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.

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