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Residency, Day 13 & 14

I had intended Wednesday to be the day I sat down to read the things people had given me to read. Very early on, the journal I wanted to read locked me out. Later that morning, I'd just sat down to a nice cup of tea when I was told someone from the Karibu group was over to pick me up for their session. Karibu's been awful about arrangements long before I arrived at the KSP. I'd basically never been able to communicate with the moderator, and last week's session, which I was supposed to attend, had been cancelled quite suddenly. I was absolutely not told that I'd be attending their session that day until Barbara showed up at my doorstep.

I did want to see the Old Courthouse in Midlands though, since I'd never been in Mundaring and the surrounds before coming to the KSP. So I grabbed my satchel and wandered off to a group I never met. Upon arrival, we met a representative of the local council who told us the Courthouse was closed due to the discovery of abestos on the ceiling. As a fair trade, we were given a room to use in the Library next door. The path to the library was a mosaic of decorative Australian animal tracks -- very pretty, a little like a Turkish courtyard. The room in question turned out to be an old council meeting room. I'd only just seen photos of this room last night, from shots of older KSP events. There was a high vaulted ceiling and stained glass windows that glowed without really glaring. The walls were covered in sets of yellowing photographs of previous councilmen. And there was an amazing U-shaped table that went around the room, at which we sat.

The day I was there, Karibu had all of four members present: Barbara, a nice albeit extremely exhausted lady whose husband had only just come out of minor surgery the night before (and I couldn't very well give trouble to someone like that); Coral, a talkative elderly lady who had trouble remembering names but could remember rather distant memories of her youth in Hong Kong; Theresa, who'd meditated in India and Caroline, whom I had met at my dinner at the KSP. Caroline is a mentally-challenged individual who writes solid rhymed poetry. She was vocal and friendly at my reading, and I do remember her being kind about my work. At Karibu, she was similarly vocal and thoroughly enjoyed participating in the reads. I consider it quite harder to write rhymed poetry, particularly any kind that follows traditional forms. All the people at Karibu that day worked with these forms.

As a group, I certainly found Karibu to contain the most interesting mix of people yet. They were certainly the most open group I'd met thus far, and a lot of our discussion focused on personal stories and emotions. It was a wonderful experience, because Karibu really have found that perfect combination of a circle of mutually-supportive friends and mutually-supportive writers. Writing in this context appeared to be writing for healing. I read the last segment of A Foreigner's View of the River, which started an interesting conversation about Asian expatriates married to Caucasian men. Apparently, one of the women present once lived in a small mining community where this phenomenon happened quite visibly. She had seen firsthand how families with adult children were broken up by marriages of the husbands to younger Asian wives. The bulk of my experience with the same comes from a very similar environment -- that of the remote oil & gas community. I spent much of my late teens in that sort of place, and all my life within Asian expatriate oil & gas communities. We discussed how Asian women who have married Caucasian men have the dual experience of personally believing they've made it, and their communities' revulsion of them because they apparently left the culture in the worst possible way. The flipside is that many of these Asian women develop a kind of arrogance that makes them believe they're better than other Asians, and the question was raised if these women weren't really suffering from an inferiority complex because their communities have labelled them as outcasts.

An offshoot of this conversation concentrated on the women present, who recounted their own experiences in European communities with similar conservative values about marrying young and the traditional roles of women. They remembered a time only a couple of decades ago when Caucasian women were preferably married by eighteen. It was interesting to watch them remember the kind of peer pressure that propagated this sentiment, as they noted it didn't appear to be that much different from similar traditional values in Asia.

Meaningful writing, intelligent conversation and tea are really the only reasons I could want to be in a writing group.

