Tag Archives: Novel

Dreams can be Made

I’m thrilled to tell you that my novel – The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds – will be launched on November 1, 2016 in three formats: in print, as a Kindle e-book and also as an audio book.

Below is what the cover will look like. I love the artwork, I think it’s amazing – and I’m not just saying this because it happens to be my book.

The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds (The Malayan Series) by [Siak Chin Yoke, Selina]

If you’ve been waiting for my novel, the good news is that it’s now available to pre-order! Here are some of the stores which will stock it: Kinokuniya in Malaysia ; Kinokuniya in Singapore; Waterstones in the UK; Barnes & Noble in the USA and of course Amazon.

I mentioned before that I was stunned by how much work goes into a published book. I had expected the text to be scrutinised; this, after all, is the heart of a book, but I never imagined I would be taught the fine points of English grammar in the process!

For instance, I was told that I used the “subjunctive were” a lot (one of the copy editor’s comments). Funnily enough, I did not know what a “subjunctive were” was: I had to look it up on Google. It’s a relief to know that there are still people on this planet who understand the rules of English grammar. When I see the types of grammatical mistakes being made nowadays, I have to conclude that such people are a dying breed. So I’m really glad to find them in publishing!

At the outset, I was asked whether I wanted to be consulted about my book cover. Of course I said yes, and I’m glad I did – because it has allowed me to appreciate the amount of thought which designers put into book covers. Everyone sort of knows that book covers are important, but how much attention do you really give them beyond whether they are “nice” or not?

I was flabbergasted when my publisher began to articulate the different elements they felt that our cover had to convey. First, geography – so that it evoked at a glance not just Asia but South East Asia; secondly, the era – vintage yet somehow also timeless; and finally the sense of story, of how central the female protagonist is. I’m really proud of what was achieved even though I did not participate actively in the creative process. I only watched from afar, lobbing ideas when asked and making the odd irritating comment, like “too much yellow, could we have more blue please”. The artist, David Drummond, has featured the work on his own blog, where he describes it as being a “fun cover” to work on. I’m glad he thinks so, because there must have been goodness-knows-how-many iterations! (I don’t actually know how many there were – my editor did a wonderful job in shielding me from the (no doubt) heated discussions.)

I don’t suppose that many authors have much involvement with the creation of their audio books. Because of the peppering of Malay and Chinese dialect words in my novel, I had offered pronunciation assistance to the narrator, a British actress by the name of Christine Rendel. I did not know whether Christine would take my offer up, and was impressed when she not only did but came prepared with an array of of questions. I had to explain how to say “ai-yahh” and “lah” and “ngi cho ma kai-ah”, among other things. And now I can’t wait to hear what she has done with these expressions!

Finally, a word about my publisher Amazon Crossing – Amazon Publishing’s translated works imprint. In line with its remit Amazon Crossing has to date mainly published works written in other languages and translated into English. I’m pleased to be among the handful of authors writing in English whom they have chosen to publish, and especially honoured that they selected my debut novel. I must thank the whole team in Seattle, most of whom I have not met, many whose names I don’t even know, for being so pro-active and re-active and patient with the questions I’ve asked. My editor, Elizabeth DeNoma, has been exemplary. Her job, apart from managing various strands of the book production process, has included holding my hand, especially as publication day creeps ever closer.

Because, with less than two months to go, my emotions are starting to cause havoc. This may sound counter-intuitive but I’ve become increasingly nervous; what if people hate my book? To be honest, I’m having trouble sleeping properly. I fear I may be a wreck by November.

Thank goodness I’ll be visiting Malaysia before then – I’ll certainly need doses of petai and Nyonya kueh to calm those nerves! If any of you are in Malaysia in October, please come and hear me read an excerpt from The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds. I will be at The Sharpened Word in Ipoh, my hometown, on Saturday, October 15, 2016 and then at Seksan, Bangsar Village in Kuala Lumpur a fortnight later on Saturday, October 29, 2016. Details will be posted here in due course.

Meanwhile I’ve been asked for an interview. Part of me cannot believe this is actually happening… For so long I dreamt about having a novel published. But I had other interests too and I pursued these first. If I had not had cancer when I did, I would probably only have started writing seriously much later. Which goes to show that positive things can rise out of the ashes of personal difficulty.

