A low point that still gives me nightmares


At the end of the film, Fight Club, the main character says to his girlfriend: “You met me at a very strange time in my life.”

My wife met me, not so much at a strange time in my life, but just before I began a years-long stumble to a low point that still gives me nightmares sometimes.

Between March and July 2003, I worked feverishly on a set of writings that I later called, “The Personal Agenda of Brand Smit.” And because I didn’t stop writing that type of material, I later added that it was Book One. The later months of 2003 and the first two months of 2004 were also quite feverish, with the fever breaking with “The February Plan” and “[The Big Untitled]”. The dust then settled for a few weeks, and by May I was again hard at work thinking and writing about new insights that were supposed to make sense of my life – and even life in general. By July 2004 I had definitely broken new ground in terms of clarity and confidence in who and what I was.

However, by the fall of 2004 (October in Taiwan), I was rolling on fumes: my tank was empty.

And it was exactly at that moment that I met a certain young lady who had just arrived in Taiwan.

The excitement of new love – if I have to look back now – gave me a new zest for life. But serious love is a different world from the one of the Lone Ranger. And if you no longer walk alone, you are not the same person you were a few months before. You constantly appear to someone you want to impress, and you appear differently to yourself.

With spiritual dedication and abandon I worked in 2003 and 2004 on pieces of text that were supposed to reveal the truth to myself, and if it was legible, to anyone into whose hands the pieces of paper might fall.

And I was still making notes in 2005.

But I wanted to do better. I wanted to make money. I wanted to create a better life not only for myself, but for the person who had so beautifully messed up my life as Someone Who Walked Alone.

Little did I know I had already reached my peak. The abyss was near. And I crossed it without noticing.

It would take me years to reach even ground again.


What I needed in February 2004


I’m reviewing the February 2004 pieces, “Advice about staying or coming back”, “Slave to the word” and “About friends, and other personal reasons”. It’s unpleasant to read. I had an intense desire to go “home” (“home” in quotation marks, because why wasn’t Taiwan home?). It can be simplistically argued that I was afraid to take the step after five years in Taiwan where I had created a comfortable life and home for myself. However, I had a strong suspicion that it would have been the wrong move for me. I felt that a conventional life with a 40-hour-a-week job and salary and house in the suburbs was something that wouldn’t work for me, even if I could put all the parts together. I could say I wasn’t special, and if millions of my contemporaries could get the hang of it and find happiness in such a life, surely, I could too. Fact of the matter is that people differ. One man becomes a professional soldier, and his old childhood buddy becomes a high school Science teacher. Why don’t both become professional soldiers? Why not both teachers? People differ.

The man behind his computer early 2004


The pieces from early February 2004 are … strange to read now. The situation was that before the end of the first week of February I had to go for a medical examination as a requirement to extend my work permit. I was also desperate to leave Taiwan, and to go back to South Africa (it wasn’t necessary that the first action should lead to the second). I knew that if I did not do the medical test on time, my work permit couldn’t be renewed, and then my residence permit would expire. I would then have no choice but to leave Taiwan. The icing on the cake was that I had never been keen on doing the medical. So, all I had to do in order to get my way – to leave Taiwan, and probably go back to South Africa – was to not do something I didn’t want to do anyway.

On the other hand were the memories of the previous time I was in Northeast Asia, with a job and an income and a place to live, and me deciding that I simply had to make a move – as soon as possible.

If I made the wrong decision, I knew, I might be paying for it for years to come.

From “The last exile” of Monday, 22 December 2003 up to and including the few paragraphs titled “11 February 2004” is a piece of personal history of me basically arguing with myself.



The possible lifting of my exile in February 2004 was a complete fuck-up. On the one hand, I put pressure on myself: “If you want to feel like you belong somewhere, you must leave behind the life you built up in Taiwan and go back to South Africa. That way you can enjoy barbecue and pudding with your parents and your sisters as often as you want.” And from the other side an admonition: “You’ve already written so many pieces about going home. If you don’t act now, no one will believe you ever again if you say something.”

With a personality like mine, plus the right psychological pressure points, you don’t need many enemies.


