The Privileges of a Writer
“You’d better be careful.” My face was right at my husband Jigang’s, my nose almost touching his, as I opened the door for him after 11:00 pm, “’cause I can explode any second!”
Jigang walked into our sitting room, more bewildered than upset, “What’s that for? I didn’t even say a word!”
“%#@+^&&&& …” I only managed to wave my arms randomly to indicate how wild my mind was going.
“Okay. Here is the deal: I’m much better than so many writers. I’m only doing a bit of yelling. Others could go insane. Cut themselves. Kill themselves!”
Jigang looked at me, calmer than I could bear.
“You know, I don’t even know whether I can make a good writer.”
“Because you are not crazy enough?” he ventured.
I began laughing, sounding what must be hysterical to him.
Deep down, I knew it was an excuse. For my inability to cope with … everything. Teaching, researching, mentoring, answering e-mail, putting together proposals, writing letters of recommendation because I failed to say no even if it was getting to be too much … and trying to start every morning cutting pieces of five to seven different kinds of fruit with matching colors into coordinating shapes, finding the right things to induce or motivate a response from my son in New York as he doesn’t see the point of reporting to me every day, putting dinner on the table with the same contrived effort for color and shape combination as the morning, and sharing everything and anything with Beibei, my toy poodle whose ears move up, sideways, down and all the rest of it, in a huge effort to pretend that I make sense…
And that is the context for any additional requests that come every other day, with a pressing deadline varying from three days to a dead deadline, either from funding opportunities that I don’t want to miss, or from a student who is having a hard time with her parents …
And boy, I’m lucky to have Jigang to yell at. He’s the most stable person I’ve ever met, and he seems to buy the idea that writers belong to the rare species meant to be tolerated.
I have begun to appreciate the privileges of a writer.
I spent three weeks in Malmö, Sweden in the summer of 2012. It so happened that Jing Yi, one of my graduate students, was doing some volunteer work for an art event in Gothenburg. We met in a cafe. It was a very good day. All the tables outdoors were taken. It was rather packed inside too. We took a small round table next to one where a woman was reading over a cup of coffee.
“You stay and look after things here.” I laid my handbag on the table.
“What would you like?” I asked from the queue in front of the counter.
Jing Yi struggled to make sense out of what must have been a whisper to her.
“Regular coffee will do.” She ran to my side.
“Oh, no! Oh, nonononono!” The next minute, I heard her loud panicking voice.
My handbag was gone.
“Excuse me, did you see any one taking my handbag?”
“What handbag?” The woman looked up from her reading, as if she just discovered people in the room.
I looked around, people at every table were all deep in conversation, so deep that even their backs demanded not to be disturbed. The tables were so close to each other that any one trying to run away from our table would have attracted attention.
I was suddenly seized by a cold wave: the thief may be in the cafe, looking at me out of the corner of his/her eyes. He or she may even be working with a group that were having tea or coffee right near me.
It occurred to me that the people at the counter may have seen the theft or the thief, as they were facing the door.
But no, they didn’t see anything.
“Let’s get out of here fast,” I said. The cafe began to feel alien. I passed the outdoor section fast, unable to stop the thought that the thief might be sipping a beer and laughing at my back.
We sat down on a bench in the street, coffee in hand, my mind racing through the items in the handbag. I tried not to look distressed so Jing Yi wouldn’t feel uncomfortable. At least I didn’t lose my purse as I was paying for coffee, and my passport was in it. My camera was hanging on my shoulder. But most of my jewelry, especially a diamond necklace given to me for one of my birthdays, was gone. Why did I bring it with me at all?
As the images of more and more of the lost items came to mind, a thumb drive, keys for various places … I became increasingly frustrated with the inconvenience I would face. I could feel my heart sinking.
It was then a conversation between me and Mum in 1986 came back:
“I can’t believe you are so calm! As if losing your purse doesn’t mean a thing!”
“Of course I feel terrible. But feeling bad won’t bring it back! I just have to learn to live without it.”
I wondered how I could be so wise one year before I would have a salary and couldn’t afford to lose a cent. But yes, lamenting over lost things never helps.
“Okay. I’m still feeling bad. But I’m determined to get back to normal in 5 minutes.”
Jing Yi’s eyes opened wide at my announcement.
“We’ve all lost things. We know with time, we would recover. Why don’t I recover now? Besides, a month or two later, when I talk about my time in Sweden, this handbag episode will be one of the highlights!” I said, semi-cheerfully, as my heart struggled at the thought of calling the landlady to replace the room key on a Saturday.
“And I can write about it.” I smiled as I imagined myself writing away in the near future, when the loss no longer mattered.
Miraculously, I recovered right then and there.
The idea of writing, since then, helped me see things in positive light. I learned to handle bad experiences by taking a deep breath, and tell myself that life was giving me writing materials. It was giving me … a present.
Recently, I was authorized to write the biography of Michael Halliday, a prominent linguist who understands grammar as the theory of human experience, who has established systemic functional framework to illustrate how language works at ideational, interpersonal, and textual levels as a result of choices we make out of the many meaning potentials in the linguistic system. As the ninety-one-year-old told me the story of his work and life while we sat together in a Uniting Care apartment in Sydney, I was overwhelmed by the privilege of the writer: I am the only one who can listen to the recorded interviews, who decides how his life story is to be told. I felt the weight of responsibility of having the complete trust of an intellectual mind that has worked with language for all his life.
Arriving every morning at the nursing home was not only about going into his past, but also about going into my own future, as I saw how senior people slow-motioned about daily life in public areas, how getting into the elevator with the help of a walker is the major effort of the day. In a matter of a few days, my attitude toward older people turned from sympathy to respect—they allowed me to see some facts of the later part of our life, and I may not even live to over ninety to gain the wrinkles that would come like waves.
