The dark frame

It is the dead of my last night in Saigon, I am sipping beer, thinking about what I can do during my time on the train back home for Tet, which will take me nearly two days before I arrive in Hanoi, after that I will take the last leg of the journey by a bus, believed to be cramped, to reach my hometown. It can be a long time, fatiguing and tedious… But I can always look out the window and watch the scene passing by before my eyes, as if in a fast-played film. I think the journey will change me, as other, long ones did. It is somehow inexplicable, unfathomable, but I feel like I have been different every time I take a long journey.

These days I have been quite productive (or at least I think I am), going to work, washing and cooking, which I had not done for such a long time, submitting scholarship applications, reading several books that I am not paid for and putting the finishing touches to the interview I conducted late last year, which will be featured on the next issue of Mekong Review. Someday, unusually, I would wake up at 7 in the morning, make a huge mug of coffee, sit at my desk, and work. It has been so hot and dry. And I have had strange, unpredictable sleeps, which I have so many, and from which I cannot tell dreams from reality, which, in turn, can be hazardous for me in some way I do not know.

I attended an awards ceremony held by the Youth Union of Ho Chi Minh City more than a week ago, during which I believe I was having a nap, interuptted by intervals of noisy and annoying speeches and propaganda songs. In my reveries, I have had the illusions that something like trees’ roots or an octopus’ tentacles were gradually spreading and taking hold of my brain and at the same time I felt like I was high on top of a canopy in an African jungle, and from my vantage point, I could feel the foggy breeze was playing on my skin, my face, and that I was about to fall, into an unknown void, yet I was not scared, but just falling freely. I could smell the fragrance of grass and leaves, and a faint whiff of slightly bitter dung of local animals, the fresh damp of the jungle, as fresh as the beer I am drinking.

… The imagination is voluptuous, and its products are juicy fruits of an everlasting summer garden, which is itself a delusive fantasy… The dark frame that looms over the window before my eyes lulls me to sleep in which I am… the sound on the floor haunts me… I do not know how dangerous the mind is…

… I have long wondered why some of the best novels revolving around women who committed adultery were written by men, Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina are examples. Why did the protagonists commit suicide at the end of the books? Is it the unavoidable fate of an adulterer/adulteress? Can it end the other ways around? Can the women live and have a fufilling life? Can it be possible?

The night is deadly silent, and my mind is buzzing with those questions… I come to my bookshelf, running my fingers through books, on which lies a thin coat of dust… Sometimes in an afternoon, when it is so hot that I cannot do anything but drinking something cold, no matter what it is beer or water, I stare out of my window, just to see our apartment building enveloped in the golden sunlight of the dry season (and I think about old brick buildings deeply soaked in Mediterranean summer sun in Italy, which is also hardly inexplicable) and I have a feeling like this neighbourhood withstands time. Though I am not so sure by the way.

Is there anyone that is totally free?

Calling out names

The night fell, and is going to rise, gradually uncovering its envelope over the Earth. The dawn is breaking for a while, yet I do not want to go to bed. I had enough sleep in the previous evening when I almost fell down as I reached my room.

… It was a cloudy, gray dusk when I was on the bus from Hanoi’s centre to the airport more than a week ago. I was looking out through the dusty glass window while making up in my mind a dystopian world in the future where I would wear some kind of uniform, sitting on the same bus with many others who would be also dressed like me. It might not be so overcrowded like it is today on Earth, since the Government is applying numerous measures of birth restriction and gene selection. Some chemicals are added in drinking water to make nearly all women and men sterile while babies are born in vitro. It sounds quite like Brave new world.

I am fatigued, by the side effects of the drugs I am taking. I have been sleeping a lot. And tonight, it dawned on me that what I love most about sleeping is that I can live while dreaming, and in dreams we can be whatever, do whatever the subconscious wants us to be and to do. The possibilities are wild, but it is also interesting, and important, that we cannot have absolute control over how the twists and turns show up and all the complexities of the dreaming world, just like in the “real” world. And we can die, in dreams, again and again, yet we will wake up sometime the day after, again and again, as we are growing old. To be more accurate, we have no control over what we will dream, it is another reality within fiction, impregnable and inexplicable.

