We are all beginners.


“There are no classes in life for beginners: right away you are always asked to deal with what is most difficult.”
— Rainer Maria Rilke


Stories save lives.

When I was a child, reading Enid Blyton or Norse myths opened entire worlds to me. Not perfect worlds, mind you. Black-faced golliwogs, I learned as an adult, were racist. Ragnarok will arrive and wipe the world of selfish, greedy gods. If you looked different, if you were different, there is always a chance they would chain you down like they did Fenrir the monstrous wolf or pooh-pooh your suggestions because you were just a girl. (The children’s adventures were always led by the oldest male; already at the wise age of 13 a masculine, fearless leader.)

No, not perfect worlds. But worlds nonetheless. New worlds, fantastical worlds, a bigger world than a young boy can imagine on his own. A reason to live for, a reason to keep going and to grow up. The promise of more and of better.

In stories, it’s okay to be different. We are different but we are shown that different isn’t bad, isn’t monstrous, isn’t something to be ashamed of. Different isn’t less. Different means you can soar among clouds or understand the language of animals and trees and insects and flowers. Girls can play with trucks and boys with dolls. (Somehow I found staging Godzilla-like battles between Barbie and Transformers hilarious. Come to think of it, that explains lots.)

Some authors terrified, deliciously. The gruesome, colourful daytime nightmares of Roald Dahl. The murderous wit and fatal fables of Edward Gorey. Some gave you permission to be silly or to question. To be angry and to grieve. To stand up and fight for what’s right. To be kind. To be yourself.

The good ones I would reread over and over. The best stories are always better the second time and the next.

Looking back, I realise now that there is only that much between the pages. Those storytellers, whether Blyton or Dahl or Gorey or the unknown, unnamed generations of Viking myth-smiths, can only give us so many words. The pages end, eventually.

That’s where our imagination takes over. We expand the stories in our minds, we find secret chambers and hidden doors. We enter where we shouldn’t and we open what was closed before. We stray from the paths; we make new ones. We open ourselves to the stories and these stories, in turn, open our hearts.

Stories save lives by making us better people. Stories save lives by insisting, quietly and loudly, that there is more to life.

How much more, though? I’ve always seen myself as a reader, a consumer of stories. I devour, I stay up late beneath the covers, riveted by a page-turner. I ask, “What happens next?” I want more.

More is someone else’s problem, though. Someone else figures out what happens next. Writers. Artists. Film-makers. Storytellers. Other people.

Then I grew up. (Mostly I grew older.) Life didn’t turn out the way I expected it to. (Maybe it never does.) Cool stuff happened. Less cool stuff, too. Then one day, I realised I never knew what will happen next. No one did, apparently. The only thing that was sure was that life will happen.

What happens next? Life—and here is me finding out along the way. The lesson may be that, at the end of our journeying, we have always been here. Sure, but the learning this? That’s the fun part.

— Kenny Mah


All pictures by CK Lim & Kenny Mah unless otherwise noted