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.

Help! I’m appropriating my imaginary people

willtherealslimshady

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.

Bugger.