I’m thrilled to announce that my book, The Utopia Machine (working title) has been shortlisted for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize! There are four finalists, all of whom will have their books published by Epigram, and the final winner of the prize will be announced at a gala dinner on the 23rd of November.
I am incredibly grateful for the validation this gives me for my writing, especially my fiction writing, which is relatively new, and both excited and nervous about the final result. It hasn’t been an easy year for me, with health problems and other difficulties, but I am grateful for all the twists and turns that led me to complete my novel in July. Every writer wants to see their work in print and for readers to crack their books open, so one of the best parts of this news is that the novel will be published. Am truly looking forward to holding it in my own hands.
I am thrilled to announce that my first novel manuscript, The Utopia Machine, which I’ve been working on since 2011, has been longlisted for the Epigram Fiction Prize 2017! I am beyond happy at the news. Congratulations to everyone on the longlist and I’m keeping everything crossed for the shortlist coming out Oct 21! Check out the Straits Times article here.
In the meantime, I have dug out the first draft of the novel, which I wrote out in longhand before typing into the computer in these two notebooks:
Here’s a peek into them – I basically wore out my Parker Sonnet writing this book. It is now in pieces.
It’s interesting to see what has changed and what hasn’t changed between the first draft and the version I sent to Epigram for the prize on August 1. There are definitely whole passages and chunks that remained the same since the first draft, but where the plot goes essentially deviated hugely from my initial outline. There are whole chapters I had to discard, and characters that I got rid of an reinserted again. I wonder how many people still write their novels longhand before typing them out?
I’m not sure who still reads this blog, because writing on it has felt a little bit like publishing into the void lately, but I just wanted to update people who are following my (very belabored) progress on the novel, The Utopia Machine. I started the novel at the end of 2011, more or less abandoned it, came up with another draft in 2014, and then traipsed off to China for a couple of years during which nary a word of the novel was written. I couldn’t even bear to look at it.
Well, it is now finished! At least, it is in enough of a shape for me to feel like it’s done, complete, in some way. And this is in large part thanks to my best friend, Xuwen, who kept nudging me to finish it. Even when I hated the thought of it. Even when I thought it was absolutely rubbish. I know that she got tired of saying that it’s actually pretty good, in her estimation, after a while, thanks to my petulant nihilistic rantings that it was all absolute drivel. But I always needed to hear that, and as of today, she is my first reader.
Yesterday, I printed off six copies of the thing (it weighs in at 77,201 words, and 316 A4 pages) and one of them was for her. Because even four weeks ago, I wasn’t sure I was going to do this thing – finish. I would say it was worth finishing just for the feeling I have right now, which is one of gratitude and relief. Relief, because for the first time in six years, I don’t feel guilty about not doing something. For the last six years, I have lived under the shadow of “I should be writing my novel”. Now I am free. And all because Xuwen said, “You should finish your novel. Stop writing whatever you’re writing (I was working on a short story I had started on a whim at the time) and work on your novel.” So I did.
And for the first time in a long time, I actually like the darn thing again. It’s impossible for me to be objective about it, of course, because so much of myself was poured into it, so much emotion and so much…investment. But yes, I like it. My characters are real to me once again, they have lives which I care about, and the world I created is before me. It may not sell, that’s a whole other journey I’ll have to take, but for now I am basking in the happiness of having finished. Thank you, Xuwen. If this thing ever makes it into book form, it will be dedicated to you.
The above is a quote that my college chaplain said when I was on retreat with the Episcopal Chaplaincy in New Hampshire, and it is very true. I packed myself off for a four day three night writing retreat at New Norcia, a monastic town two hours away from Perth, and just got back yesterday. It was a productive time, being by myself in the great Australian loneliness, and I got on track with my novel, The Utopia Machine, again. I’m on my fourth draft now, and I have been working on and off on it since 2011, so it’s been a long haul. However, for the first time in a long time, I’m feeling optimistic about it.
New Norcia is filled with 200 year old buildings in the Spanish style – it was settled by Benedictine monks seeking seclusion in the desert and in order to convert the aboriginals and educate the local population – it ran four schools altogether in its heyday. Although there are murkier patches in its history (including being involved in housing “orphans” who were not actually, part of the Stolen Generation), it is a peaceful and beautiful place today.
The monastery runs a guesthouse, where people are offered traditional Benedictine hospitality – room and board, for a suggested donation of $80 a day, which is eminently reasonable. The food is hearty fare, with thick soups and roasts and breaded fish and potatoes, as well as pudding during lunch.
