Ubud encounters: Justin Torres gets angry, Neal Hall moves

At the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali, I ran into a couple of Americans and found out we share school ties.

Justin Torres, author of the novel We the Animals, teaches at Stanford’s creative program, where I studied a few decades ago. Torres was part of a fantastic panel entitled Through the Glass Darkly, exploring the distance between writer and writing.

Torres mentioned during the panel that when he writes, the overriding emotion is anger. “But as I explore the situation,” he said, “I find out that I have developed some empathy” for whatever it was that prompted the anger.”

We talked about the differences between writing fiction and non-fiction. “Fiction is about asking questions and leading to even bigger questions,” Torres said. “At least when it’s going right.”

I also met Neal Hall, MD, ophthalmologist and poet. His website is www.surgeonpoet.com, and he won first in poetry at the New York Book Festival this year. Hall will be talking about his book Nigger for Life later during the festival.

Hall and I discovered that we were both in school during the same years, and that I likely saw him play football for Cornell, where he also earned All America honors in track. But our conversation drifted to his choice to settle in Philadelphia. He said he wishes he’d stayed in Boston – he did his surgical training at Harvard. “I love the architecture, the history, and the way you can go out the street and be entertained around Cambridge,” he said.

Of course, I would suggest that city between Boston and Philadelphia that starts with New and doesn’t end with ark. Or its Far East Side incarnation that I call home: Hong Kong.

Later this afternoon, I’m looking forward to the launch of Diana Darling’s thoroughly adult Balinese fairy tale The Painted Alphabet. She’s a wonderful writer and an even better human being. It will be a pleasure to see her on such a happy occasion.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

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