Sunday, February 27, 2011

Two American Writers in Borneo

Ok, I admit when I first heard that there was another American writer in Kuching, I thought, well that’s going to be confusing!  “Hey, have you met that American in Borneo?  In Sarawak?  In Kuching? You know, the writer?  The one that just published a book?”  I’m sure he feels the same way about me.

Shortly after Tom McLaughlin contacted me via my website, I saw his book, Borneo Tom at the airport in Miri. I also checked out his website and read quite a few of his blog postings.  Right away, I liked what Tom did.  From the outset he made up his mind to bypass the typical agent/traditional publisher route that could drag out for years (and never have a book); instead he self-published his blog series about his life and adventures since moving to Borneo and crafted it into a rather nice book.   

First, he invested in setting up a professional website, hired an American publicist.  He found his own editor (before he knew me) and also an illustrator.  He knows success will take time, but he is laying down a good foundation.  More importantly, he got his book, full of fun illustrations, into the marketplace fast.  He is not only working with book distributors to get his books into bookstores throughout Malaysia and beyond, but also takes orders from his website and even offers free gifts as enticement.

Borneo Tom: Stories and Sketches of Love, Travel and Jungle Family in Tropical Asia  
After agreeing to meet, I suggested that we exchange books, which we did in October/November 2010 at his place by the river front.  Although at the time Tropical Affairs was my latest book, I thought he would appreciate Lovers and Strangers Revisited, since he had recently married.  I directed him to the story “Mat Salleh”.  

Then we met again when Han, a poet from KL, came to town in January 2011, hoping to meet some other writers, and again in February.  This is turning into a monthly affair.

Since Tom and I are approaching publishing from different angles (I’m publishing and writing mostly fiction and recently began earnestly seeking the services of an agent to bring my work, my novels into larger markets), we can learn from each other to see what works, what brings in the desired results.  The publishing industry has changed so much in the last two years, bringing more challenges to writers, but also more opportunities (e-books/e-publishing).  The more we discuss and keep abreast of these changes, particularly the opportunities that are now available to us (even though we’re based on the other side of the planet in Borneo of all places), the better we can position ourselves, our writing, our books, our marketing efforts.  More importantly, we can bolster our confidence and nudge one another to try new things and keep focused on our writing goals.

Although Borneo, in terms of the publishing world of USA/UK, is a bit off the map, other American writers do occasionally pass through the region.  For example last year, after a couple of near misses, I finally met with Paul Spencer Sochaczewski, author of The Sultan and the Mermaid  for my first author exchange of books with a fellow American in Borneo as a way of introduction, a tradition I wouldn’t mind keeping up.  In addition to publishing several other books, including a novel, Paul and Tom have two things in common, both are former Peace Corps volunteers in Sarawak and both have a passion for Alfred Russel Wallace

After reading what both have written of Wallace in their respective books, I’m now intrigued.  I had been meaning to read The Malay Archipelago when I first discovered it 25 years ago in the small bookstore that used to be just to the right of the entrance of The E & O Hotel in Penang before it was renovated.  I spent an awful lot of time in that bookstore (dreaming of my own books) and even mentioned it in my yet-to-be published novel The Expatriate’s Choice (several major chapters are set inside the hotel, including the climax.) 

The edition I finally bought last week wasn’t the Oxford University Press that I was seeking, but a Stanfords Travel Classics (Beaufoy Books), with an introduction by the Earl of Cranbrook, who I also, coincidentally, just missed in Kuching in 2009.  We had spoken twice on the phone but somehow the date of his flight got miss-communicated and conflicted with a night class that I was teaching.  Not long afterwards, I did finally get to see him, via the documentary The Airmen and the Headhunters, a fascinating account of the rescue mission of several American airmen shot down in Borneo during WWII. 

Americans (and no doubt American writers) have been coming to Borneo for years.  One of the first, Charles Lee Moses, even owned what is today Sabah, north of Sarawak.  In 1865, Moses, the United States Consul to Brunei, obtained a 10-year lease for the territory of North Borneo from the Sultan of Brunei.  However, the post-Civil War United States wanted nothing to do with Asian colonies, so Moses sold his rights to the Hong Kong-based American Trading Company of Borneo, who eventually sold it to the North Borneo Chartered Company.

So for now, Tom and I just happen to be two American authors based in Borneo, though I have a feeling there are a few others out there in other parts of Sarawak, Sabah, Brunei or the Indonesian side, Kalimantan.  I do know several American writers used to live here.  Some have contacted me via my blog or my website.  If  you're an American writer passing through Kuching, bring a copy of your book along so we can exchange them.
             -Robert Raymer, Borneo Expat Writer

*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, February 25, 2011

2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award - Round Two-The Novel Project

 Amazon Breakthrough Novel AwardThe Boy Who Shot Santa makes it into Round Two of 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award! So glad I took another quick look at it just before sending it in.  That look took three days--the culmination of two frantic months of going through the novel six times, including a couple of all-nighters, revising it over and over, and also that pitch!  The first round judging was based purely on those 300 words!

