The Long Email

by Ghani Kunto

Pen Pals.

As I watched my three months old daughter giggling and cooing herself awake, I realized that the concept of pen pals would be as archaic to her as writing with grit and sabak is for me. And that’s too bad.

Around 14 years ago I left this country for a high school exchange program. I ended up stranded in what could be the setting for Texas Chainsaw Massacre, if it was set in rural Ontario instead of Texas. That first year in Canada was an adventure that may prove to be unbearable for a 14 year old if it weren’t for my pen pals. After 4 hours going to and fro in a yellow school bus, and 2 hours of chopping wood before dinner, I savored the chance to regale my friends with tales of my escapades. I’d put pen to paper, and more than once, I’d fall asleep smudged in ink.

I’d put a lot of thoughts into the words I used, making sure each word brings the right color to the story that I painted. I’d pace my narration. I’d surprise with my friends with unexpected turns of phrase. I’d season letters with metaphors, similes, and hyperboles; not to exaggerate, but to get them to feel what I felt. Writing a letter was not about communicating thoughts. It was about transference of feelings.

I’d put all that bundle of narration in the mailbox at the end of the snowy driveway, flipped the little flag up, and waited for the mailman to come pick it up and to replace it with a different bundle of flowing prose from my friend a few weeks later.

I don’t miss waiting for an answer. I don’t miss checking the mailbox everyday and walking down that driveway empty handed and disappointed.

I do miss the writing process.

There’s something beautifully poignant in putting that much effort into crafting something that’s meant to be enjoyed by only one person.

And to read the answers from my friends; to listen to the music to which their pens danced when writing those letters; to know they too poured their hearts into the words that graced those sheets of lined paper; to know they did all that, just for me: I missed that too.


While YouthLab research shows that today’s Indonesian youths prefer Facebook and SMS’s as mediums to emote, I do not. Facebook and blogs are too public for me, and I find it hard to transfer feelings in 160 characters or less, so in this case, SMS is not an option either.

So that leaves me email.

In the past few weeks, I’ve started writing to my friends again. Emails this time. Long emails. Inappropriately long emails.

To my delight, they too answered with the kind of prose that I missed. I guess I’m not the only one with this sentiment.


I want email to be what its name implies: electronic MAIL. I want it to be a faster letter without it having to be brief, slightly gruff, and always straight to the point. I want to reclaim the intimacy between friends that can grow from the process of writing carefully thought out letters.

And I want Kirana, my daughter who is just now mastering the art of rolling over, to experience that too.

PS: FYI, grit and sabak are the stone pen and slate that my father used during his elementary school days. Yeah, right out of the Flintstones.

Previously posted on Ghani’s Facebook notes, Wednesday, April 21, 2010