Barbara sent me home. In the KSP carpark, I realized I hadn't brought my keys or my cell phone with me in the morning rush. Then begins a mad round of calling KSP-related folk hoping one of them wasn't at work or not at home for a set of keys, on Barbara's cell phone, which was helpfully running low on batteries. We waited for the rain to stop, and walked to the KSP compound, hoping someone had left something open. Chris left a note on the door, telling me he'd left my keys in the metre box. I later found out he'd gone into my room to deliver a card the very sweet Writefree women had left for me and saw my phone and keys on the table. Chris, being the amazing eye for detail that he is, actually came in during lunch an hour later just to make sure I got back into the house safely. I gave my segment of A Foreigner's View to Barbara as a thank you present. And I'm absolutely flabbergasted by the kindness and goodness of people at the KSP.

This has, over time, grown very much into my home.

Later in the afternoon, I'd just had time to sit down to lunch when phoenikoi called up for directions to the KSP, as she was visiting with her sister. As they both got in quite late, I offered to let them stay the night -- I wouldn't have considered it fair to make anyone get a cab after dark in this area. Phoenikoi-sibling turned out to be something of a musical genius, and filled the house with the notes of the dischordant piano in the living room. I'd never heard the piano played since I arrived. I found it very appropriate that the piano, with all octaves beyond the Middle C being devil's music box out of tune, would turn even My Heart Will Go On into a gothic experience worthy of Malice Mizer. It made Disney music sound evil. And Final Fantasy themes probably the correct way Faye Wong should have rendered them.

I gave the two a tour of the house, as much of the house as there was. This included bits of trivia I'd picked up, including how no one knew which room Hugo Throssell might've committed suicide in. I am a morbid rodent. Perhaps a bit too much. I mean what I say with the greatest respect to the house's other occupants. After dark, we visited KSP's writing room at the end of the garden. The walk there was slow, as the path is quite steep and I didn't want anyone to tumble downhill in the dark. The writing room is quite a welcoming place with the lights on. I showed them the manuscript cabinet with the handwritten labels in chalk. We wondered about the old furnace's ashes. I wouldn't have dared to go out to the room after dark myself, because it's a pretty creepy walk. But with others present, it's quite enjoyable.

The next day, we woke up early. I constructed a breakfast for three from my food pile and saw that the guests were able to call for a cab. The Words First group met at 9:30AM, and I had been invited to join them that week. There was an elderly fellow called John, who was extremely vocal, opinionated and not slightly annoying; Natalie, the group's resident genre writer and Janet, butch-looking ultra-fem type beat-poetess. This is, as you might recall, is the group with the worrying dynamics. There was a discussion on history in fiction, about the responsibility of authors towards portraying cultures accurately, or at least providing fair warning when the work takes liberties. I brought up Pearl S. Buck, Simone Lazaroo and Arthur Golden. John was rather out for a ramble on the subject, and started attacking my validity for criticizing Memoirs of a Geisha based on whether or not I'd actually read.

Fact: I have flipped through the book in stores. It's not my cup of tea. More precisely, the writing style and general story idea makes me twitch. I'm not averse to saying that upfront. My arguments about it from a cultural angle are based on the by now quite popularly known suing of Arthur Golden by Iwasaki Mineko for the culturally incorrect manner in which he portrayed geiko. I was grilled on my own cultural heritage (Malaysian), and where I got the right to criticize Golden from.

Fact Point Two: Long before I'd heard of Memoirs, I read anthropology books on geisha because I was interested in the artistic cultural elements that circled the subject. Liza Dalby wrote amazing books not just on the one time she apprenticed to be a geisha, but also very accessible and informative books on translations of geisha music sheets (and lyrics) and the history of kimono. Iwasaki Mineko wrote her own biography after receiving death threats for talking about geisha culture to help correct the damage Arthur Golden caused, which I highly recommend for its accessibility, forthrightness and lack of romantic pretensions, Geisha of Gion. I watch and read a lot of Japanese media. I'm struggling to understand what I observe, and this is why I'm struggling with picking up the language. I don't admit to being an expert, and wouldn't dare to. But I know enough to pick up when a work of fiction is pandering to the lurid romanticism that sells "Eastern culture" written for romantics without having to exactly know the cultural accuracy of a work (because the language outs itself right off -- it's like trying to tell a Mills & Boon from a college textbook). And I definitely know when a work purportedly about geisha (or ancient Chinese women) is stressing romance over cultural accuracy.

