Tuesday, December 9, 2008

“Mat Salleh”: The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

If I have a favorite story in Lovers and Strangers Revisited it would have to be “Mat Salleh” for sentimental reasons. It’s my first short story, written back in 1984 while still living in the US, my first published story (in the New Straits Times, January 28, 1986), my first story published overseas (My Weekly, May 23 1987, in the UK, with color photographs of my first wedding!), plus it’s fine memory meeting my former in-laws and extended family for the first time, with a surprise wedding.

The original title was “Mat Salleh: A Malaysian Encounter”, and I didn’t even know the story was published until a relative contacted us the following week. I had to go from house to house asking if any of my neighbors had the NST! In the UK, the editor changed the title to “Meeting the Family – The Malaysian Way”. By the time it appeared in Lovers and Strangers (Heinemann Asia, 1993) I had shortened it to “Mat Salleh”.

“Mat Salleh” is a non-fiction narrative that I crafted into a short story; however, I kept to the truth thus making it a non-fiction short story, the only one in the collection. This story has remained a favorite for a lot of readers, particularly the Malays, as well as those married to Malaysians, or even those who have a Western relative in their family and have shared a similar experience of everyone in the family coming out to meet the new mat salleh for the first time.

I first wrote “Mat Salleh” while still living in the US after I took a correspondence course, on writing the short story from Writer’s Digest, so a lot of the initial details were fuzzy. The photographs I took and the diary I kept were a big help. Once I moved to Malaysia and visited the kampong again, I was able to add in more ambiance and some details I had overlooked, as well as finetune the rest, making the descriptions less general and more specific to the kampong and to Parit, Perak. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, being at the physical location does wonders for the writer.

By beginning the story on the drive to the kampong, I was able to work in a little backstory and contrast not only the climate and scenery but also my former wife’s first visit to the US to meet her in-laws, and also our reasons for coming back (her father’s lingering illness) so by the time we arrived, the story is ready to move forward. One of the problems I had initially was there were two many immediate relatives involved, three elder brothers and elder sister and their respective spouses plus several uncles and aunts who lived nearby or even across the street, and all those nieces and nephews! So I focused only on a handful necessary to the story.

In the original published story I added an epilogue stating that my father-in-law had passed away two months after I had left and that a year and a half later, we had moved to Malaysia. In Lovers and Strangers, I worked the fact that he had passed away into the final sentence, by saying “Although he died shortly after…” In the Silverfish version, I left that out, because in an earlier paragraph it was implied that he would soon die, when I stated, “I knew he would never get a chance to spend…” so I felt that would be sufficient. I didn’t want the story to end on a negative note. Instead I focused on his positive reaction to my small monetary gift and my feeling like one of the family, which was the thrust of the story.

By the time I revisited the story in 2005, I had been divorced from my ex-wife for seven years and remarried to someone else from Sarawak for three years, so revisiting all the kampong-based stories were a bittersweet experience, especially “Mat Salleh”. As I wrote in the forward to Lovers and Strangers Revisited, “Still, I kept faithful to the original story and to the other stories, recalling how I felt back when I first created them. I came to appreciate these memories, particularly the kampong visits to my then mother-in-law’s house, as privileged experiences.”

I expanded the kitchen scene by including the monitor lizard and Yati reminiscing about the time she and her brother had killed a cobra. I felt, however, that I needed a new scene, a transition after the wedding, something that would show my efforts of trying to fit into the family. While thumbing through the photographs of that first visit, I came upon a photograph of me holding a long bamboo pole. Then I remembered the time that I learned how to cut down a coconut with the nieces and nephews, who played an important part in the story. This would also show another side to them, as well.

The actual wedding itself was on Christmas Day, which made the event for me even more memorable. Ask me the one Christmas that I would never forget, and it would have to be this non-Christmas event in a Muslim country that I wrote about in “Mat Salleh”.

As a footnote, one of my former nieces that I wrote about all those years ago, recently contacted me out of the blue, after having come across my website. I’m sure she’s going to love this story, and perhaps share it with her own children about that time her uncle from America came to visit the family, a memory that goes all the way back to 1983.

Lovers and Strangers Revisited is now getting translated into French as Trois autres Malaisie.

*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.

Here are three reviews of Lovers and Strangers Revisited: The Star (MPH), The Expat (Silverfish), and NST (Silverfish) and a link to the other story behind the stories for Lovers and Strangers Revisited.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

“The Stare”: The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

Every Hari Raya the Malays would visit the family graves, clear them of debris, and say their prayers. After that first kampong Hari Raya, I thought, what a great location for a story! Later I attended a funeral of an uncle and was fascinated by how the body was wrapped in white cloth and turned sideways (without a casket) to face Mecca. The Malays bury the dead fast, often the very next day. For relatives living outstation, including sons and daughters who have to travel by buses and trains, many don’t make it home in time for the burial.

The kampong graveyard in Parit, Perak (and the path from the road that led to it) was often overgrown and you would have no idea you were in one until it was too late since many of the graves were scattered among the shrubbery and trees. The older graves were even harder to find unless you stumbled on a large rock from the river or an inverted bottle, often used for the head and foot markers during the Japanese Occupation, when money was scarce.

After the prayers I would linger, make notes and ask questions: Who digs the graves? Whose land does this belong to? Who gets the fruit from the trees? Why were the graves with rocks or inverted bottles never replaced with proper minarets, even the simple, inexpensive ones?

My imagination would then take over as I search for a story. I pictured in my mind a lonely old woman, reminiscent of my former mother-in-law. I didn’t actually describe her as such. It just helps me to get a fix on a character, especially when I’m fumbling my way through an early draft trying to put disparate pieces and ideas together. I thought, what if this woman was the daughter of the man who lived in the adjacent property, someone who would help to dig the graves, and what if she were blind?

“What-if” questions, by the way, are a great way to get the creative juices flowing. So I tried to picture this woman sitting at her mother’s grave, running her hands over the coarse minaret headstone, wondering why her own mother had to die so she could be born.

To make this story effective I had to rely heavily on sensory details. Since I had no other characters other than her father in flashbacks, I had to put myself in Matemah’s shoes, imagining I was old and blind, and all I had to work with was what I heard, smelled, felt and tasted – plus the cemetery and the nearby river, which I could hear only if I came closer to it. Or was that my imagination giving me an idea, a possible ending, too, rare for me. The story itself, through the writing process, usually dictates an ending, which is often revealed at the last moment as I work my way through the story. But this idea stuck – and it gave me a goal to work toward.

“The Stare” was the second story from Lovers and Strangers Revisited published (though the fourth one written), back in 1986 after it won a consolation prize in The Star/Nestle contest and appeared in The Star. It's also the only story that I wrote that got published the very same year that I wrote it. Despite being published three times I was talked into leaving it out of the original Lovers and Strangers collection by an editor in favor of a new story, “Moments”. Later in 2005, while revisiting the stories, I had assumed all along that “The Stare” was in the collection, so I ended up dropping “Moments” and putting back “The Stare” as I had originally planned.

