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Erna Mahyuni

Erna tweets too much on @ernamh. Angry Sabah native, slave to her dog/cat and blogs at ernamahyuni.com

JUNE 14 — Ask me why I write, and I would say, “Because I am my mother’s daughter.”

It’s a realisation that’s come late, after years of thinking of myself as a daddy’s girl.

Yet whatever little talent I have is my mother’s, whatever skill I possess is only the result of years of writing truly awful prose.

I grew up hearing the chimes and clack of my mother’s typewriter, replaced years later with the quiet hum of an electric one and then, by that tool of my own trade, a computer keyboard.

Ma was a housewife, but one who introduced me to moonlighting. When she wasn’t keeping alive the seven terrors the world called her children, she was always writing. Writing to help pay the bills, buy our shoes, help afford the odd movie outing.

Her main source of additional income was writing radio dramas. My mother could churn one out in a matter of days, deftly turning out multiple radio equivalents of tele-novellas. The plots were fairly similar — man and woman meet, they fall in love, and every so often someone gets hit by a car. My mother liked to keep her plot twists simple, you see.

What I did not know was my mother wrote other things. Apparently when she wasn’t changing diapers or breaking up fisticuffs, she was writing poetry and short stories.

I read her first volume of poetry and it felt to me as though it was looking through a window into a past I did not understand. She noted the exact dates, places where she wrote her poems (in most cases). 

It felt odd to think that on our family holiday in Baguio where I remember splashing around a lot, my mother was by the pool writing poetry.

Is she any good? Apparently so. Now her children no longer take up all her time my mother’s had books published, gone on a tour of the state to collect and write local folk tales and even had time to win various writing contests and awards.

It’s odd to read her work cited in literary articles or seeing pictures of her in the paper. It is also hard to reconcile the woman I know with the art she produces.

My mother’s work has a lyrical fluidity, not florid but tempered with an easy grace. Yet if you ask her how she comes by her ideas, my mother would merely say,”Tak tahu, Na. Mama tulis saja.” (I don’t know, Na. I just write.)

Not for her long discussions about theory, technique and linguistics. My mother feels like writing something, she writes it. That’s that.

“Jangan fikir banyak sangat, Na. Buat saja bah dulu.” (Don’t think too much, Na. Just do it first.) My mother kept it simple a long time before Nike did.

These are lessons I should keep in mind in my line of work. Oftentimes I feel my writing lacks any sort of art or complexity, and that I only keep getting hired because the bar isn’t set very high in this country. 

As though I’m limbo dancing under a pole set five feet… over my head. I don’t so much need to limbo as I need to not piss off the persons holding said pole (which I do, a lot).

Like my mother I can write very, very fast. And if my mother can get published in her 50s, there’s hope for me yet. I only have 10 years or so to get around to it.

As Ma would say: “Oklah bah tu, Na.” OK, Ma.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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