Even then I was clinging (When they dug me out dress and all) Lord, I know you dragged me kicking and screaming up the mountaintop That afternoon the sky was blue and deep I was afraid i would fall
I am holding the loose end of a thread There was a time when I was afraid of God and mother and father (Something to run away from and to)
But they promised we would meet on broken bridge on Christmas Eve Where have you been? Where are you going? I don’t have much time left, I’m leaving tomorrow on an airplane But I do wish it would fly and turn into the little green bird my father lost last week To go on the wings of time into unknown lands the heart only speaks of in whispers
Mother, tell me where do the exiles go? Don’t feed me back my desires chewed up and half dead On nights like these when we sorrow like rivers Let us dip our greedy cups into its flow Swirl my troubles like fine wine until they turn sweet Until drunk, we stumble in the dark For a ditch to pour out the stones in our hearts Let me go.
Bristol, 7 November 2021.
I have spent the past few days reading about Ai Weiwei and his new book, and discovered an incredibly rich interview he did where he spoke about his father Ai Qing (who, with him, was sent to a forced labour camp for 19 years in rural North West China), and about exile, individualism and individuality, and ego and non-ego:
IB: In China there is a lot of mythology surrounding poets. One of the pervasive themes is that of exile, the individual who refuses to compromise his or her integrity and as a result is banished by the state. I’m thinking of Chinese poets like Qu Yuan, Li Bo, Du Fu, Su Dongpo, Bei Dao, your father, you, and I think the contemporary poet Woeser can be understood in this light.
Ai Weiwei: Yes, you know some are exiled and others are self-exiled. When you see some people they are like a monk … China has always been troublesome with regard to freedom of the individual, especially poets. In China, the poet and the artist were the elite of society. They were always the focal point — their behavior reflected the soul of the land. That is why exile has been so highly respected throughout Chinese history. They understood exile as a natural condition. So much Chinese poetry is about shanggan (傷感, the experience of being emotionally wounded), shangxin (傷心, to have a wounded heart), likai jia (離開家, leaving one’s family), likai ren (離開人, leaving the world of people). All of these themes speak to the experience of exile, what the Chinese call chujingshenqing (觸景生情).
Exile normally means you are forced out of your home unwillingly — this is what I mean by external exile. I would say internal exile means you have lost your sense of belonging in your heart no matter where you are. You could be at home, really any location you are familiar with, but you have a sense of not belonging to the environment, not belonging to your own given conditions, political conditions, or even your own fate.
As a child, you can easily sense that your parents don’t belong where they have settled. There is nothing that relates to your mom or dad. You know you can’t establish a future there. If you have a place with a future, you can plant a tree. Five years later you see that the tree has grown. If you have a pig, you can feed the pig and watch it grow. However, in these kind of military camps, like today’s refugee camps, you don’t get any sense that there is anything growing. Today and the next year on the same day — it is all the same. The people who moved in five years ago and those who move in today are the same — it is all the same. They enter into the labour camp and they all become identical.
I remember sitting with a group of visual artists who would go on to create the virtual reality experience for my piece Stampin’ in the Graveyard, asking me what image they might be able to play around with as a key anchor to the show—the answer came to me as clear as day. I immediately saw myself sitting on an airplane seat, looking out the window in the twilight, there is a voice speaking behind me, and as I breathe onto the cold pane of glass, the names of my ancestors are scrawled there as if by an invisible finger.
When I was six years old, at the wake of the riots in Jakarta, my family and I fled first to Singapore, and then to America. I don’t remember much from that time, just vague memories of long drives, motels, the laundry machine, a young blonde girl asking me what I was doing (building a snowman) and understanding exactly what she was saying and not knowing what to answer back. Unlike many of the stories you hear, we left America and came back.
There are moments in my life, where I feel that I sliced away a part of my soul to throw to the dogs so the rest of me can get away. I think somewhere in some small corner of the sky, a piece of me is still floating in an empty airplane, neither here nor there, not coming or going.
Exile is a state of mind, a violence of the imagination.