In the early versions, the main character was named Rubiah, but after consulting with a proofreader before sending it in for the Silverfish collection, the proofreader felt the name wasn’t appropriate (either it wasn’t pure Malay or it was too modern); she felt an older, more traditional name would be better. After giving me several options to choose from, I settled on Matemah because of how it sounded. This was critical to the ending of the story.

The arrangement of the paragraphs had always troubled me. Maybe it was because I was jumping back and forth to various flashbacks. Either way, it was affecting the flow, as well as the pacing, of the story. I needed to move the present action of the story along and get to the actual stare in the story and Matemah’s reaction to it sooner, to help break up all the flashback and backstory that this story required.

I didn’t notice until after I began to re-edit the stories for the MPH collection that something wasn’t right in the Silverfish version of Lovers and Strangers Revisited. Several paragraphs that were supposed to have been shifted a lot sooner, didn’t get moved. This was an oversight by the publisher, but admittedly this was a late change in the proofs, which I got while I was on vacation in the US. We were rushing to get the stories out in time so they could be used at USM where the collection was being taught (and we had to beat the Chinese New Year when everything shuts down in Malaysia for two weeks).

I then reversed paragraphs three and four so it would be a better transition for these now shifted paragraphs and smoothed out the rest of the transitions, too. Some writers actually use scissors and cut out all the paragraphs in strips to try and find the most effective arrangement. That never made much sense to me until I came to “The Stare.”

Lovers and Strangers Revisited is now getting translated into French as Trois autres Malaisie.

*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.

Here are three reviews of Lovers and Strangers Revisited: The Star (MPH), The Expat (Silverfish), and NST (Silverfish) and a link to the other story behind the stories for Lovers and Strangers Revisited.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Star, 30 November 2008

Personal and real
By DAPHNE LEE

An American in Sarawak explains why his short stories are not your typical condescending ‘Mat Salleh in the exotic East’ collection.

ONCE upon a time, a young American read about James Norman Hall – author, with Charles Nordhoff, of Mutiny on the Bounty – going to a tropical island to write a novel. He thought he might do the same.

It’s not a new idea: over the centuries, many a Westerner has travelled to the “exotic” East to stretch creative muscles – though not all that many have been successful at actually creating anything tangible. Robert Raymer managed it, though.

Like Hall, whose Mutiny he had read as a youngster, Raymer came to a tropical island – Penang, specifically, in 1984 – and began writing. Over the years, he has been pretty prolific, albeit at writing if not publishing: he’s written two novels set in Penang, and two set in his homeland, and published a well-received short story collection, Lovers and Strangers.

When one of the stories in the collection, Neighbours, began to be taught for SPM Literature in schools throughout Malaysia this year, Raymer decided it was time to release an updated and completely revised edition of Lovers and Strangers, which had originally been published in 1992.

In their earliest incarnation, some of these stories were published in magazines and newspapers around the world and on the Internet, including The Literary Review: An International Journal of Contemporary Writing (theliteraryreview.org), The London Magazine (thelondonmagazine.net), and Readers Digest (rdasia.com).

Raymer, who teaches creative writing at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak in Kuching where he now lives with his wife and two young sons, chats via e-mail about the collection and his unfinished works.

What’s the difference, for you, between writing a novel and writing short stories?
“Erica Jong once said that writing a novel is like marriage and short stories are like flings. I agree. When your marriage is going flat on page 280, a ‘fling’ of a short story seems awfully tempting. It’s also satisfying to complete something. To knock something out that’s shorter so you can feel you’ve actually finished something!”

Two of the stories in Lovers and Strangers, Dark Blue Thread and Only in Malaysia, are about American men who marry Malay women. Mat Salleh and Teh-O in KL feature the same. To what extent did you draw on personal experience to write these stories?

“Reviewers, especially for those stories involving ‘an American’, often comment (and assume) that the stories are ‘personal’ or ‘autobiographical’. Only one story in the collection is factual, and that is Mat Salleh.

“As I writer, I tried to make all the stories as realistic, or as personal, as possible by blending in realistic details, whether I was writing from the point of view of a Malay female, an Indian child, an elderly Chinese man, or as an American.

“Since I am American, readers tend to think I’m writing about myself and my ex-wife (he has since re-married), thus the whole story is ‘true’. Instead, I was merely trying to capture ‘the truth’ of what it can be like for an expat married to a Malaysian to give the story some backbone, which then makes the rest of the story seem believable, as if it were based on fact.”

Did you struggle to write any of the stories?
“The story that gave me the most problem has to be Sister’s Room (about child prostitution), finding that voice and maintaining it. I’m never satisfied with it; each time I go through it, each page is marked up!

“The Future Barrister was a problem too, having him tell his story and needing to break it up so it’s not some long, boring monologue. For the MPH collection, I did The Future Barrister in the present tense, and by doing that forced other changes too, and these changes I really liked.
“It felt like I was giving the story a fresh coat of paint and all the cracks were finally covered up!”

Tell us what’s happening with the novels.
“Realistically, a Penang novel might not have much of a market outside of Malaysia, while a US novel has more potential worldwide. For my US based novels I’m looking to the US or UK.

“Right now everything is on hold because I’ve recently decided to expand a novel that’s done well in two contests in the US into a trilogy, which I believe will make it easier to market.

“I’ve been reluctant to publish a novel in Malaysia for fear that it won’t get out of this region or that no one outside Malaysia will take it or me seriously. Of course, with Tash Aw’s book (The Harmony Silk Factory) and so many recent breakouts by Malaysians, things are starting to change.

“MPH and other publishers have been actively seeking to publish Malaysians writing in English. They’ve got great stories to tell! So I am thinking, okay, maybe the time is right, maybe I should publish my novel, Tropical Moods, here.”

Before that, though, Raymer will be publishing another collection, of narratives and articles, tentatively entitled Twenty Years in Malaysia. It is slated for release next year.
To find out more about Raymer visit his blog, borneoexpatwriter.blogspot.com.


The publishing path

WHY Robert Raymer released a third edition of his Lovers and Strangers, and added “Revisited” to the title, is a long and (okay, slightly) convoluted tale.

The collection was first published by Heinemann in 1993 as Lovers and Strangers. Unfortunately for Raymer, the publishing house’s fiction list was discontinued shortly after the book came out.
Fast forward more than 10 years to 2006, and the collection was put on Universiti Sains Malaysia’s English syllabus. However, Raymer had revised the stories so extensively that he felt a new edition, Lovers and Strangers Revisited, was called for.

The Kuala Lumpur-based Silverfish Books (silverfishbooks.com) agreed to publish it, but there were problems with distribution in Sarawak, which frustrated Raymer since he lived there.
Eventually, Raymer contacted MPH Publishing and proposed yet another re-issue. He had heard that MPH Bookstores was opening a branch in Kuching and figured that distribution would not be a problem.