Ok, 1000 novels from around the world made it through to Round Two, but 80% or 4000 didn’t!  8,000 novels if you include both categories (general fiction and young adult fiction).  

Here’s the final version of my pitch that made it through:

The Boy Who Shot Santa
What if your son accidentally shoots his dad dressed up as Santa Claus?

          Rachel Layton finds her fragile marriage shattered when her eleven-year-old son kills a burglar who turns out to be his drunken father in a Santa Claus suit.  The shooting sets off a chain-reaction of events that threatens to tear apart a small Pennsylvania town.
Cast as a villain and labeled trailer trash by the media, Rachel is determined to hold her family together, even as her son gets beaten up at school, her teenage daughter moves in with a low life twice her age, and an old boyfriend comes and goes. Tired of being on the defensive and utilizing the voice of reason, Rachel speaks out against hunters giving under-aged kids access to guns.  Despite threatening phone calls and a brick through her window, Rachel refuses to back off until Gordon’s Gunshop, located smack on Main Street, is shut down.
          While shopping at the mall for Christmas, Rachel overlooks one important detail.  Santa Claus.  To her dismay, her son Eric, still struggling from post-traumatic stress disorder, gets into line behind the other kids.  Sensing trouble, parents drag their kids, some kicking and screaming, out of the line.  Soon the whole town, it seems, is watching as Eric confronts Santa Claus.
Still trying to come to terms with her deceased husband and while holding onto one last chance for happiness, Rachel is all too aware that someone in the crowd is stalking her.  One thing is certain:  Christmas in Sharpton will never be the same.
            The Boy Who Shot Santa (97,700 words) is a short-list finalist for the 2009 Faulkner-Wisdom novel contest (as A Season for Fools), and the first book of a potential three-book series

And this is what’s in store for those of us who have made it this far:

Second Round (Feb. 24th): The field will be narrowed to 250 entries in each category (500 total entries) by Amazon top customer reviewers from ratings of a 5000 word excerpt.

Quarterfinals (March 22nd): Publishers Weekly reviewers will read the full manuscript of each quarterfinalist, and based on their review scores, the top 50 in each category (100 total entries) will move on to the semi-finals.

Semi-finals (April 26th): Penguin USA editors will read the full manuscript and review all accompanying data for each semi-finalist and will then select three finalists in each category (six total finalists).

Finals (May 24th): Amazon customers will vote on the three finalists in each category resulting in two grand prize winners

Grand prize winners will be announced (June 13th)

And what am I doing now? Just finished revising all of the short stories for Lovers and Strangers Revisited for the French translation and in the midst of revising the first 50 pages of The Boy Who Shot Santa for the James Jones Fellowship Contest, deadline March 1st.  Love those deadlines.  Though I'm wishing I could include the changes I'm making into what's being judged for Round Two!  

Wish me luck, and good luck to all the others in the Amazon contest who have made it this far. 

*Update: The Resurrection of Jonathan Brady just made Round Two 2012, so far (I included the pitch.)
**Update: The Resurrection of Jonathan Brady just advanced to the Quarterfinals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2012!

*Here are six lessons I learned from joining Amazon competition.

**Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award is back for 2014

**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, February 24, 2011

Lovers and Strangers Revisited—Another Revision, Another Look

“You’re revising it?  I thought you just send them the book?” a fellow American writer in Borneo replied, when I mentioned that I’ll be busy the next two weeks revising all the stories for Lovers and Strangers Revisited.   I had just told him that it was confirmed that Éditions GOPE will be translating the collection of Malaysian-set stories into French.

