Monthly Archives: December 2011

In Search of Identity

I had always wanted to write a novel based on my Great-Grandmother’s life, as she was a formidable matriarch whose family’s story reads like the Forsyth Saga. But when I started writing it, I found that for me, it was as much a journey in discovering my own identity. Which is not a simple thing, and I want to explain why in this blog post.

I am a Malaysian-Chinese who grew up inMalaysia. I must have been nine when I read about the ‘Third World’ in the News Straits Times, a Malaysian English language newspaper, and was amazed to learn that Malaysia was considered a ‘Third World’ country. The term didn’t sound nice, judging from what I learnt. I was shocked – because as a child, I thought we were rich and quite developed. Then I noticed that all ‘developed’ countries happened to be those populated by mostly white people which had had colonies in the past. When I was taken to Britain by my mother on holiday, I saw for myself how things were ‘better’ there: the roads were wider, the trains faster, streets cleaner, and buildings more grand. The clear message was that white people monopolised the ‘goodies’ in this world. Not surprising then that I found myself wishing I were white. To the point that I started to hate my Chinese eyes – almond-shaped but lacking the double-crease of Western eyes. Even now, many Oriental women undergo eye surgery to achieve this desired double-crease and there are plenty of places offering such surgery. Here’s an example: a site with a name which says it all – Beautiful Eyes, Asian Blepharoplasty.

Of course identity, being rich and multi-faceted, goes well beyond race. I happened to be born a girl in a misogynistic culture. I was also the first-born, and smart and plucky to boot. Which made many people tell my mother – “Shame she is a girl-lah!” – in that uniquely Malaysian fashion. Fortunately my mother happened to be a feminist before the word was even coined; she stood up for me and this has helped me a lot in life. There were people who didn’t just comment on their preference for boys – they also took action. For example, there was a belief among the Chinese that if you gave away a girl, the next child would be a boy. I know two women who were given away in this way by their families. One was my father’s older sister, who was handed over to an impoverished rubber-tapping family and had to endure a sad life, while the rest of the family were comfortable enough.

Not only was I a girl, but I was also hard-nosed, strong-willed and outspoken, in a culture where people prefer to make oblique references instead of discussing difficult matters head-to-head. When I grew older, I became a theoretical physicist, not a doctor or lawyer – the more typical professions. My own father even told me to forget my fanciful dreams, as physics was for boys. 

As if the above weren’t enough, I then discovered that I was gay. Imagine! Even in my highly Westernised family, no one mentions the ‘H-word’ today, let along the ‘L-word’. Never mind that there is more than one gay family member.

No wonder then, that I felt myself much more at home in the UK, with its liberal and individualistic culture that allows people to be themselves and where diversity is celebrated, thanks to women’s and gay rights movements in particular. I came to the UK to study, and there was a seventeen-year period when I did not return to Malaysia. During that time, I knew I was cutting off an essential part of myself, though I didn’t think about it consciously. The American poet and academic Adrienne Rich has described this feeling very well; she calls it being ‘Split at the Root.’ And when you’re split at the root, a fundamental part of you fails to grow.

Which is what happened to me, until destiny came in the form of a brain tumour. I won’t go into details here except to say that my skull had to be drilled into and my neck muscles torn apart. The recovery night after surgery was such a torture, I didn’t think I would make it. I couldn’t even twitch a muscle without pain shooting through my entire body. As I lay there, I thought only about what was important in life and the people I love. I realised then how much I missed the family I had not seen in Malaysia and the delicious tropical fruit back home. So when my then partner urged me to make a trip, I jumped at the chance. My first time back was in 2000 and I have been in Malaysia once every few years since.

While doing research for my novel, I have spent even more time there recently. Being immersed for prolonged periods thinking about the history of my country, its people and culture has been a very important personal step. What I’m finding is that I’m exploring my own identity as I help my characters explore theirs. In this strange way, the journey of my novel has been intertwined with my personal search for roots. As with any voyage of identity, mine is still in the making. But it has been a thoroughly therapeutic experience so far, and I’m pleased to have started on the road back. Somehow, I know I will find a way to reconcile the woman I’ve become with the culture I come from.


Filed under Cultural Identity, Identity

The Truth about how I Actually Started Writing

In my last blog, I made it sound as if I simply sat down one day and began to write. I must confess that was a slight simplification. It’s true that when I sit down now with a blank page, ideas come to mind and I fill the white space with little trouble. But getting to this point has taken hard work.

Because knowing that I wanted to write a book was the easy part. Thinking how and where to start proved more difficult. First was the question of genre. What sort of book would I write? Historical memoir, fiction or even fantasy? I quickly decided on fiction, as it offers scope with the added advantage of poetic license – my family is full of scandal after all. 

Still, until then, I had only written whenever the mood had grabbed me, which is to say, infrequently. Given those inauspicious attempts, how was I going to embark on a novel?

That was when my partner stepped in. She announced that she knew just the right person: a friend, Dr. Nathalie Teitler who at the time worked as professional editor, poet, sometime academic and consultant. Unbeknownst to Nathalie, we decided to deploy a tried-and-tested Chinese strategy: ply her with food and get free advice (try it!). This strategy only partly succeeded, because when we invited Nathalie to our favourite dim-sum place, we discovered she was a salad lady! We ended up eating all her dumplings, while she did a lot of the talking. She said a good many things, the most memorable being that I had to write every day.

I remember being so shocked that I gulped.  In my own head, writing was something I would do for fun, and certainly not every day!

So initially, I resisted. At the time I was spending my weeks on the “real” business of trading, and I opted to write only on Saturdays. But Saturdays being what they are, things always came up, in the form of meals with friends which my partner would arrange, or invitations to the opera. Fabulous, except I made zero progress on the novel.

