Buried beneath the dust of habit

Originally published in ISSUE Magazine #2

When my best friend in high school revealed that her secret power was reading people’s souls through their eyes, I giggled slightly in the way you do when you want to disbelieve.

“Go ahead,” I said gleefully. “Read my eyes.”

And she glanced at me only briefly, because she knew my eyes so well it seemed, and told me, “Your eyes are sad. You’re sad.”

“Really,” I muttered, stunned because it was true. “But I’m smiling now, see?”

She turned to me, her own beautiful brown eyes blinking slowly. “Your eyes are your eyes, and they are you, and you are sad.” Then she walked ahead, curly ponytail swinging as she caught up with our classmates.

I am becoming a writer. I have been becoming a writer, it seems, from the moment I could talk. My mother says I talked early and in English, because she was worried I wouldn’t be familiar with the language when the schools started teaching everything in Bahasa. But she taught me the language of our former colonials because it is an important language if you’re to move ahead in life, they say. It is the one I am most comfortable with, the one I first started writing in too. Long before I knew what writing was, I was mimicking the letters in books, scrawling them back in grotesque animations; my letter A looked like a bear with ears, and a small mouse for the letter d. I see these scrawls everywhere in the little volumes of fairy tales we had as children.

I never mastered drawing because I only do things in absolute reluctance or with relentless fervor, and I only ever saw meaning in words. I wrote in colouring books and encyclopedias and on newspapers.

I wrote to be other than I am, and I still do.

My full name is strange and throughout school and most of life, I have heard it mispronounced in every possible way. Once, in frustration, I asked my parents why they named me as they did.

There was a national swimmer at the time who was brilliant and young and smart. Her name was Nurul Huda, and her Chinese features were what my mother imagined my face would inevitably grow into when my genes were given enough time to amplify my dark dark hair and slanted eyes. But Papa didn’t like it.

“What sort of name is that?” he’d said. “It’s a weird name.”

And so he selected one from a book of choice pseudo-Arabic names – a name strange and unusual amid the Farah’s and Huda’s and Alia’s of the time. The book described the meaning of my name as ‘the fragrance of dahlias’, but when I asked my Arab friends some 20 years later, none could say my name existed. The closest is “shazaa” – fragrance, which is neither something I particularly exude nor is it particularly comforting when you think about names being prophecies.

Growing up I hated my name. I hated having to correct everyone who came across it in a list of students’ names; I hated the way my peers were so creative at making up insults out of the constructs of it. It is long and pliable, with lots of consonants to fiddle with and sufficient vowels to give form to the words and make them catchy enough for taunting. They are familiar enough that I can list them down and give you a history of etymology, but most striking is how sometimes one’s full name can be the worst insult of all, if pronounced just right. Mine became associated with being talkative, giving unwanted trivia and being overweight.

In retaliation, I wrote pages and pages of names. New names, strange names, male and female. I became obsessed, dragging around name books and perusing them for the ones with majestic meanings or the ones that sounded exotic on the tongue but had fewer syllables than my own. I learned about middle names and went overboard, using three middle names at once, sometimes four. But these names then had minds of their own, and I slowly constructed families and crises to feed them and give them the lives they were screaming for. I gave them childish, stilted dialogue, quite unlike the ones I read in books, but more like the voice in my head. Each person sounded like me, but they were in petty conflict with each other.

When I began to read chapter books of television serials (as was the trend in late primary and early secondary), I progressed to what they now call fanfiction. It was a lot easier when I had a template to write these people from, with their own established characters and complexes. They all shared a distinctly South Californian accent with middle-class North American PG stories of malls and mixed families and 30-minute shenanigans. These stories were my exotic and my familiar, because my daily life was just so mundane and typical and theirs so prevalent in my consciousness that I had voices for them almost instantly. I had no idea how rife with scandal the world just outside my own was – I had (and still have, although I do try) scant patience for the tittering whispers of the aunties and much preferred the sobering deep voices of the uncles when they talked about The Bigger Picture. I had trouble relating to my peers and I had trouble relating to my huge extended family, whose collective voice threatened to drown my own strange, slightly off-kilter thoughts. I daydreamed plenty into the little worlds I created but which I increasingly had no words for. They needed bigger words, more adjectives, more colours than I had in my imagination.