“Yeah, you could do that,” I could’ve replied, but instead, I told him that I saw this as an opportunity to improve the stories for future markets.  I want the best French translation out there and the best English version, too.  Now that I’m getting the book into Europe, other readers might recommend it to other publishers in other countries, especially those with an interest in Southeast Asia, and they might be interested into translating, too.
Plus there are plenty of English speaking countries, including the US, UK, and Australia, where the collection is not yet published, and I do hope to get this collection into those markets.  As I writer, I believe in giving myself a helping hand (even playing salesman).  If I can improve the stories by tweaking them some more, shouldn’t I do that?
I remember several people seemed to take offense in the comments when Sharon Bakar blogged about the Booktalk that I gave at MPH in 2008 (when the new MPH edition came out) after relating that I had been revising the stories since Lovers and Strangers (Heinemann 1993) to improve them in order to get them published overseas.  I also ripped them apart to make them better for Lovers and Strangers Revisited (Silverfish 2005), and revised them again for MPH, and this was even before their editors offered their own input.  One Australian author said she would never do that with her collection, but then she added that she sort of wished she had because she knows she could’ve improved them.  When the MPH version ended up winning an award, I felt justified, and now it has attracted a French translation.
For me, that first version back in 1993 was the best version—at the time.  But I grew as a writer, and after I began teaching creating writing (and a lot of grammar) and revising all of my students work I became a better writer.  Now it was merely a matter of applying what I was teaching, and being honest with myself.  Is that the best you can do?  Can’t you rephrase that better?  Do you really need that cliché!  That expression is rather trite or that metaphor doesn’t seem to be working.  Can you fix it?  How about that beginning or ending, can you make it more effective?  Do you really need all that back story?  Can you trim it?
For this latest revision process, I asked myself similar questions. The more questions you ask yourself, the more answers you find. I changed “The Watcher” from past tense to present tense as I had done a couple of stories in previous revisions to make it more effective. I changed the ending to “Smooth Stones” after getting a lot of close calls on the story in the US.  They always cited the ending as being "predictable".

In “Home for Hari Raya”, I found myself changing the name Ida to Rina; it just didn’t feel right for a university student (always reminded me of someone I knew), and in “Transaction in Thai”, even though the story won’t be in the French version since it wasn’t set in Malaysia, but when The French editor mentioned that the name “Jek” was derogatory, I  found a website that lists Thai baby names and came up with Daw.
For each story, in addition to tightening the writing wherever I could, I went on a dash hunt (cutting two-thirds), a passive hunt (converting most into active), and cut out what can easily be implied.
Now I feel satisfied, and the revised versions may do better as I continue to sell them as individual stories to literary journals and on-line magazines.  More importantly, I feel more confident about the collection as I pitch them to agents and publishers.  The stories, judging by their track record, are good, and they’ve certainly come a long way since 1993 when they first got compiled into a published collection. (When blogging The Story Behind the Story series, I was making direct comparisons from the first published version, some dating back twenty years, up until the MPH version and I was taken aback by how much they've changed while still being essentially the same story; it's in the details.) Even now this is far from the end of their journey.  In fact, I have a rather strong feeling, as they finally break out of the Malaysia/Singapore market, that this is merely the beginning... 

*Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

**Update: Book orders for Trois autres Malaisie   E-book orders.  Or recommend it to your friends, especially those who would like to know more about Malaysia or have an interest in Southeast Asia.
Here's a link to the intro and excerpts, and to four reviews of Trois Autres Malaisie in,,, and Petit Futé mag.

***Here’s an update to the French blog about Trois autres Malaisie and my meeting the French translator Jerome Bouchaud in Kuching, and my involvement in a French documentary for Arte (June 2017) on The Sensual Malaysia of Somerset Maugham.
 ****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.

Monday, February 21, 2011

“Neighbours” Gets a Play Treatment

On 19 February, students from SMK (p) Sri Aman Petaling Jeya, some of whom I met (along with their teacher Christina Chan), at the Popular BookFest@Malaysia 2010 put on a play titled SHORTS (short for Short Stories), an adaptation of three stories from SPM literature, Roald Dahl's “Landlady”,  Anya Sitaram’s “Naukar” and  “Neighbours” from my collection of short stories Lovers and Strangers Revisited.

The number of neighbours gossiping was cut down to shorten the story and to make it more manageable. In their adaptation, they portrayed Mrs Koh as someone who is critical of everyone and everything except herself, someone who is self-centred.  Ruth Yee, who wonderfully portrayed Mrs. Koh (holding fan), used to live in Penang, where “Neighbours” is set, prior to moving to PJ.
The cast for Neighbours:                                       
  • Ruth Yee as Mrs Koh
  • Mandy Chan as Mr Koh
  • Izzaty Wahab as Dr Nathan
  • Helinna Abd Rahim as Ms Chee
  • Nurul Shuhadah as Ramly
Although I was unable to attend, Christina Chan kept me abreast via Facebook, which was how we first met last September when one of her students contacted me over some questions regarding “Neighbours” that they were studying and we ended up meeting a few days later in KL.  According to Christina, "Mrs Koh was well-loved during our matinee show!”   Then the following day, after the evening performance she added, “For the record, Mrs. Koh is now one hot chick! Everyone loved her—the actress and the character.  We took some liberty at interpreting what she is like and how she would react to situations.  A success indeed.”

