On Going Home is the name we've given to a short series of essays by our fall residents. We commissioned the pieces because we wanted to keep in touch and were curious about what the process of returning home was like for authors who'd spent nearly 3 months in the U.S. writing, researching, traveling, and interacting with Americans. We also asked the authors to send us a photograph that represented "home" in some fundamental way. Our second installment comes from poet and blogger Pandora, whose transition home coincided with a larger transition currently budding in Burma/Myanmar.
It is no longer the delightful rays of light through the window that start my day. It is the vibration of the water pump that serves as my wake-up alarm. When I open my eyes, the walls, the ceiling, the curtains, the wardrobe, the washing machine at the corner of the room and most evidently, a mosquito net covering me and my hubby sleeping next to me…. all these confirm that I am home.
I spent almost three months in Iowa City and other cities in America. What is specific about Iowa City, to me, is “tranquility” though the same might not necessarily be true in all parts of America. Most days I encountered in the fall season were cool enough to create a fresh atmosphere and warm enough to keep an Asian visitor like me comfortable. Most Iowans use their own legs to get around town yet they don’t look tired. They seem relaxed yet active. They don’t have to be in a hurry yet still are on time. I lost a few kilos walking around town during my residency. The changing colors of beautiful leaves enchanted me, being a person who has never experienced a four-season country. New Orleans’ crazy nights raised my spirits. Art museums were my favorite places to visit in Chicago, Washington DC, and New York.
Back in Yangon, I miss the opportunity to walk naturally from place to place. I find myself in a vehicle most of the time but I usually have to be in a rush. The increasing import of cars is making driving inconvenient, even for those who own cars, not to mention those who take public transport. Going downtown during the daytime is a sweaty journey in heavy traffic. I miss the breeze blowing across the bridge over the Iowa River. Nevertheless, what is a relief to me is the momentum of the “transition” in my country. Finally we’re starting to see a faint light at the other end of the tunnel.
I arrived back home from the States in mid-November last year, which is considered the cold season in my country. Hence, after witnessing the prettiest fall in the States, excepting Sandy hurricane, I was back home to enjoy the best season in my country. For most IWP writers, the day after they landed might have been hectic, with piles of tasks on their desks. I am fortunate enough to still be on a long leave from my job in Singapore (since late 2011) in order to enjoy the sense of home and plan for my family. Fortunately again, the timing also coincides with significant changes in my country, the so-called transition period.
Transition brings us a more open outlook of the world toward a closed country. We are receiving global attention to literature and culture along with political changes. After the gradual easing of censorship to some extent, literary and artistic events can be held without needing to pass through a strict process, unlike in previous times. Among them are the Blue Wind Multimedia International Art Festival, the Irrawaddy International Literary Festival, and several other art exhibitions and literary events.
The voice of the people is also heard louder in the transition although whether that voice can carry the expected changes is another story. Such a voice is also reflected in literary and artistic work. Messages are clearer and styles are more direct as compared to the past, when we had to be very cautious about each and every word we expressed. Applause for such writings is also heard from the audience. Some poets express their excitement at the shifting trends in poetics and at witnessing the new challenges of writing in the process of openness.
I remember the students I met in Iowa City, Des Moines, Spirit Lake and News Orleans. I was so envious that regardless of their ages, from primary school to seniors in college, they had opportunities to learn about contemporary international literature and hear updates from international writers. Such opportunities might not come quickly to Myanmar, but I was so glad when an IWP team visited universities in Yangon and gave lectures this year [poets Christopher Merrill, Robert Hass, and Brenda Hillman, and fiction writer Zuwena Packer visited Burma/Myanmar on an IWP reading tour January 11 - 17, 2013]. I hope that this will pave the way for future long term collaborations in creative writing between universities in the States and Myanmar.
Transition is not a perfect process. Despite some improvements, we are still hearing the ugly roar of civil war in the north and the noise of ethnic conflicts in the western part of the country. Farmers are still struggling for their land rights against big industrial projects. Factory workers are fighting for a better quality of work-life. We hope that democracy, still in its infancy, is not overwhelmed by the feeble educational system and the fundamental inequalities that have existed since the time of the tough ruling regime. Don’t these poor, long-suffering people deserve a pleasant future ahead?
