Losing Things

I just read Gina Barreca's post, Everything You Lose Makes Room for Something New and it reminded me of two things. One, a vilanelle by Elizabeth Bishop that I have a love-hate relationship with called 'One Art'. Although it's 'about' the death of her partner, my favorite lines are:

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

The whole poem is here.

The second thing this post reminds me of is my own just-so postcard that Shanti sent me from Geneva when I was studying in Lahore. The quote, from Jules Renard, reads:

Ecrire, c'est une façon de parler sans être interrompu.

Multilingual poetry!

I found this bit of gorgeousness via languagehat, a blog I've only just started reading.

Antoine Cassar writes in five different languages, but rather than write one poem in one language, he has attempted to "braid" all five together into single poems, called Muzajik or Mosaics. The results are intriguing. The first and third link will take you to some of his poems, and while you're there I'd recommend listening to the posted recordings. I've found, in my brief encounter with them, that the different languages gel well with each other and form very interesting poetry. He's woven the sounds of the different languages together wonderfully in the poems I've heard so far (Go listen).

In the Chimera piece(first link), Cassar says:

"...the mosaics are more than a mere linguistic challenge. Having lived in five different European countries and languages, I find it difficult to decide which tongue I feel more at home with. Although I still write monolingual poetry occasionally (particularly in Maltese), I believe that selecting one, or even two, would mean sacrificing others, and to a certain extent, I feel that making a choice would also imply a political decision. Why the fixation with one as opposed to many?"

I think that's what immediately appealed to me. Being multilingual, one tends to code-switch - or at least want to code-switch - quite a bit, and it is sometimes frustrating to have to limit oneself to just one language when another would fit a particular situation so much better. Given that there are probably more bilinguals and multilinguals in the world than monolinguals, it is worth asking why the majority has to limit itself for the sake of the minority. (And the over-generalized answer, probably, is that the minority is more powerful or influential - neither of which is to be construed as pejorative.)

There are more things to address here, not the least of which is Cassar's project to include languages he does not speak into the mosaics, but as the project is, as far as I can tell, still gathering steam, I expect there will be more opportunities to do so. In the mean time, I'm just going to go enjoy what there is.

It's official

I'm enrolled in the PhD program. Till 2012. And I'm being paid to do it, which is utterly cool.

There were delays, of course - it's taken almost a month and a half to process everything. You'd think, with an unconditional offer and two full scholarships, there'd be no reason for any holdups, wouldn't you? I thought so too. I have seldom been so horribly wrong.

See Australia requires international students to have health insurance while they're in the country. In itself, this is not a problem. It becomes a problem, however, when you want to switch insurance companies. They don't like each other and while they're happy to have you, you need to be punished for ever going over to the competition in the first place. Once they work you over good and proper and make you swear a blood oath to never ever leave the fold again on pain of torture by red tape, you are finally redeemed and accepted into the fold.

You can imagine, then, what the company you're leaving does to you. Honestly, if my parents had divorced when I was 12 and I'd been forced to choose between them, it could not have been worse.

The incompetence of the people who are supposed to 'handle' us international students  was the next hurdle. Yes you need health cover for three years. No you don't. Yes you do. No you don't. Unfortunately, it was 'yes you do' when I went to accept my offer and I was sent packing straight to the insurance company with offerings of money and vows of eternal fidelity. They were in a benevolent mood - and hey, who isn't when you give them money - and back I went to finally, finally accept my offer. And then, naturally, I find out that the department of immigration only requires you to have cover for the first 12 months of your degree, after which it is your responsibility to keep it updated.

That stupidity aside though, it's done and I'm ready to start. I'm quite excited and nervous, but I have about four years to get over that.  I've started exploring German on my own, though I'll sign up for proper classes once I sort out where to go. I'm also sorting through what resources I've found at the library and looking for stuff online, though the amount of material searches turn up is a little frightening. Ah well, as I said, four years to go through it all.

I realized something else that's 'official', or at least will be by the time I finish: in 2012, I will have lived in Melbourne for just under six years - that's longer than I've ever lived anywhere before.  Who'd'a thunk?

The price of happiness

In his article In Praise of Melancholy, Eric G Wilson writes:
I for one am afraid that American culture's overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life. I further am concerned that to desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic, to settle for unrealistic abstractions that ignore concrete situations. I am finally fearful of our society's efforts to expunge melancholia. Without the agitations of the soul, would all of our magnificently yearning towers topple? Would our heart-torn symphonies cease?

My fears grow out of my suspicion that the predominant form of American happiness breeds blandness. This kind of happiness appears to disregard the value of sadness. This brand of supposed joy, moreover, seems to foster an ignorance of life's enduring and vital polarity between agony and ecstasy, dejection and ebullience. Trying to forget sadness and its integral place in the great rhythm of the cosmos, this sort of happiness insinuates that the blues are an aberrant state that should be cursed as weakness of will or removed with the help of a little pink pill.

