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From Egypt to Indonesia; A Study in Writer's Block

It has been five months since I began my stay at Yayasan Bali Purnati, perhaps the most magical part of my summer. Since moving to Washington D.C. and entering the grind, I have been inundated in work and I can feel my acceleration beginning to decline. This is not uncommon for me: I frequently experience bouts of intense work periods followed by a brief interlude of laziness -- something I have been trying to rewire my brain as a positive attribute rather than a character flaw (Ellen Burstyn calls these periods "shoudless days," but for me it's usually a "shouldless month").

Of course, the constant unanswered emails, rejected applications, and inevitable self-comparisons will arise (often symptoms of my own errors) compounded by the monotony of an underpaid day job inevitably makes an already frail (yet large) ego on cusp of shattering. It is in these moments, I hearken back to Hesse's Siddhartha, where the titular character flees his home in search of new teachings, and eventually (or, rather, consequently) in search of purpose.

I see myself in Siddhartha, though I'm sure there are few who do not, because at the point of opportunity there is this sense of inundation -- not being overwhelmed, rather being flooded. I feel filled with ambition, knowledge, wit, and frustration, to the point of over-saturation. I think I am going to burst if this does not get released. How ironic: we spend the entirety of adolescence in search of something, but now I feel as if it's time expel it all.

A better way to say this is, perhaps, I feel that I need to express it all. The metaphor of expulsion isn't entirely possible (thank god), especially if we are subscribing to the Freudian school of thought where we never truly forget anything we experience.

Okay, enormously large exposition over. I spent the last week back in Ann Arbor visiting friends and professors. I miss the school, but I am thankful to be out of it. In a conversation with my long-time mentor, Malcolm Tulip, we approached my time in Indonesia and I immediately remembered the rich time I had there filled with puppets, dance, temples, pig-beheadings, and oddly enough, Egyptian myth.

I had a teacher there, Anom, who taught us mask-carving, whose brief appearance affected me most profoundly. First, because of the incredible irony of his name: in English, the prefix of Anom denotes anonymity and I found this all too perfect because he carved masks for a living. Second, because he was just a wealth of insight. "What the classics teach us - The Mahabharata - is that tragedy, war, and disaster could have been avoided had we simply respected women." He chuckled.

But the most wonderful part of his chat with us was a brief introduction to topeng. "The mask is carved from the wood of a hibiscus tree," he began. "And afterwards, it is returned."

It is returned, he later explained, for two purposes: the first is to ask for forgiveness. To strip a tree of its bark is an act of theft. This is an animistic quality of their Hindu sect. The second is to be filled with the spirit of the tree. It is the act of forgiveness.

I can't help but find this process echoes the very act of art-making itself. No, I retract that, it echoes many other processes beyond just art. Mentor-teacher, parent-child, boss-employee: it echoes these relationships based on a particular power-dynamic which eventually shift. The hibiscus tree weathers and dies , whether we like it or not, but its spirit continues to exist in the mask. And the performer, mask-maker (often the same person, but increasingly more often different people) become intertwined with this spirit and will eventually plant a new tree.

This act of shifting power is one that really inspired me. That, and the story of Osiris, Set, and Horus.

I encountered the Osiriyan myth near the end of undergraduate studies, but it was a story we are all too familiar with: Hamlet, The Lion King, The Odyssey, The Princess Bride, etc. Yet there was something starkly different from Osiris' myth than these other tales. The main players, for one, are engaged in a power struggle that exceeds far beyond politics. Sex is at play here. The myth is unashamed in the blatant eroticism: Osiris is killed by Set because the former had slept with Set's sisterwife, Nephthys, who is also Osiris' own sister. But this act of incest is far more bearable than Set's relationship with Horus - the son of Osiris - who willingly engages in intercourse with his uncle.

The bulk of the Osiriyan myth is actually concerned with Horus, though Osiris' presence is strongly felt throughout the remainder of this tale. Of course, Horus overcomes his uncle, but what remains and what catalyzed these events are far more interesting fragments of gender, sexuality, and power that I felt compelled to analyze.

I began my adaptation of the Osiris myth sometime before I actually came to Bali, but I rewrote the entire thing there and finished it with just enough time to do a workshop. Most of the work was strongly influenced by the wayang kulit puppetry and dance theatre I was experiencing at the time, and if I had had it my way, I would never have even written anything - it would all have been devised.

I can't divulge too much of the play, other than that it does feel incomplete. I am proud of the first act - entirely Osiris' story - proud of the verbiage, the structure, and the concept. The second act is still unfinished, and far longer - it might as well be a three act play. Yet, I cannot bring myself to finish it. As I told Malcolm, "It was born in Indonesia, I think it still needs time to grow up there."

I am not concerned about allegations of cultural appropriation. It's simply not. True, my version was conceived under the influence of the Balinese puppets and the topeng mask dances, but I did not picture an Egyptian-inspired aesthetic overlaying these qualities as I wrote the text. Rather, I found that the act of using puppets and dance were very useful in telling this story. I also would not dare to try and replicate any of the forms I encountered during my very brief time there. It would be foolish! These people had been training in the form all their life - from childhood till now. To even think that I could recreate what I learned in a month would be a total disservice to the culture.

It is not the fear of cultural appropriation that has given me pause either. This writer's block was engendered the moment I started rehearsals for The Cherry Orchard. I think I feel just that the play is not meant to be finished quite yet. Indonesia or America, there is a long ways to go before The Osiriyan Tales and I will begin our journey together again.


Photo Credit to: Aaron Hussain

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