SWF: “Against a Tide of Evil”

The past few days I’ve been swanning around the Singapore Writers Festival. I say swanning because that feels like what you should do while amongst the creative community. Quite so, quite so.

An aspect of SWF that I’ve really enjoyed so far is variety of events that are on. There are the usual wanky “What is a writer?” type shindigs, workshops on how to write realistic fantasy dragon characters or whatever, and the ubiquitous authors plugging their books. There are, thankfully, meatier aspects of the programme, like explorations of the changing face of journalism, to Asian feminism, to realistic insights into the publishing industry, and even explorations of terrorism.

My preference for these parts of the programme took me to The Arts House last night, a beautiful old building backing on to Parliament House. I was there for a Meet the Author event with Professor Mukesh Kapila. He has written a book called “Against a Tide of Evil” that has been critically acclaimed and awarded the 2013 Best Non-fiction Title by the Crime Writers’ Association. Professor Kapila was also the head of the UN in Sudan during the genocide in Darfur. “Against a Tide of Evil” is his account of the events in Sudan, the UN’s shocking failure to act, and the desperate measures he was forced to take to get the international community to take notice.

It was an intimate event, probably only 10 or 15 people in the audience, in quite a small space. We were introduced to Professor Kapila and he told us about his childhood in Bihar, one of the poorest states of India, his education at Oxford in the UK, his transition from clinical medicine to public health and eventually humanitarianism.

It was pretty clear early on that, even before his work with the UN, Professor Kapila was an exceptional human being. Then we got on to his time in Bosnia and Serbia, then Rwanda in the 90s, and how he came to be Head of the UN in Sudan in the early 2000s. His predecessor only lasted 100 days.

He spoke of the bureaucracy, the UN’s lack of intelligence capacity, walking the tightrope between working with the Government and condemning their actions, and how a pattern emerged of systematic violence against non-Arabs in Darfur emerged.

The warning signs were there and were alarmingly similar to those noted, and subsequently ignored, in Rwanda. He was told to do nothing, to stay out of it. Professor Kapila painted a very different picture of the revered former Secretary General of the UN Kofi Annan, going so far as to say he should be held accountable for his failure to act. He spoke of his frustration and decision to go to the media when the official channels were unfruitful. He flew to Nairobi and broke the story to anyone and everyone. At midnight, New York time, while the rest of the UN were sleeping. Suddenly the world took notice.

In his closing comments, he made it clear he wasn’t aiming to be a role model or a hero or looking for validation in any way. He told us, suddenly looking very small in his chair, that on nights when he can’t sleep he thinks about what he could have done. The torture of the what-ifs and what-could-have-beens were all over his face and his voice was strangled. “I failed,” he said simply, before taking a moment to compose himself.

That was it for me. The problem with intimate Meet the Author events with 10 or so audience members is, if you have to lose your shit and start to bawl, chances are people, including the revered doctor/academic/UN head/author, will notice. Needless to say, when I got home I almost stripped a layer of plastic off my laptop’s keyboard in my haste to order the book, which has sold out in Singapore.

As inspiring and wonderful as all was, the experience has left me feeling a bit hollowed out. Here we have an exception person who has risen from poverty in India to attend one of the world’s best universities and then, rather than living the comfortable life he was and is so entitled to, opted to take huge risks for humanitarian causes. This inherently good man was strangled by bureaucracy and the suffocating etiquettes of diplomacy to the detriment of hundreds of thousands of people. There’s more bad people in world than good people. In my mind, those that do nothing are as bad as, if not worse than, the bad ones. I suppose that just makes the good ones more important.

A prison of his own making

It is probably no surprise that the most surprising events stem from the most unexpected places. Such is the nature of a surprise, I suppose. Surprises can be pleasant though, perhaps a shock is better. A fright, bombshell, cataclysm may be better. Forgive me my rambling, I have far too much time to myself.

