In the preface to the original collection I wrote, “There’s a lot of truth in all fiction and a lot of fiction in all truth, so what may seem real may, in fact, be made up, and what may seem made up could very well be based on fact. The characters in this collection only exist in the author’s and the reader’s mind and if they bear a resemblance to anyone you know, then it’s merely a coincidence.”
As we all know there’s a blurry line between truth and fiction. Some stories that I wrote started out based on fact and got changed along the way to make it a better story. Others started out as pure fiction but some truth got added in to make the story seem more realistic. I tried to make all the stories seem real, as if they had happened. Maybe that’s why these 15 – now 17 stories – have been published, at last count, 78 times in eleven countries (updated, 2 September 2010), taught in numerous Malaysian universities, private colleges, in SPM literature, and even a high school in Canada.
So with the new version of Lovers and Strangers Revisited published by MPH, I thought I would do a series of blogs on the stories – the story behind the story – which I hope will answer these questions about truth and fiction and also, perhaps, inspire some of you who write to take another look at your own story ideas, to see if you can make them resonate with the reader, and perhaps even break you from your own truth, which often gets in the way of a good short story.
Already I can hear protests, “But that’s the way it really happened!” Yes, no doubt, but to get to the essential story, the “real” story, sometimes you need to take a step back from your truth and ask yourself, does your truth serve the story, or does it hamper it? Of course, I’m referring to writing fiction not a memoir. And by making the necessary changes, you never know where you’re story will take you. For example, I started a story about a man riding in a taxi and it ended up being published 13 times, and now it’s the lead story in this collection.
The original idea for “On Fridays” came when I was part-time adviser for MACEE, Malaysian American Commission on Educational Exchange. Every Friday I would take a sixteen kilometer taxi ride into George Town. It was a share taxi, whereby we share it with other passengers, who get on and off at various locations.
I saw this taxi as a metaphor for multiracial Malaysia, where people of various races live and work in close proximity and in relative harmony. So I added an unnamed Westerner, an expat, who becomes interested in a Malay woman sitting beside him in a taxi, yet because of the other passengers, he feels too self-conscious to act.
Although I normally write in the third person, I chose to write this story in the first person at the expense of people assuming that it’s autobiographical. As many of you know, when you use the first person “I” as the narrator, people naturally assume it’s the author or in this case, it’s “me”. Unlike the character, by the way, I don’t paint, and the character taught English years before I ever did.
The effect I was going for, I felt, would be better served using “I”, because I wanted the reader to closely identify with the narrator, to see himself in this, or in a similar situation, and think about what he or she would do - to make the story more personal. From the comments I got in the past – it works. This was the one story from my collection that people would bring up and then relate a similar experience of their own.
Another choice I made was not using the past tense and opting for the present tense, because I felt it would give the story more immediacy, and hopefully a timeless quality. And perhaps make it linger, as does the ending, so it would seem that this just happened.
Also from the hundreds of taxi rides I took while living in Penang, I chose to “create” one that was representative of all those rides. By using the senses – see, hear, feel, taste and smell – I tried to make this one taxi ride as realistic as possible by putting the reader in that taxi with me. If they believe in that taxi ride, then they’ll believe in the story. That it’s the “truth”; that it “happened”; that there really was “a girl”; and that I’m still “searching” for her....When my creative writing students read this story, they inevitably ask me, “Have you found her yet?”
When I first wrote the story I had a lot of details describing the sights along the way. An editor from the UK made the comment that it read too much like a travelogue. So I cut out the descriptions that weren’t necessary. It was also suggested that I make the character single. His being married raised some moral issues – like is he cheating on his wife? Good advice, which I took, and an example of how "facts" or "truth" can have unforeseen consequences in your fiction. This is the version that first got published in Female in Singapore, Plaza in Japan and Going Down Swinging Australia.
A reader, unfamiliar with Malaysia, asked me what’s the big deal if he does touch her in the taxi, so while revisiting the story for Lovers and Strangers Revisited, I worked in the character’s concerns about being arrested for “outraging her modesty” since he’s an expat in a Muslim country, something that many people outside of Malaysia who are not familiar with Muslim countries would know. As a writer, you can't always assume that overseas readers, if that is who you also want to reach, will "get it".
Then I got to thinking, why doesn't he get out of the taxi at the jetty and follow her (I would!), and if he does, I would also need to make it clear why he has to return to the taxi, for fear of losing his job, something difficult for an expat to get without a work permit. So I added this new scene to the story.
A US editor suggested that I lop off the final paragraph. I didn’t like his suggestion, yet I felt he had a point, so we compromised by rearranging a couple of paragraphs at the end, to make the story more effective, so the focus wasn’t on the man’s loneliness, but on his obsession. This became the version that was published simultaneously, as a joint-venture, between a literary magazine in France, Frank, and The Literary Review in the US, and with some minor editing, this MPH collection, and now Cha: An Asian Literary Review
Lovers and Strangers Revisited is now getting translated into French as Trois autres Malaisie.
Here is a review in The Star (MPH) 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 are links to some of my author-to-author interviews of first novelists:
Ivy Ngeow author of Cry of the Flying Rhino, winner of the 2016 Proverse Prize.
Golda Mowe author of Iban Dream and Iban Journey.
Preeta Samarasan author of Evening is the Whole Day.
Chuah Guat Eng, author of Echoes of Silence and Days of Change.
Five part Maugham and Me series
Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I