Writing books is a weird gig, especially if the books are highly personal as mine mostly are. I’ve written three, co-authored another, and each book seeps into the universe from its printed pages to recreate itself as a virtual living entity in its own write.
The oft employed analogy that creating a book is akin to creating a child is reasonably accurate The birth of a book is a major occasion in the life of its author. At publication time the humble author briefly becomes a mini instant celebrity, with the attendant book launches; articles in publications; radio and television interviews and the odd camaraderie of a TV studio green room or waiting room; author’s whistle-stop tours with plane flights and overnight stays in fancy hotels in strange cities; speaking engagements; people fussing; book signings in department stores and so on.
Book launch tours can have their own bizarre complications. In the early 1980s I’d written a book titled, A Salute to the Humble Yabby, a yabby being an Australian freshwater crayfish similar to the US crawfish or crawdad.
For television appearances, I lugged a styrofoam container of live yabbies from city to city, and when arriving in hotels I’d put the yabbies in a bathtub full of water and gum leaves to keep them alive and nipping.
But at a five-star hotel in Brisbane, the then conservative capital of Queensland, the cleaner came into my room while I was out, saw the crayfish in the bathtub and flipped out, alerting security.
When I returned to the hotel, two grim security guys asked terse questions, initially suggesting that I was possibly guilty of being “strange.”
The oft employed analogy that creating a book is akin to creating a child is reasonably accurate
But, just as the buzz of a book launch has begun, it’s over, and it’s back to the normality. Back to an apartment that needs cleaning, back to no room service, back to bills that need paying and a chook that’s gone mouldy in the fridge.
But the book is always omnipresent and remains so for a long time. For starters there are the book reviews: the good, the bad and the ugly. They keep filtering into the author’s consciousness for days, weeks, months, and now in the online era, even years.
Then there are the readers, the adoring, the critical, the abusive and the inquisitive. They’re scattered over the globe, and can make their presence felt at any given time, sometimes in bizarre circumstances, by letter, email or personal interaction. And often the reader’s story gives further life and impetus to the original story itself.
Perhaps my oddest encounter with a reader happened in the emergency ward of Noosa Hospital in Queensland, Australia, where I’d been rushed by ambulance after heavy bleeding from a delicate spot.
A diminutive female Asian doctor bustled into the room and came up with a great opening line: “Hello we’ve just met and the first thing I’m going to do is stick my fingers up your bottom.”
After she finished her probing and declared that nothing serious was amiss, she peeled off her latex gloves and asked me to spell my name again so she could fill out the forms.
When I spelled out my name she hesitated and gave me a funny look. She said, “Don’t tell me you wrote a book about Myanmar?”
When I said, yes, I had written a book about Myanmar called A Land of a Thousand Eyes, she burst into tears. I found myself in the odd situation of having to console the emergency ward doctor who was supposed to be consoling me.
“Was the book that bad?” I quipped.
“No, no,” she replied, “It was a beautiful book. It painted a beautiful picture of the beautiful people who live in my beautiful country.”
She said she was Burmese and told me her story. Like many people of her generation she got caught up in the bloody student uprising of 1988, was forced to leave the country, and lived in exile ever since.
She told me that reading my book prompted her to chance a visit to her home country, the first since 1988.
“I told my husband that the book brought back so many memories and that I had to return to see my family, particularly my brother who I hadn’t seen in all those years.
“But you know what happened? I arrived only a couple of weeks after my brother died so I never got to see him.”
Hence the tears.
While filling out forms she chatted on, and slyly asked me the question that so many women readers ask.
What happened with the woman in the book? My book is part memoir, part love story between myself and a Yangon journalist, and in the book I left the question of what happened to the heady romance unanswered.
In real life I subsequently married the woman, then later divorced.
I told the doctor I’d married and she said, “Uh huh, but the name you gave her in the book is obviously made up. What’s her real name?”
The question seemed irrelevant, but I told her anyway, figuring the name would be meaningless. Again, she gave me an astounded look.
“What’s her age?” she asked. I told her. She paused, then said, “Don’t tell me she’s from Thanlyin?”
Thanlyin, formerly Syriam, is a small historic town just outside Yangon that was turned into an oil refining centre by the British in the early twentieth century, and also became home to several universities.
When I said that indeed my wife came from Thanlyin, the doctor exclaimed “I know her. I know her. Her grandfather was a renowned surgeon and I studied under him. I spent a lot of time in Thanlyin, met his family and I remember her. She was a little girl then, always playing and laughing.”
Then, as I was patched up and wheeled out of the emergency ward, we both agreed it wasn’t the type of encounter either of us expected in the emergency ward of a regional hospital in Australia.
Writing about real life also means you write about real people and early on in the authorship game I discovered that no matter how much you disguise people, they recognize themselves, especially if you write about them derogatorily.
I now try to write only nice things about most people, a lesson I learned after the launch of my first book, A Dozen Dopey Yarns: Tales from the Pot Prohibition. I’d written a less than flattering description of a lady who danced naked one night on the lonely road to the Australian hippie haven of Nimbin, while on a magic mushroom trip.