I wondered what the death was like. I supposed it would be something totally black or white, bearing resemblances with plasma, in which ones cannot see their body parts, and there will be nothing, and from which ones calling out names, and broken ideas and thoughts.

*

I have moved into the new apartment for about two weeks. And as I came back the empty room I used to live, I could just not remember exactly where I had put my belongings, and at the time the room seemed to me that of a stranger, that I was visiting it as an option on the way to find accommodation. What I had done there, living, breathing, bathing, making love, drinking and writing, I was then forming a motion picture of all these mosaics in my muddled mind. How it is strange this time this way!

I studied my face in the mirror and was quite surprised that it was me, myself. I have been trying to match the face with the voice I heard and re-heard a lot of times in the interview I conducted, all in vain, for no reason, and good for nothing, just to be landed on another strange realm of awareness of my existence. Ones become different all the time, I think, in one moment.

… The night is eerily silent that I can hear the tick-tock of my clock. The wind bell chimes relentlessly, against the seemingly moribund air of the night. I do not know what to do next. I feel like I am suffering from anhedonia. Perhaps it is also caused by the drugs.

… Sometimes, the dusty glass window of the bus in Hanoi reminds me of the gathering dusk when I was back home for my sister’s wedding, the sun was shining its last gleams on the clear sky, soaking some wisps of scattered fluffy cloud in gold and purple. I was then thinking that my sister would become pregnant and bear her babies, and life would go on that way.

A couple of hazy eyes caught me on the bus…

Time passes me by while I am floating through the oblivion of sedentary office life.

Can a man do “woman’s business”?

I am drinking, and quite drunk. It feels good to be drunk, to be bolder and more loyal to your senses while the expected reality might be blurred a little bit.

From a far corner of my mind, I miss, and love the scenario of sitting by the window in my room back home, though it is not really a room in a proper meaning, watching over the garden with assortment of vegetables and flowers, and mountains and a peaceful river at the end of the picturesque panorama. There might be some fog, and some birds twittering around.

At the times when your inner is a chaos, from where you cannot tell what is what, and you cannot really know what you are thinking, when you even question your existence on earth and what is the meaning of all what you have done, Woolf and Pessoa can be salvations, at least it is the case for me. I often think of myself as a poignant thinking creature being in the middle of the mud of an office where I would stare right at the screen of the computer and find me puzzled by the question of what to do next, with what and for whom, for what. I would rather die those moments. Numerous trails of thoughts have been running through my mind simultaneously, so much as that I cannot process all of them at the same time. Voices, and the boredom of daily office work.

Then I think I am lying in a hammock under the canopy of a big tree, it is sunny and I will be reading everything in hand, forever. I will be hungry, of course. I will eat some fruits, drink fresh water from the spring nearby, and have a siesta. I will live and die, alone, in that manner of a recluse, far away from the hustle and bustle of a city, and of others.

Because of Pessoa, I even think about the possibility of learning Portuguese. I read a bit about the imperial history of Portugal. And I have come to wonder how a “trunk” of manuscript will be found in the modern age, and what the effects of such a discovery will be on the finder. Of course, there are something that we hide somewhere deep in a plethora of folders, with a password required to access our personal computer. Inevitably, there are ways to hack. But what if ones do not care enough even to think about hacking? The writings will be in caves of those folders, or in “protected” or “private” sections somewhere online, unheard, unread, subject to fall into a black hole and be lost forever. That is how thoughts, lives, and a mosaic of a life are lost. Sometimes, I imagine myself being an intruder into a stranger’s room, just to see that mosaic of a life, a room perhaps with dirty clothes on the floor, some textbooks dispersed around, a laptop, an exotic smell that cannot be described in existing words and concepts.