I didn’t expect that writing a biography also meant so much learning and experience. When I went online to watch Tarzan the Ape Man, Hello USA, and documentaries by David Attenborough, I tried to experience Halliday’s life in the 1930s and to imagine his excitement as an eight-year-old. I started getting goosebumps, knowing I was witnessing the beginning of the movie industry.
Yet some experiences were hard to have. Long before I turned to writing, I listened to a woman fifteen years my senior talking about the difficult time she had living and working in the countryside in Hainan Island in southern China, from the mid-1960s to mid-1970s during the Cultural Revolution.
“We axed our way through the forest under forty-degree temperatures, the part of my hands between the thumb and the index finger was a mess of blood and flesh.” She frowned, as if the pain haunted her. “Then we planted rubber seedlings. We had to take two buckets of water with a carrying pole up the rugged mountain. Fifty kilos of water! By the time we staggered to the seedlings, there was very little water left.”
She gasped for air as the memory stifled her. “We were only seventeen or eighteen. The water was so heavy that the carrying pole cracked my shoulder open.” Her mouth convulsed as her shoulders reacted with a tremble. “I’d drop to the hard board of a bed and wake up smelling of sweat and blood!”
That was beyond me. “Perhaps you can take comfort in thinking that it’s a precious experience that only your generation had, something val …”
“Precious? You don’t know what you’re talking about! It’s easy for you to say!” Her eyes rolled with hostility. She was totally offended.
I didn’t mean to be unsympathetic. I must be speaking from the writer’s perspective. I hadn’t written much then, but I must have realized the importance of experience. Painful experiences, unfortunately, are particularly worth dwelling on.
Later on, I came to know that the gift of observation is also a privilege of the writer. I had thought that I was rather observant until one creative writing class at City University of Hong Kong, when the writer Robin Hemley asked us to close our eyes, in a classroom where we had been studying for a week, and describe what we remembered about it. I panicked. The only thing I could say was the floor was blue, while the others said a few things that I didn’t notice at all, especially a pillar that was in the obvious part of the room. When I opened my eyes, the floor was a lighter blue than I thought.
The exercise was a wake-up call for me. I had not been paying much attention to the details of life. I began to stop for roadside flowers, to watch fish that swim against the current in the creek, to take pictures of scenes and landscapes that I want to see details of. Then the joy of observation came back to me as part of an exercise I did for an anthropology course when I was at Albany at State University of New York.
Over a plate of ice cream, I took notes of the behaviors of people in a food court at a mall. I didn’t have to worry about fixing my eyes on a group of people, as they would be so engaged with each other. I didn’t have to be too careful with people who went in pairs either; they kept each other busy enough. It was the loners, myself being one, that fascinated me. They seemed a little uncomfortable unless they were reading. I was glad that I could resort to eating ice cream or note-taking.
I had fun reporting my observation. It was one of the best things I took away out of my Master’s degree in human geography. Thanks to the closed-eye exercise, I began to pay attention to the nuances and subtleties of life beyond the classroom.
I have been feeling sorry for what my uncles and aunts on my mother’s side have gone through and want to at least honor their lives through writing. I was particularly concerned with Uncle Renfeng’s love life, which I thought was non-existent, as he married his sister-in-law who, later in their life, verbally abused him on a daily basis. However, my interviews with him revealed a life that was hard but not necessarily unhappy and loveless. In fact, there was a lot of love, such as the moment he reached for her hands under the cover of the clothes that hung on a wooden frame, shortly after she divorced his elder brother—the first intimacy he tried after his father urged him to take the initiative. I used to think that his relationship with Xiao Wang, the nanny who took care of him after his wife died, was a matter of convenience, but I could see love there as well when I heard that Uncle Renfeng insisted that she eat what he ate, and saw how they laughed like two happy kids when they played cards.
I came to understand that I was wrong in assuming that Uncle Renfeng lived an unfortunate life. I took a lot of comfort in discovering his happiness that we outsiders thought as misery. I learned not to judge. That is what I consider to be another privilege of a writer: approaching a story with bias and emerging with the realization of how easy it is for one to hold assumptions that can easily be proven wrong.
I had not thought about the privileges of a writer until recently. I am curious about the privileges other writers see in writing. I trust such privileges are strong reasons for us to write. Writing is a lonely yet rewarding thing. Rewarding, as in when my student Ying said one of her stories was inspired by the one I wrote about disadvantaged people. She saw herself in me when I laughed, forty years ago, at my cleft-lipped classmate, at a mentally disabled peer, at a dwarf in a neighboring class, and at a desk mate whose mother died after having been wrongly persecuted. She saw herself in me when I wondered how much damage I and the likes of me did, because of the lack of supervision in the education system at the time, to the afflicted who were yet to reach their teen years. I felt the pride of a writer seeing Ying reflecting on the experience thirty years sooner than I had, and saw the possibility of her remedying the harm.
It felt like my life has been extended, all because I write, something every human being is privileged to do if they choose to.
That is probably why there are writers in every country, in any given period, since language was first used.
Fan Dai is professor of English and founding director of the Sun Yat-sen University Center for English-language Creative Writing. She teaches creative writing in English and bilingual writing at Sun Yat-sen University. She publishes in Chinese and English. Her work has appeared in magazines in the United States, Australia, and Hong Kong. She runs the Sun Yat-sen University Writers’ Residency, which combines writing with literary and cultural exchanges, and the teaching of creative writing.