Sunday, July 22, 2007

Lovers and Strangers Revisited, Silverfish cover

* As a footnote, when I posted the top cover it was supposed to be with the following article, Never Judge a Book by It's Cover.  As an update, I switched publishers to MPH and got a new cover.  The book also went on to win an award.  And now it's coming out in French.

**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.

Never Judge a Book by Its...Title

Ok, I admit it, I googled myself. Shameful, I know. I caught myself in a weak moment. Curiosity got the better of me. To be honest I googled not just me but also my book, Lovers and Strangers Revisited, a collection of short stories set in Malaysia. I wanted to see if it was creating any kind of buzz, even if it was merely a single bee.

Then a blog entry caught my eye and caught me by surprise, too – so that’s what people are thinking about my book! A Malay student at Universiti Sains Malaysia, whom I don’t know, wrote about her conversation with another Malay woman who worked at the USM bookstore about my book. By the way, isn’t Internet a wonder­ful way to eavesdrop on private thoughts made public?

I won’t mention the student’s name or her blog to protect her privacy, although by the fact that she wrote it in a blog instead of in her diary, she was hardly keeping it private. To make it easier to follow (and less confusing, and to help distinguish between the two speakers), I separated the lines and added quotation marks. The teacher in me also cleaned up some minor grammar mistakes, though I left in a few “u” for you.

A year ago (how was I to know?), the student posted in her blog: I just bought a storybook after 4 years of buying and photocopying chemistry books! Thanks to [my friend], who succeeded in influencing me lately to read more books. We need to brush up our English! Her influence really hit me hard on my brain. It's true. I have not touched any fiction or nonfiction books for a VERY LONG TIME. At last, on the 17 of March at 1.15 pm, I went to USM's bookshop to buy a storybook entitled Lovers and Strangers Revisited written by Robert Raymer, a lecturer in my [university] teaching Creative Writing.

I went to the counter to pay for the book and the cashier suddenly looked at me with a blunt look on her face.

“Who recommended this book?”‌ she said to me, her right hand holding my book.

I looked back at her with a blur curved smile on my face. “A friend of mine. She just bought that book yesterday. I found it really interesting...”

And then she got a little bit excited, and we started a short conversation as she seemed to be so deadly interested about the book. Actually, I've never talked to her before cause she looked a bit serious most of the time.

“What do u think of the title? Do u feel uncomfortable when u look at the title?”
I didn't get the idea of her asking me like that.

“Don't u feel a bit shy (or ashamed) to buy this book when u looked at the title?”‌

I looked at her with my sleepy eyes and said, “Why, it’s just a book.” (Small grin again)

“Yeah that's right!” she said. “I answered the same thing too to some customers who felt uncomfortable to buy this book cause of the title.”‌

In my heart, I never knew some people are like that! It’s just a book...‌.

Then she continued, “Yeah…the contents are more important than the title, right?”

“Yeah, right! Anyway, the title doesn't reflect the cover of the book. Unless the cover is ... you know. It just didn't make any sense why these people felt uncomfortable about it. ‌ A sketch of [the KL railroad station] is the cover illustration which is so dull.
“I just read half of it,” ‌she said with a friendly smile.

“I just read ‘On Fridays’. It was really interesting and I bought this book to read his other stories.”

“I like ‘On Fridays!’” Now she sounded more excited than before. It makes me feel like I was there! Her eyes glowed with excitement.

And me? Yeah me, too. “I think it's worth to buy.” ‌

I smiled at her as she handed the book and walked out from the bookstore as she was saying salam to me. I walked hurriedly to my hostel as I was hungry and I got a class at three. In my heart I was really happy, not because of the book but my conversation with that cashier.

After reading this blog entry, I had to smile, too – so that's why the book wasn't selling well at USM bookstore! People were too embarrassed by the title. Sounds like others would stare or glare at them for even picking up the book (let a lone trying to buy it!), as if to say, "How dare you read something like that! Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?"

But as the blogger had pointed out, wasn’t the cover a giveaway? A boring railway station – no hint of scandal or bad taste there! I chose the railway station because one of the short stories is set there, “The Station Hotel”. (Ok, the main character was having an affair.)

When I chose the original title back in 1993, I was trying to find a way to tie in all of the stories; some of the stories were about lovers and other stories about strangers, so I chose Lovers and Strangers, after the title of one of the stories. Later, while hawking the book at two book fairs – KL and Singapore – I suspected that I chose the wrong title. Men would see the title and dismiss it as “romance”.

Several stories, I admit, are about affairs. But other stories are not. “Symmetry”, for example, is about a little girl finding a dead cockroach in someone’s empty glass of tea. “The Watcher” is about an elder Chinese man rediscovering life through his great grandson. Even the story that the two women liked, “On Fridays” is about a man feeling lonely after sitting beside a Malay woman in a share taxi, but nothing happens – they never meet. This story, by the way, has been published nine times in six countries including France and USA.

Now the title of the heavily revised collection is Lovers and Strangers Revisited, and the story “Neighbours” due to be published in the US in 2007, has even been chosen by the Ministry of Education to be taught in SPM literature in 2008. Obviously they didn’t let the title of the collection bother them. Nor did they judge the book by its cover – nor should we. Covers can influence you to pick it up and browse through it – that's the whole idea.

Also, we should never judge a book by the controversy surrounding it. Read the book for yourself, or at the very least skim through it to see what the fuss is about. Most people who make alarming statements about a particular book or about its author haven’t even bothered to glance through the book, let alone read it! They just jump on the not-so-literary bandwagon and let their emotions carry them away.

As for me, I greatly appreciate the fact that this student – after years of not buying any fiction – decided to buy my book. I feel honored. I also liked the fact that she had this semi-literary conversation with this other woman about the book, and they both liked the story “On Fridays”. If only more Malaysians would read and discuss books! But there is hope, judging from this blog, and other bloggers out there discussing the books they’ve been reading. I’m also glad that my book was able to bring these two ladies together. And to have them depart as friends, with smiles on their faces. What more can a writer ask for – other than being at the top of the bestseller’s list? Still, this blog entry made my day. Perhaps I should google myself more often, or at least my book, to see if anyone else is buzzing…

* As an update, when I switched publishers to MPH I got a new cover.  The book also went on to win an award.  And now it's coming out in French.

** A revised version of the above article found it's way into Tropical Affairs.

***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.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Neighbors, A Suicide, and Making Choices


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.