To the purpose of this prose: a warning to the audient emptiness and those who dwell on the world above it. Women are a nasty breed, a breed who will put their own above any others. They bite the hands that feed them. All I have done, I have done for these god-forsaken women. First Louisa, may the lord forgive her departed soul, the number of company dinners and society occasions I missed for that woman’s fancies. And now, Elizabeth. Her mother should have indicated the presence of a disturbed mind. And yet, here I am.

It began with the tragic death of Elizabeth’s mother, my wife Louisa. She was woman of strong convictions, a most unbecoming trait and one, I believe, that caused her youth and beauty to fade as her opinions grew stronger. She entertained wild ideas about working and public speaking, about the rights of women and the inferiority of men. Naturally, she was disturbed and required frequent sedation to calm her of these notions and protect the honour of the house. I was forced to knock sense into her on many occasions, eventually she acquiesced and became much more agreeable. Quiet, homely, a proper lady of the house. She relied on essences and potions to sleep at night, I maintain she simply confused the vials on her nightstand on that tragic evening. What she was doing with essence of nightshade is beyond the realm of my understanding. A simple mistake. When Louisa failed to rouse the next morning, I called the physician immediately. He pronounced her dead, accidentally suicided he declared.

Upon hearing the news, Elizabeth quite lost her head.

“Tyrant!” she had screamed, “Oppressor! Hangman! Murderer!”

Where the child gets these ideas from, I will never know. Whether the untimely death of her mother broke her mind, or whether the madness had always lingered under the surface, I will also never know.  She had oft been prone to bouts of hysteria and whimsy, but in her flushed face I saw true madness for the first time. I had assigned a nurse for her care, so as to assure her wellbeing and prevent her from endangering or disgracing this house. This was my greatest mistake, one I will surely rue till my looming death bed.

The power of Elizabeth’s sick mind was revealed to her nurse, in all its twisted force. She was able to coerce this simple woman into doing her bidding, the bidding her god-given weak and sickly body was unable to commit. Elizabeth, that cursed witch, lured me down to the cellar on false premises where the nurse was waiting, shrouded in shadow. When I woke I was shackled and bloody. Elizabeth stood over me and I saw the devil shine through the back of her dead and unholy eyes.

“No more. No more.” She murmured, as if possessed. The nurse brought writing materials and I was forced to sign my own social death warrant. I was eloping with a common maid, I relinquished the estate to my daughter, my one and only heir. My hand tremored as I wrote it, I was enraged. I was convinced no one would believe this demeaning, disgraceful tale. But it seems they have. There have been no callers to the manor, none that I have been able to hear. In fact the house seems quite deserted, no footsteps, no sounds from the kitchen. I fear I am quite alone. It is impossible to know how long I have been here, perhaps a week. My rations run low and it appears neither of the she-daemons will be replenishing them. They have departed to lead their sinful, hell-bound lives. So I write this in the hope that someone will eventually find me and know the true depth of the depravity of women. They are vengeful creatures and cannot be trusted.

<a href=”http://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/ready-set-done-5/”>Ready, Set, Done</a>

Vegetarian FAQs

I will eat you and all of those you cherish, happy eggplant.

As a relatively new vegetarian, I’ve found myself answering the same questions over and over again. It’s interesting that people suddenly take an immense interest, sometimes even offence, to a lifestyle choice I’ve made. Buzzfeed has a good summary. So, as to ease the pressing questions, many people seem to have about what I ingest, digest, draw nutrients from, and expel, here’s a handy FAQ guide.

When did that happen?

It happened just after I moved to Singapore.

Ahh, so the meat’s not good there?

It’s not great, but that’s not the reason I stopped eating it entirely. Most of the meat here is sourced from the around the region: Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia so on, and most of these countries don’t have the best track record of animal welfare. That was my initial line of thinking, it then progressed to me realising whole meat industry does not have the best track record for that kind of thing.

Are you eating enough protein? What sort of supplements are you taking?

