A Quick Study with Wendy Bone
About A Quick Study
This ongoing series is aimed at getting to know what motivates and inspires UBC students about their learning — inside and outside the classroom.
On falling in love, the Sumatran rainforest, endangered orangutans and learning from afar. Meet Wendy Bone, an MFA student in Creative Writing at UBC in the optional residency program.
WB: I was looking for an online writing program that would allow me to continue working and living in Indonesia. After looking at all the options, I chose UBC so that I could build and maintain strong ties with the Canadian writing community, even while living abroad. And UBC is in my hometown! I have great childhood memories of cycling through the campus with my family, admiring all the buildings and visiting the Museum of Anthropology. I remember thinking that I would like to attend UBC one day.
You went to Indonesia to volunteer in 2007, but then decided to make a new home there. What persuaded you to stay?
WB: I fell in love three times. First, with the endangered orangutans I came to help conserve, along with other denizens of the Sumatran rainforest: cheeky Thomas leaf monkeys with punk rock hair, butterflies the size of your two hands put together, Sumatran elephants you can ride through the jungle and bathe with in the river. I accepted my first job as an English teacher in a nearby city and continued returning to the forest on weekends. Then I fell in love with teaching — something about connecting with students and helping them grow is immensely fulfilling. To clinch the deal, I fell for my Sumatran husband after meeting him in a shopping mall, of all places!
The UBC Creative Writing Optional Residency program allows you to write from anywhere while finishing your degree. What is this process like? How does writing in Indonesia change and shape the foundation of your work?
WB: I love the flexibility of an optional residency, which enables me to stay where I am, doing what I love and writing about it. Indonesia has given me a global outlook that I hope can inspire others through my stories. I basically just need an Internet connection to do it, though sometimes that can be challenging. I recently stayed with an Indigenous shaman and his family in the Mentawai Islands and went for days without Wi-Fi. It was bliss, but I had to get back on the grid for Wayne Grady’s Creative Nonfiction class. So I travelled by dugout canoe for three hours to log in from my hotel room. Can’t get better than that!
In 2016 you published a story about Myanmar’s Rohingya refugees called ‘Sanctuary at Last’. What was it like tackling this story? Were there any challenges you faced?
WB: I’d read about the Rohingya crisis in the local news — thousands risk their lives every year to escape by boat, but to stay in Myanmar is even more dangerous. I was just a concerned fellow human who wanted to help, or at least bear witness. My first big challenge was financial, since I pay all my own expenses as a freelancer. I was also a bit nervous about getting on a bus and heading for the refugee camps on my own, but I’m so glad I did. A humanitarian organization in Aceh was incredibly helpful, taking me to the camps and introducing me to people. The hardest part of all was listening to the stories of survivors, some of whom lost their entire families in attacks on their villages, and when their boat sank. Yet people remained so hopeful for the future and I made so many friends — we now keep in touch through Facebook. I’ve learned that for a person in crisis, just knowing that others care enough to stop by and talk, listen or share a meal can do so much to boost the spirit.
You’ve traveled to many places across South East Asia and the world. What is one memorable travel moment?
WB: My Indonesian boyfriend, Darma, asked me to marry him. We both knew it was a huge step since his family is Muslim and mine is Christian. Could we make it work? I’d already planned to go to Cambodia and Thailand for the Christmas holidays, but Darma had to work so I went alone. While climbing Angkor Wat and visiting temples, I missed him but just wasn’t sure if I could take the next step. During my last couple of nights I stayed in Bangkok’s Khao San Road, known for its wild parties. At about five a.m. I was sitting on the curb outside 7-Eleven with a cup of coffee, totally sober, watching the carnival of tourists kanoodling on a street puddled with vomit and littered with beer bottles and styrofoam plates of Pad Thai. Just then, Darma, texted to say good morning, and I knew he was getting ready to go to work in his job as a teacher, and the sun was rising over the mango trees in his garden. At that moment I just knew I was ready to leave my old “party” life behind, return to Indonesia and start a new life with him. That was seven years ago and I have zero regrets — we are now one big international family.
Where do you see yourself next — geographically speaking and in your writing?
WB: My immediate goal is to complete my nonfiction thesis about how the global appetite for palm oil in supermarket products is contributing to the destruction of the Indonesian rainforest, and what we can do to stop it. I’ll also continue to write about the journey of the Rohingya people as the United Nations relocates them to the US and abroad. On a personal note, I’ve been yearning to see more of Canada. My ancestral homeland is in Northern Alberta, yet I’ve never been there. I’d love to go and reconnect, show my husband more of my own cultural heritage, which is Cree and French. I write a lot about this but haven’t published anything yet. We’ll see!
Photo credits: Wendy Bone