It has been almost two years since I have been back home, and by home I mean where I came from in the beginning. Unlike in Singapore, where the sales floor I worked at would fill with a hubbub of Malay and Bahasa, I have also gone so long without speaking my native language, to the point that it became a peculiar taste in my mouth even as it remained familiar to my ears. Even then, I don’t despair, I don’t feel as if I’ve lost anything, just that I’ve changed. And I look forward to this homecoming with curiosity and ease.
Where do I belong? Now and never. Nowhere and everywhere. I belong wherever I put down my feet. I am a woman and not a bird.
Hungry ghosts are believed to wander the earth—the souls of those who were violent and unhappy, desirous and greedy—they have large bellies and eyes and small mouths, never able to satiate themselves.
Hungry ghosts are an integral part of Buddhist literature, but aptly it is a ghostly presence that is often ignored (it’s not as sexy as meditation after all, or yoni eggs*). Hungry ghosts is one of the realms of samsara, into which one can be reborn depending on their karma. Those who had been avaricious, selfish, envious, clinging and greedy, may be reborn into the realm of hungry ghosts.
There are vivid paintings of the hungry ghosts, shrivelled like tree bark and breathing out fire that seems to burn anything they may try to eat. They have small mouths like needles, unable to fill their bellies. Their eyes seem to see an illusion of barrenness, and they crave disgusting things like shit.
It is also said that when we are visited by these feelings of greed or meanness, that we are receiving a glimpse into the realm of hungry ghosts.
On a cold night in December, that girl died. They cremated her tiny bird-like body and she was so small that her funeral pyre was nothing more than a candlelight, and they laid to rest her still warm ashes in my heart. That was seven years ago, but some nights (when it is especially cold and lonely) The embers catch and the girl would come back to life as a column of black smoke rising up my lungs, choking me with her sweet incense I still think of her and it brings sour tears to my eyes Because I love her, I still love her Even in her smallness and ugliness.
I wrote that poem last December, I have been noticing a pain arising in me that seems to come from a source deep inside my belly. I have a beautiful life, and people who love me, and yet my body seems to contain within it a wellspring of pain, like a river, that floods inside me. It felt like my karma, something I was born with and tasked as a person to carry and uncover and learn from.
Even within the luck of my life, I hold a fear that I would be abandoned in the middle of the wilderness.
Dear mother, I know I have done shameful things. Please don’t worry about me, bury me in an unmarked grave Let there be no sons, or daughters, or grandchildren with flowers in their hands Just let me out to sea while I’m alive Let me laugh, let me cry
Stories of hungry ghosts often describe people who refuse to give water to the thirsty (fearing they would not have enough for themselves), or envious of another person’s virtues set out to destroy them. But asking or even begging for help does not make one a hungry ghost—refusing does.
I think about all the times I had clung so much to love, even when it needed to be cut loose. I think of all the times I have been envious, afraid of being replaced by a newer, glossier, whiter version. (I seem to fail to realize that I’m a woman, not a toaster). And I have that common addiction too: I find myself hungering for filth, spinning my mind around and around thoughts that do nothing but cut me open again and again and again. I recognize that these fears come from ways in which I was not cared for in the ways I needed, but I’m old enough now to be able to accept these things without anger, to carry on.
You were not born, but crawled headfirst into the hunger of dogs. Tell them that the body is a blade that sharpens by cutting. -Ocean Vuong
One time, inflamed with this sharp karmic pain, this hunger, I hit my head on the wooden floor. I was with someone who loved me dearly, who stopped me quite abruptly by gripping my hair. “Don’t hurt her.” He said, as if speaking to the ghost inside who was doing the hurting.
I am so full of the desire to live, and yet I wonder if I destroyed what was on the surface, how my body would grow beyond the ruin. I wanted to see what was growing underneath my skin if I tore it away. What would arise once the hunger has finished consuming me?
