by Eileen Chong
23 June 2016 1:44am Sydney, Australia
Hello! As I’m writing this, you must be in the waiting room of your doctor’s office. I hope the wait isn’t too long. I can’t believe what happened to you, or the fact that five-leaved clovers are so unlucky. Life is a bit of a joke at times.
I don’t even know how long it has been since I last saw you. I think it was in 2005 or 2006, in Singapore, when you visited. I still have the wonderful blue and gold swirl mosaic tile you made for me.
Oh, I’m up at 1.44am (now 1.47am) because I accidentally made myself a pot of really strong jasmine tea at dinnertime. Actually C made it for me and I knew it was too strong but I drank it anyway. Funny, I didn’t even have any coffee today because I was trying to avoid caffeine.
Thanks for letting me know that you received my book – and the letterpress print, I assume, seeing as I posted the two together. I hope that the book helped a little in all the drama, or did you read it before you fell?
So you’re not going to get any surgery, which is a good thing, I think, given the fact that surgery can be so invasive and recovery times can be very long. Still, four weeks is a long time to not be able to put any weight on your foot. I’m glad you got that knee scooter, although knowing you, it must be really annoying not to be mobile!
I often think of the wonderful postcard you sent to me in 2004, when I got really sick, and of that wonderful poem you wrote me – ‘People are made out of parts’. I think of it a lot, and it comforts me and encourages me. What changes have taken place since we first met in 2003! Was it 2003?
I like to tell people about you, my Canadian sister, and about how crazy it was that you found yourself on exchange in Singapore as a fourth year biology undergraduate, taking any course you liked because the Biology department (or Life Sciences, or whatever) didn’t have a fourth year curriculum running as yet…! I wonder who’d fucked that up – some paper pusher I’m sure. How did you manage to get that resolved? I’m glad you did, or we would never have met.
A few years ago I tried to write a poem about our first meeting, unsuccessfully – the draft is still floating around somewhere. Here’s what I remember – it was on the new campus – not that you would have seen the old campus at Bukit Timah – in one of the ground floor tutorial rooms along the triangle – it was Feminist Readings of Literature, run by Matilda. I can’t recall if I’d walked in and you were sitting there or vice versa, but initially we were the only two in the classroom. It was your birthday! You told me, and I said ‘Happy Birthday’ and shook your hand. You said it was really weird how many people had shaken your hand that day. Cultural differences I suppose…
I think you had come into the class without any idea of what the class was about – and in retrospect it was a bit crazy of you to take a fourth year literary studies class without a background in literature! But then it was a crazy sort of semester for you, wasn’t it?? I can’t believe that we didn’t spend more time together those six months. They flew by. I recall your travel blog that you used to have – it was great, although I think I only ended up reading it after you had left Singapore to travel through Malaysia.
I only recently read The Handmaid’s Tale early this year. I don’t know why I hadn’t read it before now. I found a secondhand copy for a dollar at the op shop, a beautiful Vintage classic edition, with red-edged pages. It was absolutely terrifying. I think I told you about it, and you said that we had studied it in the class. I think you and your group wrote a joint paper on the book, because I absolutely don’t remember reading the book in that class. I wish I had.
Sometimes I think that my political awakening probably happened in that class. I had, up to that point, made such a concerted effort at being apolitical, like so many Singaporeans are, because of this feeling of being completely ineffectual. I think that class concretised several ideas / ideals that I hadn’t known that I had. It’s funny how I can really only learn properly through narrative. Unfortunately I didn’t realise this until I was well into university, or I would have been better at subjects like history. I know all sorts of bits of history now mostly because of historical fiction – I need to latch onto characters, relationships, details of food and architecture and clothing, etc. before I can absorb anything.
I read a great article today about the relationship between science and poetry – I’ll have to find it and forward it to you. It made me think of our little project years ago, where I got you to choose poems and to leave them in places for people to find. That is a variant of ‘Poem in your pocket’ day – but back then I didn’t even know about this. Maybe we should do it again – and I would love to collaborate with you on some science-related learning and to write poems about it. Do you have any obscure / fascinating science ideas that I could learn about and write around?