Taking this novel from concept to publication has taken longer than I ever imagined it would. Nearly six years, to be precise : two months of research, two years of writing, another year to secure an agent, nearly two years for him to find a publisher and then the months Amazon Crossing has spent turning my raw manuscript into a printed book. Now it feels as if I’m standing on the threshold of something new, a different stage in my writing journey, when I can look back on the hard slog and think that, no matter what happens next, it has all been worth it. Sometimes, dreams do come true.

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When do you Stop?

In just a few days, the Snake will give way to the Horse (in the Chinese zodiac). It was roughly a year ago, before the Snake had even entered, that I finished my tome of a historical novel.

Here’s what I mean by ‘finished’: I planned it, did my research, wrote the first draft, and then ‘edited’ that draft twice – from the first page through to the last, where editing included the heavy re-writing of particular chapters. I was aided throughout, even in the early stages, by Dr. Nathalie Teitler, poet, director of The Complete Works II and a professional developmental editor. Some writers think this unusual, but for me, feedback is invaluable while I’m still crafting a story.

Ultimately, the whole endeavour took two years. This, I was told, was not that long, given the scope of what I attempted: a story commencing in 1878 and ending just before the Japanese invasion of Malaya in 1941 (a period which spans sixty three years), where real history is incorporated into a fictional setting.

Writing my book made me look at art and artists in a different way. Most of us see only the finished piece, be it a book or play, opera or painting; we don’t usually think about how much effort a ballerina or opera singer, actor or painter, has had to put in. Now I know.

My novel Spirit of Kueh contains roughly 145,000 words. To give you an idea of what that means, the first two paragraphs of this blog-post contain approximately 100 words. Imagine writing 1,450 more paragraphs like those and then editing each twice, and you will perhaps see why it took so long. By the time I finished, I had reached the point of exhaustion. I closed the folder on my PC marked ‘Manuscript’ and could not look at it again. There was no way I could have edited my novel a third time – not then anyway.

In this age of bite-sized concentration and 140-character sound bites, I’m aware that a novel of 145,000 words is deemed long, especially for a first-time novelist. A published novelist I met (who hasn’t read any of my work) claimed I would never find a publisher. We shall see.

I don’t doubt the challenge, but having put a lot of thought into the way my story should be structured, I believe it hangs together as a coherent whole and some impact would be lost if the story were to be split up. Also, we’re not short of drama: the female protagonist, who is illiterate, starts her own business while raising a family of ten children. Ten children! How many of us could imagine raising ten children? All of this takes place against a backdrop of a rapidly westernising Malaya. Hence the themes in my novel are rather contemporary : the ongoing conflict between modernisation and tradition, and especially for those of us living as minorities in a foreign land: what is the true cost of (our) cultural assimilation?

My next step then, after three months of research, was to send off query letters to agents, together with a synopsis and the relevant pages or chapters. Each agent, incidentally, is different: writing to them is like applying for a job; there is no ‘standard’, and everyone asks for something slightly different, which means that each query takes time to prepare. I wrote to five agents, received one response – a no – and was ignored by the others.

Fortunately or unfortunately, life then took over. I became bogged down with managing a house renovation project in a new country (France) and my routine went kaput. In snatched moments, I wrote. Not being able to focus in the same way, I turned my hand to non-fiction, jotting down hundreds of snippets about the many surprises France laid my way. I also wrote two pieces of flash fiction (published in Litro Online and Postcard Shorts) and several short stories (now under consideration for publication). Without a proper routine, it was impossible for me to even think about what Helen Dunmore, the award-winning author who visited us during the one Arvon Foundation course I attended, called ‘writing biz’: the process of dealing with the commercial, non-creative side of writing. Agents and publishers fall into this category.

Now that we are about to enter the Year of the Horse, it feels to me that the time has come. I have looked again at the folder marked ‘Manuscript’ and have, inevitably, begun further editing. This time, I bring a fresh eye and new skills, skills I could only have gained by writing short fiction. Indeed, I find that many of the published novels I read today could use further editing. In art though, there is no right or wrong; you could continue editing a story ad infinitum. When do you stop?

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I’ve Finished, Now What?

Many readers of this blog have asked when my novel will be published. A few even assumed, after my last post, that it had already been published!

Ahh, if only…

Two years ago, I attended one of the conferences organised by a unit of Bloomsbury Publishing (of Harry Potter fame). The conference was temptingly called ‘How to Get Published – the Insider Guide to the Media’.

