This article first appeared on GMA News Online:
“It was words that I fell for. In the end, it was words that broke my heart.” This sentiment was how Lang Leav shattered hearts anew in her new piece “Language.” She posted it on her Facebook page on November 27, prompting a swarm of swooning comments. It was like watching 7,000 souls simultaneously falling apart.
It’s just how Lang Leav does it. She has a unique way of weaving a few words, not taking more than 30 seconds to send you ablaze with tumultuous feelings.
“Even as a little girl, I was more drawn to the melancholy, drawn to sad songs, so it was natural that my books have a lot of melancholic undertones in it,” she said, in an interview taking place on her second visit to the Philippines this year.
Theme of heartbreak
Leav first started gaining traction on Tumblr, posting the poetry that would come to be shared by millions a year later when “Love & Misadventure” was published.
For Leav, the internet highlighted an inevitable truth: “a lot of people are having their hearts broken. It’s impossible not to.”
It would seem that the theme of heartbreak is a hit among the readers of the younger generation. Leav’s page is peppered with comments detailing breakups, almosts, letting go’s and moving on’s, as if these are the only things that matter.
Leav said she wants to defend love, not hopeless romanticism.
“It’s a misconception that love is just a fluffy thing,” she said. “People don’t realize that who you fall in love with and who loves you back determines so much in life.”
There is no research yet on the demographics of her readers: are they just wide-eyed girls so keen on falling in love, or are there also older, wiser women such as herself?
It doesn’t matter, said Leav. “Love is the glue that binds us all together.”
In both “Love & Misadventure” and “Lullabies,” she welcomes the readers with a short dedication to Michael, and we know immediately that Michael is the person that binds her and the work she is known for.
Leav met Michael Faudet five years ago through the internet, when he bought one of her multidisciplinary paintings. She has dealt and met with a lot of buyers previously, but there was something about Michael.
“He was writing, I was writing, we had a similar aesthetic to our work, so it was just right. I knew that I’d found my creative soulmate,” she said, every mention of Michael bringing a glint to her tiny eyes. “Michael’s name is after an angel’s, and that’s what he’s been like in my life, an angel.”
Because they wanted to collaborate, they met up in halfway countries for a period of time and eventually decided to move to New Zealand together, where they now spend their days writing in their little house by the sea.
One of Michael’s works recently did the rounds online: five short words that sufficiently describe what Leav is to him and why love matters for him. “I write because you exist.”
“What we have is a great partnership, personally and creatively. It is so because we’re friends and I’m really, really lucky,” Leav said.
In “Lullabies,” she wrote about a conversation she had with Michael.
“Why do you write sad things? When I am here, when I love you.”
“Because someday, in one way or another, you will be taken from me or I you. When I write sad things, I am writing for the future.”
It’s a cautious attitude for anyone and everyone who is in love, but for Leav, it’s also an inspiration to continue to write about loss and pain. The friend who introduced me to her books said that Leav “is someone who has found her soulmate but still writes as if she hasn’t.”
“That I can imagine a future without Michael is enough to give that emotion, the sadness, and write about it,” Leav said.
The struggle to write
Apart from the breakups she went through before finding Michael, Leav has experienced heartbreak in a different, perhaps, more scathing form.
“I grew up in a place where there was such a strong work ethic, and people did not approve of you following a creative path because of the instability of it,” she shared of her hometown in Melbourne, Australia.
Being Asian, Leav is not a stranger to a culture that dismisses the arts as a sturdy career path, especially given her family’s story.
“I was born in a refuge camp in Thailand. It’s where my family fled to to escape the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (her parents are Cambodian-Chinese),” she said, “I’ve experienced what poverty was like and when we immigrated to Australia, we had nothing.”
Leav wasn’t an overnight success, either online or offline. She garnered wide readership on Tumblr, but that did not necessarily mean a deal with a publishing house. After many years of saving up, she was able to self-publish “Love & Misadventure,” which she illustrated herself.
“It was a decade of hitting walls, over and over again. But it wouldn’t let go of me,” she said. “It chose me more than I chose it.”
The democratization of literature
Leav is not merely a Social Media darling; she is a decorated writer who has won the Qantas Spirit of Youth award and the Churchill fellowship. She has also exhibited her artworks internationally.
But she is not an elitist when it comes to literature. While she agrees that it takes a certain discipline to write good content, she believes that “writers should be free and it’s for the people to decide what they want to read.”
In the local scene, there have been debates in the internet grapevine about supposedly bad writers who are milking the theme of love, and selling like hotcakes in book stores.
Told of this, Leav smiles humbly and simply says: “Great things have come out because people have more freedom and opportunity now to publish their works. I think we should celebrate that.”
Certainly, she is among those to be celebrated, but Leav is far from being satisfied.
“I want to transition from the rhymes to longer pieces of prose,” she said, all of which are part of a novel in the works.
In “Lullabies,” we see longer pieces about more mature characters such as “the professor” and the “dinner guest,” the latter a portrayal of Leav’s sensibilities when it comes to sexual attachments.
She considers Emily Dickinson her biggest stylistic influence, but says she has been reading a lot of Alice Monroe to help her with the transition.
“I want my writing now to have a little more depth and spectrum. Alice Monroe writes in a way that’s really analytical but with so much emotion,” she said, “your favorite authors are really your best teachers.”
I tell her of one of my favorite lines in Filipino poetry, Rebecca T. Añonuevo’s “Mahirap isulat ang kaligayahan” (it’s hard to write happiness), and with a sigh she agreed.
“If your favorite authors are your best teachers,” I muse, “and my favorite kind of literature are those who make heartbreak sound beautiful, is literature – like yours — to blame for propagating this glamorizing of pain?”
Her answer: “Literature is not responsible for romanticizing heartbreak. It does quite the opposite, it makes the person feel like they’re not alone, makes the person feel like they’re understood, like your feelings are validated.”
Validation of feelings is possibly what makes readers come to Leav like a moth to a flame.
But they read her books, one heartbreaking prose after the other, yet know there is a Michael, who is “half of my book, whole of my heart.”
“Aren’t you setting up an unrealistic expectation of those who read your work? What if they don’t find their Michael?” I ask again, perhaps injecting a little too much personal feeling than necessary, ready to have my world shattered by the same author who can put it back with the right combination of words.
But she doesn’t give me that satisfaction.
“It’s nice to dream to one day have a Michael. Yes, dreams don’t always come true, but what about on the off chance that they can?”
Her readers are of a variety: some are like me who continued to prod her to disprove the concept of unconditional love but failed, some are hopeful, some are naïve, but all have one in common: the painstaking longing to find words for what they feel and the relief once they have, even if it’s from a stranger such as Leav.
“Words are always the beginning of everything.” she said.
With her poetry, words have in fact become beginnings, even if they are of goodbyes.