Alors, on commence!

“How I wish I could know who I am,

What it is in the world that I seek…”


Mardi, 18 octobre 2011:

Tonight I find it extremely hard to concentrate on work, my thoughts having strayed across the vast Indian Ocean to as far as the west coast of Africa, settling finally in that nostalgic realm of my childhood.

My childhood… After having celebrated the dawning of the second decade of my life the previous month, I now have no choice but to swallow the fact that I am finally an adult, yet far from abandoning the baggages of past memories I have collected over the years and that just seem to get heavier as the years accumulate, I realize that my childhood memories are certainly among those worth salvaging in this shipwreck I find myself in after the storm.

I’d had the intention to do this — write about my childhood — before I’d even reached the age of 18, but at that particular point in my life, volcanoes erupted, tsunamis swiftly swept away nicely constructed memories from previous years, and earthquakes cracked plates that had settled since before the time of my birth. Ships sank. Oh, yes, many did. I was powerless to stop any of this from happening, and so Life went on as I struggled to keep up with it. The next thing I knew, I was standing in the midst of a rotting shipwreck, I’d lived for two short decades, lost my old blog, made cross-continental moves, and made friends with strangers I’d lost touch, but now hoping to rekindle relations, with.

Within a span of two and a half years, so much had happened that to rewrite them in a thousand pages would hardly suffice. But let’s not forget that in the meantime, bonds with my loved ones have also strengthened considerably; I finally had the opportunity to fulfill some of my childhood dreams, whatever they may be, and I found myself… actually looking forward to the future. It feels as if I was finally ready to ‘grow up’.

There is much that needs to be written here if I intend to preserve my childhood, for I’d hate to become another Nathalie Sarraute, a Franco-Russian author who, after having passed the age of 80, finally decided to write an autobiographical piece in an attempt to recapture her childhood memories. The author clearly portrays her struggles in first attempting to recall her memories as a child from more than half a century ago, and second in remaining truthful to these memories. At the age of 83, Sarraute recognizes the vulnerability of her memory, and in a dialogue with herself, her alter-ego challenges her, saying that this will be an impossible feat because:

C’est peut-être que tes forces déclinent…”

(Perhaps your strength is declining…)

In the end, however, the author triumphs over all self-doubts and the result is an exceptional autobiographical work — the full length of which I have yet to read — published under the title L’Enfance (Childhood). No — I’d decided that rather than waiting for myself to turn 81, I’d rather get down to business now, while I was still 18. But time certainly flew, and I’d turned 20 before I could finally grab the opportunity to commit these words on virtual paper.

Yet as with all autobiographical works, one cannot avoid questioning whether the author can truly remain truthful in their reconstruction of events that occurred years and years ago, because the very words that they choose to use in the recreation of these memories have the power to transform them, thus presenting the danger of fictionalizing certain things. The selection of words is thus an extremely crucial element that one must give extra consideration to in rewriting history. Even more dangerous, how can one present an extremely faithful account of events from the past if there are missing puzzles in the memory itself, creating voids that can be filled by none other than the imagination — the source of all fiction?

I myself became acutely aware of how dangerous it is to write about my childhood memories when they are partly created of empty voids and blank spaces, muted voices and forgotten faces. When my brothers and I discuss certain events and places from our childhood, I realize that we: 1) remember different things, and/or 2) remember things differently. Both are plausible possibilities. But following a lightbulb moment today, I think it is quite possible that perhaps the beauty of such a perplexing predicament is that we’ve actually retained different pieces of the same jigsaw puzzle, and a combination of our memories might certainly help in a much more… holistic, shall we say, reconstruction of our childhood.

Thus, I feel that if I were to embark on this Sarraute-esque journey of immortalizing my childhood, it is essential that I continually remind myself to be as faithful as I can to my memories, and because this will probably present a tremendous challenge, I get the feeling that the path to completion is a far and winding road, and this blog will perhaps remain a work in progress… for quite a long time.