Several hundred of us hopeful writers made our way into a hall at the Wellcome Collection in central London. It was a typical conference hall, with seats on an incline that pointed towards a stage at the front. From their vaunted podium, the first thing senior executives of Bloomsbury did was to greet us. Then they proceeded to say that at any point in time,  a million manuscripts were floating around in search of a publisher. Thanks for the welcome, I thought. The message was so razor-sharp, it could have sliced stone-hard bread: British publishing didn’t need us; it already had enough backlog.

During breaks, I heard other people’s stories. A few delegates, having lived through multiple rejections, had been attending the same conference for many years. Some had been told by agents that there was ‘no market’ for their work. While listening to such war stories, I could see the attractions of self-publishing, though none of my fellow writers showed much enthusiasm. They wanted the prestige of traditional publishing. Others didn’t feel they had the business background to self-publish.

While at the conference, I bought a copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook without knowing whether or how I would use it. This tome not only lists agents and publishers in major Western countries, it also gives detailed suggestions for how pitch letters and synopses should be written. Covered with such plaudits as ‘The one-and-only indispensable guide to the world of writing’, this from William Boyd, who could resist? It seemed a snip at £18.99. (Older editions are even cheaper on Amazon). For a fleeting moment, the conference on How to Get Published made me wonder whether I even wanted to be published, but this lasted all of a nano-second before natural ambitiousness took over. I could see my Chinese and Nyonya ancestors standing over me, wagging fingers, tsk-tsking. I left armed with a resolve to complete writing my novel. I decided to worry about publication at a later date.

That crucial moment has now arrived. I have to decide how best to get my novel published and into the hands of the readers whom I believe will be there. This may seem presumptious for a first-time novelist, but on the other hand, I’m supposed to know my audience – and I do. My target readership is Isabel Allende‘s, the Chilean-American writer who has sold 57 million books world-wide. That’s a nice number,  not at all bad for a target audience, I’d say. I think my novel would appeal to her readers because I write in the same story-telling style, and also because my work is a multicultural historical epic family drama, as are many of hers.

But I’m looking to attract new readers too, especially those with Asian roots. While writing my book, I consciously set out to portray Asians as we see ourselves, and to weave as much of South East Asia – be it place, ancestral stories or folklore – into the story as possible.

Knowing this is all very well, but what the hell should I do now? Previously, I would have had little choice but to go down the route of traditional publishing. That would mean fighting for the attention of an agent, because with the million manuscripts floating around, agents too are inundated. Even if I succeeded in finding an agent, there would still be no guarantee of publication – the agent would have to place the manuscript with a publisher willing to take on the book and the risk of a new writer.

But we are now in the digital age, and I have the option of publishing and selling the novel myself. Yet, when I think about what this would entail – all of the copy-editing, proof-reading, lay-out, design, printing (since not everyone in my target audience would have an e-book reader) and most of all, the marketing which a traditional publisher would undertake for its authors – I shudder. It would take me light years away from the creative process. I baulk, despite having a business background which equips me well enough to grapple with rankings on Amazon, persuade reviewers to read my book, even trudge from store to store to sweet-talk them into stocking copies. Because I do have business experience, I realise that this would be a very long-term project for a new writer. Not impossible, just extremely tough for my genre. Though it is a perfectly legitimate route, and one which would give me complete control over my work, as well as (in principle) the lion’s share of any royalties.

Whenever I think about publishing, it becomes abundantly clear that writing was actually the easy part!

For the moment, I have decided to pursue traditional publishing. This is mainly because my first novel is intended as the start of a trilogy and – call me mad – I’ve already started the second. Only a small part, mind, and there’s still a lot more research to do. But a start has been made! This second novel will continue the epic family saga beyond 1941, when the Second World War reaches Malaya.

One way or another, I intend to get published. Meanwhile, if you’re in London over the next two months, I’ll be reading extracts from my novel at two events:

16 February 2013 at the Islington Chinese Association, as part of a Cultural Day to celebrate Chinese New Year

8 March 2013 at a lunch to be hosted by the Hong Kong Society Women’s Group, where together with Kerry Young, author of the acclaimed novel Pao, I will read and explore perspectives on the Chinese spirit for International Women’s Day

Do come if you can!

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I’ve Finished!

Six days ago, I finished my novel. Yes! It has taken four drafts and almost two years to hone the 150,000 or so words of my historical epic family drama.

Given that I completed the first draft in just twelve months of furious writing, I find it amazing that I then spent another eleven months editing my work, word by precious word. In the early months, when I sat before my personal computer in full narrative flow, I naively wondered why some books took their authors seven to ten years to write. Now I know.

