“Some places make you feel more full than others,” said Palestinian author, Nathalie Handal at last weekend’s third Georgetown Literary Festival in Penang. The theme of the weekend was irresistible to me – Hiraeth – a Welsh word that means longing for a homeland that is no longer there. Undoubtedly, this island is a place where I feel ‘more full’.
So what is a homeland? To each person it is something different. For some, it’s where they hang their hat, for others it’s where their family lives, to some it’s more of a context and to many expatriates like me it is some kind of an illusion, maybe even a lie.
Adriaan van Dis, acclaimed Dutch author, believes even the stories from our past that we tell, those that make us who we are, are in fact lies. In some ways I have to agree. Everything we experience and know is seen through a personal lens and therefore our truth may not match another person’s even if they share our experiences.
With this in mind I declare this past weekend one of the best of my life, spent in a place that feels more like coming home with every visit. Like a drug it’s seeped into my veins, each fix more powerful than the last.
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while you will be well aware that I eulogise about Penang. I admit that I’m obsessed with the place and like any true love, they say, you adore it when you’re in its presence and cannot imagine life apart. Yet, when separated, you’re fine too, safe in the knowledge that your love will still be there for you, waiting, just the same, next time.
It all began with a phone call, ironically when I was in the middle of a session with the KL writers’ circle, from Penang’s most famous living poet – Cecil Rajendra. That he called at all was a miracle for Cecil is renowned for not owning a mobile phone nor using email.
“Jo,” he began. “I just I wanted to tell you that the Penang Literary Festival is on at the end of November and I’ll be performing an evening session of words and music by fathers and sons, with my son, Yasunari. I hope you will come,” he said. So there and then I began planning my next trip to the island. So what that our great friends Pete and Sue would be visiting us, they’d have to put up with it! Nothing was going to stop me attending so I immediately reserved five rooms at our favourite hotel, Campbell House.
My expectations were low, I admit. I mean, it’s a tiny place and all the events were free (apart from the workshops), the programme was not published til a few days beforehand and I tend to believe that if things are free they won’t be much good.
We were wrong. The first event we attended was called Voices: Woman I Dream and featured readings from local writers who had attended a writing course at the Penang Women’s Development Corporation. I was expecting stories about pets and unrequited love, delivered by middle-aged women who had no idea how to speak in public. What we got was raw memoir, poignant, multi-faceted, steeped in culture and things that are not spoken aloud. Five young women spilled their hearts on the page and were brave enough to share with poise and polished performance. “Come back all I said,” as my uni flatmate, Chris, used to say in her lovely Matlock accent. I had been wrong.
From then on the weekend went from great to absobloominglootly fabulous. All my favourite things happened at once in a neon explosion of colour – like the moment they switch on the Christmas lights in Oxford Street.
First, I was at a literary festival. Nuff said.
Second, my synapses fizzed and sparkled each time another apposite, erudite, articulate quote dropped from the lips of a writer talking about loss, homeland, longing and pain …
This bit’s for writers and expats…
- “Is it the longing for the longing or the longing for the actual thing?” Amanda Lee Koh.
- “There are as many ways of longing as there is for rain to fall,” Tishana Doshi.“We are not allowed to yearn these days because we are too connected to Skype, Facebook and so on,” Tishana Doshi.
- “Feeling that you are where life is not is precisely the reason why we write poems and paint,” Tishani Doshi (yes, I bought two of her books!).
- “People long for things that are not true,” Adriaan van Dis.
- “As soon as you have jealousy or heartache, you have narrative,” Robert Dessaix.
- “There is no difference between love, friendship and gardening. You have to nurture, weed and water and make a bit of an effort,” AC Grayling.
- “Solitude is necessary. It is the water that keeps us hydrated,” AC Grayling.
- “You need thunder outside to open a box inside,” Adriaan van Dis.
- “Women pay the price of war that men wage,” Stefan Hertmans.
- “There are periods of forgotteness when stories are not articulated,” Tash Aw.
- “Home is the greatest battlefield we will confront,” Nathalie Handal.
- “I’d rather be in a room with 20 people who speak different languages and have different words for homeland than to be part of Make America Great Again, 1 Malaysia or Taking Back Control Again Brexit,” Chris Keulemans.
- “I do not have a mother tongue. I grew up in five languages. It’s a symphony,” Nathalie Handal.
This bit’s for expats…
Third, I was with good friends who feel like ‘home’ to me.
Fourth, I was with new friends of different culture, nationality and religion and who make me feel alive and have something worthwhile to say.
This bit’s for pleasure seekers (incidentally the title of Tishana Doshi’s novel) and the star struck
Fifth, after two beers in a great bar (the Canteen at China House) with a great live band, Sue dared me to hug AC Grayling, so I did – and he loved it! I also bumped into several of the island’s celebs, whom I have had the unfathomable pleasure of meeting in the course of writing a book on Penang’s pioneers (Gareth Richards, Khoo Salma, Joe Sidek) and meeting Narelle McMurtrie and her business partner, Alison, at long long last.
Sixth, we got to go up Penang Hill to one of the old wooden houses the locals retreat to in summer with our new friend Charmaine, to feel the cool air and immerse ourselves in the view down the hill, across Georgetown to the mainland as we watched butterflies, listened to birdsong, drank amazing Sauvignon Blanc and ate local curry puffs and kuih. AND we got to visit the actual set of Indian Summers, to walk in the footsteps of Julie Walters and Art Malik (swoon) and to see the Royal Simla Club up close.
This bit’s for expats, wine lovers and foodies…
Seventh, we ate the best Italian food at Il Bacaro (that evening’s ‘extra special’ was ravioli with porcini and truffles) at a long a table with friends of three nationalities.
This bit’s for shoppers…
Ninth, I squeezed an hour into the programme to visit Jonathan Yun and buy myself some of his stunning jewellery. Again. Oops.
This bit’s for people like me…
Tenth, of course, we heard Penang’s Living Heritage himself, Cecil Rajendra, recite poems from his new book, Shakti Symphony, accompanied by flute, guitar and his son on didgeridoo. He was phenomenal. I now own all his books!
There are definitely some places and some weekends where I feel “more full” and I count my lucky stars.