***

Once, during a lunch break, some female colleagues of mine were talking about another male colleague in the administrative and human resources department, who happens to be an avid watcher of “The face”, a TV reality show. They find it is disgusting and shameful and so “womanly” for a man who can be interested in a show that is designed for “woman interest and preference”. The show is said to be bitchy and replete with gossips and badmouthing towards each other. “What is it in a man who loves watching such a show about women having words?” they said. It was the same group of women who would criticise those men who were learning to cook, to make hair and to arrange flowers, “woman’s business” in their opinion, whilst they are keen to complain about the irrationality and the unfairness of Confucian view on women and their duties, which are deeply entrenched in East Asian societies. It is ironic that those women who think that they can do whatever “great” that men can do like becoming CEOs or presidents turn out to be those who also think that cooking, making hair and arranging flowers are meant to be “woman’s business”, THEIR business. In their way of thinking, it seems that bitchy and badmouthing are inherent characteristics in women, and that men should be ideally born with bravery, a bit indifference, and reticence when it comes to private lives of other people. It is the way of thinking that puts women in a negative light whilst promotes an apparently all-good approach towards men. I do not believe that a girl is born a terrible gossip and a boy is born not for cooking or doing nails. WHY on earth should a girl be raised to watch bitchy reality shows while a boy to become entrepreneurs and famous composers and painters and politicians? Why should making hair and doing nails be confined to the realm of women? What is a WOMAN’s business after all? Are women born for any kind of business? And men too?

It is in our agenda of gender equality that a woman is free to do what a man can do, so can a man do “woman’s business”, without discrimination, bigotry and criticism? Of course he can and then, why not?

***

Recently, I have been thinking about something like “thought infidelity crime”. Would it be a reality?

The faces of the past

These days I have been shutting myself in, from work; reading articles, books, book excerpts, everything except what I am paid for; sleeping; watching TV series, movies; daydreaming; searching for a new apartment to move into. I don’t really fret over the scenario of packing my stuff and moving, perhaps thanks to hosts of changing houses.

Today, I had my hair cut. Watching locks of hair falling from my head, studying them to discover that my hair has become thicker, wirier, grayer, less lively and less raven than before, I recalled when I was a child, I would love to let my hair grow so long so that I could tie it back or make a bun out of it. My hair was soft and straight, and shiny then. It was not until my final year in college did I have my hair cut as short as it is now. And it fits well to the hot climate here in Saigon.

The night is silent, after the torrential rain in the evening, which is rare in the time of the year. The silence itself is rare and exotic. It is somehow inexplicable, beautiful, and haunting. I believe it has something inherent that I cannot name properly but I feel it. I like to walk around at night, to see how the city transform itself from being overcrowded to falling asleep. I love its approaching peace and serenity.

The drops of water are falling in the water closet, making a distinct sound as each reaches the water body in the bucket. Sometimes I feel like I cannot differentiate between what is reality and what is possible version of my dreams, I have been much like a host in Westworld.

***

It has been more than a month since I came home for my sister’s wedding. I wanted to write about it as soon as I flew back to Saigon. Yet my procrastination is invincible, and I have had to struggle with the ease of writing in Vietnamese, my first language and the inclination to write in English, of which my competences have irreversibly dwindled with the velocity I myself cannot explain. It seems that I cannot do anything about the hopeless trend of my mind.

It was not until the wedding did I see my brother-in-law for the first time. It was partly because I do not come home to visit my parents and my sister often, since I have been here. On top of that, I and my sister have barely been on speaking terms for a long time. And yet, despite all this, whenever I saw her smile, I missed the old days when we were close, we would play together for hours, just two of us, or lie for hours talking, running around the neighbourhood to look for some strange insects, or to discover some un-trodden paths to schools or my parents’ workplace. She is my history, she is my past, the past that I can now only retrieve in broken and abridged pieces from my faulty memory.

At the wedding, I saw a lot of my neighbours whose faces I can remember, they are the older versions of those I lived with since I was much younger, but whose names have stayed forever on the edge of my tongue. I cannot match the faces to the names I have heard. They are the faces of the past somewhat lost to me. It was my feeling that my mind has been shrouded in such a thick fog that for me, they are ghostly human beings whom I find familiar and of whom I am scared, simultaneously.