I was relieved to hear that it was a success.  Mrs. Koh’s reputation (i.e, Are You Mrs. Koh?)was riding on it.  This is not the first time that students have turned Mrs. Koh’s character into a play.  Students from another school in the KL area, also studying “Neighbours” took my ten minute play “Back From Heaven” and entered their performance into a school competition a couple of years back and did quite well.  I had adapted “Back From Heaven” from my play “One Drink Too Many” adapted from “Neighbours” whereby I turned a tragedy into a comedy.

"One Drink Too Many" has been play read twice by Penang Players and had some interest in both Penang and Kuching.  Maybe someday it will finally get produced, or maybe even the short story, "The Merdeka Miracle" that I wrote with Lydia Teh and Tunku Halim for Malaysia Airlines.  The story has a nice “1Malaysia” theme plus a Merdeka tie-in.  It would also make a good story for SPM Literature.  Unfortunately, there is no Mrs. Koh character in that story! But Mrs. Koh will soon be speaking French!

Congrats to the cast and crew of SHORTS!  It was an honor for me to have my short story "Neighbours" adapted.  Well done!  And good luck on your SPM exams!  And when you graduate and make your mark on the world, please don't become a Mrs. Koh!

Speaking of exams, here's a rather involved e-course assignment for "Neighbours".  Not for the fainthearted! 

*Ohio University is adapting another story from Lovers and Strangers Revisited, "Home for Hari Raya" into screenplay and 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 the French translation of Lovers and Strangers Revisited Trois autres Malaisie.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Two Sides to Every Story: An Encounter with a Spirit – Part II - The Shadow Spirit

This is a continuation of an encounter with a spirit ( that my mother-in-law is convinced that she had that I wrote about yesterday.  She has not fully recovered and seems to be getting worse, a concern for the family who are now looking to find someone to care of her during the day until she recovers.  

The incident, whether a spirit was involved or not, reminded me of my own encounter with a spirit that took place at my mother-in-law’s house about 14 years ago, during my first visit to Quop, which I recorded  in my journal the following mornings and then wrote about ten years later for a non-fiction writing workshop that I was presenting, a significant personal experience, for illustration purposes.

Robert Raymer
            While visiting Benuk, a mostly abandoned Bidayuh longhouse in Sarawak, on the island of Borneo, where some of my fiancé’s relatives used to live, my fiancé and I were about to enter the head house, a ceremonial room where we could see suspended from the ceiling a fishing net containing more than a dozen human heads.
            My mother-in law tried to convince us not to go inside.  She didn’t want us to disturb the spirits.  Even though she was a Christian, she like many Bidayuhs, still practiced animism.  She believed that spirits haunted everything—caves, rivers, large boulders, and, particu­lar­ly, the nearby jungle.  We shrugged off her concerns and went inside.  The room felt eerie though, and knowing that the heads were dangling above us from the rafters didn’t exactly help.  Still, I took a photograph of the heads.
            Later that evening, I went to sleep using the single bed that had been set up for me in what used to be the living room, upstairs.  Downstairs, a room had recently been added in front of the house, which was the new living room.  A wire had been strung across the room upstairs and a blanket hung over it to give me a semblance of privacy.   My fiancé, who opted to sleep with her sisters in her former bedroom, kissed me goodnight.  The blanket, having been taken out of storage, smelled strongly of mothballs.  At times I felt like I was suffocating.  It was fitful trying to sleep because of the smell, the mosquitoes biting me, and the strange noises outside that sounded what I assumed were frogs croaking. 
Around midnight, still half awake, I saw a shadow presence come in by way of a locked door that led out to a small balcony.  The shadow, the size of a large animal, floated toward me.  As it hovered over me, I could feel my body arching, trying to resist it, yet I felt powerless, as if a force were holding me down, pinning my shoulders to the bed.  As the shadow spirit entered through my chest, I screamed – the loudest, blood-curdling scream that I could muster.  But nothing came out of my mouth.
            The following morning I told my fiancé what had hap­­­pen­ed.  I wanted her to know in case anything happened to me; in case I started to act weird or “possessed”.  I wanted her to monitor my actions, keep a close eye on me, and if I started to act strangely, to get help.  At the same time, I hoped the spirit hadn’t stayed inside me.  That it merely visited me and left.
             “Don’t tell my mother,” she urged me, a concerned look on her face, worried what her mother would say.  We both knew she would blame it on our visit to the head house.
            My fiancé then admitted that she had heard similar accounts of the shadow spirit before from some of her Bidayuh friends in the village, right down to the suppressed scream.  So had her uncle who lived next door.
My fiancé also told me that no one had ever slept in that room before.  She asked me if I wanted to sleep elsewhere, but there was nowhere else I could sleep without incon­veniencing someone else, so I opted to stay where I was.  That night, before I went to bed, she retrieved a cross made from palm leaves that had been saved from Palm Sunday and put it inside my pillowcase.  She then suggested that I sleep with my head away from the balcony door and that I pray before going to sleep.  I agreed, though I felt silly saying a bedtime prayer, which I hadn’t done since I was a child repeating my nightly, “Now-I-lay-me-down-to-sleep . . .”
            Now I prayed for my son from a previous marriage; my fiancé and her family; my father and stepmother; my mother and brothers and their families; and for my own safety from any harm­ful spirits.  I tried to go to sleep, but then I heard some­­­­thing, or someone, rattling the handle at the balcony door.  There was no way to reach that door from the ground.  When I heard it a second time, I thought, what the hell is trying to get in!
I stared at the door, willing the shadow spirit to go away, afraid that if it entered my body a second time it would stay.  I prayed, feverishly, over and over.  The sound even­tually stopped; exhausted, I ­fell asleep.
The following morning, I remembered the photograph that I had taken of the suspended heads and vowed to destroy it.  At the same time, I tried to imagine the Bidayuh warriors carrying the dripping-with-blood heads back to their longhouse after doing battle, and also the massacre that took place in Quop in the early 1840’s at the hands of the Saribas and Skrang Ibans.   I dreaded to think what might have happened to me had I not followed my fiancé’s instructions that night in Sarawak.  Nor will I ever forget the shadow spirit that had entered my body and, thankfully, left.
#  #  #
***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, February 17, 2011

