It is a wonderful time to be in the New Forest (the brown blob at the bottom of the map). The New Forest lies in Hampshire, and is now one of England’s national parks. In early October the trees are still green, but the oranges and gold of autumn have crept in.
It was in this pastoral setting that I gave a book reading on the evening of October 3. I had been invited by Monty’s Book Club, whose members meet once a month in the Montagu Arms, a pub and hotel located in the heart of Beaulieu. The club reads the whole range of literary fiction, from contemporary works through to classics. This book club has existed for three years and is thriving; it even has a waiting list. Membership is restricted to ten at any time, because the club borrows books from the local library and ten was felt to be a manageable number. A member told me the size is just right, as it allows for varied discussion without being intimidating.
I was only the second writer to read to Monty’s, the first being Natasha Solomons. To publicise her debut novel Mr Rosenblum’s List, Ms. Solomons went on a quest to visit as many British book clubs as she could. She duly arrived in Beaulieu. There, she paved the way for others, because her reading was such a success that Monty’s members welcomed me too.
My own invitation came about through personal links. During the six years I spent at SouthamptonUniversity as a theoretical physicist, I often sought refuge in the New Forest. I loved its peace, its trees and the colour of its skies. I still visit, to see a long-standing friend whenever I can. On one such visit in the summer, I heard about Monty’s Book Club, and wondered aloud whether the club would be interested in a reading of my novel.
The club said yes. Like Ms. Solomons’ reading, mine was also to be a special event, held not in the Montagu Arms but in a member’s house. I arrived with some trepidation. I had never given a book reading before and didn’t know what to expect. I knew the atmosphere would be genteel and its members polite, but I didn’t want people to say nice things just because they felt obliged to. If anyone became bored during the half hour or so while I read, it would have been obvious to me – and the rest of the audience.
So I practised, many times. I recorded my voice on a sleek, silver Olympus recording machine my partner had given me as a present. It’s a fabulous gadget: pocket-sized yet powerful. On it, you can hear everything, even the rustle of paper. I listened to my enunciation, making sure there was enough nuance in my voice to keep everyone’s attention. I learnt to pull my stomach muscles in when my voice fell, so that I could better project sound across a room. I imagine that this is what singers have to do.
I read from a Kindle reader with a special leather cover that has its own discreet lamp at the top. The light flicks in and out; it can be fully tucked in unless needed, a highly ergonomic design. Much as I love holding a physical book, I also love my Kindle and its cover. Its leather feels wonderful in my hands, and the fact that its light shines directly onto the page is a huge bonus. The Kindle proved incredibly useful during my reading.
In the end, I read two sections, one short, the second longer. The first was the ancestral story of the Nyonyas, the people from whom my main protagonist, Chye Hoon, is descended. I looked at my audience as I read, watching for any sign of a yawn or of eyes glazing over. None came. I could see that the members of Monty’s Book Club were imagining the scene in their own minds, seeing the character in my story who is herself telling a story.
When I began the second, longer section, the eyes of my audience were still on me. The scene takes place on the island of Penang, which a few in the room had been to. But my Penang is the Penang of 1898, and I invoke a place covered in virgin jungle, where elephants are still a form of transport. In this scene, Chye Hoon is about to get married. It is a huge celebration, because Chye Hoon is an independent-minded girl with a fearsome temper and no one believes she will ever find a suitor. But get married she does, in the colourful Nyonya-Baba tradition of the day which left my modern British audience wide-eyed.
Afterwards, the members of Monty’s asked many questions. We talked about the Nyonyas and Babas, whom none had heard of previously. We talked also of Malaysia, the real Malaysia, not the one touted on Tourism Malaysia billboards. I was impressed that this group – educated women, some with careers, many who stayed at home, some now pursuing post-graduate studies, and all juggling a host of family commitments – remained late into the night to engage in a culture they had never heard of, in a country some had yet to visit. I took it as a good sign that there would be interest from a Western audience in my multi-cultural novel. Its themes are topical today: the ongoing tension between modernity and tradition, and the invisible cost of the cultural assimilation which some of us must face.
In my novel, the characters speak like real-life Malaysians. I mentioned this in a previous blog-post What Does it Cost to Write a Novel?, in which I had said I was unsure about this point of style. A member of Monty’s, a speech therapist, said she loved my dialogue. She especially liked the way I had changed the order of words. She put it very aptly: “Language isn’t just about communication; it also conveys a sense of place.” In a number of novels she had read, the characters had spoken in ordinary English even though the stories were set in foreign lands, and she had felt this sense of place to be missing. Others in the group agreed. I breathed a sigh of relief, because my audience had validated an intuition which I, as a Malaysian writer, have long had.
My grateful thanks to Monty’s Book Club; they made the evening what it was, and also helped clarify an ambiguity in my own mind. A few members asked when my novel would be published. Some worried it might not. But it will – because I write to be read, not so that my script remains as bits on a motherboard. When and in what form my novel will be published, I cannot say. But I will work to get it there, even if it means having to start a publishing company.