Friday, January 18, 2019

Neighbors: A Suicide and Making Choices or How to Turn Your Story into the Right Story

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 Thematwenty 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.
                                                            #  #  #

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

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

"Neighbours" by Robert Raymer

          “I suppose there’s a mess in the back seat,” Mrs. Koh says, her face flushed, her arms crossed as she stands in front of Johnny Leong’s terrace house.  She shakes her head and waits impatiently for Koh and Tan to get out of the car.  “You just had to volunteer our new car, didn’t you?  Why didn’t you borrow someone else’s car like I told you, or wait for an ambu­­lance?  Now it’s ruined.  Ruined!”
          Koh doesn’t bother to respond.  He stretches and then rubs his aching back.  His attention is drawn to the mournful sound of someone playing the saxophone.
          Koh and Tan are Johnny’s immediate neighbors.  The Koh’s terrace house is on the left, while Tan, a bachelor, lives on the right.  The medium-income housing area is new, less than two years old.  Malays, Chinese and Indians live together in relative harmony – a mini Malay­sia.  The streets are narrow, though, and there are no sidewalks to walk on; because of the un­­cov­ered mon­soon drains, neighbors have to walk in the street and chat there, too, moving aside to let an occasional car pass.
          Across the street, Miss Chee, a secondary school teacher, unlocks her gate and lets out her white Pomeranian Spitz.  Miss Chee is tall and thin with short black hair and razor-sharp bangs.  Upon noticing Mr. and Mrs. Koh standing in front of Leong’s gate, she waves and crosses the street to join them.  She’s halfway there when she realizes that Tan, the new math teacher at Penang Free School, is with them.  She blushes, but it’s too late to turn back or he may think she’s avoiding him or being rude.
          Mrs. Koh is bent over peering through the side window of the car.  She doesn’t see any mess, though she’s convinced the evidence is just waiting for her to find.  She looks up in time to see Miss Chee approaching.  Before anyone else has a chance to speak, Mrs. Koh blurts out, “Hear about Johnny?”
          Taken aback, Miss Chee asks a bit nervously, “Were he and Veronica fighting again?”
          Mrs. Koh’s beady eyes light up like shiny new coins.  “Did you hear them fighting this morning?”  She turns to her husband with an I-told-you-so look on her face.
          “Wait a minute, were they fighting?” Tan asks, glancing at Koh.
          “No, they weren’t fighting,” Koh says, glaring at his wife.  “I told you that already.  I was outside all morning, and I would’ve heard them.”
          “I didn’t think so,” Tan says, adjusting his glasses.  “When Veronica and Lily passed by my house, they both seemed fine.  In fact, they smiled and waved like they usually do.”
          Mrs. Koh twitches her nose.  “Veronica didn’t say where they were going, did she?  Gambling, that’s where!  Every Sunday she plays mahjong and I’m sure she’s in debt!”  She pauses to catch their surprised reaction.  To prove her point, she adds, “She once tried to bor­row money from Koh.”
          “She only wanted five ringgit-lah, to buy some vegetables,” Koh says, shaking his head.  “She didn’t have time to go to the bank.”
          “You’re not her bank either, otherwise she’d be borrowing from you all the time,” Mrs. Koh says.  “Thank heavens you didn’t give her any.”
          “You wouldn’t let me,” he says, “and she’s our neighbor!”
          “It’s bad enough she’s always collecting advance money for her catering, and now that Johnny’s dead–”
          Miss Chee’s mouth drops open.  “Dead?”
          “He’s not dead yet,” Koh says to his wife.  “He’s still breathing.”
          “Dead?  Still breathing?”  Miss Chee’s mouth goes slack as she looks from Koh to Tan for some answers.
          “He’s as good as dead,” snaps Mrs. Koh.
          “I don’t understand,” Miss Chee gasps in frustration.  “Who?  Who are you talking about?  Johnny?  Is he all right?”
          “All right?  He’s all wrong,” Mrs. Koh says.  “Him and his whole family!”
          “Johnny tried to commit suicide this morning,” Koh says to Miss Chee.
          Wah!  But why?”
          “Because Veronica ran up all those gambling debts!” Mrs. Koh says.
          Koh glowers at his wife and says, “We don’t know that.  We do know he drank weed-killer.  He was drinking it with his beer.”
          Mrs. Koh plants her hands squarely on her hips.  “Drinking!  That’s all that man ever did – sit around and drink.  And that – that Veronica!  The way she lets that daughter of hers run around like some tramp!”
          Miss Chee’s eyes open wide.  “Lily?  She’s an all-A student.”  She leans toward Tan and says in a low voice, “Lily is my best student.”
          Tan nods and smiles at her politely.  Again he adjusts his glasses even though they are fine.
          Miss Chee hesitates, but then she asks Tan, “What time did you find Johnny?”
          “Just before noon,” Koh replies.  “Isn’t that right, Tan?”
          “Yes, about noon.”
          Mrs. Koh nods.  “Koh told me he heard Johnny groaning one hour after Veronica took Lily gambling.  I just happened to look at my watch when they passed by.”
          “I didn’t hear the groaning until after Tan called me from his gate,” Koh says, adding a salute to Tan.  “If it wasn’t for Tan, Johnny might already be dead.”
          “And you had to put him in our brand new car!” Mrs. Koh says.  “Just imagine if he died there.  All the bad luck it’d bring, and with the New Year around the corner!  We’d have to sell it, and it’s not even two months old!”

