2015 in Retrospect

Buduruwagala, Sri Lanka, 2015.

Buduruwagala, Sri Lanka, 2015.

2015 marks the third consecutive year since I first began penning my annual reflections, sparking what has now become an essential routine for personal introspection. In a particularly nostalgic mood that naturally accompanies this time of the year, reading my words on both 2013 and 2014 has filled me with a sense of awe, reassurance, and lightness, witnessing now – with the perspicacious gift of hindsight – how everything has eventually panned out in the various aspects of my life, with me trusting my instincts and staying true to myself.

From stepping out of the darkness of 2013 and into the warm glow that is 2014, 2015 has proved to be the incandescent light illuminating my days – a singular, defining year that I believe will stand out in the library of my memories as I someday browse the archives of my fledgling adulthood. Amid the wide-ranging, and at times, seemingly conflicting interests that were vying for my attention in the past years, 2015 has been the one in which I finally defined for myself what I ultimately stand for, and that which represents the very core of my essence: a writer, a traveller, and a change-maker.

On Writing

Among the varied highlights of my literary endeavours this year, the one that I am most happy and proud of is having realised my childhood dream of writing my first book, titled The Desire for Elsewhere. Exploring the themes of love and loss, time and transience, and travel and wanderlust, it is a novella that encapsulates the light and shadows within my being – one that I believe the child I once was would be proud of. Another milestone of my writing journey is performing my first ever public reading of my work at the Singapore Writers Festival 2015. Having the opportunity to subsequently perform my poetry at the third anniversary event of The Writers Club Singapore was the sweet icing on the cake.

Looking back, my first time at the Singapore Writers Festival was in 2013, where I attended a friend’s public reading organised as part of a freshly published local anthology. I remember having wondered what it would feel like to be on the other side of the fence, attending the festival in the esteemed capacity of a writer rather than the participant I was then. It had been a mere wish; distant, elusive, and one which I did not give much thought to, given its apparent improbability at that point in my life. And so it is particularly special for me to have this little wish coming true two years on – after many months of writing, madness, and uncertainty – an opportunity for which I remain incredibly thankful.

It is an experience I will never forget – standing there on the stage in the dim lit chamber within the Arts House, feeling the words that originated from the depths of my soul flutter up from within my being to fill the enclosed space, reverberating from the curved surfaces and high ceiling, sensing the suspense in the air and watching the expectant faces of an audience whose size had exceeded the number of available seats, gripped by the unfurling of hitherto unheard tales – collectively reaffirming all the reasons as to why I write, and why I will continue to pursue my passion for the written word.

SWF 2015

The Arts House, Singapore, 2015.

These two accomplishments therefore marked my graduation from the year long Singapore National Arts Council Mentor Access Project (NAC-MAP), thereby seeing me officially becoming a MAP alumnus. Being the only creative nonfiction representative among the group of gifted prose writers uncovered our notions of genre, especially as I find my work continuously challenging the traditional boundaries of fiction and nonfiction writing. Yet, these interactions have brought me much joy, offering opportunities for the cross-pollination of ideas and expansion of perspectives.

NAC-MAP has been an extremely fulfilling journey, and I am appreciative of the privilege of having been able to forge relationships with various admirable mentors, from whom I have learned much and hope to continue to be able to do so, to gain insights on the triumphs and tribulations of the writing life as well as the local literary scene through the exclusive workshops, seminars, and talks that were held as part of the programme, and most of all, to build a literary network through which to share ideas, collaborate with likeminded writers, and inspire while likewise being inspired.

Apart from MAP, there has also been a number of exciting developments in my writing journey, including getting published in local and overseas literary journals such as Junoesq and Paper and Ink, collaborating with a group of MAP peers and Malaysian writers to write and publish an anthology of short stories titled Pulp Toast, and being invited to write for international platforms. Most recently, I have also been selected to be part of a literary and visual arts collaboration between writers and designers, and am excited to be exploring the intersections where different realms of art converge and co-creating a unique body of work that will be exhibited in public spaces in the upcoming year.

On Travelling

Beyond literary pursuits, 2015 has also been a momentous year for me in terms of fuelling my fernweh. In celebration of my turning a year wiser, I embarked on my first solo trip to Sri Lanka a day after my birthday, thereby bringing the number of countries to which I have travelled thus far to a total of 48. Travelling solo has always been something I have wanted to do, yet it was also something that had conveniently taken the backseat in the preceding years. And so when the opportunity arose this year from travel plans that had seemingly completely fallen through at the very last minute – truly, a blessing in disguise, on hindsight – I decided it was the perfect time to do so.

