Friday’s become blog-post time, but I almost didn’t write a post today. (I mean, I do have enough self-awareness to see that it wouldn’t have been any great loss. No one’s actually waiting for the ramblings of a freelance editor who currently lacks any pithy advice on how to edit better, or run a business better, in the prevailing set of circumstances.)
Anyway, I almost didn’t write the post because this week I am low-level depressed. I’m trying to suppress everything at the moment, especially any thoughts of when this might end, when things might revert to some kind of normal. How we might exit. I just don’t think I could bear the hope, and then the possible dashing of that hope.
Between August 1997 and April 1998 I lived in Kuala Lumpur. I worked for an architect (more of which in a moment), and I lived in a fairly nice apartment complex with a pool in an area to the northeast of the city centre called Taman Setiawangsa. I could see the Petronas Towers from the balcony of one of the flats I occupied in that time, five miles away. I would smoke awful clove cigarettes that crackled when you inhaled, and watch the storms gather and wait for the towers to be struck by lightning.
Every Saturday I used to cycle, with a raging hangover, to the centre of the city, and somehow I always seemed to end up in a chaotic shopping centre called Sungei Wang (which I think translates as ‘river of money’) Plaza in the early afternoon. I don’t know why I kept going back there, as I only ever bought one thing that I can recall in that particular shopping centre. Admittedly it was a good purchase: a beautiful black cheongsam, which I still have, and go through phases of being able to fit into without looking like an overstuffed sausage, although I haven’t worn it outside for at least fifteen years. It’s my oldest item of clothing, and I hang on to it in the hope that it will see the light again someday … perhaps on my daughter.
That sense of hope, of seeing the light again, used to propel me through the very depths of the shopping centre. The lower levels were a nightmarish maze of electronics stalls, noodle bars and empty units, set between confusing mirrored walls and shiny floors. I used to stumble around looking for an exit, and this could take me a while. Some days I thought I would never get out. I just couldn’t see how it was ever going to happen. And yet somehow, inevitably, at the point when my faith had begun to falter, I did, falling into the light and the great weight of the humid heat, looking for where I’d parked my bike. Then I’d pedal back uphill to the apartments, past the makeshift inner-city houses and banana thickets, along dual carriageways that seethed with motorscooters, through the rain that came each afternoon, and collapse on my bed beneath the dusty ceiling fan and feel scoured inside and out. I was looking for something, but I don’t know what. I was twenty-two.
At work, I had no idea what I was doing. For half of my life, I realised this morning, I’ve felt guilty about that. Guilty of taking the money for a job I couldn’t do. But then, as I pushed the thought further, it occurred to me that it hadn’t been all my fault. Sure, I could have admitted to myself and everyone else before I started the work placement that my interest in pursuing an architectural career was zero. But conversely, my boss or one of his underlings could have attempted to explain to me, at least briefly, what I was meant to be working on. They could have sketched out my purpose in being there. It used to puzzle me how anyone else knew. I guess the business model must have depended on there being enough people with the nous to figure it out among the large intake of international students to carry any dead wood.
Although work was a disaster, there was much I enjoyed about my year away. It felt like waking up. I made friends, ate the best food of my life, saw things I’d never seen before and maybe never will again, fell in love, and got lost over and over again. If nothing else it was a year of getting lost.
If pressed to describe a superpower, I’ll tell anyone who’ll listen that mine is reading maps. And when I arrive in a new place, the first thing I want to understand, aside from what’s good to eat, is the topography. How does the city fit together? What is its fabric? Where are the knots, the pivotal points? How can I read it? What would the concept drawing of the city look like? (Perhaps I wasn’t such a dud architect after all.) But the strange thing about KL was, I couldn’t grasp it at all. It was too sprawling, too amorphous. I had quite a detailed map of the place, a sort of A–Z, but even allowing for the fact that there were great chunks of the city left blank in the book, or indicated by vague dotted lines, I couldn’t seem to reconcile the marks on the page with my lived experience. Every time I cycled to the city centre, something about the route was a surprise. Often I suspected I’d ridden three sides of a square to find my destination. Of course this was pleasurable in a way, and led to some excellent chance discoveries, but still it was odd. The city was happening to me. I couldn’t tame it. I feared I had no hand in my fate.
While I was living there, I bought a computer and wrote about my travels. I wrote about 80,000 words, and I really had no idea whether that was a little, or a lot. I wrote about parties: in skyscrapers, in smart bars, in an abandoned prison, in places so unreal they were just a confused mesh of lights and body parts. I wrote about the endless taxi rides, the traffic jams. Riding on the back of someone’s motorbike and feeling at one with things for five minutes. Street markets, night markets, pink minibuses. Desserts made of shaved ice with condensed milk dripped over them, studded with jewels of nameless fruits. I suppose I believed no one had ever seen this stuff before. After months of pouring out my observations, having decided that when I returned to the UK I would jack in the architecture and be a writer, I showed my boyfriend what I’d done. Politely, he read it all, but commented that it was a bit cold. I hadn’t written enough about people, he said. I tried to explain that coldness had been exactly my point; it all felt so Ballardian. But I could tell he wasn’t sold.
Memory tells me I burnt everything I wrote. I probably didn’t actually burn it, I expect I just binned it. Either way, I didn’t keep a copy. When I came back to the UK, I didn’t continue with my architectural studies, but I also didn’t continue with the writing. I needed a job, and so I became an editorial assistant. And twenty-two years later, here I am.
For many years, Kuala Lumpur haunted me. This post proves it still does. I’ve tried to write about it many times since, but kept little. I always thought I wanted to go back. England felt quite pale by comparison, although while I was in Malaysia I do remember missing the seasons, even winter with its dragging, dulling effect. And I remember missing grass. Just lying in grass, looking at a blue sky with clouds.
That year of letting things happen to me, of existing in a permanently lost state, cast a long shadow over the parts of my life that followed. I thought my experiences had been all good – character building, at a time in my life when I was so green – and I only see now what a dissociative, dislocating effect it all had. Would I have devoted my young adult life to hurling myself into ill-advised situations and hoping for the best if I hadn’t honed my skills doing just that each weekend, out there in the city I couldn’t handle? Obliterating myself. Letting places and situations and random happenings and other people write my story.
But perhaps, I could see this a different way. I learnt other things too. Not just denial, carelessness and abdication of responsibility, but trust in things working themselves out. I have no real idea how I managed to navigate such a strange-to-me place, when the most ‘abroad’ place I’d lived until that point had been Wales. But the fact remains that I had a roof over my head, and I kept myself fed and watered, and formed a support network, and I found things out. It’s possible none of the other people at work knew much about what they were doing, either. And some of them probably thought I did. And the main thing is, I’m still here.
Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and freelance since 2008. Sometimes she just lets things happen.