Let me answer your question with another question: have you ever heard of anyone being protein deficient? Iron deficient, certainly, but protein deficient? Nope. I do appreciate your concern though. I’m not taking any supplements. Fortunately, I regularly eat my body weight in Asian greens and tofu, both excellent sources of protein. Also, though trying to generally reduce my intake of animal product, I am definitely not vegan and continue to ingest inhuman amounts of cheese and Greek yoghurt. Thank you again for your concern.

Is this a weight loss thing?

Really? What exactly are you implying? But no, absolutely not. That’s the dumbest reason ever to remove entire food groups from your diet, I’m talking to you non-Coeliac, non-allergy, gluten haters!

But you’ll have a big steak when you go back to visit Australia, right?

No. Steak is meat.

What about barbeques??

Veggie burgers are delicious and come in many forms. I have an awesome recipe for chickpea patties actually. Plus salads, bread, beer, etc. Rest assured I can still enjoy many barbeque staples and I won’t ruin your good time, promise!

What about the plants? They’re alive, they might have feelings too.

Ok. Oh. Kay. This question makes me conclude that you’re being facetious and therefore an arsehole, or you’re legitimately asking and therefore you’re an idiot. Firstly, plants don’t have central nervous systems so it’s pretty safe to conclude they have no pain receptors. Furthermore, plant are generally fixed in one place and can’t escape predators which also lends itself to the pretty solid theory that, seeing as they make no effort to avoid it, plants don’t feel pain. Also, I hate you.

What about your poor partner?

My poor partner, I hear that a lot actually, I wonder what that means? Anywho, as I mentioned, he is still resolutely carnivorous. This however is a trait that is increasingly incompatible with his aversion to cooking. I cook most nights so he eats vegetarian most nights. If he wants meat, he can cook it himself, the freezer is well-stocked. He still orders meat when we eat out and has it for lunch most days, just not so much at home.

You’ll get over it.

Thanks for the support, Mum!

Hawker centre special: Huh?

No meat, no seafood. This dish, no meat. Just vegetables! Yes, no meat! No crab, no seafood, just vegetables. Tofu is ok. Just vegetables? Ok? Ok. Good. Thank you, Auntie.

Dear thesis

Dear thesis,

It’s time for us to say goodbye. Not forever, just for now. It’s time for you to go out into the world, strike a path of your own, leave the nest and learn to fly. *Sniff*

You’ve grown up so much over the course of a year. You started as a vague little idea, a direct product of my musings and research. You grew into something polished and considered. Something grown-up, in my opinion anyway. And now it’s time for you to go out into the big wide world. I’ve done everything I can to prepare you for the big, mean world and the scary examination panel that dwells within it. But your paragraphs are clear, your literature review is comprehensive, and your references are immaculate. You’re ready. I’m not sure I am though.

We’ve had our rough periods, especially during those rough teenage months. I didn’t know what you’d become, you thought I was old-fashioned and stuck in my old ideals. It got so bad I couldn’t look at you, and you crashed. A result of a binge, an overdose: too many tabs open, too many pending actions. But we got through it with a little help from some friends. They say it takes a village to raise a child. It definitely takes at least a suburb to make an honours thesis.

Now it’s time, armed with your lodgement forms and statements of originality, you’ll travel back to Australia to learn your fate. Our fate.

I won’t be congratulating myself or celebrating just yet though. You’re the academic equivalent of getting a puppy to see if you’re ready to have a baby. The practice run. But we made it and that sure as hell counts for something.

So good luck, little thesis puppy! May your arguments be strong and your word count be overlooked.

Love,

Bridget

What I learned from Anna Karenina

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I have been lacking in my posts once again. My only excuse is that my thesis is in its death throes and I’m trying to deliver the final blow. Die! Die! Nearly there.

When I haven’t been contemplating my life choices and cursing word counts, I finished reading Tolstoy’s classic Anna Karenina.