I wrote in the piece, “And the answer is …”: “The product [that I tried to sell to myself] is one that I need. It’s the pill I need to swallow to continue with my life.”

The implication, if you read the piece, is that the product was to pack up my life in Taiwan and go back to South Africa – to be closer to my family and to feel I am in a place where I should be.

Looking back after almost two decades, I want to venture a better interpretation: What I really needed was a conviction that I belonged where I found myself at that moment of my life – be it Taiwan, South Africa, or anywhere else in the world. I needed to be convinced that wherever I was, was right for me – or in stronger terms, that I was in a place where I was supposed to be. In February 2004, I believed that that place was not Kaohsiung in the south of Taiwan, but rather in the province in South Africa where my parents and younger sister were living at the time.

What I needed was to develop a sense that Taiwan was indeed right for me. But more than that – that one can belong in a place far from where you were born and grew up, just as you can feel lost in the very place where you first took root.


I write to survive


Writing is prayer/To write is to pray.

(When I write, I believe someone will read it. When millions of people pray, they believe someone will hear it.)


I am translating the last of the Personal Agenda pieces that I didn’t translate ten years ago. It brought me in close contact again with questions I wrestled with twenty years ago: What should I do with my life? What type of adult life do I want, or need, to develop for myself? And: Should I leave Taiwan on Thursday, 4 March 2004?

Being able to spend hours every day on writing projects was an important consideration in my decision-making process. It was an important factor in 2001 when I was developing ideas about what type of adult life I wanted to lead, and it was an important consideration when I had to decide in the last months of 2003 and the first two months of 2004 whether I was going to go back to South Africa with all my earthly possessions in tow.

As I’ve worked on publishing my writing over the last decade, I often wondered why I never wrote more. One sometimes hears of so-called prolific writers who’ve produced dozens of novels, several collections of short stories, articles, poems, and a few plays to boot. My average for the last ten to fifteen years has been about 20,000 words per year (not counting pieces that I consider unpublishable).

However, if I look at months like September 2003 and February 2004, I see that I wrote as much in those months as I would later write over the course of a whole year. How does that work?! And why couldn’t I keep it up?

Fact is, I only write when I have something to say. If I don’t want to say something specifically, there’s no inspiration.

I also wrote in the February 2004 piece, “Slave to the word”, “I believe I’ll slide into a bottomless depression if I write less.” I have also mentioned many times over the years that I am at my happiest when I’m working on some piece of writing. As the months of September 2003 and February 2004 made clear, writing is a mechanism that helps me to survive. That’s why I’ve never put much effort into marketing my writing, and why I’ve never put much effort into trying to monetize it.

Writing helps me make sense of things. And it has always been a good way to work out solutions to dilemmas in the absence of people with whom I could talk about certain matters, or with whom I could discuss things as much as I deemed necessary.

To summarise: I only write when I need to write. I write to survive.


Kept walking, and wrote …


Imagine you’re in your early thirties. You want to live – I repeat, want to live – in at least the same province as your family so you can see them once or twice a month, and you want to live in the same city as at least half a dozen old friends with whom you can hang out regularly. Imagine yourself wanting to be in a serious relationship, with perhaps a child or two. You want to be established in your work, with a satisfying social life.

Now imagine you actually find yourself in a foreign country on the other side of the globe. You see your family maybe once every two years. You have a few friends, but don’t see them often. You’re single, with no relationship in the pipeline. Your work is not fulfilling, and you often remind yourself, or are reminded, that time is running out to establish yourself in a profession.

To complicate things, you are not stuck in a situation where you can just resign and book a plane ticket back home. You have an apartment full of books and furniture and wall hangings and ornaments with sentimental value. Your income is sufficient to eat well and sleep comfortably, but you don’t have enough savings to survive for more than a few months if you go back to your own country.

Of course, you can leave all the furniture, the wall hangings, and a few ornaments behind and go back home, and hope everything works out. Problem is, you did exactly that a few years before when you were in a similar situation in another country, and let’s just say, it didn’t work out.

What do you do?

You can’t go home because you’re already at home?

Just accept it, and push ahead?

What did I end up doing?

I had no desire for packing up and trying my luck again in South Africa. So, I straightened my shoulders and kept walking.