On top of that, because writing was on my mind, I suddenly noticed references to the way others worked. For example Isabel Allende, one of my favourite authors, writes between 9 am and 7 pm from Mondays through Saturdays and finishes her first drafts in four months! Ernest Hemingway is reputed to have kept four desks in his house in Cuba, each facing a different direction and used at different stages: one for first drafts, another for the first edit and so on. And Nathalie kept on telling me that even an hour a day was better than none at all.

The more I pondered it, the more I realised she was right. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not only inspiration but also iron discipline and gritty determination, coupled with the crazed belief writers have that people will want to read what’s produced (!), which expel books out into this world. For the first time, I tried to get under the skins of my characters, living and breathing with them. I imagined how they talked, the clothes they wore, their homes, the walks they took, and all this in Malaya of one hundred years ago.

It became an intensely personal journey, because it’s impossible for me to write the story of an Asian woman and not confront the bond which unites us: we are all born into cultures that don’t value girls. I found myself overwhelmed by memories, for example of the many occasions when I heard others tell my mother what a shame I wasn’t a boy. That is a story for another time. Suffice to say that I had to find a way of somehow harnessing this raw energy for literary ends.

That was the moment I asked Nathalie to be my editor. It was a decision which transformed my writing schedule. For the first time, I incorporated writing into my daily routine and gave myself deadlines. I would give Nathalie a chapter as soon as I completed it, and we then met to discuss her feedback. The more immersed I became in my characters’ lives, the more natural it was to sit with them every day.

Of course working with an editor isn’t always easy. Mine happily throws out entire chapters (only once but I’m sure she would do it again), forces me into the type of writing I like least (description in my case) and has never yet admitted she made a mistake (presumably because in art, mistakes are impossible, unlike the real world). On the other hand, she is invariably supportive and gives me wonderful ideas, and I know my book would be poorer without her input.

No sooner had I learnt how to divide my time between trading, writing and going to the gym, than a new challenge presented itself: how to write and keep a partner. This is especially tough given the house rule I’ve instituted: that she cannot speak to me before 3 pm. Fortunately my partner has been amazing so far, despite the odd tweet about her travails. Here’s my favourite:

“Living with a writer means only seeing a 3D picture of them sitting at the table with a laptop. They are far away and cannot be disturbed.”

Oh dear…let’s hope I finish this novel soon.

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Filed under Writing

She Arrived on an Elephant – Why I’m Writing my Novel

My novel is based on my Great Grandmother, whom I first heard about when still quite small. I remember being shown a black and white photograph in which a rather plump woman stood, wearing a patterned blouse that was fastened by an enormous brooch. “That’s grandma,” my mother told me simply. It turned out that was the only photo ever taken of my Great Grandmother and it was brown with age even then; it revealed a forbidding-looking woman, someone a child would be frightened of, despite the semblance of a smile on her round face. This impression was reinforced whenever Great Grandmother came up in conversation; with bated breath, the adults around me would exclaim – “Wahh! Very fierce ah!”

I was told Great Grandmother came from Siam (now Thailand) and was a Nyonya, words I hadn’t heard before and which seemed too complicated for my little brain to deal with. For years I didn’t dig any further, content to simply associate the word Nyonya with spicy dishes and with the kueh I enjoyed (see my previous blog post). Those who know me may find this hard to believe, but the fact that there was something I liked eating was actually a big deal – because I hated eating as a child. Every meal was a tortured ritual in which my mother was forced to slowly hand-feed me. I took so long to eat that by the time I finished, it would almost be time for the next meal. The net result was that for me, all meals blended into a single nightmare, so it must have seemed like a gift from heaven to my poor mother when she discovered that I would happily devour Nyonya kueh.

Over the years as I grew up, I remember being told that I was just like my Great Grandmother – stubborn and fierce. The comments weren’t necessarily intended as compliments, and initially they didn’t please me. But they were repeated so often that I became curious about the woman who had inspired them. Eventually I felt I had no choice except to find out more. It was then that I heard how she raised nine children on her own, unaided, with nothing to fall back on except her wits and business acumen. She couldn’t even read and write, but that didn’t stop her from establishing her own business. For a woman in Malaya in 1910, that must have taken guts, something Great Grandmother appeared to have plenty of.

Hers was a story I had long intended to write, but creative writing didn’t fit in with the fast world of finance. I was seldom at home and worked such insane hours, often in far-flung corners of the world, that there was barely time for sleep. Everything else fell by the wayside; in those days writing seemed a hazy dream to be pursued later, a bit like golf.

Then, two years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Because it was cancer, it meant I had to have not only surgery but also radio- and chemotherapy. For someone with needle-phobia who doesn’t take any drugs and faints at the sight of blood, the entire process proved very stressful – although I didn’t feel it at the time. It was only after my treatment had finished that I realised life had changed. For months afterwards, I felt adrift. No matter how much I slept, I couldn’t seem to regain my previous energy. My confidence waned, and there were days when I wondered if I could ever be the person I once was. I knew then that I had to alter the way I lived.

As a result, I began to do things I never did before. I stopped rushing around. I scaled down my business. And I discovered writing. I had heard about cancer survivors who had found a lifeline through creative self-expression, activities like pottery or singing, as well as writing. At a low-ebb one day, I simply sat down with a blank Word page and just started typing. Magically, as the sentences flowed, I could literally feel myself getting better.

Within two months, when I asked myself whether there was anything I would regret not having done if my life were to end tomorrow, I knew at once what the answer was. It was clear then what my next project had to be. Great Grandmother had already waited far too long.


Filed under Cultural Identity, Identity, Malaysia, Novel, Nyonya, Writing