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The chronicles of two Portlanders in Singapore

I went to an event this weekend.  Which is really not a positive, but rather a indictment of my laziness through the week.  This past week was the Singapore Writers’ Festival, a week-long event of workshops, talks on all aspects of writing and places to pitch your work.  Not going to the festival in its entirety was a mistake, plain and simple.  I can only offer in defense the confusing and user-unfriendly website which listed their program as my deterrent, but that’s an excuse and I know it.

Michelle, fellow non-fiction writer and like mind, had texted me the details of a talk at 10am Saturday morning, given by New Yorker staff writer and novelist Susan Orlean1you may have read her book The Orchid Thief.  I gladly agreed to meet at ten in the morning, an easy Saturday morning out on the town.

Then I got invitation number two – a talk about gender fluidity in South East Asia.  Right up my alley.  Also Saturday, at two.  AM.

“2am?” I texted back, “They really outdid themselves making a time slot available.”  My snark is often greater than this.  “I assume,” my next text read, “that’s a typo?”  Yes, I really text in full sentences.  You should too.  This isn’t 2002, there are full keyboards on your phone, I expect you to use them.

Her answer was not a complete sentence, at least not of her own writing.  It was a picture of the program hard copy she had, detailing that yes, Farish Noor, noted academic, was indeed giving his talk on gender fluidity at two am in the morning, along with a variety of other “R18”, restricted, “adults only” discussions and workshops that would be held over a twelve hour period, from seven to seven.

Oh, Singapore, you so crazy.

So, two in the morning, the target for a discussion that I knew I would enjoy.  The siren call of deep slumber sang to me, even though it was one in the afternoon on Thursday.  My mind fell into conflict, immediately weighing out the pros and cons, deeply meditating on the cons of being awake at two in the morning.  Michelle texted me more information – the event was a separately ticketed event that cost a not insubstantial amount of money.  If we were going to do this thing, we reasoned, we had better get our money’s worth and show up much earlier than 2am.  We made arrangements to meet, Michelle made for the ticketing counter early Friday afternoon to secure our spots in Friday night’s/Saturday morning’s insomnia fest.  I dithered throughout the day, making plans for an evening nap.  Until I got the text.

“They’re sold out.”  And here I was thinking that 2am was just under the carpet.

Still, we both reasoned, we’d be better off come Saturday morning for Ms. Orleans’ speech and anything after we could wrangle.  And, indeed, we were, at least I was that I can speak of.  I did hear comments about someone not being a morning person, and coupled with the fact that the cafe at our venue wasn’t making local coffee until the afternoon2huh?, I can’t cast any stones.  So, with a full nights’ rest3I assume, we sat down to have ourselves a listen.

Oh, but the venue.

The Arts House is actually the old Parliament building, and the non-fiction talk was held in “The Chambers”, a name whose significance I didn’t fully grasp until I entered the room, with high backed oak chairs and benches laid out as the chambers of parliament, because, it was the old Chambers.  There, across the aisle, is where the various Ministers of past years used to sit, including the worn and weathered seat third from the end, where a simple plaque spelled out the reason for the seat’s excessive use;

Lee Kuan Yew
Prime Minister

Well, I just had to have myself a seat as well.  And so I did, posing as one of the sinister ministers of aristocracy past, a haughty expression that proclaimed to the world, I have never once held a public office.

When you’re this good, it just comes to you.

Susan Orlean was a treat, and not just because she too is an American writer, though, hearing an American speak the language, with a comfortable diction and relaxed manner that made me long for home.  It wasn’t until later, when I hazarded a guess that she was from the midwest that I learned that she used to write for Willamette Week, and it all made sense.  It wasn’t the inviting and homey cadence of the heartland I was hearing, it was the casual, laid back manner of speech so familiar on the West Coast, the easy drawl of the Pacific coast that sounds like home.

But it was more than just words, but rather the good ol’ humor of an American writer, discussing in plain terms the value of humor and humanity in non-fiction writing, the art of impassioned and involved journalism.  The shift from reporter, especially in these times when reporting is done at a hummingbird’s pace via Twitter, to observer, to interpreter.  To take the language of the day’s events, and do more than simply respond and react but rather involve yourself in them, soak in the why and the how and what it means to the people involved.  To take the expected, processed life that we’ve been accustomed to having delivered to us in sound bites and pithy phrases and expose the underlying humor, the common threads of humanity, the universal truth that, indeed, we’re all fucked up and hilarious as a species in our scurrying about.

As I listened to an American spin the commonality of human humor to a room of people from every walk of life, I looked at the back of the bench seat in front of me.  A curious dial sat in front of every seat, with settings “Eng”, “Mand”, “Mal” and “Tam”.  My mind puzzled a brief moment as I pondered the meaning of these odd words until a half-second later light dawned on yonder noggin, that they were the settings for the translators’ interpretation to the four official languages of Singapore; English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay and Tamil.  Though I don’t think for even a moment that Susan Orlean was being translated, my mind savored the sliver of fancy towards this relic of an older time when the powers that be once convened to build the city I live in.

I parted ways with Michelle and Kailas, another member of our mighty non-fiction band, to listen to three authors talk about Wanderlust and travel writing.  Inside, an Englishman, Nicholas Hogg, was discussing his travels to Tokyo and the book he wrote based on them.  His was a work of fiction but included events that he himself had experienced.  Next to him sat a Singaporean poet, Marc Nair, who wrote and performed his poetry based on travels.  The third author was a Frenchman, Christian Cailleaux, whose command of the English language was not as proficient as his peers, but his work is in graphic novels, with a simple, retro art style that spoke beautifully of his travels in India.  Like Mr. Hogg, his too was a work of fiction, taking a comic “doppelganger” who, in his words, “led a much more interesting life than me.”

Christian’s limitations with English made for great humor as well.  A self-effacing man with a sly sense of humor, he played to his lack of mastery to entertaining effect.  Marc Nair’s use of language too was incredibly enjoyable.  One minute the quiet author, well spoken but unassuming, the next, his voice booming out in rhythm and meter, Marc drew a great laugh while discussing that during his travels, he often sought the mundane, the every day lives of the people who live in the places he visited, but admitted that the Singaporean in him was compelled to visit the usual tourist places, lapsing into a Singlish accent, complete with “can” and “lah”.

It’s not just the written word that compels us, in fact, at times, depressingly enough for someone who is exploring the unfamiliar world of the literary, the written word fails us.  Susan’s talk, or Marc’s musings would lose their luster if digested as a paper or article.  As poetry often reminds us, its the cadence of life that produces the most surprising effects.

Sleeping peacefully on Saturday morning, Beverly and I both awoke with a start.  A clap of thunder from a passing storm, produced a thumping crash unlike those others that we heard in our subconscious minds.  I can’t describe what it was, the feeling was ephemeral, a sudden shared realization that things were not as they ought to be.  I was not alone in this; Beverly’s coworker John, and his wife, live in the next building over, and they too heard and woke at the strange sound.  Perhaps a bolt hit close by, or hit one of the many lightning rods installed on the high rises.  I looked at the clock above me, a blurred green digital arrangement of numbers until I made out “03:00” and realized, that despite my desires, there would be no deep sleep for me that Saturday morning as the roll of thunder and strobe lighting of the storm kept my waking mind spinning until like the storm, I finally settled down, and darkness once again ruled the night.

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