***

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I am reading Fernando Pessoa, who was born in 1888 and died in 1935 at the age of 47. He was considered one of the most important literary figures of Portugal. He wrote prolifically, not only under his own name but also under a whole lot of heteronyms, whose characteristics and worldviews are various and, more often than not, different from those of their creator. He led quite a recluse life, avoiding much of the buzz of literary circles and lives and most of his works have been published posthumously only. Reading his most well-known novel, which is itself a collection of his notes and miscellaneous writings that would be a novel, and which is put into order by some Portuguese scholar, and what people write about him, I have grown to wonder how many authors out there have decided to live a life like him, to write for one own and not let others to read what they write. And how many trunks of manuscripts that have been destroyed by their own authors? (Imagine if Kafka had fired his own writings without any help, or if his friend (and the one to whom the famous writer bequeathed his properties had followed exactly what was written to him.) Yet, I think more about the man who was writing for his own sake, without the want of publication, of recognition and acknowledgement, of any prizes or favourable reception, anything but himself and the intrinsic need to write.

And with those fragments of the novel, many undated, we can have an apparently infinite possibilities of organising them into another novel, again and again. The thoughts have left me with an intense curiosity. What did he think, I wonder.

***

The night is coming to an end, as it must be. It is inevitable.

Travelling through the universe

It was final. My application for the last round of scholarship this year was unsuccessful. The email came yesterday, a beautiful sunny day with gentle fresh breeze, which was very rare during this rainy season. My IELTS certificate is going to expire soon while the test fee will be increased by the first day of November. It was about a year since I lodged the first application for funding to study for a post-graduate degree. A year of rejections. I applied five times for a scholarship, and two times for admission to universities, and numerous other submissions to major and minor journals and magazines. And in retrospect, what have I learned and done in a year of rejections?

In fact, the last year of bunches of rejections has given me time to read and to think, and to learn to stay calm. It was not until this year did I read novels George Orwell, Margaret Atwood and John Steinbeck (although I had read Orwell’s essays and Atwood’s poems before), all of whom I really like and admire. I managed to read Sapiens, which now becomes one of my most favourite non-fiction books, even though I have been so busy with manuscripts and classes of propaganda course, which is an obligatory requirement for editors in my publishing house. I have read Saramago, more works by Woolf, some gay novels and some philosophy (both Western and Oriental. I even took an online course in philosophy delivered by the University of Edinburgh) and some literary theories, and been reading Huxley and Antal Szerb, a Hungarian writer. The stack of books in my studio is getting higher and higher every week. Sometimes, I come to believe that if it takes years for me to get a scholarship to study abroad, I might end up reading all books on and beyond the syllabus. And on the bright side, I have total freedom to choose what I am going to read, and I am free to think about the text and the author, free from professors’ opinions. I once lied, self-indulgently, in my studio, thinking about what I might write about Henry James if I had to study him in a course. It would not be so approving, I think.

Over the last year, I have watched more films and television series than I did in the other 25 years of my life combined. And so far I have also translated 20 books, both in English and French, although they are all children’s picture books. I even self-published a book in French on Amazon as a submission to a writing competition in French language, though it did, like many other things I have done, fail to get wide reception and a prize. 😀 And I still have a lot of projects to finish, which I have delayed for so long. Some would have been so disappointed about me. Sadly, I still cannot do anything about that, which is all the more annoying and dismal.

In the last twelve months, I have studied every city I thought I would end up living in and every country where I thought I would go: the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Greece, Senegal, the United States, New Zealand and Australia. I have even gone further to print their maps and stick them in my work space. And by doing those things, I have acquired a sound knowledge of general history, geography, culture, cuisine, festivals, demography, climate and education in the cities where I would like to live and study. Every day, I can learn something new, which is good.

About a month ago I and my friends went out to a bar. There was a band of middle-aged people playing that day. Watching them singing and dancing, I have wondered what they were like in their prime time, when they were young and green. And I have grown to ask myself: what would be the meaning of life of the only person who had ever lived on Earth? Imagine you were the person, who lives alone on Earth, and dies alone, what then? I have imagined myself in the case, waking up every day, going around finding food, sleeping, thinking, or not even thinking anything because if I were the only Homo sapiens on Earth, and there would be no abstract concepts in my world, there would be no idea about birth and death, money and fame, ambition and disappointment, why would I need to think? The only thing I would do is to exist, to live and die.