Two Sides to Every Story: An Encounter with a Spirit-Part I

Living and writing in a different culture gives you the chance to experience the world from a different perspective.  Of course, it’s what you do with that perspective that matters.  Either you try to understand it, learn from it, or you dismiss it entirely.  Two nights ago, my wife took her mother, a Bidayuh, home after visiting us for most of the day.  Before they even arrived home my wife suspected something was wrong because her mother, who was riding in the backseat, didn’t respond to a couple of questions.

Then when they reached her village in Quop, her mother, who was clutching one of her hands, had no sense of balance; it was as if she had suddenly gone limp.  While helping her out of the car, which she never had to do before, they both fell.  She was also speaking gibberish; my wife couldn’t understand anything that she was saying. With the help of her brother-in-law they took her to the hospital where they conducted several tests, including ct scans, cardiovascular tests, ex-rays, and blood samples.  After several hours she finally could speak normally again.  The doctors concluded she had a mild stroke, but it wasn’t severe enough to admit her.

The following evening my wife was chatting online to her cousin in Kapit; her cousin’s mother was on the phone talking to my wife’s mother at that very moment. My wife’s  mother was telling her cousin’s mother that she had been attacked by a spirit.  She said her hand suddenly started to hit her so she had to clutch it tightly to prevent it from hurting her. She was also trying to speak but the spirit wasn’t allowing her to speak.

Now before you start rolling your eyes, I asked my wife, where did her mother feel this ‘spirit’ came from, since she had been at our place. Our place, as far as I know, doesn't have any spirits.  I hope not.  As it turned out, late that afternoon, they had visited a sprawling nursery that sells flowers and plants.  The owner was telling my wife’s mother how she hurt herself.  She said she was out back when a spirit shoved her from behind.  She said no one else was around.  She insisted she didn’t slip or fall; she was shoved, and when she landed, she broke her wrist. 

After buying some plants, leaving some in the trunk to take back to Quop, they came back to our place, had dinner, and my wife drove her home. By then, she was not looking herself, as if she had been wiped out.  I just assumed that she was tired since she's in her late 60's.  Did this spirit follow her from the nursery?  Did it enter her body?  Then before they even reached her place, just a few kilometers away, she had this “stroke”.

Was it a stoke or did a spirit disturb her?  Or was it a combination of both?  After hearing of this other "encounter" at the nursery, and being highly susceptible herself because of her beliefs that these spirits really do exist, had she worried herself  into a stroke? Again, this is all about your perspective on a different culture.  My wife’s cousin’s mother, by the way, does have some experience in this area. She has a son who was found trying to strangle himself by a huge split boulder not far from my wife’s family home, close to St James church, the oldest Anglican church in Southeast Asia, and the adjacent graveyard.  Spirits have been sighted by that split boulder; people still go there to seek four-digit numbers.  Her son was taken to a bomoh, a witch doctor/healer, before he was taken to a doctor. The family and relatives concluded he had been possessed.  Why else would he try to strangle himself?  The doctors, called it a seizure. After that incident, he has never been the same, in and out of trouble.

