by Camie Kim
In 1993,in celebration of its 20th anniversary, the Writers` Unionof Canada initiated a Short ProseCompetition for New Writers, to encourage emerging writers of fiction and non-fiction.The judges awarded the first-place prize of $2, 000 to"Travelling," a short-fictionpiece by Camie Kim. Booksin Canada is pleased to publish thewinning entry.
Camie Kim was born in Seoul, SouthKorea, and grew up in Vancouver. She now lives in Montreal, where she ispursuing an M.A. in creative writing and English at Concordia University. Shehas had work published in Fireweed, and in a North York [Ont.] School Boardanthology called AsianVoices.
IT WAS AT this monastery in Thailand that I ran intoGeorge again. And again, he was rescuing me. I was sitting on the benches infront of the women`s quarters virtuously reading a book called Dharmic Socialism, by the Buddhadasa Bhikkuhimself, enjoying the quiet and revelling in the calm act of reading especiallyafter that last mad week in Jakarta (which I will always fondly remember as thearmpit of Asia) when that woman, the one who had been dogging me all morning,sat down beside me and launched into a diatribe about how upset she was by theseparation of men and women at the wat, and how it adverselyaffected her inner (or was it outer?) yin and yang, at any rate, putting hertotally off balance and -- always polite me -- I hadput down my book (which was definitely not a good tactical manoeuvre) and waspretending to listen but actually I was staring at this womans eyes because shenever seemed to blink and I was determined not to blink myself because I didn`twant to miss her blinking and it wasliterally beginning to feel like my eyeballs were drying out -whenGeorge walked up the path, shrugged off his backpack, saw me, and startedlaughing.
He says hi finally and I say hi back, andthe woman is watching both of us expectantly (delighted no doubt by thispotential merging of yin and yang) and I`m blinking like crazy now because I`mgoing to cry if I don`t and because I`m so immeasurably homesick or justfeeling-like-l-belongsick when I see George that I`m not evenreally surprised to see him because, after all, we had both talked about cominghere before we had split up and the world is a tiny, crowded planet teeming withNellis delivers his "An Address to Pilgrims," which is a kind of sermon. He says:"We are all pilgrims. We are on a journey, I know not whence nor where.Love difference." This is his conclusion, his last judgement on life. Andif that isn`t a moral, I don`t know what is.
There are two kinds of ethicalinjunction: one implies consequences, the other is pure and absolute. The noveldoesn`t say, "Do this and things will get better." It just says,"Do this." Nellis is insane, blind, and dying in exile --the consequences of loving difference. But out of this rhetorical position ofloss, he gives the Law, the 11th commandment. Nellis isn`t a liberal. He`s noimprover. He has already rejected history and the future. He`s a tragic hero,an Old Testament patriarch. And his words are a kind of prophecy.
BiC: InTheLife and Times of Captain N., CaptainNellis is described as being against the future -- specifically theAmerican Revolution. And you seem to be saying that being against the future hasbecome part of the Canadian character. Do you think Canadians, particularlyCanadian writers and artists, are still playing catch-up with history?
Glover: That`s a question that requiresme to speak about all Canadians, and if there is anything I am sure of it isthat Canada is a cracked mirror, a splintered psyche, that no propositionapplies to all Canadians. Jewish Canadians, for example, have a completelydifferent obsessional past, nothing like that of the Iroquois or the whiteLoyalists of Southern Ontario. But I do think that the idea of being againstthe future and, consequently, somehow outside history is a powerful theme inthe discourse of Canadianism. It is part of what we used to mean in the goodold days of ideological debate when we described Canada as colonized ormarginalizcd or provincial. And it doesn`t restrict itself to particular racialor ethnic groups. The idea of being outside history is central, for example, toDenys Arcand`s movie The Decline of theAmerican Empire.
BiC: Butyou`ve also said there are only three kinds of Canadians.