          Dr. Nathan, an Indian dentist who lives next door to Miss Chee, waves at them as he slows down his car.  He stops in front of his gate, gets out and un­locks it before driving in­side.  Again he smiles and waves and crosses the street to join them.  He extends his hand to Koh, one of his patients.
          “A fine Sunday afternoon,” Nathan says.
          “Not for Johnny,” Mrs. Koh replies, “he’s dead.”
          “He’s not dead yet,” Koh says, and shakes Nathan’s hand.  “Tan and I just took Johnny to the General Hospital.  He tried to commit suicide by drinking Paraquat.  We managed to contact his son, and he’s over there now.  Veronica and Lily haven’t been told yet.  We don’t know how to contact them.”
          “For heaven’s sake,” Nathan says, and looks as if he just pulled the wrong tooth.  “I never realized.  Just last New Year – yes, it was just last New Year Johnny had that party and every­one was there, having a grand time.”
          “Especially Koh,” Mrs. Koh says, eyeing him.  “He was so drunk I had to drag him home.”
          “I was not drunk – just celebrating.”
          “Celebrating, ha!  That’s what you call it!  You had a hangover and missed work for two days!”
          “I was on annual leave,” Koh corrects.
          “Same thing.  You missed work!”
          Nathan rubs his balding head and asks, “Who found Johnny?”
          Miss Chee nods at Tan and says, “Mr. Tan did.  He heard Johnny groaning.”
          “I can’t take all the credit, Miss Chee.  Your name is Miss Chee, am I correct?”
          “Why yes, it is,” Miss Chee replies, her smile widening.  “My friends call me Alice.”
          “My friends and my patients call me Nathan,” Nathan says, and offers his hand to Tan. 
          Tan introduces himself.
          “Anyway, it was Koh who was the first one inside the house,” Tan said.  “He called the ambulance, too.”
           “But we decided not to wait,” Koh says.  “The hospital kept asking all these foolish questions that we couldn’t answer, so we took him in ourselves.”
          “In our BRAND NEW CAR!” adds Mrs. Koh.
          “Really?  You have a new car, I never realized,” Nathan says.  “I remember my first new car, a Proton Saga – the very year it came out, mind you.  Our national car.  We’ve cer­tainly come along way since Independence, haven’t we?”  Nathan’s smile over­flows with pride.  “Now Johnny, he was a good neighbor.  Yes, a good neighbor, even though he stills owes me for treatment.  Root canals aren’t cheap, you know.”
          “That reminds me,” Koh says, “my tooth has been hurting again.”
          “Oh, dear,” Nathan says.  “You mustn’t wait, or you could find yourself in a lot of pain.  That’s what happened to Johnny.  He waited until the pain was simply unbearable.” 
          “Should I call your office for an appointment or just drop by?”
          Two passing motorcycles drown out Nathan’s reply.
          Miss Chee’s dog barks and feigns a chase.  After a few frantic steps, it comes back to Miss Chee.
          “Ramli’s kids!” Mrs. Koh says, staring down the street after them.  “Race here, race there.  And last week I saw one of them teaching Lily how to ride.  I don’t know why Veron­ica lets her daughter – at that age – run around with boys.  I’d never let my daughter do that!  And today, of all days, she takes Lily gambling!”
          Nathan scratches his left ear.  “Oh dear, I never realized Veronica gambles.”
          Mrs. Koh is nodding.  “Every Sunday she goes to her cousin’s house in Air Itam.  That’s where she gambles!  Every Sunday!”
          “You told me you had no idea where Veronica went,” Koh says, annoyed, frowning at his wife.  “Johnny’s son was trying to reach her.”
          Mrs. Koh crosses her arms in defiance.  “It’s none of my business where she gambles!”
           “You should never gamble with your teeth,” Nathan says to Tan, and passes him a busi­ness card.  “If you ever need a reliable dentist, I live right across the street.  You can’t get more reliable than a neighbor.”
          Ramli, an elderly Malay who sells satay at the night markets, is walking down the mid­dle of the street in their direction.  His back is ramrod straight as he nods to Tan, one of his regular customers.
          “My eldest daughter tells me Johnny hasn’t been at school the past three days,” Ramli says.  “Then yesterday she saw him walking along the main road carrying a helmet without his motorcycle.  Imagine that!”
          Miss Chee asks Tan, in a low voice, “Is Johnny a teacher, too?”
          “No,” Tan replies, “he’s a janitor at my school.”
          “A dead janitor,” adds Mrs. Koh.
          “Dead?  Don’t talk about dead.  No joke-lah!” Ramli gazes from face to face as if he missed the punch line to a sick joke, though he’s hoping some­one will explain it to him.  “So, who’s dead?  Huh?”
          “Johnny, but he’s not quite dead – at least not yet,” Koh says.  “But he did try to kill himself by drinking Paraquat.”
          “Paraquat?  Ya Allah!”  Ramli’s dark brown eyes roll upwards toward heaven.
          “Koh heard him groaning around noon,” Mrs. Koh says.  “One hour after Veronica took Lily gambling.”
          “Wasn’t it Tan who heard the groaning?” asks Miss Chee.  She glances at Tan for con­firma­tion.
          Koh nods.  “That’s right.  If it wasn’t for Tan, Johnny might already be dead.”
          “It has to be about money-lah,” Ramli says to no one in particular.
          Everyone looks at him.
          “Why else would he sell his motorcycle?”
          “He’s right-lah,” Koh says.  “Why else?”
          “Unless he’s involved with a woman!” Mrs. Koh says.  “Wouldn’t surprise me!”
          Tan and Ramli glance at one another and shrug as if suggesting that it’s possible.
          “Gambling, drinking, womanizing – what a family!” Mrs. Koh says.
          “Now I’ll never get that root canal bill paid,” Nathan says, and grimaces.
          “I’m sure Johnny has some insurance somewhere,” Tan says, trying to be helpful. 
          Koh frowns as if he just found chewing gum stuck to the bottom of his shoe.
          “Well if he does, he didn’t buy it from me,” Koh says.  “I must’ve asked him a half dozen times.  What good did it do me?  And I’m his neighbor!”
          “So am I,” Ramli says.  “In fact, one of my sons offered to buy his motor­cycle for its license plate number for good money, too.  Now look at what he did, sold it to someone else.  A stranger!”
