The summer after I finished graduate school, I got married, and then my husband and I moved across the world to teach in Kuantan, Malaysia, a small city on the rural east coast. I remember traveling across the peninsula by car just after we arrived, marveling at the new landscape. Everything was different from anything I’d experienced before, from the foliage to the language and culture, to the climate and the food. I wondered, as we drove, how I would ever write in this new place, so far away from the familiar.
As it turned out, however, this move across the world was a wonderful gift for me as a writer. Life in Kuantan was rather quiet, especially after the intense literary mileau of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, but in that silence I learned to listen to my own voices, my own stories, and I had time and freedom. Living in another culture was tremendously stimulating, and I wrote letters and journal entries, short stories and essays. I didn’t worry about publishing in those days, because it was before email, and very difficult to send manuscripts overseas. I simply wrote for the pleasure of writing. I began to take risks and test my range, too. On holidays, I traveled, throughout Malaysia, as well as to Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand and Indonesia. We went snorkeling on islands in the South China Sea, and we hiked through the hill tribe communities on the border of Myanmar. Each trip gave me something new to think about, inspired more writing, and expanded my perspective on the world.
Earlier this week I came across a very smart and thoughtful review of The Lake of Dreams in a major Malaysian paper, The Star, which I used to read when I lived there, and it took me back to those tropical days of writing and travel: