The toxic woman who shaped my life

The first time I saw her, she reeked of bitterness, like sweat clinging to a damp body. She moved with a heavy gait, her left leg digging deep into the carpet before switching to her right.

She had a curtness about her which she displayed everytime she spoke about teenage girls. She hated — no despised teenage girls. To her they were loud, and gossipy. But deep down, I could tell that she was envious of youth and the hopes and dreams they still had. Thank goodness she only had boys.

I often wondered, “how the hell is she even married?” But of course, we choose who we show our best side to. And she reserved her nasty side for me.

One Friday morning, after I’d finished hosting my regular community event, I was having morning tea with a colleague when she stormed in and accused me of not packing up.

I was frightened and embarassed of being outed in front of another colleague, so I quickly took off in her direction, leaving my food and my phone sitting on the table. Later, my colleague returned my phone to me and reported this incident to a superior.

There were many instances like this where she would be hostile towards me, and then switch to her good side when talking to another colleague. You never knew which side of her you got and that was the scary part.

Fortunately for me, I was young and ambitious. Despite my naive and loofheaded demeanor, I was no pushover. And although my heart would prickle with anger everytime she spoke to me like that, I used it to work harder behind the scenes.

At the time, I didn’t have any marketable skills, so I couldn’t up and leave my job for a new one. But I took her threats as a challenge for me to change. At night, I’d teach myself how to code, usually waking up at 3am with a sudden clarity of thought, telling myself, I don’t want to be like her. I don’t want to be like her. That would drive me to study harder, writing in my notebook until the wee hours of the morning.

One day, I caught her in a good mood — a rarity. I was alone in the back having morning tea when she popped in to talk to me. My shoulders tensed when I saw her, but I kept my composure and engaged in friendly chitchat with her. I was surprised to find that she had romantic inclinations in her youth. She told me how she always wanted to be a blogger, and write, but life had gotten in the way; she had met her husband at university, had gotten married and had children. Thirty years later, her soft and luscious dreams had crisped and dried out, turning her into a bitter woman.

At the time, I found it strange that she had popped in to talk to me, but now, looking back, I think it was a sign that I needed to get my act together and start working hard towards my future.

Eight months later, after one failed interview, I finally got a job at a small design studio.

I remember her last and final dig at me. We were packing up for the day. I was standing behind the counter, tidying some books when she confronted me about something that I cannot remember. By then, there was a steadfastness in me. I had accomplished what I’d set out to accomplish, and I wasn’t going to let this lady push me around anymore. So I spoke back to her. She spoke back and we engaged in a bit of sparring. I waited for her to have the last word, but instead she grunted, huffed and puffed and to my surprise, no words came out of her mouth. She backed down and I knew from that day on, she wouldn’t scare me anymore.

A week later, I left to start my new job.

The last I heard of her, she had resigned out of stress-related reasons.

Now, 4 years later, it’s time for change again. Thinking about it brings up memories of the first time I brought about change. Back then, I didn’t remember feeling scared. I think I was so driven by the need to get away from that woman, that there was such an overpowering need to change. Often, when I look back, I feel grateful that I met her. If she had not been in my path, I would have stayed where I was, comfortable, but limiting my potential. We all have our reasons for change. But when the time comes, don’t be afraid to strike.

The Simmer dim

One weekend, during the height of summer, my friends and I went on a roadtrip to Paihia. This was months before the nationwide lockdown. The days were long, and the nights were still very warm.

It was 9pm. I was sitting in the back of the car, and had just begun winding down from a long week at work. The sky outside was coloured with hues of purple and blue, the landscape had merged into a blur of pine trees, and the kabump of the car tyres on the winding roads fell into a steady rhythm.

It was around this time of the night, that I felt a familiar hum – that tingling feeling I got whenever I passed through a place or a moment that held the beginnings of a story. The hum was telling me to pay attention.

So I shifted my attention away from the window and back to the conversation in the car. My friend was telling us about something called the Simmer Dim. I asked him what it was. He said it was the name given to a day in the year when night never reaches complete darkness.

I recalled having this conversation because despite it being 9pm, it was still bright outside.

