Twenty pages into A Sense of Style, I understand now why books like Out in the Midday Sun or Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s World or Wellington: The Iron Duke are so absorbing. It’s not just the fun of facts and uncovering alternate narratives; it’s also how these books are written. They aren’t simply a parade of stultifying statistics and sweeping statements. Through letters, diaries, journals, they give voice and breathe life into people who are every bit as real as you or I despite having vanished into the hollows of time. They continue to be, if only for the finite period over which the book is unfinished. I root for them, rail against them, cry with them.

For that brief interlude, it almost seems as though I am a personal friend.

Whether in writing, daily life, or writing about daily life, it is a challenge, I think, to resist the tendency to – as Steven Pinker puts it –  “submerge individuals in abstraction”. Living as we do in a country like Malaysia, it is all too easy to lose one person in a sea of persons, so they no longer are a million individuals with a million lives and minds, but rather just a homogeneous mass of colour. Yellow. Brown. Lighter brown? Even worse is when you try and write individual stories by reverse-engineering – fishing from the “melting pot” (that phrase makes me shudder) and then moulding perfect little clay imitations of human beings sorted by colour.

Such was the difficulty I had at last week’s Unrepresented KL session. We were prowling the streets at Masjid Jamek, hunting for a story to write. I tried conversing with the beauty salon attendant while she threaded my eyebrows in the hope of inspiration. Unfortunately, despite the bits and pieces she shared – husband’s occupation, plans for future children’s schooling, where she was from, what her hometown was like – it came to nothing because I found myself unable to perceive her outside the confines of stereotype. So I tried to use some imagination. Perhaps I could alter the conversation beyond banal back-and-forths. I then found myself uncomfortable about being presumptuous about her beliefs.

So there I was, stuck, staring right into her eyes, unable to give voice and breathe life into Sendhi – someone who was actually living.

It’s only the second week yet. Perhaps I’ll get better.

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