Looking back, I can see that the first draft contained mainly bare bones. It was as if I had to pour the words out onto a page, so that I could tell the story to myself. Many writers say they don’t share their first drafts with anyone else, but perhaps I’m more thick-skinned. Besides, I find I need feedback to get those creative juices flowing. I therefore showed my first draft to my partner, and also to a professional developmental editor. If I had to do it again, I would do exactly the same thing. I was fortunate in having Dr. Nathalie Teitler, formerly a tutor at Spread the Word, among other organisations, as my editor. The drama I’ve written takes place in Ipoh, Malaya (see map), within a complex multicultural setting, and I needed an editor who would be sympathetic to such material. Right from the start, I became used to criticism, to having chunks decimated, even a whole chapter rejected. I write to be read, and I needed such input. ipoh

In that period, I also sent my early draft to two literary consultancies. Both are reputable and advertise themselves as ‘leading’ consultancies, yet they gave opposing feedback: one very encouraging, the other much less so (I had not told either that this was a first draft). The experience confirmed what I had already suspected – that whether your writing is deemed ‘good’ is highly subjective. Much in the writing industry seems a matter of taste.

When I started the second draft, Nathalie worried I would lose momentum. It happens to many, she said. With me, the opposite was true: ideas came quickly and not always in tangible form, often at night in half-dreams from which I awoke, unsure of the words that had been churning in my head. I was in Malaysia at the time. Something about the heat, the food, family and the way people speak there  (Wahh! Like that also can ah?) stirred my imagination. Thanks to a prolific subconscious, large chunks were added to and taken away in the second draft. A major edit, I thought, until I began the third draft.

That was when I really did sharpen every word in every sentence. It is now quite a different book to what I had at the beginning, or even after the second draft. By that, I don’t mean that the underlying story has changed, rather, that I’ve told it using many more motifs and metaphors.

Editing, I was to learn, is an art. An art which I resisted, until I started to enjoy it. Editing is hugely time-consuming, and anyone who has put together a presentation in the corporate world will understand one of its frustrations. Changing a phrase in the third paragraph of the second chapter could impact the flow of what came before, as well as what comes after. Often, you have to re-read a lot more than just the short paragraph you are changing.

Late in the editing process, I discovered a critical tool: reading aloud. I found that if I could not get my tongue around a sentence, it was usually because there was a problem with that sentence. When I re-wrote it in a way that made it easier on the tongue, the prose invariably became clearer. But reading aloud an entire epic drama of 150,000 words twice from start to finish takes a lot of time. It has a cost on family life too, if your partner happens to be your first reader, which is the case with me. Every time I re-wrote a piece, she was asked to read it. This was especially true of the beginning and end, which I re-wrote, re-read and re-wrote many more times than five, in fact, so many times that I fear I may have lost my first reader in the process. I worry she won’t bother to read the published book! Be that as it may, I can finally say I have completed my first novel. Hallelujah!

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What does it Cost to Write a Novel?

I have now been writing my novel for 580 days. How many hours would that make? I haven’t counted, but given that there are 13,920 hours in 580 days, a rough estimate must yield a number in the thousands. A sobering thought…

With my business background and Chinese heritage, I can’t help thinking about what people in business call ‘the opportunity cost’. In other words, what else I could have done in that time, and how much more income I might have generated.

In a year and a half, the total package garnered by a senior manager working full-time could come to a few hundred thousand pounds (if we included bonuses, healthcare and pension contributions). I chose to leave the corporate world, and I don’t for one nanosecond regret that decision. Not because I hated it, but because in my time, I survived two life-threatening illnesses. Writing was integral to my recovery (see blog-post The Miracle of Writing), and I believe I need to continue telling stories for my well-being.

While I would love to be commercially successful as a writer, I have to be realistic: I’m writing historical fiction, not Harry Potter. My aim is to be both accessible and literary at the same time. In the process, I hope to entertain many, and to touch a few. Although my novel is historical, it carries themes of contemporary interest, such as the invisible cost of cultural assimilation – what it means to lose a heritage, and the ongoing tension between modernity and tradition.

It took me twelve months to write the first draft of this epic drama. That is fast, I’m told, for 150,000 words. (In comparison, the average book now has 100,000 to 120,000 words). Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I worked like a fiend. It helped that I could work at my second job from home, which gave me plenty of flexibility to write. I also had a wonderfully supportive partner who agreed not to speak to me before 3 pm each day. Although this was the subject of constant jokes amongst our friends, I can happily say there is no substitute for discipline.