          Miss Chee watches her dog go back and forth across the street.  She sighs in exaspera­tion and says, “It’s a good thing Veronica has that catering business to fall back on, if worst comes to worst.”  She catches Tan’s gaze.  “Are you buying from her, too?”
          “Well, no, not yet,” Tan replies, “but I was thinking about it.”
          “It must be difficult living on your own like that.”
          “I’ve been living on my own for fifteen years,” Nathan says, “and I can cook, too.” 
          Miss Chee smiles politely.  “Now if Johnny doesn’t make it–”           
          “He won’t if he drank Paraquat,” Ramli says.  “That one’s a sure killer.”
          “Either way,” Miss Chee says, “I’m sure the good Lord will look after Veronica and Lily.”
          “Are they Christians?” Tan asks.
          “He has a Christian name, doesn’t he?” Mrs. Koh says.  “Veronica and Lily, too!”
          “Come to think of it, I don’t think they are,” Koh says, scratching his head.  “In fact, I think they’re Buddhists.  Or used to be.  With Johnny, you can never tell.  Besides, back in school many of us added Christian names but we weren’t Christian.  Even you did, long before you converted.”
          “That doesn’t make it right,” Mrs. Koh says.  “It’s misleading!”
          Tan says, “Unless I’m mistaken, Johnny once told me he was a free-thinker.”
          Koh laughs.  “That’s Johnny for you.  He liked everything free.”
          “You should know,” Mrs. Koh says, “you were always there drinking his free beer.”
          “You’re just jealous Johnny never asks you to come along.”
          “I wouldn’t go over there even if Johnny and Veronica begged me to.”
          Tan gazes at the round table not far from Johnny’s gate. 
          He clears his voice and says to Miss Chee, “We used to sit there and talk.  The very night I moved in – even though I was a total stranger – Johnny invited me over.  We must’ve sat up half the night philosophizing about everything under the sun.”  Guilt creeps into his eyes.  “Just last night I was over there.”
          “I saw you.”  Miss Chee blushes as Tan looks at her with surprise.  “I happened to glance down from my bedroom window.”
          Tan looks up at the window and then at Miss Chee. 
          “I think Johnny was just a lonely man,” Tan says.
          “You think he’s lonely?” Nathan says.  “My wife has been dead fifteen years.  Fifteen years!  Johnny can’t be lonely, not with a wife and daughter at home.  And his son comes visiting often enough.”
          “Johnny has a son?”  Ramli ponders this.  “I thought he only has a daughter.”
          “Danny’s his name,” Miss Chee says.  “He was one of my first students.  A bright student at that.”
          “Yes, we had a long talk at that New Year party,” Nathan says.  “Danny’s a good boy with a good job.”
          “Good boy, ha!” Mrs. Koh says.  “Ever since he became a big shot at the bank, he cer­tain­ly acts like one – living in town and wasting money paying extra rent.  What for?  A good boy would stay at home and help his father pay the bills, especially the way Veronica gam­bles and throws away money on Lily.  Always buying her the latest styles.”
          “At least Veronica works,” Koh says.
          Mrs. Koh twitches her nose.  “Her food isn’t much to talk about.  So bland!  And she’s always asking for advance money.  Why can’t her son give her some of his money?  Huh?”
          “I wish my elder two sons would settle down and find good jobs like that,” Ramli says.  “Before I was twenty, I had a job, a house and a wife!  Back in those days, boys had more res­ponsibilities.”
          “It sure would be nice if your sons stopped racing up and down the street,” Mrs. Koh says.  “The noise is deafening!”
          “See!  See!  That’s what happens when grown boys stay at home,” Ramli says, and raises his arms in surrender.  “They get restless!  Only a wife will settle them down.  A wife and a job will teach them some responsi­bil­ities.  If you ask me, Johnny had it too easy.  Too easy.  He has a working wife and only two children.  One living on his own like that.  Look at me, six of them, and a mother-in law at home who’s driving me crazy!  You don’t see me com­­mitting suicide, do you?”
          Mrs. Koh stares past Nathan’s shoulder to one of the houses further up the street. 
          “Who’s playing that – that thing, anyway?”
          “It’s a saxophone,” Koh says.  He fingers his mole hair and listens more closely.
          Mrs. Koh says, “People shouldn’t play those things unless they already know how!”
          “If he doesn’t practice,” Koh says, “how can he know how?  When I was a boy, I had an old trumpet and would practice all day.”
          Koh smiles to himself and closes his eyes, re­mem­ber­ing.
          Ramli strains his neck to see around the others.  “Here comes Veronica.” 
          All of them turn to look.
          Veronica and Lily are walking side by side, each carrying several plastic bags.
          Koh turns to his wife.  “Looks like they didn’t go gambling at all!  Just shop­ping.”
          Mrs. Koh twitches her nose in defiance.  She peers around their car to get a better look.
          Miss Chee asks, “Think she knows about Johnny?”
          Mrs. Koh shakes her head.  “I bet she was too busy spending all her money on that daugh­ter of hers to know anything.”
          “If you ask me,” Ramli says, “Johnny had it too easy.  Too easy.”
          “I hope they don’t move,” Miss Chee says.  “Lily is my best student.”
          “Don’t even mention it,” Nathan says, “or I’ll lose two more patients.”
          “Of course they’ll move,” Mrs. Koh says.  “Wouldn’t you move if your husband com­mits suicide in your own home?”
          “I’m not married,” Miss Chee replies, and glances at Tan.
          “Hey, what time is it?” Koh asks.  “There’s a football match I want to watch!”
          “Oh my, it’s nearly two,” Nathan says, glancing at the time.  “I haven’t had my lunch yet.  No wonder I feel hungry.”
          “Two?  Already?  I got to run-lah,” Koh says, and hurries next door.
          Tan asks, “Who’s going to tell Veronica?”
          Miss Chee looks down at her dog.  Ramli and Nathan both shrug as they return to their respective terrace houses.
          “Not me,” says Mrs. Koh, leaving before Veronica and Lily arrive at the gate.  “It’s none of my business.”
#  #  #
*I posted this to replace the older version from my previous website since it was no longer available and I had links to the story in a dozen "Neighbour" related blogs.  This is the revised version, after the French translation of Lovers and Strangers Revisited, in present tense.

