Tuesday, 8 January 2013. I was sitting on a bench, enjoying my breakfast near the fountain at Victoria Park, when Mega Vristian texted me. “Mbak, don’t go anywhere, okay. I’ll bring a friend to see you.” “Who it it?” I asked her. “It’s a surprise. Two pm. Just wait.” Since my arrival to Hong Kong four days earlier, Mega had been tremendously helpful to me. She was the one contacting people and arranging for me to meet them. Being a senior in IDWs’ writing community, she was like a big sister or a mother to many IDWs here. After knowing her for about two years, since before I came to Melbourne, I was finally able to personally meet her. I had no problem recognizing her sunken yet friendly face when she picked me up at the airport.
I decided to cancel my intention to see some places in Hong Kong. I had been here for three days, and spent most of my time following my new friends, IDWs, doing their activities. Yesterday morning I followed Rie Rie doing her groceries at North Point and talked about many things along the way. It turned out to be a good way of knowing more about her. Her day-to-day activities, her favourite spot to get ideas for writing, and her thoughts about IDWs’ literacy activities in general.
It was still around 11 am. I decided to cross the street and go to Hong Kong Central Library, which is just on the opposite side of Victoria Park. I could use two hours working or reading there. Around 2.30 pm, I went down to the lobby. There, I saw Mega standing with a curly-haired, innocent-looking young woman. Her name is Sowiyah. Once we sat down on a bench nearby, Mega took out something from her bag. It was a black-covered book with a big title written DUA IBU (Two Mothers). “This was what I meant by the surprise,” Mega said. “And let me present the author.” She held Sowiyah’s shoulder. My new friend just smiled shyly.
Now I had a reason to be surprised. It was a 586-paged novel. Certainly it was no easy job to accomplish such a thick book. Before long, I found myself walking side by side with Sowiyah and Mega. Heading towards Victoria Park, Mega and I looked like two journalists bombarding a celebrity with never-ending questions.
I felt the urge to put my impression of Sowiyah soon after I met her. She was different from other IDW writers I had met the days before. Sowiyah was not a member of any existing IDWs’ writing communities, and had no time to join any gathering. Her duty was to take care of a sick old lady who could only lie on her bed. Doing practically a 24/7 job, Sowiyah had no days off. Her duty was like a 4-hour cycle, feeding her with nutritional milk through a tube. She would make sure each drop of milk went into the lady’s mouth, while watching over the lady’s hands so as not to pull the tube. She would then change the diaper. It went on that way. Sowiyah’s bed was placed next to the lady’s. When Sowiyah needed to cook for herself, she would have to tie the lady’s hands to the bed metal for precautions.
I couldn’t imagine the boredom filling every minute of Sowiyah’s day. In the same room and on her bed, Sowiyah poured down all she kept in her mind to pages and pages of her notebook. She would read any books she could have when there was some free time.
Sowiyah was very fortunate to have very attentive employers. They were actually quite established scholars. Her male employer was an Englishman, Prof. Robert Jessop, a sociology professor from Lancaster University. Her female employer, Dr. Ngai-Ling Sum, a Hong Kong lady, was a scholar in political science from the same university. They went home to Hong Kong only during holidays, during which time Sowiyah enjoyed a little more time to go out and meet friends. When I met her this time, it was actually her employers’ Christmas holiday.
The couple knew how much Sowiyah loved reading and writing. Appreciative of her great patience in taking care of Dr. Sum’s mother, they gave Sowiyah a second-hand laptop and taught her simple applications like Microsoft Word and how to use emails for communication. They would ask Sowiyah to write short emails in English everyday to improve her English.
A common question I asked to IDW writers was the reason why they chose to write. To Sowiyah, it was driven by a heartbreak. She felt like she almost got depressed and went insane when she broke up with her childhood sweetheart, who was working in Taiwan at that time. ”I don’t want to get depressed, so I write stories in order that I can drown myself into the characters I create,” she explained. She then changed the media, from notebooks to her laptop. She then took out two bounds of manuscripts and gave them to me. These two were already on the editor’s desk, waiting for publication. One was an anthology of short stories she wrote with her friends, and the other was a children’s story. She imagined her nephews and nieces read it someday.
I took a glance at several pages of Dua Ibu. I had the impression that her use of standard Indonesian was quite good. Anybody who reads it would not believe that the author is just a primary school graduate. Later on I gained more detailed reasons why her writing was fine in terms of language and flow of ideas. While she had no day off to go out or join communities, she was actually active in her virtual writing community. She joined a literary community, in which she met people of various professions. It was a space that had provided her with a lot of friends and knowledge. Aside from that, Sowiyah also had a manual of standard formal Indonesian, with which she could edit her works.
While Sowiyah did not join any writing communities in Hong Kong, she really wanted to be connected to her fellow IDWs. She hoped she would be able to join a writing project in the future. So far, she felt cut off and left behind whenever she learned from Facebook that new anthologies of stories by IDWs had just been launched.
A couple of days after my encounter with Sowiyah, I had an opportunity to discuss her novel with Pak Junaedi. He was also renting a room in the same apartment. Pak Jun, to call him for short, is a journalist and would be in Hong Kong for several months. He stayed in this apartment for a couple of days before he moved to a more permanent accommodation. Having read some pages at random, Pak Jun told me that he sensed an influence of Malay culture from the diction. I frowned my forehead. I did not remember Sowiyah mention that she once worked in Malaysia. I read the foreword again, and found the answer. She used to work in Singapore before she came to Hong Kong.
This was not Pak Jun’s visit to Hong Kong. He had apparently known quite a few people here. Within just one day, I already noticed him busy receiving calls. His open door and loud voice made it very easy for me to overhear the conversation. Somehow I felt that he did it on purpose. I heard him mention Sowiyah’s name several times, and encourage the person on the other side of the phone to learn to write too. “The plot doesn’t have to be chronological. Just start writing. Learn to forget. Forget the pain.” I assumed that an IDW was asking for some words of wisdom to overcome her problem.
I had just been here for less than a week, yet my voice recorder was already full of unexpected stories. And it was only a tiny fraction of IDWs’ lives. I really hope that Sowiyah and other IDW writers would be able to inspire people with their writings. IDWs’ literary accounts are testimonies that writing is in fact healing.
Causeway Bay, HK, 10 January 2013