It’s a nice, impressive one at add to the bookshelf; nothing like a bit of classic Russian literature to impress visitors. It was a surprisingly easy read though, particularly compared to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. While Anna is still sitting on my bedside table, Crime and Punishment is gathering dust very impressively in the corner of the bookshelf.

Anna taught me a lot about writing. The subject matter was dense and foreign to me, the language was littered with French and Russian phrases which required translation, and all the characters are pretty unlikeable, yet I had to keep reading.

Levin was an insecure, overly intellectual snob, Vronksy was vain, Anna was her own worst enemy (spoiler alert: other than the train), and Oblonsky was an irresponsible philanderer. But I wanted to know more. I wanted Anna to get her divorce and go to the country. I wanted Oblonsky to go home to Dolly and look after his thousand kids, and Levin… Levin, smile you miserable bastard! How did Tolstoy make me care so much about these flawed, desperate characters?

They say a writer must write what they know. It is so much more than that though, everyone knows something but not everyone is a writer. My theory is that it comes down to observation and words. The minute details of every scene, every conversation and every description in Anna Karenina make it easy to picture and imagine that you too are sitting in a box at the Petersburg opera, or sipping vodka with peasants after a tough day’s harvesting. Tolstoy must have been a perceptive observer of the world around him. But he also must have been a great sculptor of words. I think sculptor is the most appropriate word because crafting meaningful sentences is about more than stringing words together. It’s foraging for the perfect word, the right medium to convey your message, and melding it with others to create something bigger than the words along. Finished sculptures seldom resemble the clay they started as. You could be the best observer but if you can’t find the words to describe what you see, you may as well not have seen anything.

I think that’s probably my take-away from Anna Karenina. Along with some other stuff about cheating on your husband, wheat prices, and train platform safety. It’s probably a little lofty to aspire to write like Tolstoy but his descriptions are something I’d like to incorporate more into my own writing. Elaborate descriptions are a bit of a weak point for me. A background in journalism has left me equipped with short sentences and scenes heavy in dialogue. But as soon as this thesis is laid to rest, I’ll turn my attention back to basics and back to describing.

As for reading, War and Peace is up there on the list, but everything in moderation. I’m cleansing my palate of Russian Society with a biography of Hunter S. Thompson.

Job hunting once again

I’m job hunting again. I’ve come full circle: degree, job hunting, degree, job hunting, degree, job hunting. Maybe I should stop studying…

I realise this is a topic I’ve written about in the past, reading through a few of those old posts I’ve noticed how my attitude has changed.

In the past, as a fresh-faced graduate, my approach was to sidle up politely, apologise profusely and generally sing happy songs in my head until the process was over.

It went like this:

“Excuse me… Ahem.. Um excuse me, sorry to be such a burden and to take up any of your precious, precious time but I have a job application I’d like to submit to you if you have time in your busy schedule to possible even accept it. Thank you so much, please accept this pint of my blood as a down-payment for my soul, collectible upon employment with your fine upstanding organisations.”

Bless.

And here I am again. This time though, I am an experienced media/comms/marketing/events professional with post-graduate qualifications. The only difference is I’m in a new country. Far from making me nervous and subservient in my applications, it’s made me a massive snob. Only applying for jobs that really interest me, rather than the blanket approach of my youth. Hell, I’ve got enough savings to sit on my couch for another few months, I’m deciding whether to do a PhD, I’ve got options, man! I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing, but it has kind of come out in my applications…

“Hey you. I am fantastic. I am the most experienced, qualified applicant you will ever hope to have the pleasure of meeting. If you choose not to hire me through some clerical error or organisational quirk, I brought tissues for when the enormity of your misguided decision hits you. There, there. I’d tell you there are others out there but that would be a lie. Only one me. Soz bro.”

