Sharlene Teo
23-10-2018

15-10-2018

Last night I dreamt that a ghost held my hand. It was one of those half-lucid dreams, hovering on the border between mundane imagination and sleep paralysis. Over the past fifteen years I have mostly learnt to control my sleep paralysis, but episodes still happen, triggered by stress, sugar, unresolved tensions. With my right hand I gripped the hand of the real boy in my bed. But the other hand, which should have been free, held someone else’s. Earlier that day I’d half-watched the first episode of the Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House, by one of my favourite authors, Shirley Jackson. Even in my dreamlike state I got the reference. In one of the novel’s most terrifying scenes, the protagonist Eleanor Vance thinks that she is clutching her friend Theodora’s hand, only to find, when the lights come on, that her friend is somewhere else altogether.

It is 11:07pm as I type this, and I’ve scared myself. Let’s change the subject. I wanted to talk about a different kind of haunting: the everyday emotional and cultural inheritances that we carry with us across different countries, different borders. In a more quotidian sense, for example, I feel haunted by targeted advertising. It is as if the price of an online social life is to be bombarded with increasingly personalised, sometimes offensive auto play clips and aspirational collages. All these things are geared toward making me part with money, in small or large increments. One of these things is a self-improvement course. Image: a wooden gate at sunset, rays of light streaming through the slats. Caption, a Rumi quotation: Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?

If we were to apply those same rules to fiction, how many stories would be written? I’ve seen that targeted advert so many times I have started to internalise the Rumi quotation, but I don’t find myself any kinder yet. Once a year I get a bout of nasty laryngitis that mutes me for a week or two. Maybe the universe is trying to tell me something about how I use my words. Two days ago, I started to lose my voice. Now it is almost entirely gone. Usually I’m a mile a minute talker, rapid and excitable. Today in the corner store I pointed at my throat and shook my head at the man behind the counter. “Honey and lemon, honey and lemon,” he offered sympathetically. I remember the internet tips from when this happened last year: that whispering is more of a strain on the vocal chords than muttering, salt water is my foul-mouthed friend, not to go swimming or I’ll infect everyone else.

On this day last year I was pacing around and writing mostly small non-fiction pieces in a square room full of dark furniture in the University of Iowa. I was on a writing residency with thirty-one other writers, all from different countries. For three months we were sequestered across two floors of the Iowa Memorial Union Hotel. Iowa City was flat and broad, impossible to get out of at ease without a car of your own. At times, the residency felt like a cross between a social experiment and a reluctant re-enactment of some sort of American campus life very few of us had experienced firsthand, both reminiscent of and nothing like what you see in Hollywood movies. I look back on it with fondness now, but at the time I remember missing the vivid anonymity of big cities; a sprawl I could decipher and escape into.  

 

Alle verhalen van Sharlene Teo
19-11-18

Today my mother ran into a woman she’d gone to university with, standing in front of us in the queue for a bento bar on Miyajima Island. My mother hadn’t seen her old friend in forty years and was pleasantly surprised to have been recognised. My parents had just started dating the last time they all met, at a Dinner & Dance. Now three kids and four decades later they meet this old friend on holiday, going through Western Japan. I want to say that this incident got me thinking about the mechanics of time, how it can be catalysed or gently nudged (through a once-familiar face, a song, or a phrase) to bend and stretch. But the truth is I think about time all the time.

Hard to believe I left the Translator’s House in Amsterdam just eight days ago, dragging things down the impossibly narrow staircase out into a cold, sugarless afternoon. I didn’t want to leave. Not yet. The streets and houses around Vondelpark are so grand and beautiful. Ditto the elegant boutiques with their enviable homewares or racks of chiffon dresses with price-tags that make your eyes smart- all these things signifiers of a type of unquestionably polished adulthood and classic prosperity that feels very remote. Vondelpark itself feels a lot more approachable. I visit it every time I’ve come to Amsterdam. On my last morning I went for a slow run through the park, avoiding the bike paths, and came across a giant tree house structure full of Sharpie doodles and the names of groups of friends, the sort of cheerful insignia you’d find in a club or pub bathroom.