Glover: By and large, there are. Thereare old-style, antiAmerican, radical Tories like George Grant, who wouldhave preferred to keep Canada out of history. There are small-I liberalslike Brian Mulroney, who found much to admire in the American democraticexperiment. And then there are a few Canadians who have what I think Keatsmeant by negative capability, who don`t mind being on the cusp, and who findthe rhetorical position of marginality intellectually and artisticallyinvigorating. Denys Arcand is one. Hubert Aquin was one. The Leonard Cohen whowrote Beautiful Losers was another. Maybe theMargaret Atwood of Surfacing. Maybe Michael Ondaatje.There are others.
BiC: So this 11 artisticallyinvigorating" marginality is built into the Canadian character as well asthe Canadian literary tradition?
Glover: I don`t know about that. But thisidentification with the losers, the sickies, and the irrelevant --Canadians -- does happen to coincide with one of the classicrhetorical stances of high modernism. (Or early postmodernism, who knows,right?) The stance taken by Beckett, say, or Kafka. These are writers andartists who see both the comic and tragic possibilities of marginality, and whosee marginality (Canadianness) as a metaphor for the self in the modern age --that self that everywhere feels somehow exterior and irrelevant to its owndestiny. This is something American writers, trapped in the toils of their all-encompassingnational myth, find difficult to do convincingly (they end up sounding likeliberal reformers). Whereas some mid-European writers -- forexample, Christa Wolf, Peter Handke, Max Frisch, Thomas Bernhard, and MilanKundera, to name a few -- write very Canadian novels, Canadian inthe specific sense I am talking about. Christa in The Quest for Christa [Christa Wolf], Agnes in Immortality [MilanKundera], Christine Forestier in TheAntiphonary [HubertAquin], Paul in Wittgenstein`s Nephew [Thomas Bernhard], andEdith in Beautiful Losers are the same characterplaced within a constellation of oddly similar traits and ideas. They are allversions of the alienated (sick) self posed against a Cultural system or itsrepresentative, which constructs and defines it. Their cracked narratives(conventional plotting cannot possibly express the requisite feeling ofdisplacement, of being written) amount to a fictional critique of modernity.And, of course, these are all historical novels in the sense given earlier.
BiC: Inyour essay "Nihilism and Hairspray" you seem to take the problems of alienation and displacementfor Canadian writers one step further, to the Point of saying that writing hasruined your life. Did you mean that or were -you being facetious?
Glover: As an individual I find itdifficult to separate the rhetorical from the personal or vice versa. I`m anomad, an expatriate, a wandering Canadian (which is worse than just being aCanadian, I am doubly displaced, a Canadian squared), and I can no longer tellwhether thats because I am a writer or why I am a writer. Some mornings I wakeup and it`s a problem. Some mornings I wake up and it`s a dance.
I think this is generally true of thesort of writer I have been describing. Kundera is an expatriate. Christa Wolfis hiding in California, living the life of one of her own characters, houndedOut of Germany for being politically incorrect. Leonard Cohen stopped writingnovels after Beautiful Losers. And Hubert Aquin killedhimself. Exile, silence, and death, which are optional modes in a piece offiction, seem, in the lives of certain writers, to take on a kind of necessity.For this kind of writer, there are no safe havens, no fire exits, and thepatient never recovers. They are eternal Cassandras. 4, backpackers who all have the same guidebook,which is, although I don`t want to admit it, more reassuring than not. Still,that had been months ago, aeons ago, in Egypt, on a felucca sailing down theNile between Aswan and Luxorwhich sounds very romantic, I know, but wasn`tbecause that`s when George and I decided at the exact same moment that we neverwanted to see each other again, and I almost pushed George into the water justto make this point a little more palpable and only hesitated because he waswearing a sweater that I particularly coveted (that`s when I had the brilliantidea that maybe the water would shrink it and he`d have to give it to me --only what if he swallowed lots of water in the process and he died from thebilharzia and was that even possible? because after all I didn`t want to end upin jail, especially not an Egyptian jail, for murdering someone for a sweater,it would have certainly diminished the pleasure of wearing it) ... George in the meantime had hunkered down into his sleeping bag with hisback towards me and that`s when I knew it: it`s over when you don`t zip up yoursleeping bags together any more. That was probably the saddest thing I had evercome up with in my 18 years -- and I felt very old.