**Neighbors:  A Suicide and Making Choices or How to Turn YourStory into the Right Story 

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

My interview with Chuah Guat Eng is in Blue Lotus 16

My interview with Chuah Guat Eng, author of Echoes of Silence and Days of Change, is in Blue Lotus 16, 2019, pages 8-25.  Originally I had blogged about our interview in October 2018. 

My other interviews with Preeta Samarasan, author of Evening is the Whole Day, was published in Blue Lotus 12, Ivy Ngeow, Cry of the Flying Rhino, in Blue Lotus 13 and Golda Mowe, author of Iban Dream and Iban Journey, in Blue Lotus 15 

Links to the other blog interviews with 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

—Borneo Expat Writer

Thursday, January 3, 2019

My interview with Golda Mowe is in Blue Lotus 15

My interview with Golda Mowe, author of Iban Dreams and Iban Journey, and the new sequel Iban Woman, is in Blue Lotus 15, 2018, pages 8-21.  Originally I had blogged about our interview in 2017.

My other interviews with Preeta Samarasan, author of Evening is the Whole Day, was published in Blue Lotus 12 and Ivy Ngeow, Cry of the Flying Rhino, in Blue Lotus 13.

Other interviews with first novelists include: 

Chuah Guat Eng,  author of Echoes of Silence and Days of Change. 

Along with

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

—Borneo Expat Writer

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

INTERVIEW CHUAH GUAT ENG: Robert Raymer Chats with Malaysian Author Chuah Guat Eng on Writing and Publishing her Novels

I first met Chuah Guat Eng, if I’m not mistaken, when Sharon Bakar invited both of us to read our respec­tive work at a Read­ing@Seksan event in Kuala Lumpur in 2009.  I had also picked up a signed copy of her first novel, Echoes of Silence (1994, 2008), which has the distinction of being the first novel writ­ten in English by a Malaysian woman.  Her second novel, Days of Change (2010), a sequel, made the long list for International Dublin Literary Award in 2012.  She is currently working on Whispers of Truth, her third novel that continues the series.

Guat Eng read English Literature at University of Malaya Kuala Lumpur, Ger­man Literature at Ludwig-Maximilian University Munich, Germany, and received a Ph.D. in 2008 from the Uni­versiti Kebangsaan Malaysia for her thesis, From Conflict to Insight: A Zen-based Reading Pro­cedure for the Analysis of Fiction.  She was a Post-doctoral Research Fellow at Uni­versiti Putra Malaysia from January 2011 to March 2013, focusing on Malaysian novels in English.  Currently she teaches part-time at Uni­ver­sity of Nottingham Malaysia and at the Faculty of Cinematic Arts, Multimedia University Johor on subjects related to literature and creative writing.

She has also published three collections of short stories, Tales from the Baram River (2001), The Old House and Other Stories (2008), and Dream Stuff (2014).

Praise for Echoes of Silence…
‘…an intellectual as well as a tender novel about love…entertaining...intelligent…well-crafted…’ – T. Dorall, New Straits Times

‘…more postmodern than at first appears…the most accomplished Malaysian novel to date, a new and cultured voice…’ – Jun Mo, Far Eastern Economic Review

“In March 1970, as a direct result of the May 1969 racial riots, I left Malaysia.”  Thus begins Echoes of Silence, the story of Lim Ai Lian, a Chinese Malaysian.  While studying in Ger­many, she falls in love with Michael Templeton, an English gentleman brought up in the district of Ulu Banir, where his father, Jonathan Templeton, owns a plantation.  While trying to solve a murder, Ai Lian, learns about racial prejudice, truth and deception, womanhood and love, and how past silences can echo into the present.

RR:  Your self-published novel Echoes of Silence is often cited as the first novel writ­ten in English by a Malaysian woman.  Since then there have been several others, including Preeta Samarasan’s Evening is the Whole Day and Bernice Chauly’s Once We Were There.

Self-publishing a novel nowadays, even via e-book, often makes financial sense for a num­ber of writers.  Some have even landed a tra­ditional publisher because of their self-pub­lish­ing success.  What made you decide to self-publish your first novel in 1994?  And your second novel in 2010?  What have you gained and what had you lost, if anything, in choos­ing to self-publish your work?

Guat Eng:  In 1994, I couldn’t find a single publisher based in Malaysia interested in publishing novels; all major publishers (e.g. Heinemann) had either shut down or severely curtailed their Malaysian operations, perhaps because of political unrest as well as the extremely restrictive Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984.  Of the UK and US publishers I approached, only two responded, one from each country.  Both wrote glowingly about the parts that have to do with the colonial past but couldn’t see the point of the parts about contemporary Malaysia.  Both suggested I rewrite the novel focusing only on the colonial past, the Japanese Occupation, and the Emergency.  Since I saw no point in writing that kind of novel, I chose to self-publish – not because I wanted to see my name in print, but because I already knew I was going to write a sequel and feared that if I didn’t have the first one printed and out of the way, I would be fiddling with it until Doomsday – like Mr. Casaubon in Middlemarch.

In 2001, I accepted an offer by a local, well-established publishing house to publish my col­lection of retold Sarawak animal stories, Tales from the Baram River.  It was such a bad experience – they gave me 10 complimentary copies and thereafter never responded to my queries about sales and royalties – that I’ve self-published all my fiction ever since. 

What have I gained?  Mainly peace of mind.  But also the joy of working on the production – discussing  fonts, layout, type of paper, and so on – with my choice of desktop artists and printers.  And the sense of achievement from successfully promoting and selling my books.

I don’t feel I’ve lost out on anything – at least, not anything that I care about, since I don’t write and publish for fame and fortune.  My books have generally received favourable reviews.  Sev­eral of them have been used as texts in universities, and my novels have been the subjects of academic papers.  In 2015, the National Library of Malaysia bought 500 copies of Dream Stuff for distribution to their district libraries.  Echoes of Silence is currently being translated by an Italian publisher for publication as an e-book to reach the Italian-speaking world.  Earlier this year, I’ve had to reprint Echoes of Silence and The Old House and Other Stories because they had sold out and people kept asking for them.  I am content.

RR:  Yes, having that control can be rather ideal, especially when your book goes out of print and the publisher is reluctant to print another edition or they get taken over by an­other publisher.  Heinemann Asia (Singapore), which had originally pub­lished my collection of short stories Lovers and Strangers, had been bought out twice in fairly short order and dropped their entire fiction line to concentrate on business-related books.

