STORY OF THE MONTH
A Hot Night in Hat Yai
by Jessica Dur
—Are you sure you want to get out here? (A mild German accent, a concerned brow.)
—I guess I'll know the answer soon enough.
I get off the bus, give a little wave to the window, then sit on the sidewalk and sigh. Not many tourists come here, to Hat Yai, a bland city near the border of Malaysia. The only guide-book-recommended hotel smells like decaying flowers. I feel like napping until I see the sunken bed and two cockroaches rioting across the floor. Instead I go for a walk and try not to think about my boyfriend-no-longer, or my maybe-someday-boyfriend, who is just beginning to burn fantastic, or how long (weeks) until I go home.
Tomorrow I will take the overnight bus to Kuala Lumpur. I'll arrive around 4:00 in the morning, a scary time; from half-sleep to an empty dark street. I'll need to find a hotel room and, once day breaks, a plane ticket on to Java. How can I know that a four-year-old girl dressed all in white, her and her mom, will sit right across the aisle and cheer me? Or that a stocky young man will greet my bus, in search of business, and lead me to a faded hotel, this time with smaller beetles and a clean bed? I can't know that I'll be taken care of when I travel.
Dinner is a big bowl of rice with a few specks of egg and green onion. The safe option. I crave French fries and strong arms. Dusk bruises the sky, but I am restless. June in Thailand feels like being inside someone's mouth, warm and wet. I keep walking.
I hear the music first. A vague memory of the roller rink. Damp jeans and glitter. Then, a startle like a unicorn—out of the vast grim network of stray-dog streets, a leafy green park. Life. Mostly women and a few men are... doing aerobics. A tiny leotard demonstrates the moves atop a giant wooden platform. She is flanked by speakers that blast a grainy remake of "Eye of the Tiger".
I struggle my frizzy curls into a ponytail, kick off my sandals, and squeeze into the crowd. My face burns shy. I am a foot taller than everyone and my hips, also bigger, want to wiggle all over the place.The women flash me smiles. I'm sweating and panting, but I won't stop to rest. It feels good to prove something. Thoughts lose their traction on the pavement of my mind. I'm putting the sun to bed with the rhythm of my breath and the beating of my limbs.
When the music stops I drop a few baht into the donation basket and realize that the dark has smudged my memory. Where is my hotel? People are chatting and drinking from water bottles and leaving. I see the lights of a 7-11 two blocks away, and I can't help but trot over. I'll linger for as long as I can in the glorious air-conditioning. I'll buy an iced tea, maybe even an ice cream sandwich. And even though I'll sleep all night with the mean lightbulb cursing my eyelids (anything to keep the roaches away), I'll wake up knowing that where I am is where I need to be.
Jessica Dur has scaled the jungle to sneak into Machu Picchu, sipped wine with a priest in Bulgaria, ridden motorcycles through Thailand and Java, and survived the month of July in Cuba. She lives and writes in Santa Rosa, California, to the tune of her husband's piano playing and their neighborhood crows. Her writing has appeared in Frostwriting, Fractured West, The Sun, The North Bay Bohemian, Shareable, and Petals & Bones. She blogs at www.gyrlwryter.blogspot.com.
INTERVIEW WITH JESSICA DUR
Q. Congratulations, Jessica! Could you tell us a little about yourself?
Words have always been my medium. I taught high school English for six years, until this fall, when I decided to focus on my writing full time. I write articles and reviews for the alternative weekly, The North Bay Bohemian, as well as creative nonfiction and flash fiction. I blog at www.gyrlwryter.blogspot.com.
Q. What would you want our readers to know about you?
I find writing to be the most gratifying and the most frustrating endeavor. Sometimes I hate it. More often I love it.
Q. Do you write in a particular genre? If so, what genre is it?
I write in whatever genre compels me, which is mostly creative nonfiction. I mine my own life for story ideas and newspaper features and then I write as honestly as I can without completely embarrassing myself.
Q. What, in your opinion, are the most important elements of good writing?
I think good writing has heart. I think it's writing that has been revised tirelessly, so that every word has impact. I think it's been so well edited that nary a comma is out of place. Mostly, I think good writing makes people feel glad to be alive.
Q. How do you develop your plots and characters? Do you use any set formula?
I experience life as deeply as I can, and sometimes a situation presents itself as a story. Characters are drawn from the people who inhabit my life. Plot, I think, is trickier. A tight plot is essential to any story, which means I sometimes have to sacrifice some of the "happening-truth" for the "story-truth."
Q. What do you do to unwind and relax?
I travel, I take long walks, I read, I make soup, I collage things, I clean out closets, I ride my bike around town, I go camping, I do yoga, I play back-gammon with my husband.
Q. What inspires you? Who inspires you?
The glory and heartache of life and the resilience of people inspires me daily. As for whom: my husband and my mother, foremost, for their deep engagement with emotional life. Currently I'm inspired by authors Truman Capote, Naomi Wolf, Mary Elizabeth Williams, and Ursula K. Le Guin, and photographer Bill Cunningham, who does not sacrifice his artistic freedom for money.
Q. Are you working on any projects right now?
I'm always working on something writing-related. Currently I'm researching/writing a couple of journalistic pieces for The Bohemian and I'm revising a slew of creative nonfiction pieces. I'm also working on a new piece for an anthology contest and gearing up to attend the Tomales Bay Workshop in mid-October. And, most significantly, I'm 20 weeks into manufacturing a baby.
Q. What is most frustrating about writing? Most rewarding?
Most frustrating are long-awaited rejections and finished products languishing on my hard drive, without a home.
Most rewarding is the act of creative completion, when I finish something and feel proud of it, when a small part of the world takes notice, too.
Q. If I were sitting down to write my very first story, what would your advice be?
Be honest. Don't censor yourself. Have fun.
Q. What advice would you give to writers just starting out?
The only way to get better as a writer is to write (hopefully every day, even if it's in a journal). For inspiration and guidance, I recommend Stephen King's "On Writing" and Brenda Ueland's "If You Want to Write." But read everything--you must study your craft. Create deadlines for yourself, and stick to them. Stop worrying. And most importantly: aim high! You will likely surprise yourself.