Saturday, June 16, 2012

Why I write

[Pix: Yangtze River tow-men and Lin Yutang]

It’s the school holidays. Bored, I go my Papa’s study to peruse his books in his cabinet for the first time. I’m as curious as a puppy exploring new surroundings. The Good Earth. Pearl. S. Buck. Readers Digest Condensed Books. The title catches my eye. Back in my room, propping my head on two pillows on my bed, I start to read. The book, half the size of The American Heritage Dictionary, is beyond my age. On every page, I don’t understand more than a dozen words, and I turn the pages of my tiny dictionary more often than I turn the pages of the novel. The descriptions fascinate me. They whisk me through time and space to the olden days of China. I don’t remember the story but, 40 years later, I will still remember one scene where labourers tow barges upstream on the Yangtze River by sheer brute force using ropes. “A picture paints a thousand words,” goes a cliché that I will learn later but to me, “A thousand words are more precious and memorable than a picture.” I have tasted the sweet fruit of powerful prose for the first time. The Good Earth is my telescope to see another world, a world so far geographically yet so near emotionally.

A year passes. School holidays again. This time, I take Moment in Peking from the bowed shelf of the cabinet. Mao Tze Tung has seized power in China; Malaysia is fighting the Malayan Communist Party. Books from China are sensitive possessions. The red words “Printed in Shanghai” on the preliminary pages of the cloth-bound tome jump out to me. How did my Papa get his book? I wonder. It doesn’t matter. The word “Peking” in the title sounds exciting. What’s this book about? I hibernate with the book in my room. No, Moment in Peking is not about Communism. Disappointed I am not as I quickly find out it’s a novel about Manchus, concubines, pig-tailed Chinese, bound-foot women, and sedan-chairs carried by servants. On a few occasions, the events in the story jolt me; on others, the characters’ tragic ends almost move me to tears; on still others, Lin Yutang, the author, leaves me to ponder and wonder about life.

Reading The Good Earth and Moment in Peking have planted seeds in the young soils of my mind. To paint scenes with words, to infuse love, hatred, compassion, jealousy, and other emotions in a reader through one’s story, to create new worlds, to simply express my thoughts by putting pen to paper – this is what I want to do when I grow up, I decide to myself after I turn the final page of Moment in Peking.


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