Now, many streets all over the country are decorated with yellowish Ngu and reddish Sein Pan: the local seasonal flowers. People are waiting for Padauk, the national flower, which is supposed to blossom only once in a year right at the time of the Water Festival. The Water Festival is also called “Thingyan”, which comes from a Pali word meaning “transition”. During the “transition”, people wish for bad deeds to be cleansed by cool water and replaced with a genuinely clean body and mind in order to welcome a better New Year. Despite some still unclean dirt, I believe that the brighter and cleaner days are on their way, seen or unseen.
Maybe it’s also the time when the IWP is preparing for the upcoming fall residency. Perhaps the sweet memories of IWP’s fall 2012 residents will be replaced with those of the new batch soon. But I believe that my little footprints will remain indelible in Iowa City, whether visible or invisible.
For more from Pandora, watch her On the Map interview.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be publishing a short series of essays commissioned from writers who participated in the 2012 fall residency. We began the series, “On Going Home,” last year as a way to keep in touch and get a glimpse of what the process of returning home was like for authors who'd spent nearly three months in the U.S. writing, researching, travelling, and interacting with Americans. We asked the authors to include a photograph that represented "home" in some fundamental way. This year’s first installment comes from Genevieve L. Asenjo, a fiction writer, poet, and translator who lives in Manila, in the Philippines; the photograph is the view from the terrace of the author's condo.
America was an introduction to vastness. I returned to my one-bedroom condominium unit in Manila last November feeling suffocated. I wondered how to best fit and display those shipped boxes of books from Prairie Lights, The Haunted Bookshop, Faulkner, The Strand on my already cramped shelves.
Space! This is one thing that awed me about America. Its big open skies and long stretch of land brought me not to seas and beaches comparable to the Philippines but to equally amazing bodies of water: Lake MacBride, The Mississippi River, Barataria Swamps and Wetlands. The 4-hour ride from Iowa City to Chicago was considered near; I relished the 9-hour road trip to Michigan State University the last week of October with two Filipino-American graduate students for a Philippine Studies Conference. And oh, how I wanted to dance either in my long skirt or peasant dress in the middle of cornfields and prairies in that autumn breeze and burst of colors! The closest thing I got, of course, was a portrait by Tom Langdon shot inside the Iowa House Hotel on an October afternoon.
By then, the autumn chill made me fret for home, or somewhere Southwest. I consoled myself that I still needed to see my ‘first real snow.’ A fellow writer with a good view of the Iowa River promised to summon me on the first instance of flurry. No luck, even to the moment the airport-bound limousine collected us from the Broadway-street hotel of our post-Sandy New York trip. Could the regret and relief in my sighs be assuaged by the Kronos Quartet that astonished us all at The Englert Theatre when news of a snowstorm all over the Midwest reached me last December by smartphone in the sunny comfort of my parents’ farm? The farm is on an island in the heart of the archipelago, an hour by plane from Manila and 2-hour land ride boasting an Instagram-worthy seascape. I thought of Scarlet O’Hara’s Tara and Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead. I stayed there throughout Christmas with a heightened valuation of things rural and agricultural as they have become synonymous to slow, organic, well-being. There’s nothing romantic about Philippine poverty; I deeply appreciated the farm trips to Erem Acreage and Solstead. It affirmed for me the possibility of a writing life nourished by my own share of land in a community capable of growing its own produce. And you bet, it become closer and nearer to any point I could find myself using Google maps.
But coming home was really about hard-boiled eggs for breakfast and all-time favorite Filipino dishes like sinigang, adobo, lechon. Never mind rice, I had it from the New Pioneer Co-op. My hunger and sadness in Iowa rested on pizza, bagels, microwave meals, paper cups and plastic utensils yet I was glad to be introduced to the Cajun and Creole cuisine of New Orleans.
