I made my first mistake in my very first month in Singapore. I didn’t turn up for a coffee morning a kind neighbour invited me to. “You will get to know others in the building. Do come,” she had said. “Good,” the husband had nodded encouragingly, “you’ll make connections.”
Yet, I didn’t go, disregarding even a friend’s well-meant advice about networking. Networking is a good thing, she insisted, making connections grounds you in. You must set aside a day of the week to meet someone.
But a coffee morning for others was my writing morning. The months before, in India, as we prepared for life in Singapore, I looked ahead to the literary atmosphere that, I had been told, existed in rich measure – different literary circles, grants to be availed of.
Besides, Singapore was quite professional with its efficient, well-organised foreign domestic workers programme. In Singapore, the foreign domestic worker (FDW) programme was well regulated; one signed a contract with agencies, who of course, had years of experience dealing with expat families and their requirements.
You must think of a second baby then, the lady running the agency told me after the paperwork was complete. I learnt then of the assumptions or expectations made of an expat wife – and I was one, besides being a writer – and a helper made it easier to manage life with baby.
I knew then that no matter the identity you wish to declare to the world, the identities you leave behind, the world was ever ready to thrust other identities on you.
My first Singapore meeting with a writer, one of Indian origin, was entirely happenstance. An editor of a prominent Indian daily asked if I might interview this writer. Her most recent novel that had got several in Singapore and elsewhere talking was a sweeping saga of Singapore, from the British period to its formation in 1965. At her launch, I was unsuitably dressed and asked the wrong question. (That was a side lesson I learned: of learning to dress appropriately and to ask impressive sounding questions.)
Circles in their own orbits
I went to her magnificently done-up apartment, with an easily recognisable painting of Manjit Bawa in the drawing room, and in her study, bookshelves that reached the ceiling. With the interview over, photos taken, I got down to asking for advice; her replies, in turn, were generous, addled with considerable caution.
There is the Indian women’s association, she said, and then a group called friends of the museum. I can’t give you the names of people in certain writing circles, the writer continued, in her soft voice, looking at me with very kind eyes. There are desi writers and other writers. I’d think it is best first to just meet among your own ilk.
I didn’t quite get what she meant. Writers, of course, worked in isolation, but even in contradiction, writers had to be open to the world. A deliberate separation into two distinct literary spheres was hard to sustain for writers, for the community they lived in. It made for insularity. But I was wrong on this too. I learned that networks could be as narrow, as limited, as one wanted them to be. Those within them, chose their own kind, people alike, but in ways not defined by their writing. And so, there were some writing circles that orbited each other in the same settings and neither met nor touched, not even as circles do, like in a Venn diagram, when some things can exist in common.
What at best I did figure out was – one had to find one’s circle and watch it close over you. You must fit into your circle, almost stitch yourself in it, for all your literary inclinations to the contrary.
In my quest to fit in and belong as a writer in a new country of habitation, there were other demarcations that I noticed, other defined writing circles. The world of children’s publishing in Singapore, for instance, never quite reached the other circle that constituted what one might call the sphere of more mature writing. The circle that organised the big-time, hugely attended, writers’ festivals. You couldn’t, even if you wrote across genres, splice your way across circles: a children’s books writer stayed within her circle.
The children’s books association in Singapore, for its part, held a grand carnival every year – with launches, conferences, presentations and I was part of it for two years, thanks to the kind intervention of key people of the association. For those two days, it was a whirlwind of activity and merriment; writers, readers, librarians, publishers, wove through circles of new made friends and acquaintances. We made promises to write, to email, to meet. Networking was exhausting and exhilarating, all the business cards I’d collected was evidence of this. Later when it was over, I’d remember those cards. I’d make careful note of emails, the organisations the cardholders represented. In time, the faces blurred, till friend requests came, were sent out and accepted via Facebook.
You learn that networking is but a different kind of friendship. You also remember other things, and you wish though you’d remember the things that mattered among friends.
We tell you things to do
A friend suggested I write to the editor who ran a prominent magazine for ‘desis’ (expat Indians) in Singapore. I had stumbled onto this magazine oftentimes, had even run a casual condescending eye over it. It was sleek and sophisticated with plush photographs. But in a time when space for books was shrinking across newspapers, this magazine offered the mandatory two pages – barely enough to assure respectability for the magazine; and encouragement enough for me to send off an email, with details first about my writing and then about my work experience.
