Writing about Cities

Twin Towers' Evening Splendor, Kuala lumpur
Twin Towers' Evening Splendor, Kuala lumpur

Writers always include the cities they’ve lived in in their work. I’ve lived in five different cities, for varying periods of time, visited perhaps five more, but the nomad in me refuses to engage with just one of them, to be bowed down in nostalgia.

And I realize with a shock that the city I live in now, Kuala lumpur, is alien to me, because I have walked so few of its streets. I visit people, I meet friends at malls, I drive through streets, I take guests around to see local attractions–the twin towers or the Merdeka Square, but I have no real idea of the smells of this city, its alleys, its by-lanes.

I am a foodie, so yes, the food-stalls, whether Malay, Chinese or Indian, are a familiar haunt. They are my only windows to this city’s reality, the only time I’m out of the air-conditioned depths of my car, various restaurants, or shopping malls.

Worst of all, I do not speak this city’s language, or languages. Neither Malay, nor Mandarin, nor Tamil. I speak English, and though that lets me get by, I lose so many of the city’s nuances. The city remains cloaked in its linguistic veil, and I’m never quite able to take it off. I’ve tried to learn more of its history, but I guess reading it is not the same as absorbing it through your grandma’s stories, and remembered dinner table conversations from your childhood.

What little I’ve come to know of this city, I’ve learned from my Malaysian friends, and for that bit I’m grateful. I regret that I do not work here, work that would involve me going into the city’s roads, nooks, and crannies. I like how London vibrates in Dicken’s works, and I wonder whether there would come a day when the cities I have lived in would themselves come alive in my writing.

Word count:

Jan 31- 500

Feb 1- 0 (Was out all of yesterday, more about that later)

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  1. damyantig

    Darc, I think I’m one for the suburbs. Where I live in KL, I can see quite a bit of greenery, but a shopping mall and modern conveniences are within walking distance. I like visiting in rural areas, drinking in the simple life for a bit, and then it is back to the buzz of the city 🙂

    Kym, these towers used to be the tallest in the world at one point. They are gorgeous, and every time I drive by them, I’m overwhelmed. I want to go up to the bridge that you can see connecting the two towers. I’ve been dropping hints to the hubby.

    You’re right Annie, to bring a place truly alive you need to have lived in it, walked in it, to have felt it in your bones. There are those that can do without, but I’m certainly not one of them.

    Cliff, it is a pleasure to see you here. Yes, I love it when the setting almost becomes one of the characters. Yes, the towers are something, aren’t they? This was a picture taken as we were walking to car one evening after it had rained. I love the way the clouds swirl around the twins.

  2. Cliff Burns

    Cities are especially well-represented in “noir” fiction and films, where the metropolitan locales become almost another character in the story. Oppressive, labyrinthine; Skinner boxes for the human beings who exist there.

    Great post…and, man, those Towers are something…

  3. anniegirl1138

    Working does connect us in ways that nothing else can.

    So many writers try to bring their towns/cities to life with street map like detail these days. It really isn’t a substitute for having really lived and breathed a place.

  4. Kym

    The photo made me gasp. I’m afraid I’ve never even heard of that attraction. And I know what you mean about walking a city and talking its language to be able to know and write it.

    This was an excellent essay!

  5. DarcKnyt

    Ah, the life of the city! How little I could survive there. Give me rural or at the very least suburban settings. My time for concrete jungles is over. 🙂