When I was a child, I used to always get nightmares (a witch’s kiss and my teeth falling out, another time that aliens had taken over our house and were wearing my family’s heads as masks). Eventually, I noticed that when I prayed, my dreams would be strange but they wouldn’t terrify me. So this afternoon, I walked to Greenwich Park and watched the birds migrate, as I wrote down my fears and prayers to accompany them.
We live in a funny world obsessed with power, obsessed with not being walked over, and freedom and pleasure. For now, I sit in my hunger, feeding on a bitter solitude, waiting for it to turn sweet in my mouth.
*Let it be known that “wherefore” means “why” not “where”, and “yoni” means “womb” not “vagina” — thank you and good night.
Although my body stayed in the same studio, I felt myself traveling to different places: back to my childhood in Jakarta, to my grandmother’s days in a cigarette factory in Medan, as we screened Unforgettable Girl I was thrown back to last Autumn and the feeling of creating theatre with the desperation of a viral apocalypse, back to the drill hall where I spent the last days of school.
Throughout the week, Xuanh had written down different things we had said. On the last day, we listened to a recording of her voice saying each of these things back to us, as if they were her own words, in a way that affirmed it and gifted it back to us.
I found this notion of borrowing words incredibly powerful. In fact, I want to invite some people I work with to do this with me—to dive into books that speak saliently and incisively about our civilization’s watershed reckoning with capitalism and imperialism—to pick out passages that resonate with us and to say it as if they were our own.
Because until further notice, I’m done talking about “race”—especially to people who don’t know what it means to look different, to be called names or spat at as you walk down the street in the year 2021, to be treated differently for the way you talk or your accent, people whose ancestors have never been subjugated, exploited, called less-than, enslaved for centuries. It’s exhausting and in my experience, it gets absolutely nowhere. I would like to borrow the words of people with more courage than me, and I would like to listen and for people to listen to me.
It’s like seeing ghosts.
People make jokes about my name. Ho is a funny name. But I rarely say that part of the reason I don’t go by it is because I will protect myself from being laughed at for my name. Most people who do laugh, have never had their family be forced to change their name because Chinese names are illegal (the reason why we initially changed our name from Ho = Gunawan). Most people who do laugh, have not experienced violence or killings for being their “ethnicity.”
So a harmless joke goes by, and you see the ghost of violence in the back. But you learn to ignore the ghosts. Sometimes, if it’s actually funny (a dear friend once made me a yoga class playlist called “HO-ga movement”) and it’s a person you love, you don’t even mind. Nobody ever asks, but why should they know? And at this point, I’m tired of telling people who don’t believe in ghosts.
Another joke flies around about how the Arts Council doesn’t give money to white people anymore. I’m not naive, and I know there are people who must believe that people like me only get grants because we’re not white. Another ghost.
But you know, I want to be a normal person who has “that annoying friend” and let that kind of shit go for the sake of my blood pressure.
You know that game when you suck on a candy in your mouth in class? Keeping it secret so the teacher doesn’t realize? This is the game I play whenever someone speaks a lie too loud and too fast. I suck on the sweet candy of my own blasphemous silence.
I will not feel your shame for you.
Like a comedy, our residency ended with the other group inviting us to join a small gathering on the grass to thank the staff at Hawkwood for welcoming us. A man with long curly blonde hair led us on a Sunday School prayer that ended with namaste and om. When asked how our experience was, we stumbled at an answer, and he answered with an empathic “Yes, that was exactly our experience here.” Right.
I was embarassed for him—his blindness, his vapid remarks, his mistaking our silence for approval of this attempt to bring everyone together. He thought his presence was harmless but it was like a little stain on our afternoon. But I decided that I would not feel his shame for him.
If you’ve noticed, I’ve gotten this far barely saying the word “white.” Because I’m riding the tension of 1) throwing pebbles at its supremacy, and 2) refusing to give it more power by strengthening its oneness as “white.” Even white supremacy is a construct—albeit a powerful one, the same way what brought me together with these nine incredible women is a construct, clunkily wrapped by the words BIPOC/East and Southeast Asian women (personally I prefer ‘bitchez of blazphemy’). I think instead of “white” – what we mean is people who (regardless of how they look) are still running away from the shame of benefitting from capitalist imperialism, who have blood on their hands.
That’s why the guilt, and the self-conscious liberal monologues about being privileged, doesn’t help. That’s why I realize I don’t feel like my body of work is based on my race, not (just) because I’m self-hating like the rest of us, but because I refuse to define myself on my constant conflict against an illusory whiteness. I think as an artist I transform the things I experience and sense in the world—my history and story of being invisible/visible, my movement/migration, diaspora, my relationship to capitalism/power are all a part of it. The fact that many people will see me and first see that I look different from them, is going to be a part of it.
Can we peel the wallpaper of these banal words the home office gives us and go deeper and underneath into the complexity and fragmented reality of our lives?
I realize people will read this, and feel affirmed or affronted or ashamed or awkward. All I ask is for your truthfulness, in this moment, as you read this in your head. Your truthfulness to yourself.
And if butthurt/your heart rate is triggered, keep calm and listen to:
In other words, while retaining our private experiences, we can attempt to incarnate myth, putting on its ill-fitting skin to perceive the relativity of our problems, their connection to the “roots” and the relativity of the “roots” in the light of today’s experience. If the situation is brutal, if we strip ourselves and touch an extraordinarily intimate layer, exposing it, the life mask cracks and falls away.
Towards a Poor Theatre
(An aunt once told me I had a lucky face…)
Jokes aside, I do feel honoured and lucky to have gotten a grant for my DYCP. I say lucky because I know for a fact that there are many artists out there with stronger ambitions and better plans, arguably more deserving of this gift than me but for whatever reason the Black Hole™ has decided to send me back some money from the Arts Council. I believe in always respecting the chaos and arbitrariness that rules our lives (especially when it comes to public funds…)
Aside from the part where I promised the Ministry of Magic Arts Council England that I would blog about my project…
I want to find a way to share my work to anyone who is interested to read. I have always loved seeing the stats of my website, seeing different parts of the world light up with friends who have for whatever reason decided to grace my blog at 3 a.m. (Hello!)
The project I’m embarking on is a search for myths—the ones that exist in our culture, our families, ourselves. How do we find them and how do we tell them? I am curious about how I can share the alien world I grew up in (Jakarta in the 1990s…)/stories of the “other” we fear so much, in such a way that will make you see your own stories. I want to invite you deep inside your own story and self, and I will go deep into mine, and we will meet in the imaginary room that exists underneath the everyday.
I am curious about the universal truths that exist in our world—of which there are very few. Many things that are important to us—like power, philosophy and even human rights—are simply constructs and agreements. Here are some universal truths:
1) we all die, 2) we all have a mother and a father (even if you may not know them or like them) and arguably 3) that we all fall in love.
Universal truths are the bedrock on which we create and tell myths.
I am pulled by two poles in my research—on one hand that our bodies and our selves are the ways in which we sense the world, and that a deep knowledge and reflection as a person/artist is necessary for this work. On the other hand, that the artist needs to consciously ask—who do I need to become in order to find the freedom to tell this story? What mask do I have to create in order that I can reveal myself (paradoxically by losing it)?
So the next few months will be filled with writing, experimenting, creating work with companions like the inimitable (the word I default to when someone’s brilliance transcends my command of English) Eelyn Lee (with an exciting project for Encounter Bow, hint: 福禄寿!), Created a Monster for a premiere of Unforgettable Girl this fall, Flabbergast Theatre, Matej Matejka, and Kristine Landon-Smith, among others.
And please, I am always happy to receive random hellos, questions, thoughts, feedback, insults and all manners of shade in my inbox – about my practice or just about me personally. But please don’t be a stranger. If you want, do subscribe to my mailing list. I have nothing to spam you with (I wish I had something to sell) other than these kinds of posts, if they interest you!
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The whole time I was at RADA, I oscillated between two moments. One would be moments of unity, togetherness, connectedness with another, a warm body against another. But so swiftly these moments would change—and I would suddenly feel like I am watching something happen behind a shop window, so far away. I disguise myself very well, with the way I speak and the sense of humor I put on. But I am and will always be an outsider, an alien. Which is why I am trying to excavate the moments of meeting, of holding hands with other strangers.