At that whirlwind speed, I expected to be finished in no time. But my editor shook her head after the second draft. Nope, not ready yet, she told me in no uncertain terms. It is only now, well into my third draft, that I fully appreciate how much work has to go into polishing each and every word. I sit thinking about tenses and grammar. I stare at commas and semi-colons, the presence or absence of which could subtly change a sentence.

When I gave the second draft to a book-loving friend for a lay-person’s opinion, the work had grown to 170,000 words. I’m very grateful to my friend for her patience and her many comments. But what is a writer to do with wildly opposing feedback?

The bone of contention: the fact that my characters talk like Malaysians. (By that, I mean the dialogue between characters, not the narrative flow itself). Here’s an example. Instead of saying “How can that be?”, a Malaysian in real life might say, “Like that, how can-ah?”

To me as a Malaysian, the words written in that way simply jump off the page. I can hear the sentence, “Like that, how can-ah?” in all three of Cantonese, Malay or Malaysian English (Manglish). While creating the dialogue between my characters, I realised that when Malaysians speak English, we often just translate from our own languages.

By changing the order of the words on the page, I hoped to convey some of the cadence and intonation of Malaysian speech. It would have been easy to stick to the tried and tested Malaysian favourites: ‘lah’ and ‘ah’ and even ‘ai-yahh’; I wanted, perhaps ambitiously, to capture more of Malaysia’s atmosphere in my novel. If you haven’t been to South-East Asia, this may be lost, and the speech could seem trying. This is why I’ve restricted ‘Malaysian-isation’ to only the dialogue between the characters in my book. A matter of style, but it has already proven controversial. My editor loved it, and my friend hated it. Their reactions told me that other readers were also likely to fall into those two camps. As the writer, I will have to make the final decision.

Writers are always encouraged to read as widely as possible. Yet, while writing my first draft, I found that if I read any work written in a style dissimilar to mine (a story-telling style à la Isabel Allende), my own writing became affected. The sentences would cease to flow. In that period, I was forced to read and re-read Isabel Allende. Not a hardship, since I love her writing. In contrast, reading widely has helped me with my second and third drafts. I’ve read a string of novels recently, including The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a sad story set in Japan in the late 1700s, in which David Mitchell displays wonderful techniques with dialogue.

Latterly, I’ve discovered a trick I wish I had used earlier. Now that my work is nearly ready to be more widely exposed, I have a number of readings planned. While preparing for them, I began to read passages of my work aloud to myself. That was when I realised I could use reading aloud as a tool to weed out unwieldy sentences. If my tongue couldn’t get around a sentence first time, it was usually because the sentence didn’t work, and I had to change it.  Reading aloud also helps when you’re trying to spot repetition. Gillian Slovo had mentioned this at a writing workshop at the Faber Academy, but once I arrived home, I promptly forgot her advice. She was spot-on though.

Soon, it will be time to think about how to get my work published. I’m not looking forward to the process; why that is the case deserves another blog-post. To return to the question I asked at the outset: what does it cost to write a novel? Answer: many years of a writer’s life. And what does it take to get to the finish line? Discipline, determination and an insane belief that you have a worthwhile story to share with the world.

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Lost Cells 1: the Cultural Challenge of being Overseas Chinese

I was born on a starless night in Singapore, one among fifty seven million people of Chinese descent to have been born outside of mainland China.

According to my Mandarin teacher, some overseas Chinese were at one time referred to as ‘same cells’ by our fellow-Chinese on the mainland. This sobriquet applied to those in Hong Kong and Macao, the idea being that they were all part of one body, one organism. As for the rest of us, we presumably floated too far away to qualify for ‘sameness’. Like lost cells, we’ve become disentangled from the mother organism and are now drifting aimlessly through space.

I rather like this idea. The term ‘lost cells’ conjures up amoeba-like objects from biology lessons. I imagine blobs with malleable membranes, expanding and contracting as they skim across a vast ocean.

It has sometimes been lonely being a lost cell. China always loomed, but I couldn’t have told you what it signified. When I eventually spoke to other overseas Chinese, I discovered I was far from alone. No matter where our homes were – be they in Jamaica or Australia – we all grappled with what being overseas Chinese meant.