“How was Iowa? How much have you written?” Friends asked. To the young ones, I told them about meeting Hualing Nieh Engle in person and giggled with them about Paul’s line for her, “In terrible haste, in full love,” as she told us in the documentary One Tree Three Lives. To colleagues, of how witty Elaine Showalter was, and to many other fellow writers, the thought after listening to Junot Diaz: that we should be writing about our Filipino doctors and nurses and seafarers, so maybe our writing in English will also be read, primarily, by our countrymen and women in diaspora.
More than newly-acquired books, Facebook updates on meaningful moments and photos of places traveled to, collaboration with New York Battery Dance Company, friendship with the staff and fellow international writers, some of whom I introduced in an elective course titled Contemporary World Fiction when I resumed teaching last January, the International Writing Program (IWP) gifted me with empathy for America and the Americans. The rodeo trip, barn dance with the seniors, and farm visits unveiled to me the rural side of America; “the other side,” maybe even “the real America” beyond Hollywood and foreign policy. Engagements toward the reelection of Barack Obama attuned me to America’s share of miseries and burdens. It was made believable by sights of many homeless people in parks and streets, stories of unemployment and that of veterans and families of American troops, and the tug of tax and tipping.
Every time I go out to my terrace and am confronted by a dense cityscape, my mind zooms out and settles in a vast void. A horizon. There, a lingering – the delight I knew well, for instance, when I read Clarice Lispector for the first time, in translation, from the University of Iowa Library, or when I rediscovered Robert Hass, skipping a grocery trip with Mary. Here, I hunger for more words like I desire an oyster. Clear, simple words for those intimate gestures of the mind and heart one keeps in different time zones, thousands of miles above sea level. At times I am startled, as if a squirrel passed by. Mostly, I feel light; glad to have walked Iowa’s ground and made peace with history.
On Going Home is the name we've given to a short series of essays by our 2011 fall residents. We commissioned the pieces because we wanted to keep in touch and because we were curious to know what the process of returning home was like for authors who'd spent nearly three months in the U.S. writing, researching, travelling, and interacting with Americans. We also asked the authors to send us a photograph that somehow represented "home" in some fundamental way. This latest installment comes from Jeremy Tiang, who has been travelling so extensively and over such a number of years that the term "home" doesn't hold quite the same meaning as it might for others.
My father is a Jaffna Tamil from Sri Lanka – although he was born in Singapore, and prefers not to acknowledge the existence of Sri Lanka (he refers to himself as “Ceylonese”). On my mother’s side, we were wealthy landowners in China until my great-great-uncle gambled away the family money (nice going, Unc!). Then my great-great-grandmother got religion and came to Malaysia as a bible-woman to spread the word of God, bringing my grandfather with her. She died out here, and he ended up in an orphanage. My mother was born in Malaysia after the war, and moved to Singapore in the fifties.
Given all this, it’s not surprising I’ve turned out pretty nomadic too. I left Singapore at nineteen to go to university in England, and since then have been wandering. A little while back in Singapore as a high school teacher, and then a few years in London as a moderately unsuccessful actor (my IMDB page is a graveyard of straight-to-video films). When I started writing, I realized I could do my job anywhere in the world, like the littlest hobo. So I gave away my cello, my bicycle and ninety per cent of my books, and packed my bags.
Since then, I have written a lot about the spaces between cultures, and the sense of dislocation we experience when we move into an unfamiliar space with new rules to be discovered. The things we think of as “normal” are often conditional, an idea that is difficult to grasp until you travel to a place where the norms are different. At the moment, I am working on a short story collection to be titled – if my agent will allow it – “Schwellenangst,” the German word for the fear of crossing boundaries.
When I was invited to Iowa in 2011, it seemed par for the course – I’d just finished travelling round Malaysia and Thailand speaking to survivors of the Malayan Emergency, in preparation for writing a novel about the region’s communist past. I’d been to North America several times before, but only the big cities. Here was my chance to experience the mid-west! The real America! I’d read Richard Ford, I thought I knew the score.
It turned out that America was far more complex than I’d ever imagined, an impression subsequently reinforced by the Republican primaries. I’m still reeling from, on one hand, the tremendous energy, intelligence and generosity I experienced and, on the other, seeing grade schools with anti-abortion displays in their front yards. (Even as I type these words, they sound so incredible I can’t help wondering if I’ve made this up – but no, the image is pretty well seared into my memory). All in all, an unforgettable experience, and one that I will always be grateful for.
