On cream coconut parking
By Toh Hsien Min
I've just landed back in the present decade.
Thank goodness it happened only after my 2½ week jaunt through Europe, during which I took part as an invited author in two literary festivals in Paris — which were brilliant as always — and kaypohed in two more in the UK. The day after burning through the instant humidity shock at Changi Airport, my almost five-year-old Nokia finally died. At first it was the nuisance of it all: I lost a lot of numbers that had been on the phone, had to slip my SIM card into a standby phone that my family kept (that was younger than the old one), and also brought over an alarm clock for good measure. There had been an afternoon in Norwich when my phone battery — which to the last admirably kept up three days between charges — had given out a little sooner than I thought it would, and as I had an appointment to keep the experience of having to keep the time by searching for clocks or simply asking for it, having given up on wearing a separate watch long ago, was new only because it had been so long left behind. But that, along with not being contactable, had been my only real concern.
There were for me two answers to the questions I used to get in the past for why I hadn't upgraded my phone to the latest models. One was very simply that it still worked, quickly followed by the related point that it was more environmentally sustainable not to be throwing out perfectly working phones every two years simply because there was a new model. Obviously with the first answer now nullified, Monday saw me at the Singtel shop in Clifford Centre that I hadn't previously known to exist. The conversation went something like this:
It was probably the quickest sale he had made all day. I went home, found that phones nowadays dispensed with lengthy user manuals and simply had a quick start guide, trusting that their customers will figure out the rest, and then we were off and running. I slowly learned how to use some of the features on the phone, and tried them out for a while. The most amusing was taking a memo by voice recognition, which turned out something resembling a particularly experimental brand of poetry:
Still, after only a week of playing around with the phone I found that I came back to the same few things: handling calls and SMSes, occasionally memos, telling the time and serving as an alarm clock, and taking photographs on the fly. Email has just about been added to the list, but even then I found that I didn't want to be bothered by constant alerts throughout the day and limited myself to one manual check each in the morning and the afternoon during the workday. I'm tentatively trying to read Pride and Prejudice (finally) on the phone during dead time when I don't have other reading material with me or when these are inconvenient e.g. because of lighting. But all the other stuff kept eating up power without that much to show for it, and charging the phone every day quickly became tiresome. My colleague kept asking me: "Have you found anything you can't live without yet?", but in truth the answer has been no. The phone was an effective GPS but I preferred an old-fashioned sense of direction. It could suggest eating places around me, but that seldom got me closer to a decision. It could view my spreadsheets but I wasn't realistically going to be doing anything with them on the phone.
In short I just wanted the phone to be a phone. And even then there remains something not unlike nostalgia. I remember once reading about a Norwegian writer's retreat that was so remote that they had neither phone nor internet connectivity. On the remote island of Santa Ana in the Solomon Islands, the locals complain that they have to paddle a mile offshore in a dugout to reach a spot where their mobiles could pick up a signal. One day I'll leave the phone behind and set out for an earlier decade.
Meanwhile in this connected world, QLRS continues to get around. One of my newer colleagues happened upon the site in New York when she was considering moving to Singapore, and hadn't reckoned on meeting me in the organisation. So it's no great surprise that we have a couple of poems from W.F. Lantry in Washington D.C., for instance, or that the Australian-Chinese writer Ouyang Yu should be contributing a short story and a translation of a compatriot's story, while another Australian, the experimental poet Michael Farrell, answers this month's Proust Questionnaire. We continue to be a destination of choice for a whole new generation of Filipino writers, one of whom, Glenn Diaz, contributes a short story almost on cue about call centres twelve time zones away from the customer. Laremy Lee considers Alfian Sa'at's take on the space that Malays occupy in our cosmopolitan society, while Ronald Klein raises questions on the place of our fiction in the literary world. Perhaps there is no going back.QLRS Vol. 11 No. 3 Jul 2012