MPH agreed to publish it, so we now have this further revised edition of Lovers and Strangers Revisted with an additional two stories, Only in Malaysia, and Transactions in Thai.


Raymer’s reads (books that have influenced him)

1984 (published in 1949) by George Orwell: “(It) keeps coming true in so many ways, from the high-tech gadgets and the government’s ability to spy on us to all those cameras everywhere that practically traces everyone’s public movements from the moment they leave the hospital until they die.”

Crime and Punishment (1866) by Fyodor Dostoevsky and War and Peace (1865) and Anna Karenina (1875) by Leo Tolstoy: “At the thick end (compared to The Great Gatsby), you have the Russian novels ... War and Peace, the greatest novel in the world – God, to be able to write like that on such a grand canvas!”

Catch-22 (1961) by Joseph Heller: “Just for the sheer fun of it, and the I-can’t-believe-they’re-doing-that-and getting away-with-it.

The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald: “An important book for me as a writer.... Such a powerful story with so many subplots inside, yet it’s marvellously thin!”

To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee: “You’ve got these kids wanting to flush out Boo Radley that you can relate to, and this big story that’s going on (the no-win trial), and then the two stories collide in a way you never quite expected.”

Recent reads include A New Earth (2008) by Eckhart Tolle and Inner Drives (2005) by Pamela Jaye Smith: “(Inner Drives is) an insightful book for developing characters for writers that I stumbled upon by chance at the library – see, another benefit of going to the library!

“When I first moved to Sarawak I was reading all these books on Sarawak and Borneo, but lately I’ve been reading all these self-help books while trying to figure out why I haven’t been all that successful as a writer and as a person despite been relatively decent, intelligent, and hard-working!”

*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, November 30, 2008

“The Station Hotel”: The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

When I entered my room at The Station Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, I had this overwhelming feeling of déjà vu; I was sure that I had stayed there before, in the same room. I can’t actually recall ever staying at the hotel before that (although I may have), but I did transfer that strong feeling I had to my character Michele Yeap. (I gave her my groggy feeling of spending a night on the train, too!) Right away, I knew that the hotel would make a great setting for a short story and began taking photographs and describing everything inside the room.

My original characters were a married couple who had stayed there years before, but now their marriage was falling apart. The story wasn’t working. I hated the characters and tossed them out, but I kept the setting! So I brought in two more characters, one of whom had spend a night there en route to her honeymoon in Hong Kong; this time she’s here with her lover from Penang. She was only joking when she suggested they stay at The Station Hotel but the joke backfired.

Although my original working title was "The Station Hotel", I switched it to “Inevitable" and then to "The Joke” which was the title of this story when it appeared in Her World (Oct ‘89). Back then Michele’s last name was Loo. I changed the title again to “Joking” when it appeared in Northern Perspective (Australia, 1992) and kept it for the first Lovers and Strangers collection (but dropped the name Loo – it reminded me too much of a toilet! Names, and their connotations, are important.) Later, while revisiting the story for the Silverfish collection, I changed the title back to “The Station Hotel” (and added Yeap to Michele’s name).

This story was about contrasting moods and I was careful in choosing the details to highlight this: Michele’s mood when she first entered the hotel with her lover and then later, when she returned to the hotel that evening. It was the same physical place but she saw it all differently because her mood was totally different. Everything that she saw was no longer the same: the bell desk clerk, a young man eager to please, and then the grumpy old woman; the long, high-ceiling corridor, and then an endless tunnel; the spacious room and freshly painted bathroom, and then the dull, simple room and the poor paint job; a flock of swallows and palm trees, and then the cluster of cars and trash strewn everywhere).

To make the characters seem more real, I modeled Michele and Lee on a pair of friends from Penang, neither of whom were married. Recognizing themselves in the book, they brought it to my attention. They were ok with it, but felt odd – like, how in the world did I know so much about them? Several other friends thought I was writing about them, too, and I couldn’t convince them otherwise, so I must’ve done a really good job!

One couple thought I wrote about the husband because he wore glasses, hid behind his smile and his name was “Lee”. He’s American, and in the original version it was clearly stated that Lee was Chinese. (Later, I dropped the reference so readers could picture him as they wished.) The wife was quite upset with me (and suspicious of him!) until I dug up the original Her World story written years before I had met them (to the relief of the husband!). Another lady, whom I didn’t know very well, thought I was writing about her because she fit the general description and worked in the hotel line. So did another woman, also in the hotel line. Since this was a story about a woman having an affair with a married man, I kept wondering, oh, so who are you having an affair with?

While revisiting the stories for the Silverfish collection I had to go to KL for a book launch/reading at Silverfish, and I thought it might be interesting to stay at the refurbished (and renamed) The Heritage Station Hotel, Kuala Lumpur. I hadn’t touched the story, “The Station Hotel”, in a dozen years and was having some problems with it, so I brought along a working draft of the story. After wandering around the hotel and taking copious notes to give the story more depth, I began to edit it. There’s nothing like being at the physical setting of a story to get the juices flowing. In fact, the ideas were coming fast and I stayed up half the night scribbling away, adding all this new material.

I had always felt that the ending was rushed, and it needed to be a bigger moment. So I played with it and expanded the last two paragraphs to two and a half pages! Throughout the story, I added in more details about Michele’s first marriage to Barry. This was an important counterpoint to Lee, whom she was having an affair with. By the end the story, and rather ironically, Barry was becoming the solution. In order for this to be convincing, I needed to introduce a lot more backstory about this early marriage, how they had met, why they got married, why they separated and why they remained close friends. Prior to this, the marriage had merely been mentioned a couple of times in passing.

After I had given my reading at Silverfish, I woman came late and when she found out that I had already read, expressed her disappointment.

“I do have another story with me that I’ve been rewriting,” I said, but added that it’s full of handwritten notes. The others also wanted me to read it, so I did. I was taking a big risk because the story was getting to be rather long and my hand-written notes, squeezed in here and there, with arrows all over the place, were hard to read. Nevertheless, I persevered.

The reception was much better than I had imagined. In fact, one woman I didn’t know gushed, “Oh, I wish my friend was here. She stayed at the Station Hotel for six months and she would’ve loved it! Is this going to be in your book? I’ll make sure she gets a copy!”

I knew I was on the right track. With all these new additions, I ended up doubling the length of the original story. I was glad that I had decided to stay at The Station Hotel that first (and possibly second) time and definitely while revisiting the story!

Lovers and Strangers Revisited is now getting translated into French as Trois autres Malaisie.

*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. 

Here are three reviews of Lovers and Strangers Revisited: The Star (MPH), The Expat (Silverfish), and NST (Silverfish) and a link to the other story behind the stories for Lovers and Strangers Revisited.

