By Teo Xiao Ting (and Nabilah Said)
(1,600 words, eight-minute read)
Dear yesterday it rained salt,
You crept up on me. After I met you that Saturday afternoon, after those initial moments of inexplicable resonance with what you presented — about the intricacies of a father-son relationship, about a sea goddess that is at once patient and unyielding — I found myself sitting with a quiet weight for days to come. It got me thinking about the unsurmountable yet hopeful distance between here-and-there, now-and-then — words by José Esteban Munõs from Cruising Utopia. So much of the future is already waiting inside us as intimate imaginations. I am often impatient when it comes to the future. I want it — whatever it is — to come now. Yet I want the past to be with me, giving me the familiarity I often crave, now. We can’t always have both at the same time, can we?
So I watch, as KayKay Nizam and Soultari Amin Farid navigate each other, to try and understand each other, playing father and son.
In the Esplanade Annexe Studio, the waves are already waiting for me as I enter. Man sits, also waiting, though not for me, I’m sure. He seems to be thinking about something beyond my reach. You begin, and Man muses about the possibilities of gudang garam (geram?). Does it mean salt warehouse, or something more ferocious, like a cigarette? Does it suggest something else altogether that I, a non-Malay-speaking person, cannot understand? His body tenses, and he asserts pointedly that he once tried to smoke the cigarette his father always smokes, and it tasted like death. I had just finished a cigarette before coming to meet you, and the slight bitterness in my mouth at once reeks of death. I hold death in my mouth the way his father holds it in his breath. His father emerges later, still alive, and together, they start to build a sampan from the bamboo poles that were sitting on the bare stage. A mode of transport, a mode of wanting to set sail for elsewhere.
Man’s father began by speaking in Malay, so I don’t always know what he means. It reminds me of how my father and I used to talk — he in impatient Hokkien, me in short sentences of Hokkien mixed with Mandarin. The surtitles build a bridge that I am eager to cross, to where Man’s father is. Yet I flit between disembodied words and the subtle movements of their bodies, splitting my attention between static text and fluid bodies. There is a temporal and linguistic gap that gestures towards a deeper chasm as the two fumble to understand each other. I crane my neck to chase mistimed surtitles. I forgive the temporal dissonance, as father and son attempt to forgive each other for not listening enough, not saying enough. Man’s father grasps tightly onto the notion that the sea goddess will not wait (for them? for him? for us?) and moves assuredly across the sampan held together by six bamboo poles, resolute against the inevitable flow of time. Man’s son is hesitant, his body stuttering as he strives to remember the steps of seafaring. He fumbles, and I fumble alongside.
There is a light moment I remember fondly as I write to you. Man’s father prays, tries to resuscitate the corpse of a conversation that has disintegrated midway (or is he trying to save himself?). He points a bamboo pole towards the sky, reaching for God. His son inherits the bamboo pole, and the two of them start to compete, playfully, inching closer to the ceiling. A comment lingers in the air, brimming with a barely veiled accusation, that Man’s son likes to “eat haram things”. Man tenses up, palm curling to an almost-fist. I laugh softly, because I recognise a parent’s reluctant knowledge of his son’s queerness. Even though Man inherits his father’s reach towards God, there seems to be little else he inherits. Their view of faith diverges. They continue bickering and I see you trying to hold together a relationship fraying with each misarticulation, mistranslation.
A moment of realisation: both father and son bear the same name — Az/man.
They are together in the space you created, but they couldn’t be further away from each other. Why? It is almost painful to see them continue talking to each other, still trying to understand each other. I see myself in both of them, different versions of selves trying to reconcile their differences. What other possibilities of translation, missed communications, will you introduce as I witness your passing?
The two start to contend over the “correct” translations of certain phrases: goreng pisang? or pisang goreng? Spaghetti aglio olio, or noodles of a Westerner? They strike each other with words, and seem to entirely miss the point of what the other is trying to say. They are trying to find a common language, and I watch them fail over and over. Your voice rumbles, takes a deeper turn as a moment of play wraps around itself, tensing up yet again. Father and son are no longer playing. They are now shouting at each other, unable to comprehend each other’s stubbornness at the “correct” translation. Is there a lack of care between them, or an abundance of love shown carelessly? I think of a Dutch poem by Michael van der Plas that a dear friend once shared, translated lovingly for me because I know no Dutch:
Ik zit mij voor het vensterglas
onnoemelijk te vervelen.