But now I`m 19 and George is standing infront of Me looking pretty much the same and I`m painfully aware of how I mustlook after three Months of traipsing around Indonesia, smoking too Many clove-spikedcigarettes and virtually living on beer and gado-gado, butGeorge, I realize, has not even noticed because he`s actually in shock orsomething, which rather pleases me since hardly anything ever Moves him muchless shocks him, but then he quickly collects himself and says in thatprofessorial now-this-will-be-on-your-examway of his (which always makes me feel as if I`m going to be flattened by anoncoming car): I thought you`d be back in Vancouver by now. Didn`t you want touse your money for tuition? You were so homesick ... I feel rather sheepish ashe says all of this because all of it, I admit, was true eight months ago whenthings between George and me were falling apart and I was so sick ofeverything: the sun, the hear, the monolithic craziness of Cairo, the constant"change money?" and "baksheesh!" the men ignoring me butpractically worshipping George and his six feet of hirsute masculinity, and soI had decided: enough. I can`t do this any more. I`m tired of travelling. Iwant to go home and watch TV and order pizza and take hot baths and drive mycar and go to the movies and -I MET George in Prague. Thats where he first rescued me. I was sitting onthe sidewalk on my backpack in the rain, staring down morosely at my wet shoes,terrified because it was getting dark (but trying hard to took brave) andbecause I didn`t have a place to stay for the night, having been told at thehostel where I had been staying that a Polish soccer team had booked the wholeplace and they had even taken my stuff out of my room in order to make up foranything lost in the translation so that there was nothing I could do but leavein the pouring rain and take the metro and then walk and walk up and down thesetortuous, hilly little streets, with this 500-pound pack on my hack untilI finally found the student dorm that I was looking for but they were closeduntil the summer and so I took the metro again and got fined 100 crowns for nothaving a ticket and then I found out that the "C" hotel was full, andso I took the metro again (ticket in hand) with everyone staring at my wet hairand jeanclad legs and then, of course, the "B" hotel was also fulland the haughty receptionist would only say "rien" and not anotherword and I wanted to throw my Canadian passport in her face and demand --I don`t know - satisfaction, but instead I left meekly, exhausted, andsat down outside the hotel on my backpack in the middle of the sidewalk in therain (and it was only later that I found out about Chernobyl and worried forMon I was shedding too Much hair or would one day give birth to monstrosities)and so I sat there and stared at all the Soviet flags every_ where because itwas early May (or are they always there?) and the red banners with Russianwords in gold lettering like "Fulfilment" and "Discipline" (SO Ifigured) and I didn`t know whether to laugh or to cry or to phone"Pragotur" -- so I concentrated instead on hating Prague,hating, in fact, all of Czechoslovakia and everyone in it and wishing upon themall a hundred years of dog- eat-dog capitalism.
That`s when George walked up to me,tapped me on the shoulder and said: Do you speak English` I would have followedhim to the ends of the earth.