How did this vast ancestral land of ours, with its millennia of culture, fit into our lives?

—————

Of course, we Chinese are a practical people. Nothing as nebulous as existential angst could ever stop us in the day-to-day business of simply getting on. To quote the legendary investor Jim Rogers: “By one count, the overseas Chinese together make up the third largest economy in the world.”

I found this statistic truly staggering. Imagine placing all fifty seven million of us – you if you’re an overseas Chinese, me, my family, friends and acquaintances – onto the same land. Our collective effort, according to Jim Rogers – from the businesses we owned, the work we did, the things we made – would create a powerhouse third only to America and Japan (the top two at the time) in terms of output.

(If you haven’t heard of Jim Rogers, he once worked with George Soros, retired early and then rode around the globe on his motorcycle. The above quote is taken from his book Hot Commodities, a terrific read for anyone interested in investing in commodities.)

Rogers’ statistic surprised me, but it also made me strangely proud. It spoke to me about core Chinese values: hard work, family, education. Because he was talking about far-flung Chinese, it said other things too. I thought of the way many of our ancestors had arrived in unknown places from an impoverished China, with nothing other than the clothes on their backs and the few dollars in their pockets. That they had built new lives out of so very little told me they must have had courage, a gift for adapting, and gritty determination.

Against such odds, overseas Chinese have been conspicuously successful. This is especially true in South-East Asia where most of us live.  

Alas, our success has not made for an easy relationship with the other peoples of the region. It certainly didn’t make my quest for identity any easier.

—————

The search for identity permeates my novel. Its main character is a Nyonya woman who claims a meaningful role for herself within her own culture. With the arrival of the British in Malaya, great change comes, and my heroine struggles as her culture is eroded by new Chinese immigrants and relentless Westernisation. She eventually understands there are things she cannot change; what she can change requires courage, and the confronting of bruising reality.

—————

When I was growing up, I never felt especially Chinese. Thrust into the three cultures of Malaysia – Chinese, Malay and Indian – all heavily spiced by Western influence, I became accustomed to what is now called a ‘multicultural’ society early on.

Unlike friends who can remember astonishing details, I have few childhood memories. The big events I recall were the colourful weddings, of which there were many, all involving copious amounts of food and drink; also Chinese New Year celebrations, which I looked forward to because children received red packets (ang bao) with money inside. I was always excited by a red packet. Before peeling the envelope open, I would caress its sleeves to feel what coins it contained. Envelopes with no coins were the best, because those contained bank notes.

None of what we celebrated made me feel any allegiance to China though. I didn’t even like fireworks, that staple of Chinese New Year celebrations. Whenever my family gathered to light long thin sticks or bunches of red crackers which popped like machine-guns, I cowered inside the house.

“You know we Chinese invented fireworks,” my father once told me, as if this indicated a genetic predisposition to enjoying thunderous explosions.

As I became older, it was clear there were other ways in which I wasn’t typically Chinese; in my bluntness for example, and my tendency to call a spade a spade, which even straight-talking Dutch friends find difficult. Also, while I don’t deliberately seek conflict, I don’t go out of my way to avoid them. If things need to be said, I will say them, regardless of the consequences and even at the risk of conflict. This is quite un-Chinese. It’s un-Asian too; where I come from, talking without mentioning indelicate truths has been elevated to an art form.

Such etiquette works, but only if everyone is equally attuned to fine nuances. My mother once thought she had told me something when in reality she had not – her reference to a gay relative was so oblique, I had no clue what she meant.

Such restraint has passed me by. Who knows why? Perhaps it’s my Nyonya heritage coming alive, or simply the result of decadent Western influence. I can’t help thinking though, what a pity so much is left unsaid by us all. So much holding back of words, thoughts, feeling…while every passing moment masks our and life’s fragility.

—————

In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, I felt truly Chinese for the first time.

It was the virulent criticism of China beforehand which spurred this ‘quasi-patriotism’ in me. Not a day passed in the spring of 2008 when we in the UK didn’t hear about the air quality in Beijing (poor), Chinese policies in Tibet (oppressive), and other tit-bits such as scenes of the Chinese countryside (full of tanned peasants with crooked teeth, decaying houses and filth). In other words, the usual Western media fare when reporting on a developing country.

