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.