Writing, I tell my students, is about making choices. If you choose wisely you might surprise yourself with the story you end up with. For example in my short story, “Neighbors” from Lovers and Strangers Revisited and now being taught for SPM literature in Malaysia (Big L), I could've written a nonfiction narrative or a short story starting with my hearing some groans coming from my neighbor's house, two doors away.
I investigated and found the Chinese man lying helpless on the couch. His door was locked, yet in between moaning he managed to tell me that the keys were by the sink. Reaching through the grille at the kitchen window, I eventually found it. With the help of another Chinese neighbor (whose wife was pregnant and very upset that he got involved), we took him to the General Hospital.
I could’ve written about the hospital's reaction to me, a young white man attending to this elderly Chinese man who was dying. They kept giving me strange looks as I wrote in my journal, trying to get all the details and my impressions while they were still fresh – the writer part of me at work. I could've written about my anger at the doctors and nurses who seemed indifferent about my neighbor’s plight. He was dying and no one wanted to help!
Since the doctors didn’t know what poison he had taken, I volunteered to go back to his house. Although I often chatted with this neighbor across the gate or fence, I had never ventured inside his house. I could've written about the eerie feeling I had wandering inside this empty house where a man had just tried to kill himself. Upstairs I located two glasses of beer and some green liquid, which I took to the hospital.
Since this was in the mid-80s before CSI, the doctors wanted me to go back to the house once more to find out what the green stuff was. So back I went and eventually found, hidden behind a partition, a bottle of the weed killer, Paraquat. By then there was nothing the doctors could do, so I stayed with this man for several hours at the hospital, while we tried to contact his family. I didn't want him to die alone.
I could've written about my attending the three-day Chinese (Teochew) funeral held outside their house, which was very lively and noisy and attracted a lot of attention from the other Chinese neighbors. When it was over, I was invited back to the house and given a gift, a token of appreciation for what I had done for this family. I could've written about the family’s refusal to live in the house because of this suicide. Months later, another family had moved in, but they kept hearing mysterious noises – like someone walking around upstairs in the master bedroom – and it was scaring the children. The family didn’t know about the suicide until after they had decided to leave. Malaysians, particularly the Chinese, take ghosts and spirits very seriously.
None of this mattered to the story that I wanted to write. For me the story began when I returned to the man's house and found several neighbors gossiping.
I was fascinated by all of the comments the neighbors made, the wild speculations about the family and why the man had taken his life. Some of the things they had said were mean and spiteful! Later, when the man’s wife and daughter returned home, the neighbors quickly dispersed and refusal to inform them about the man’s death. So despite the fact that I was the newest neighbor and an expat, I had to do it myself.
This was the story that fascinated me. The story I wanted to tell was not a first person narrative of my finding this man and all that took place that day (although later I could still write about it since it's in my journal). Instead, I chose to write about the neighbors themselves and what they said about this family in the aftermath of the suicide. Again thanks to my journal, all the details were there, still fresh, including those that had completely slipped my memory after several years had already passed, one of the reasons I urge my writing students to keep a diary/journal.
Another choice I made was to leave me, as a character, out of the story. I felt the story would be better without a Westerner or a mat salleh in it. I wanted the dialogue to be natural, spontaneous, and an expat present would alter the dynamics of the group, including the dialogue. Also I wanted to shift the sympathy to this man and his family – even after hearing many bad things about them. I purposely wrote the story in a neutral tone with the viewpoint of an observer, to avoid racial bias, so no one race in this multi-racial society is talking down to another.
Yet, at the same time, all Malaysians should be able to identify with these characters. They could be your very own neighbor or a distant relative. I also wanted to make the story universal, so readers around the world could relate to the characters and also learn about Malaysia, where different races freely mix and socialize, and yes, gossip.
When writing your story, whether is fiction or nonfiction, ask yourself, do you want to write the whole story or just one aspect of that story? Consider your choices carefully. I did and it paid off. So far the story has been published in four countries, including the US, and now it’s being taught throughout Malaysia.
Here's also the story behind the story link of "Neighbours".
And link to Denis Harry's article, "Are you Mrs. Koh?"
*Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited
**Here the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and for Trois autres Malaisie.