For both of your books did you work with an outside editor or rely on your own editing skills?

Guat Eng: I’ve always edited and proof-read my books myself.  Professor Quayum of the International Islamic University Malaysia offered to edit The Old House when it was first published; his only complaint was that I had left him nothing to do.  I can’t say I’ve ever wished I had used the services of an editor.  It sounds like arrogance, but it isn’t.  I just feel strongly that if the book gets a bad review or is universally disliked, I want to be able to hold myself – and no one else – accountable.

RR:  I hired an American editor to rip apart my first book Lovers and Strangers, long after it had been successfully published, when I had an oppor­tunity to revisit the stories for an­other publisher.  Like most writers, I have blind spots; also what may seem clear to a Malay­sian reader, might be confusing to someone who has never visited Malaysia.  A de­tailed critique made me reconsider adding another scene or a flashback or a back story or extending the story beyond the original ending – some stories doubled in length, which I blogged about in the series The Story Behind the Story.  My efforts were rewarded when it won the Popular Reader’s Choice Award and was translated into French.  Setting aside your ego to have someone critique your published work, let alone your first or second or third draft, is a humbling process.

Do you recommend that young Malay­sian writers or writers no matter their age consider self-publishing their fiction today, which seems more acceptable and common place than in the past?  A common lament is that most self-published books tend to lack rigorous (let alone) basic editing.  Other than, perhaps, work­ing with an editor (ideally one with suitable pub­lish­­ing experience, especially if you’re writing fiction), what else would you advise those wishing to self-publish in today’s market?
Guat Eng:  I wouldn’t recommend self-publishing to just anyone, least of all young writers. Self-publishing is essentially a business enterprise, and those who want to take that route should have some entrepreneurial experience, inclination and/or skills.  Anyone can get a book printed. The hard part is planning and managing its distribution, marketing, promotion, and sales – as every publisher knows.

RR:  My advice for seeking a local publisher in Malaysia or Singapore  is to make sure you know what you are getting into.  Google the publisher and also look for complaints; far too many writers think they have signed with a legitimate publisher but failed to read the fine print and had to fork over hefty fees and the editing was non-existent.  The whole exper­ience was horrible.  If you can’t find their books in a bookstore, that’s often a big clue.  Also make sure you understand the royalty structure, or you might end up with a handful of copies and nothing else other than excuses.  Ideally contact some of their published writers and ask, off the record, their experience.  If they’re getting a raw deal, they will tell you.  They may even recommend another publisher, one you hadn’t even con­sidered, based on the experience of their own writing friends, which led me to MPH and a two book deal.

How did you end up studying German Literature at Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich?  How has that experience of studying literature and living in another culture, one quite different from Malaysia, benefited you as a writer?  How long were you away?

Guat Eng:  I learned German as an undergraduate in University of Malaya Kuala Lumpur and at the Goethe Institute (GI) in my postgraduate years.  In 1970, I was given a GI scholarship to study for the Major Diploma in German Language and Culture in Germany, first in Murnau and then in Munich.  A few months after the sessions in Munich began, I got so bored that I (rather cheekily) asked the Director if I could attend lectures at the nearby university instead, but still sit for my GI diploma exam at the same time as my classmates.  To my surprise and undying gratitude, he arranged for me to get a DAAD (German Academic Exchange) scholarship.  For the rest of my three years in Germany, I attended lectures, seminars and tutorials on German litera­ture as a regular student of the prestigious Ludwig-Maximilian University, but was allowed to sit for and obtain the GI Major Diploma in German Language and Culture.

As a writer, the most obvious benefit of my stay in Germany is that I could use Munich as the setting for the beginning of the romance between Lim Ai Lian and Michael Templeton in Echoes of Silence.  It was, for me, the perfect setting.  Not only because I had firsthand knowledge of the places I mentioned; but, more importantly, because Munich is vital to a major theme embedded in the narration of their relationship; namely, the post-1969 non-Malay Malaysian’s feeling of disempowerment due to no longer being able to claim any place on earth as their homeland.  In Munich, where they are both strangers but where Ai Lian feels slightly superior because she has been there longer, her self-confidence allows her to be confident of Michael’s love for her. How­ever, in London and Ulu Banir, where Michael is at home but where she feels like an outsider, her loss of self-confidence causes her to question the sincerity of his love, his morals, and his trustworthiness as a human being. 

My immersion in German language, literature, literary traditions, art and music has benefited me as a writer in other, subtler and more profound, ways; as have my travels both within Germany and to other European countries.  Perhaps the most significant benefit is that I liberated myself from the Anglo-American influences that had coloured so much of my upbringing and earlier education.  I left Europe with a clearer, surer awareness of my historical and cultural identity as a Malaysian – an awareness that has influenced all my writing. 

RR:  All writers, ideally, should live overseas for an extended stay—a year or two, at least; you gain so much more perspec­tive about the world at large and about your own country.  You view it differently, for better or worse.  More importantly, you no longer take things for granted, and you often come away with a deeper understanding and better appreciation for your own roots.

You referenced ‘May 1969’….Your opening line in Echoes of Silence states matter-of-fact­ly, “In March 1970, as a direct result of the May 1969 racial riots, I left Malaysia.”  Yet it seemed to me that you wrote very little about it or how it had affected the main character or her family directly or indirectly other than her “leaving Malaysia”.  This was a water­shed moment, so even her returning to Malaysia should have been emotionally difficult, so I was expecting a flashback scene or a long reflection about what had actually happened to her or her family (or even a distant rela­tive)…

Guat Eng:  The whole novel is about the psychological impact of the May 1969 racial riots and its repercussions all the way down to 1994, when the main narrator begins her story….Those who have no memory or experience of life in Malaysia during and after May 1969 tend to imagine there was violence all over the country.  The truth – based on personal experience, various official accounts written after the event, as well as unofficial accounts gathered from friends and acquaintances who had personally witnessed the violence, or whose friends and acquaintances had fallen victim to it – is that the riots were concentrated in a few places, mainly in KL.  For the majority who lived outside the immediately affected areas (and even those who, like me, lived in KL at that time) the reality was first the shock of a total media blackout, and then the slow seepage of news about a curfew.  In short, we saw no violence, not even on TV. We learned about the violence and its inter-ethnic nature from hearsay.  And we were mainly concerned with how to overcome the everyday problems caused by the curfews, making sure we stored up enough food and never got caught out of doors during curfew hours.