The stories I used to always write, up until a few years ago, were childishly detailed and thoughtlessly construed – the conflict always superficial and petty. A boy and a girl fall in love but cannot be together because of their clashing cultures and his burgeoning libido; a classic trope of love lost and found and lost again, but I could only ever scratch the surface. I write myself into these stories and give the protagonists my voice and the antagonists my hate, because I am the ultimate Mary-Sue.

If they say write what you know, then I would bark back my one truth: “I have nothing”.

I have not had tragedy, not that I would tempt fate for the sake of the creative process. I have not had suffering; nothing huge enough worthy of translating onto the page, and I am neither brave nor foolish enough to want any. My life has been largely superficial and because my words are only of myself and my pain and suffering, what do I know? The lives that I find myself writing are still the ones I wish I had and they are, as a result, void of true conflict and true messiness. I write about the lives I want but am too afraid to chase. They are still fanfiction of a sort, only I am the one being reimagined into these scenarios. “Let’s give her a child – no, a stepchild – no, let’s give her a man who looks like a cheaper version of your golden Hollywood actor, just to ground the fantasy, but keep the stepchild.”

I am still becoming a writer, because whatever I am right now disgusts me. I still write as I would in a fantastical diary, adolescent and prosaic. My topics are only me disguised in different modes, since I seem unable to step into any other shoes and mine are too plain. The different voices are still all me – all me, in different shades and outfits, but they all have my voice and they all say similar vanilla words of clichés and exclamations.

The best works I have are borne from deep wounds of falling and being scorned, but they are increasingly too painful to revisit. So who wants to read about heartbreak all the time? It hurts and suffocates and you come out numb and hateful after a while. No, the heartbreak I want to write is not my own, but I am too bored of my own life that all the ones I imagine are still mine. I want to give my stories away to strangers I don’t know but who I feel for deeply. I want to let my story hold your heart in its hands but not in the ruthless way I would. I want to give you my soul but not too much that you would be in my debt.

The writers I like best are the ones who like being themselves so much that they can depart into other lives and other realms and give pieces of their souls into characters that will then grow on their own.

It seems the answer is to stop whining and start living, but adult life, so much more than childhood, means making choices and living within the grids those choices come with. There are responsibilities and consequences that no one else can claim for you; your parents are less forgiving as you age and the world even more so. There is no such thing as a happy escape or blissful ignorance; everything has consequences.

But living has its costs, and disappointment is the most expensive.

Elsa once asked me, “If a man came to you, telling you that he would send you anywhere in the world you wanted, give you money to do whatever you wanted there, but that you had to leave right this moment and just drop everything…would you?”

I laughed into the phone, looking out at students walking towards the bus stop near the Economics building. “That really depends, El. What does he look like?”

She half-laughed, half-cried in dismay. “Awin! I’m serious. Widad asked me this question, and it really got me thinking: would I be able to drop work and my family and everything, just to go somewhere I really wanted.”

I chuckled again, feeling the whirr of her cogs in my own feet, going faster and faster with each option and every possibility she wouldn’t take. And then my mind saw the rooftops of Edinburgh once more, dusted in sludgy snow with dark grey sea in the distance. “Of course I’d go.”

“And drop everything, right now? Whatever it is you’re doing and everything and everyone and just, you know, go?”

“Yes,” I said, keeping my voice curt and strong so she knew I meant it. “I would go.”

“Now?”

“Now. Immediately.”

“Oh,” she said. “Because I don’t think I could.”

“Really.”

“I would want to – I mean, just imagine it, going anywhere I wanted right now, free of charge – but I don’t think I could, Win. I don’t think I would feel right just shooting off and leaving everything behind.”

I gave it a thought, quickly, and then shrugged. “I dunno, Elsa. I would. I really would. And somehow I think my family would understand, and I don’t know about work, you know.” I rubbed my hand hard across my forehead the way I was beginning to do frequently. “I’d just – you know, what’s stopping me right now is the money. I’d just go.”

“You’d go.”

“And so should you. Go. Just go with it.”

“Go.”

“Yes.”

Writing for me means living other than vicariously, and it requires bravery. Sometimes living even creates bravery, but there must be some specks of it everywhere in order for it to work. And as I age (sometimes too fast and other times too slowly), these worries peel away to reveal more neuroses and more cowardice than I think I can overcome with mere specks alone.

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