I’m so sorry that you won’t be coming to Australia next year as previously planned. I would so love to meet M and C and F. C especially looks like such a mini-you – and it was only recently that I got to hear both their voices through the video that you sent. You know how I feel about kids, but they are especially dear to me, because you are such a great mum and you’ve been such a great support to me around my whole struggle. I love how you, and my other girlfriend P don’t romanticise motherhood – you give me the whole picture, warts and all.
God, it’s nearly 2.30am and I’m still awake, although I’m starting to tire. I have an early start tomorrow – lessons to plan, people to see, laundry to do, dinner to cook (Scotch broth tomorrow! with leftover leg of lamb). Can’t wait to hear what you think of the new poems, and to see what you do with the letterpressed print.
Let me know how your doctor’s appointment goes, too, and I’m thinking of you and hoping for the very best. Love to M and C and F, and to the dogs. Suzie was outrageously naughty today – I left C’s lunch for tomorrow cooling in a box on the kitchen counter and I forgot I’d left it there. Popped out to the shops for half an hour and when I came back she was ravishing the food (penne with anchovies, capers, chilli, garlic and cherry tomatoes). I can’t believe this cat. She has even started to beg for spicy food, and eat mandarin oranges?!?! What a pig!!!
Talk soon, all my love, xxx
24 June 2016, 2pm Sydney, Australia
Isn’t it funny how when the radioactive stuff is injected into you, you feel this warmth and it goes right into your bladder and you feel like you need to pee? Oh, just me?
It was really strange writing you a letter that I knew would be put onto a blog. I have never really realised how much self-censorship takes place when you know your intended audience. Note to writers! Don’t think of an audience, or if you must, think of your ideal reader and write to that one person.
Painting Red Orchids was a difficult book to write, not least because some of those poems were written before my separation, when things were ‘situation normal’, some were written as I was starting to realise that things might not work out (poems that told me what I was feeling before I even knew I was feeling them), some written during my time in temporary accommodation, while I was experiencing extreme fear, instability and uncertainty. Other poems were written while I was slowly recovering from the trauma. I like to think that this is a book that covers an emotional spectrum of death, despair, rebirth, and hope. Whatever it is, it was written, and I think it is my best work to date.
I have another book coming out in North America with George Braziller in New York in the next few months; it will be a selection of poems from my three Australian books, intending to give North American readers a sample of my work. The title of the book is Another Language, and I am really excited about this. I wish I could travel to New York for my launch, it would be so amazing! I don’t even know if there will be a launch, to be fair, and I don’t really have the money to spend.
Don’t worry about a project at this moment, it’s something we can think about in the future. You focus on getting better. I’ve been drinking lots of licorice tea, I don’t like aniseed, but don’t mind fennel, I don’t like licorice lollies, but love licorice tea. I don’t like pastis, but don’t mind ouzo. Sleep is good, blessed sleep… your body is doing its best. Hang in there!
My days: I often stay up until 1 in the morning, reading, and wake up with C at around 6.30am to 7, to feed the cats, take my morning meds (thyroxine) and have a cup of tea. C goes to work at 7.30am, and I usually go back to bed, reading or sleeping some more. I’m a bit of a cat. I wake again at 9, or 10, sometimes even 11 (I know). Then I make myself something to eat, and read, and write. I might get out of the house, usually to get some groceries, or a coffee. I try to go for a walk most days for a bit of exercise. I come home and do a little bit of housework, laundry, the like, always reading something. More reading, thinking, writing. I take a break from work by starting on making the evening meal. C comes home around 7 and we have our dinner, then depending on what he’s doing, we either relax and catch up, watch a movie, or he makes music, or works on his bike, in which case I’m reading or writing again. Some days I meet people for work, other days I meet friends for coffee. There is rarely a day that is the same.
Winter is cold and the days are shorter which is annoying, and it makes doing laundry frustrating on some days. My apartment is rather damp as it is on the ground floor and I have a garden, so the dehumidifier runs a fair bit, especially if it’s raining outside. I hardy run the heating (I know, certain death for a Canadian!) as it is only me at home most of the time and I can’t justify the cost. I might run the fan heater for a little bit if it gets really cold, but I go to bed with a hot water bottle and two blankets and I’m usually ok. I have Ugg boots (wearing them right now!) and a fluffy bathrobe so I look a bit silly at home… but who cares!
Hope you are feeling a little better today, and better everyday, and that this missive has cheered you up somewhat.