What did you do to keep yourself busy during the pandemic lockdown? For some, they recreated fancy coffee drinks, tried crocheting or picked up an instrument.
For indie singer-songwriter Takahara Suiko, or Taka, it was a difficult, yet revelatory experience, which she poured into a daily journal of poems.
These English poems have now been compiled into a book titled Per Diem: The Mental Expense, published by Rabak Lit.
“The poems were part of a project I decided to embark on after I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and needed to work on stabilising my mental health before going for psychotherapy,” said Taka, who also records music as The Venopian Solitude.
She was the first Malaysian musician to join the Red Bull Music Academy in Montreal, Canada in 2016.
Taka has been as unconventional as they come, with two The Venopian Solitude albums – Hikayat Perawan Majnun (2014) and Hikayat Gundik Berirama (2019), a series of EPs, singles and collaborations showcasing an adventurous and uncompromising musical vision.
In 2015, she released her first book Diari Nona Gila (in Bahasa Malaysia), giving her a creative outlet beyond songwriting.
Her songs were also featured in the soundtrack of Shirkers, a Netflix documentary in 2018, while local indie theatre show 24 Jam Dalam 37 Tahun used a new recording (24 Kata) for the theatre stage in early 2020.
Finding a balance
The recently released Per Diem: The Mental Expense, which navigates darker themes, offers a glimpse of how she coped with a difficult period in her life during the pandemic.
“It was a challenge for me to commit to, as I love starting new projects but end up not finishing a bunch of them. Previously, between 2012-2016, I have tried embarking on a Twitaiku project, wherein I write one haiku per day and post it on Twitter for easy archival. It has accumulated probably more than 700 haikus, because i would sometimes miss some days and compensate them on a later date," said Taka.
“So after that project sort of died down (I chose to delete Twitter in late 2020 due to wanting mental peace), and later discovering I had bipolar, I decided to jot down the journey of identifying my past behaviour and linking it to the bipolar symptoms that I learned about.”
Prior to the diagnosis, Taka spent months “dwelling in underlying sadness, thoroughly numb,unable to write or produce anything,” which she shares in the book’s foreword.
“I decided to write as a form of organising my daily thoughts and what I’ve been through,” the 33-year-old added.
The poems were written between Sept 1, 2020 and Aug 31, 2021, totalling 366 altogether – one for each day of the year, plus a bonus poem “just because.”
Per Diem contains the first six months’ worth of poetry; later this year, another book will be published with the rest of the poems from the project.
“The reason it is called Per Diem is my way of never taking my creative outputs seriously; a phrase used to represent daily pocket money is being used as it is meant originally: ‘per diem’ being ‘by the day’ in Latin.
“I guess it is a form of reclamation for its etymology, while also an attempt at making it somewhat humorous,” explained Taka.
The most challenging part of the project was the discipline it required.
“Procrastination was my biggest obstacle. It worked out the first few months – when I skipped a day or two, I would try to catch up when I had the time. But it got to a point where it became too much of a chore, so I ended up just jotting down a one-sentence recap or highlight of whatever happened that day,” she added.
Towards the one-year milestone of the project (Aug 31, 2021), she had months’ worth of poems to catch up on.
“It took me about 11 days or so, just spent writing hundreds of poems. It got to the point where I was writing 26 poems for an hour continuously. It felt great, but I don’t think I’d like to do that again,” she shared.
‘It’s okay to not be okay’
For readers of the book, Taka leaves this honest, heartwarming message: “I hope that instead of reading the book in one sitting, you will take a short time in your day everyday (or whenever you have time) to just read any page that you crack open. And in that, knowing that everyday doesn’t have to be a bed of roses, it’s okay to not be okay.”
“As a person, we change a lot – within the year, within the month, even within the day. So embrace the changes that come to you, for they are never bad, they are just a learning curve that we need to g o through.”
If you’d like to see her performing live, Taka’s band, The Venopian Solitude, has three upcoming shows: July 1 at Ilham Gallery, Kuala Lumpur (an intimate, free-entry show); Aug 5 at Atas Angin Festival, MyTown KL; and Aug 19 and 20 at Cherry Pop Festival in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
As her solo project, VIONA, Taka will be performing on July 9 at Live Fact as an opening act for Manic Mundane from the Philippines; and on July 14 and 15 at China House in George Town, Penang.