Review of Lovers and Strangers Revisited in The Star, 30 November 2008

The Star Review, 30 November 2008
Sweetly Sad by Dzireena Mahadzir

Publisher: MPH Publishing, 228 pages ISBN 978-9833698813

THERE’S a rather desolate feeling about Robert Raymer’s Lovers and Strangers Revisited. You feel the isolation, the sadness, the frustration. The characters seem trapped in their own little world, some so self-absorbed that they’re incapable of seeing anything beyond themselves.

Don’t get me wrong: the stories are interesting. But they’re sad! There seems to be no happiness in these characters’ worlds. You’d recognise most of them, though I wouldn’t say they’re stereotypes; they’re familiar characters that you might have come across somewhere, somehow, though you might not have given any of them a second thought until they appear in this strangely appealing book.

That, actually, is one of the book’s main points of appeal for me: its overall Malaysianess. I don’t read many books by Malaysian (or Malaysia-based) authors, so I’m not really able to compare; I just liked that I could recognise the people in the stories and could relate to some of them.

The Smooth Stones, for example. It’s such a Malaysian thing to believe that a holy-looking man must be a good person, so paying RM500 for magical stones makes sense. But the tale doesn’t quite end in the way all those newspaper reports of conned people do because Raymer gives it an interesting twist that makes you wonder ... what if?

Then, in Sister’s Room, there’s his description of a child’s jealousy of an older sister who receives special treatment. Through the child’s eyes, it’s all so innocent, but Raymer subtly but effectively implies that there’s more to it than that, and tragically so.

On Fridays is one of my favourites. The characters come to life to well, I could almost see and hear them. It is very descriptive, and sums up the different races in a way that I would have previously thought only Malaysians would understand.

The protagonist tries so hard to read his fellow passenger, a Malay women. He wants so much to know what’s in her mind. During that one, short taxi ride, emotions build up so intensely that they spawn an obsession. Except it’s too late, and the moment is gone, and it won’t return. If only.

There are a lot of “If only’s” in this book....

Some of the stories feature expat characters, some of whom feel displaced in Malaysia where everything seems so foreign and alien. Half the time, Raymer’s describing behaviour we’ve all seen around us or that we’ve even acted out ourselves, but he does an effective job of making us step outside ourselves and look back in through a stranger’s eyes.

Mat Salleh, the story of a Malay woman who takes her American husband back to her hometown demonstrates this best.
Another mixed marriage story, Only in Malaysia (one of two new additions to this edition; the other is Transactions in Thai), tells of a foreigner who follows his Malaysian wife back here, only to have things fall apart, leaving him stranded in a country that no longer seems friendly, and that he has no way of leaving. Sad!
The title story, however, has a happier ending, though it also has some uneasy undertones. It’s quite interesting how one man can meet and be attracted to the same kind of destructive woman without realising how he’s hurting himself. But the end result is somewhat happier than the rest of the stories, at least!
I have to say I was pleasantly surprised to have enjoyed Lovers and Strangers, even if I did feel a little melancholic after finishing it. Perhaps the melancholy is somehow cathartic....

Update: Lovers and Strangers Revisited wins 2009 Popular-The Star Reader's Choice Award.

*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, November 23, 2008

“Teh-O in K.L.”: The Story Behind The Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

Teh-O in K.L.” was my first piece of writing (to my knowledge) that had an impact on someone’s life when it first came out in Her World (Oct 1992), six months before the publication of the original Lovers and Strangers. A British woman who had read the story, unaware that I was a writer since we had just met, told me that she had insisted that her Malay husband read it, so he would understand what she had been going through as a Western woman married to a Malaysian living in Malaysia. When she told me what the story was about, I had this strong feeling of déjà vu.

“I wrote that,” I said, and she gave me this look: No-way!

The teh-o in the title is tea without condensed milk and K.L., of course, is Kuala Lumpur. The story, which is more of a vignette, is based on a true incident. I was trying to capture what I had been feeling as a Westerner in Malaysia, this fish-out-of-water experience, whereby opposites do attract, yet there is this sense of longing, a yearning, as an expat, to be with someone from your own culture. Too often we try to deny this, or even go out of our way to avoid other expats, especially those of us married to Malaysians, who (rightly or wrongly) see ourselves outside the typical expat community who come and go.

I wrote this story in the present tense, one of three in the original collection, and chose to use Jeya’s actual name (with her permission). She was quite thrilled! At the time that I met her, she was in an unhappy marriage to a much-older Indian national, whom she later divorced and then married a Brit and moved to the UK where she now lives with four children.

“Do you miss being around whites?” This was Jeya’s real-life blunt question about race that prompted me to think that there’s a story here, especially after the entrance of two Western women, backpackers, “wearing sleeveless loose tops, short shorts and no bras” that suddenly attracted every male’s attention, including my own. Jeya quickly noted this, thus catching me in a white lie about my missing being around “whites”, or white women in particular.

Despite “Teh-O in K.L.” being published six times in five countries and translated into Japanese, the editor for Silverfish didn’t think I should include it. Then I remembered that encounter with the Brit as well as other expats, particularly women, who often cited this story as one of their favorites since they can strongly relate to it. It was even published in The Expat (Feb. 2004), so I argued for its inclusion. I also agreed to do another overhaul of the story (while on vacation in the US), whereby I flushed out more of the details and heightened some of the contrasts that I was going after. For the MPH version I toned down some of the excesses since they had been written in a rush.

An editor in the US, who had read an early version of the story, mentioned that they all really liked the line “…stir the thick white milk into her dark tea until the opposing colors become one.” From the beginning this was story of opposites, and that was reflected in the opening paragraph, which didn’t change other than deleting one needless fragment.

“Call it a black and white thing, though Jeya isn’t black. Not African black. She’s Ceylonese, but born in Malaysia. Yet her skin in blacker than the night.”

What did change the most was the ending. The original version focused on Jeya and me, on our new friendship, and on our respective spouses. This seemed to drag out over several paragraphs and away from the story itself. When I revisited the story in 2005, I opted to focus on the two women who had just left, on the race issue, on this sense of longing, and on the tea itself, all compacted into one paragraph.

“As I look down at my tea, I’m wishing they’re still here, so I’m not the only white person left. Jeya is saying something, but I’m no longer listening. For a long moment, I’m wishing I were back in my own country with someone from my own race. But then the moment passes, and I finish my tea.”

Recently a French expat living in Sarawak, emailed me and said that "Teh-O in KL" was one of her favorite stories “because it touches me personally and because it tells me that we both feel the same beyond the gender ‘thing’.”

So I’m glad I left the story in the collection.

Lovers and Strangers Revisited is now getting translated into French as Trois autres Malaisie.

*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. 