When British troublemakers unfurled the Tibetan flag at one of Beijing’s iconic towers, I became indignant. Not because I support Communism or think China blameless or disagree with the right to protest, but because the manner of this protest smacked of Western neo-colonialism. It showed no sensitivity to ‘face’, an important part of life in Asia. It took no account of how far China has come in the last thirty years, or how it became what it is today. China had to work damned hard for its moment of glory and no Westerner has any right to take it away. I felt personally affronted, as if I had been slapped on both cheeks.

Fortunately, we were avenged. Watching the opening ceremony live on television with colleagues, I remember very clearly my burning pride at the jaw-dropping spectacle. The grandeur, feats of coordination, and the unfurling of blocks of our history, made my heart full. It made me think of visiting the land my ancestors had come from.

—————

My first trip to China took place in 2011. It was actually instigated by my Russian partner, who had already been three times. I on the other hand, remained nervous. It seemed such a large undertaking, so fraught with meaning.

At the time, my Mandarin teacher, an overseas Chinese woman from Singapore, had just lost her job in London and was reluctantly considering two employment offers from China. “I don’t want to go,” she said. Her statement made my ears prick up. “Why?” I asked. “I don’t understand the mainlanders,” she confided. “And the toilets are terrible. Make sure you have loo roll with you.”

As if that weren’t enough, she added, “Oh, be careful when you go shopping. They’ll fleece you.”

From her description, I expected the worst, and was pleasantly surprised when I loved Shanghai. I was struck by how clean the city was; the floors of every metro station gleamed. Though my Mandarin teacher was right about taking loo roll, toilets were generally fine where we went, better than their Malaysian equivalent (see my blog-post Truly Malaysia: The Wetness of Toilets).

More importantly, I blended in. No one towered over me. I looked like everyone else, which made me feel strangely at home. According to my partner, twenty four hours was all it took for my ‘veneer’ of British politeness to rub off. By the second day, I behaved like a local and happily jumped queues. 

Despite this, I was also aware of being different. For a start, I hardly speak Mandarin. Yet even if I did, I don’t think it would have changed anything. The mainlanders eyed me cautiously and I did the same, as if we knew we shared a heritage but our experiences had diverged too long ago for collective memory to matter. China may be my ancestral land, but it is definitely not my homeland. Like a lost cell which had thrived elsewhere, I knew then that China wouldn’t be my destiny.

To be continued

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Filed under Cultural Identity, Identity, Novel

The Miracle of Writing

“Do you write when the inspiration takes you?” you ask. No, I say, I write every day, whether inspired or not. Otherwise, I’d never finish my novel. You look surprised. It’s obviously not what you expected to hear.

I am perhaps fortunate, I add. Some people say they find it hard to begin writing. I have no such problem. I simply sit in front of my machine, and write. Just like with this blog-post.

The act of searching for words, of putting them together to form sentences, does something to my whole being. When I write, it’s not just my brain which is engaged – it’s also my heart. I see what my characters see, feel what they feel. Writing awakens my soul.

With each word comes a new idea. Or a memory long cast aside. Often, the thoughts and ideas and memories appear in random order, yet there are nebulous connections between them, strange pathways I can use or store as I wish. Sometimes, it’s not a thought I tap into, but the reservoir of emotion I know is there. The act of striking little black keys on a silver board unleashes a side of my psyche that has been kept in check for many years and can’t wait to be let out.  

It isn’t always so. In everyday life, I often can’t find the words. But when I write, I inevitably find the words. Even if it takes half a year.

 

The words sometimes come in dreams. I have only ever remembered a handful of dreams, yet I’m conscious of writing parts of my novel when I sleep. Or of adding to and subtracting from it, as I’m doing now. I will wake up with the exact phrase I had been searching for, which happened to come while I was still asleep. It’s uncanny.

 

I’ve known for a long time that I have some sort of talent for creative fiction. When I was nine, I was runner-up in a national essay competition in Malaysia (in the English language). There were only two submissions from my school: mine and a classmate’s. We both wrote about tragedy; my essay was about a girl who survives a plane crash, his about two children who are involved in a boat accident with their father. Mine was pure fiction, inspired by the tale of the survivors of a plane crash in the Andes. My classmate’s story, on the other hand, was based on his first-hand experience of surviving a terrible boat accident in which he watched his father drown while trying to save him and his sister. I still remember the title of his essay – Labyrinth of Fear. I handed my story in and thought no more about it. To my amazement, I was named runner-up nationally while my classmate was left without a prize. I felt embarrassed at the result. How could a made-up story trump real-life experience?

I thought of giving my classmate the trophy I won, but something held me back. 

