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Monday September 16, 2013 MYT 8:48:00 AM
Monday September 16, 2013 MYT 12:55:45 PM
by michelle tam
PETALING JAYA: For many Malaysians, having the key to their own home unlocks a sense of security.
It was the same for freelance artist Mislina Mustaffa, who had the security of four walls and a roof over her head for four decades before deciding on a homeless life.
“People here are gila (crazy) about ownership of a lot of things,” said the 42-year-old.
Describing herself as curious and stubborn since childhood, the Ipoh girl had “struggled and struggled” throughout her 20-year acting career in Kuala Lumpur.
“I got everything I wanted. But I was not happy because I would have to work and work again,” she said over waffles and coffee in Petaling Jaya recently.
With others slogging the same way to pay for their property and other belongings, she wondered: what kind of happiness or security was everyone talking about, when everything is so uncertain?
The question had emerged in her earlier artwork, but she only made the leap after two long years.
In 2010, she started to entertain the idea of going homeless in earnest, especially after discovering the work of French writer Simone de Beauvoir.
"She said that 85% of a woman’s time was taken up by cleaning dirt which soils a house again and again. I was curious: what would I do when that much time is freed up?
“The first year was a lot of reading, researching, contemplating about security, and a lot of things that you have to think about as a Malay-Muslim woman,” said Mislina, who had to rail against many stereotypes during her journey.
Her research discovered that alternative living was most popular among Europeans, while it was much less common among Asian women: “I wondered - are we not allowed to? Are we scared? If they can do it, why can’t we?”.
She also started cycling and exercising, as one has to be ‘fit and healthy” when homeless.
In the second year, she sold and gave away her belongings: “The first to go was the television, and the last was my bed.”
Soon enough, it was time. Though Mislina initially told herself that she could turn back, she soon came to terms with her decision: “I was so numb on that first day in January 2012. But I was determined to give it at least a year.”
At any given time, she only has four outfits, her sketchbooks, two books, a soft toy to serve as a pillow, a sleeping bag, a basic Nokia phone - “with a flashlight!” - a small laptop, and a camera.
Asked if she packs medicines, Mislina said she has never fallen sick during her homelessness.
“If you’re happy, you’re healthy. In fact, it’s only when I’m in KL that my throat starts to get scratchy! There’s no problem when I’m under the sun and exposed to the elements.”
Apart from the odd party, the vegetarian’s money goes towards a diet of fresh fruits and vegetables.
“It’s very easy to pack up and go. Just jalan (walk). I also spend a lot of nights on the train, going to and fro for rehearsals,” she said, adding that her next role in stage production The Wall tells the story of a woman forced to survive in the jungle.
Mislina, who has acted in films such as the late Yasmin Ahmad’s Talentime and Chris Chong’s Karaoke which was screened at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, has “quite abandoned” her commercial and film career.
“I was banned for my involvement in Occupy Dataran, and I was demonised again for my project,” she said.
“But it gave me a platform to be outspoken, and some international artists were interested in collaborating with me, so I get to do more performance art. It serves my cause.
Of course, in terms of payment, it’s not much - but I don’t need much money anyway, living on the beach.”
However, Mislina did not embrace the great outdoors immediately.
It took a year of trial and error before Mislina called Penang’s Batu Ferringhi beach her home in 2013.
“I stayed in hotels before learning about budget hostels. It became cheaper with backpacker dormitories, and I also couchsurfed!” - “Along with my pet dog Atan, all the dogs on the beach live with me - I take care of them and they take care of me!” she said, adding that friends camp with her from time to time.
Nature also proved to be a humbling teacher.
“We were struck by high waves and fled for cover during storms. You can’t fight it. When nature turns dangerous, you have to run for protection like animals.”
She credits her “real homelessness” in the second year for her current resourcefulness, heightened survival skills, and a sharpened, animalistic instinct.
In the first few weeks of living on the beach, panic ensued when Mislina and her camping companions faced the lack of dry wood and electricity.
“We stole from the construction nearby until the supply finished and there was no wood,” she said, laughing at the memory.
They learnt to use things that people threw away, such as wooden benches and spoilt chairs. The unnecessary, such as surplus papers and old clothes, were burnt to get a bonfire going at night.
“It was to keep mosquitoes away, and we weren’t used to the pitch black darkness so we couldn’t see anything. But after a month, not only could we walk in the darkness, we could work in it!” she said.
“I have lost a lot of friends, but I have made many new ones. Many people don’t want to experience anything and prefer to remain in their comfort zone. But one day, they may be thrown into insecurity - how will they cope then?” she asked.
Thankfully, Mislina’s 18-year-old daughter remains supportive of her journey, and even camps and couchsurfs with her from time to time.
“Teenagers love having crazy mothers. She always wants to experience what I’m doing, which I’m grateful for,” she said.
Now, Mislina has written “a silly book” featuring learnings and adventures from her homeless journey.
“Because it is silly, it is wicked. Because I mock everyone and everything, and even laugh at myself. Everybody can be serious, but it’s harder to be silly in this country.
Silliness and stupidity can be very subversive. Homeless by Choice (published by Merpati Jingga) looks like fun, but it has some subtle things hidden inside,” she teased.
As a performer, Mislina knew she had to express her journey either through writing, performance art, or other creative output.
“Initially, I wanted to write a serious, educational paper on the architecture of Malaysian women based on my journey. But as I met more people and learnt more about the reality of our life, I became more silly,” she said.
So when her friend approached her with the opportunity to publish a book, Mislina took the chance to produce Homeless by Choice, which also features her photographs and illustrations.
“Before this, I did not know that I had vulnerabilities. I’ve always been a strong, blank-faced person. When I gave up my home, I was so lonely, which makes you very vulnerable.
“That’s what this book is about. In journals, everyone will write about strength. I wrote about vulnerabilities because strength comes from facing your own,” she said.
While Mislina used to find it challenging to approach the writing of a book, her latest creative venture was a breeze as she did not have to “make things up” at all.
‘I just wrote about what happened, and I didn’t need to fan it into something interesting - people say it already is!” she added.
Mislina even has plans for her next book: “It will be called ‘The Animal In Me’.”
An Austrian photographer, who stayed with Mislina for a month, took many pictures of her managing the camp.
“I was amazed. At times, the body postures in the pictures were so animalistic - you cannot label who or what was pictured. Just a creature,” she said.
And while Mislina started her homeless journey based on the question of security, new questions on ownership, race, religion, superstitions, and values have emerged, which is partly why she feels that the time has not yet arrived for her adventure to end.
“Even after so many things have happened, I’m still not interested in having a space of my own.”
‘Homeless by Choice’ will be launched at RA Fine Arts - The Gallery, Publika at 8.30pm on Sept 19. It will also be available at Arts for Grabs, Annexe Gallery on Sept 29. Mislina will perform and speak at both sessions.
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