The problem came when I was contacted, asking if I’d be interested in writing a piece for the IWP blog. Of course I would! It’s the least I could do after all that camaraderie over Pabst Blue Ribbon. Yet the topic gave me pause – “On Going Home.” All well and good for people with homes. But where did I fit in? My family is still in Singapore, and I put my parents’ address on forms because it’s the only permanent one I have, even though I haven’t lived there for sixteen years. So where is home?
After Iowa, I spent a month in a flophouse in the Bronx. Literally, a flophouse. It was like being in an O. Henry story. I spent Christmas in Singapore, then headed to Beijing, where I worked with the novelist Zhang Yueran to translate her novel The Promise Bird into English. (We met in Iowa – thanks again, IWP!) Next, a couple of months on the Baltic Coast of Germany, attending another residency in the seaside town of Kühlungsborn. After a flying visit to the London Book Fair, I'm preparing to head back home to Singapore - though it's anyone's guess how long I'll stay there. To quote Roxie Hart in Chicago: "I'm on my toes/ 'cause heaven knows/ a movin' target's hard to hit."
So, yes, home? My home at the moment is a series of hotel rooms, which quickly become personalized because I use hundreds of post-it notes to remind myself where I am in the story I’m currently writing. The cleaners probably think I’m a serial killer. It’s very liberating to be this mobile. Literally everything I own in the world fits into my suitcase. I’ve become very good at not acquiring stuff, and giving books away as soon as I’ve finished them. Drunken eBay shopping is a thing of the past – the question I ask myself now is not “Do I need X?” or “Can I afford X?” but “Do I really want to carry X across three continents?” It’s also shaped my reading habits. Most of Jonathan Franzen is out, for instance, because his books weigh so damn much.
Before you start: yes, thank you, I am aware that kindles exist. But (i) most Chinese books aren’t available in e-book format, and (ii) thanks to the murky world of copyright restrictions, amazon can’t really deal with you unless you’re permanently based in one country. And I prefer physical books, although that love is challenged when I find myself in a hotel with no elevator. Just me, three flights of stairs, and a suitcase full of paperbacks.
Don’t get me wrong. I would, one day, like to live in a proper house again. Somewhere with furniture and cats and neighbors who’ll stay long enough for me to learn their names. I’d like to be normal and have backyard barbecues and go to IKEA on weekends. Not to mention the lure of owning actual bookshelves! Maybe one day soon. At the moment, though, there’s such a lot of world to see, and I’m lucky enough to be in an eminently portable profession, one that allows me to see it.
On Going Home is the name we've given to a short series of essays by our 2011 fall residents. We commissioned the pieces because we wanted to keep in touch and because we were curious to know what the process of returning home was like for authors who'd spent nearly three months in the U.S. writing, researching, travelling, and interacting with Americans. We also asked the authors to send us a photograph that somehow represented "home" in some fundamental way. This installment of the series comes from Zoë Strachan, a fiction writer who lives in Glasgow, Scotland, and the photograph is the view from the front window of the author's flat.
Outside the train window, England sweeps by. I am returning from a speaking engagement at a university in the West Midlands. One landscape looks as flat as Iowa, but when I narrow my eyes I can just make out hills in the distance. The fields are green and there is a haze of buds on the trees. A whippet figure-eights through a field of ponies and chickens. The train rounds a corner and lurking in a valley is a derelict textile mill, enormous and uncanny. Calves give way to lambs as the hills grow more emphatic. Soon the fields are smaller and bound by dry stane dykes, as we call them in Scotland. This does not feel like another country. Will it still be home if we gain independence?
Washing flaps outside houses that would match a child’s drawing; solid, stone built like the dykes, windows twinkling, door smiling. Houses built for resilience, now bought for roses round the door, Sunday lunches and chaotic siblings. I imagine a writing room with plain plaster walls, a jug of wild flowers on the wooden desk. Bees making lazy circuits through the open window. When a sentence doesn’t come I’ll go outside and squeeze the cotton of the sheets on the line.