I will not deny that apprehension did pervade me prior to my departure. Any concerns over safety, language barriers, and connectivity were amplified by words of caution from everyone around me, relentlessly resounding in my ears like a foreboding warning. The most dismal and brutal of scenarios were conjured in their heads, projecting twisted images in my mind. By contrast, my trip to Sri Lanka saw me falling in love with the country – from the beauty and serenity of her landscapes, to the earnestness and devotion of her people. Travelling alone also allowed me to uncover buried facets of myself that I had never before realised, thus surprising me immensely in their courage and spontaneity.

Horton Plains, Sri Lanka, 2015.

Horton Plains, Sri Lanka, 2015.

There are few things that allow you to learn more about yourself than returning to a place close to your heart after the passing of much time. Four years after I left, I finally answered Vienna’s call in September, travelling back to attend the beautiful wedding of my beloved friends. As I reunited with old friends and made new ones – sitting cross-legged in my friend’s apartment on a Sunday afternoon catching up on our lives, or laughing over schnitzel and melange in a traditional restaurant tucked safely away from the main streets – it felt as though I had never left, that the space of four years never actually existed, that Vienna shall always remain what it means to me: my second home. I cannot thank my Austrian friends enough for their tremendous generosity and kindness, for whom I am ever grateful.

My time spent in Vienna was particularly special this time, as I revisited all my favourite places in the city – the Hundertwasserhaus, Stephensdom, Volksgarten where there surprisingly were still roses much to my excitement, Prater, WU, Café Central, Museums Quartier, Schönbrunn, Zentralfriedhof, Danube – going to the opera house twice, and discovering the differences that time, alongside experiences, have created, ranging from the minute to the colossal. The week also saw me fulfilling my wishes from four years ago, such as getting lost in the labyrinth in Schönbrunn palace, driving to the countryside, going to musuems such as the Albertina and Sigmund Freud, and all else. In all, Vienna remained a wonderful, surreal dream from which I wish I never had to awake.

Vienna, Austria, 2015.

Vienna, Austria, 2015.

Following the week in Vienna, I headed for the little town of Freiburg, whose magic had entranced me from the first time I learnt of its existence over a year ago. Located in the heart of the Black Forest, I found it difficult to pinpoint what it was that concocted the charm of the place. Could it be the sound of trickling water in the bächle that ran about the entire town, and the laughter resounding in the air from both children and adults alike who tried to float their little boats in them? Or was it the idyllic romance that permeated the air as you ventured along the winding cobblestoned streets, lined with curious houses of which no two looked quite the same? Or perhaps, it was the feeling of entering a fairytale land, where everything that you once dreamt of was now coming true.

Whatever it was, one thing was indubitable: Freiburg certainly captured my heart. My stay there was interspersed with day trips to explore various parts of the Black Forest, Switzerland, and France. And what lovely memories – lighting candles in cathedrals, trying on silly hats, having ice cream by the steps, climbing clock towers, pretending to be a nymph in the woods, chasing waterfalls, creating routines, browsing bookstores, riding rollercoasters, swinging on swings, driving a boat, ad infinitum. Some days it rained, some days it shone; for all the days, I lived the magic of a coup de foudre. Words will never be able to describe this ineffable sense of happiness from being able to share this experience – one, which I know I shall never forget, regardless of the time and distance that now lie between us.

Freiburg, Germany. 2015.

Freiburg, Germany. 2015.

On Stillness

In the process of writing and travelling over the course of the year, I have come to truly appreciate the need for pockets of stillness in our lives. Our days can oftentimes seem like a hurdle race, with the deluge of tasks on our perpetually growing to-do lists expending our time and energy. There is always that one email to which we have yet to reply, that one memo we have yet to write, that one errand we have yet to run. Society has taught us that movement is desirable; we should ever be in pursuit of something tangible – to secure a well-paying and secure job, to find a suitable partner and start a family, or to go on a holiday abroad each year. And yet, have we ever questioned ourselves: to what end are we running this race?

Years ago, I used to be the type of traveller who wanted to maximise my time in each place that I was in. I never stayed too long in any one place, nor would I have spent precious hours sitting atop a freshly scaled mountain soaking in the beauty that lay in its calm vulnerability all around me or dangling my legs over a well-trodden wooden bridge that connected one pounding waterfall to the next as I breathed in the crisp music of the cascading water that permeated my thoughts with its reassuring rhythm, as if to declare: you are, you are, you are. I am. I am here. I am here living this very moment. How rare do such moments occur? To be cognizant of our own existence, to feel truly alive, and to just – be.

Sigiriya, Sri Lanka, 2015.

Sigiriya, Sri Lanka, 2015.

