I read my first Steinbeck during December’s annual bookmas, and ‘East of Eden‘ became an instant favourite. I like how the story felt coaxed through its characters; a tale that is already salacious and mad and allegorical and no less literary mastery — but the characters, full, imperfect, timeless really stood out. I love how each person wove into or contrasted against the backdrop of the Salinas Valley. It left me with a feeling of completeness, a reader’s nirvana at the end of a book.
Reading during the holidays often feels like a headfirst dive through a book, wholly immersive, with the added benefit of having the time to back-stroke through the story later on, sometimes with my writing goggles on. This is in part why I started this rather bookish instagram – to reflect and connect with other book nerds.
The Salinas Valley features heavily in Steinbeck’s work, bringing to mind the adage ‘Write what you know.’ I read The God of Small Things‘ prior to ‘East of Eden‘ – another book that’s been on my mental ‘to read’ shelf for over a decade, which features another kind of river and another parochial setting conveyed with an intimate understanding of landscape, a carbon copy memory that transfers naturally when written down, making it a richer, authentic read. It’s why I crave Japanese food after reading Murakami. Ever notice how his characters pay attention to their food? The detail is both wonderful and cruel.
This has been on my mind recently, as a third-culture poet, writer, whathaveyou. As someone who was born in Sri Lanka, grew up in Hong Kong, and spent some of my formative years in the Philippines. Reared on a post-colonial hangover, snacking on morsels of American media. Write what you know becomes an existential balance of what you’ve observed, and what you think, and what needs context, and a voice that changes several times. How the hell does one manage that, when I can’t even tame my own accent? (Bidialectalism – see, it’s a thing.)
Ruthless rootlessness. There are several places I can pull from, but what’s right for the character can be overwhelming when there is no default setting.
Naturally the only way out of this is to write myself out of it. Narrative voice comes easy – but when dabbling in longer-form writing, my fingers stumble on my keyboard when voicing characters. Some conversations sound thin because the writing is rushed, other times it’s because of a lack of character development – and more often than not, for me it’s because I can imagine a character like an avatar builder at the beginning of a gaming console. And like in a gaming console, I can imagine that character accessing multiple worlds. Temptation is rife.
Is this why fantasy or alternative reality as a genre does so well amongst my fellow third-culture friends, not just as readers but as writers too? With the story I’m currently writing, there is temptation to move into a completely different world where place does not matter, but this would be too much of a cop-out and render the whole exercise moot. Although its obviously not the case for all writing, I’ve decided that backdrop matters to this particular piece.
The other consideration is when fantasy plays nice with reality. There is an undeniable Englishness that underpin Neverwhere, Harry Potter, the Thursday Next and His Dark Materials series’.
So either way, I need to pick a lane and allow myself the license to stay in it.
Summer is winding down, and I’ve been going through the back-to-school motions this weekend. Labels, packed lunch ideas, haircuts and internal monologues on how much finger-wiggle room there should be at the back of school shoes. So, with thanks and goodbye – here’s a pick’n’mix of our summer:
One thing that has stood out for me this summer is how K’s reading has started to gain momentum and it’s been pretty cool watching this transformation. I’ve watched his confidence grow with each word-shape memorized, and how his eyes flick to the picture for context less and less as he becomes more adept. We were passing through the playground yesterday and he pointed out to me, his tone colouring with authority :
K:‘That girl’s t-shirt says she’s ‘mummy’s happy butterfly.’
Me: ‘Yes, it does, well done!’
K: ‘Well, she’s not.’
Didn’t really occur to me to ask why not.
Angus and I also cracked up after we spotted this note K left for us tonight after we told him off for various misdemeanors. :
This learning to read lark is especially significant for me because reading and writing have always intertwined in my life. I started doing the one as soon as I learned the other. I’m actually working on a series of three poems (triage sounds pretentious – even to me) on reading, writing and arithmetic which fits nicely with the back-to-school feel of this post. The poems need some serious refining but admittedly, earlier versions have been read at Joyce’s Peel Street Poetry. (Every Wednesday from 8 onward / 49 Peel Street. COME!) I find a voice can carry a poem a lot better than words on paper – and you can generally disguise any flaws with intonation.
The purist in me wants to cry ‘wolf’ at this but half-finished, half-arsed writing is sometimes the compromise I have to make in order to keep the rhythm going. Failure to comply results in a cyclical tirade of poems about poems, writing, or the lack thereof – and I really don’t want to go there again. The editing stage has now become the meat and potatoes of the writing process which has been good for me. Time constraints demand I have to be really clear about what I want to say in each poem. I can no longer entertain writer’s block. I keep trying – consistently – a couple of times a week, and the best part is; even if nothing comes out of it I feel like my subconscious gets a little exercise and it never feels like a waste of time.
Back to K and his reading – here’s a part of that poem:
My four year old’s homework comes in dot-dot-dot’s, trace the letter,
Strokes one, two, three – ALWAYS, one, two, three.
Use a ruler to join the sound and the picture.
Colour her dress red. No, not blue – Red!
There are lines that he must stay in, NOT straddle,
His letters must sit,
And if his pencil is not sharp enough we get notes sent home.
See that, I still get notes sent home.
At bedtime he takes the book from me,
And we’re back there again – the World about to get bigger,
The hover before a first step,
He reads the shape, his lips rhythmic, lashes flick
from print to glossy Oxford Reader pictures for a hint,
He finds cliffhangers in the sound of a suffix,
his voice mounting to hysteria, look at me, mummy!
Our grins playing Marco Polo,
My boy has already found a way outside the lines,
Eyes glistening with first dew of a new outside.
The first paragraph makes a reference to K and our experience of kindergarten homework in Hong Kong. It was also in part inspired by my friend Tanya Hart’s excellent Quintile Class Book Project. I think this series is brilliantly executed, candid, and for anyone from this region: this will strike a chord.