A teacher affects eternity. He can never tell where his influence stops. -
I start with a man who has had much influence in the course of my life. It wasn’t one of those big meltdown moments of recognition but for many years now, I am certain that Prof Josef Škvorecký has been fate’s invisible hand that set me onto the path of my career.
In the early 1980s, I took a short-story writing course at the University of Toronto together with around 8 or 9 others. I took the course because I thought it would not be too demanding.
It was an oddity that someone like me landed in his class. I wasn’t an aspiring writer. I had no idea of what publishing meant; and I was not at all interested in being a part of the writing world.
I chose his course because I was a lost soul wandering the halls of the university, looking for a way to make the university days go quick so I can finish my degree using the path of least resistance.
I remember Prof Škvorecký as a gentle but somewhat reticent man. If my memory serves me right, he has a fondness for cigars. Did I smell the lingering scent of cigars in his office the few times I have been in there? To me, he has always had a crop of silver hair, hair that eases gently over one side. His suites were always conservative; his tones always soft and croaky; his pace carefully measured, never hurried.
To be honest, I don’t remember much from the classes. We sat and talked about our stories. (Forgive me Prof).
But one encounter I had in his office made such a huge impact on me that it propelled me in a direction I never saw possible - a career as a wordsmith.
My Childhood memories
We were to do a short story on “My childhood memories”. A story of maybe of 1,000 words. I remember I struggled with the story. I worked late into the night, and typed and retyped the copy due to the many errors that keep resurfacing. Yes, in the 1980s, computers weren’t that handy to a Luddite like me, and writing was even a stranger technology.
I stood outside his room waiting for my turn to see him. “Miss Lee, come in” he said to me. I dragged myself inside. “Sit down,” he said. I plunged myself on the chair, unsure of what to say, where to look and what to expect.
I didn’t dare look around his room. Right within my view were piles of paper on his desk. Student papers.
Any moment now, words would come from the man shredding my work to a thousand tiny pieces. I braced myself for the cutting words that would fall out of his mouth.
When he found my paper, he looked up and said to me: “I am very impressed by your work (it might have been what you have done), Ms Lee.” He had enjoyed my story, he said.
This was a moment of incredulity. I don’t remember whether my heart leapt, or sank. I had worked myself up for the worst. The worst didn’t come. I had no words.
Perhaps, my country bumpkin faced showed real gratitude. Perhaps there was such huge relief there was no need for words from me.
For a country bumpkin whose main source of literature had been my father’s reading material from high school, who didn’t know how to shape a story, or even knew what the purpose of a short story was - this was a huge endorsement.
Prof Škvorecký, if I recall the gist of the meeting correctly, told me I was one of the few people in the class who didn’t try to write about places like I haven’t been.
Good writing, he says, can only come from writing about what you know, and writing about what you are comfortable with. I have since clutched onto these words like a talisman, like some good omen, hoping its magic will work everyday.
I left his room a few pounds lighter. This was a fantastic rating from an accomplished writer who had won the Laureate of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature (in 1980).
Dare I imagine that, singularly, with his endorsement, the chasm that divided a professional and a country bumpkin would somehow, someway be less wide. Perhaps there was a way I could cross the huge divide.
The course ended soon, and I never made any real friends with other students in that class who were too savvy for me. There was one student, a Jewish woman, who scared me. She was decisive, clever with words and knew what she wanted. She had snazzy titles, one being “Brahms Intermezzo”. She set her sight on being a writer someday. I had no vision of where I was heading except to get a real job after school to pay back the kindness of my parents who sold their house for me to get a good education.
In my last year at the University of Toronto, I took another course with Prof Škvorecký. I did an independent studies project under him, a novella, or short novel. It was a good course for me - I didn’t have to do much beyond trying to write about the things I know.
When the project was completed, I received a good grade. Was Prof a soft marker? I don’t know. I have no benchmarks. He said to me then, “If you polish this up, I will try to find you a publisher.” He was offering me a bridge to his future.
There are a few moments in one’s life when opportunity lands at your doorstep and you miss its face or form.
I don’t remember doing much with Prof Škvorecký’s offer. I think I just offered a non-commital, ‘I will try’, in my typical country bumpkin way.
Publishing seemed like something too distant; too hard, too unreachable and out of the world for a 21-year old without a compass in life.
So somewhere among my hubby’s impeccable filing system is my personal mess. In one zipped-up black bag is a brown envelop - my novella. It has travelled with me from my hometown, to Singapore, to Auckland - untouched since I finished school in 1984.
Prof Skvorecky and I have been in touch over the last 20 years. Every year I send him a card. He scribbles a “Merry Christmas to you and your family”, and I send some ramblings about my latest job/life/about politics of the day. Sometimes, he would send a picture, I have one of him and his wife Zdena – ever the smiling couple. I send him pictures of Princess of the House.
Years, earlier, when he was younger (he’s in his 80s and retired now), he used to send me some of his books. I read them religiously. The one I love most is “Dvorak in Love”. Prof Škvorecký loves music – jazz especially. I can’t relate to jazz but am more in tune with classical music. The book is a historical novel, of Antonin Dvorak’s unrequited romance in a new world, America.
Last year, I sent Prof Škvorecký a CD of Whirimako Black singing in her smokey voice, jazzy numbers part in Maori, part in English. I had hope he would like it. Prof Škvorecký wrote “very interesting”.
We came close to reunion meeting in Singapore when hubby and I lived there over 10 years ago. I had a call from Kee Thuan Chye, an ex colleague who rang me to say there was a writer from Canada who would be appearing in a talk in Singapore, and he wanted to make contact. I was elated! Prof was among a panel of international writers at a conference! I couldn’t wait.
We set up a meeting. But he fell sick, and the meeting was not to be. If I had any brains, I would have insisted on going to his hotel, to make sure he was alright. He was an old man in a strange land. I was young and silly and always busy with work. What was I thinking?
So now, ever so often, I think about Prof Škvorecký’s offer over 20 years ago. Twenty years of lost opportunities. I am thinking of writing a novel now. The world has gotten tougher. There are many Amy Tans or Maxine Hong-Kingstons who write with so much manna, who remember their stories better. Dare I write about the things I know, the things I used to know but am forgetting? The things I am beginning to know or relearn?
Prof Škvorecký has been prolific, beavering away as all writers do to keep their art alive. His book tally is over 20. He and Zdena founded Sixty-Eight Publishers Corp, which for over 20 years, kept Czech and Slovak literature alive when the Communists in power were trying to shred them. He earned a gong from post-Communist president Václav Havel.
Over the last 20 years, I have been writing and writing – mostly about financial markets and business reports; nothing remotely resembling what I did in short story writing.
Once upon a time there were people who helped nudged you along a certain way; gave you some encouragement, saw or believed in your potential when no one else did; bosses who threw you in the deep end to learn…tutors who tell you your work is crap or you need to pull your socks up. These people become inevitably, the unseen hands that shake you to the core, and shape your being.