At the wedding of his daughter, Francois van Heerden, thin-lipped and cold-eyed, watches a young man from across the room as he laughs and talks with friends; and if it wasn’t for the length of the stare, you wouldn’t know why. Francois is a man who has become the mask he must have donned years ago, from whichever point in time that he made the conscious decision to deny who he was.
His life is reflected on his face – it is a mask and the mask is without expression. He and his wife sleep in the same bed, yet they do not look at each other when they make conversation, let alone touch. He watches dispassionately from across the road as she embraces someone we assume to be her lover and then drives away without murmur. He appears to be a regular at a meeting of white Afrikaan men – no “faggots” and/or “coloureds” allowed – who have unappetizing and unfeeling sex with each other before going back to their suburban, heterosexual lives.
Yet, under this detachment in Francois lies something that puts us on edge, although we cannot at once put our finger on it. If the adage “calm before the storm” could have face, it would be Francois’s.
When she spoke, her words seemed to be coming from another time and place, as if she was shouting to be heard from a distant room, and we strained our ears, desperate to catch every syllable. She spoke of the sea and in my eyes she swam with the colours of the sunset and her voice rippled across the room, splashing intimately against our ears. I sat enraptured in the semi-darkness…
I’ve spent months trying to put Candy Royalle on a page and I have to admit – it has been harder than I thought. This strikes me as odd, because I don’t usually write like this. When I’m inspired, the writing usually comes in torrents and my fingers own the keyboard, almost as if they know what to say before my brain registers the thought.
And I have written about her – reams, actually. Disjointed paragraphs in that book and the other, even on my phone – all over the place really. Tackling a hundred different ideas and sensations that never really came together into one cohesive thought process. So here’s take number umpteen.
“I will her to want it all”, Candy admits from the stage, half singing, half speaking, staring directly into the collective gaze of her audience.
I drink in the tone of her voice, the sensuousness of her language and try to close my mouth, aware of the cameras deftly roving the crowd at intervals. I don’t want to be caught on screen with my jaw unhinged, but quite truthfully, that is how I feel on this late week night, sitting in this cosy pub enclosure together with a handful of people, watching this otherworldly poetess speak about love, sex, anger and politics.
This is the second time I’m seeing Candy Royalle on the stage.
The first was at a more public gathering, at the Sydney Writer’s Festival. I had seen her speak that same morning with a group of other poets, writers and artists who were using their work to inspire positive social change – a talk I enjoyed enough to want to know more about each of the speakers. So when I saw that most of them were performing that evening at a session of performance poetry, I thought ‘why not’. I had never seen performance poetry before and while I had a sneaking suspicion that I would find it pretentious or silly or downright depressing or all of the above, nevertheless, I figured there should be a first time for everything and decided to go along.
I’m not sure what gave me that first negative impression of performance poetry. I am a lover of language and I enjoy poetry even though it’s not usually part of my typical reading list. For whatever reason though, I had this picture in my head of self-proclaimed ‘poets’ standing on a dim stage with bits of paper in their hands, monologuing at length about their tortured feelings and depressing experiences, beating at their breasts while we sat in the audience trying to stifle our yawns.
So yes. The first time I saw Candy Royalle on the stage, I went with the eyes, ears and mind of a skeptic.
The poets who performed before her pleasantly surprised me – I marveled at their clever witticisms and wordplay and laughed at their impressions. I was enjoying myself. Candy was one of the last to perform. She had already intrigued me that morning – from her appearance, to her direct introduction of herself as a queer Arab woman, to the gentle huskiness of her voice, to her opinions on revolution and social change, to an excerpt of one of her poems that she had briefly performed. Continue reading She Is Fire: Poetry and Candy Royalle
Strange how just a few days in a new city can make you feel like you’ve been there for at least a month. Maybe being alone has something to do with it. You need to familiarize yourself with the place faster – learn where to eat, where to shop and what to see. Work out a route and routine for yourself each day. After just a day or two, you lapse into the pattern and all it takes is another couple of days to make you feel like you’ve been doing it forever.
My last day in Beijing, and it started to rain.
I looked out of my tear streaked taxi window through half closed eyes and felt glad to be going home. From one wet, exotic country to another. The taxi moved sluggishly through badly managed traffic. The fantastically smooth, wide roads, the sophisticated traffic-light system, the cables for electric buses – the infrastructure seemed flawless. But the air still looked and felt polluted with smoky rain; cars honked and confusedly veered every which way to avoid one another; drivers regularly ignored the traffic lights, especially at pedestrian crossings, cooly trying to drive through even with crowds of people trying to get to the other side of the street.
I often have to remind myself that I live with a Tamil.
My housemate, Vanessa is a Tamil, married to a Sinhalese and I have been living with her and her husband for almost a year and working with her for over two. She is also one of my closest friends.
