Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Family Stories -- the Good and the Bad

My grandfather on my father’s side was killed by lightning at age 32 when my father was ten years old.  My grandfather on my mother’s side molested my mother when she was thirteen.  I never knew this until I was in my thirties.  I wrote about it in the short story “Waiting for My Father to Crash”, a story I mentioned in yesterday's blog about my father nearly crashing a plane.

When one of my students (from Africa though studying in Malaysia) read that story she had a confession.  She too had been molested as a child but she had never told anyone about it, not even her parents, and she asked me for advice. I felt humbled. This was my story about my parents, about the events that led to their divorce, and yet it had a powerful affect on my student from a whole different culture.  By chance, I happened to know this student’s father, and I advised her to talk to her parents.  As a parent, I would think they would want to know.  I would want to know if anything bad happened to my children so I could be there to help them overcome the pain.  I know my mother always had a distrust for men.  Nevertheless, as a single mother for several years, she did a remarkable job raising her children.

When my father was in his sixties I asked him to describe what happened that day when he came upon his father, dead.  His father was in horse drawn wagon with his two daughters, when lightning killed him.  It didn’t harm the children but it knocked down the two horses.  My father was in the fields trying to bring in the cows, but the cows refused to budge because of the lightning as if they knew something bad was about to happen.  So my father ran down the lane to tell his father about the cows, and that’s where he found his father, lying in the lane, thrown from the wagon. The two horses still lying on the ground.  His two elder sisters had already run in the opposite direction to tell their mother what just happened.  When my father told me this story he became this frightened ten year old boy again. 

When I came home from Malaysia for the first time after having been away for three years, I was already in my early thirties, close to the age of my grandfather when he was killed by lightning.  Being so far away from home, I now wanted to hear these family stories from my parents, the good and the bad, while they both were still alive.  I spoke to other relatives, too, and more truths came out, truths that left me numb. I wrote them all down in my journal while they were fresh, so I wouldn’t forget.

Other truths made me laugh, like hearing my grandmother on my mother side telling me about her playing basketball in high school and college—this was back in the twenties.  She went to college but neither of my parents did.  She remarried after my grandfather ran off with a college girl when my mother was a toddler.  The second marriage lasted over fifty years.  My father, after the divorce, later remarried and is now closing in on his fiftieth anniversary, too. 

Sometimes people make bad choices early in their lives.  Sometimes tragedies happen.  Crimes, too.  But these are our lives, and these are our family stories.  It’s up to the writer to choose how to write about them.  Even the most painful of stories may bring about a happy ending for someone else, like my student who is now happily married and raising her own family back in Africa. 

She has also published her first short story, a different family story, that she wrote and work-shopped in my creative writing class.  Writing can be the start of the healing process for all of us.  It’s therapeutic.  What family stories do you have?  What stories do you need to write about?
            —Robert Raymer, Borneo Expat Writer

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 


sintaicharles said...

Thank you for the sharing. My heart goes out to your student and your family members. Ya, you're right. Writing about painful experiences is therapeutic. A cousin of mine ever told me about it.I will try writing about those of my family.

Borneo Expat Writer said...

Sintaicharles, Thanks. Some of my most important stories, those that seem to resonate with readers, have been based on families, often involving incest or molestation, or being pressured into doing something that they don't want to do.

I often change the point of view, descriptions and names of people, the setting as I craft it into fiction. Often when writing about something troubling I find answers in unexpected ways.

Moments after posting this, a friend on facebook contacted me about her own confession, an incident involving an uncle when she was a child. My reply was that these encounters are a lot more common than we'd like to admit.

I've even had male students writing about being molested by their older male cousins. Often it's relatives that inflict the most damage since they had access to children during family gatherings and sleepovers, either through bullying them into submission or threathening to harm others in the family, a younger sibling, if they don't.

tonyam said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Borneo Expat Writer said...

Hi, thanks for pointing this out! I already made some revisions! By the way, a couple of people have contacted me personally about this (from the blog and the short story), thanking me because for the first time in their lives, they felt they could open up about their own hurt feelings having been put into a similar position as children. After all those years, they have begun the healing process. How many others have benefited personally, I do not know.

I know I did, through the act of writing the story, after piecing together bits and pieces, after sitting down and talking with all those involved, at least six relatives, not including my grandfather, but we did meet with him before he passed away.

Like all family stories, it was not easy to talk about, nor write about. But if others can benefit, and it helps them in their lives...

It's a moral judgment, I know that. There are no right answers. I do know for a fact, verified by at least four people, that my grandmother never believed my mother, and I feel this is also a crime, but that was common back in those days when family matters were never discussed so openly. She was not there for her own daughter and that bothered me, and I loved my grandmother dearly....Just be there for your children, and I hope to be here for mine. And let's pray, that our children never have to go through what our mother did. Bless you.

Btw, here’s my contact: