by Jennie S. Bev
Everything starts with words. Throughout history, every individual of any degree of importance in society has had at least one book and multiple short pieces written by, inspired by, or dedicated to him or her. Every major event and phenomenon is likely to have had some sort of written record.
After all, written words are a repository of histories, thoughts, feelings and efforts. They are testimonies to humans’ ever-changing nature and search for ultimate understanding.
Words are both edifices and crystal balls. According to Mary Pipher, in Writing to Change the World, good writing facilitates the making of connections in a way that inspires open-heartedness, thinking, talking and action. It widens readers’ understanding of the world, and empowers and inspires them. And writers who write away from their homelands might be those who are guilty of the crime of being distant and receiving accolades for seeing things in a magnified manner, as if looking through a powerful telescope.
Salman Rushdie, in Imaginary Homelands, wrote: “It may be argued that the past is a country from which we have all emigrated, that its loss is part of our common humanity. Which seems to me self-evidently true; but I suggest that the writer who is out-of-country and even out-of-language may experience this loss in an intensified form. It is made more concrete for him by the physical fact of discontinuity, of his present being in a different place from his past, of his being ‘elsewhere.’
This may enable him to speak properly and concretely on a subject of universal significance and appeal.”
He added, “But let me go further. The broken glass is not merely a mirror of nostalgia. It is also, I believe, a useful tool with which to work in the present.”
Broken glasses create beautiful mosaics. I believe this to be true.
With memories from the past, recent experiences from the present and hopes for the future, writing for a faraway homeland expresses a longing to be present in the most visible manner. It is like shouting to one’s fellow countrymen and women, “Look, I am here. I’m with you. I share your joy and your pain.” And, as put forth so beautifully by Joyce Carol Oates in The Faith of a Writer, as we all have gone through childhood, writing is an opportunity to soak in the marrow of our bones and to condition our interpretation of the universe by exercising our control of environment and response to it.
Or, perhaps, we write for a few selfish reasons, as George Orwell pointed out in Why I Write.
First, sheer egoism. Every writer desires to be seen as clever, to be the talk of the town, to be remembered long after death. Writers want to be acknowledged as agents of change; to be important.
Second, aesthetic enthusiasm. Writers use words to shape perception, particularly the perception of beauty, and it is almost impossible to find any writer who does not place significance in good prose and the rhythm of a good story.
Third, historical impulse. Writers have a strong desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them in a time capsule for posterity. Fourth, political purpose. All writers have a yearning to push the world down a certain path, to alter other people’s ideas of the kind of society that they should strive for.
As a nonfiction writer who has written everything from no-nonsense how-to articles and straight-shooting journalistic pieces to reflective philosophical essays, I write with a purpose. Sometimes what I write is intended for informing, sometimes for shaping opinions, and more often than not for sharing with the world what I see and think. As someone who writes far away from her homeland, certain things are imaginary. Yet the presence is real. The meaning is not transplanted from a faraway land to be adopted without reservation, but to be considered as an abridgment. As a writer, I give a choice to my readers, and it is likely to be genuine and unique. After all, I write for an imaginary homeland from a faraway land. And broken glasses create beautiful mosaics.
The Jakarta Globe, December 6, 2008