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Fear and laughter on the literary trail

Peter Olszewski / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
Books written by this columnist. Supplied

She was a petite Asian woman, late thirties or thereabouts, and she said, “Hello we’ve just met and the first thing I’m going to do is stick my fingers up your bottom.”

She was in fact a Burmese doctor in the emergency ward of a hospital in the Australian resort town of Noosa, where I’d arrived with a bleeding problem.

After she finished her probing and declared that nothing was amiss, she peeled off the 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.

“Don’t tell me you wrote a book about Myanmar?” she said.

When I confirmed I had written a book about Myanmar called ‘A Land of a Thousand Eyes’, she burst into tears.

Suddenly I was consoling 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 told me her story. Like many Burmese of her generation, she got caught up in the bloody student uprising in 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 I arrived only a couple of weeks after my brother died so I never got to see him.”
Hence the tears.

I was asked the other day what it’s like writing a book. Writing a book is basically boring, it’s like sitting on the toilet for hours every day for a year or so evacuating your vowels.

The fun stuff happens when the book is published: author tours, media interviews, book reviews, TV appearances. And wonderful encounters with people like the Burmese doctor, not to mention the occasional bout of weird crap.

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.

On the book tour, I lugged a styrofoam container of live yabbies from city to city for TV appearances, and when arriving in hotels I’d put the yabbies in a bathtub full of water and gum leaves to keep the little critters alive and nipping.

But at a five-star hotel in Brisbane, the cleaner came into my room while I was out, saw the crayfish in the bathtub and flipped out.

Security was alerted, and when I returned to the hotel, two heavy security guys accused me of being “strange,” apparently then a crime in the then – conservative – Australian deep north.

My next book, ‘A Dozen Dopey Yarns: Tales from the Pot Prohibition’ – written under my nom de pot, JJ McRoach – mostly told the story of my adventures involved with working with gonzoid US author Hunter S Thompson on his 1976 Australian lecture tour , and my historic 1977 senate campaign for the Australian Marijuana Party campaign.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the book was initially banned, and to escape the furore I headed to San Francisco where a publisher was distributing copies of the book. As a kid, I’d always been a fan of the American beat writers, such as Jack Kerouac, who mostly congregated around the famous City Lights book store, now an official historic landmark.

So in San Fran I headed off, ‘Dopey Yarns’ book under arm, determined to get the store to put a copy on their hallowed shelves.

For confidence building, I stopped at a bar across the street from the store and overdid things – about three hours later I drunkenly stumbled across the road and into the store, slamming my book down on the counter and launching into a spiel about why my book should be put on a shelf, much to the amusement of the super-hip dude behind the counter who finally walked out from behind the counter, stood behind me, put his hands on my shoulders, and steered me out of the store.

I thought he was chucking me out, but before I could remonstrate, he turned me around in the pavement in front of the store so that I was facing the store-front window and said, “You’re a writer, observe.”

I observed and saw that there was a small display of my book in the front window of City Lights book store.

So that was a buzz, but the problem with the buzz that comes from releasing a book, or as my musician mates tell me from releasing an album, is that it’s fun while it lasts – but it doesn’t last long.

The book becomes yesterday’s news and is forgotten. Ditto the author who discovers fame is fleeting.

And the only way to get that buzz back is to do it again, to lock yourself in a room for hours on end, loosen up constipated consonants and let the words flow.

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