Here are three reviews of Lovers and Strangers Revisited: The Star (MPH), The Expat (Silverfish), and NST (Silverfish) and a link to the other story behind the stories for Lovers and Strangers Revisited.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Review of Lovers and Strangers Revisited in Borneo Talk, Oct-Dec 2008



Borneo Talk, Oct-Dec 2008:

Lovers and Strangers Revisited
MPH (228 pages) Paperback RM32.90

Robert Raymer lives in Sarawak where he teaches creative writing at University Malaysia Sarawak. The American-born Raymer likes to write short stories that give people a truly personal glimpses of Malaysia. With his keen observation to detail he is able to capture the nuances of the locals from a foreign perspective, and in doing so he helps Malaysian readers
understand what the "Mat Salleh" sees in us and our country. There are 17 stories that deal with love, family, and culture with a few being semi-autobiographical in nature.

*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.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

“Home for Hari Raya”: The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

After experiencing Hari Raya several times in Malaysia, I decided to write a short story about it, so I took my writing notebook with me to Parit, Perak and immediately started taking notes, describing all that I could, and observing my relatives, particularly my nieces and nephews. Since there were nineteen of them, spread between two houses across the street from each other, it wasn’t easy. I didn’t know what the story was going to be about; I just wanted to capture the whole experience, the essence of a traditional kampong-based Hari Raya. I also wanted to leave me completely out of the story (though years later, after a request from a magazine, I was asked to write about my own personal Hari Raya experience).

Then I got the idea to focus the story on three sisters, the elder two loosely based on my nieces, who were in fact cousins, and at the time, none of them were married. The younger, Ida, who I made the viewpoint character, would be a USM student where I taught creative writing. I made her embittered over the fact that her father, who had recently passed away, had taken a second wife. This was the heart of the story, an unresolved issue among the sisters that was threatening to tear the family apart.

I wanted to show how the three sisters viewed their father differently, and how the youngest, know-it-all-Ida couldn’t accept her sister’s views, let alone her mother’s complacency with the whole situation. Since Hari Raya is a time for asking for forgiveness, I knew this would play an integral part in the story and in its resolution.

In my ex-wife’s immediate family there were no one (at least not verified) who had more than one wife, although when my ex-wife was in primary school, another girl saw a picture of her father and told her, that was her father, too, and this deeply disturbed her. She also told me about a neighbor, who would bicycle back and forth between his two wives, and her classmates whose father’s had taken more than one wife. Among Malays, who are Muslim, this is quite common, an acceptable fact of life, but still problematic and often leads to divorce. My ex-wife, who was a reporter, was often involved in court cases and women forums, and she would tell me what was going on in these-multiple-marriage-gone-wrong cases.

Having a setting that I was already familiar with, and having first hand personal experience helping with the chores of cleaning up the house and the various rituals of preparing for Hari Raya year after year was a bonus. Also it’s an advantage to have real people to act as models, like my describing the antics of my nephews who were a lot younger than my nieces and who would go out of their way to irritate the girls. The scene with the three sisters on the motorcycles and bicycle happened, though I had no idea what they were discussing since they spoke in Malay. I felt the scene would work in the story by showing another side of their character, that although all three were young ladies, they were still close to being children.

After the story was originally published in Her World, but before it came out in Lovers and Strangers, I switched the names of the two elder sisters. I felt the name Sharifah seemed more mature than Mira, who at times in the story acted immature.

Later, while revisiting the story for the Silverfish collection, I showed it to a lecturer at USM who was the second wife of my colleague and, after she read the story, agreed to answer my questions as to why she decided to be a second wife. Her answers were quite helpful and gave me the confidence that I was on the right track.

It was important for Ida, as a strong-willed, independent, modern university student, to keep bringing up the unfairness of men taking a second wife. But the other sisters didn’t see it that way and I wanted their views known, too, to give the story balance. In the original version, Sharifah said, “Lots of men take second wives.” This I expanded in the first revisited version by adding, “It’s a fact of life. It’s better than them sneaking around and having affairs or visiting prostitutes, isn’t it? At least you know where they are.”

This only makes Ida more frustrated, who saw nothing except the men’s double standards. In the MPH version, I added in her mother’s typical kampong view, which I’ve personally heard countless times over the years. As if to defend her husband, she reminded Ida that Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him, had four wives. But Ida quickly countered, that it was only after his first wife had died.

A pivotal scene was having this second wife visit them during Hari Raya. This was a big moment, but I didn’t want to overdo it. What I was trying to avoid was a come-to-realize-that-the-second-wife-wasn’t-a-bad-person-afterall end to the story. I needed a stronger, more emotional ending, a bonding among all three sisters which I was able to achieve in the revised story, where I purposely underplayed it.

I tried different versions before I settled on just the right ending. Since the story is about asking for forgiveness, it was important for Ida to go to the graveyard to be at her father’s grave, an important part of Hari Raya, which she had refused to do earlier in the story. She wanted to sneak off on her own, but she needed her sister’s car, so she reluctantly agreed to let her sisters join her. Putting their differences behind them, at least for now, Ida instinctively reached out for sister’s hands. From the comments I got from readers, including expats, it works.

In May 2011, "Home for Hari Raya" was published in Istanbul Literary ReviewBy then I had already changed Ida’s name to Rina; it seemed to fit her better, after meeting some outspoken Rina’s while teaching and several quiet Ida’s.  In December 2011, Frederick Lewis, professor of film/video at Ohio University contacted me about turning “Homefor Hari Raya” into a film.  Initially, he was interested in “Mat Salleh” because one thing he was looking for was a strong Muslim female.  Thinking of the Rina/Ida character, I suggested “Home for Hari Raya” and sent him the Istanbul Literary Review link since his reference was the 1993 Heinemann Asia version of Lovers and Strangers.   

His team loved the story and after they got the financing approved by the university, they began putting together a screenplay.  In December 2012, Lewis led a team of 14 students to Malaysia who liaised with the Faculty of Film, Theatre and Animation at UiTM Shah Alam to turn "Home for Hari Raya" into a film.   

I find it fascinating that a short story I wrote over twenty years ago and first published in the May 1993 issue of Her World about three Malay sisters is now being turned into a film.

*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.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Malay Mail, 5 November 2008


Revisiting tales
By GABEY GOH November 05, 2008 Categories: Blogspot

When expatriate Robert Raymer (during a moment of weakness) did a Google search on himself last year to gauge the buzz surrounding his book, what he discovered was a unique take on the old adage: "Never judge a book by its cover".

"A blog entry caught my eye and caught me by surprise, so that's what people are thinking about my book!" writes the American-born author of Lovers and Strangers Revisited, a collection of short stories set in Malaysia.

The post in question, was that of a student who shared a conversation with the book store cashier, about the misconstrued stigma attached to book titles – while picking up a copy of Raymer's book.

"After reading this blog entry, I had to smile – 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 alone trying to buy it," he continued.

The biggest boon of blogging for writers has been its role, not only as a launching pad to promote their works, but also as an evolving workbook and diary for their ideas. Along with his musings about the craft of writing and the business of publishing, visitors to his blog ( borneoexpatwriter.blogspot.com ) will get to delve into his current project.