Whether you believe in spirits or not is not the point.  If you are familiar with the Bible, and you take that as the word of God or as the truth, well there is ample evidence in the Bible where demons and spirits were driven out of people in order to heal them.  The Chinese here celebrate the Month of the Hungry Ghosts. There are two sides to every story; even doctors don’t always agree.  Again, it’s a matter of perspective from a different culture.  Learn from it, or dismiss it.  As a writer, as a person who has common sense, it’s your choice.  

As a follow up to this, while I gather more facts/opinions by interviewing her mother when she has fully recovered, I’ll relate my own personal encounter with a spirit in her mother’s house that took place 14 years ago.  Up until then, I had off-handedly dismissed such stories.  You can be the judge.  Again, I live in Borneo and many people have been violently killed here, on headhunting raids.  170 years ago Quop was nearly wiped out in one such raid by the Saribas and Skrang Ibans.

Here is the link for Part II, the Shadow Spirit.

***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.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

“The Watcher” Revisited for Chap Goh Meh

Since this is Chap Goh Meh, which represents the fifteenth and final day of the Lunar New Year period and first full moon of the New Year as celebrated by Chinese migrant communities, I thought I’d post my only Chinese New Year story, “The Watcher” which I just rewrote, while revising all of the Lovers and Strangers Revisited stories for the French translation, changing it from the past to present tense.

The story has also been on my mind for the last two weeks since every evening here in Borneo we have been hearing firecrackers.  My six-year-old son Jason asked me why, unlike our neighbors, we don’t have any lanterns up and why visitors don’t come to our house.  “We’re not Chinese,” I told him.  (His best friend, Jun Han, who lives across from us, asked his father the same thing when he saw our Christmas tree last Christmas.)  Then a couple of days ago, another Chinese neighbor gave our boys some sparklers to play with, their first. Watching their terrified and delightful expressions sent me back 25 years to my first Chinese New Year, which triggered the writing of this story.

Robert Raymer
          Yeoh stares at the surrounding hills of Penang as if searching for a way to escape.  The pervasive stench of incense and charred gunpowder are every­where.  He can even taste the bitter dryness on his lips.  A soft scraping sound catches his attention.  Two palm-size red envelopes are stubbornly being pushed along the concrete drive­way by a persistent breeze.
          Sitting on an old wooden bench in front of his granddaughter’s terrace house, Yeoh coughs and spits and grinds out his cigarette.  He lights another just as the sky erupts into brilliant hues of red, pink and orange, as if illuminated by a gigantic torch.  The colors grow in intensity before gently fading into the soft darkness of dusk, the first evening of the Chinese New Year.
          Across the street, the four Ong children scamper out of their white-stuccoed, red-tiled terrace house.  Laughing and shoving one another, they hurry to the gate, unlock it, and dash between two parked cars.  A passing motorist honks them back nearer to the curb.  One after the other, the children light and toss firecrackers into the street.  The others jump and shout with glee.  So do several Malay and Indian children who react vicariously as they peer through their respective locked gates.
          While backing away from a series of explosions, a toddler from the Lim family next door stumbles and falls.  He lets out a piercing wail.  The other Lim children, too engrossed in setting off their own fireworks, don’t take notice.  Yeoh glares at the child as if willing him to stop his wailing.  The child’s older sister finally picks him up and deposits him inside their house.  She rushes back to the gate and reclaims her position.
          A firecracker explodes beneath Yeoh’s mailbox attached to the front gate.  His eyes, mere slits amid folds of skin, burst open.
          “Hey!  Hey!  Stop that!  Stop that!” he shouts, frantically waving his hands at the Ong children.
They pay him no attention.  The next-in-line Ong tosses another firecracker, and it too lands in front of the mailbox.
          “I said stop that!  Stop that!”
          The Ong children huddle together and whisper among themselves.  Occasion­al­ly they glance his way.
          Yeoh’s granddaughter, Li Lian, appears at the door.
          “Grandpa, let them be.  They are playing.  It’s Chinese New Year,” she says.  “Come inside.  Su Ling and Lee will be here soon.”
          Yeoh grunts, but stays put.  He wants to keep an eye on the Ong children.  He knows exactly what they’re up to.  They’re mocking him.  Always they call him names when they think he can’t hear them.  They say his eyes are like the sun and moon combined—nothing escapes them.  And that he reigns over the street, night and day, like an undying emperor who refuses to relinquish his power.  They even have a special name for him.  They call him “The One Who Watches, or The Watcher.”
          Li Lian pushes back her long black hair and sighs as she withdraws into the house.  In her place, her husband, Khoo, stands at the doorway picking his teeth with his pinky nail that he has let grow to nearly an inch.  When he notices Yeoh looking at him, his chubby face breaks into a grin.
          “I tell you, this year is going to be a prosperous one.  I can feel it in the air.”
          Yeoh does not reply.  To him, this year will be like last year, and the year before, and the year before that.  Every year is the same.  There is nothing for him to do except to sit on the bench and watch.  The Ongs interrupts his thoughts by lighting three packets of fire­crackers strung together.  The firecrackers explode in rapid succession, sounding like machinegun fire, while the strands bounce up and down off the pavement as if performing a miniature lion dance.
          Khoo chuckles with approval.  “Wasn’t that something?”
          Yeoh coughs and spits.  No matter how loud the firecrackers sound, they can never compete with Japanese bombs.  He heard those bombs.  He saw them, too.  He turns his attention back to the hills as his gaze begins to mist.  When the Japanese came, he and his family were forced to flee the soldiers and hide in those very hills.  Food was scarce then, and his two sons died before they learned how to walk.  Only their older sister, Li Lian’s and Su Ling’s mother survived.  With the promise of jobs, the Japanese lured Yeoh and an uncle to Thailand, only to be put to work on the infamous death railway.  His uncle died of dysentery, and it nearly claimed him, too.  In his mind’s eye, he can see the young man he used to be, now a distant stranger who’s watching him like everyone else, it seems, and waiting for his life to end.  He glances back at Khoo, but Khoo is no longer standing in the doorway.

