Literature News

Writing and the City (Week 1): The Search for Home

This is part of a series of writings sourced from UnRepresented: KL, a homegrown writing program focused on unearthing less-heard and less “represented” narratives in the city.

Keliru. Gila Town. Rojak Town. These were some of the answers to the question “If you could rename KL, what name would you choose?” posed to participants of writing program UnRepresented: KL (UnR), which just began its fourth incarnation this past weekend. The equivalent of small talk in a conversation, the question was curious without being prying, uncontroversial, and harmless. At worst, banal.

But not all answers hinted at a city that is a bit on the edge and fraying under the weight of its own confusion. There was also Swettenham (cue sepia-toned Straits Settlements imagery), Bandar Raya (maybe a bit officious and bureaucratic), and Kuala Kiara (would Mont and Bukit be proud, or resentful?). At the start of the first session of the program, it was anybody’s guess what each cohort member thought of KL and how they’d describe their relationship to the city. But on the sides of exploring the less heard of, less acknowledged and therefore “unrepresented” narratives in KL’s midst which is the main aim of the program, maybe they—we—would figure this out.

After running a program like UnR for three years in a row, one gets the hang of the rhythm and the activities to include in each session. Granted, people who would apply to a program that involves spending Sunday afternoons in the shop house parts of the city (as opposed to the shopping mall parts), writing and critiquing one another’s work must believe in some form of suspending inhibition and putting faith in the good intentions of others to build a healthy group dynamic that is purposeful in its goals (in UnR’s case, to create a nurturing, thoughtful and open environment for exploring and creating). But there is room for some direction by the organisers, which has led to a sort of tradition at UnR to spend the first session writing and sharing about one’s relationship to one’s hometown.

To nobody’s surprise, themes of change and the replacement (displacement?) of the old with the new emerged frequently. This was especially apparent in the writings of those who call the Klang Valley their hometown. Some excerpts:

“Although the description fits one of an orchard, I must say this was not the case; we were living in the golden triangle, a metropolitan area but yet experienced the simple life of a ‘kampong’ environment amidst it, a stark contrast indeed. This was the Jalan Kia Peng I knew back as I recollect my fond childhood memories. Today, in the name of development this part of my childhood heritage had diminished, No 35, Jalan Kia Peng where my family used to live  is no longer in existence, in its place we have the ever majestic and prestigious Prince Court Medical Centre.”

“It is a shadow of a memory to me now, with its gaudy neighborhood malls and flyovers scraping Heaven. Eco Enterprise, the shop I used to buy my comics and junk food, is no more. The playground where I used to play football and met my first crush is nowadays a soho apartment complex. I don’t know what my hometown means to me anymore. Somewhere, I would like to think the memory of my childhood exists in some form, but I am sure it will erode eventually, as the town evolves into something else, taking my childhood away with it.”

Like our relationships with people in our lives, it is wholly possible to be tentative in one’s opinion about one’s place of origin. Okay about how things are, and going with the flow. Cue these excerpts:

“[When] I was younger, on some days I’d like to say Federal Hill is a part of Bangsar and other days, when I’m feeling a little nouveau riche, I’d say it’s the slightly poorer cousin of Kenny Hills (technically true, we do share the same forest and the same postcode).  Nowadays I say it’s right opposite KL Sentral to which the next question would be “Isn’t that Brickfields?” At this point, I’d just nod my head and smile. It’s a lot easier.”

“I would tell them I used to live there—right opposite of Sunway Pyramid, under the watchful eyes of the lion sculpture. Unfortunately if they were to ask me more about the place, all I can tell them was how it used to be. It’s just a place opposite the road of a shopping mall to me now.”

As an organiser of UnR, I keep an eye out for glimpses of personal struggle in the shared writings. It’s not that it comforts me to hear of somebody else’s pain (regardless of how distant or removed they are from it in the present), but it speaks volumes when people are able to reach in and share very personal stories in a new group. It suggests that some very powerful writing may be created as the program goes along.

“The reason I felt trapped, was that I was not allowed to explore and enjoy my own city. I was a girl. Girls had no business being outside.”

“A memory to me is like a photograph or a six-second video clip in your head. Pressing that play button is the closest you get to revisiting; going home doesn’t bring you any closer to your lost years. And so I’ve never felt any attachment compelling me to go home (parents aside). When I do go home, even during journeys I’ve been on countless times – like a drive out of town through idyllic countryside to my grandmother’s – I feel detached from any fragments of memories that should have made these surroundings dear or welcoming to me. I feel like a stranger.”

In a decidedly KL-centric program, stories from places away from the city make their welcome presence during this exercise. From a tale of a hometown in Kuala Lipis:

Back then, when mobile phones were as bulky as bottles of water, there was no phone reception my kampung. It was on the other side of the River Jelai, the side with no tarred roads. So, on these occasions, my father would stop near the jetty, honk for a good minute, and we would wait, with blind faith, for my grandfather to come paddling from the other side, at a pace so languid it is difficult to imagine anything else happening in the world.”

By way of Seremban, there was a lesson in history and a less-known urban legend that revealed a parable:

“The excavators dug deep into the earth to build underground parking and lay foundations for the new mall. Then the rains came. The merciless Malaysian monsoon brought with her, this time, her unrelenting older sister, La Niña. The parking pit filled with rainwater and till this day the water level refuses to drop. Perhaps the excavators had dug deep enough to hit an underground water table, which only aided the effect of the rains. Either way, the pit of earth was transformed into a lake, putting paid to the plans for the new mall.

The people of Seremban say, only half-jokingly, that it is the curse of the nuns that created the lake. Their tears, falling like rain, brought the rage of the monsoon upon that city, and upon the callous greed of man.” 

What is a place, if not those who inhabit it?

“Every time I pass by the area, my stomach knots in what I presume is a sense of regret. However, I have come to realise that it’s not the physical space that creates the memories, but the people who are in it.”

In future sessions, the writers will carry out site-specific writing exercises guided by the organisers and guest facilitators who have made KL the site of their storytelling. In those fleeting moments spent in new places, may there be plenty of moments of seeing the city in deep connection to its residents.

Things have just begun for this cohort, and the phase of exploration will later make way for time to strike out on their own, when the program enters its second phase of creating original works according to the program’s theme.

May the lens they cast add to the universe of stories, and enrich the constellation of stories on and about the capital city. Searing critiques and even harsh criticism may feature in the writings. Or maybe, we will hear voices fiercely protective of KL, like the four participants (out of ten) I know.

Their answer to that question on how they’d rename KL?

That they wouldn’t change a thing.

Adriana N. Manan co-organises UnRepresented: KL. For more information on the writing program, check out Facebook!

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