Ik wou dat ik twee hondjes was,
dan kon ik samen spelen.
I sit in front of a glass window,
quiet and stifled.
I wish we were two dogs,
so we can play on the fields together.
There is so much to surmount between two people, even if bound by blood, before they can reach each other. Man and his son (father?), too, in the space you created, have entire oceans to cross before they can just, very simply, love without wounding each other. “What have you done?” Man asks his son. Perhaps what he is really trying to ask is, “What could I have done to make you understand who I am, what I think, how I wholeheartedly believe this is the right way for me, for us, to live? What could I have done to bring my son back?”
In the end, father and son both kneel and pray alongside each other. They are both someone’s child, Man’s father admits quietly. At this point, I can no longer distinguish clearly between the two — they are equally stubborn, equally, carelessly, loving. Perhaps we are more similar to our parents than we like to believe. By the time I leave you, this question hangs at the back of my dry throat: what could I have done? What could the both of them have done? This will continue to reverberate through the days to come.
(Today I cried. No one saw. If they did they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves. The good thing about salt is that it disappears into the sea.)
I have to start with “please forgive me.” I fear I have no answers for you, for your questions which hang with the weight of hope anchoring them down to the earth. Thank you for coming close. I felt you. I felt the heat off your eyes reflecting into mine. That low intense burn that’s both life and death intermingled—the stillness of it all. Do you ever cough till you think you might die?
(Everyone wants to name me but no one wants to really know me. In the times of quiet, I dare someone to jump. If they did, they would have realised that it is warm where I am.)
It was you I was waiting for all along. Just as fathers wait for their sons, and we wait for her. What do you call a certain sense of intimacy that requires an audience? Is that an impossibility? The impossibility sinks in my stomach till it becomes part of me. The salt calcifies into resentment.
(I am speaking, now, just to you. Do you feel the whisper in your ear?)
The crash of bamboo poles is a kind of inevitable violence. So too, unanswered questions, pauses left for too long. But did you realise that I left you pockets of air to breathe? It made me feel a little like God.
(I imagine myself enveloping you. I am at once gentle and comforting, strong and assured. I am both mother and father. Do you feel comforted by this? Shhh… It is ok to be a little afraid.)
The truth is, your words move me, in a time when everyone has forgotten the secret language we speak. If only we’d try to find the right words.
(I do have moments of doubt. There is pain greater than men can conceive. Greater than the kind they inflict upon themselves. It comes in the quiet. In the acknowledging. It passes as quickly as it comes.)
You are right, of course. Even when you feel everything is going wrong, your instincts will always be right. And do not apologise for being all that you are. For crying, for dancing.
(I am there with you, in all that living.)
Remember that in a world that makes us come apart at the seams, the best way to rebel is to stay close. Sometimes Maggi curry helps 🙂
(These little idiosyncrasies endear you to me.)
Thank you. Your words mean more to me than you will ever know.
Yours (and yours-in-waiting),
yesterday it rained salt
yesterday it rained salt by Bhumi Collective is written by Nabilah Said and choreographed by Norhaizad Adam and was staged on 19 January 2019 at the Esplanade Annexe Studio as part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2019. This letter is written to the performance staged at 4pm on 19 January 2019. Teo Xiao Ting’s letter to yesterday it rained salt was sent on 30 January 2019 and the reply was received on 2 February 2019.
Nabilah Said is the playwright of yesterday it rained salt.
Teo Xiao Ting is a writer based in Singapore. She recently graduated from Yale-NUS College with a BA (Hons.) in Arts & Humanities, minoring in Psychology. For more information about this human, visit her website.
This review is part of the Performance Criticism Mentorship Programme with Corrie Tan, which is initiated by National Arts Council and organised by ArtsEquator. It is a six-month programme during which theatre critic and mentor Corrie Tan guides mentees Casidhe Ng and Teo Xiao Ting in reviewing one performance a month from September 2018 to March 2018. The program seeks to push the writers’ and the readers’ expectations of the forms and perspectives of critical writing, as a way to expand beyond the conventional shape and depth of criticism in Singapore.