In the Beginning, there was the Word.
Not for me. I couldn’t even speak or read English until I was seven or so. I have dim childhood memories of opening storybooks, and pretending to read them to my toys. At the kindergarten, Mummy was embarrassed because I happily spoke more Hokkien (grandfather’s Chinese dialect) than any proper English. Words were boring. Books were boring.
So where, and how, do I begin?
In so many places, and so many points. Beginnings shape us, but I like to believe we too, get to choose where we begin.
We can begin with stories.
Stories fascinated me. It didn’t matter how they arrived, or what forms they took, only that they existed. I got Mummy to draw fox-snouted fruit-bats in all my storybooks, because the idea of them was so strange and exotic to my boyhood brain. I listened on in awed horror, learning about gods crucified and resurrected. I remember shuddering at the concept of Easter: what kind of ritual involved rabbits and eggs; rabbits hatching out of eggs?? The heavy scent of Chinese joss (which Grandma lit on festival days), the pungent odour of boiled eggs (stewed and dyed vividly pink as offerings to the ancestors, and the earth deities), all combined into some enigmatic mythos in the vast, unknown seas of my infant imagination.
Soon; later; shortly after, I learnt to read.
The squiggles in books started to speak. The alphabet song unravelled, fell apart; then recombined, fell together, a Cambrian radiation of forms and ideas.
Here then, was another Beginning, a Beginning with Words. Suddenly and slowly, words happened. Sentences, paragraphs, chapters; stories I could enter on my own. My parents introduced me to the National Library at Bras Basah Road: a cosy, leaky, red-bricked building quietly full of other worlds, sheltered by a gargantuan rain tree. Astonished and awed, I wandered the shelves of this marvellous place where they actually let you bring stories home for free!
Here then, was another Introduction, this time to a kindly, lifelong friend called Library. Library opened new worlds to me. I read. Voraciously? Not really. Only everything that itched at me, that made me go wow! Books with colourful, holofoil covers. Books with warplanes, cross-sectioned so you could marvel at their complex innards. Books I didn’t understand, but borrowed anyway because Churchill the Bulldog sounded funny, and World War Two sounded like an adventure. Sorcerers, beetles, investigators, dragons, folklore, poetries, jungles…
Here then, was another Introduction, an Introduction to other horizons, because I liked most the stories about other worlds. Magic stories, god stories, ghost stories, science stories. The ones with strange beasts and stranger characters. The ones with monsters lovingly painted, and maps painstakingly drawn. The ones which leaked sunlight, and chittered in the darkness. The ones with spaceships and epic voyages, just itching to be re-made.
Here then, was another Beginning, a beginning to creation, however haphazardly or clumsily. I copied out schematics of giant Battlemechs; I wrote stories for their pilots. I plotted maps of space dominions, conducted transects of mythical mangrove swamps. On long, boring afternoons, I followed heroic dragonlords into island-sprinkled oceans. Deprived of Gameboys, I devised my own National Pokedex, indexed my own Indigo Plateau. Until I realised other children didn’t do these things, I didn’t really contemplate why I drew those maps, and wrote those stories, even late into my adolescence. I only knew doing so was important to me, somehow. A way of breathing, perhaps. A way of starting again. A way of escaping, and exploring, and returning. I’m still not entirely sure myself.
After such heady, intoxicating mead (the brew of the gods!); after such vast horizons, you can perhaps understand then, why I was so bored when I was finally introduced to English Literature.
Here then, was another Introduction, an Introduction to other words. I vaguely understood Shakespeare. I’d heard of Romeo and Juliet. Literature? England was in there somewhere. Someone once proclaimed something about pride and prejudice, but “Darcy!” always sounded like the sound a pompous frigate bird would make. I had some idea that there were English Classics out there, and that to have Good Taste, to Grow Up, I would need to appreciate these books about a people I had only seen on television.
Grandma knew these creatures vaguely, generically, as angmoh nang, red-haired men. In school, I grudgingly made my acquaintance with Bassanio and Shylock, with Heathcliff and Hardy, though it took me awhile to understand their relevance. Momentarily, I got excited about The Canon, until I realised this one didn’t involve discussions of muzzle velocity, ammunition type, or their deployment in a space battle…
Somehow, though, I made it out alive.
Like some conquered native of a colonised land, I pretended to accept the new facts of life: like strange words on old tongues, like the things that could or could not constitute Literature-capital-L. I bumbled my way through the essays we needed to write about literary devices, about unseen poems and how to score well in them. I learnt a new dialect, one that spoke in Forms and Formalities, in Topic Sentences and Structures.
Like some conquered native of a colonised land, however, I also kept a parallel life, writing and drawing and creating my other stories. Nobody read them. It didn’t matter. When class and Literature finished, I continued reading, and writing. Magic stories, god stories, ghost stories, science stories. I had never stopped, anyway. Although there were droughts and dry seasons, I revisited those kingdoms and galaxies periodically. One needs to breathe, after all. I modernised the clunkier starships. I layered my heroes, demons and their dominions with new varnishes I’d learnt in class, called Internal Conflict, or Self-Determination.
And then one day, I tried my hand at sharing some stories. I didn’t know what I was doing, only that I had to try. Why not? Experimenting had always brought me to new places. And in the end, even if nobody liked it, I’d still enjoyed the escaping, the exploring, and the creating…Strangely enough, people did like some of those stories. In this instance, they liked it enough to give me this momentary space, to share a story, and a few words here.
So where, and how, do we begin? In so many places, at so many points. Beginnings shape us, but I think we too, get to choose where we begin.
Here then, is another Beginning, another Introduction. Into what? I’m still not entirely sure. A way of breathing, perhaps. A way of starting again. A way of escaping, and exploring, and returning.
We can begin again (like we always have) with stories.
Ruizhi prefers to be lost in stories, but occasionally he gets lost in cities too. He is currently completing his Masters thesis on colonial fisheries at the National University of Singapore, where he also teaches history to undergraduates. He runs @singapore_stories, an Instagram project offering alternative insights into Singapore’s pasts, presents and futures, and lives in a quiet neighbourhood named after conquerors from a faraway land. There, under the shade of a Central American tree, his grandmothers tell him stories he can’t find in textbooks.