prologue


I  left the public library in Charlottetown on a twilit evening when the wind was howling and the snow swirling in my face. For many days now, the cold had been relentless. I had begun to realize how bitter this Canadian winter could be. It was beyond anything I could have imagined. And never could I have imagined myself staggering along the windswept and snow-covered streets of an island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. All alone.

Not long ago, I had been baking under the blistering Malaysian sun in a crowded refugee camp, longing for a place with less misery. And here I was, my wish fulfilled; yet a safe new life of loneliness wasn’t what I wanted. Alone was what I felt when I wandered through the deserted streets named for royalty—Prince, Queen, King—and admired the festive lights beneath the house eaves. They were colorful, like the lights of Saigon’s outdoor markets during Chinese New Year, and twinkled like the stars during my nights crossing the South China Sea. Peering through the windows, I watched happy people gathered around tables, feasting and toasting. The holiday season they were celebrating besieged me with homesickness.

It had been four months since my arrival in this once faraway land. I still shuddered in disbelief. How could I have strayed this far from home? Yesterday was still fresh in my memory: the glistening knives in the pirates’ mouths, the sound of their splashing toward our stalled boat, the Malaysians’ bullets coming at us, and the pain from a rifle butt striking my back and a whip lashing my thighs. Even now, my stomach would still ache when I recalled those hungry days scrounging for crickets, shrimp, anything at all to eat. My heart would still skip a beat when I relived jumping out of the sinking boat. And how could I ever forget the hardships subsisting in the hot furnace that was Malaysia—the scorching days, the sweltering nights, and the guards’ iron fists?

I never thought I would crave my refugee life one day, foolishly and helplessly, like a junkie in need of his fix. Let me return to all that misery. Let me once again hear the familiar sound of the language I understand and be with the people I know.

Not that I didn’t have a good new life. This land had saved me. Its people and their generosity had provided me with shelter, food, and warm clothes. But the large family I cherished, the girl I loved, and the friends I treasured were carrying on with their lives elsewhere without me, leaving me feeling forgotten and racked with homesickness. I saw that now. Loneliness was my shadow, and I a freed bird with broken wings.

My new home was a short walk from those streets of royalty, one small rented room with a ceiling inches above my head, a small fridge, a bed with pots and pans hanging above it, and a table with one chair by a small window. I sat there often, watching the empty street below, my eyes peeled for a familiar sight, like a prisoner awaiting a visitor.

This evening, I had reason to hurry home. In my hand was a record album that the librarian said I should listen to. I had readily agreed—music was a taste of spring for me on these hard winter nights.

I entered the house, quiet and dark, since my landlord was often away. I raced the handful of steps up to my room. Then I put on the record, crashed onto the bed winter jacket and all, and closed my eyes.

I could still hear the librarian’s voice.

“Listen to ‘The Other Side of the Sun’ on this album by Janis Ian. You’ll like it. It’ll be a good change from Andy Williams’ Love Story.”

At least that was what I figured she had said from the little English I knew, aided by her vigorous hand signaling. I smiled to myself. All I had ever borrowed was Love Story, and that must have worried her.

I lay there, tracing the lyrics on the album’s jacket and letting the sunshiny music wash over me:

Leaving on a boat
for beyond the other side of the ocean,
I’ll bet you in the morning
you won’t even know I’m gone.
Tired of living here in the middle of a mixed emotion,
I might as well be living on the other side of the sun.
Leaving with the feeling,
I don’t know how I’m dealing with loving you.
Though once I knew the special way and what to do to make you stay
forever and ever.
Even as I’m leaving,
I’ll never stop believing you are the one
who can make me laugh and can bring me back
from beyond the other side of the sun…

Looking out the window, I thought that if loneliness had a sound, it would be that of the howling wind, weeping for a love forever lost; and if sadness had a color, it would be that of the gray sky, taunting me with memories of an unreachable past. Somehow, I felt consoled. Janis Ian’s music was magical, her lyrics soothing, and her voice beautiful. As if the singer had heard the silence within me and was singing to comfort me. As if she knew the sadness of standing all alone in the world. It was my song, really.

“Someday I’ll write a story for her song,” I said to myself. “It’ll be my story, ‘The Other Side of the Sun.’”