And kept writing:


everybody runs away, the rats are fleeing
he is … like his ship, sinking

with solemn respect comes the salutation
middle finger held up high
pulls a recorder from his pocket
plays a death hymn, stops
with his forehead the smashing waves

calm flushes the depths
lives the fountain of abundance
manna, quail, island silence
in wisdom he bites, with razor-sharp teeth
into the sweet flesh of second life

so come on traitors!
creep closer mocker crowd!
one by one you’ll have to face reality
and if your eyes can’t see, and your ears can’t hear
then let me shout it out to sink it in:


even for the single survivor.

* * * * * * * * * * *


storms urge me on
my grotesque frame too large
for a nice tight keyhole fit
a closet too small and cramped
a golden cage too fine and much too cold
I rush forward at furious pace
with walking stick and day-old beard

* * * * * * * * * * *


shuffling wordless in dusty spaces
filling ashtrays one upon the other
full and empty again; cups full of coffee
fresh bottles of tea from the all-night cafe

old chairs give way
the weight of evening air sours
in the face of absent light
I rock back and forth, back and forth

it seems you have sometimes
to pull your claws from the mud of time
be more philosophical
about waiting for things to turn on their heel

so, if it can’t be avoided
I’d have to calculate yet again:

one thousand seven hundred and eighty
five one thousand seven hundred
eighty-four, one thousand seven hundred
eighty-three, one thousand …

nights without you

* * * * * * * * * * *


new housing draws
lines across my plans
my eyes narrowing, looking
through other windows at neighbours’ walls

suppose I know about more
than just life and death and pipes full of mice
if I had memorised the sermons of old
I’d have learned too much about retirement homes

sometimes I look too deep into the bottle of time
write notes on floors with pencil and chalk
sometimes I bite a little too much
off rules brittle and yellow from age

sometimes one must move to new housing
the work of a man like a woman ever not done
but I keep writing my lines and shutting my mouth
my eyes peeled until tomorrow, or next month, or next year

(Sunday, 14 September 2003)

* * * * * * * * * * *


I feel myself
irresponsibly close to you
less than your presence
unconditionally close to me
I feel, what’s more
myself untouched
while I live within you

* * *

forty tons of events stay mum
numb my love as it were
shall I ever, as long as I live, discover the axe
that’s been chasing me for so many years?

* * * * * * * * * * *


on your way to a 7-Eleven, you see it again:
a desert, in the middle of the sea
you want to sneak closer, crawl, aim for the other side
but time and place are shoes that squeeze

you think about coffee, then you buy tea
talk about holding out, holding on, then you give in
want to say “No” in confusion, then nodding “Yes”
wink apparently cool, then fleeing again in a daze

sometimes I say you give in too easily
too few see courage and daring as talent
vagabonds like to pitch a tent at night
clapping whips against trees on the break of dawn

say you want to go together, say you want to sleep
say you’ve had enough, please for once say “Yes”
suspect a little, believe, weigh things up again
because this time and place squeeze far too much

* * * * * * * * * * *

(another) night poem

I’m working my ass off, but
the night remains a bottomless pit
like a miner of a cleaner nature
I dig for words, light, figures, and signs

apt metaphors spoiled by pretence
stand like saints over my open grave
while I’m earnestly looking for dawn
the pick breaks, then the spade, then the lift to the light

and I remain
caught up
in yet another night poem

* * * * * * * * * * *



tumultuously burns the form
leaves the contents fresh, untouched
clothes from another century
hang upside down in my crumbling closet

look carefully at the streets, the markets
poke around in towns and cities
sneak barefoot through half-lit alleyways
wrap yourself in a transient’s blanket

too many preach about proverbs long forgotten
sing false psalms about damned old ideas
reconcile dogma with new science
steal slyly overnight, words from a dungeon library


dozens of descendants, ancestors in front
portraits against faded walls, half-heartedly shining on
books full of museums and ancient buildings
sketches in a thousand corridors full of thoughts

remind only, sing melodiously without stop

priests dance with animal hides draped
over shoulders hanging under the weight
fifty thousand years of searching for a truth
continue to dictate in mumbling chant:

that place and knowing
not only are where you belong
but in truth
is where the soul ultimately ought to be


Slave to the word

Background to the texts “Advice about staying or coming back,” “Slave to the word” and “About friends and other personal reasons”: A good friend of mine who was also living in Kaohsiung at the time mentioned via email during her vacation in Cape Town that she felt like staying in South Africa. I suspected that this was only emotion speaking, but I nevertheless took the opportunity to say certain things.