I don't argue that either Golden or Buck aren't accomplished writers. My argument was that they have written work that twists another person's culture for the sake of profit in ways that would be insulting to the foreign culture involved.

Plus, I sincerely dislike it when people try to talk me down an argument about the subject by questioning my cultural heritage.

John's wrap-up was that we could go on about this all day (or more precisely, he was tired of talking over the other two ladies present who were definitely trying to offer their opinion under all his noise and having to deal with me). That, and the blanket argument that history depended on who wrote it. My take on it was that as an author writing about a foreign culture, we can only ever write from the perspective of a person looking in. Regardless of how much we researched, by nature of our own starting position as foreigners, we would be writing from this perspective. History is dependent on who writes the text, but a good author is able to offer an engaging foreign perspective on another's culture by taking stock of his or her own historical/cultural perspective. The best kind of author should hopefully be able to do this in the most thoughtful or thought-provoking way possible, because hoping for the most respectful way possible might be wishful thinking -- regardless of how one writes culture, one risks insulting someone, somewhere out there.

As a matter of point, because the other two ladies were still discussing the subject, I joined them with at least one positive example of where I felt a culture and history was used, but responsible footnotes were offered: Jean M. Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear. The Earth's Children series is pretty outright a romantic prehistorical bodice-ripper. Jean Auel is an accomplished writer, with an engaging writing style. More importantly, she has studied prehistoric survival tactics hands-on, and has participated in visiting actual digs where she could talk to professionals on the subject. Her prefaces to her novels are fascinating observations and notes about these experiences. I would dare say I've found them more fascinating than her actual stories because of all the tiny details about tool making and basket weaving. (Though her fiction also contains many fine descriptions of the processes, in great detail -- no, I don't read Auel for the skanky cavemen sex.)

Reading our own work didn't prove to be any easier. John clearly wasn't receptive to any suggestion I could offer (he had very long blocks of strong dialogue with no cues -- I offered that he might want to add cues, and use the scenery and descriptions to enhance characterization), and where his vibe appeared to be considering my person as a young thing with no experience, I was willing to think of him as a stereotypical difficult writing group attendee. Natalie had a story about a guy who gave birth to fish. I told her about the myth that travelled the Internet about the woman who stuck a lobster up her vagina. I also told her about the stories I used to get when I edited at Gothic.net. The amount of horror stories where the entire point was that some poor sod gave birth to some insect or other. Janet made very good suggestions about how the story could be enhanced by showing us more of the fish freak's entire obsession with fish and making that the focus of the story, to give it more of a hook. I seconded the idea by suggesting a look at fish forums online for obsessive fish keepers, because I am indeed told they can be rather scary indeed. Janet brought a poem I thought was bombastic, with a long list of rant words but not enough images. It had a nice beat, but was a bit too much of a running thought.

I read the first segment of A Foreigner's View. John thought it was too long, which it is, though I'd rather not change it for the mood and characterization the city in there contributes to the longer piece. He then asked me my age. I told him I was 25. He immediately goes into how it's always hard to tell how old an Asian is, and he really thought I was much younger till I mentioned my time editing to Natalie. He also asked if English was my first language. I had to pause before I answered that. But I pointed out that yes, my first language is English. I know I stumble a lot when I read, because I've always had trouble pronouncing words I'm more used to reading alone. Maybe he saw my pause as proof I was lying. I don't know. I don't entirely care, but it bothers me whenever I have to deal with this issue. Outside of finding employment, my level of English doesn't matter.

I crashed and slept the rest of the day. A combination of guests and a difficult writing group was exhausting. I did want to at least finish reading the writing I owed the Thursday Night Group, but I'm really just exhausted at the moment. Work emailed me about a one page summary of a topic that I need to hand in by tomorrow. This summary out of the blue is very likely unpaid, because it's still subject to review, after which, if everyone likes it, the work will be carried forward as an 8 page research paper on the subject for my sweatshop thesis-writing job.