After making nine trips across eight countries last year, this year saw me making only a third of that: to Bali, Sri Lanka, and Europe. Regardless of quantity, I have found that each trip becomes more meaningful and grows deeper in quality only after I return home and being in stillness, translate my experiences into fresh insights. Perhaps, this explains why I could oftentimes be found holed up in my room for days on end upon returning from a trip, distilling the sights that I have seen, the interactions I have had with locals on the road, the emotions I have felt, into something far more than the confines of personal experience – into words, into stories, into that which is less fleeting than my brief existence on this earth.

Stillness thus took on a whole new definition for me. It did not mean being stagnant or settling. It was not equivalent to not progressing. Rather, stillness is what enables the capacity for personal introspection, the result of which spurs greater progress than that which you could ever achieve with constant movement. This was a revelation that especially struck me in the middle of the year, as I found myself submerged in darkness for the most part of a week following an eye surgery. Navigating in stillness was a foreign language that I gradually came to grasp. Without peripheral distractions, I began to see with more clarity. I observed conversations and sacrifices that were previously invisible to me, and also acquired new insights on my evolving desires vis-à-vis the passing of time, all of which would not have been possible without this first, full foray into the world of stillness.

Minhatale Monastery, Sri Lanka, 2015.

Minhatale Monastery, Sri Lanka, 2015.

On Work

Work wise, 2015 has also proved to be fruitful – I arrived at my third year work anniversary, got promoted, and took on several other portfolios and roles over the course of the year, which offered me a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of my industry as well as a myriad of learning opportunities for which I value. Witnessing the conclusion of months of negotiations and effort manifesting in launch events and signing ceremonies which I am part of have also reinforced the reasons as to why I do what I do at work – and for that, I am glad to be able to contribute to a cause I believe in, that is larger than myself.

Some time ago, I wrote a piece on becoming Authors of Our Own Ambitions. I read it again today and every word still remains true. In fact, it probably rings truer to me now than it ever has. Looking back, I am indescribably thankful to my younger self for trudging through the darkness and paving the way for me forward, such that I am walking this path today, beginning to make sense of my journey thus far while connecting the dots, thereby bringing me one step closer to the said mountaintop that represents my vision, dreams, and ideals towards which I strive each day.

As we soar towards our respective visions, may we always be mindful to develop our own compasses in life, to regularly recalibrate our coordinates, and most of all, to ceaselessly question the validity and authenticity of our notions of success. Ultimately, it is only in so doing are we able to truly become the authors of our very own ambitions.

On Magic

In all, 2015 has been a year touched by magic. Beyond writing, travelling, and finding stillness in life and meaning in work, I have also had the ethereal joy of venturing into new, wondrous worlds through multiple mediums including language, literature, film, and art. For one, I continued my pursuit of the German language, becoming acquainted with its various forms and peculiarities, and venturing further to read Rilke’s poetry in its original language and even writing my own.

In the realm of literature, my reading also expanded in scope to include translated works from lesser known writers across the globe – Austria, Czech Republic, France, Iceland, Japan, Norway, Palestine, and Switzerland. Likewise in film, I managed to catch several documentaries, films, and plays, spanning French, German, Israeli, Japanese, and Mexican, thereby offering me a glimpse into foreign, faraway worlds as perceived by those whose souls carry within them infinite beauty and lyrical sorrow.

The year saw me delving deeper into the local arts scene as well – reading Singaporean works, watching Singaporean films, and listening to Singaporean music – something that had previously, and perhaps ironically, not been the most familiar to me. I picked up the paintbrush again after nearly a decade, translating emotion and memory into a turpentine scented dance of oil paint caressing canvas. The effusions arising from these experiences have allowed me to realise that one does not have to search far, nor hard, to find magic in everyday life.

Vienna, Austria, 2015.

Vienna, Austria, 2015.

And of all the magic that has graced my year, the most magical yet is the one I am most thankful for.

2016 and Beyond

As we now bid farewell to 2015 and embrace the upcoming year, may we all bring forth with us a heart full of love, a mind full of curiosity, and a being full of childlike wonder, bravery, and adventure. Most of all, I hope that in the coming year, we would all create – singular creations that exist only within our very souls. In the words of Neil Gaiman, because his lines remain a timeless truth, particularly resonant at this juncture:

May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and that you’ll dream dangerously and outrageously. Don’t forget to make some art – write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself. 

Be kind to yourself in the year ahead. Remember to forgive yourself, and to forgive others. Try to make your time matter: minutes and hours and days and weeks can blow away like dead leaves, with nothing to show but time you spent not quite ever doing things, or time spent waiting to begin. Hug too much. Smile too much. And, when you can, love.

– Agnes Chew


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