She recognized herself from the book, and her boyfriend came on stage at the University of Adelaide and attacked me while I was participating in a forum on censorship. The forum followed the banning of my pot book, which in itself made history of sorts – my book was the first to be banned under new Australian legislation defining the “new pornography.” My book was deemed to be unnecessarily “promiscuous” about drug taking and upset a lot of people, including the aforesaid naked dancing lady.
But perhaps the person I’ve written about who I’ve most affected, for a brief time at least, was Lasheeda, a previously anonymous little street urchin in Yangon who pounded the pavements incessantly, flogging post cards.
She was a feisty little kid, a pest at times, and when I brusquely brushed her off one busy day while she tried to sell me postcards outside a café, she came after me, yelling that she was only trying to make some money. “Commishun, commishun, commishun,” she yelled, stamping her feet. I admired her pluck so I began to give her little odd jobs, like finding things for me at the market or delivering parcels, and we became mates.
She had the most amazing, beseeching eyes and a photo I took of those large dark luminous eyes graces the cover of my book. I also devoted a chapter to her using her real name, and ran another photo of her inside the book.
Post publication, I began to get emails from travelers who’d read my book, travelled to Myanmar, and were astonished to discover that the Lasheeda of my book was in fact a very real living person who plied the main thoroughfare outside the iconic Scott Market.
I figured that Lasheeda must also have been astonished, having these foreigners come up to her, engaging her, and that her mysterious mini-celebrityhood gave her an edge in the street hustling game.
A public servant from the Australian capital of Canberra who traveled regularly to Myanmar wrote to me that she’d also met Lasheeda and was helping her. She said that Lasheeda was most perplexed about how people knew her. Then a Brit traveler emailed me saying that he’d had a copy of my book in Myanmar, met Lasheeda and showed her the book and her photo. He said Lasheeda was quick to ask for some money for the photo and I thought, “Good on you, Lasheeda, you don’t miss a trick.” So via the network I sent her some money as a “modeling fee,” enough to provide for her and her family for a while.
But while my book played a part in Lasheeda’s life, Lasheeda’s story also boomeranged back to me as part of a vicious review in the so called “exile” publication, The Irrawaddy Journal. Happily most of my reviews were excellent, but the Irrawaddy review was stinker, a toxic personal attack, headlined ‘The Year of Living Degenerately.’
I’d written a less-than-flattering description of a lady who danced naked one night on the lonely road to the Australian hippie haven of Nimbin, while on a magic mushroom trip
One of the requirements of writing books is that you have to take bad reviews in their stead, but this one went beyond the pale, a knife job that maliciously distorted an episode involving Lasheeda.
During my time in Myanmar I discovered that helping distressed people on the street was a crime – a journalist told me that her uncle had been jailed for rendering assistance to a person inured in a traffic accident.
In the book I recounted how one day Lasheeda collapsed on the street, indicating great pain from her lower abdomen area. I specifically pointed out that I ignored the edict of not helping people in distress and wrote, “Lasheeda’s plight can’t be ignored.”
I explained in the book that given Lasheeda’s pain was in the lower abdomen I thought it might not be suitable for me, a male in Myanmar, to be present at what would be a private examination by a doctor.
So I recruited a woman friend to take her to a clinic, and then paid for the treatment, and was rewarded a little later by a happy Lasheeda mimicking how the doctor gave her an injection in the bum.
But the Irrawaddy piece claimed, “The book’s most revealing passage is when the author refuses to help the sick street child he patronizingly pretends to care for. He has been giving her pocket change for months for helping him to carry his shopping and to bargain for him at the market. But when she falls painfully ill with stomach worms he refuses to help her get hospital treatment because — under what he terms ‘the unwritten law that forces people to ignore the suffering’ — assistance could have jeopardized his own position.”
That the reviewer had so twisted an episode to make me look like a bastard did infuriate me, but it also rendered further observations by that reviewer irrelevant, including the evaluation, “Amid the hackneyed attempts at political and cultural insight lurks some hilariously bad writing.”
The beauty of being an author is that such stuff gets forgotten when the next review comes in. Happily within days the much more authoritative Sydney Morning Herald reviewed the book and said, “This is Myanmar without the military. It is a delicate, careful and thoughtful account of daily life – both for expatriates and the locals they fraternise with. Although Olszewski had a reputation as an Australian gonzo journalist (he was tour manager for Hunter S. Thompson), this well-written book is untouched by that hyperactive style. It paints a portrait of a poor, beautiful country where life is still enjoyed.”
But bit by bit, the Myanmar book is now receding from my life, having reached its use-by date. The book is out of print. I haven’t heard news of Lasheeda for about three years, I’ve lost touch with the Myanmar doctor, ditto my ex-wife, and two years ago I read in a Lonely Planet review of the book that I, as the author, “may not be the sort of guy you want to share a cup of tea with.”
So I guess it’s lucky that I’m mostly a coffee drinker.