My mother gave me a few sample teabags of Premier's Heritage Tea from Singapore before I left home. The smell is actually quite mild, a pure red tea smell without any citrus after-scent. The flavour is pure red tea without the heavy feeling of it being stuck to my teeth, this considering I usually take my tea quite strong. I'm fairly certain this blend was developed for people who like milk and sugar. It's gorgeous with the two. However, the company's website doesn't have any online ordering information, so I'll have to find a distributor or supermarket that carries this drink. Drinking good tea with a dinner of couscous salad definitely revives my senses and stops me from flailing at walls. I just have to wait till the TNG leaves to avoid people I owe manuscript assessments for to make a new cup.



( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 30th, 2006 02:38 pm (UTC)
I've read "Memoirs" and I had mixed feelings. Romanticized? Without a doubt... but I really wonder if the average American reader would have been able to read through it if it had been more accurate. Is it merely for profit, or is Golden trying to get his readers to relate better? After all, he's originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee and I would think therefore familiar with the average American or the Middle America mentality. (Yes, there really is a Middle America mentality - I can bet you that anybody from the coastal areas will point this out)

I've read Dalby's "Murasaki" book which I absolutely adore, but I think anyone who has not studied some Japanese culture may be put off by it.

"Clan of the Cave Bear" - I don't know why that book was required reading freshman year of high school. I didn't think it was all that great.

started an interesting conversation about Asian expatriates married to Caucasian men
I find this whole paragraph interesting. Perhaps more so since I'm not an expat but Asian by descent - it's not really a phenomenon I'm familiar with.
Nov. 30th, 2006 03:07 pm (UTC)
*nods* The Memoirs angle you mentioned applies to Pearl Buck as well. She was a highly decorated author, winning a Nobel Prize. She was an American who grew up in China, with English as a second language. The language of her books on the Chinese were "brought down" for the masses in a big way, which was why they were romanticized. Daily-life general cultural details she mentions are often accurate, but not necessarily historically correct. One of her novels was an account of the Dragon Empress's life, and I distinctly recall it because it pandered to rather the same audience Memoirs seemed geared for -- one craving a sex and power kind of deal like a Judith Krantz with politer language. So it is a matter of being written for the audience as well.

Dalby and her peers write rather anthropological perspectives on the subject, so they are often quite technical. I agree that while some of the works are accessible, it does have a range between easy to pretty darn otaku.

*giggles* I can't imagine Clan of the Cave Bear as a required read -- it's such a bodice ripper. But it sure is sexier than an 18th century classic. :)

The Asian expatriates married to Caucasians topic is something that you're lucky to have not been exposed to. It's a lot of basic interracial suspicion and some very idiotic racial-caste suppositions on both sides. That, and it sure doesn't go easy on the eyes to have some balding, pudgy Caucasian dude with his hand halfway down a tiny Asian girl in a tiny skirt's bum.
Nov. 30th, 2006 03:57 pm (UTC)
it sure doesn't go easy on the eyes to have some balding, pudgy Caucasian dude with his hand halfway down a tiny Asian girl in a tiny skirt's bum.

EWWW! I'd rather read about caveman sex. :P

My summer reading lists in high school were always varied. It was usually "you must read these three and then pick one or two from the list below." I always felt like I was missing out on some classics, like I never had to read "Dracula" but the level below me did. Meanwhile, I don't think the level below ever had to read "Pride and Prejudice."
Dec. 1st, 2006 03:16 am (UTC)
Being as we were in an English Second Language country, and me being in the Science stream, I never got required readings. So any classics I picked up were of my own volition. Luckily, I went to the Catholic high school with all the Tarzan, Conan and most of the classic SF novels!
Nov. 30th, 2006 09:16 pm (UTC)
*enjoys reading*

Off topic, but can you let me know where to send your Xmas pressie to pls? Either on the thread on my LJ or here, want to get them posted :) (Or via email if its somewhere new, etc.)

Ta! xx
Dec. 1st, 2006 03:17 am (UTC)
*waves* I still live in the same Australian address you sent my birthday card to. Send it there. I'm sure I'll get it! :)
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )