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Letters from KL : Inside is Forever

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Dear Sam,

MCO.

I’m not sure how that acronym will register in my psyche in the long term. So far I’ve been describing the situation in Malaysia to friends overseas as a ‘partial lockdown,’ without reference to our official-speak “Movement Control Order”. I’m well aware that our circumstances are far from dire — at least for now, knock on wood. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be in Italy, or New York.

I already work mainly from home, but that’s only been possible because I regularly go out for walkabouts in the day, or to the gym in the evenings, or to see friends, or have meetings, and all that. Now that the construction next door has halted, you would think I would be grateful about the peace and quiet.

And I am.

But I’m also feeling listless and unmotivated. It’s not like I don’t have writing to work on, or books lined up to read. In the grand scheme of things, I am quite sanguine about those projects. However, the confinement is getting to me, and it’s only been twelve days.

As a frequent facilitator of workshops and moderator of public talks, saying something comes easily for me. Though every so often, there are situations where I have to search, and I find nothing to say. Like when I’m confronted by a friend who is grieving the death of someone dear.

Or like now.

I’ve been reading a handful of reflections on living with the pandemic. But I never would have thought to try writing one of those pieces myself.

So, Sam, how are you doing?

The view from Weng’s apartment

*** 

dear weng,

there is something irresistibly anarchic about writing in inappropriate lowercases and arbitrary punctuation. something about control, something about making a decision about structure (or lack thereof) that feels apropos in these upside-down days. why not just do something because it feels funny, ironic, a little wasteful? the abundance of the life we lived a few scant weeks ago already feels like a rapidly dissolving dream.

i’ll be honest, i have not coped well with the “movement control order” (movement restriction order? perintah kawalan pergerakan? lockdown? social distancing? social isolation? quarantine? emergency? — there are so many names floating in the atmosphere, it’s like the collapse of definition itself). the first week, i listed down all the things i wanted to do, a Big Ambitious List that would signify i wasn’t just wasting this time away: read, paint, bake, reorganise my bookshelves, unearth and complete the thousand-piece puzzle set i hauled back from london — but i share your sense of restless unproductivity. i have accomplished little on that list, and whatever i have started i haven’t been able to finish. to me it feels like there is simultaneously too much unstructured time and too few things to fill the gaping hours; too many things i wish to accomplish that i cannot bring myself to even begin and the overwhelming sense that i am wasting a gift of time that i would otherwise love to have, given different circumstances

the worst (?) part about this whole situation is a pervasive feeling of waste: wasted potential, wasted time, wasted opportunity, wasted life, wasted money. it’s like that line from Eliot’s The Wasteland (hah!), which i keep thinking about these days: “I had not thought death had undone so many.”

but the claustrophobia of the slow weeks is beginning to lighten. i am beginning to ease into the discomfort. i’m waking slow in the morning, warming the body with yoga, reading romances and short stories late into the night, baking successes and failures (scones today!), trying to connect to people across the city. it feels a little wrong to be good to one’s self when you know beyond the home, so many others are dying. i am trying to be grateful i am still alive and whole.

i have been wondering what the world will look like when we all walk out of our doors (if we are so lucky) will it be kinder? more scary? quieter? will we find within ourselves the will to build a better world? is it futile to try if it can be so easily smashed to pieces? what do you think?

Samantha’s cat Jeremy, who is the OG social distancer in her family (he doesn’t let anyone touch him).

***

Dear Sam,

We’re calling these exchanges “Letters from KL”, but that’s not quite right for me — I feel like I don’t live in KL anymore. I live within the confines of an apartment suspended in waiting. I live in MCO-KL.

And I don’t know what I can report about how the KL arts community is coping with it all. Yes, I still have friends — and many are artists, curators, writers and gallerists. I try to speak with them regularly. But I don’t feel, in my isolation, that I have any perspective on the situation here.

As for what the world might be like after all this, I havent been wondering so much as hoping — that it would be better: more kindness! more caring! a chance to start again! — wouldn’t that be great?

Meanwhile, I’m struggling to find things to watch. With a number of shows new to me, I find that I’m impatient. Often, if I don’t really care about the characters midway into the first episode or the movie, I give up.

I’ve long felt that a lot of TV and film is lazy in how it presumes our emotional investment. That feeling is starker now. Of course, like all media and content, there’s a scramble for our eyeballs and ears in a highly competitive attention economy. But paradoxically, a lot of stuff doesn’t seem to want to earn our friendship. Take the antihero. A well-drawn character who happens to be an asshole. Situated, hopefully, in the context of a good story. Though, with a lot of what I’ve been scanning through of late, you just get assholes. Demanding your time. 

I’ve decided to re-watch an old favourite. It’s been a while since I’ve seen this particular TV show. I really cared about the characters; it was a joy to live with them for several seasons. Complicated people, not all kind or good. Very well acted, with great story arcs. Seeing these people anew, I’ve tried to recall what it was like when I first met them, and didn’t know all that they were going to go through. But now that I do, it’s like I care so much more for them right from the start.

The view from Weng’s laptop

***

dear Weng,

it was about half seven when I started writing this letter, and maybe it will be two am by the time i finish. these days time feels elastic and malleable, but also like an impenetrable block; something to be overcome, endured. a different kind of time travel, i suppose.

i feel sometimes like i have spent years trying to grasp what exactly the “KL arts scene” is, let alone the Malaysian one. it’s like this: you ping-pong your way across different art galleries in the city, trying to meet people and make connections — between yourself, the artist, the artwork and response — but i’ve never found a way in. likely this is how it is across all arts scenes.

perhaps i want to remain an observer. a misguided notion of independence?

the illustrator Charis Loke remarked the other day that the media tends to ignore internet-native artists (therefore precluding them from general notice.) do i agree with this sentiment? yeah, mostly. but i also think there is just a general stubbornness in Malaysia about how we think about art, even amongst its artists. what more its journalists. we have little space for an appreciation of high and low art forms — “art” is in galleries and it’s for rich people. art isn’t online, it can’t be too democratic. it’s cake, not bread.

art scenes are also about who you know. usually, it’s which influential asshole you know too (which might suggest the germ for a great tv series about the kl arts scene!) which is not to say this is bad, it’s just kind of the way it is. humans are naturally social, which is why all our currencies are, by design, structures of interaction.

(alas i know only a few people well, including you, but that remains more than enough for me.)

i think the point is, do we have to go back to the way things were? i don’t think we do, but inertia is a powerful force. we must continue to beat back against it. the green light is sometimes attainable, but we have to flip the switch on first.

Fiona Apple has a new album coming out, her first in eight years. a friend tweeted me the news sometime this afternoon, and i felt a shock of pure adrenaline hit my system. it’s going to be called fetch the bolt cutters (imagine those words uttered in Gillian Anderson’s perfect cut-glass english accent). in my mind, i think of Fiona, with her huge blue eyes and long, gaunt face, impassive, telling someone to break the lock on my door — it felt like freedom.

Fiona has this feeling to her music: it’s bitterness, sour rage tempered by a cool wash of clarity and grace. she sees her own damage – it is sometimes the only things she sees. she makes you aware of how easily we all leverage each other’s damage to hide our own. she rages against it, but then at some point, she relents. she stops letting it consume her. she turns it into drums and rhythm. she makes it so easy to follow along.

The view from Samantha’s window

These letters were written over the period of 30 March to 6 April 2020.

All images are courtesy of the authors. 

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