Sunday Ramblings: The Giraffe and the Jellyfish

This is not Al. But that may be his top-hat.

This was not how it happened, but I met Al in front of a Jazz Bar. He had on a snazzy black suit, a white shirt, bow-tie and a top hat. Of all who were straying by the bar, he looked the least threatening.

Or maybe I decided that talking to the tall, dapper, well-dressed gentleman would place me higher up the food-chain, or in this case, the bar-chain. Aesthetics are important, quite.

“Your first drink?” I asked.

“Nah had one before this, you?”

“Oh, no no no, I look more sober than I really am.”

With that and a handshake we became partners in crime.

Like I said, that was not how I met Al (the real story of how I met Al is a boring one), but I always picture Al in a Murakami-esque scene, with saxophones playing in the background (even when we were walking down the dusty streets of Kerala). He is, if I must describe him, a dashing juxtaposition; the artist and the banker in one, you know, where Greenwich Village meets Wall Street.

(So for the sake of this post, which God knows why is set in the 70’s, just picture us the man in the suit and the lady in the red dress at that jazz bar, under very dim lighting.)

No Black Tie, Kuala Lumpur.

Seated at a small round table facing the stage, where Diana the songstress with the birdlike voice, and her the three-men jazz band were performing, with cocktails in hands, and drawing from cigarettes on exquisitely carved bone cigarette-holders, we began this conversation.

Me: I remember you telling me that you had a great childhood. Your views of the world must have been different back then. Has that view changed?

Al: I think my views changed along with my environment, the switch to a boarding school out of the city, where the collective point of view was suddenly so limited and one-dimensional, and the way my family evolved over divorce. Those were some of the peaks and troughs in an otherwise boring life. I now see that possibilities have changed.

I think my imagination is as lively as it was, but I believe in fewer things and I trust fewer people. Growing up I learnt to strategise around things, so I’ve become more grounded. I like to think that, being this young, I have privileges. I don’t want to oblige every decision to have a long-term effect, so I can explore somewhat risky paths. I need to put effort into discovering who I am, what I am, as Sartre proposed – life is what you make it, and I’m an accumulation of my own painful lessons and little successes.

Your perception of family, what does it look like now?

I’ve always had a loose concept of family. For one, my family is quite unconventional, with dad once having two wives. It was complicated because there weren’t rules to abide to and everyone’s sort of just winging it. I guess I did grow up expecting my parents to know how to manage the situation, to be an answer to the fear and curiousity I had as a child, but they are human. I’ve had to unlatch from those expectations, and realise that I now have as much power as anyone else in this family to change things.

I spent a large part of my life living out of home, so my family’s had to be segregated to its own corner in my mind. Its very separate from the rest of my life, but I’m trying to change that. However, I’ve had a solid sense of family from very tight-knit friendships I’ve been able to count on, just maybe one or two people I’ve known for at least half my life and they’ve seen me at my worst and still survived it.

And friendships, can you describe what friendship look like to you, if it were a tangible thing or person? 

Its probably some kind of benign and beautiful animal, happily feasting on flora and once in a while starting riots for fun. Or a jellyfish. My two favorite animals are the giraffe and jellyfish, so you may pick one. The jellyfish, it is sexless, built on this strong understanding of something concrete, not some skewed concept of reciprocity, or a something that can necessarily be understood intellectually. Its just a certain knowing that gives strength.

On friendship, what makes you want to continue building a picture, or a relationship, and what makes you stop? 

I can be quite complacent with the friends I already have, and sometimes put minimal energy into establishing new relationships although if there’s a natural chemistry I make a point to nurture it. I’ve since learnt to let my guard down, and sometimes I can be a bit too frank. For me a good relationship should be able to bear the weight of such honesty, which can at times be lost in all the niceness. Its a two-way road and often a bumpy one for me, the friendships I have usually need to break past a certain crucial point, before starting back on stronger footing.

You grew up with a sort of concept of God? What does that relationship with God look like?

I’m not sure where my relationship with God is at the moment, it hasn’t settled anywhere but it isnt in a bad place. I do feel that God has been incredibly generous, forgiving to the things I’ve done and the kind of mistakes I’ve had to make to learn but I don’t easily subscribe to my religion’s many rules. I understand while I’m wandering about trying to understand faith (is it meant to be understood?), its easy to simply mould God into something that makes me most comfortable. I do consider myself quite a moderate and disciplined person (which is a subtle way of saying I’m quite boring), anyway, religion’s still a journey for me. I hope (or know) it’s leading me somewhere right.