Simmer Dim, Simmer Dim, the words hummed in my ear. I pictured a glittering pool of water with animals congregating around it. There was something unusual and mysterious about that word. Like “the witching hour” in Roald Dahl’s book. It all contributed to the air of mystery around a certain time of the night.

That evening, I learnt that night-time had three shades; twilight, night and dark, like the shades of blue in a paint swatch.

It was dark by the time we arrived at our accommodation. I woke from my deep slumber and looked up at the house. A row of solar lights lit up the front porch, throwing hues of greens and blacks against the wall. My friend said something that made us all laugh. “Is this your parent’s house, or is this a hotel?” It was magnificent. Even in the darkness.

We grabbed our bags and clambered up the porch steps, tired but eager to see the house. Barely able to stand upright, we stumbled into the living room and dumped our bags on the floor.

Someone switched on the light and magically, one by one, our tired eyes lit up. In front of us was an island, with a walk-in pantry shelved with food. We drifted from room to room, admiring the paintings, the neatly-folded bedsheets, the warmly-lit bathroom and the dusky scent emanating from a nearby candle.

My sister and I chose to sleep in the bedroom with the cute window wall. It framed the backyard behind the house, like a painting. This wasn’t just any backyard. It was a forest, as dense as any forest here in NZ. You could walk from here all the way to another town. That was how deep it was.

My friend told us that one evening, when he was sitting by the front porch, he sensed that something was staring at him. When he looked up, he saw two eyes staring at him from inside the forest. A boar. He was sure of it. It was also what had eaten the meat his grandmother had left outside.

That evening, I drifted into a peaceful slumber, sinking my head into the soft pillow, a deep smile on my face, knowing that tomorrow was going to be a big day. This is the pleasure I derive from being in nature. This is the magic of nature.

Writing the second draft ~ doubts and indecision

I’ve begun writing the second draft of my novel and I am plagued with doubts and indecision.

Most of the time it feels like there’s a gremlin sitting on my shoulder critiquing everything I write.

The main reason why I find this story particularly difficult, is because I haven’t figured out the right tone of voice.

Shall I make it sound realistic, with a touch of magical realism, or should I go all out and make it fantasy?

Who am I writing it for? Children? teens? or adults?

Thinking like this gets me nowhere and I end up going round and round in circles for hours with nothing to show.

I think the reason why I’m so critical of my writing is because I’m afraid to address the root of the issue: What if nobody likes my story? What if nobody reads it?

And so I try to write to please an imaginary audience.

Obviously, it’s not working.

Going back to the humble origins of the story

This story began as an ending. I wrote the last few paragraphs first, spontaneously while in bed, and forgot about it for a few months.

It wasn’t until lockdown that I took it out and reread it. What struck me about it, was its simplicity; a few paragraphs that said a lot. That was the tone I wanted to capture.

Now that I think about it, what I didn’t like about the first draft was how dramatic it had become; overly exaggerated storylines, unnecessary characters, like I was trying too hard. It lost its tone of simplicity and didn’t have the same sparkling effect it first had.

So I think I will work backwards. Start from the point of certainty, and branch out from there.

Why I started writing Asian stories for a mainstream audience

Two years ago, I had the worst dating experience with an Austrian man.

We met while staying at a backpacker’s lodge on Christmas Eve. He seemed fascinated about history, especially Chinese history. The more ancient it was, the better. We got to talking, and surprisingly, I found it really easy to open up to him.

We caught up a few times afterwards at his place, and that’s when I began noticing things, niggly things that started bothering me.

My point of view

We’d order takeaway online and instead of offering to come to the store with me, he’d sit on his couch and wait for me to pick it up.

It was raining that day and I wasn’t too familiar with the area, so I got a bit lost in the rain while walking from my car to the store. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling and made me feel like I wasn’t worth his time, especially since we were just getting to know each other.

When I brought this up with him, he told me that it was such a petty thing to bring up, that if I really wanted him to come, then I could’ve just asked.

I found this to be really weird. I’m pretty sure that there is an unspoken rule of hospitality, that the host is responsible for serving food to the guest, and not the other way round.

Maybe the rules of hospitality don’t apply when you’re dating. But why would you treat someone you’re dating worse than the way you would treat a guest?

