An unflinching matriarch with an iron hand, my mother did not like animals. Growing up in a kampung, being the youngest, she was alone at home most of the time. When she was not drawing water from the well or attending school, she was helping out with household chores, or following her mother, who was a washerwoman, from house to house to work. I suppose a hard life does not leave much room for sentiment. There were the encounters with cats, dogs, and even snakes. She would recount how stray cats would sneak into the kitchen and steal their fish. This called for a broom and some yelling, which would discourage the unwanted feline. Neighbours’ dogs, likely feral, would bark, growl and chase them with the intention of inflicting real damage, despite my mother and her siblings using the same route to and fro everyday. A gigantic python that lived in the swamp behind their kampung, would reveal its thick heft as it rolled its bulk among the marshes. Another that weighed ten kilograms, which ate the family’s chickens, was killed by my grandfather and granduncle. And once, a close call with a black cobra in her bedroom. My mother sitting with her legs dangling over the bed. My father, then a young man still in the army, hears thrashing and spitting within close range. He spots the cobra, that somehow got itself entangled to the bedpost, and my mother swings her legs up, unharmed and saved by this act of grace.
A few years back, I read And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, which tells the story of two siblings, Abdullah and Pari, who are separated by circumstances beyond their control. I come face to face with different versions of myself, travelling across Afghanistan, France, the United States, and back to Afghanistan with these characters through time. Sorrow fills my heart when I arrive at these lines towards the end of the novel:
They tell me I must wade into waters, where I will soon drown. Before I march in, I will leave this on the shore for you. I pray you find it, sister, so you will know what was in my heart as I went under.
I think of my sisters, Faith and Praise, of sharing the same room, sleeping on the floor with my head on Praise’s pillow, sending letters through the top deck to Faith who slept down below. We bathed together as children into adulthood. We shared our teenage heartbreaks, we fought. We feared our mother, and we rebelled in different ways, sneaking into clubs underage, getting tattoos secretly, dating illicitly. I think of my sisters and my love for them swells and crashes against my chest. I feel as guilty as the jealous sister, but I am also Abdullah who is torn from the sister he loves.
Five years ago, I packed my books, clothes, and other assorted belongings into twenty cardboard boxes. I would also take the piano. I was moving out after twenty-seven years of living with my family into a place of my own, leaving my sisters behind to start a new life with a man I loved. Although we would only be a forty-minute bus ride away, the distance seemed insurmountable. We were slipping from one another, like Abdullah from Pari, and wading into waters where we would one day drown. Would they know what was in my heart as I went under?
A child is born, a child grows up, a child leaves home to create a home away from home. This is the familiar story we read in books until we ourselves become the very characters of our own stories. A few days before I move out of my family home in Tampines, I write everyone goodbye letters. I weep, feeling a deep, reverberating pain each time I write Dear…
Sleeping in a room with your sisters for fifteen years of your life does something to you, makes it hard to leave. When we moved out of our childhood home in another part of Tampines, I was ecstatic that we were shifting, the move coinciding with the shedding of my childhood and entering secondary school. A time of change, of growing up and out of running in the fields, playing with tiger moths to relationships with boys and petty friendships. In my youth, I never missed my childhood home, so eager as I was to grow up. The irony then that it is this very childhood home, with its grassy field beyond, its wildflowers and tiger moths that keeps returning to me in my dreams.
After moving out, I experienced a sensation of fragmentation that I never felt before. An unreal sense of existing in two separate places, of belonging and not belonging wholly to each space. It is something I find hard to put into words, this sense of being split up into two selves, belonging at once to two distinct places. And then, knowing that these two places exist for you, and in spite of you. Home as a blur, undefined region.
Working through my displacement, it takes time for me to learn to occupy both places in an authentic, fluid way, one that does not require an erasure or surrender of the other. I begin to acknowledge and honour both places and the memories I hold in them. I discover that it is possible to belong to both two places at once, that I did not have to define home in mutually exclusive terms, that my family home would still be my home, just as this new home in Buangkok was also my home.
I carry my home within my consciousness and in my body.
Note: This excerpt, which has been adapted for Journal, is a truncated version of the full personal essay “Candy”.
Esther Vincent Xueming is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Tiger Moth Review, an independent, eco journal of art and literature based in Singapore. An educator by profession, she is also co-editor of two poetry anthologies, Poetry Moves (Ethos Books, 2020) and Little Things (Ethos Books), and reads for Frontier Poetry (US). She is a finalist for the Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize 2020 (New York) and Singapore National Poetry Competition (English Language, 2020 & 2019), and her poems have been published in Singapore and internationally.