I learned firsthand when my neighbor committed suicide (the neighbor who inspired my short story “Neighbours” that featured the gossip Mrs. Koh (“Are You Mrs. Koh?”): When someone dies, people will ask how did they die? When someone commits suicide, people will tell you why they died…
After discovering an unpleasant mess with my old website that sent all of my blog links to the story astray (to put it mildly), I re-posted the story and re-linked it to various blogs going back ten years…. While doing so, I got to thinking about “Neighbours”, why I wrote it and why I chose to focus on that aspect of the story and not the whole story. I first touched upon this in an old blog (later published in Tropical Affairs) that I wrote soon after “Neighbors” (using the American spelling) had been accepted for publication in the American literary journal Thema — twenty years after I first wrote the story for a Malaysian contest. The story, from Lovers and Strangers Revisited, was then taught for six years (2008-2014) in SPM literature and in various private colleges and universities throughout Malaysia, and translated into French along with the rest of the collection.
Writing, I used to tell my students, is about making choices. If you choose wisely you might surprise yourself with the story you end up with. For example in “Neighbors”, I could’ve written a nonfiction narrative or a different story starting with my hearing some groans coming from my neighbor’s house, two doors away. When I investigated, I found an elderly Chinese man lying helpless on the couch. His door was locked, yet in between moaning he managed to tell me that the keys were by the sink, which I was able to obtain by reaching through the grille at the kitchen window. With the help of another Chinese neighbor (whose wife was pregnant and very upset that he was getting involved), we took him to the General Hospital.
I could’ve written about the hospital’s reaction to me, a young white man attending to this elderly Chinese man who was dying, their giving me strange looks as I wrote in my journal, trying to get all the details and my impressions while they were still fresh — the writer part of me at work; and then my anger at the doctors and nurses who seemed indifferent about my neighbor’s plight. He was dying and no one wanted to help!
Since the doctors didn’t know what poison he had taken, I volunteered to go back to his house. Although I often chatted with this neighbor across the gate or his fence, I had never ventured inside his house. I could’ve written about the eerie feeling I had wandering inside this empty house where a man had just tried to kill himself. Upstairs I located two glasses of beer and some green liquid, which I took to the hospital.
Since this was in the mid-80s before CSI, the doctors wanted me to go back to the house once more to find out what the green stuff was. So back I went and eventually found, hidden behind a partition, a bottle of the weed killer, Paraquat. By then there was nothing the doctors could do, so I stayed with this man for several hours at the hospital, while we tried, without success, to contact his family. I didn’t want him to die alone like another expat that I wrote about who had died alone in a faraway land.
I could’ve written about my attending the three-day Chinese (Teochew) funeral held outside their house, which was very lively and noisy and attracted a lot of attention from the other Chinese neighbors. When it was over, I was invited back to the house and given a gift, a token of appreciation for what I had done for this family.
The family, however, refused to live in the house anymore because of this suicide. Months later, another family had moved in, but they kept hearing mysterious noises — like someone walking around upstairs in the master bedroom — and it was scaring the children. The family didn’t know about the suicide until after they had decided to leave. Malaysians, particularly the Chinese, take ghosts and spirits very seriously.
None of this mattered to the story that I wanted to write. For me the story began when I returned from the hospital to the man’s house and found several neighbors gossiping.
I was fascinated by all of the comments the neighbors made, the wild speculations about the family and why the man had taken his life. Some of the things they had said were mean and spiteful. Later, when the man’s wife and daughter returned home, the neighbors quickly dispersed; they refused to inform them about the man’s death. Even though I was the newest neighbor and an expat, I had to bear the bad tidings alone.
This was the story that fascinated me. The story I wanted to tell was not a first person narrative of my finding this man and all that took place that day (although I could still write about it since it’s in my journal as either non-fiction or incorporate it into another story or as part of a novel — it’s all there to be used, grist for the mill as writers often say).
Instead, I chose to write about the neighbors themselves and what they said about this family in the aftermath of the suicide. In fact ‘Aftermath’ was the original title when it was first published in Singapore and Australia and in Lovers and Strangers (Heinemann Asia, 1993). Again thanks to my journal, all the details were there, still fresh, including those that had completely slipped my memory after several years had already passed, one of the reasons I urged my writing students to keep a diary/journal.
Another choice I made was to leave me, as a character, out of the story. I felt it would be better without a Westerner or a mat salleh in it. I wanted the dialogue to be natural, spontaneous, and an expat present would alter the dynamics of the group, including the dialogue. Also I wanted to shift the sympathy to this man and his family — even after hearing many bad things about them.
I purposely wrote the story in a neutral tone with the viewpoint of an observer, to avoid racial bias, so no one race in this multi-racial society is talking down to another. Yet, at the same time, all Malaysians should be able to identify with these characters. They could be your very own neighbor or a relative, hopefully distant....I wanted to make the story universal, so readers around the world could relate to the characters and also learn about Malaysia, where different races freely mix and socialize, and yes, gossip.
When writing your story, whether it is based on a true dramatic incident or nor, or whether it is fiction or nonfiction, ask yourself, do you want to write the whole story or just one aspect of that story? Consider your choices carefully. I did and thirty years later the story keeps paying off in unforeseen ways.
Then again, it is always hard to keep a good story down, especially when it involves a suicide and neighbors gossiping. At times, we all love a good gossip. Just ask Mrs. Koh.
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Later I had blogged about the significant changes that I made in *“Neighbours” that led to its initial publication, and the subsequent revisions for publications overseas and in various book form (three publishers and a French translation), which I noted in the series The Story Behind the Story, used by teachers as an aide for their students. MELTA (Malaysia English Language Teaching Association) had even created an on-line discussion for “Neighbours” for students and teachers on their literature forum, which had over 20,500 hits and 30 pages of comments about the story and Mrs. Koh before it was archived and later take down.
*The link to the short story “Neighbours” is the revised version, written in the present tense, after the French translation of Lovers and Strangers Revisited came out.
—Borneo Expat Writer