This honestly perplexed me. I asked him what his previous girlfriends had thought about his hospitality, and he said that they didn’t care. If they wanted him to come, they’d ask. If they didn’t ask, he didn’t come. He made it seem as though his actions were totally normal.

The book seller’s magic

The lady at the bookstore, I saw her today, wrapped in a heavy shawl outside the bus stop.

Her hair was pinned up with a little black clip, a dark statement against her wispy white hair.

Four words popped out as soon as I saw her. Straw-like, stuck out, and slightly unkempt, but she seemed to flow of a magic that only book seller’s have.

One day, I hope to be a part of that same magic too.

And though I wanted to speak to her, I felt mute underneath the vast night sky. Some small feeling inside of me was holding me back from the book seller’s magic.

In my bolder days, when I’d spoken to her, she told me that she lived far away from the bookstore. Her children thought it was silly of her to travel all the way to the city just to work there.

But people who aren’t part of the magic don’t know. When you find a place of belonging, you’d do anything to keep it alive.

And though I am scared, pretty much every day now, I know I’d rather be scared than to stop being a dreamer.

I can’t help but continue on this path. It’s the only one that seems to ring true, the sweetest melody that makes all else bitter.

Now I can see that whatever happens, I will strive for that magic that booksellers have.

I am an adventurer

I am an adventurer.

Not your typical skydiving, globe trotting, jet skiing adventurer, but a more solitary, peaceful kind.

You see, being adventurous means being brave and following your heart.

My adventure happens right here in my room, where I am writing stories, becoming the author that I want to be.

There are it’s challenges; distractions, heartbreaks, financial woes, and work that gets in the way. But an adventure wouldn’t be called an adventure if it was one smooth sailing ride to the finish.

One of my major challenges this week has been my freelance work. Due to distractions, loss of a close friendship/romantic interest and feeling down in the dumps for the past week (months), I’ve let the quality of my freelance work slip.

My client is not too happy about it, but he has given me another chance to fix it, which means less time spent working on my novel.

Luckily for me, this weekend is a long weekend so I can, if my mind permits, focus on getting things sorted.

I currently work 2 jobs, a 40 hour a week day job, and a ten hour a week freelance job. So I’m forgiving myself for being a bit stressed and making mistakes.

But it’s really got me thinking. I need to pull myself together and stay organised so that I can get the work done and still have enough time to write my novel.

I’ve only spent a few hours this week writing it, which is nothing compared to the time spent freelancing and working.

I’m thinking in a few more months, something needs to give. I’m waiting a bit longer to make a decision. Seeing how things turn out first.

Anyway, what challenges have you guys faced while reaching for your dreams?

Hope the stars can work in our favour for the rest of this year.

Writing with intuition

So I bumped my head into the car door yesterday and now I’m left with a nasty bruise near my temple. It hurts to yawn and chew, but the writing must go on.

Luckily, I’ve discovered that writing depends a lot on intuition, and when my head isn’t overthinking it, my intuition comes out to play.

This past week, I’ve been working on a story for my zine, Where the wild stories grow, and as an overthinker, I’ve changed the story three different times.

Here’s the rough illustration of the cover:

Each time I come up with a story, I end up thinking: it’s not good enough, it sounds too simple, or nobody would like it. Perfectionism really is a curse for achieving nothing.

So I’ve decided to leave my brain out of the equation and stick to the first story I came up with. It’s simple, but intuitively, it creates the feeling I wanted.

These are the draft opening lines to the three different stories I came up with. Even though I won’t be using two of them, I can still save them for another day:

Story number 3:

I met my friend on Christmas Eve. The day I met him, I thought he was my Christmas gift. That was because I had always wished for a friend. Every candle that I blew out, every shooting star that passed by, every firework that lit the New sky was for him. Or her. It turned out to be a him. But you know what they say? All wishes are double edged, so be careful what you wish for.

After reading it again, I realised this sounded a bit too chic lit for me, which was not the tone I was going for. I think I wrote it because I missed not hanging out with my friend.

Story number 2:

Wild stories grow in the back of my neighbour’s garden, where the weeds are cut too long, and the hayfever makes my eyes itch. I brave the elements and carry with me a shovel and a small, tin can, and make my way up through the overgrown weeds.