"Now I’m doing a series of posts, as part of my writing blog, called The Story Behind the Story: Lovers and Strangers Revisited , whereby I blog about how the various stories came to be written," says Raymer, who noted it would be interesting for readers to see how much the stories, over a span of 20 years, have evolved.

How and when did you start your blog?

When blogging was first recommended to me by several writers, it didn’t make any sense, plus it sounded like it would eat into my limited writing time, since I teach full time and have small children at home. Then Krista Goon ( redboxstudio.com/blog ), whom I taught creative writing to at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), kept sending me links to various writers, mostly Malaysian, who have blogs. One was Lydia Teh ( lydiateh.wordpress.com ), she was reacting to a blog post by Sharon Bakar ( thebookaholic.blogspot.com ), about the realities of publishing books in Malaysia. It struck a chord with me and I shot off a reply to Lydia’s blog, which turned out to be a rather lengthy comment. In fact, it was a full length article because I had a lot to say on the matter based on my years of experience publishing books in Malaysia and Singapore.

Having written this article, I thought, why not start my own blog on writing with the same article (and on the same day), which I did on May 19, 2007. The hardest decision was deciding what to call it. I came up with BorneoExpatWriter: Borneo, since I was moving there, Expat, since that is what I am, and Writer, because that is what I do.

Has your blogging changed your life?

Blogging hasn’t changed my life, just my writing life, or how I view writing. Before, I would write or pitch articles for publications, but now I write posts on writing to help inspire other writers. Then later, I think some of these would make pretty good articles, so I would rewrite them and submit them for publication. This is a recent development, but so far one has already been published. So blogging in this sense serves a new purpose for me, it gets me to write articles that I may not have written in the first place, plus they become fodder for paying articles and workshops.

It’s also nice when readers of my stories and former writing students stumble across my website or blog and contact me. Also the website/blog is invaluable for editors, agents, publishers and reviewers to get more information about me and to read samples of my writing. So far I’ve got one US$500 writing assignment from the US, one full page interview and book review ( Borneo Post ), and one workshop presentation (in Miri) from strangers who came across my website.

Any regrets?

I only wished I had started blogging sooner, before there were a billion other bloggers out there.

What in "Cybersphere" amazes you?

How quickly unfounded rumors can spread and how much damage one person with a perceived grievance or a grudge (or just because he can), can humiliate or destroy someone’s life by posting malicious gossip or doctored photographs or stealing their identity and their money! Scary!

If you really had to choose one website to interact with?

Your Success Store ( http://www.yoursuccessstore.com/ ) and its weekly Your Achievement Ezine because of all the great advice that you get from leading success experts on all aspects of your life, from people like Jim Rohn, Denis Waitley, John Gray, Brian Tracy, Zig Ziglar, you name it. It’s not just one person’s point of view; it’s dozens of the most successful people on this planet, those who’ve walked the walk for years, for decades, before they begin to talk.

What would you really like to achieve through Cyberspace communication?

I would like to find an agent who then finds an international publisher for my novels, someone who has the wisdom and the persistence to attract readers from all over the globe so I can stop teaching and write full time to achieve my goal of publishing 20 bestselling books in 20 years.

If there were someone you could influence to take up blogging, who would it be?

I would like to see a joint blog with Moses, Jesus and Muhammad (with Buddha as a special guest), so they can tell us in their own words what they really said, what they really meant, how we got it all wrong (assuming we did), and how we can start to make it all right before it’s too late. There’s too much anger, hate, wars in this world, and most of it caused by misunderstanding or misinterpreting what those original words really mean.

Memorable incidents?

Blogging from Borneo proves that the world is smaller. A French woman visiting her son in Australia stumbled on my blog and as it turns out she lives 15 minutes from us here in Sarawak, so she invited us over to her lovely house for some appetizers, one of which was smoked salmon from a Dutch man, who does this as a hobby. Oh, that salmon was unbelievable good!

Then a man from Canada contacted me and said he used to take ballroom dancing lessons from this woman in her house in the Bidayuh village, Quop, here in Sarawak. As it turns out, that woman is my wife’s mother. And I didn’t even know that she taught dancing! Maybe I should ask her to teach me, it’s been a while since I last danced the tango.

*There's also a side bar that says: Over at the Malaysian English Language Teaching Association (MELTA) website a forum discussion thread has been set up for Raymer's short story “Neighbours” from Lovers and Strangers Revisited, which is being taught for SMP literature as part of their 6th Cycle. So far it has 9814 hits, 289 replies and 29 pages of comments. To join in ior have a look head to http://www.melta.org.my/modules/newbb/viewtopic.php?topic_id=510&forum=5&jump=1 If you enter from the Special Interest Group, it’s free.

*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.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Review of Lovers and Strangers Revisited in Cleo, November '08

On Thursday, 30 October, I had heard about the review in Cleo from Shirley at MPH, and that afternoon while getting lunch at Unimas, I noticed that the lady I was to pay money to was reading a magazine. I thought what are the odds that she's reading Cleo and the latest issue? But curiosity got the best of me and I asked what she was reading. Cleo. Then I noticed the month. November! This must be The Secret -- The Law of Attraction -- at work. I mumbled something incoherent about wanting to look through the magazine to see the review for my book and she gave me this, "Huh?" look. Finally on page 283 I found it and showed her the review. "That's me," I said, and pointed out my name, paid for my food, and left.

I have a feeling the next time I go back there, she's going to have a copy of my book, waiting for me to sign, and that's all right by me!



What the Cleo review says:
Lovers and Strangers Revisited
Robert Raymer
(MPH Publishing)
After chalking up more than 20 years as a resident of melting pot Malaysia, transplanted American Raymer merges observation and personal experiences in his latest book, which is really the third revised editon of his collection of short stories Lovers and Strangers Revisited. With two new stories, Raymer has revised the earlier written tales to give them a timeless feel. Ours is a unique scenario - various races living next to one another, interacting daily, each with its own endearing and most certainly annoying idiosyncrasies; it's no wonder we captured this Mat Salleh's imagination. Raymer's stories remind us that, nosely or nice, Malaysians are an undeniably colourful bunch!

*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.

Friday, October 31, 2008

"The Watcher": The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

After my first Chinese New Year in Malaysia, unable to sleep that night because of all of the fireworks, I went jogging the next morning and the stench of charred gunpowder was everywhere, as were the red remnants of the fire crackers, some strung from the roofs of many of the terrace houses the previous evening. Discarded red ang pow envelopes were being pushed across the road by a breeze. I wrote these details into my journal, knowing that they would eventually end up in a short story --the third in this collection that began that way, a bunch of jumbled ideas. Later, when I began to write about it, after reading some firsthand accounts of the Japanese Occupation, I thought I could combine the two.