On the way to the airport I took a tram through the city for the last time, going past groups of smoking, laughing teenagers (had any of them written in the tree house?) and honeymooning couples with their arms slung across each other, shopping bags in tow, or just people going about their usual workweek, crossing the streets with unmistakeable surety and purpose. And then another train to Schiphol, and back to London, London for half a day unpacking to the point of terrible disarray, before leaving for the airport to fly to Singapore for the Singapore Writer’s Festival. Been so jetlagged and grateful to be travelling because of my book (the preceding sentence sounds so insufferable, even to myself) but also overwhelmed by the sensory triggers.

Being in Singapore always registers as florid colours to me, the vivid palette of childhood that is fuchsias and greens and yellows. Sometimes these colours get faded and warped with age. Coming back home to Singapore, especially after a long time, is always charged and overwhelming, euphoric and melancholy, comforting and alienating all at the same time.

The seaside by The Hague registered as slate-green and toothpaste-white, in the foamy tips of the waves. The building site all around the Mercer Hotel registered as gray and beige. I’d eaten silky cheong fun and other varieties of delightfully salty dim sum for lunch at the Chinese restaurant at the bottom of the building one of the days (which of the days? How quickly memory elides granular details) and the waitress told me the restaurant had been there for over twenty years, longer even than the hotel itself. It is fascinating/depressing to imagine the enduring lifespan of buildings and things, how you can go into a history museum and stare at a pillaged tapestry or a really old jug that has outlasted incredibly violent battles and all kinds of human frailties. A tapestry can’t get sick, for example.

Now it is the end of my Chronicles run and I am a little sad at how quickly it ended. The first few days after the festival I went about my errands with a kind of shadow-imprint of how it would have been like to have stayed on with everyone- wanting to be there and still part of that pleasurable experience, a nostalgic act of speculative memory-making, which is one of the kindest forms of imagination. Till next time, someday.

05-11-18

On the train to Amsterdam I feel as lukewarm and flat as a can of cola that’s been opened and left out all day. Outside the window the sky is a thin, watery blue. Criss-crossing vapour trails trace the trajectories of different aeroplanes. I have a terrible hangover and cramps but no sympathy for my self-induced predicament. Body, heart and brain are all in disagreement. Hair and soul in disarray. Earlier on, the moment I’d packed all my things away I missed my hotel room at once. It was wonderful getting babied for a few days, coming back to clean sheets and a tidy space. Sleep was deep and dreamless, interrupted only by the sound of a vacuum cleaner down the hallway.

This year my novel Ponti has taken me on its paper wings to roughly twelve literary festivals and five different countries. I have spoken at around forty events over the past seven months and sometimes I feel like an old hand at it, bordering on glibness. Other days I feel totally tongue-tied, boring and inchoate. It is challenging not to repeat yourself or trot out the same sound bites. I like to see people laugh. I try not to think they’re thinking anything critical of me when their eyes glaze over.

The best piece of life advice I ever received is from my secondary school chemistry teacher, Miss Goh. She confiscated the love letter of a girl called Melissa. Miss Goh was a very kind woman at heart, even though everyone feared her. She spared Melissa the indignity of reading the letter out. Instead, she waved it in her hand as she cautioned us. My teacher said: don’t waste time on boys. Don’t think anyone is paying extra attention to you, because everyone is too busy worrying about themselves, preoccupied with something in their life, or some bill that needs to be paid, some errand to run.

I forget how this piece of advice related to the love letter. But the gist of it I find reassuring: no one is out to get you. We’re all too busy wrapped up in or fending for ourselves. So I don’t mind public speaking. I don’t live for it either, but it’s something I quite enjoyable tolerate.

This mode of performance is the only form of control I have over the life of my book, post publication. When I was a kid my mother sent me to Speech and Drama classes. Only now, as an adult, do I relish the absurdity of a one-hour lesson encouraging hyperactive children to enunciate dramatically. Much has been said about the disjunction between the intensely private and isolated nature of the writing process, versus the public-facing aspect of a novel’s promotion. Constantly being asked to summarise and explain yourself and describe the story, its themes and characters etc. I feel for writers who are deeply anxious about reading in public and being the centre of attention. I think public speaking is one of the least scary aspects of the publishing process that I’ve encountered so far. The scariest thing is feeling vulnerable, exposed and like a talentless fraud. The second scariest thing is losing a sense of whether your own work is any good.

