Of stories

When we read, we lean into a whole new world. A world full of people, things, and situations that intrigue us, entice us, trigger our agitations, and in the end leaves us in a blissful state of wanting more.

Reading is escaping into a realm that we don’t expect for ourselves. It’s a getaway, if you will, from the harsh realities of our everyday lives. Whether it’s from the kids rattling in their rooms, their joyful squeaks echoing through the thin old walls, wooden floorboards creaking even at the weight of the lightest in the house, or from the pending laundry, unattended work emails, or dirty dishes, we all use stories as a way to avoid facing what we eventually must. 

After all, the imaginary world is so much more interesting than our melting, sweltering real world.

As I marvelled this, I realised that not only readers ignore the piling mound of boring routine. Writers do too. Perhaps that’s why they are writers in the first place. Not only is writing a way to avoid the rest of the world, it’s also an intense form of empowerment to create your own.

When I write a story, I often don’t deviate from the way things are around me. I draw inspiration from people I see every day, from paths I wander, from music I listen to, and the conversations I engage in. However, these references don’t always reflect on the story. Instead, I twist it to my fancy. Even something as simple as the shape of a cup could be wildly incorrect—improper. That doesn’t mean a tea cup could be as impractical as a trophy cup, but it’s still the writer’s choice.

When you think o fit that way, the art of reading and writing stories is an act of going against what humankind has made acceptable and natural. 

It’s a way of rebelling, of protesting against normality, against the agreeable. Sometimes it’s as basic as a black man walking down a white neighbourhood, and sometimes it’s more aggressive as big brother watching you.

Stories are more than just stories.

A milestone

When I was about 13, I decided I wanted to write—to be a published novelist.

Then life happened. Luckily, however, I still wanted to write. That’s how this blog came about, and ever since I’ve been writing plenty of self-declared short stories, opinions, random musings, and travel thoughts.

Moving to Canberra took my writing to a whole new level. I joined a writers group, and thanks to being exposed to incredible poetic talent, the embers of my poetry began to flare up. As a result, I’ve been writing and experimenting a lot with free verse poetic forms.

Now I’m super thrilled and proud to say that with the help of my incredible writers group, I’ve managed to get in on an anthology of womxn’s poetry from all over the world.

Published by Animal Heart Press, the book is called From The Ashes. It’s co-edited by Amanda McLeod and Mela Blust.

Preorder the book here

Latest reading

I’ve been trying hard, and failing, to read a book.

It’s not the first time. It doesn’t happen often, and so when it does happen, these books remain in my mind vivid, as the Sydney Opera House in June.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and a couple others.

Not that these books were complex in language, but they featured elements and situations that bored me. However, I did finish One Hundred Years of Solitude and mentally kicked myself for putting it off for so long. It took me a good nine months to finish that book because I kept forgetting I was reading it. That’s a great book—I admitted when I did read it.

But the dragon tattoo was too much for me. It went into such gruelling detail about sex that it threw me off. I don’t mind descriptions that add value to a story, but as I was reading it, it felt as if the author could’ve edited away some of the detailing and still achieved a crisp narrative. But that’s just me. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to about the book was surprised that I quit halfway through. I got tired of waiting for the exciting part of the story.

That happened about five years ago. Perhaps I was too young to digest it. Perhaps what was casual description for many was too gory for me. That’s when I realised I could return a book without reading, and not feel guilty about it after.

Except, now, after all these years, I’m reading a book that I don’t feel like finishing. It’s a lighter-hearted than The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and it’s non-fiction. But it’s still too much detail. It’s a semi-biography of an American-Australian author. It’s the first full-length comedy book I’m reading, and although I appreciate the author’s ability to laugh at her faults and shenanigans, some of her anecdotes aren’t funny—they’re just silly.

It feels as if I’m too old to laugh at these stories. Some of them are too personal—stuff that I’d take to the grave. Of course, there’re learning opportunities in every embarrassing situation, but sometimes, lessons are personal. Writing about the time you strutted around the school in sex-stained jeans thinking it was cool, isn’t cool. Now imagine an entire book of stories like that. Of course, not every story is about sex, but the embarrassment-level is quite similar.

I’m certain there’re some stories in there about good things that happened to the author—like winning a game or passing a big test.

I’ll know for sure when I get there. If I get there at all.

That’s what I’m struggling with now. I know it’s a popular book. It may even be a good one, according to most readers. But perhaps it’s just not for me.

Ever been there?

Set me Free

Salvatore Striano quote from Set me Free

I haven’t met a Shakespeare fan I didn’t like. 

Dreamy fierceness oozes from his words like a tube of toothpaste, and make readers stick like mosquitoes on an oil plate.

And when two mosquitoes meet on oil plate, what else would they share than their love for wit that landed them there in the first place? 

It was with that curiosity that I picked up Set me Free by Salvatore Striano. The title itself wasn’t any different from the thousands that line the library aisle. It was the sub headline of the book that forced my feet to retreat and my hand to reach out: The story of how Shakespeare saved a life.

At that moment, I knew I had to read it.

Life got in the way, many times, slowing down my progress. And yet, I persisted—the deadline loomed and I didn’t want to be that person who extends a library book because they were too busy not reading.

I read in the bus, I read walking around the lake, I read in bed at night sipping black coffee.

This tale come from behind bars. It’s the story of a high-security, long-sentence serving prisoner in Italy. The narrator, Sasà—the prisoner himself—tells how he’s been a frequent visitor to jails since he was seven, walking us through various parts of his life leading up to the present. And all the while, he explains the realities of prison life, the solitude and hopelessness that hugs the air, and the spite that separates groups.

What’s Shakespeare doing in a place like this?

Saving souls, of course.

The narrator goes on to illustrate how one accidental play they put on opened the vault to an under-appreciated realm of sonnets and theatre. He reads Shakespeare, and with every play he finishes, Sasà feels himself glow and grow as a person. And in the end, the book closes with a hint of how even inside prison, lessons from good literature change and free people of their darkest despairs.

It’s a well-told short book.

However, at many instances while reading this book, I felt a tinge of irritation scratch the surface of my patience. For there are pages in the book that function, not as part of the story, but as the author’s opinion and observation of The Tempest. I scoffed, remembering CliffNotes. The narrator does this a lot—there’re chunks of references, poetic verses, and lengthy explanations of how and why Prospero forgives his enemies in the end. Sasà even argues with a fellow prisoner, who plays Prospero, for doing the character injustice.

As I read on, though, my annoyance melted. I grew intrigued at the narrator. For he’d internalised Shakespearean characters so much that he began identifying their real-world counterparts.

As readers, we see the plays help him discover his feelings towards the people in his life. His wife was like Miranda—loyal and pure. An older cellmate, a mentor and guide was Prospero—a father-like figure in jail. And he, the narrator, himself was Ariel. It becomes more than a role in a play, and we see how Sasà lets Ariel and other Shakespearean characters influence his own behaviour. Like an earthworm tossing out the dirt to let a breath of fresh air down the ground, these fictional men wade in and out of Sasà’s consciousness, picking out hatred and sadness, and replacing them with gardening, writing, and composure.

This is a small book. With a big takeaway. 

The more I recall incidents in the book, the more I understand the impact of these plays on the narrator. From being a thief, drugger, and gangster, he emerges as a poet, and a rather philosophical actor.

This is a good book. Give it a read.