I spent most of my time in the reading room, an upper room lined with books and comfortable armchairs. Mostly I glued my butt to a wooden chair and desk, typing away or scribbling in my notebook. Although a little cold in winter, it was excellent for concentrating on the work at hand! No wifi, which is a plus in my book, as it prevents Facebook timewasting…
This armchair is incredibly comfortable. I got through about a third of Liu Cixin’s Death’s End, the third book in the Three Body Problem trilogy, in this chair. Yup, one can’t write ALL the time, even at a writing retreat.
Here is the view from the window of the inner room of the reading room, of the little church that is in front of the guesthouse.I even managed to take a break from novel writing and pen a poem…
My little friend Jane came over again tonight during my dinner break to play with and cuddle my bunny, Momo. It may be one of the stranger friendships I have struck while here in China.
My friend Marcelo from my Bible study told me he had a student in his English class who was completely mad about bunnies and he had told her about my bunny and showed her pictures of him. He said she needed a bit of cheering up, and asked whether she could come visit my bunny.
Why not, I thought. I am still flush in the new joy of having a bunny and have been showing him off at every opportunity, and if I could bring someone a little happiness, that’s nothing to sniff at. So naturally we got connected on Wechat, and set up a date for her to visit me.
According to Marcelo, Jane was a high school girl, and when she arrived at my doorstep I instantly understood why he had been mistaken. Even though she is really in university, Jane dresses and acts like a high school kid. She’s tiny, has Chinadoll bangs, hides behind her glasses and has a habit of sticking her tongue out whenever she feels awkward – which is almost at the end of every sentence.
Her bunny mania was also readily apparent – she had cartoon bunnies embroidered on her jeans, a bunny on her backpack and even her water bottle was shaped like a carrot. She came bearing three large carrots as a gift for Momo. Each carrot was larger than the bunny itself.
The moment she got into my apartment, she instantly leapt towards the bunny, eager to pet it. She cooed at how soft and cute it was, and longed for it to stay still to let her scoop it up. As we fussed over the bunny, I got to know a bit more about her.
She is studying at Minzu University of China, the ethnic minorities university in Beijing, and her major is erhu, that most difficult of traditional Chinese instruments, named for its two strings from which any melody may be coaxed with a bow.
She is Tibetan – her Chinese name is Hua Dan Zhuo Mei – and has been playing the erhu from the time she was a preschooler. But she lamented that it was difficult to make enough money playing the erhu. Whereas Western music lessons were in high demand, traditional Chinese instrument lessons were less than half the price, at about 200 yuan per lesson (of which half goes to the music school). And it was fiercely competitive to get into an orchestra, so most music students have to make a living as a teacher.
I begged her to bring her erhu the next time she visited, and she did. After fussing over how my bunny had grown and following him around my apartment for twenty minutes, she sat down and pulled the little instrument out.
It was as diminutive as she was, and rustic looking. Its body was made out of python skin. She had mentioned that her father made erhus, and had even sold some when the family was a little worse off, but she said this one was bought from an instrument store. The little instrument looked humble and unimpressive, but the moment she drew her bow across it, it began to sing in the most winsome of ways.
There was something aching, something yearning about the strains that came from those two strings. As a lilting Chinese melody filled my apartment, the shy little girl swayed with confidence and grace as she drew the bow horizontally across the strings.
There was something exquisitely elegant about her movements now, something bold and abstract. The music vibrated the air around us, the air within us, speaking of something both far away and incredibly close.
The moment the last strains of music ended, Jane rounded her shoulders and instantly stuck out her tongue, the bashful little girl once again.
The bunny, who was in my arms throughout her performance, was completely relaxed except for his ears, which were extended fully. His eyes were wide and alert, and I whispered to him that he was probably the most privileged bunny in China, to have a private erhu recital performed especially for him.
Sudden imaginary rains come pouring down before my eyes. I can hear my bunny pattering around the room, his little feet thumping rhythms, now fast, now slow, as he hops and sprints alternately.
Bunnies change direction constantly. They twist first one way and then another in a complex, slightly arbitrary pattern meant to throw off predators. Though sometimes the twisting freedom simply expresses a bunny joy of movement, a happiness that comes from being a free-range bunny going about its own special business.
In its more quiet, contemplative moments the bunny sniffs at things, rubbing its chin against things to “own” it, or grooms itself by systematically licking itself – paws, back, chest, haunches. Not quite as flexible as a cat, there are some parts they miss. But generally rabbits are clean creatures, and there’s nothing cuter than a bunny washing its face and ears. They let down their ears and use both paws to “comb” them, licking them with their tiny pink tongues, looking like little maidens brushing their hair in the evening.