          A car pulls up in front of the house.  Lee’s thin, pockmarked face glistens beneath the streetlight.  He flashes a toothy smile and calls from the window, “Grand­father, you sleeping again?”
          His wife, Su Ling, waves as their three children cry out, “Gong Xi Fa Cai!  Gong Xi Fa Cai!
          Two of Lee’s children rush past him, eager to join the two Khoo boys inside the house.  Lee shakes hands with Yeoh.  The youngest child, Andrew, clings to his father’s leg like a scared puppy.  He accompanies his father into the house, but before he disappears inside, he casts another look, a look of innocence, back at Yeoh.
          Su Ling crouches down beside Yeoh and wishes him a happy new year.  Her short black hair sways like curtains as she shakes her head.
          “Grandpa, are you in a foul mood again?”  Again she shakes her head, her hair swaying back and forth.  “Andrew has been asking about you.  Please try not to frighten him this time with any more of your ghost stories.  He had nightmares for a week.”
          Moments after Su Ling enters the house, Li Lian steps out and hands Yeoh three red envelopes.  He stuffs them into his shirt pocket.
          “Try to pretend you enjoy giving these,” she urges.  “It means a lot to the children.”
          Yeoh gazes at the golden lotus flower imprint on the envelopes.  He thinks of his two sons who died.  They would’ve been grateful just to have a bite to eat.  He checks the progress of the empty ang pows that he gave to the two Khoo children earlier.  They’re still being pushed by the breeze along the driveway.  One hovers at the edge of the grass, while the other is almost to the gate.
          Three houses away, the Ng children cheer as their father launches a mini fireball.  All along the street, Chinese children emerge from their houses, carrying fistfuls of sparklers, fire­crackers and other fireworks; some sophisticated enough to be sent careening over the red-tiled roofs of terrace houses into a neighboring row.
          Parents assist the younger children and teach them how to light the firecrackers and how to throw them quickly by flicking their wrists.  Occasionally, a firecracker is dropped unlit, or explodes inches away from a child’s hand.  Cars passing through the gauntlet of fireworks wisely keep their windows up, while others are forced to honk and brake to avoid hitting a straying child.
          “Go outside,” Li Lian urges Lee’s three children, “Great Grandfather has some­thing for you.”
          Andrew lags behind, pausing at the door, as his brothers race outside with their hands extended, calling, “Ang pow!  Ang pow!”
          Yeoh takes his time and begrudgingly hands over two of the red envelopes, one to each.
          The boys remove the crisp ringgit notes and toss the empty envelopes onto the pave­ment.  They dash into the house calling for firecrackers, and then hurry back out, led by the two Khoo boys.  The last boy nearly knocks over Andrew, who remains standing at the entrance.  Both sets of parents reprimand the boys for running.
          Moments later, Lee squats down beside Andrew, who’s leaning against the door.  He places several sparklers into his hand.  He turns to Yeoh and says, “You wouldn’t mind helping him, would you?”
          Su Ling crouches down beside her husband and says to Andrew, “You want Great Grandpa to help you, don’t you?”  She smiles at Yeoh.  “On the way over, you were all he talked about.  Do you mind?  It will be good for both of you.”
          “Sure it will,” Lee says, and hands Yeoh a lit candle to help light the sparklers.
          Lee and Su Ling go inside and leave Yeoh alone with the boy.  Yeoh glares at the boy who cowers further into the door.  The two regard one another with mutual suspicion.  Yeoh grinds out the last of his cigarette and waves the boy to come closer so he can get a better look at him.  He stuffs the last ang pow into Andrew’s pocket.
          Shouts of joy ring out from Andrew’s brothers and cousins as they launch a round of fire­crackers.  The Ong children wave at them from across the street and invite them over.  In their haste to join them, the boys leave their gate ajar.
          Yeoh grunts to his feet and snatches the sparklers from Andrew’s hands.  He studies the sparklers as if they were a lost artifact, a key to a long forgotten child­­hood memory, a mystical time and place that he thought never, truly existed.  Using the candle, he lights one of the sparklers.  His eyes open wide as sparks spring into the night.  He hesitates, unsure of what to do next.  He flicks it and a bright line appears, only to evaporate.  He flicks it again.  And again.  He makes circles and squares and figure eights.  He marvels at their fiery paths.  When the sparkler fizzles out, Andrew looks up at him with full-moon expectant eyes.
          Embarrassed that the boy has been observing him, Yeoh lights another sparkler and hands it to the boy.  He also lights another for himself.  This time, he writes several Chinese characters in the air.  After the sparkler dies out, he lights two more; and two more after that.  Each time, he loses himself in his fiery creations.
          Andrew’s brothers call Andrew from across the street, wanting him to join them.  Yeoh pays the boys no attention.  Once again, he raises the sparkler like a baton and orchestrates the night.
          He’s about to light another set of sparklers when he realizes the child is no longer beside him.  He looks around and notices that the gate has been left open.  He spots Andrew standing between two parked cars, about to cross the street.  Coming down the road, its headlights glaring, a car approaches a little too fast.
          Fearing for the child’s safety, Yeoh calls after the boy.  He drops the sparklers and the candle and hurries to the gate.   He calls again, louder.  Only a faint moan comes out of his mouth.
          Fireworks continue to explode all along the street as Yeoh presses his hands to his chest to ease the silent explosion within.  Still moving towards the gate, he falters and collapses onto the concrete driveway, inches away from one of the discarded red envelopes. 
          He doesn’t see Andrew circling around him, nor does he hear the child calling, “Great Grandpa?  Great Grandpa?”
          Lying still, Yeoh feels oddly comfortable, as if he’s floating. . . . In his mind’s eye, all he can see are those beautiful hills of Penang.
#  #  #
*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, February 13, 2011