He goes on to talk about the role of melancholy in creativity. He's not advocating the kind of depression that can be self-destructive or dangerous to other people, but talking about a kind of sadness or melancholy that comes from the knowledge that we are essentially fractured ephemera, but which makes us appreciate what time we do have and makes us strive towards some kind of wholeness.

That reminds me of something Coleridge said about the necessity of opposites. If we didn't have sadness, how would we appreciate joy?

Wilson's book, Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy will be published this year.


Ian McEwan on literary realism:
The kind of fiction I like and the kind of fiction I most often want to write does have its feet on the ground of realism, certainly psychological realism. I have no interest in magical realism and the supernatural--that is really an extension, I guess, of my atheism. I think that the world, as it is, is so difficult to capture that some kind of enactment of the plausibly shared reality that we inhabit is a very difficult task. But it is one that fascinates me. I have just re-read a couple of Saul Bellow novels, Mr. Sammler's Planet and The Dean's December. I really get a thrill from his engagement with the momentous task of what it is like to be in the 20th century in Chicago or even Bucharest, what the condition is, what it's like, how it is now. This is something that modernism shied away from--the pace of things, the solid achievement of weight in your hand. So I remain rather committed to that. But also to what is psychologically real--the small print of consciousness, the corners and vagaries of thinking that when you read them in another writer, and they are done well, you just know they are right. Not only because you had this thought to yourself, but because that way of thinking seems so ineradicably human.

From The New Republic.

Writing time

So while waiting for the cake to get done, I read Jerry Oltion's 50 Strategies for Making Yourself Work over at the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America website. Some great ideas there, specially if you are as pathologically distractable as I am. I love that he's collected all these because, while some people can use just the one strategy throughout their lives, he tends to subvert any given strategy after a while and so needs to switch tactics to get results. I do that. I do that more often than I admit. Subvert, that is. It's not that I don't like writing or find it tedious or anything - writing (and dancing) give me more joy than anything else. It's just getting started, which requires sifting through ideas to find the one or two or three most worth developing. And as soon as I get started on one, another pops up to distract me, so I follow it up for a while, until another one pops up, and so on. So I've got tons of beginnings and endings (I like endings), but not a whole lot to go in the middle.

I also find goal-oriented writing much more easy than just writing for the hell of it. I'm happy with deadlines. Stressed, freaked, overcaffeinated, sleepless, and generally unpleasant to be around, but happy. But artificial goals don't fool me. For a writer, I'm quite resistant to the whole suspension of disbelief thing. (Made me a frustrating kid too, because I wouldn't believe that drains gurgled because there were tigers trapped in them. Drain small, tiger big. Does not compute.) So the thing to do is to hornswaggle another person into writing with you. That way, you have the stress of not letting the other person down to keep you at the keyboard. I've only had one writing 'date' so far, but with another one this Friday it's actually working. Or I am, rather. Well, except for the cake baking and the blogging, but I have excuses for that.


I handed in my thesis a few minutes ago and I want to collapse. Or sleep. Sleep would be good too. Instead of being all elated and relieved, I'm feeling quite bereft. I want it back. I want to do it over. Not because what I handed in, despite its pretentious title, is bad, but because I just want to go again. Orientation for semester 2 has just started, which is aggravating the the whole nostalgia thing. I want to be at that end of it again. But that's what the PhD's for, right? Right. Here's hoping!

Bye, bye, unconscious

Lo! 'Tis done! My last assignment has been handed in and I am free to dip my aching fingertips in some warm, salty water. Seriously, they're getting all funny looking from all the typing I've been doing. Or maybe I'm just getting old. Which I am, really. Next week, in fact, I'll be a whole year older. Yay me.

But for now, I am still last year's me and I have handed in my assignment and I feel good. I don't know how I managed to turn that damn short story into a play, but I did and I justified it too. Seriously though, no more Freudian-Jungian-anythingian analysis for me any more. It's exhausting and ultimately just pisses me off, but I shall wax indignant on that at a later date. Right now I need to sleep.

One down…

I handed in my final assignment for my research course yesterday. Yes, it's silly to have to write a research proposal for a thesis that's due in a few weeks, but that should actually make it easier to write. I took it as a good sign that I got it done without bursting into tears - that means I actually do have some idea what I'm doing. Yaay.

The creative component was fun though, specially since I've opted to not include a creative component in my thesis and I wanted to see what I might have come up with if I had.  I thought of doing an 'imitiation' of Faiz in English, but discarded that idea pretty fast since I'd need my examiner to be able to read the original for it to make sense. What I did take from Faiz was the images and sentiment he uses in "Aaj Bazaar Mein Pabajaulan Chalo" which translates roughly as "Come to the marketplace in shackles today".