I am absolutely besotted with my bunny. I eat faster at lunch break so I can spend an hour with him at home, letting him run free around the house, scattering his little pellets.
Sometimes I scoop him up and place him on my chest, lying down so he has firm footing, and stroking his little head and ears while he clicks his teeth approvingly.
There is so much joy to be had in having a bunny. They are independent minded creatures, never aiming to monopolize your time, and sometimes contemptuous of your attempts to snuggle.
Momo is active, curious and insatiably hungry. He wanders the house in search for my stashes of bunny food, and it is only because he hasn’t discovered how to open drawers that I don’t have bunny food spilling everywhere.
As he gets older – he is only a few weeks old at present – he grows larger, stronger and sleeker. The short nose and “chibi” face of babyhood is giving way to an elegant, aquiline nose, more streamlined body and powerful hind legs.
It is an incredible joy to watch a bunny bound from one end of the bed to another in a single leap, sometimes twisting in the air in a binky. It speaks of strength, power in propulsion and pure joy.
I do not generally allow animals on my bed, or to nibble on my lower lip, but bunnies are my soft spot, and I allow Momo to do both. As he has gotten older he has come to understand that peeing on the bed is not okay (at least that’s what I hope he’s learned), and neither is attacking his human.
Somehow one’s threshold of disgust is lowered when it comes to a creature one loves. What I would have found revolting – animals on the bed or animal saliva – just seems a natural extension of the furry bundle that I love and accept. Perhaps I see my bunny as an extension of myself. Love is a mysterious thing indeed.
Spring in Beijing means willow fluff riding on the breeze, rolling in little dust bunnies on the grey pavements, the bright young green of willow leaves filtering the flat sunlight.
For a glorious month or two in March and April the temperatures are balmy, requiring only a light coat. Wave after wave of flowers bloom in extravagant masses – first the yellow yingcunhua, then the cherry blossoms, tinged just slightly pink, then the crabapples, the peach blossoms on their curious upright sticks and finally the generous peonies.
The second week of April I remembered that when I came to visit Xuwen in Beijing in 2014 it was right after my birthday, and we went to Jingshan Park where the peonies were blooming. Looking more like bowls or balls than the typical flower, these heavy blossoms are as big as a hand, or even a face. Their multiple petals form complex plays of light and shadow.
They come in magenta, crimson, pale dusty pink and the purest white and sit in rather short rounded bushes with large green leaves shaped like a duck’s webbed foot. At Jingshan Park, or “Scenic Hill” Park, so called for its panoramic views of the Forbidden City, they are planted on the ground level and also in belts along the hill, so you would encounter clusters of blossoms as you ascend to see the glistening orange rooftops of the Forbidden City.
On the serene tiers of the park are gnarled pine trees, twisted into sinuous shapes from extreme age. They frame the views of the orange tiled roofs that shimmer in the distance in the setting sun. The view of the Forbidden City is still awe-inspiring in the 21st century, even though it is no longer the seat of power in China. It is a view of great, ancient grandeur that millions of Chinese looked up to for millennia, and not even the space-age egg of the National Grand Theatre of China looming some distance away detracts from its power over the landscape.
As I climb the hill, Chinese holidaymakers make their way up alongside me in groups of three or four. Elderly Beijingers haul their fancy SLRs from flower to flower, like oversized, technologically enhanced bees. They pick out the freshest blossoms, shunning the ones that have been overblown, each intent on curating only the best of reality.
Younger women in unfashionable clothes hold their cellphones on selfie sticks, either to get closer to the blossoms (a fence separates us from them) or to position their faces in the same frame as the bountiful petals. I know the kind of photos they are aiming to produce – with sharp chins and large eyes formed by the angle the camera, tilting down on them from above. Some Chinese smartphone cameras even automatically smooth away blemishes on your skin, or tell you what age you appear to be while taking selfies. Definitely not to my taste, but apparently there is a market for that.
Just a week before going to Yunnan for my birthday the crabapple blossoms were in full bloom along the banks of the canal running through the Yuan Dynasty Park (Yuan Da Du) along the stretch around An Zhen Men subway stop. They were a magnificent sight, all shades of pink and dark red, some with many whorls of petals and some simple five-petal affairs.
There was one particular patch of stately crabapple trees which formed a pink forest under which happy Chinese people wandered, their cellphones never leaving their hands.