I hate the role I sometimes try to play. I hate to pretend I understand more than the average guy. I hate to hold up a picture of someone who knows what he’s doing. Regardless of whether this is what you think of me, it’s the caricature that I sketch of myself on the social landscape.

Here are the facts: I still haven’t decided whether I’m going to return to South Africa on March 4th or stay here for another few months.

I have two choices: 1) stay here but take on more classes; or 2) go back to South Africa next month and fill my place outside all socio-economic classes of which I am aware. It’s a showdown of enormous proportions.

I always say I have my finger on my own pulse, but I’m starting to get the idea and I have underestimated something the past few months. I am addicted to writing. And not in the romantic sense of the word. A heroin addict will go through 72 hours of excruciating withdrawal symptoms if he quits the drug. I believe I’ll slide into a bottomless depression if I write less for the sake of more classes, for the sake of shipping all my furniture and all my cups and mugs and kitchen towels and pillows and old jeans I haven’t worn in four years back to South Africa, and to then be able to afford a life that won’t catch too much wind.

I’m in a difficult position. I have sold my soul for the sake of my cause. And perhaps my cause belongs to a Supreme Being, and then it’s okay, I guess. But I can no longer turn back. I have considered other options and have found them all wanting. I don’t even believe love can help me anymore. (Maybe it will work for a few weeks until I start making notes on the bedsheets while the woman is waiting for something more exciting …)

(At this point, my fingers almost caught fire. I went to buy some instant noodles, smoked a cigarette, talked to [another friend], and read my history book. I now feel somewhat better.)

I don’t think it’s a good idea to send the above text to you.

The fact that I’m apparently writing this text to you at 00:55 on Wednesday morning, 4 February whilst not even sure if you’re actually going to read it serves as a clear indication of how holy I regard The Word. As I sit here writing this text to myself – at the moment, more than to you, I still believe it is relevant to someone other than yours truly.

I wish you and I could trade bodies for 24 hours. I would very quickly resolve your issues, and you could … bump my head against the wall a few times to shake out the loose parts that have caused me to sleep like a baby for the last several years, and to be awake like a madman.

I think I have given up on the idea to send all my furniture back to South Africa. What am I going to do with it anyway? A caravan is too small for it, and I can’t put it in a tree house. And it’s going to get wet on the lawn in somebody’s garden.

If my plans to repatriate myself could be compared to negotiations, the balance of power has definitely shifted over the past year or two. Initially, the one part said, “I want to go back to South Africa.” Then the other part that was mainly responsible for me coming to Taiwan in the first place, would say: “Okay, give me X amount of cash for a house, a car, a new computer, new clothes, a wig, a dog, a cat, and a lawn mower, Y amount of books written, and Z amount of Chinese mastered. Then we’ll consider repatriation.”

Currently the latter party is begging for mercy. He’s willing to give up everything but the wig and the lawn mower, “as long as we can just go home as soon as possible”. And the character who was previously known for sentimental pleas must necessarily be the voice of reason – a role that is obviously new to him, but who else is going to do it if the arrogant one of earlier negotiations is on the point of losing his mind because of too many “plans” he has to keep track of?

Still, I hate to see you walking down a similar path: uncertainty, setting up home on the wrong side of the planet, strong opinions on the choices made by so many of our friends and contemporaries.

[Paragraph where I joke about setting up a business consulting lost souls.]

No, rather come back, finish painting your walls, and put fresh oranges in that bowl. In the meantime, I will burn all my furniture, barter my books on night markets, and acquire enough cash for a large caravan. When I finally return to our beautiful country, I’ll pester you with dozens of letters every week to make sure you don’t stay here longer than I did at the end. And to remind you to move your bowl of oranges every now and then. Small adjustments like that will make your eventual repatriation much easier on the soul.