I've tried translating that one line over and over and simply cannot come up with any kind of phrasing in English that manages to convey the right combination of grief or determination or resignation or any of the other emotions that one line carries. 'Aaj' means today. 'Bazaar' is not just a marketplace, it's the town centre or square where the business of living, not just trade, is carried out. 'Mein' is 'in'. 'Pabajaulan' means 'with shackled feet. 'Chalo' means 'walk' but it can also mean come or go. But that doesn't really help because we don't know who the line is addressed to. It could mean: 

  • come with me to the marketplace in shackels

  • let us go to the marketplace in shackles today

  • I must walk in shackles through the marketplace today

  • walk in shackles in the marketplace today

  • We have come to a time when we must walk in shackles in the marketplace

So which is it? The problem is, it's all of them. The poet himself actually did have to pass through the marketplace in chains one day because he needed to see a doctor and one couldn't come to him in prison that day(Faiz was jailed because the government didn't like his political opinions). The idea of having to walk chained in his own country for the crime of actually caring about its people stayed with him. It is also a comment on subjugation and the idea that, visible or not, everyone living under an oppressive regime is in shackles in public. It is also not only touches on (and the poem later discusses it explicitly) the humiliation faced by those with the will to fight but suggests that the brave come out in shackles willingly and take whatever other punishment the 'oppressors' wish to heap on them. Yes this is still the one line.


 Since I've been reading Ilhan's book at the same time and given my own interest in the ancient history of the land, I also picked up the image of the Dancing Girl of Mohenjodaro and again used Faiz's idea of her 'birth' as the moment when time began (until we figure out what the real myths of the time were, I suppose we'll just have to make up our own). Combine that with the Indus River (because I can) and you have a narrator all set to tell the story of a land in political turmoil. It was also easier to use the dancing girl as the speaker than myself because I feel my own emotional connection to the land is quite tenuous, despite my anger at the current situation there. (But that division is a whole other post.)

Overall, I'm not unhappy with the stuff I turned in. I'm avoiding reading it because I know I'll find something I could have put better or should have left out or something. Plus I have my Writing the Unconscious assignment due next and have to go look up stuff on Jung. A jungian short story. What the hell was I thinking?!


Workshopping is probably one of the most valuable things you get from a course in creative writing. Most writers will eventually show their work to someone before they set off on the tortuous path to publication, and some will get genuinely good feedback from readers, but there's nothing quite like having a room full of writers examine, assess, and critique your work. It can be a bit nerve-wracking having people you respect look at your work though because of course if they hate it it's not just because the work is the worst thing ever written but that you are a pathetic excuse for a writer and human being and deserve nothing but scorn. Or something like that.

It's interesting too to see what everyone brings to the mix. Clearly, everyone speaks from a particular point of view - we have fiction writers, YA fiction writers, poets, playwrights, and editors among others - as well as from personal preferences, so what they have to say can vary quite a bit. So, as Miriam pointed out yesterday, it's probably best for the person being critiqued to pay more attention to what everyone agrees about, or to comments that come up again and again, and less to comments that have to do with personal preferences.  Unless they happen to agree with them, I suppose. Ultimately, the writer is still the writer and has to decide what to take on board and what to discard. At least that's what you're told and what you have to keep repeating to yourself when redrafting. Because the problem is, when you workshop writing , is that you have it taken into as many different directions as there as writers and their attendant imaginations, and most of those directions are really quite good.

It's especially frustrating when your own idea is still fairly raw. Or entirely raw, actually, as mine was yesterday. Not being able to write when it's your turn to be workshopped is not fun. Still, when presented with my half-baked ideas, the class didn't skimp on advice, ideas, and suggestions. I have a few particularly exciting ones to work on, but my excuse for not developing them forthwith and writing this instead is that they still need to sink in. And I have a headache.


I dislike middles intensely. I have an idea, I have images, I have symbols, I have a story and I have research to back them all up. I also have a beginning and an ending. All I'm missing is about, oh, 135 lines of middle.

Which really isn't that much to come up with when you think about it, specially when it's just the middle that needs to be placed neatly between a tidy beginning and a strong ending. But this one's different. This one's surly. I've written and re-written and cut and tightened and squeezed and stretched, but it's still all flabby and jiggly and even saggy in bits and I'm beginning to suspect it ducks out to gorge on candy bars when I'm not looking. Tsk. No discipline.

Excuses, excuses

Story writing is a pain. Mostly because I think of the way I want things to end first and then work my way backwards to what set them off in the first place. Of course, when you get down to actual writing, you have to do it from beginning to end--even the bits and pieces. When you do that, however, the characters or the situation have a pesky habit of deciding that they want to have a say in what happens too, and to hell with your well-crafted, oh-so-clever/poignant/meaningful/disturbing ending.

So I write about writing instead. It's a great escape and it still passes for work because I'm still 'writing' and still engaging with the original project, if only as something to whine about.

The thing is, I've never written actual characters before. I do poetry, images, vignettes, all of which allow you to focus on the point, and only the point, not full fledged people with lives and relationships. I've only ever written short stories centered on violence and gore (I was a happy little teenager) where the characters were simply vehicles for the action, not people in themselves. Ah well. What's the point of being here if not to try on different things for size, right? And I have to say I've learnt a lot already about what makes characters tick, how to make them more real, and so on. I suppose it's just that I'm fundamentally uninterested in people I don't know--until I get to know them, of course. Maybe the more accurate word is disinterested. So the thing to do would be to get to know the lot I'm writing about and suspend the point of the story till then. Sounds like a plan.