One woman was doing a roaring business selling corn puffs – long cylinders of crunchy corn, some of which were bent into a spiral like a lollipop. Both adults and children munch of them while appreciating the flowers.
Other enterprising people hawk flower bands made of plastic to wear on your heads like a crown and take pictures in. Girls with red, pink, yellow or blue flowers on their hair pose in front of the real blossoms, showing their best sides to the smartphone cameras.
Every time I walk down a flower-drenched street, I am filled with a sense of terrible urgency to record what I see. It almost robs me of the joy of seeing the flowers to know their terrible fragility.
One week hence, and it will all be gone, thus the desperate need to take as many snaps as possible. I wonder if we enjoyed the blossoms better before the universal access of cameras, particularly these disposable digital ones, which we store away on our phones and in the cloud barely to be recalled again.
Not much is known about Anna the prophetess except the roughest sketch of her life. But nevertheless there is a hint of enormous pain in what we do know, as well as great joy.
And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.
What was it like to have been married seven years (doubtless from when she was very young) and then live as a widow for some six or seven decades after? On a human scale it is tragic, and given the social structure of first century Israel to be husbandless was to be marginal in society. We do not know if she had any children, but we do know that she dedicated her time and energy to the temple, “worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day”.
When I thought of Anna, an image of her as a Chinese “Dama” came to mind. These middle-aged to elderly ladies are often the butt of jokes here in China, as people poke fun at them for investing in the stock market (because it is assumed they can’t possibly know what they are doing), for dancing en masse in public squares, for sporting unfashionable threads, for being generally dowdy and unhip. People find them “cute”, but in a dismissive, condescending kind of way.
But I am also thinking of a particular “Dama” I know who has a pure and intense faith. When she prays, it is with a fervent, intimate voice to a God who she knows so very well, who has seen her through thick and thin. Her education was truncated by the Cultural Revolution, and yet instead of resenting this she still returns to the village where she was sent down to the countryside, bearing gifts and chocolates for her old neighbours. In her I see the very special grace of the humble, and doubtless her diminutive frame hides the soul of great strength.
Anna fasted, worshipped and prayed with anticipation. It was not just for herself, but for all of Israel, and even the world, that she waited. At eighty-four, she could not have lived long enough to see Jesus, the infant, so full of promise like any other infant, fulfil his mission and come into power in his ministry and resurrection. But her faith, and her prophetic gift, showed her that he was indeed the One.
What a wonderful thing it must have been, in the twilight of her life, to see the beginning of the world’s redemption! And what a wonderful thing that God rewarded her faithfulness with this strange and sweet foretaste!
I think of all the Annas –ourselves perhaps to be included – who look forward to the second coming of Jesus, in the world today, in all our various guises. We are of every race and nation, every socio-economic class. We may not look significant. We may look silly, or our outlook too otherworldly, to hope for such grand and infinite things as the salvation of the world.
But perhaps that little, insignificant bundle is precisely the thing that will change the world, in all its dirty, human potentiality. Because his name is Jesus – and he was born on this earth so that the meek would inherit the earth.
“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.
I first read this exquisite, mysterious, powerful puzzle of a poem as an unseen poem for my written test to get into Cambridge. I wish I had the exam I wrote about it then, but as I read it now, it is still so fresh and so simple and yet so difficult and complex at the same time.
How ingenious it is to name God, or Christ, simply “Love”. How often we hear the statement that God is Love, but the simple substitution of “Love” for “God” personifies that ultimate Love, that overwhelming, gorgeous, enormous Love that created all things. It is not personification in the literary sense; it is more like an embodiment. It is, in fact, the incarnation. God, Love, in the person of Christ who stands at the door and lets the persona in.
Love is gentle and kind, quietly observant of the persona’s hesitancy, and his questioning is not interrogative but “sweet” – it invites the persona to bare his insecurity. It is such a revelation that we feel unworthy of love, especially of Love, its bright burden of perfection against which we are “dusty” and “sinful”. The discomfort and feeling of unworthiness is the appropriate response, and yet Love condescends to the persona, coaxing him gently and drawing out truth with every word.
When the persona protests that he “cannot look on” Love out of his feelings of unworthiness, Love asks the rhetorical question of “Who made the eyes but I?” In that line, the rhyme of “eye” and “I” echo the relationship between “looking” and the purpose of the “eye”, drawing attention to the fact that the eyes were made for looking – and in particular, most truly, to look upon the maker of the eyes. The truth of this relationship rings in the rhyme. Love is insisting that this is the relationship the persona was made for. The “marr’d” eyes, before they were marred, were created to look with joy upon God. So in this stanza we delve into the mystery of the relationship between the Creator and the created.
