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Asia Pacific Writers Conference, Indonesia.

On Tue 24th Oct at Ganesha University, a 3 hour (or more realistically, 4 or 5 hour) drive from Denpasar airport in Bali (through stunning mountains I might add), I was on a panel as part of the 3-day Asia Pacific Writers and Translators 10th anniversary conference.

This was my 5th one.

The topic of this 90 minute panel was:

Belonging and Writing:
Exile, Homecoming and Return Narratives.

Just a small topic!

I was one of three on the panel and last minute became the moderator also as ours had to head back home south to Sanur. I was worried that being both moderator and panelist would be a little tricky with Osamah Sami on the panel – an award-winning actor, writer, director and stand-up comedian, with a memoir Good Muslim Boy and movie Ali’s Wedding. A lively and confident personality as you might expect, but also a humble young man born in Iran to Iraqi parents who moved to Australia as a teenager. The panel was rounded off with writer and PhD candidate from Queensland Australia, Sophie MacNeill.

What unfolded quite naturally was a juicy discussion on ‘home’, ‘exile’, ‘belonging’ and ‘identity’ from a Muslim Iranian, Iraqi Aussie, a born and bred Australian Aussie of Irish decent, and a Jewish Australian expat living in Asia. As you can well imagine then, questions of belonging and identity were about as straight forward as our panel’s participant’s stories. ​The audience seemed to really enjoy the discussion and had plenty of questions for us. Thanks to everyone for coming down and thanks to the panel for their honesty and courage in their stories. The 3-day conference was as always, full of incredible authors, editors, translators and publishers. Northern Indonesia was such an incredible place to host such an event, most of us having never adventured to this area before. Here is (some of) the 200-strong gang from over 23 countries.

Every year I take a photo of me with the AP banner, so here is this year’s….

There are many workshops on offer throughout the conference. I feel so fortunate to be meeting with such experienced people in the industry. I went to ‘Editing: An Insider’s Guide’, hosted by Cate Blake from Penguin Random House and Ian See from University of Queensland Press in a small group where we had the opportunity to listen, learn, share and ask questions.

Tears in Phnom Penh

I never know when the tears will come but I know they are there.

Whenever I mention my kids in Cambodia, my beautiful kids that I lived, worked and shared my life with, I feel hot tears stinging the back of my eyelids. I secretly clench my fists, hold my breath and pray to get through another conversation about my old life that feels so far from the beach in Thailand that I live on.

Just recently, after 18 months, I landed back in Phnom Penh with a smile from ear to ear as I sat in the back of the tuk tuk and was reminded of the smells and sights of this beautiful and broken city. Chaos is the best way to describe this place. And it is home.

I saw my Khmer family and friends; my old housemates, ex-pat friends, local friends, my old boss and brother ‘KK’ and all my kids who are now grown up. I made it through the whole week without crying. Even when I saw ‘Frog’ who I met at 15 as a troubled teen with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Frog, who would run away often, get back on drugs often, who I took to Italy to visit a drug rehab community … and even ran away from there! Frog, who I hadn’t seen for five years now because he had run away when I left the country. I had dinner with him. We ate tacos. He is now 20 years old. I stared and stared in disbelief at this adult before me and the two of us got the giggles. But I didn’t cry.

I saw my two boys I worry about most. The two that have been to hell and back more times than anyone ever should. ‘Tra,’ still with his girlfriend and ‘Kha’ smiling and trying to hide the sadness in his eyes. We hugged and hugged and stared at each other. We held hands, we smiled, we chatted and we knew. But I didn’t cry.

Then one night we sat around chatting about ‘Ya’. My beautiful, beautiful Ya. Ya, with the voice of an angel. Ya, who found English mind-boggling. Ya, who sang on stage with me in Australia and New Zealand in 2012. Ya, who I spent months teaching one sentence to in English so he could perform it at TEDx. Ya, who sang to me at my farewell party ‘Srei s’art Romi, mokpi Australi, ’ ‘Beautiful girl Romi who comes from Australia.’

Ya, the incredible young man I met at 19 who took extreme poverty to a level I had never seen before, even working in the slums. Yet he was humble, generous and forever shy.

Ya, who in 2012, was in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people.

Ya, scared and penniless didn’t have any money to pay the police or eventually the judge to get out of what would become a 12-year sentence, later reduced.

Back at the bar, one of my girls picks up her phone, dials, hands it to me and says ‘Ya.’ And Ya is on the phone. I run outside for some quiet and start talking to him in Khmer language. He answers in English. I do it again. English again. I am confused and start to wonder if it is actually him.

“Ya?”

“Yes”

“Ya?”

“Yes mum” and I know it is him.

“But you’re speaking English.”

“Yes, I study English in jail,” and he giggles.

He tells me he is ok and will be out in three months. He wants me to come back to celebrate. Three months!

We hang up and I am left standing in the streets of Phnom Penh in silence with a phone in my hand. And I cry.

I cry and cry so much my chest hurts. I can’t breathe. The owner of the bar Darin, comes out to me, her eyes full of concern. Darin who herself understands my kid’s lives better than anyone. Darin, the greatest success story off the streets of this poor country.

“What’s wrong?”

“Ya… jail … he speak English … three months… all grown up … my kids, they all grown up … Frog, Tra, Kha … all of them … they ok … they all grown up … I hug them … I see them … I know them …”

She stops my words by hugging me deeply.

“I know, I get it” and I know she does in a way that maybe no one else in the world could.

Asia Pacific Writers Conference, Manila.

“APWT is the largest, longest running, functioning literary network I know of in South East Asia and the Pacific”

Says Philipino Jose Dalisay better known ‘Butch.’

What an absolute pleasure it was for me to join this gang of amazing writers, publishers and translators. This is my third year at this conference which is in a different country every year. 2015 was in Manila with the theme ‘Against The Grain.’

To summarise my time there, I:

– I was on a panel titled ‘True Stories Need to be True’ with Beth Yahp (Malaysian), Irena Cristalis (Dutch), Neil Garcia (Philipino) and moderated by Qaisra Shahraz (Pakistani).

– I attended Tim Tomlinson’s incredible workshop on learning how to write/say a pitch.

– I did a public reading of my story ‘Climbing the Walls’ published in Griffith Review: New Asia Now to a full room. I was also pleasantly surprised (actually straight out shocked and excited) to arrive at the reading and find my name and a photo on a large projector… naturally I took a photo of me… and me… having a moment 😉