Direct quote from my cover letter. Ok, it’s not. But I’ve found I’m far less modest about my achievements. Rather than subtly hinting at them in white font or through postal stamp choice or however I did it years ago, I’m much more upfront what I can and can’t do. Most about what I can do…

Back then, I imagine I inflicted a lot of suffering on recruiters: they must have got hand strains from time spent scrunching up my applications, and migraines from composing polite, yet crushing, rejection letters. Singapore is great though! At the end of each job ad, they state that “Only shortlisted applicants will be contacted”. How good is that? No defeat, no rejection, just a chance to forget about your application then think of it again in a few weeks: “Oh yeah! I guess I didn’t get it, ah well!” This truly is a more advanced society.

Anyway, I better stop procrastinating and get back to it. These applications aren’t going to write themselves. Ahem…. Also to any employers that may have stumbled on this site, this is a work of fiction and any resemblance to cover letters, living or dead, is purely coincidental…. Please visit my LinkedIn page for more samples of my work!

An excerpt

As some of you may know, I took part in a little challenge a little while back. It was my own personal NaNoWriMo. I wanted to write a novel (loosely defined) in a month. And I kind of did. It’s almost finished and on the verge of being sent to one of my harshest critics. So here’s an excerpt from ‘title pending’. Feedback encouraged, please be kind!

 

Ray glared up at the grey plaster ceiling. That irritating ray of morning sun had once again come in through the gap at the top of the curtains to shine in his eyes.  He could have been in any cheap guest house anywhere in the world but this one was the one he’d chosen year after year. He scrunched his eyes closed. He hated the spider web cracks on the ceiling, he had spent so long staring at them that he could trace their paths without looking. He was frustrated, restless, bored and lonely. It was debilitating in a slow, quiet way. He tried not to think about it but this restless, angry energy was the only thing that got him out of bed each morning. He’d rise from the same bed, in the same room, he reserved at the same time every year. His knees creaked as his stood up. He grabbed his grey slacks from a pile of clothes on the floor and rooted around in a drawer for his brown, wool jumper. He shuffled to the window, the air had a chilly bite to it but Ray pulled it open anyway. The light streamed in, the street below was already bustling, and the lake, as ever, was calm and pensive. He went to the bathroom and splashed water on his face, avoiding his gaze in the mirror. Morning ritual complete, he left his room and went down the hallway to the balcony. As always, Mya was waiting with his tea. “Good morning, Mr Ray.” She could set her watch to his arrival. 7.30am. Ray was usually a coffee man, but here it was always tea. He hated the taste of the 3-in-1 coffee Mya served up to the other guests. It tasted like soap. He sipped his tea from the chipped cup and looked down on to the street below. The market would be in full swing already, it was just the late-comers rushing down to the canal now. Ray and his thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of some young German girls. Brushing sleep out of their eyes, they slumped at a table next to the railing. Always attentive, Mya bustled over to learn their drink of choice. Ray was not in the mood for Europeans. He found them inscrutable and exhausting. These two were no different by the looks of it. The girls perked up over 3-in-1 and nattered away. One was seemingly taking inventory of what was in her day pack. “You hire bicycle today?” Mya asked them, simultaneously delivering their toast and confirming Ray’ suspicions. It was in the guidebook, you see. “In TripAdvisor we trust,” Ray thought to himself, accepting his own toast.

Missing Saigon

Saigons in Saigon
Saigons in Saigon

It’s been a while but I’m finally getting back to Vietnam. The place that gave me a terrible, incurable case of itchy feet, among other various tummy ailments. I haven’t held that against you though, Vietnam. You’ve changed a lot over the last few years and I can’t wait to rediscover Ho Chi Minh City once again. I’m sure I’ll fear for my life crossing the road and spend a lot of time marvelling at the perfect chaos of it all. Just like the first time.

It will be great to go travelling again. I know I’m seven weeks into moving countries, the irony is not lost on me. Packing up and moving your whole life just so you can put it on hold to go travelling. The two are so different though. Moving is taking your life with you and travel is leaving it behind. As much as I love my new life in Singapore (#blessed #grateful #vomit), I’m looking forward to leaving it behind for a weekend. Not worrying about the everyday things like buying groceries and putting off cleaning the bathrooms will be nice for a few days.