This sounds too much like a literary story. Again, not the tone I was going for.

Story number 1

Ginny Cooper had been writing all night when she accidentally knocked over the bottle of black ink.

It splashed all over the pot plant beside her, and as she mopped up the spilt ink, the flowers began to grow.

This was the first story I came up with right after I had drawn the illustrations for my zine. Because it was the spontaneous result of what I had drawn, I’m going to stick with this story.

What do you think? What story suits the tone of the illustrations?

I know it’s quite simple, but I wanted to create a story that I could make before Christmas. And since I’m designing the cover and illustrations, I didn’t want this to turn into a complex novel. I thought it would be a great gift for a friend.

Since it’s turning out to be a rainy day today, all plans are cancelled, so I’m going to spend the morning finishing off the majority of the story, using my intuition and getting things done! Then I can sit back and get ready for Christmas.

Writing is like having a conversation

Writing a story is like having a conversation with a friend who has stopped listening to you. It’s like writing them a letter about all the things you wish you could say, and then halfway through, those words turn themselves into a story.

That’s the wonderful trick with writing. You can finish all those unfinished conversations you never had, say the things you always wanted to say, and get to be right about everything. All these things can be achieved through writing. 

I first discovered this when I started writing a letter to a guy who I liked. There were certain things that I wanted to get off my chest and the more I wrote, the more I started creating stories that made me forget about my own problems. I think my childhood-self gave me this idea. I used to write notes to my dad whenever I had upset him and I’d leave them on the dining room table for him to read. 

Over the years I’ve discovered that writing is my soft spot, the place where I allow myself to become vulnerable. In the safety of words, the best parts of me shine, and in my words I can trace my emotions back to their roots. My characters are the carriers of my emotions and through them I find a way out. That’s what storytelling has always been for me, a way to tell someone how I feel.

But wouldn’t it be nice if one day I didn’t have to write letters to people anymore, what if I could just tell someone how I felt and they would stay there and listen.

Where the wild stories grow

After a fever-induced week of dizzy spells and delirious thinking, I took a day off work and spent my sweet time writing. Since I’ve been trying to create some zines for a while now, I thought I’d use my sick leave wisely and do something a little more creative.

There are a couple of weird looking plants around my house, and on that particular day, they were starting to look a tad bit stranger than usual, (probably brought on by my deliriousness). I kind of fell into a strange twilight zone while staring at them, which inspired me to draw this wild thing:

Now, I’m not a great drawer, but it kind of looks like a forest with giant flowers. Am I right? I’ve been trying to work off of this picture all week, coming up with a story for my zine. I imagine it to be a place where wild stories grow and… I’ll come up with something wild. 

The title for my zine: Where the wild stories grow.

That’s all there is to my zine so far. But I’m going to push myself into productive mode to get it finished. So, here is my zine-making to do list:

  • Come up with a story
  • Finish the illustrations
  • Lay out in InDesign
  • Print out the zine
  • Distribute to friends and family or online

I’ll keep updating this blog with my zine-making progress. Since it’s my first time making a zine, it might take me a while. But here’s to hoping that wild stories can grow out of a frenzied state of mind.

How far can you go?

My grandfather walked 156km from his farming village to the city, when he was just a small boy, so that he could attend middle school. A journey like that would’ve taken him days, but he did it alone, all by himself, with nothing but the road signs to guide him.

I learnt about this story on my last visit to see him, when he was lying in hospital, in a vegetative state.

When I asked my mum why he had done that, she said: “He had a vision.”

What she meant was that he was the first of his family to get an education, when nobody else thought to do so. And in doing that, he led our family out of a life of poverty.

My grandfather had such strong blood in him. I didn’t see it then, because he was just a tiny, fragile old man. But I see it now.

He fights and claws at the caretakers when they stick tubes down his throat. He stares them down if they cover his hands with mittens because he likes to take the tubes out of his nose.

He is very much a leader trapped inside a dying body.

But he was strong enough to wait for us to come back so that we could say goodbye.

He was strong enough to walk 156km for an education that would otherwise never have been given to him.

I am not strong like him, but on the day of his passing, I realised he had left a legacy.

So I asked myself, what would I walk 156km for?