure there weren’t any sea squishes I was about to accidentally re-home it struck me that mother nature’s been recycling well before we ever identified a need to. Nature innovates. (More on that later)

I was surprised with the below drawings in my inbox from my friend Keon Lee.  I had a vague desire to get the Gallagher family cartoon-i-fied which I casually  mentioned on Facebook only to be surprised with these caricatures of Me, Angus, and the kids. Which do you think captures us best?

The Gallaghers - Simpsons Style
The Gallaghers – Simpsons Style By Keon Lee

The Gallaghers - Muppet Style
The Gallaghers – Muppet Style By Keon Lee

I should start using Facebook like a magic lamp more often.

The only thing better than having awesome friends is having multi-talented awesome friends like the same Mr. Keon Lee who is also in My Big Gay Italian Wedding From 25-29 September @ The Fringe Club. Angus and I will be going – Tickets sold at HK Ticketing.

I’ve decided to give the WordPress iPhone app a go in an attempt to get this post out before the weekend, so thanks to rapidly changing user expectations, I am finishing this post via my commute home. The pollution has thinned thankfully after Tuesday’s midnight thundering (responsible in part for the fun hump-day exhaustion) and it hangs over Tsing Ma bridge  for the first time this week like gauze. Having grown up in Hong Kong, I am no stranger to poor air quality given the pros and cons of living here, this issue is of tater-tot proportions within the small potato category —  (#FirstWorldProblems anyone?) and it’s pretty easy to forget that we all share a part in the bigger, spuddy issues of modern living . Hasn’t pollution always been a negative externality on the road to development?

Tsing Ma Bridge on one of her better days

I was at a fascinating talk a couple of months ago by Vijay Vaitheeswaran, Global correspondent to The Economist and author of Need, Speed and Greed –How the New Rules of Innovation Can Transform Businesses, Propel Nations to Greatness and Tame the World’s Most Wicked Problems.

This interview goes into some aspects of his talk: Innovation in the age of Globalization and Googlization.To paraphrase poorly, Vijay defines innovation as an action that addresses a need that goes on to create good, he gave some great examples from the Industrial Revolution to Kiva.  He argues that in the wake of a population crisis, a failing global economy and climate change that the conditions are primed for the next big revolution, or at least to create innovation ‘clusters’ (think Silicon Valley). Of the many interesting points he made during his talk, I liked what he had to say about mobile and how mobile technology enables disruptive innovations from the bottom up. To quote the article; ‘a school child in Africa with a cell phone has more information at her fingertips than an American President did in 1970.’

After the talk and the Q&A I asked him how would he condense his talk (aimed at a room full of entrepreneurs which I was crashing) so my four year old would understand it. This was his advice:

  • Look for information and ask questions
  • Don’t be afraid to make mistakes

Sound advice. I’m getting his book.

I’ve always been a big believer that when it comes to connectivity on the web, that the platform doesn’t matter. Platforms are the product of innovation in their own way. Innovation in the digital age has a lot to do with higher levels of connectivity and fresh ground to collaborate on. So platforms that respond to  user behaviour are the ones that tend to make an impact. In my late teens DeviantART answered the need I had to create, consume and share poetry which eventually lead me  to (c0)set up Poetry on Peel Street at Joyce is Not Here Artist Bar and Cafe  And how without Joyce is Not Here I would not have met my husband or know many of the incredible people we do.

Perhaps DeviantART or Joyce is Not Here isn’t everyone’s definition of ‘innovation’ but I think it’s made of the same stock as the big social hubs. They both addressed a need and with time transformed into their versions of an innovation cluster.

Much like the day those caricatures dropped in my inbox,  a few years ago I logged onto DeviantArt and was surprised  by this painting of a 17 year old me with words of a poem I wrote aged 17 by the artist Sam Raffa. This remains one of the best presents I’ve ever received by someone whose path I would have never crossed otherwise. I’ll say it again – it’s not about the platform. Places, real or virtual come and go, but their value lies in the connections they enable. So far, that’s whats changed my world, and forgive the pun – but it’s been a pretty great ride.

Hello World. I’m doing this again.

I wrote a poem a couple of years ago about how I use freeverse like a ‘little black dress’ to to conceal the fact that my writing gets as much attention as I give anything else outside the realm of being a functioning adult with human relationships, kids, a job, animals, and well, twitter (that is, not a whole lot). All managed with a borderline adulterous relationship with some form of caffeine.

I finished this poem with this;

” Free-verse for every stanza unwritten,

So this time does not fade into the forgotten.”

OK. Thoughts on the bus and in the shower, ideas that lose their steam, memories and conversations I would like to keep —  I’ve given you your stage.