 

As I grew up, I put story-writing away. There were too many other things in life. I continued to write, but only articles full of facts and figures. In the early years, they had titles like ‘The Quasiparticle Lifetime at the Mobility Edge’; later on, they described companies and the different elements of capital that could fund them. My pieces were lengthy tomes which required grammatically correct sentences, proper syntax and punctuation, but which had neither soul nor heart. In them, the equations and facts were more important than the writing. Yet, it was my words which stood out. Colleagues would comment on how well I wrote. I acknowledged their praise before promptly moving on. There were still too many other things I wanted to do.

 

Somewhere inside though, I must have stored all the words I have ever heard in my life. Because when the moment came, I was able to retrieve them.      

  

It started on a low day. Months after my final chemo session, I felt desperate. My hair had come back, but my energy hadn’t. What is life, I asked myself, without energy? When you lack the energy to move, life passes by in slow grinding motion. I slept, woke, read, went back to sleep, woke again, listened to the birds in the study, returned to sleep. Always, sleep overcame me, as if I had never slept before chemo and would never sleep enough again afterwards.

I couldn’t understand why it was so hard to regain my footing. My body had survived the ravages of illness and of drugs, and I was supposed to be well. Yet, I felt far from any state of equilibrium. “Why don’t you write?” my counsellor at MacMillan Cancer Support suggested.   

Reluctantly, I began. I felt all of the inertia which writers speak about, the resistance to sitting down with a blank page. It was a beautifully sunny autumn afternoon. I made endless cups of tea before carrying my laptop into the dining room where I wouldn’t be disturbed by the chirping of birds. I had only a vague idea what I would write about. Just start, my editor friend had said. So I did. I embarked on a short story involving four students who shared a house in a university town.

And then an extraordinary thing happened: I became immersed in the world of my characters. When I next went to the gym, I found myself imagining the scene to come, tweaking words in my head. I couldn’t wait to get back to my story.

In the fifth decade of my life, I finally experienced that cliché known as the creative spark. With every word I wrote, I felt my body becoming stronger. I commenced on a novel that had long lain dormant, and by the time I had written three chapters, was a rejuvenated person. Writing became as natural as breathing. No longer could I sit back in this life and not write. I now have to write to live, and to suffer all the consequences of this art in their full-blown form.

 

Ichtyandr is a young boy who needs a life-saving operation to survive. His father, a surgeon, implants a set of gills onto his lungs. Thereafter, Ichtyandr is able to live in both water and on land, but he must keep this a secret from his friends in Argentina where he has his home. He moves surreptitiously between two worlds: one full of beaches and open fields, the other a silent world in which the only sound is the gurgling of his breath.

Invented by Alexandr Belyayev, Russia’s equivalent of Jules Verne, Ichtyandr appeared in the novel Amphibian Man in 1928. I often feel like Ichtyandr as I scurry between the folds of my imagination and the vast terrace of day-to-day existence. My real life is quiet, while the world my characters inhabit is full of noise, and bustle, and people…always so many people everywhere. It is also full of food – that central plank of Malaysian identity – and I’m constantly hungry when I write. I smell the garlic and lemongrass being pounded in a grey granite pestle-and-mortar, see the juicy roasted ducks hanging on spits. Unwittingly, like one of Pavlov’s dogs, I will taste the saliva in my mouth. “What to do lah?” as one of my characters would say. “Of course must eat!”

 

Sometimes, being in two worlds or even three makes me schizophrenic. I can understand why writers become cranky. It forces me to look at Malaysia and at myself in a new light. I often imagine the characters in my novel as they would have moved around Ipoh, the tin mining town in which my story is set, a hundred years ago.

They were all alive then, going about their lives in rickshaws. If they could see Ipoh today, they would be astonished by the changes. There are many things I think they would love, and also much that would make them sad, as I am sad.

But sadness is not what I wish to dwell on here. Rather, I want to describe the sheer exhilaration of being able to tell the story I’ve kept inside my head all these years. I make up characters and sometimes I kill them; I find the words, thread them into sentences, move paragraphs around.

All this I do, so that I can guide my reader into a world that once was, down the very street she or he may still live on.

“You write and you erase. And you call this a profession?” says Nicole Kraus in her novel Great House.

No, I don’t call it a profession. I call it a miracle. And I’m thankful I have the vitality to share in this miracle, however imperfect my participation may be.

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Filed under Identity, Malaysia, Novel, Writing