BUT IT LOOKS like he has followed Meinstead. He`s also here for the meditation retreat, which is, knowing George, areal joke because although it`s true he was born in Germany (and Asia iscrawling with Germans who have read too Much Hesse and who probably sleep intheir Birkenstocks) his mother was an American who married George`s father andmoved to Hanover with him (which explains his name), and it`s true that he`s interestedin everything (which accounts for his interest in me), but it`s basically ascientific kind of regard and that`s why, as I contemptuously told him while wewere sailing down the Nile, You teachphilosophy rather than live it, which Ithought sounded very withering at the time, and he does live in Berkeley (hometo not a few meditators) but only because that`s where he got a job, and it`strue we`ve argued about Buddhism, which, as far as I`m concerned, is prettydecent and right up there with existentialism, beat poetry, and the VelvetUnderground, but which George would say is drearily deistic (and he`d alwayshave a zillion facts at his fingertips to back him up and I`d be, as usual,incurably inarticulate in comparison but then I`d tell myself: well, that`s hisjob so what do you expect? And I`d mutter something about male logic and theairlessness of linear thinking and then I`d crack open a book and ignore him)and besides which, I just can`t imagine George taking a vow of silence for 10days. You`d sooner see pigs fly. I tell him all this later and he cheerfullyadmits to me that he is just here to kick back for a while and get some decentfood and that he`s as good as anyone at radiating inner peace so he doesn`tthink it`ll be a problem. This is classic George and why I suppose I ignoredall the smoke alarms and warning bells and fell for him: he`s unrepentantlycynical and disarmingly candid, the exact opposite of me. He`s already told mehe`s been trying to figure out how to sneak me into his cell during theretreat. Fla -- when pigs fly.
THE: RETREAT is 10 days long and during those 10 dayswe`re not supposed to utter a single word. The only voices we`ll hear are thoseof the monks during the lectures and, as we`ve been told, any voices we mayhear in our own heads, at which point George audibly groans, but I think thatthis is a fine goal: to shut up all the noise and achieve some sort of mentalquiet because Enlightenment, I figure, is not something that I`ll come across untilI`m at least halfway through my twenties - - hut then I take a lookat George and decide that some people are just better off left in the dark.We`ve also been told that we shouldn`t listen to Music, read, write, Smoke, ordrink alcohol or caffeine and I have every intention of obeying all of thisexcept for the no smoking bit. George elbows me in the ribs: they haven`t ruledout sex.
WE`VE GOT A DAY before the retreatactually starts and George comes with me into town because I have to get somemore Mosquito repellent and we talk and talk and I let him try out one of myJavanese cigarettes and he chokes on it and pronounces it disgusting (whichonly makes me enjoy them even more) and we`re still talking when we get back tothe monastery so we go for a walk through the grounds which are green and lushand calm and we`re telling each other mostly travel stories and remembering theones we experienced together like our stay on the kibbutz near Haifa and whatan insane time that was, what with the gossip and the drinking binges ("Doyou remember the hike up in the tree?") and the bed-hopping but thenthat reminds me of smouldering, darkeyed Nava, and then that reminds me ofGeorge and Nava, and I almost blow my plan about being scrupulously polite toGeorge (because there`s no use in being immature about it and rehashing all theold grudges and after all I was not a saint either) but I manage to swallowdown the invective just in time and I hastily change the subject and tell himabout taking the trans-Siberian from Moscow to Beijing and then helistens very carefully because he wants to take the train to Berlin before hegoes back to Berkeley and back to working on his book. I realize then thatGeorge`s never-ending holiday is actually coming to an end.
When I try to imagine George without abackpack I really can`t do it, or without that scruffy beard or that perpetualtook of fascinated disbelief on his face, and I certainly can`t imagine him inHanover sitting at a dinner table across from his parents telling them aboutthis wonderfully original young woman he met while travelling ... No, maybe instead in Berlin, in Kreuzberg, art on the walls and smoke inthe air, drinking Turkish coffee with his friends, telling them about thiscrazy Canadian girl -- "What was her name?" --who kept following him around like a besotted puppy ... No, what about in Berkeley with short hair and in a tweed jacket (what does he wear when he teaches?) on Telegraph at Moe`s,flipping through the latest "New German Critique" or whatever, when along-haired beauty in a flowing peasant skirt sashays up to him and says:Professor Lindgren? Would you mind going over some Kant with me - Georgeinterrupts this little reverie and asks me whether I`ve maintained (and that`sthe word he uses) my German and I grimace and I know already where this isheading because hes always insisted -- like he`s always insistingon something -that I somehow become miraculously fluent in German whenhe knows very well how much I`ve always detested teaming other languages eversince a French teacher in highschool asked me very sarcastically in front ofthe whole class Es-tu serieuse? andtotally traumatized me and I vowed then and there to stay unilingual no matterwhat, but it`s obvious that he`s conveniently forgetting all of this and hestarts to speak in German determined to make me answer in German and eventhough I do understand him I say to him in perfectly enunciated English: I amnot one of your students and you`re just showing off because you`re such a bloody whiz at languages List like you`re a bloody whiz ateverything else and I can`t wait for the retreat to start because then You`ll haveto shut Lip and you`ve never understood me in any language anyway So much forpoliteness.