On the first day of the festival a woman showed us around the national theatre. She said that the walls full of holes that were painted black indicated the back of the stage, and the white perforated walls signalled the front. It was a rather confusing building full of long hallways and heavy doors. Industrial refrigerators that housed brown bottles of beer. The tables upstairs looked like school canteen tables, long and wooden. That’s where I sat eating a chocolate sandwich and feeling abstractly stressed, just the other night which feels like a long time ago.

03-11-18

Foreign countries can become palimpsests of how you were on previous visits. Last year I was in Amsterdam for Dekmantel festival. My August self had bleached ice-cream coloured hair and an American visa for my impending stay there. My November self is a muted tourist in The Hague. I wonder when I’ll next be in Holland, and what will bring me here. I’m really enjoying the permission one grants oneself to linger during a half-holiday, half-work. This feeling of being a little relaxed but not entirely aimless.

The universal disdain for touristic behaviour is a sort of shyness around awe and the ability to stop and openly gawp. I used to believe we take so many pictures on vacation because we don’t like our memories faded and plain-flavoured. But now I think it’s just reflex: the documentary monomania borne out of smart phones and social media. Even without having to write a daily blog I’m varnishing my experiences all the time, seeking out what’s photogenic and cheaply worthy of likes.

In the MC Escher museum I read the following: “Escher’s teenage boredom became transformed into a sense of wonder at the imaginative potential of the staircase.” This obsession with spiral staircases and their strangeness and symmetry is borne across decades of his work. Sometimes I stumble upon a subject that I can imagine someone else writing a brilliant novel about. Someone clever could write a fictionalised biography of Escher and the staircase, the art of mathematics and the mathematics in art, if they haven’t already. Tonally, I imagine it’d be a little like Tom McCarthy’s Remainder: twisty, experimental and cerebral. I get mental fatigue thinking about how I am not the right writer for it.

Traipsing around the museum I wonder how many couples have argued in hushed tones, in many different languages, as they move about from room to room. How many parents have told their children “don’t touch that,” and how many children have rubbed their eyes and complained about boredom or the first pangs of hunger. At the end of the exhibition I sit in a darkened room projecting an intensely trippy Escher animation on loop. A disembodied and frankly creepy cartoon Escher appears grinning behind lines of text, presumably Escher quotations such as “my exclusive goal is change.” It sounds like a motivational mantra, something a personal trainer would bark out as you struggled through a set. “Come on! Your exclusive goal is change!”

At the café near the museum a beautiful woman gives me a free slice of cake in exchange for posing for a few photographs for the café’s Instagram account. It is their opening day. When I leave the café a girl has just let go of a huge bunch of balloons that remind me of Mentos sweets: pastel yellow and pink coloured. The balloons float past the trees and up into the joyless gray sky. Her little brother starts crying.

When I’m in my normal habitat, back in London, I’m foggy-hearted and rheumy-eyed. Always too stressed out rushing from one place to another to ponder whether my exclusive goal is change. So jaded that I trip over my own shoelaces. Pigs could fly and I would grumble where they came from before any wonder struck me. I tut under my breath at the tourists who slow down the flow of human traffic on Oxford Street. Crowds leave me breathless with anxiety and the fear of being trampled. I picture a person getting flattened like a pancake underfoot and it scares me what busy bodies can do to each other.

02-11-18

At 4:45pm I give up on work and take a tram to the sea. It’s Halloween but I’m in The Hague, not Hollywood, where this celebration would matter more. On the streets there’s not a single pair of bunny ears or a Dracula cape in sight, and truthfully I am glad. I like to give my sense of fun a holiday sometimes. Stop after stop I start despairing that it’s too late and by the time I get to the sea I’ll probably meet nothing but pitch-dark coast and the slosh and slur of the waves taunting me with their hidden grandeur.

I reach the shoreline at the tail end of sunset and it’s more unique than the infinitely Instagrammable golden hour. There’s something lovely about dwindling daylight in its own melancholy, temporal way. Oranges and gray-blues bleed out into darkness with the softness and fluidity of a watercolour stain. To my right there’s a giant pier housing a lit-up ferris wheel and some sort of electricity tower. I think of dingy English coastal towns and Dogman, that disturbing Italian film I watched the other week about a dog groomer who turns to crime in the shabby outskirts of Rome. It wasn’t perfect but the lead actor’s hangdog, trustful eyes have stayed with me ever after. Seaside fairs and structures seem tinged with sadness and menace. It must have something to do with the juxtaposition of big, timeless elements and manmade seasonal amusements. People ruin everything. Murders could happen and the water could wash bodies away.

