To heed the call?

I saw something on Pinterest that I didn’t understand. That in itself is not ground-breaking, I really don’t get half the shit that’s on there, particularly in the burlap-bound, flower-crowned, hellish depths that are the Weddings section. That is another post entirely though. No, this one pops up in the Travel section and a variety of “inspirational” quote boards.

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The quote is attributed to John Muir, a Scottish-American adventurer/environmental philosopher/conservation, who, by all accounts, seems like a pretty cool guy. He spent his days tramping through the wilderness of California, exploring, studying, writing. The quote is from a letter to his sister: “The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.” The last, oft-redacted, part of the quote sells it way more for me. Sounds like someone who has nailed their research topic, which is the dream, really.

Back to the mountains. Admittedly my mountain experience is limited. That comes with spending the majority of your life within spitting distance of sea level. But I climbed Kinabalu and bloody hated it. Rinjani did much to redeem mountains but I’d never been 100% sold. I love hiking and the outdoors, and I physically miss the ocean when I’m away from it for too long, but the mountains have never called to me the way they apparently call to so many keyboard climbers.

A book changed that. I’m sure that makes me no different from the Pinners that post these whimsical quotes and daydream about rose-tinted peaks, but it’s true. The book was Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, about the same events that the recent movie, Everest, was based on. I had no idea about the 1996 tragedy on Everest and no real interest in mountains but the author also wrote Into the Wild, one of my favourite books and my favourite movie, so I downloaded it for a seven-hour flight. The book consumed me. I hate reading on screens but I couldn’t stop. I ran my phone’s battery dead reading non-stop. When I landed in Singapore and got home, the first thing I did was charge my phone so I could finish. I’ve read it twice in two months and sung its praises to just about everyone who has made eye contact.

Safe to say the book had an impact. I had nightmares about storms and cold. The Himalaya became regulars in my browser search history. They were never too far from the top of my mind. It was not that the experience was romanticised. Far from it. Krakauer captured the dangers and pain of mountaineering with journalistic precision and openly catalogued the effects such a hobby has on the loved ones of those who do it. Nonetheless, I was equally terrified and enthralled. I was not exactly inspired to pick up some rope and crampons, and throw myself into a new sport but the fascination remained.

Base camp is a fixture on many a bucket list, Partner 2 has even expressed interest in the past. Not me though, the physical and mental strength that drives people uphill through thinning air is something I can only analyse from a distance, an interesting scientific phenomenon from which I am removed. But, I do want to see it. Everest. From a distance is fine. But I want to try and understand the pull. The power it has over people, who endure pain and suffering, who test the limits of the human body, and who risk their lives to stand on the summit. If the mountains are calling, then this one surely has the loudest voice.

So I guess the, long-winded, point of this post is that I get it now. I get it, John Muir. I understand how mountains can call, they might even be calling me a little bit. What I’m wary of is the rhapsodised, sepia-toned representations. We’re not always called to things that are good for us. Who says the mountain’s call isn’t a sinister one? A siren song. It’s not really a call that can be made by someone at sea level. Maybe one day I’ll find out.

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Childhood reading

Kaboooom!

My parents, those voracious hoarders, have kept all of our childhood books. Despite increasing pleas to give them away and clean up, they remain in two buckling bookshelves in the living room. In defence of my parents, many of the books aren’t in any state to be given away. The condition of the book directly related to its popularity. The Harry Potter series is falling apart except for a few pristine volumes that were replacements for originals that disintegrated. Favourites are missing pages or are splattered with food. Some look they might have taken a dip in a bathtub or swimming pool. As unattractive and shabby as they are, the books are a nostalgic trip back through childhood for my brother and I. Roald Dahl and Morris Gleitzman share a shelf with 90s YA classics like Animorphs who sit above my grandmother’s complete Narnia series (I’ll give them back soon, I promise, I just need them for another 10 years). Novels occupy the top two shelves of each bookcase, the bottom shelves are reserved for the big books. Picture books, fact books, craft books, covering every topic from The Very Hungry Caterpillar to the 2009 Book of Guinness World Records. There’s books on weather (no, actually that one is here with me in Singapore), volcanoes, the ocean, the solar system, cats, Where’s Wally, and my brother’s favourite: the choose-your-own adventure stories.

There is one book in particular that still exerts a certain degree of influence over me. I wish I could say it was Chaucer or Joyce or even Enid Blyton. It’s not. It’s a big blue book of facts with silly cartoon illustrations. It’s called “facts about everything” or something along those lines. It contains useless facts on a range of topics from motor vehicles to sport and everything in between. My favourite was the nature page. That page is the reason why, on our final day in Borneo, instead of relaxing and preparing for our flight, Partner 2 and I spent two hours on a bus followed by a 40 minute hike. All to spend 10 minutes inspecting the world’s largest, smelliest flower, the Rafflesia. We then turned around and went back into town so we could fly home. And it was totally worth it. I can vividly picture the cartoonish Rafflesia illustration in that blue book. I can also picture the drawing of a giant Sequoia with a tunnel cut into its trunk and a car driving through it to show the ridiculous size of those trees. I can see a picture of a Saguaro cactus, wearing a sombrero of course. I can also see the volcano section.

Krakatoa was there. The book wrote of its apocalyptic eruption in 1883: how the sound of the eruption was heard in Perth and Mauritius, the devastating tsunami that followed, the effect on global climate for years afterwards, and that the volcano literally blew itself up, leaving practically nothing left of the island she called home. Not the most appropriate subject matter for a child perhaps, considering the hundreds of thousands of people that died and the bodies that washed up in Africa a year after the eruption. Nonetheless, Dad in particular encouraged this one. Perhaps he had visions of having a wealthy geologist for a daughter? The follow-up book he bought me was more scientific. I read about tectonic plates and the crust of the earth, the San Andreas Fault line and the Pacific Ring of Fire, magma vs lava, about other famous volcanos: Pompeii, Mount St Helens and even Anak Krakatoa, the volcano that rose out of the ashes (volcano pun!) of Krakatoa and is growing at a rate of seven metres per year. I read about how the movement of the plates formed the Himalayas and why Hawaii’s Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world from base to peak. Unfortunately for Dad, who was no doubt mentally spending his daughter’s future geology income, this interest led to a fascination about how the continents formed which led to dinosaurs. Sorry, Dad!

Anyway, I digress enormously, as usual. The reason for all this nostalgia is an upcoming trip, perhaps indirectly inspired by that damn blue book. We’re spending Lunar New Year climbing Krakatoa. The discussions around the impending trip have been punctuated with “fun facts” and Partner 2 rolling his eyes, though he has come around since he watched (of his own free will!) a documentary on Krakatoa.

The thought of setting foot on something so powerful is simultaneously thrilling and terrifying. It will be hugely humbling, I imagine, to be in the presence of such a violent testament to the strength and volatility of nature. An explosive reminder of who’s really in charge around here. Because for all our technological and medical advances, for all the seismographic equipment and forecasting models, if a volcano’s erupting, you run. If there’s a tsunami coming, you run. If there’s an earthquake or a typhoon, you run. What else can you do?

Despite this talk of bowing at the altar of nature’s strength and power, I am (at the risk of my own demise) hoping for a little eruption. Just a tiny one. Just some smoke and a dribble of lava. For scientific observations, of course, and absolutely not to appease my strange inner child. So if you don’t hear from me after this weekend, you’ll know that Krakatoa, or potentially her son, got the better of me.

Krakatoa permitting though, next time I’m home, I’ll be borrowing that blue book.

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.

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.