She is Tamil; I am Sinhalese. But even as I write, it’s hard to think of the two of us along those lines, because I can’t figure out what defines our identities. Even if I can define what makes her Tamil, I still can’t define what makes her different from me.
Is it colour? She is darker than I am, but we are both brown skinned.
Is it accent? She sounds no different than me, except for a tiny, pleasant lilt in her voice.
Is language? We both speak English. She speaks better Sinhala than I do, and fluent Tamil, of which I do not know a word.
Is it culture and customs? She married a Sinhalese, much to the horror of some of her relatives. But she is happy with her choice.
Is it dress? She dresses just like me and we are endlessly in each other’s wardrobes.
Is it in name? She kept hers. “I like my own name”, she told me simply, by way of explanation.
Is it in political affiliation? Her political views are as vague as mine. We are not for the leadership, nor are we for those who wish to topple it. If she doesn’t find today’s politics suited to her, I could say the same for myself. We both hope instead for something in between – something more palatable, more honest. Something we cannot see today.
The heat in Vavuniya is incredible – oppressive and dry, as if it is trying to sap every last ounce of moisture from you and evaporate it into thin air. As I clambered out of my blissfully air conditioned van and into Vavuniya’s searing heat a few days ago, I felt immediately tired, even though I had only been sitting and sleeping for the past 7 hours since we left Colombo.
I mentioned this to the young woman I was with, who I had picked up from her family’s house just outside of Vavuniya town and she cheerfully agreed. “It seems to get worse every year, even my aunties agree”, in her thick European accent. Only in Sri Lanka for a very brief visit, she met me and my crew for a day’s worth of filming connected to her charity work at the Vavuniya hospital.
My first impression of the hospital was that it looked quite new – I supposed it was probably built up after the end of the war last year. The paint on the walls was still fresh and clean and so were the wide windows, if you ignored a light coating of dust, inescapable in these parts. Walking inside however, I saw that the place was a mess of tired patients and harried medical staff. Stray, mangy dogs skittered unnoticed in and out of the open doors and crowds of aimless looking people sat on the floor of the entrance to the hospital and all along its corridors.
My companion saw my doubtful stares in their direction and clarified: “IDPs”, she said simply. “They arrive in busloads early morning, but they cannot leave until they’ve all been seen. They are only allowed to go back to the camps late in the evening. So they wait”. I remember the two young girls I had seen when I first stepped out of our vehicle in the parking lot. They were sitting at the foot of a dusty red government bus, staring at nothing in particular. I supposed they were waiting to go home too. I felt sorry for them, sitting there with nothing to do and in this terrible heat. One of them looked at me, brow furrowed, when I pointed a camera in her direction but looked away again, disinterested.
A solitary lamp perched on a desk top lights a room. A man scribbles feverishly on paper, hunched over the light as if he’s jealously guarding what little he has. His desk is cluttered with cartoons and drawings – some of a President, others of two small children. He holds down his paper with one hand and writes with the other, so violently that other loose papers and articles shuffle with his movements.
He is breathing hard, as if he’s run to his desk from sleep, taken by wild inspiration. He has forgotten to switch on the fan, and the heat of that December night hangs in the air, thickening like spoiling milk. Small explosions of sweat begin to burst from the pores of his forehead, drip darkly onto his fast-moving hand, and trickle onto the paper, blotting the ink. This frustrates him but he doesn’t stop to soak up the liquid, just writes on, faster.
His wife lies in bed in the next room. She is awake, some inexplicable worry vaulting the sleep away from her eyes whenever it threatens to close them. She watches the empty space next to her, willing her husband to come back to bed but knows he won’t. She wonders what he felt the need to write about in the middle of the night, leaping out of bed as if possessed. She was afraid he’d knock something over in the dark and wake the children, but that walk from bedroom to desk is so familiar that he doesn’t.
It is only when he feels that familiar cramping in his fingers that he pauses. He looks around the room, fighting to make out familiar shapes in the blackness outside his little circle of light. His house is modest and unadorned for the most part – the only exceptions are the sketches of his children that he has been drawing since they were born. Some have been framed; others lie strewn around the house – on bits of furniture, stuffed carelessly into vases by the children, folded within the pockets of well-worn wallets, dog-eared between the pages of story books. Continue reading …for The Missing.
For someone who is not in the least interested in politics – and is more often than not bored by it – my reaction to the 2010 Presidential Elections was surprising, even to me. Strangely enough though, I found that a lot of people felt much the same way. We were repulsed by constant news of violence; inescapable hoardings with their proclamations that our politicians loved us; posters that made the city walls disappear beneath them; partisan media stuffing propaganda down our unwilling throats; the promises of candidates that we knew to be false.