THE RETREAT starts and we are all taken to the meditationcentre in a flat-bed truck, about 10 at a time, and in the sunny centralhall we`re told more about the schedule we`ll stick to during the next 10 days:up at four, meditation, yoga, breakfast, chores, meditation, walkingmeditation, lunch, quiet time, meditation, tea, lecture, chanting, meditationand, finally, sleep, and I sneak a look at George to see how he`s taking all ofthis but he is stone-faced and apparently unaffected, which is a bit disappointing,but then I gleefully think of him staggering out of bed at four in the morningand trying to arrange his long body into some semblance of a half-lotus ... We`re each assigned a cell and that`s what it is, a small, clean littlebox of a room with a concrete slab to sleep on and a mosquito net for thosedetermined not to go whole hog on the asceticism kick but the men are in adifferent compound from the women and when we eat the men sit at one end of thedining pavilion and the women at the other end (which invariably reminds me ofgrade-school sock-hops) but no matter where I sit during the mealsGeorge is sure to sit directly opposite me and he finishes quickly like healways does and then he watches me eat and it`s like he`s watching me undressor something and I end up eating almost as quickly as him because I`m just sobloody hungry.
OF COURSE I end up breaking every rule. I should have knownit`s a slippery slope from smoking on down, and when on day two George invitesme into the forest for a walk I go because I am just as starved forconversation as he is, and when we sit down in a clearing and he pulls out abottle of water with a flourish from his knapsack and the little hookah that hebought in Jerusalem, I don`t even bother to protest but impatiently watch himcut the hashish into the tobacco and then I help him smoke it all and thenwe`re in each other`s arms and then we`re in each other`s pants and I`m so highthat all I can think of is yesterday`s lecture about "Not-Self"and I wonder if this is as close to that as I`ll ever get.
I REMEMBER being in Dubrovnik with George walking on thewalls of the old city looking out to the sea and he talked of me coming down toBerkeley and living with him, and he suggested that I go to school there and itwas all so incredibly tempting because it was evening and the sun was settingand the water was so luminous and dazzling and I felt so alive and open topossibilities because it really felt like I could make anything happen but then-- always mature me -- I said I was too young for himand that he was infatuated and that he`d quickly get bored, and I said all ofthis hoping that he`d deny it all but just when he opened his mouth to respondtwo men came up to us and they asked George if I was his daughter and whetherhe`d sell me to them and they were joking, I think, because they were drunk butGeorge was not impressed and he ignored them ... No, actually, I thinkthat last bit happened in Alexandria. Funny, how if you move quickly enougheverything becomes a blur. Maybe if you move even faster, it all becomes clearagain.
MEDITATION-WISE, there is definitely room for progress. Itdoesn`t help much that George, when he`s there, sits right behind me in thehall and I`m always thinking that he`s making face", at my back, which ofcourse is something that he would never do, but the idea of it still cracks meLip anyway and it takes all of my willpower to try arid concentrate Onmeditating and On my breathing and on Mindfulness and SO (11, and I never knew how hard it Could be to think of Nothing when Everything is justpractically kicking down the door and screaming for attention, and I can`t evendo it for 10 bloody seconds because even before I realize it I`m thinking ofthe clothes that I`ve left behind back in Vancouver, or I`m thinking of Georgeand the wrinkles -around his eyes, or I`m thinking of coffee and gettingpractically orgasmic, or then there`s the biggest, most blood-voraciousmosquito in the world buzzing around my head, or my legs are going numb on meOr, especially if its four in the morning, I have to keep jerking my bodyupright before it slumps over into a dead sleep. The first few days I couldactually hear George snoring... now he just stays in bed.