You may ask why, since I was writing in 1994, I didn’t do the necessary research so that I could satisfy readers who want to see their imagined reality confirmed by fiction.  The simple answer is that I wasn’t interested in creating more imagined realities.  I was interested in recreating the “felt” reality of the psychological violence done to us by the “blanket of silence” (to use my main character’s phrase) cast over all of us:  not just the tightly controlled media but also the laws prohibiting gatherings of more than five people, the spreading of rumours, and the raising of “sensitive issues”.  The last prohibition was the most devastating; the term “sensitive issues” was never properly defined, which meant that no one could find closure because no one dared to speak about anything to do with the riots, race relations, and the fact that those responsible for the violence were never identified and brought to justice.

RR: During Operation Lalang in 1987, my ex-wife was a reporter for New Straits Times, so we were very aware of those restrictions, and how vague they were.  Anything could be mis­con­strued as racial bias or sensitive, even when writing about some­thing as innocent as hawker food in Penang.  If you happen to mention “Malay” and the word “pork” too close together, there you go…

Guat Eng:  As you may know, the post-1969 emergency laws were never repealed even after we returned to parliamentary rule and, starting with the curtailing of the autonomy of institutions of higher learning (Universities and Colleges Act 1974), the ensuing two decades saw a progressive tightening of pre-existing laws prohibiting and inhibiting freedom of speech and information, increasing episodes of repressive police action (e.g. Operation Lalang in 1987) against political opponents and the media, Constitutional amendments diminishing the check-and-balance power of the traditional rulers, and – to top it all – executive interventions in the justice processes that undermined the independence of the judiciary, all of which enabled the ruling party’s rampant acts of corruption to be hushed up.

Writing Echoes of Silence in 1994, the main questions I found myself asking were:  Why have we, the citizens of the country, accepted these further assaults on truth, justice, and rule of law since May 1969?  Is it because we have been psychologically impaired by the post-riot blanket of silence that denied us the means to find closure?  Is it because of the perceptions of authority we have inherited from our pre-colonial and colonial past?  Or is it our various cultures and our individual psychology that make us willing to accept and even actively contribute to the silences – the misinformation, disinformation, and the withholding of information – that frustrate the quest for truth and justice?  And what are the psychological effects of being party, voluntary or otherwise, to this stifling of truth and this extinguishing of the healing light of justice?

Given the multiplicity of punitive laws (e.g. the Sedition Act and the Internal Security Act) against freedom of thought, speech, and publications in 1994, I couldn’t have written openly and directly about such issues.  So I made use of the murder mystery form for my exploration.

RR:  Thanks for clarifying that….I read in a book review about your interest of narrato­logy – the study of narratives and narrative structures and how they affect our perception.  According to Jonathan Culler (2001) “narrative theory requires a distinction between ‘story’, a sequence of actions or events con­ceived as independent of their manifestation in discourse, and ‘discourse’, the discursive pre­senta­tion or narration of events.”  Can you elaborate on how your interest in narratology affects you as a writer or even as a reader? (No doubt very similar to how someone’s interest in cinematography affects how they view films.)

Guat Eng:  I define narratology as a study of anything that has to do with narration, or creating a narrative.  It is not a fixed “Literary Theory” but an ongoing discourse on the theorization and systematization of critical terms for the analysis of narratives.  What narratologists do, essential­ly, is they identify, describe, define, and give names to the various narrative techniques authors use – “point-of-view”, “focalisation”, “free indirect discourse” – so that literary scholars have a vocabulary that can be used as a tool for analysis as well as a common language for discourse.  The vocabulary is constantly evolving and expanding because as narratologists encounter new writers, especially non-Western ones who have their own literary traditions, whose narrative techniques do not find a perfect fit in existing concepts and terms (e.g. “magic realism”), they may find a need to describe, define, and give names to these uncommon narrative techniques.

I first came across the term “narratology” while I was working on my PhD in the early 2000s, but soon realized its value: it makes me more knowledgeable about the techniques I had been vaguely aware of as a reader and had been applying intuitively as a writer.  For instance, I discovered the difference between “story” and “plot” between the ages of 10 and 11.  My first attempt at writing a story fizzled out because I got bored with having to think up one episode after another.  A year later, I spontaneously told a story in class that had a beginning, middle and end centred on a single issue.  Proof that I was on the right track came some years later:  I rewrote it as a radio play, sent it to the Education section of (then) Radio Malaya, and received 30 dollars for it.  But that intuition-led experience did not crystallize into knowledge until I read E. M. Forster’s definitions of “story” and “plot” in Aspects of the Novel, and that crystal of knowledge did not become refined until I read what narratologists have to say on the subject.

As a reader, I’ve always seen patterns, structures, and underlying meanings in books.  I can’t explain why.  It may have something to do with my childhood obsession with deciphering codes and solving puzzles, and the fact that I learned Latin in secondary school.  These analytical tendencies were enhanced at university by my study of English Literature, fine-tuned by my study of German Literature, and given new spaces to play in through my research on Asian narratology and theories of fiction.

RR:  I too studied Latin in high school for two years and it had a tremendous impact on my English.  I enjoyed the logic of the language and its grammar and wished I had studied it for four years, but switched to French, something I’m terrible at; I was too embarrassed to even attempt it when visiting France while backpacking around Europe.

Do you think some writers try too hard to be clever at the expense of the story; therefore, their writing or the story suf­fers?  Is there a perfect balance between story and structure?  Or can structure, in fact, make or define the story, if not elevate it to something truly special?

