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Yeow Kai Chai On Going Home

The "On Going Home" series offers a glimpse of what returning home means for authors who have spent three months in the U.S. as part of the International Writing Program's Fall Residency. This week's installment comes to us from Yeow Kai Chai:

It sprang, unexpected, a sprig of memories.

Yeow Kai Chai at his desk, holding a collection of poetry from Matthea Harvey, purchased after her reading at Prairie Lights.
Yeow Kai Chai at his desk, holding a collection of poetry from Matthea Harvey, purchased after her reading at Prairie Lights.

As I sat at my desk in my room, the other day, listening to the susurrus of the Monsoon rain pitter-pattering on the windowpane, a flourish of sounds from the Iowa House Hotel welled up from inside me.

Who could forget being awakened every morning by the drill, knock and saw of construction armoury; the “beep, beep, beep” of a truck/crane reversing; the banter in the hallway audible through paper-thin walls? And then there was that cavalry of alarm bells going off in the wee hours, shrill like Verdi.

One never knows what these triggers are, and when they will strike. One sniff of these Proustian madeleines, and suddenly, I am transported back to the cornfields of Iowa. Physically, I am home in busy, sunny Singapore, having returned from a 10-week sojourn attending the Iowa Writing Program’s Fall Residency – to a new job, a new office, new colleagues.

Looking outside my window, I see home afresh. I marvel at the tall public housing blocks nestled to each other. I smell the zest in the after-rain. I look out for the stray cat I had not seen for months. What the Residency has given me – a resensitization to surroundings, and I’m not taking anything for granted.

Am I home? One glance at my acquisitions – books bought from Prairie Lights, The Haunted Bookshop, Faulkner House Books, The Strand, a book sale at the Cedar Rapids Public Library, mementos from Akar and Iowa Artisans Gallery, the David Bowie Is exhibit postcards from Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art – and I wonder whether all this… stuff, now chucked aside, constitutes home.

Home is where you were born in, or where you are based for a longer period of time, right? But is that it? Home, I’ve come to realize, is more an emotional vessel, a sense of belonging to a community – and memories are the contents in that vessel.

For example, if you had followed the chatter on our IWP 2014 Facebook group, it would appear the trivialities of everyday inconveniences were a constant chorus.

The mattress was too hard/soft. Could we please have anything else aside from the boring breakfast carousel of yoghurt, cereal, toast? Might we have a kitchen so we could whip up our own delicious dishes? Looking back, I could see the litany of complaints as part of our efforts to make the place less like a hotel, and more like, well, a home.

I am reminded, too, of the essay ‘World Lite’, as raised by Associate Professor Harry Stecoupoulos at a panel during the Iowa City Book Festival. The premise of the essay in n+1 magazine is that world literature has come to represent a canon of eminently readable and immensely marketable writings packaged for mass consumption. These are exemplified by authors like “Orhan Pamuk, Ma Jian, and Haruki Murakami, who successfully transcend their homelands and emerge into a planetary system where their work can acquire a universal relevance.”

Was I complicit to this system by taking part in IWP? Was I merely a statistic that fulfils the global-lit agendum, what critic Marjorie Perloff once dismissed as “identity politics and the foregrounding of poets based on identity alone”? I don’t know. The answers are not so clear-cut.

Every contact – every point of difference, every miscommunication – was amplified. We were extra nice. We were extra grouchy. We were extra obsequious. Corralling about 30 international writers into one residency was a sociological experiment. We are all bundles of contradictions and we brought our insights and our baggage.

The 10 weeks breezed past like a season of a reality TV show, part scripted, and largely not. It was a hybrid of the singing contest The Voice, the sitcom Arrested Development, and the British comedy series Mind Your Language.

We worked with dancers and failed abysmally at dancing. We entertained ourselves dressing up in the Burmese longyi. There was singing and music (the Mandatories’ zinger on the social security number as well as one writer’s tremulously sung version of ‘Killing Me Softly’ stood out.). There was romance. There was much alchohol consumed at Dave’s Fox Head Tavern. In a bar along Bourbon Street in New Orleans, a few of us relived our youth dancing unabashedly to Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’, Glee-style. There were close encounters with marshmallow-chomping alligators at the swamps; statuesque drag queens at Studio 13; benign dentists and hot paramedics. There were writerly get-togethers such as The Hillary Readings at the Common Room on Wednesdays, where we shared anecdotes, works-in-progress, favourite words, not to mention some unmentionable secrets.

There was stereotyping, and much debunking to be done. Names were mangled. Nicknames given. There was merriment, and a few awkward moments. At times, it felt like you were watching a version of yourself, and you laughed and cried at his shenanigans. I was acutely aware I was representing my country, and at the same time, I knew my writing was not representative of the literature back home.

So, what impact would IWP have on me as a writer? Right this moment, a couple of scenes haunt. One was a photo taken by Icelandic author Gerður Kristný: It captured the side-profile of a small Amish girl we saw at a fair in Kalona. She looked like a character right out of a Rembrandt painting. The second was the sight of writers and IWP staff lounging on the banks of Lake MacBride, munching on crackers or fruits, or reading the latest Haruki Murakami or David Mitchell. It reminds me of Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – but of course, we were more relaxed, more casual than the 19th-century Parisians.

A snapshot of the writers and IWP staff relaxing at Lake MacBride.
A snapshot of the writers and IWP staff relaxing at Lake MacBride.

And so, it dawns: How different are we, really? Take a look at yourself and you realise you are a constitution of everything you have experienced, everyone you have met. Each writer, staff, student, stranger encountered so far have all become a part of me. They will surface, transmogrified, in some mysterious way, in my writing.

Iowa City is 14 hours behind Singapore, and a part of me is still back in Iowa House Hotel; waking up to another day, knocking on Mamle’s room, celebrating Sabata’s birthday, cycling with Lwin and Heekyung, goofy-dancing with Kathleen to Future Islands, sprinkling crushed peppermint on yoghurt at Yotopia, brisk-walking to Shambaugh House… wondering who else I may meet, what I may write today.

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