THE AGE DIFFERENCE has never really been a difference, well, nottoo much of a difference. How much is too much? I often say to George: "DoYou know what I mean?" and he does but he doesn`t -- is thatage? -- and sometimes he tells Me about his friends, most of whomare married and have kids, and almost all of them are academics as well, andthey either envy him or think tie`s going through a mid-life crisisbecause he`s wandering around the world with a bunch of affluent 18year-oldstrying to recapture his youth or something ... Or he tells me about bummingaround Europe when he was in his twenties and it`s hard for me to realize thatI was barely in kindergarten when all this was happening and I`m a bit enviousas well because, as I often tell him, that was the Golden Age of Travelling,which makes him sputter and say that he`s not that old, and I guess I neverreally think Of him so much as "old" as "older" Lind that`sonly because sometimes when I say something I can tell he`s mentally biting histongue -- and then I wish that I hadn`t said it.
TODAY, during the walking meditation, awoman almost stepped on a scorpion and I heard her scream and then I saw herrunning across the field and that was probably the most interesting thing thathappened all day -- and if that sounds like I`ve admitted defeatthen I guess I have because, face it, Buddha or no Buddha, I just can`t stay sostill inside my own head, when there`s this whole world going on out there andI`ve got five or six senses working better than well and there`s all this timeon my hands and so Much I still haven`t seen... So I don`t even bother to go tothe meditation sessions any more and I accuse George of corrupting me hut Ihave to admit it`s a whole lot more fun to be with him than sit there and tryto -- I don`t know -- negate myself, and anyway I thinkI`ve learned more from George than any of the lectures and since we both loveto talk so much we go to our clearing and guzzle down way too Much Thai whiskyand I smoke my about the trans-Siberian, noxious cigarettes and tell himmore, like how this tiny, toothless, ancient Chinese woman was stuffing hardcurrency into her bra so she wouldn`t have to declare it, or about how a bunchof Australians were trying to sell condoms to the Mongolians, or about how beautifulit was crossing in the winter with the snow blowing over the steppes andeverything so white: the earth, the sky, the light, and it`s in the middle ofanother story that I realize that this is when we get along the best, when wetalk about things that have already happened.
THE RETREAT ends tomorrow. We are all invited tostay On at the monastery itself if we want to but I think that probably Most OfLIS Will go. George is flying to Hong Kong from Bangkokand then he`s probably just going to fly to West Germany from there becausehe`s really running out of time and already I notice little changes like how hetalks more and more about Berkeley and the book he`s working on and the courseshe wants to teach and I can see that there`s this whole other side to him I`venever known about or realty wanted to know about: department meetings andgetting articles published and going to conferences and so on, and George asksme when I`m going home and I say when I have to but then I tell him I knowabout a place in the north near Pai where I can live on a couple of dollars aday ... and then I tell George that I love him (and I think I mean it but I`vereally nothing to compare it to) and he says he loves me too but the way hesays it I can tell he`s loved a lot of people in the same way, and he stillthinks I should study at Berkeley but that`s all he says and he doesn`t ask meto conic along with him.
IN PAI I work at a restaurant for room and board and there`s this boy, he`s only17 and he`s always smiling, and he plays guitar at the restaurant in theevenings and I`m pretending to be in love with him because it`s fun (althoughhe keeps saying that I should learn some Thai), and I think of George a lot andI imagine what would have happened if I had gone back with him and had met hisfriends and his colleagues and how they would have seen me --"What do they find to talk about?" -- and then we wouldhave had to deal with all the things you don`t have to deal with when You`retravelling, all the questions you can leave unanswered because you`re justskimming the surface really, and whenever you want to you can get on a train ora bus or a boat, or just stick your thumb out and leave, and I guess I mighthead over to India or Nepal next because -- who knows? --maybe if I move quickly enough I`ll finally see the light.