I’m hoping to spark some more creative writing too. This month I’ve been trying to write a novel (more here), I’ve been aiming to churn out 3 000 words a day on that and also 1 000 words on my thesis. It’s been fun and quite unsettling to see what I’m capable of when I force myself to do it, but it does lose a little of the magic, for want of a better, less wanky word. I suppose that is inevitably what happens when you do what you love for work, it is called work for a reason. Anyway, in short you won’t hear from me for the next four days. I’ll be sitting on the street in Ho Chi Minh City with a cheap beer, a pen and a notepad. Wish you were here!

Singapose?

Thanks to a combination of working from home and the omnipresent heat, I have joined the cult of Ceebs. Short for CBF, which is short for Can’t Be Fucked. Ceebs: when you’re too lazy to even use a three-letter abbreviation. The Ceebs garb consists of whatever is on the floor, today it’s a pyjama singlet and a hand-me-down skirt from a former housemate. The cult of Ceebs is non-committal on issues of hair. Long hair, don’t care. Short hair, don’t care. Hair, don’t care. Proper bras? I’m sorry but you’re not an ideal candidate for this religious movement. Deodorant? Well, actually yes because it’s 32 degrees and 95% humidity, show a little consideration!

My cult of Ceebs has had little uptake here in Singapore though. It appears to be limited to me and elderly Chinese grandpas. They rock the knee socks and sandals combo, often paired with no shirt and safari shorts, like no one’s business.

No, appearances are a big thing here. Labels, designers, malls at every train station. The constant, relentless pursuit of what is new and trendy. Do people still say trendy? Anyway, as Barney Stinson would say, “New is always better”. He could have been talking about Singapore rather than boobs.

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I think I have cracked it though. The reason for the constant shopping and reflection-checking. The holy grail of “New is always better”. Bow down, sinners, and drink from the sacred, everlasting cup of Selfie. The Selfie reigns supreme and we are its mere followers. Repent your invisible, undocumented, offline existence, and you too can be saved! Testify, Tweet and praise the name of the Almighty Selfie. Blessed is thy profile, Facebook be thy name. Thy Kingdom come on Earth as it is on FourSquare. Forgive us our daily down-votes, as we forgive those who have down-voted against us. That was fun, but I’ll stop now.

Case in point:

A friend was visiting so we went to a hawker centre on Marina Bay for dinner last night. It was a beautiful spot, looking out over Marina Bay Sands (boat hotel), the Singapore Flyer (Ferris wheel), and the merlion (still not sure what it is). The group on the table next to us were taking photos. Fair enough, it was a touristy spot and very photogenic. But they weren’t capturing the bustle and colour of the hawker stalls, or the city lights reflecting off the water in Marina Bay, they weren’t even Instagramming their food. Selfies. A girl whipped out her telescopic selfie stick, extended it to a good metre in length and snapped flattering, high-angle shots for most of their meal. Not capturing candid moments of friends sharing a meal, or even the beautiful view in the background. Just themselves. It was deeply weird. It makes you wonder about the barrage of images their online friends and followers must be battered with. To quote Facebook: “I don’t want to see this”, “Hiding post…”.

Selfies are epidemic here. In the strangest places: in front of billboards, waiting for and riding on public transport, in the bathrooms of shopping centres, everywhere. Trying to think of a word to describe is it difficult, vain seems too callous, as does self-obsessed (maybe selfie-obsessed?). It’s almost an national youth identity crisis. The classic case of if a tree falls in the woods and no one sees it, photographs it, uploads it to Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, hashtagged #tree #nature #goingdownyellingtimber #fail, and used three different Emojis in the caption, did the tree really fall? The lesson being that the tree is the real winner, especially when you’re too busy looking at your phone to notice said tree looming in front of you. Don’t worry, the girl was fine, she didn’t even drop her phone.