Yet, despite all this, we cared – albeit, rather reluctantly and in spite of ourselves. We still wanted to be in the know; we still tried to separate fact from the politicians’ fiction. We still agonized over who to support, fought with our friends and colleagues about that choice, and later felt guilty that we might be making the wrong one.
I for one became obsessed with these dilemmas, and, as a first-time voter felt totally out of depth in the process. On the night of the 26th as the results started trickling and then pouring in I sat glued to my television set, snowy with bad reception, and wrote them feverishly down in my journal, as if my pen might help me make sense of the outcome. It didn’t – and at about 3.30 am my writing had become so unintelligible that I had to give up and get a few hours rest.
It was at least a small comfort that I wasn’t alone in my peculiar fixation with the elections. Being a heavy Facebook and Twitter user, I realized that many people I knew – no matter their age – felt similarly repelled and attracted towards this pivotal election. Some posted the entire election results on their blogs, others constantly updated their statuses with election-related news; some spent their time reading and sharing relevant material and others – like me – couldn’t stop writing about it in any and all fora.
This article, I guess, is proof that this process is continuing.
* * *
I’ve heard it said by a prominent artist that there is no such thing as a citizen of Sri Lanka. That, we are a country without citizens.
The statement stuck with me, purely because I had no idea what he meant. But watching the unravelling chaos the election brought with it in the past weeks, I’ve been able to form my own interpretation (although I can’t be sure that this is how he intended his statement to be read).
Within minutes the crowd grows from a few random stragglers to a swelling, shouting throng. I stand there amongst the women, waiting to be body-searched by female security personnel and there are people actually shoving me, pushing to get to the front of the line – the quicker the search is done, the quicker they can rush to the other side and join their men in the fray. I feel conspicuous in my awkwardness, out of place wearing the embarrassment I always feel as invasive hands search my body for hidden weapons.
The search done, I attempt to cross over but security won’t let me pass. I wave my ministry media ID at them – it’s been a long day – but they look perplexed, as if they’ve never seen a woman media person before. Still, I am small fry and they are watchful of the crowd so they pass me on from one officer to the next. I don’t mind – media ID in one had and camera in the other, I utilize their confusion and start taking photographs of this dynamic, bursting crowd.
In 2005, I didn’t vote. Being 21, I was eligible to vote, but I didn’t – and if you asked me why, I would ashamedly admit I simply didn’t care. I was in University abroad, my mind preoccupied with the Arts, my arms wrapped around my glossy new textbooks, my life an adventure waiting to happen. Voting, politics and presidents didn’t register on my radar: the picture they represented was too big for me to fathom and it all seemed so removed from the microcosm of my life. In 2005, my parents were the presidents of my world and I the rebellious citizen, rioting for my right to certain freedoms.
After my university career, I moved back home and joined a media institution – just in time to get a front row seat to some of the most significant events in Sri Lanka’s history. 2 years and the end of a war later, I find both myself and my country in turmoil. Strange, considering we are supposed to be at peace now. But then again, we are supposed to be many things. We are supposed to be a democracy. We are supposed to be opposed to violence because violence is the way of terrorists – and we are supposed to have defeated terrorism. We are supposed to be a liberated people, with freedom of movement, expression and choice.
A couple of weeks ago, I accompanied my parents on what seemed a routine visit to see some old friends of theirs. David and Anna were an elderly British couple – Anna was probably in her 60s, her husband David probably in his 70s – and they were both delightful. For almost two hours we all laughed, joked and conversed with each other, and it was almost easy to ignore the silent 6th companion sitting with us all the way through: Anna’s cancer, which by now had spread through almost her entire body, leaving her in a wheelchair. I spent the evening mostly listening to these two as they chatted with my parents, recalling their many previous visits to Sri Lanka and vowing that this would not be their last. “We’ll be here next January with our kids” said David, firmly, winking at me.
Our ride home was long and it gave me the time to plug in my ipod, stare out the window and ruminate – one of my favourite pastimes. I switched on my phone and sent my best friend a quick text: “Sigh. I can’t wait to grow old with someone”. I then settled back in my seat, puzzled by my own words and feelings.
I’ve always been a little crazy for passion. From Enid Blyton to Margarett Mitchell, there’s been one kind of love story that has always attracted me more than others. As a child, I watched Beauty and the Beast – the story of a young woman who enters into an agreement with a monster she learns to love – with a sort of terrified enchantment. As I grew up, the stories became more life-like, more advanced and the conflicts became more complex, but it was always that heated, troubled passion that I looked for: that dark, dangerous love. Jane Eyre and her gruff, mysterious Rochester; Scarlett’s sometimes searing, sometimes freezing affection for Rhett; and, inexplicably, my favourite – Cathy’s devastating love for her dark, mad Heathcliff. Continue reading Of Great Love