Having no one person to base my character on, as a model, which I sometimes do, I had to come up with my own unique characters (though based loosely on a composite of several people I've met over the years), an elderly Chinese man, still embittered about the war, and his two granddaughters and their respective husbands. For their children, I used my observations of my neighbor’s children, who every Chinese New Year, would huddle around their respective gates and launch fire crackers. I tried to mimic their actions, including the non-Chinese neighbors who would watch and react vicariously.

I also imagined I was Yeoh, who was watching them and wondered what they would think of me, someone so old that they could no longer relate to. I’m sure they would have a nickname for him and eventually I came up with “the one who watches”, or “the watcher” which then became the title of the story.

As with many stories that I begin to write, I’m not all too sure about the ending. I knew it would involve sparklers, which I had recently played with during Hari Raya at my ex-wife’s kampong. I tried to capture that sense of rediscovery, that child-like feeling of pleasure, of wild-eyed wonder and passed it on to my Chinese characters, both the elderly man and his great grandchild.

In Lovers and Strangers, I originally named the main character Yeo, but later I discovered that the spelling of the name, without the ‘h’, lives in Singapore. So I added the ‘h’ and he became a Penang Yeoh. I had also changed the great grandson’s name from Kim to Andrew. In the first collection, I also made a careless error by referring to the boy as his grandchild, when in fact he would be the great grandchild. I was surprised the editor I was working with or the proofreader never caught it. I don’t know how I missed it either. Sometimes you get so close to the story it’s easy to overlook obvious details.

For the setting I used the terrace houses where I then lived, which made it convenient. We had a cushioned bench in front of our house where we would sit to put on our shoes, so this was where I had Yeoh sit (though I took away the cushion) as he watched the goings-on of his neighbors, the children in particular, because he knew they were always up to something; and with fireworks, they were utterly reckless. A disaster waiting to happen. In the distance I could see some hills, but these weren’t apart of Penang Hill (in the center of the island at Air Itam), just hills that served as a backdrop and as a catalyst for his memories of hiding in the hills during the occupation and how some of his children had died before they could learn how to walk. A common occurrence. My former mother-in-law lost five children, some miscarriages and others from lack of food and nutrition.

Over the years, the story did not change all that much, just moving from general to more specific details as in all of my stories, and the beginning and the ending. In the early drafts I started the story with an elaborate, overblown description of a sunset. I was trying way too hard. The description seemed to go on forever. Then I toned it down and began the story with a line about Yeoh. In the second paragraph, I added in the sensory details that I had mentioned earlier, about the smells and seeing the firecrackers and the discarded ang pows.

Later, while revisiting the story for the Silverfish version, I realized that the sunset was too rushed, introduced too soon. I needed to get a fix on the main character first, anchor him in the story. So I rearranged the opening paragraphs. I kept the opening line, but all that followed now came from the second paragraph, and the sunset was placed in the middle of the new second paragraph, so it flowed better. I also tied it to his lighting a cigarette, which I felt was more effective. I also fixed quite a bit of the actual details.

Compare the first published version of the opening of “The Watcher” and the final MPH version where I delayed the sunset:

1) Yeo stared at the surrounding hills like he was searching for a way to escape. Suddenly, the sky erupted into brilliant hues of red, pink and orange, as though illuminated by a torch. The colors grew in intensity before gently fading into the soft darkness of dusk on this first day of the New Year. The first, and the last, if Yeo had his way…

He coughed and spat and ground out his cigarette as the smell of incense and charred gunpowder came on strong. A scraping sound soon caught his attention. Two small red envelopes were being pushed along the concrete drive­way by a persistent breeze.

2) Yeoh stared at the surrounding hills of Penang as though searching for a way to escape. The pervasive stench of incense and charred gunpowder were everywhere. He could even taste the bitter dryness on his lips. A soft scraping sound caught his attention. Two palm-size, red envelopes were being pushed, stubbornly, along the concrete driveway by a persistent breeze.

Sitting on an old wooden bench in front of his granddaughter’s terrace house, Yeoh coughed and spat and ground out his cigarette. He lit another as the sky erupted into brilliant hues of red, pink and orange, as if illuminated by a gigantic torch. The colors grew in intensity before gently fading into the soft darkness of dusk, the first evening of the Chinese New Year.

In the first version I didn’t even mention that he was in Penang or whose house it was, or whether he was standing or sitting. I even gave it away that he was going to die with that big, clumsy hint. I was also not very specific about which New Year and the time reference was wrong, calling it the first day when it was already evening. Careless minor slips often cause needless confusion, so I was glad I had the opportunity to get the details right. Notice that I also changed the word “small”, a relative term, to “palm-sized” which is easier to picture.

In the early drafts, I ended the story with both Yeoh and his grandchild playing together with the sparklers. I wanted to add some tension at the end, so I had Andrew wander away and then Yeoh noticed that the child is gone and that the other children had left the gate open. At the end of the MPH version, I reversed the final two paragraphs so the focus doesn’t shift to Andrew, but remains on him until the very end. By mentioning the hills, I also tie the ending back to the beginning.

While revising this for the French edition, I kept stumbling and it didn't feel right until I tried switching it from past to present tense, to give the story an immediacy that seemed lacking in the past tense.  It was the only story that was significantly changed.

* Here is a link to the new revised version.

Lovers and Strangers Revisited is now getting translated into French as Trois autres Malaisie. Here's a link to the French blog set up by the publisher Éditions GOPE.

Here are three reviews of Lovers and Strangers Revisited: The Star (MPH), The Expat (Silverfish), and NST (Silverfish) and a link to the other story behind the stories for Lovers and Strangers Revisited.

**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.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Review of Lovers and Strangers Revisited in Air Asia Inflight Magazine: Are You Judged By The Company You Keep?

If you're judged by the company you keep, then I'm quite happy to have the review of Lovers and Strangers Revisited in Air Asia's Travel 3Sixty, October issue. Not only is the review good, I'm surrounded by bestselling writers. Stephen King is on my left and on my right Jude Deveraux and John Grisham!

In case the print is too small to read:

Lovers and Strangers Revisited
Author: Robert Raymer
Genre: Collection of short stories

Raymer has travelled extensively in Asia and lived in Malaysia for more than 20 years. This absorbing collection of short stories is borne of his observations of experiences with life in Malaysia, its people and culture. Not always flattering but not really judgemental, his stories offer a different view on issues that locals may long have gotten used to.




If you happen to catch other reviews please let me know! Better still, send it to me! Thanks!

*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.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

"Symmetry": The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

The idea for “Symmetry”, my shortest story at 950 words and the second story that I wrote for this collection, began when I went upstairs to work and found a dead cockroach in a cup of tea that I had forgotten from the previous evening. Once I got over my initial disgust, I became fascinated by the symmetry of the cockroach, with its three pairs of legs of varying lengths spread out and the antennae fanned in opposite directions around the contour of the cup.