I want to create theatre that is mythical. Myths are stories that form the foundation of our lives. Myths are still true, whether they happen centuries ago or today. They present the absolute undeniable truths of our lives, which are very rare. Family, love, death—no one can deny that they happen and that they are forces in our lives. Political movements and having your opinions reflected back on you, on the other hand, are often not provable.
Theatre that is mythical is not based on styles or aesthetics (because even “pretty” is not a provable belief system, and many wars have been waged on it), but on stories.
I have been thinking about love letters. Because people can always blush and shake their head and insist they don’t know how to write poetry or essays, but you can always simply write a letter to someone you love who is far away. It is an epitome of our primal need as humans to take something that is brief and immortalize it, materialize it, into something in a space – a piece of paper with writings on it.
Here is one I wrote two years ago, and that I posted on the internet, with no address and no postage. But that was found by the man it was addressed to, months later on a lonely night.
November 6, 2018Dear A,I was sitting in Bali in this little Villa, looking up at the stars and thinking about how much you would like this place.Don’t get me wrong, our days as lovers are over and for good reason, but I guess I just thought about how I hope the things that bring you joy: like swimming pools and boxing and good food, continue to bring you joy. I realized at that point, whether you had forgiven me or not, I had forgiven you. Because at that moment, I closed the door on any anger or hurt because –:what good was it going to do me?If I dig deep enough, I will always find you. Even as I fall in love with someone new, I will always find you. Because our souls were connected once. And when it suddenly greets me at night, like that moment, I want it to be a place of understanding, maybe solemnness, maybe even laughter. But never anger, never hurt.I hope you’re happy, and I hope your dad isn’t coughing anymore.Perhaps you are still angry with me. But even when I tried, I couldn’t close my heart to you, there will always be friendship and tenderness for you if you ever need it.
So I ask, if you have the openness and the desire, to please share with me your love letters. They can be ones you have written in the past, or ones you have received. I will keep them safe and private, of course, but I will read them carefully and learn from them. I know it is incredibly intimate, but also that there is a lot more generosity than I usually expect from people. So if you do, please email them to me here. Thank you.
We live in a world of bondage and struggle, but within our imaginations we are free.
The act of theatre is like spilling the whole bottle of baby powder on the ground, and kicking the dust up. There is the silhouette of a woman behind the white smoke, the sound of a waterfall and foxes squealing. We create worlds we have no maps for, getting lost as we go. It is a total experience that grabs you by the hand, the ears, the heart—by all your senses.
Like a kiss, it may be rough and tumble or soft as a whisper. But always sensual and irresistible.
Theatre is everywhere, and although the specimen is usually depicted gracing the stages of London and New York, it is more common than we think. It lurks in the corners of slums with street children, in jazz clubs and dance halls and classrooms.
The theatre doesn’t care what the audiences think. When the theatre is revealed under the light in its fragile state of creation, it may be judged harshly. The makers may care, but the theatre will continue in its unapologetic abashedness.
Even then, she does not need to be defended. The moment you try to defend something, your ego gets in the way. The sky doesn’t have to defend that it is blue. Art doesn’t try to prove or solve anything.
Our theatre can also be vulgar and offensive. The pieces for which you can be killed (literally or figuratively) is a photograph of what is inside whoever is threatening to kill you for it.
The theatre can only exist between the audience and the performers. Their action and complicity creates a world that is ephemeral and exists only for that moment, and then disappears. When they talk after the show about how wonderful it was, it is the same way they talk about a holiday they had in a faraway destination that has been erased by rising sea levels.
The actors may have poor manners, but the theatre is a generous hostess who welcomes you in and ensures you have a good time, and that you have a safe ride home.
We want our theatre to set the audience free in ways large and small. We put on stage what so many people feel in their own solitude, and in their own corner in the dark theatre, to say “me too.”