Irene Cristalis on a transformative trip to the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators conference.
The taxi driver claimed the hotel did not exist. After a few stops and blank stares at petrol stations in the Techno-Hub of Quezon City, one of Manila’s satellite towns, I spotted the neon Microtel Inn sign across the road. “There it is!” I shouted, more relieved than triumphant.
Blinking against the bright fluorescent lights in the eerily quiet hotel lobby (even the boozy writers had gone to bed), I rolled my heavy book bag up to the reception. I expected trouble. My no-frills flight had been delayed for five hours and it was way past midnight.
Forcing a smile, I tried to explain to the bleary-eyed young receptionist that I was going to share a room with Ms X, a guest who had already checked in. He scrolled the bookings page on the computer and looked at me suspiciously. The booking was for single occupation, he said. “What was my relationship to this ‘friend’?”
The truth was, I had never met or spoken to the woman I was going to share a room with. But I thought better not to confess this. Instead, I showed him the email exchange I had had with her. “See,” I pointed at the page on my iPad, “we agreed to share a room and she asked me not to wake her up if I should come in late. Now give me the key please.”
The hotel clerk did not respond well to my commanding tone and started to dig his heels in. “It is against hotel policies,” he protested. “The only thing I can do is to call the room.” He picked up the phone.
“Oh no, please don’t!” I exclaimed in frustration. I had no idea how my new roommate would react to being woken from a deep slumber. Perhaps she would growl and deny all knowledge, just so she could get back to sleep.
“So what have you decided to do?” The receptionist tapped the counter impatiently. I was going over the alternatives: the hotel was full; sleeping in the lobby was not allowed; and at this time of night to get a taxi was not only difficult but also dangerous. And anyway, where could I go? I was somewhere in Quezon City and I did not really have a budget for another hotel. That was why I had asked the organisers of the writers’ conference if there was another poor female writer who would like to share a room.
The receptionist, tired of the stand-off, picked up the phone again and dialled the room number. He kept the phone ringing what seemed like ages. I looked on anxiously. When it was finally answered he asked if he could send me up. From the look on his face I could see that the reply did not satisfy him. But after he bravely asked the question several times and the voice at the other side had started to yell: “YES! Now hang-up the phone, hang-up the phone!” mixed with some profanities, he reluctantly issued me a key card. Armed with it I slid the room door open and was greeted by the kind of darkness that wraps around you like a blindfold.
Nervously stumbling I crashed onto an unoccupied bed. Although exhausted, sleep remained elusive. The notion of being in a room with someone I had never met was unsettling. I was not sure if she was asleep but did not dare try to find out.
Early next morning I woke to find the bed next to me empty. After a quick shower I hurried down to see if I could find my roommate in the breakfast room and properly introduce myself. While I was scrutinising all the female diners, one of the guests walked up. “Are you Ms X?” he inquired. His question startled me. Had Ms X and I, in some Kafkaesque way, exchanged identities in the middle of the night? Or had we magically metamorphosed and become the same person? I was at a writers’ conference after all…
“That’s funny,” was all I could think of saying, “I’m looking for her too”.
But time had run out. The shuttle bus that would take us to the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators Conference was hooting impatiently.
I shamefully admit that I had never heard of APWT. In a moment of uncontrolled enthusiasm, I had signed up for the chance to fill the place of an invited writer who was unable to attend. The conference was themed: Against the Grain; Dissidence, Dissonance and Difference. But I was not sure what to expect. It turned out to be “Asia-Pacific” in the broadest sense.
Writers and poets, academics and translators, screenwriters and speechwriters, journalists and commentators, famous, prize-winning, best-selling, published, self-published and unpublished, plus a sprinkling of students, most of them either living in Asia or of Asian descent: they were all there. Some were old hands and greeted each other like long-lost pals. Others, like me, were curiously scanning the auditorium for anyone they had ever seen, or heard about, before.
(I have lived and worked for more than 30 years in Asia and to my relief I saw a few familiar faces.)
For three glorious days we recited our poetry, read from our writings, talked about all aspects of writing to each other. Almost everyone who attended either sat on a panel or read from their own work (or both). We swapped books, exchanged E-mails, took selfies.
After we got drunk on San Miguel beer and Aussie wine we confessed alcohol and other drug abuses and lamented, often chuckling, that a writer’s existence was miserable, horrible, lonely and that the profession could be very dangerous, especially for Filipinos. They risked a shot to the head. For others, the writer’s way of life could lead to AA or rehab.
And I had to think of Kafka again. If his ghost would materialise here, he would probably laugh. He might have written a story about a university gathering of writers that changed into a drying-up pond full of croaking frogs. Were we not all willing prisoners of our writing? Was there really something else we rather would do? And to prove that all this existential angst was just an affection we just had to look up and catch a glimpse of a gaggle of distinguished Filipino poets, whose cheerful smiles (with cigarettes hanging from the corner) seemed never to leave their faces and whose riotous poems, full of love and sex, cheered us on.
And yes, I did meet my room-mate. As it turned out, we sat on the same panel, shared the conviction that non-fiction such as this should be true (or truish) and pontificated shamelessly about our personal experiences. We had retained our own shapes – but as it happened, we looked so similar that many delegates asked if Ms X was my younger sister.
At the end of the three days, I whispered to the Aboriginal writer sitting next to me that what I liked the most was that despite the moaning and groaning, I felt a buzz that refreshed the soul. He grinned. “What you can feel is the spirit of all these creative minds. This gives you energy. Why do you think all of us keep coming to these gatherings?”
Irene Cristalis is a Dutch journalist, living in Singapore.