The writer in me saw the potential, so I put myself into the viewpoint of a female Malay child, who overcomes her initial fear and becomes fascinated by this dead cockroach “floating in someone’s neglected tea”.

For the setting of the story, I used the kitchen of my former in-laws kampong house in Parit, Perak since I knew it so well. In fact, I used this setting in several of my kampong stories like “Smooth Stones”, “Home for Hari Raya” and “Mat Salleh”.

In order to capture the child’s innocence while she observes the cockroach inside the cup I had to become an actor and acted out the part so I could physically describe her. I tried out several positions before I settled on the final version:

“The child pulls up on her batik sarong and sinks into a squat before setting the plate down next to the cup and saucer. She hugs her knees – chin nestled on top, arms braced underneath – and rocks back and forth in a slow rhythmic movement, her large brown eyes opened as wide as possible. She draws in her breath and takes another peek. Not satisfied, she leans closer. Finally she hunches her body forward, knees and palms to the floor, her long black hair, held back at the top by a purple plastic barrette, flows like twin waterfalls against the sides of her face. With her head now directly above, mere inches from the rim, she peers into the cup.”

In the first version that was published by Teenage in Singapore in 1991, I did not give the plastic barrette a color, but by the time it was published two years later in Plaza (in both English and Japanese) and Foolscap in the UK, I added the color blue. I changed the color to purple for the MPH edition of Lovers and Strangers Revisited. Subconsciously, perhaps, I saw her as wounded by her father’s absence (which I also added in the final version); thus the color purple is symbolic of the purple-heart given to American soldiers wounded in action; in fact, her brother even threatens her with a knife.

For me, this story has always been about lost innocence. The brother’s violent use of the knife to taunt her and to chop the dead cockroach underscores this. This child will never be the same. (She will always be afraid of cockroaches, too, but that’s a minor point.)

When I revisited the story for the Silverfish edition of Lovers and Strangers Revisited, I began to play with the wording to make it more specific, thus in the opening sentence, “dishes” became “plates and saucers” and “wood” became “plank”. I also changed the story from past to present tense.

For the final edition, after some prompting by my editor at MPH, I added a new element to the story to make it fit better with the themes of the other stories in the collection. In the opening paragraph I wrote, “unlike in the past when her father was still living with them…” Then a couple of pages later, I made another reference about the father’s absence, “[the brother] would only boss her around or torment her, which he has been doing ever since their father went to live with that other woman.”

I also mention that the brother is having disciplinary problems at school. In an effort to calm down the crying child near the end of the story, “[mother] even assures her that her father will return home and that everything will be just like it was before.”

We know that is not likely to happen. It’s too late. Her innocence is lost. She, too, no doubt, will develop disciplinary problems at school as she faces a brother who’ll become more brutal at home while living in a harsher, fatherless world.

Ah, it's so nice to have an editor who pushes you to improve a story in unexpected ways!

Lovers and Strangers Revisited is now getting translated into French as Trois autres Malaisie. Here's a link to the French blog set up by the publisher Éditions GOPE.

Here are three reviews of Lovers and Strangers Revisited: The Star (MPH), The Expat (Silverfish), and NST (Silverfish) and a link to the other story behind the stories for Lovers and Strangers Revisited.

*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.

Friday, September 26, 2008

“Sister’s Room”: The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

This is the third story in Lovers and Strangers Revisited to earn me money after it placed third in the National Writers Association short story contest (USA) back in 1987. I started experimenting with a childlike tone for a short story, and the opening words came to me: “Mama is making chapattis and tea for breakfast. I’ll only get the chapattis – the small ones. Not the tea. Sister gets the tea and Mama doesn’t spare the sugar. Not for Sister. Mama doesn’t spare anything for Sister.”

It was this voice, this tone, this desire to capture the child’s innocence and then playing with the idea I had of sibling rivalry and child prostitution that pulled me through the story rather quickly. I knew I had something good in my hands, but maintaining that voice, that tone, and wondering where to break my sentences was giving me problems. Do I string them together with a bunch of “ands”, as I was initially doing, or break them up, staccato-like? Or find some happy balance? I was forever tinkering with this story through its various drafts. The story, essentially, remained the same from the beginning, but I was constantly tweaking it, nearly every other line it seemed, particularly during the fight scene, even in this final MPH version.

I admit I was having some qualms about the physical setting of the story, which is more Pakistan/India than Malaysia, though I could easily imagine how this could have been set in Malaysia not that many years ago, where bullock carts  were still common (I had seen plenty in the early eighties and a few Chinese junks, too!) and ice men still brought large blocks of ice to various shops. The open fruit market and spice markets are readily found in Malaysia today. I did visit several little India sections in Malaysia and even took the trouble to visit several brothels, mostly in Penang and KL, including some in the poorer Indian sections of town for research for a novel that I was working on, as well as some sleazy restaurants cum nightclubs. Not a pleasant experience, but memorable. No, I did not partake!

From the opening voice, I knew this would be a first person, present tense story, the first I had ever written; again this was an experiment for me, since unlike “On Fridays” which I wrote several years later, I was writing from the viewpoint of an Indian female child. Also I purposely used descriptions that would take on larger symbolic meanings in the story, such as “Uncle pinches my cheeks and squeezes my shoulders and looks me over like he would a melon at the fruit market to see if it’s ripe.” In the previous scene the child was doing exactly that at the fruit market across the street, and now Uncle was sizing her up to be a prostitute, just like her sister.

Right away, I had a lot success with this story; it was published in Northern Perspective in Australia, Her World in Malaysia, and a couple of years later in India, France and Denmark.
When the Indian-American writer Bharati Mukherjee visited Penang, Malaysia, I met her and her husband and after I commented on several of her stories at a discussion, she agreed to read a couple of my short stories, including “Sister’s Room”. She felt the ending scene needed to be a “bigger moment,” that it should linger before I bring the story to an end, advice I gladly seized upon. So I expanded that moment, nearly doubling its length, and this was the version that Thema in the US accepted and published in 2005.

While I was revisiting the stories for the Silverfish collection, I changed the beginning of the story, at the last moment, by substituting “Amma” for Mama and “Appa” for Papa. I even called Child “Younger Sister.” Call it a moment of weakness. After it came out, I wished I hadn’t done that. So with the MPH version, I gladly changed it back to how I had it.

As a footnote, while I was in KL launching Lovers and Strangers Revisited for MPH, a woman told me that nearly twenty years ago when she was ten, her mother came across the story in Her World and thinking it was innocent story about children, asked her to read it. She was horrified to learn that the story was about child prostitution! She never did tell her mother.

Lovers and Strangers Revisited is now getting translated into French as Trois autres Malaisie.

Here are three reviews of Lovers and Strangers Revisited: The Star (MPH), The Expat (Silverfish), and NST (Silverfish) and a link to the other story behind the stories for Lovers and Strangers Revisited.

*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.