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Urban Chat: For the love of literature

  • Lynda Ibrahim

Jakarta | Fri, October 12 2012 | 08:15 am

At some point in our lives, we all pay homage to something dear and near like Mom and I paid homage to The Beatles in Liverpool last year, or Dad to Rio’s Copacabana Beach the year before (don’t ask). This past weekend, I had the pleasure of paying homage to one of my first loves — books.

I didn’t grow up with money but one thing my parents always strived to provide was access to books, newspapers and magazines. I might not have gotten certain stuffed animals or a bicycle du jour, but I can’t remember my parents not bending over backwards to buy any book I fancied.

As for writing, Dad is a published author and Mom once wrote a couple of short stories (one penned as she was nursing the little measles-stricken me). That I finally got the writing bug later in life wasn’t much of a surprise.

So, after years of wanting to go, I finally paid my homage at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival last week. And what a thrill that was.

Beyond meeting and listening to the gems dispensed by the literary and journalistic celebrities, there was a meeting of minds between panelists and audience members, and among themselves, that often felt like a light-bulb-going-on, ‘a-ha’ moment, or a moment to cherish in knowing laughter and silent hugs.

The audience roared as Pulitzer winner Jeffrey Eugenides — author of the famed The Virgin Suicides — told the tale of being fired for writing a novel on company stationery.

And we took mental note as he humbly admitted he had abandoned five manuscripts — bearing the risk of being seen as non-productive in this age of instant gratification — because he did not think they were worth his readers’ time. If that’s not Pulitzer quality, I don’t know what is.

During another session, we were silenced, some teary-eyed, as Neal Hall, MD rose to vocalize 400 years of historical injustice and intergenerational pain with his raw poem: For Black Americans, 9/11 is 24/7.

I won’t pretend to know the angst that runs through the vein of all African-Americans, but as an Asian, Moslem girl, with “Ibrahim” for a last name no less, who tried to find gainful employment in the US right after 9/11, the poem sent chills down my spine.

And to think that Neal Hall is not exactly your stereotypical “angry black man” either, with his Ivy League degrees and all; yet, he still discovered that in life he’d always been seen first as a black man rather than a Harvard-trained ophthalmologist.

I’d never heard of him before, yet I immediately went to grab a copy of his Nigger For Life poetry volume and, as I approached him for an autograph the next day, couldn’t resist telling him some of my own experiences and giving him a hug. The man gave me a bear hug and for those few silent seconds, two souls that had never met shared a moment of knowing the misery of having been treated as a person born with the “wrong” physical traits in the wrong place and time.

Joyful moments were also aplenty. Hong Kong-based columnist Nury Vittachi, whose syndicated columns I’ve faithfully read in the Sunday Post for years, proved that he’s as witty and hilarious in real life as in his writing. I was also fortunate to make acquaintance with the deadpan-funny Jessica Zafra, whose long-running columns are treasured by many in Manila.

Jessica Zafra, whose newspaper columns became a blog a few years ago, readily admitted that though there was a certain satisfaction in seeing one’s work published instantly, the lack of vetting editors caused a proliferation of garbage on the Internet these days.

I was proud to see many of Indonesia’s own young writers on the panels, aside from household names like Debra Yatim and founder of the Makassar Literary Festival, journalist Lily Y Farid. I’m only hoping that these promising young talents will also brush up on their English so that every audience can hear their thoughts in their chosen expressions, like when hijab-wearing, Madurese Benazir Nafilah poignantly called on us to treat others as we would want to be treated — helpful interpreters, notwithstanding. As for young poets, it was exciting to see quite a handful of them rocking out the festival’s Poetry Slam and winning cheers from the international audience.

All in all, I’m glad I went. I learned that every successful author or columnist works tirelessly on drafts, and as award-winning poet Lemn Sissay pointed out, 90 percent of the writing industry is made up of rejections, which ultimately serve to improve our craft.

For a fleeting moment, I even summoned up enough confidence, or suicidal tendency, to speak my mind in the room full of literati and Opening Session panelists, including former Timor Leste President Jose Ramos Horta and Indonesia’s beacon for human rights, lawyer Todung Mulya Lubis.

Typically for me, I didn’t realize how nervous I was until I became aware I was fumbling through my English and, at the end, I wasn’t sure if Horta actually understood my point.

However, despite my butchering of the English language in such a public forum, I have no regrets. As the late Frank McCourt said: “Sing your song, dance your dance and tell your tale.” In those blurry moments, carrying into the whole festival, I think I did all those things.

Lynda Ibrahim is a Jakarta-based writer and consultant, with a penchant for purple, pussycats and pop culture.


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