Do you have a favourite writer?

The writers I truly love unconditionally; David Foster Wallace, David Sedaris, Salinger, Paul Auster, they’ve had a huge effect on the kind of stuff I read and how I approach reading in general, and more importantly, how I write. They arrived at different points in my life, and changed things. The first book I ever loved, and I mean really really loved (read all of in one seating, without a thought that I am reading something mundane) was Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole & The Weapons of Mass Destruction (which is quite far into the Adrian Mole series, and contains some of the most dysfunctional and entertaining characters).

At the moment I’m really into Alice Munro and Fiona Apple, I know the latter’s a singer/songwriter but I think she pens beautiful things that would hold regardless if read or sung. “Darling give me your absence tonight, take the shade from the canvas and leave me the white..cause’ I suddenly feel like a different person, from the roots of my soul come a gentle coercion – and I ran my hand oh a strange inversion, a vacancy that just did not belong – the child is gone,” is one of those lines she wrote a long time ago and has stayed in my head since.

Alice Munro is just very sincere, she lays down the words and they form this beautiful, often tragic story. I’ve read a few of her collections and I keep going back to a handful of stories. She’s been writing for a very long time, so of course her craft changed over time but her style has had a huge influence on my writing. DFW inspired me to just write with no rules or limits, he pushed me to explore the stranger, scarier areas, but Munro has pulled me back to a simpler place, she’s encouraged me to explore my past for resources and a lot of this included things I never could, or even considered writing about.

Another writer I’m reading is sort of the antithesis to Munro,  I’m going through Ann Beatie’s New Yorker compilation. There’s a clear goal to meet a certain word count and appease a specific type of audience, her stories indicate how good stories are typically written, tight and effective, but they are also very sly. Meanings hidden in the nooks of sentences, very conflicted and developed characters, Munro still captures all of this, but in a very unique, stripped down manner which amplifies the strength of her message.

What do you try to capture when you write?

Writing’s still just a hobby for me, I don’t always sit down with an idea of completing a full story. At this point I’m absorbing the Munro effect, a lot of stuff from my teenage and student years were marked with shame, disappointment and awkwardness, so I’m trying to bring whatever I can to the surface and fiction’s a good place to hire surrogates and have characters embody some part of that pain I’ve kept hidden, a pain that has grown its own skin and bones after years of residing inside me. I’m taking a simpler approach, to write about the people I know so I can begin with a fuller picture, someone recently remarked that he sensed I cared a lot for my characters, its because I take bits of my own friends for characters I write, and I get to elaborate them with a ready sense of their flaws, strengths, past, prospects, before toying around.

Why do you write and why is it so important to you?

I think as an introvert, I gravitate to a lot of things enjoyed in solitude. I watched Conan O’Brien on Piers Morgan recently, he said that for him comedy was the release, that he personally found it enjoyable, and that he’d feel less comfortable making a sandwich. It’s ridiculous, but so true. I do what makes me feel better, at least when I have that privilege, and writing’s one of those things.

And finally, what do you experience when you write, how does the process of writing ‘change’ you, if you like? 

I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who said it was important that every character in a story wanted something, even if it was a glass of water. I try to make this the base, there’s a question that needs answering and I try to veer away from the ‘big’ or confronting issues, or twist endings, or just outrageous things or people (although the result can be monotone). A friend giving feedback to a story I recently wrote advised that I “make something dramatic happen!” At this stage I want to focus on small revelations, the complexity of a relationship and do these things without looking like I have some grand message I wanted to offer, and sure I can write with all these objectives and rules in mind but I’m often very character-oriented. Right now I’m writing a story about a teenage girl who’s obssessed with her middle-aged neighbor, and so I let myself get carried away into that mindset.

– Al-Zaquan is a business journalist who plays with us at WritersClubKL and had recently started (with some friends) the Issue Magazine.

And congratulations Ali Imran, whose book launch yesterday was quite the event, thanks to Mollydooker’s Coffee Bar. Look out for the next Readings, and have a great week ahead!