THE GIFT OF STORY

Merlinda Bobis, one of the keynote speakers at the 2014 Asia-Pacific Writers & Translators Conference, remembers what made it special for her.
NEWS FLASH (12 October, 2014) CONGRATULATIONS  Merlinda Bobis and her publisher Spinifex Press. Merlinda’s Fish-Hair Woman (Spinifex Press) has won a Philippine National Book Award in the category of Best Novel in a Foreign Language (English). Bobis is a Phillippines-born, Australia-based author and academic whose writing in Filipino and English integrates elements of the traditional culture of the Philippines with modern immigrant experiences.

In a panel on ‘What Women in Asia Write About’ at the 2014 Asia-Pacific Writers and Translators Conference, Cambodian writer and social activist Phina So tells this story: 

In the ’80s, Cambodian women published their stories by writing them by hand many times over in hundred-page notebooks, in order to produce multiple copies to rent out. These handwritten stories were popular; mostly about romance because of government oppression at that time. Sometimes the women read these stories till dawn, because they were so good; then they returned them to rent new ones, and other women rented the returned stories. Produced by hands that pushed back an oppressive regime, the stories were passed on to the next reader and the next.

Phina’s story stops me in my tracks—inspires me, moves me. How privileged we are with publishing technology at our fingertips. Then I consider why we come together at the conference: to pass on story, an involved and tender labour, a gift. Humbling for the receiver who welcomes the story with the reciprocal gift of listening. Gift-giving multiplies across different cultures and geographies, rippling the room during a panel session, a reading, a speech, over tea and pink rice-cakes or the generous lunch.

Cambodian writer and social activist, Phina So.

Cambodian writer and social activist, Phina So.

So the room expands and expands, as in a magical realist tale, gifts spilling out the door, down the stairs, to the patio of The Arts House, down Old Parliament Lane, chasing us to our hotels, even hovering over a little wicked nightcap, and on to the airport all the way to our desks at home, in whatever country or city.

This is what the 2014 Asia-Pacific Writers and Translators Conference has achieved. The gift-giving is never concluded, because wherever the storytellers have returned, we will be reading each other, writing to and with each other, writing more stories, more poems, more gifts.

So thank you to the conference organisers, the funding bodies that facilitated the events, and the participation of the writers, translators, literary industry delegates and supporters—most of all, thank you to the storytellers for taking us to moments and places we would have never visited otherwise.

The ‘multiplication’ of the conference outcomes is different for each of us. For me, it is immediately concrete in new projects and partnerships. Before the conference closes, I move to Nanyang Technological University to workshop an Intercultural Waters Teaching-Learning Project in collaboration with other conference delegates, among them Jennifer Crawford (Assistant Professor at Nanyang Technological University), Dinah Roma and Shirley Lua (both teaching at (De La Salle University, Manila).

Now, six universities from four countries will facilitate a space for the next generation of writers to imagine water creatively and critically across cultures. Then, Francesca Rendle-Short (RMIT) and I hatch a future creative writing partnership. Fan Dai (Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou) and I dream up creative writing collaborating with performance towards creative literacy. Mridula Nath Chakraborty (University of Western Sydney) and I conjure a book of critical essays.

And lest I forget, with the passing on of story, friendships multiply across the Asia-Pacific and beyond –
Indeed the room, this creative haven, expands and expands.

Merlinda Bobis is an award-winning Filipino-Australian writer, performer, and academic. She has published three novels, a collection of short stories, five poetry books, a monograph on creative research, and scholarly essays on creative-critical production, migration, postcolonial writing and the transnational imaginary. She teaches Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong, Australia. She is working on creative-critical projects on rivers (Philippines, Canada), and on the transnational imaginary (Australia, Spain).