In Iowa City I wrote by an open window with a view of a church spire. Flannery O’Connor went there, someone told me, but I am not a churchgoer, nor do I idolise Flannery O’Connor. Still, it was pretty in the autumn sun, the clock a pleasing intimation of mortality. I don’t really get homesick when I’m away, if I’m writing, though one afternoon I sat on a bench in the Ped Mall and listened to a man shouting and swearing into his cellphone. It broke the gentility of the Midwest, reminded me of Glasgow. When I’m writing, I forget things. Not people but possessions, places. It is easy to feel landlocked so far from the sea, or so I’ve found, but the rippling corn fields of Iowa seemed ocean enough.
In Glasgow I live in the attic flat of a house conversion on a rundown square near the motorway that rips through the centre of the city. There are bees in the Victorian central garden but no cicadas. A gap site where a home for wayward girls burned down – fifty years ago, more - has been turned into a community garden. Nearby someone once carved a huge penis in the still-wet concrete of the pavement. My local bar does not have the Zombies on its jukebox and I have never seen a Filipino poet writing in one of the booths, or a Pakistani author dancing round the pool table. There is no pool table; dominoes is the game. At home I write in a narrow room at the back of the house that I think might once have been the toilet. (My partner disagrees.)
When I left Iowa City I knew I was going back to a period of not writing. I was teaching, travelling to Toronto and Berlin, catching up. While I wasn’t writing, memories of Iowa tided me over. I thought of friends and fellow writers, of sitting in a rocking chair on Barbara’s porch and reading, of walking under the shade of the trees that line those wide, sleepy streets. The editorial meetings I had with Louise over rough wine and hot nuts in George’s. But then I took another job, got ill, and the not-writing kept on. The memories retreated, although I could still picture myself sitting by the open window in that attic conversion on Jefferson, looking out at the church spire and then down at the pages in front of me.
My stay in Iowa City was too short. I would have liked to see the seasons change, and my novel gain a couple more chapters. With a few extra weeks maybe I’d have grown sick enough of people to ease the farewells. Residencies like this are an idyll, and then you go back to the everyday. Perhaps in time you stop pretending that you will see your friends from Korea or India again.
It is five and a half months since I packed up my notebooks and manuscripts and had one last late night drink in the Foxhead. The journey has taken longer than I imagined but now, on this train hurtling towards Glasgow and my little room at the back of the house, I am picking up my pen and coming home.
On Going Home is the name we've given to a short series of essays by our 2011 fall residents. We commissioned the pieces because we wanted to keep in touch and because we were curious to know what the process of returning home was like for authors who'd spent nearly three months in the U.S. writing, researching, travelling, and interacting with Americans. We also asked the authors to send us a photograph that somehow represented "home" in some fundamental way. The third installment of the series comes from Josephine Rowe, a fiction writer from Melbourne, Australia, seen here in her study drinking her “millionth cup of tea” alongside her cat, Molly.
On Going Home
(or Sacroiliitis, The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker, and Other Things I Came Home To)
Whatever made my fingernails hard
(the water, we suspected) is wearing
off. Now they’re always ragged, always
snagging on something.
I’m travelling light, I joked once
(though I was) and there were
things I didn’t carry home, things
I can’t find names for, even now.
When people ask me how Iowa was, I become the girl from Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?”—She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying.
I’ve tried several times to adequately summarise those three months in the Midwest: my Israeli friends’ wedding, dinner with a Nobel Laureate, the incredible authors that were breezing through town almost nightly, three dollar Tanqueray martinis at happy hour, the jukebox at the Foxhead, recurring commiserations about the death of narrative in American poetry, late night Youtube marathons, the Gatorade and other provisions left at my hotel door when I was too sick to stand up, the colour of the sky the night Bruegger’s Bagels burnt down. There, that should do. But it doesn’t do, and no matter how much of it I tell, some of it gets lost. Most of it gets lost, and beneath all the talk, there is the sedimentary layer of guilt that forms every time I leave a foreign country—I should have done more, seen more, experienced more. Gotten to know people better. Simultaneously written more and spent less time at my desk. Been some better, more eloquent, more capable version of myself.