Guat Eng:  As a critic and teacher of fiction-writing, I do often encounter writers who try too hard to be clever at the expense of the story.  However, I also find that their stories suffer not because they use structure but because they either use it badly or neglect it altogether.  Speaking generally, I find that when writers try too hard, it’s usually because their ego gets in the way of the story.  Some try to show how clever they are with words, allowing their infatuation with the sounds of words to master them when they should be exerting mastery over the precise meanings of words to tell a story.  Others try to show how clever they are by aiming only to end their stories with a witty, unexpected, or sensational twist – nearly always at the expense of structure and plot.

RR:  I always hated that.  Why ruin a good story with a horrible ending?  I would tell my creative writing students, you had an “A” going until you wrote that final paragraph or that final line – which had nothing to do with the story.  They just pulled it out of hat to trick you!  The internal logic of the story (and structure) must hold up until the end!

Guat Eng:  As a writer, I find (as I did when I was 10 years old) that I can’t make headway with a narrative unless I have a structure.  I’m not saying it’s the only way to write; I’m saying that it’s the only way I can write. Structure (i.e. the way I organise the different parts of my “story”) helps me to clarify and define my discourses (i.e. the issues I’m problematizing).  Ever since I read Northanger Abbey at age 14, I have been intrigued by the potential of novels to poke fun at humanity’s willingness to confuse the imagined and the real.  From my (much later) study of Zen, I learned that a similar intent underlies the tongue-in-cheek narrative techniques of much of Asian “wisdom” literature (which is what gives them the “postmodern” flavour noted by many Western contemporary scholars).  It is natural for me to want to write fiction that tends towards the deconstructive and the metafictional, and to look to Asian wisdom literature for the scaffold­ings I need for my structures.  In my novels, these Asian frameworks allow me to work historical breadth, cultural depth, and additional layers of meaning into my metafictional discourses with an economy that I find aesthetically pleasing – simply because they make my creative/writing process so exhilaratingly challenging.

RR:  My own introduction to Asian writing came from a course in Japanese and Chinese studies and from reading the required novels before I traveled to both countries in 1980.  Another text that I found enlightening was Literature of the Eastern World.  Just being aware that there are many ways to tell a story (and stories that can be told about almost anything, including gourds and silkworms) and to experiment in structure and viewpoint (as I did in Lovers and Strangers Revisited) to find the most effective way to tell your story or to get to a deeper story is a great way to grow as a writer.  It forces you out of your comfort zone.  You have to read widely, though, just to be aware what is out there – Western and Eastern!  Sometimes you have to write the story/novel chronologically first before you can re­structure the scenes, so it would all make sense, even in reverse order as Preeta Samarasan did quite successfully in Evening is the Whole Day, which was discussed during a recent interview.  

Guat Eng:  Read at one level, Echoes of Silence is simply a murder mystery.  But by using a structure based on an adaptation of the Mahabharata structure, I was able to plot my story as an interiorized dialectical discourse spanning three time zones (present, recent past, and distant past).  The narration, while taking the reader back and forth between present and pasts, reveals the occurrence of parallel episodes of violence, silencing of truth, and miscarriages of justice in each time zone; and these parallels indirectly comment on one another through their thematic resonances and dissonances. The experiment in Days of Change was somewhat different.  In this memoir-like narrative, my amnesiac narrator uses the I Ching to trigger the recovery of lost memories.  Within the seemingly neat 64-day framework of the I Ching, the memories are not recalled and recorded in chronological order – deliberately so, because on one level (the fiction-as-mimesis level), the intention is to simulate the messy and capricious way memory works.  But on another level (the metafictional level), the smooth-flowing and even polished prose style of the narration shines a light on the “fiction-making” way the narrator attempts to clean up confu­sions, re-order events, and fill gaps left by that most unreliable of narrators, memory.  Thus structured and written as a proto-memoir, the novel serves to subvert the faithful-to-memory truth claims of historians and autobiographers.

I will be the first to acknowledge that most (or all) of my readers will never perceive the crafting that is so much a part of my writing process, and therefore never fully appreciate what I’m trying to do and say.  Some may find the narratives confusing and think I’m trying to be too clever by half.  But not being understood is the nature of the literary beast, and as long as my readers find my works enjoyable at the “story” level, I’m not going to worry about being fully understood.  

RR:  That’s always the risk...of not being understood, or being misunderstood, or being accused of pur­posely muddying your own story to make it opaque or overly literary, thus losing your readers in the process.  Many so called “great” books are said to be un­read­­able.  Finnegans Wake, anyone?  Gravity's Rain­­bow?  I once read Moby-Dick until 50 pages from the end and just gave up – I just didn’t care anymore if Captain Ahab got the whale or not!  Great, epic story, but tedious to a fault, bogged down with endless mundane details about the whaling industry.  Years later, I finally went back and finished it – I won’t spoil the ending.

In a recent interview you said, “Wisdom, for me, means the understanding that every indi­vidual has his or her own concept of truth, his or her own story to tell; and we must some­how make space in our hearts and minds for all these concepts and stories without, how­ever, getting caught up in them.” Could you elaborate, especially in this era of Trump, Fake News, and ‘alter­native facts’ about how to avoid “getting caught up in them”?  We (at least in the US) seem to be drowning in everyone’s concept of truth.  Or is it even possible to keep straight all of the shifting narratives, let alone all of the political or personal spins upon spins with the so-called truth as to what really happened.  Or the actual truth or even the agreed-upon truth as to what, in fact, did take place?  Or should we even bother in the realistic fear that it will, sooner or later, drive us all crazy – even for us expats living in Borneo?  Maybe what we need to do is pick up a good novel so we can lose our­selves in the narrative truth of the story...or just keep working on the inherent truth of our own creation and let it speak for itself…

Guat Eng:  Zen philosophers have many ways to deal with the issues you mention.  It would take too long to go into the various methods they recommend as means of distinguishing the imagined from the real.  But one doesn’t have to be a Zen philosopher to ask the many kinds of questions offered in everyday discourse as means to distinguish real from fake news:  Does this make sense?  Who’s saying this?  Which news media is responsible for this report?  What’s their agenda?  What’s the other side of the story? What are the political and geopolitical circum­stances that might give rise to such an action or statement?  And so on.

