Sunday, May 24, 2009

“Only in Malaysia”: The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

“Only In Malaysia” is one of the two new stories that I added to the MPH version of Lovers and Strangers Revisited. It was written around the same time as the others. When the story came out in Silverfish New Writing 7 (2008), I decided to include it into Lovers and Strangers Revisited since MPH had requested that I add a couple more stories to make it different and not just a reissue of the Silverfish collection.

Written in 1989, “Only in Malaysia” was loosely based on my experiences while I was advising at the Malaysian-American Commission of Educational Exchange. One day after coming out of work I was crossing the street when I nearly got run over by a car. That incident certainly got me thinking on many different levels. I combined that with a cross-cultural experience I had while traveling in Italy where I befriended an Indian woman named Moni who was doing her graduate studies there. I then added in the loneliness that expats have for their own culture, something that I was in the midst of experiencing. I knew I had a story and the start of something bigger on my hands.

In fact I conceived “Only in Malaysia” as the first story in a collection of inter-related stories, titled Life on Hold. I wrote three or four more stories but then got bogged down in one of them. Around that time, while traveling near Ipoh I left inside a taxi my notebook with about 150 pages of notes and sketches of several other stories and plans to tie them together. With the whole project stalled, I moved onto compiling the stories for the original collection of Lovers and Strangers. (Recently I revived two other stories from that aborted collection, one of which was runner-up in the 2007 Faulkner-Wisdom Short Story Contest.)

From the years working at MACEE, I was able to tap into my firsthand experience of advising students, many whom like the characters Nora and Zainal, would go on to study in the US and even return to Malaysia with an American spouse, so I was familiar with the problems that it sometimes caused, as highlighted with the conversation with Miss Ooi.

When the story was first published in Her World in 1992 a well-meaning friend from KL called me up to express concern about the state of my marriage. I had a good laugh over it. Our marriage was fine. I was not writing about me and my wife, only using the knowledge of our cross-cultural marriage to root the story in reality. Yet while revising the story before it was accepted by Mattoid (1998 Australia), I knew where our marriage was heading. Ten years after first writing the story, we did get a divorce so perhaps the joke was on me.

For Mattoid, I made the story chronological. I shifted the near accident where the story originally began to after the conversation with Miss Ooi, so I wasn’t going back and forth several times in the story. This seemed more natural and less confusing, plus it showed that the character was preoccupied while crossing the road. I also changed the cat’s name from Sadie, which was the name of my brother’s cat, to Kalie, after Kalamazoo where he and his wife met. (I had met my ex-wife in Madison, which is why we had that name for our cat in “Dark Blue Thread”.)

For the Silverfish New Writing 7 (2008) version, I expanded the story by adding a lot more backstory about Ross’s reasons for being in Malaysia, his reasons for non-writing, and how he had lost his two younger brothers who had drowned. Although I had referred to Ross’s estranged wife many times, I felt I needed a scene with her in it, other than the flashback near the end. So I added the pivotal scene at the elevator at Komtar where he bumps into her, which shows his frazzled, desperate state of mind.

Other than some minor editing, this is also the version that I used for MPH, glad that it found a new home, though now and then, I still think about that other collection of stories that might have been; in fact, I'm thinking about reviving the second chapter, the title story...

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 is a review of Lovers and Strangers Revisited: 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. 


Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I 

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