In the final stanza the persona pronounces himself fit only for hell – “where it doth deserve”. And this hell is out of the presence of Love. The loveless realms, out of relationship with Christ, away from the welcoming stranger who is at once so sweet and familiar – outside the room, into the darkness. But Love bids him closer again. In his admission of guilt and confession, the persona is converted. Love questions again – “who bore the blame?” Another rhetorical question: it is Christ who bore the blame for the sin that has marred the persona’s eyes, and his very self.
The persona’s response to his forgiveness is increased intimacy – he calls Love “my dear”, and his response is to “serve”. And then the poem climaxes with the Eucharist – Christ offering His flesh to the persona, and the persona finally accepting the invitation of the beginning and consuming it. It is a mystical, mysterious moment: the ultimate intimacy, in which Love enters the persona. The persona experiences Love, not merely by sight, or by hearing, feeling or smelling, but by actually tasting it, ingesting it, taking it into his own body. He becomes of the body of Christ, and Love dwells within him.
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God… Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love…This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”
When George Orwell was in Burma, he had a special interest and affinity with the Burmese, so much so that he got a set of tattoos that stayed with him for the rest of his life – little circles on his knuckles that the Burmese believed protected one from bullets and snake bites. It isn’t a matter of record how much he believed in the efficacy of the tattoos to really protect him from these things, of course, so one can only speculate how much he believed in Burmese spirituality. But it marked him out as different from the other sons of Empire. He had taken a step towards the culture of the land he lived in in a deeply intimate way.
It isn’t quite on the same level as getting a tattoo, but I felt like I crossed a threshold in my interaction with Chinese culture on Monday, when I experienced moxibustion for the first time. I have a complex relationship with Traditional Chinese Medicine. To the extent that I am culturally Chinese, it is supposed to be part of my culture, and since I feel some affinity to Chinese civilization in general I feel it is to some extent mine to claim. But I was brought up by two Western-trained doctors, and my childhood illnesses were all cured through the empirical, scientific methods of Western medicine. Interestingly, my mother, who was brought up with Chinese medicine, is pretty skeptical about it despite the fact that it saw her through her childhood, mainly because of just how unpleasant the treatments were. Growing up I received a very small amount of Chinese medicine in the form of certain foods and drinks that I ate when sick, since TCM places a strong emphasis on nutrition (a fact that makes it much more holistic than Western medicine really).
Anyhow, I went to a TCM practitioner with a friend to get a massage (who doesn’t love a massage?), and winded up getting talked into doing moxibustion as well. I have to admit, I was pretty scared. Traditional moxibustion involves burning mugwort on the skin to create a vacuum which sucks your flesh on your back into a small glass cup. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you see it) the lady didn’t use the traditional way of creating suction but rather had a modern machine which she attached the glass cup to. As I lay down on my front, she applied the contraption to my back in long strokes. It was a curious sensation, like being eaten by a giant octopus or a vacuum cleaner, and was painful when she repeated the strokes over the same flesh. And when she was done, I was left with angry, lurid, purple bruises on my back.
It wasn’t as though I didn’t expect to be bruised – I had seen the ugly cup marks on people’s backs before, and that was why I had been scared when presented with the moxibustion set. But I really hadn’t expected to get such angry looking bruises. I really looked like somebody had beaten me up with a huge bat. So it didn’t feel too bad at first, but by the time evening came around, my back was seriously sore. I couldn’t push my shoulder blades back to sit up straight because my flesh hurt when it touched the bruised parts. Lying on my back to sleep, I tried to stay as still as possible so I didn’t rub my back against anything, and I felt horrible the whole next day too.
There is something about allowing your body to be touched, or in this case, vacuumed, on the principle of another system of medicine that takes you to a whole other level of immersion in a culture. I wasn’t sure I was comfortable with this level of immersion. On the one hand, I wanted to believe. I wanted to believe that this process was truly unblocking my qi, or getting rid of my toxins, cleansing me of some mysterious blockages in my system. But on the other, my empirical suffering and my skeptical parents cautioned that if the cure was worse than the disease, it made no sense to do something. I am in a liminal space between believing and not believing, between this culture which is both mine and not mine, and the one I was brought up with. On the one hand is a rich, mysterious heritage that promises a complete alternative understanding of the body, and on the other is a scientific, proof-based system that my parents trained in, but has its own limitations and flaws. So do I go native, or do I not?