RR:  Ah, Kipling’s six honest serving men will always get you to the truth!

Guat Eng:   It seems to me there is no lack of probing questions that one may ask.  What is lack­ing is usually the will to ask those questions and the determination to find the answers.  Most people just find it easier to believe whatever their favourite politician or news media says, and close their minds to the idea that there is always another side to the story and another way of looking at things.

Looking for the truth with an open mind is hard work; here’s how Gautama Buddha describes the hard work one has to do before one accepts even his teachings:
As the wise test gold by burning, cutting and examining by means of a touchstone, so should you accept my words after examining them and not merely out of regard and reverence for me.

RR:  Most of your professional life was spent in the corporate world as both a writer and as a creative and communications consultant, specialising in the development of strategies for advertising and promotional campaigns, corporate brand building programmes….How has this benefited you as a writer or in developing your own brand as a writer?

Guat Eng:  The corporate world taught me many things that were and remain valuable to me as a fiction writer.  Probably the most important is self-discipline:  meeting deadlines, managing time, and the sheer teeth-gritting doggedness of writing even when I don’t feel like writing in­stead of waiting for inspiration.  The most enduring lessons relate to the art and craft of ego-less writing:  to take myself out of the narrative, to draw my readers in and engage them, to make every word count, to communicate and inform, and never to show off.  The most useful for me as a self-published writer are the technical aspects of producing a printed text:  reader-friendly fonts and spacing, page layouts, paper choices, different types of binding and so on.

Apart from the fact that I am conscious of my Malaysian identity and am not prepared to exoticize myself or my stories simply to appeal to Western and Westernized readers, I am not conscious of developing my own brand as a writer.  Certainly, before I worked on my first novel, I studied the market.  I did research on the types of novel being written by other Malaysian writers (there were only a handful at that time), their subject matter, and their writing styles.  I checked out what kind of novels most English-literate readers were willing to buy and read. Based on the research, I decided what genre I should write in and who my primary target readers would be.  But apart from the times when I am launching a new book, I don’t spend a lot of time promoting myself or my writings.  I only give readings and/or talk about my books when I’m invited to do so.  I depend mostly on the goodwill and word-of-mouth recommendations of friends and acquaintances to sell my books.

RR:  You were once a guest speaker at the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival in Bali.  Tell us about your experience and why you feel writers must make an attempt to attend these literary festivals (or not).  What are the drawbacks, if any?  Any plans to return to Ubud in the future or to any other up­coming literary events?

Guat Eng:  I was invited to the 2014 Ubud Writers & Readers Festival….If there were any draw­­backs, I no longer remember….All I remember now is that I had a great time, made some new friends, and sold some books.  I found the whole event very well organized, loved my accommodations, and apart from some confusion over transport on the first day, really have nothing to complain about.

It’s a good festival to go to for book launches, networking, and self-promotion, which is what such festivals are designed for, and I would certainly recommend it to anyone who has such intentions and aims.  But even if one didn’t have such intentions, or, like me, were not much good at networking and socializing, Ubud is definitely worth going to.

The programme allowed time for my own explorations, which I took as much advantage of as I could.  The highlights of my visit were the connections I made with the locals and Indonesians from other islands, who took me to the art and craft museums.  The local people are very friend­ly; the most memorable parts of my stay there are the chats I had with the taxi drivers, especially the one who drove me to the airport for my return flight, who, as an artist in his own right, gave me an insider view of the life of local artists and the state of the local art.

I never attend literary festivals and similar events unless I’m invited, but always accept invita­tions when my schedule permits.
RR:  For me, attending a conference is just a great experience all the way around, whether it’s speaking on a panel at a conference in Kuala Lumpur or attending a major conference on my own dime in Hawaii – just to be around other writers.  It was definitely worth the investment when I attended the Maui Writers Conference in 2006, which had about a thousand people from all over the US and then me coming from Malaysia.  You’re from where?  Meet­ing Pulitzer-Prize-winning writers, Oscar-winning screenwriters, award-winning novelists, plus editors from major pub­lishing houses and literary agents from New York (I attended sever­al pitching sessions) and then listening to their exper­ience, their advice, and picking up signed copies of their books….Quite heady experience.  Graham Brown, one of the unpublished writers that I hung out with, met his agent at another conference and sold two novels and then co-wrote some books with Clive Cussler, proving making-face-face-contact can be invaluable, so long as you have the goods to back it up.  

Attending a conference overseas can be expensive, but if you book low cost flights early, take advantage of early-bird specials, split accommoda­tion and car rental (if neces­sary) with other writers (I contacted the organizer in Maui and they found me someone with the same idea), or tie it to a planned vacation or a business trip or stay with a relative or friend living in the can be done.  If you do this too often, you can also go broke, so choose your conferences wisely, or find a way to get yourself invited as a guest speaker!
What advice would you give writers who are struggling to finish (or even seriously start) their first novel?

Guat Eng:  Here are 5 tips:

 1.  Don’t talk about it, do it.

 2.  Set a time-table for the completion of first draft of the novel, and organize the rest of your life around it.

       3.  Keep your project a secret.  Don’t keep showing people bits of your work-in-progress and asking for opinions.  You don’t want to be distracted by too many opinions.  Listen to what your heart (your innermost self) tells you.

        4.  If you get stuck, it’s probably because you haven’t been listening to your innermost urgings.  Stop.  Listen to what you heart wants you to write.  Then write what it tells you to write.  No more.  And no less.

        5.  When the first draft of the whole novel is near completion, start a search for a good reader (not an editor; that should come later).  If anyone is recommended, check with other writers who have   used their services.  Settle on the one you can trust to be sensitive to and supportive of what you are doing, willing to give honest and constructive criticism, and able to make reconstructive suggestions   while giving you the leeway to reject the suggestions if you don’t agree.  And yes, be prepared to pay them in cash for time spent and services rendered.

*Update:  My interview with Guat Eng has been published in Blue Lotus 16, pages 18-25. 

Other Interviews with 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.

PreetaSamarasan author of Evening is the Whole Day