I came home to spring, pollen on the air, an overgrown garden, plastic bank notes that seemed too colourful, too bright, like play money. I came home to a wedding (my own), a manuscript deadline and a diagnosis of Sacroiliitis, which until then had the less specific and thus more friendly name of lumbago. After the wedding, where my determination to dance had left my back in a worse state than before, I doubled my Celebrex intake and wrote around the edges of things: travel, Christmas, settling back in. Or more likely the other way around—Christmas and travel and settling back in happened around the edges of writing, and I finished my manuscript in cafes and airports, on country trains, from the dining room table and at the makeshift desk of a borrowed studio in Perth. The studio was on the second floor of a cavernous federation building with eighteen foot ceilings—a huge room cluttered with photography paraphernalia and packages of new pyjamas. I was alone there most of the time, and it was difficult to procrastinate, though I spent part of Christmas eve lifting up the conspicuously loose floorboards, trying to see what was underneath, and avoiding the temptation to tear open a set of pyjamas and make myself at home.
In Melbourne the dining-room table was still crowded with wedding gifts; Wedgwood limestone, bottles of single malt whisky and fine glassware, the pristine Royal DeLuxe typewriter a friend’s grandfather had learnt to type on, The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker. But I favoured the dining table over my own desk, as my own desk (not so much a desk as an antique sewing table) measured seventeen by twenty-nine inches and there was not enough room to spread out all the notebooks, loose sheets of paper, scrawled-over envelopes and other book-related chaos that had accumulated over the past year.
Amidst this chaos were the notebooks I’d filled in Iowa—first drafts, editing notes and descriptive fragments about road trips to rural New South Wales, the smell of bluegum, the HMAS Otway surfacing in Sydney Harbour, a dilapidated apartment block in a post-bohemian inner-Melbourne suburb, a shirtless man leaning back against a Malley’s esky.
Away from Melbourne, in my IH hotel room, I’d stared out at the Iowa River and wrote almost exclusively about home. Where previously I’d taken great care to construct settings that were familiar yet placeless, the foundations of these stories were unequivocally Australian.
Do you think the Australian landscape influences your writing? A student asked following a talk I gave to the U of I International Literature Today class.
Do you feel isolated in Australia? Do you feel far away?
These were simple questions, but they were also something of a revelation. When I visit the U.S. I’m often met with an idea of Australia that does not in any way resemble my idea of Australia, at least as far as left-leaning literary Melbourne is concerned. We’re all reading The Atlantic over here, dissecting Caitlin Flanagan’s alternately vicious and possessive article about Joan Didion. We’re listening to podcasts of This American Life and lining up at the Athenaeum to see Ira Glass in person. We’re cringing when Mitt Romney’s face appears in the papers. Three years ago we were throwing Obama inauguration parties. We’re all watching Boardwalk Empire, and The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker is sitting in the middle of my table. I don’t even get New Yorker cartoons—does anybody?—but there they are.
Geographically speaking, yes, America is far away. But the distance seems to differ depending on which continent you’re standing on. Culturally, commercially, politically, the U.S. is embedded in Australian lifestyle. By comparison, I did feel removed from Australia while living in Iowa City, and perhaps this is why most of what I wrote during the fall was so determinedly Australian. I missed home. I felt far away.
It is January, post-wedding, post-deadline, post-travel, etc., and without those various sources of momentum I’ve hit something of a lull. Fortunately, Melbourne itself is in something of a lull, something a friend of mine used to call empty January, where nothing much gets done. Maybe there’s a Midwestern equivalent around July. January in Melbourne is all cider and bare limbs and tennis and music festivals. Weekends are a drowsy haze of barbeques and lawn games. This year, both bocce and lawn bowls have been forsaken for Kubb, a Swedish game that no-one really understands the rules of, and which mainly involves throwing bits of wood at other bits of wood, thus culminating in the bruising of many a shin.
After one such incident I sit out of the final few rounds of a game, my left leg wrapped in a sarong full of ice. A friend digs around in the esky and passes me a consolatory beer, then sits beside me on the grass.
So, I haven’t asked yet, he says. Iowa. Was Iowa amazing?
It was, yes, thank you.