At the heart of change by Jason Erik Lundberg
Jason Erik Lundberg has been writing stories for children (Bo Bo and Cha Cha) and adults (Red Dot Irreal). He is also the editor of anthologies such as Best New Singaporean Short Stories and LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction. Here he talks about writing his latest book, Diary of One Who Disappeared.
* * * * * * * *
I have always been interested in how human beings are able to adapt, adjust and redesign their lives after major life events.
While Buddhism teaches that change is inevitable, most of us resist it – some of us, quite violently – because it makes us uncomfortable or upsets the status quo. Sometimes, even though we know that change is coming, the knowledge is not enough to prepare us to deal with that change and its consequences, as I found out.
See, 12 years ago this April, I hauled up stakes and emigrated from the United States to Singapore. I didn’t have a job waiting for me, yet I trusted – hoped – that things would work out (after a lot of hustling, of course).
Since that move, I became (a) a permanent resident, (b) a teacher in a secondary school, (c) the owner of a flat, (d) a father, and (e) an editor, after I switched careers. Oh, I also got divorced, which meant I had to (a) sell that old flat and (b) buy a new one.
I don’t think I could have handled any of those things without the realisation that I had survived the initial upheaval of moving from one side of the planet to another, to a country with a culture quite different from the one I’d grown up with.
That’s not to say I managed to adjust to my circumstances as quickly as an octopus camouflages itself with its surroundings. It took a full year to feel like I wasn’t a blundering tourist anymore, in which I asked a lot of questions (“Why can’t I pet that lady’s dog?” “What do you mean, I’m being too loud?” “Is the pharmacy really inside the doctor’s clinic?” “Why do you use a tissue packet to chope your seat?”), made a tonne of mistakes and questioned many of my assumptions.
My own adaptation surprised me in ways I never would have expected. Having visited Singapore three times before relocating permanently, I’d thought I had a handle on what the country and its culture were all about, and was very quickly disabused of that notion. That first year of culture shock after culture shock humbled and educated me.
For example, I didn’t realise that all along I’d been rather a bully of a pedestrian. It’s a particularly male American notion that the individual deserves to take up space, and anyone who intrudes on that space is acting rudely. But walking along any sidewalk in Singapore is fraught with close passes, grazes and bumps by people who don’t apologise or even acknowledge that they’ve done anything “wrong”.
It took time to realise that I shouldn’t be expecting people to behave as I thought they should, but rather that I needed to adjust my own mindset to not be bothered by it, else I would never stop being bothered by it, and how is that a way to live? So now, even while I’m very aware of my fellow pedestrians, I’m not annoyed when they intrude into my personal space – mostly.
They say authors should write about what they know, so I suppose it was only natural that my own experiences influenced – slightly – my novella. In Diary of One Who Disappeared, the hapless hero, Lucas Lehrer, finds himself, after a series of unfortunate events, an immigrant in a strange land, having travelled from the North American Union (NAU) to the Southeast Asian island-nation of Tinhau (my alternative versions of the USA and Singapore, respectively).
At the start of the book, it’s quickly revealed that Lucas is a secret advocate for the rights of swees, those born with superhuman abilities – think X-Men or Heroes (“save the cheerleader!”).
The NAU – ruled by a despotic, racist bigot – has imprisoned all swees in concentration camps. The hidden aspect of Lucas’ mission is to enable an alliance between the NAU and Tinhau in order to shame his homeland into setting these special people free, because Tinhau is a utopian beacon for swee acceptance. But as Lucas comes to find out, even a utopia can hide an ugly underbelly, an Otherside of intolerance and hatred that is waiting and simmering until the moment comes for it to boil over.
Lucas must navigate this new geography and come up against his own numerous culture shocks, while also contending with the dissolution of his marriage and the destruction of his career. The heart of the story is how he adapts to his rapidly changing situation, and how this reflects a hopeful resilience he’d not known he previously possessed. Even after he feels multiple losses, he finds ways to go on – to not merely survive, but to live.
* * * * * * *