I'm at my desk again, looking on this bright clear blue morning. The last of the coffee is in the cup at my side, and I am balancing on the line between savoring the soft nutty flavor and letting the cup grow cool and bitter. The task I've set for myself today is to write my memories of Indonesia and Bangkok and New York under times of extreme political and socioeconomic duress. These are excruciatingly painful memories, I've discovered, and trying to write about them has been giving me pause and relived pain.
I set myself this awkward task somewhat unintentionally. In an attempt to practice my academic skills and participate in music-scholarly life, I sent four paper proposals to four widely varying music scholarship conferences this spring. This was supposed to be the first step in a growth process, a way to refine the skill of proposal writing and seek some mentorship in the tangentially related and seemingly impenetrable field I am trying to move into. Instead, three of my proposals have been accepted, and I'm now in the position of having to write these papers and preparing to read them aloud in front of a room of graduate students and professors. I'm nonplussed, to say the least. I don't particularly like the situation I've put myself in, one in which I'm facing judgement from peers in just two and a half weeks for a performance on which I've had very little mentorship or direction. The task makes me nervous, especially because the first conference topic is highly charged and hosted by a school whose students are notoriously obnoxious problematizers, of whom I'm unsecretly terrified. I'm also the only person on the recently released program who is without an institutional affiliation. For some reason, I've put myself in the position of taking my place in a fraught academic space, in which I'm the least credentialed and will likely be the least supported, because I had a moment of motivation and an underestimation of my proposal's expedience, which landed me with twenty minutes to fill that I certainly do not deserve.
According to the proposal, I'm supposed to be writing about the events that led to my disrupted and expatriate citizenship: the riots and conflict in both Jakarta and Bangkok that created the emergency conditions under which I was evacuated twice. I've set myself the task of writing about my own memories of pain and mass political trauma again, of recognizing and criticizing my own position in those situations, of theorizing and framing my own lived experience. I suppose that's what I know how to do best. That's the in-road to understanding that I've laid out for myself as I attempt to belong as a participant in this ill-advised academic conference. I have a strategy: I'll consider each of the three historical events as three events in and of themselves -- first, the living of the event, second, the remembering of the event, and third, the re-encountering the event through the records that are available now. The living of the event is tacit. It cannot be performed for the audience. The remembering of the event is also tacit, but can be both recorded by me -- words written, traces captured -- and performed for the audience in my twenty minute slot. The re-encountering of the event can be performed for the audience. They can (re-)encounter the story right alongside me through the media coverage that I've unearthed in the process of remembering, preparing to perform this remembering.
Accordingly, I've broken down the presentation into an introduction, three sections for each event, three subsections within each event, and a conclusion. I don't know whether this surface structure will contain the meaning that I hope to convey. Truthfully, I'm still telling myself that I've got a few weeks to determine what I want to convey. How do I contain these events in the space of twenty minutes? How do I show what they've meant to me? How do I make them mean something for my listeners? How do I make them mean something together? I wonder whether there is another person out there who has lived each of these three events, who has been shaped by these three particular fractures in history. I wonder whether they're turning out to be anything like me.
The struggle is to own my story. I've been in so many situations where I can't rightfully claim ownership over my experience: where I feel I'm the one in the wrong for even being there. In Jakarta, I was the child of an expat petroleum engineer, living in a marble palace paid for by greedily and wastefully exploiting the cracks of the earth for a check from a multinational corporation. In Bangkok, I was a glorified tourist, expanding my precious life experience and escaping the upheaval of my separating family with a year of adventure in a distant land, paid for by an organization that spreads toxic Western neoliberal capitalism by sending privileged young children throughout the world to carry its message. The slightest consideration and introspection beneath the surface of my life experience overwhelms me in a caustic plume of recognizing the fact that my childhood and adolescence was fueled by opportunism and exploitation, resource manipulation and cultural tourism. I can't speak for these sins. I don't feel guilty about how I have lived, and I don't regret the choices that I and my family members made, but I cannot say that I am happy to look at my life in the face. I can say that a few months ago, I worked up at Cornell University for about a week preparing a program of Baroque music for choir and ensemble. Cornell has an exceptionally strong Indonesian studies program, and the halls of the music building are lined with enticing posters advertising Bahasa language lessons and gamelan courses. They were attractive and painful: I imagined stepping into an academic life that brings me spiraling back, closing in ever-closer to the experiences of my own childhood in a safe, bright, controlled classroom, so far from the reality I lived and remember and re-encounter. I suppose that's what I'm doing now, in telling this story.