And in the end, what is “meaning”? What is the meaning of the word “meaning”? What does “meaning” denote?

At this very moment, I am thinking about the bulbs placed around dragon fruit trees along the railroad, which would produce beams of light at night, making it like you are travelling through the universe.

The Party is watching you: the dystopian world we are living in

The rains have been pouring down hard these days. Almost every day ends up with torrential sheets of rain. Suddenly, I come to realise that my blog posts often start with some weather report-like sentences or paragraphs. I do not really know why. Perhaps I am obsessed with the weather. And another thing is that my languages competences are getting worse, days by days, and that my spellings are going down the same path at the same speed too. It seems to be irreversible. I have been sleeping a lot, dreaming a lot, and waking up with a stroke of bizarre feelings. Sometimes, I find myself crazy enough to think that I have been in a drug trial, or worse, been arrested and brainwashed by some governmental agency. Who knows? Perhaps it is really what is going on.

Today, I rode my bicycle through the rain to come back home after the class of Fatherland Front, a part of the propaganda course for those who work in the public sector. The lecturer, if we can call him so, unflinchingly affirmed that the Tiananmen Square Incident was inevitable, for the sake of China and Chinese people as a whole, that without it, the glorious cause of socialism in China could not be possible, by which I was really upset. And it was all the more so because I could not do anything about it. And I could not get myself out of the class. I need to go to that fucking class two days every week and let those fucking words through my ears. I don’t really understand what I am doing, for what reason. I have been lost.

Even though the setting of dystopian fictional works is usually in the far future, against the time they were written, I have been thinking for a while, it is atrociously terrifying to note that we are living in the very dystopian worlds. We already have our 1984 right here, the hypnopaedia and drug-induced happiness of Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale in which women are breeding machines (in fact, women have been treated in this way for the most part of history of mankind) and the Facial Justice with which everyone should look alike.

Here, and perhaps somewhere else in the world, people are supposed, or suppressed to be ignorantly happy in a country whose motto is independence, freedom and happiness. Because how can one not be happy in the land where the government’s raison d’être is for its people and for the cause of a civilised, democratic society in which all are equal? How can one not be happy? One must be, and one has the obligation to be happy, to be content with what one is offered. It is the country whose history is all about glorious victories over evil and monster conquerors, the history of an invincible people that have ever appeared on the face of the Earth, who are heading towards the greatest society that the humankind has ever known about. In that country, the Party is the Almighty God, without whom everything good aforementioned was impossible. Ones cannot criticise the Party, and the government (also formed and led by the Party, as the Party wishes) because it is against the law, written by the very Party members. Ones have to learn to love and fear Big Brother, who is vague and far away. But there is one thing ones can be sure of, that is if ones are going to question the legitimacy and supremacy of the Party and Big Brother, ones can surely end up in jails.

Sadly but true that those with power can do anything they want with those without power. What they have in their hands is power, in the case it is the power of Almighty God, of the Creator of the Land (the land of opposite realities), of the Breaker of the History, the Revolution-Born, everything that can be.

This might be the best example of 1984 that George Orwell had imagined when he wrote the novel.

I was riding back home while my mind was busy thinking about the hypnopaedia in Brave New World (sleep-learning, which is learning something through osmosis, by listening to it being repeated over and over again while sleeping). (I believe it is what they are doing to me and many other people, with their propaganda classes. The lecturers are real sympathisers, who, on one hand, also point out some darker, but true, aspects of the state and what is going on out there, yet on the other hand, they are trying to persuade us that everything is going quite well, and that those “weaknesses” are just marginal, and not by all means typical, that the Party is going to fix them all, at the end of the day.) “The truth” is repeated thousands of thousands of times until it becomes the only truth, only to be re-written and re-repeated again and again. Those who master the hypnopaedia and the tools of its arts are the masters of the world, because they can create, and re-create any truth they want, whilst the suppressed would certainly love what they are designed to do and would certainly be content with their position in the society. There is no truth other than the truth of the masters, there is no other truth existing beyond their realm and permission. Here, those who are trying to say something against the Almighty Party will be accused of distorting “the truth”, the only Party-valid truth. Ones will be shut for their thoughtcrimes (the crimes of speaking bad about the Almighty should be considered grave and punished seriously) in order that the oligarchies can still be making money and creating “the Great Future” for all. The other ones should grow to doublethink everything they see or hear.