As it turned out, it was the second bit that elicited a reply from the editor. She wanted an assistant editor, as the incumbent was on maternity leave – something she revealed five minutes into a telephone conversation. She might have told me sooner but for the fact that in this conversation we appeared to be talking at cross-purposes.
She asked me things relating to page setup, Adobe Reader, if I was adept at aspects of layout, configuration. In turn, I asked her plans for the magazine, what she looked for in books.
I could help in laying out stuff, I said finally, but I do want to write.
We are offering you a chance to work for the best expat magazine in Singapore, the editor said in clipped tones, disappointed at my evident lack of appreciation. As for writers, she went on, I have seen a dime a dozen.
I don’t remember the rest of the conversation, for disappointment had plummeted through me like a heavy stone, but she told me in detail of a literary salon she had organised, attended by the best celebrity writers from India.
That was yet another hyphenated identity I could never assume. I’d always come up short trying to be a celebrity-writer. I could never see myself as a trendsetter, or take the lead. No writer can truly answer that – stories, the trajectories they take, decide that. Neither did I want to rearrange paras, fix a page, use a whimsical mouse to cut up squares of writing and move them around. I wanted to fill in the content, not to just dress a page up.
Nor could I, as the editor of yet another desi paper told me, write about celebrity meet-ups or desi social gatherings. No one – was the underlying, unspoken message from this editor – wanted to read of writerly accomplishments. Nor did I point out that a writer acquaintance of mine, who happened to be male, did indeed write of more ambitious things – finance and IT, issues that powered the world.
But I was learning: Perhaps it was that a well-networked writer never writes about what she knows; she must write what other people – the decision makers, those with editorial power – know is worth writing about.
Speaking of books
I gave up for a bit. It was better I thought to have chance encounters with writer-friends, and not seek to network. Then a man who ran Singapore’s most-loved independent bookstore gave me a contact – A writer of Chinese origin, a native Singaporean, who was also a highly-regarded playwright. She was editing an anthology of Singapore’s neighbourhoods and was soliciting contributions from other writers. This was the chance to break in, I instantly realised. I hoped nothing on my part would fluff this chance too.
You haven’t lived in Singapore long enough, the playwright-turned-editor said. But does that matter, I asked? Even a new person can write about how a place can feel to her. You can, after all, live in a place for years and remain indifferent to it.
Still, I didn’t take her rejection to heart. Later we stopped at the bookstore on our way to the subway station. I saw some copies of my novel. And she saw hers too, mutual scenes of happy writerly recognition followed. But whereas I only pointed out my book, its display copies, to her, she thrust her book into mine.
To me, that was yet another necessary lesson on how to be a writer among other writers. Let your book speak out loudly and insistently for you, let your book make the demand for readership. Make sure you hand it over.
All the things I told myself before meetings never really worked. After all, one just had to follow the steps: You make an appointment. You make small talk. Then you circle around to dig deeper with talk about mutual acquaintances, stuff one wrote about. But I could never learn when to tie up all these meandering strains of conversation – or figure out the moments crucial to jump subjects, so to land gently within a certain topic. In the middle of polite banter, I knew I had a strained look on my face: was I saying the right things, or had I chosen the right moment to do so? I was torn between delicacy and directness. Confused about being sassy and serious. One could never be too serious. Showing intensity was an invitation to disaster. It alarmed people.
Networking made me conscious that it was a complete subject by itself. I didn’t have the stomach or even an attitude. One had to learn it, meticulously, and conscientiously, whereas here I was, hoping to learn to be a better writer, a better parent – the two always went together. That was hard work enough.
One gets so set in making connections, so immersed in telling one’s own story, or in figuring out the story one must tell the world, that somehow one loses the stories that matter.
For instance, the stories I always heard from Singapore’s cabbies; they were a mine of information, a treasure house of stories. There was one who told me about the amusement park that had once existed in Kallang, on the East Coast. That explained all the old rail tracks I had seen, ones not erased by the trees that hovered above. Another told me of Tanjong Pagar, where the train line to Malaysia had run till 2011. I heard life stories on other journeys – the daughter of a cabby studying medicine in New York and the driver who sent money every month to educate two children in Vietnam, whose mother he had never seen.
Many a time, the stories you really need to listen to and connect with, come to you unexpectedly. These are stories worth telling, but somehow they seem to rarely breach the boundaries of connections and networks – the barricades guarded by the gatekeepers, or as T.S. Eliot, might have put it:
And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor –
And this, and so much more? –
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow, or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.’”
Anu Kumar is a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA programme in writing. Her most recent book is Emperor Chandragupta.