I NOTICED. A pattern.
It had been almost four years that I was living in Phnom Penh, already, by the time this pattern became clear to me. But it takes time; it could have been easily another four years before I saw anything at all, in the whole, that made me stop and say, ‘Hey. That’s a thing to talk about. Maybe write about. Maybe in a short story, this time. Go ahead and get something out, and see if people resonate with it.’ And that was how I wrote this zine, ‘S P A C E || Battambang,’ whose story, ‘Here Comes the Dance,’ brings to the front and center stage and puts a spotlight square on the thing that seemed to be pulling everything into it like a black hole. The thing? Ennui.
The longer I had been in Cambodia, which would be nearly four years, all told, the people whom I was conversing with online and in real life were talking together a lot more than I had ever remembered about ‘the state of the world,’ and ‘what are we going to do about it.’ Some were local friends, most were international ones. I was starting to lose touch with what was real and what wasn’t. Streams on the internet were how I was getting my info, and it felt so passive, like watching television for six hours after school had been, back in the rural countryside where I grew up, in the southeastern part of the United States. The only true knowledge is experience, a great physicist had said. It was time to get offline and go out and discover something. Same feeling I’d had when I was young: I knew I was going to go far, far away from that part of the world in order to make up my own mind about what I felt, what I discovered, what would then inform my own self-concept of who it was I wanted to be in this world. Defining it to myself, at first, and then, if necessary, to others.
Talk, talk. It was starting to get very overwhelming. One day over late breakfast, I threw a conversation salon, ‘Ennui,’ just to get some things out on the table, in the open, so we could look at things together, in the round. Five of us found out some fascinating things together, like how ennui is really caused by a gap between your expectations of the world around you, and the reality that simply doesn’t fit them. All of us noted this, made comments, further reflected. Together. Out loud. It changed something.
With that simple reframing, it was easier to grapple with some of the big things some of us had wondered out loud about: ‘Why are things one way, and not otherwise?’ (I could reference an amazing play here, but I will save that for if we talk more in real life or in S P A C E, because the internet is big and anonymous and weird, and I prefer leaving the deeper conversations for real life.)
More you talk about things out loud, especially with others asking the same kinds of questions, more you realize you’re not alone, and also, that you can work your way together towards a different approach to the same struggles. Is that why I started the S P A C E programmes? Yes.
And it’s why, too, I documented the back-and-forth chance encounter over coffee at a little hotel restaurant in Battambang with AF. A conversation that was seeped in the saturating context of that, ‘The Age of Anxiety.’
I’d already published Breakfast in Cambodia (Kismuth Books // 2016), in which I’d written my own experiences, in four years, coming to terms with living in a foreign context, and trying not to lose myself along the way. (Story of my life.) Of course you’re going to get lost, though: that’s a part of the great experiment. Getting lost a little, so as to find the truest center. Centroids aren’t always where you think they are, you have to calculate the mass and density in order to know. But so often, so many people go through their lives not even questioning what someone else said about where the center is: they don’t ask questions, and they stop thinking. To me, this kind of blindness leads to a different kind of being lost. A kind that, I feel, is way more directionless than simply wandering (geographically, physically) your way towards clarity.
In Breakfast and, earlier, in The Elopement (Kismuth Books // 2012), I did my best to share the journey of finding those kinds of self-defined identities. Place becomes irrelevant. So do dogmas. Prescribed ways of being, wholesale categories of previously outlined definitions. But. There are new crops of us, out there, who ask big questions and don’t accept things that might sound just-fine but have no weight, when we really examine them, personally, to us.
For example, the question of identity. What is ‘identity,’ when you move so much, and pick up a part of everywhere you go, when you do? Who are you, when you are never ‘settling down’ in a place? Perhaps the nomadic cultures would have good answers to this. Or the traditional ones where moving and changing one’s home was part of how life was. And maybe for the modern-day writer-philosopher types, it still can be. Even if it means boxing out all the naysayers, and focusing on what counts. In this case, ‘Who am I, in transit, in the context of so many Others? What ceases to be different when I see myself in them?’ ‘It reads like a piece of philosophy,’ said one friend, upon finishing Breakfast.
ONE OF THE MOST interesting parts of Cambodia, for me, was the small town of Battambang. Maybe because I love architecture, and there is so very much of it to look at, and it’s different from the giant stuff in Siem Reap, it’s more about the streets and the street life, for me, to observe and discover… I’ve been doing that in pretty much every place I go, just being in the sidewalks or piazzas, looking around, seeing who’s there, how people laugh and talk and smile. In real life, mind you. All of this has to be in real life. I’m not sure how I feel about online relationships, they seem to get in the way of other things, I feel. At worst they feel like small administrative projects to be managed. Were these causing ennui?
To test, I got offline, took a bus from Phnom Penh, and wandered around until I found the story. I interviewed a pair of siblings on their way back to France after a year in the countryside doing something, I imagine, related to pushing their religion on people, and also an older woman on a break from the countryside further north, and also, Andy Feynman. (I changed his name, of course, for this story, because it’s creative nonfiction, and Andy’s inspired by two of the books I also found on that same trip: Tristram Shandy and a biography of a physicist, Richard Feynman). This is my creative process for the zines. The curious and randomly encountered materials, people, conversations, stories, architectures, streets, and even found books together give me the raw stuff from which to write a story. That’s how I am making a collection, S P A C E. I draw the sketches, write the story, from things I find. In life. In the real world field.
‘Here Comes the Dance’ is the first of the series, S P A C E the zine, which is now turning into a traveling popup atelier series that moves to southeast Asian and Northern European cities to discover ‘we don’t even know yet, but let’s go see.’
- ‘I could really relate to S P A C E || Battambang. Thanks for sharing it!’