My Copy of Spirit of Malaysia Has Arrived with an Added Surprise!

Spirit of Malaysia  (Editions Didier Millet, 2011) just arrived at my house in Borneo!  Finally I get to see all of those 150 stunning photos in color in book form.  While working on the project, I had them available on the computer so I could describe them for the photo captions.  My two mock copies that I worked from, one with pseudo Latin text for layout and spacing purposes, and the final version to edit were both in black and white (no color printer at home).  I had forgotten how great those photos were. 

Again, I can’t take credit for them—the photo credits are all listed on the last page.  For a sneak peek, see the link below!  The photos were chosen by Editions Didier Millet even before I was brought on board to write the text.  I was just glad for the opportunity to help out, though initially a challenge for me to relearn Malaysia after 25 years of living here—so much has changed, so many news things to discover! 

Deadlines and a signed contract, by the way, are powerful motivators.  Without them, many books would never get written!


To think of the spirit of Malaysia is to conjure up images of celebration and festivity, a sweeping panorama of kampongs to longhouses, temples and mosques, sleepy provincial towns and modern cities.  A fascinating fusion of tradition and modernity is set amidst a tropical backdrop of lush rainforest, languid rivers and stunning beaches.  Here too are to be found an alluring mix of peoples, religions, customs, architecture and experiences—with Malays, Chinese, Indian, European, Arab, Thai, and indigenous influences blending to create a truly unique nation, rich in culture and heritage.

Table of Contents

            History and heritage
            People and cultures
            Food glorious food
            Geography and economy
            Getty Around

Kuala Lumpur
Langkawi and Penang
Johor and Negri Sembilan
Northwest Mainland
East Coast
Sabah and Sarawak

And for the added surprise, a cool sampling of the photos and turning those pages check this out.  If you've never done this before, put your cursor at the bottom right corner to turn the pages and drag it from right to left.  After a few tries you’ll get the hang of it.  You can also click on it and other places, too.  Just try it and have fun.  This was a first for me, too.  My first entry into the e-book world.  Now I see what the fuss is all about – how they’re making it more like a real book experience.   

Of course, I still prefer the book I just got in the mail today.  This is something I can sink my teeth into! Then there's that new book smell. And the photos are much better!

* Here's also the first review.
**Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited, my collection of short stories set in Malaysia.
***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.