In a matter of minutes the beach is dark and I walk under the wooden beams of the pier freaking myself out as I search for a beach bar. It had optimistic Yelp reviews that described a wonderful, relaxed vibe and so-so food. I can already picture a green-and-blue lit interior done up like a mermaid’s grotto, maybe some tinsel hanging from the ceiling to resemble seaweed, walls and pedestal tables encrusted in seashell mosaic. Lou Reed or Groove Armada plays softly from the speakers. The bartender will be a longhaired, tattooed young man or woman wearing bracelets from gap year travels and a rakish smile. The Mojito I order will be either too weak or too strong.

But when I reach the blue point on my Google map, there’s nothing but sand and scrap metal. The woman in the closest restaurant informs me it’s only open in summer. I feel foolish that it’s almost November. I order sea bass that comes with a soggy salad and loveless fries. This is the kind of meal befitting a latecomer. The proprietor of this restaurant has stringy hair like a stressed-out composer and paces the place with his hands folded behind his back, as if he wants to smack someone. The waitress is very nice, though. I drink two small lukewarm glasses of white wine and think about how fish never gives me a feeling of fullness. I pay up thinking if we never had to pay for unsatisfying meals out, most of us would be richer.

Outside the restaurant I turn toward a dirt path half-obscured by tall grass. It’s a dingy dirt walkway leading toward the murky moon and god-knows-where, god-knows-who, god-knows-what: probably a building site. Having been in a morbid sort of mood all evening I think I can hear the sea yawning, chomping on its own chops. I take a picture of the path on my phone and then I start to find my way back to the tram stop.

23-10-18

15-10-2018

Last night I dreamt that a ghost held my hand. It was one of those half-lucid dreams, hovering on the border between mundane imagination and sleep paralysis. Over the past fifteen years I have mostly learnt to control my sleep paralysis, but episodes still happen, triggered by stress, sugar, unresolved tensions. With my right hand I gripped the hand of the real boy in my bed. But the other hand, which should have been free, held someone else’s. Earlier that day I’d half-watched the first episode of the Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House, by one of my favourite authors, Shirley Jackson. Even in my dreamlike state I got the reference. In one of the novel’s most terrifying scenes, the protagonist Eleanor Vance thinks that she is clutching her friend Theodora’s hand, only to find, when the lights come on, that her friend is somewhere else altogether.

It is 11:07pm as I type this, and I’ve scared myself. Let’s change the subject. I wanted to talk about a different kind of haunting: the everyday emotional and cultural inheritances that we carry with us across different countries, different borders. In a more quotidian sense, for example, I feel haunted by targeted advertising. It is as if the price of an online social life is to be bombarded with increasingly personalised, sometimes offensive auto play clips and aspirational collages. All these things are geared toward making me part with money, in small or large increments. One of these things is a self-improvement course. Image: a wooden gate at sunset, rays of light streaming through the slats. Caption, a Rumi quotation: Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?

If we were to apply those same rules to fiction, how many stories would be written? I’ve seen that targeted advert so many times I have started to internalise the Rumi quotation, but I don’t find myself any kinder yet. Once a year I get a bout of nasty laryngitis that mutes me for a week or two. Maybe the universe is trying to tell me something about how I use my words. Two days ago, I started to lose my voice. Now it is almost entirely gone. Usually I’m a mile a minute talker, rapid and excitable. Today in the corner store I pointed at my throat and shook my head at the man behind the counter. “Honey and lemon, honey and lemon,” he offered sympathetically. I remember the internet tips from when this happened last year: that whispering is more of a strain on the vocal chords than muttering, salt water is my foul-mouthed friend, not to go swimming or I’ll infect everyone else.

On this day last year I was pacing around and writing mostly small non-fiction pieces in a square room full of dark furniture in the University of Iowa. I was on a writing residency with thirty-one other writers, all from different countries. For three months we were sequestered across two floors of the Iowa Memorial Union Hotel. Iowa City was flat and broad, impossible to get out of at ease without a car of your own. At times, the residency felt like a cross between a social experiment and a reluctant re-enactment of some sort of American campus life very few of us had experienced firsthand, both reminiscent of and nothing like what you see in Hollywood movies. I look back on it with fondness now, but at the time I remember missing the vivid anonymity of big cities; a sprawl I could decipher and escape into.