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.