Another perplexing thing I must take into consideration when writing about my childhood is: which period of my life does my ‘childhood’ actually cover? Does it begin at birth, and where, precisely, does it end? I myself do not know; I secretly believe no one actually has the answer to this question, for defining the phases of life has always been a tricky job for anthropologists and sociologists alike. Life, unfortunately (or the contrary, depending on the situation, I suppose), does not unfold in nicely packaged phases, and the transition from one phase to another is nearly always far from smooth. For example, the period of adolescence tends to be a precarious phase in one’s life, for this seems to be the gray area sandwiched in between being a child and growing up into an adult. Plus, ever heard of a ‘mid-life crisis’?

Sure, some societies may have certain coming-of-age rituals, or initiation ceremonies that mark the child’s acceptance into manhood or womanhood. In many cultures, such as Islam, having reached puberty legitimizes the adult status of an individual. Yet what I’m mostly referring to is that mental state of being a ‘child’, which, of course, is an extremely problematic question, for this in turn leads to the following baffling question: What is a child? We must never forget that biological and psychological maturity do not always come hand in hand, and that one may take precedence over the other.

For the sake of simplicity, however, by referring to my ‘childhood’, I have decided to focus largely on the period in my life before I’d reached the age of 14, by which age I’d already moved to Dhaka, Bangladesh, and commenced my International Baccalaureate Diploma (IB), which did in some ways force me to ‘grow up’. I have a particular interest in discussing my days growing up in Accra, Ghana, because this was when my brothers and I were still children growing up under the same roof. We were young, couldn’t stand each other at times, fought almost all the time, but our childhood would have been dull without these sudden ruptures of childish violence to spice things up.

Personally speaking, because my Fate was virtually hitched to my father’s bandwagon from earlier on and we had to move constantly because of his job, I think my life has unfolded in such a way that I could virtually divide it into phases that span from six months (the shortest I’d ever lived in a country) to three years (the longest). Sometimes when I look at my life retrospectively, I  feel as if I’m looking into a file cabinet filled with files of memories of the various places I’d lived in before: Batu Pahat, Sri Lanka, Ampang Jaya, Subang Jaya, Ghana, etc… In other words, my life is constructed of nicely packaged ‘eras’, each of which lasted, on average, no more than two or three years.

In fact, I must admit that until today, I could never really live in any country for a period of more than two years — three, maximum; I get sick and bored to death of it, and I unconsciously yearn for a different environment, to breathe the polluted air of another city and do my regular grocery shopping in a different mini-market. I did not really grasp the reality of my ‘restless condition’ until I’d gone on exchange earlier this year.

Oh, I am full of contradictions. As you read on, I guarantee you that you will not overlook this fact. Somehow I’d made up my mind to start “growing up”, but tonight I realized that I could never kill the child who existed within me. Sometimes I feel so detached from my childhood self, that she (or ‘I’?) seems like an entirely different individual, like the child of a family friend or a child I’d read about in one of my novels. When, I wonder, did I separate from this child? When did she become ‘she’, and I become ‘me’? Is there a chance for a reconciliation between this (adult) me and this (child) me in the future, or will we always remain as two separate individuals?

Marcel Pagnol, a French author, playwright, and filmmaker, has written a series of autobiographical works centered on his childhood memories of growing up in Marseille and Aubagne in the south of France, which he calls the Souvenirs d’Enfance (Childhood Memories). In one of his works in the series, La gloire de mon père (My Father’s Glory), Pagnol writes that the child whom he writes about is an entirely distinct (and the impression that I got — well-preserved and highly embellished) individual, unchanged by his adult self, and that the two are in fact quite separate from each other. He encapsulates this point when he writes:

“Ce n’est pas de moi que je parle, mais de l’enfant que je ne suis plus…” [p. 7]

(It is not of me that I write, but of the child that I am no longer.)

Twenty may be a young age for many, but for me, I could feel it in my bones; I could feel my youth seeping away like the falling of leaves in the autumn that strips the trees bare, leaving them shivering in the cold gusts wind. I could feel myself ‘aging’, but strangely in a manner that has nothing to do with the physical (at least, not yet). I wonder if there indeed exists a word to describe this process, or if it leaves room for some poetic license — but that is perhaps a discussion to be reserved for a different time, for now I intend to write about Ghana, the Land of Gold, and to my dear brothers and I, the Land of Golden Memories.

One thought on “Alors, on commence!

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