I have been thinking that, one day, I can be arrested also, for what I talked about on my Facebook or here in my personal blog. =)) As it really happened to a blogger, yesterday. And that I might be vapourised, without a trail nor a report. It might seem like I have not ever existed on Earth. Or “they” might better hatch a plot for me to be blown up in an airplane or torn apart in a traffic accident. If they are exquisite enough.

Be careful! The Party is watching you!

What time is it?

It has been quite a long time since my last post. July passed, then August followed, and September is well already going to end. And I am snowed under a huge lot of work, which may only be completed on time with a miracle.

I am exhausted, but I cannot sleep. I am sitting in the dark, or more precisely, in the dim light coming from the screen of my computer. There is something hauntingly beautiful in it that I cannot resist. It is raining outside and I feel nothing save my numbness about everything. And I believe that I love the sound of the drops of rain pattering on roofs and on the ground. Perhaps it is soothing, it is musical, in my ears at least.

These days I have been watching many films and reading quite many books, at my standard reading speed in the least, among which the most important is Sapiens, by an Isreali historian. And two recent months are my sci-fi films stint.

I am still waiting for the result of the last scholarship round for this year, which is annoying and tiring even though I am used to rejections. Some of my friends have commenced their studies abroad, some have already come back home. I also keep sending my poems away to journals and magazines, and keep receiving rejection emails, which is sad, while I know that my submissions do attract the readers at those journals to my personal blog, which can be deemed as a success in some way. At the end of the day, I have more readers to my work, my thoughts, something like that. And for many times, I have come to think that if my application for a scholarship was not successful, it was just because it was not for me anyway, that I would be better off being elsewhere, in other times but not this. The thought was consolable.

It begins pouring down outside, and I am thinking about the trip to Cambodia I made with my college friends in August, during which I visited Angkor Wat, which was really magnificent. And I wondered what it was during the golden age of Khmer Empire and how much effort and how many people, how much money they put into building such temples. I wondered how they had lived at the times. I had a really good time there, of which I do not remember much now. Sometimes, I believe that my mind is on the way to dwindle, to fade away at the high velocity which I myself cannot be fully aware of. Sometimes I think that what I am using is broken English and Creole French, and that my memories are just a melting pot from which I cannot tell nor retrieve anything at all. I occasionally looked at the degrees and certificates I have earned and I could not believe that I did earn those on my own, I think they belong to somebody else, not me. The past is being dissolved like grains of salt into water, right before my eyes.

And when I think about salt, I am dying to have some salt at hand to put into my mouth. I long for the taste of salt on my tongue. Unfortunately, I do not have any salt in my studio. I have not cooked for a very long time. I missed those days when I had a lot of time and passion to cook, to invent some new recipes, to eat slowly and much more time to think, to sleep and to write… Is the world spinning too fast in my frame of reality? This I cannot tell.

More often than not, I feel bad about myself and helpless that I let many close friends in my circle down because I missed a whole lot of deadlines of projects. They must have been so disappointed. But I could not help. I then come to believe time flies faster for me only. I might have gone mad, or lost my mind. I wake up every morning feeling that I am losing the grips on my own memories, seconds by seconds, that I am floating in some otherworldly dimensions, which is by all means inexplicable…

The Mid-Autumn Festival was five days ago, and that night I was thinking about my father, about what I would do for the day when I was a child. We would make a lantern out of a plastic bottle, or some fireworks out of dried pommelo seeds. We would go around the neighbourhood and be watching the big, red moon to come out of the bamboo woods nearby my house.

What time is it? I do not know. And the rain keeps pouring down…