The original title was “Mat Salleh: A Malaysian Encounter”, and I didn’t even know the story was published until a relative contacted us the following week. I had to go from house to house asking if any of my neighbors had the NST! In the UK, the editor changed the title to “Meeting the Family – The Malaysian Way”. By the time it appeared in Lovers and Strangers (Heinemann Asia, 1993) I had shortened it to “Mat Salleh”.
“Mat Salleh” is a non-fiction narrative that I crafted into a short story; however, I kept to the truth thus making it a non-fiction short story, the only one in the collection. This story has remained a favorite for a lot of readers, particularly the Malays, as well as those married to Malaysians, or even those who have a Western relative in their family and have shared a similar experience of everyone in the family coming out to meet the new mat salleh for the first time.
I first wrote “Mat Salleh” while still living in the US after I took a correspondence course, on writing the short story from Writer’s Digest, so a lot of the initial details were fuzzy. The photographs I took and the diary I kept were a big help. Once I moved to Malaysia and visited the kampong again, I was able to add in more ambiance and some details I had overlooked, as well as finetune the rest, making the descriptions less general and more specific to the kampong and to Parit, Perak. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, being at the physical location does wonders for the writer.
By beginning the story on the drive to the kampong, I was able to work in a little backstory and contrast not only the climate and scenery but also my former wife’s first visit to the US to meet her in-laws, and also our reasons for coming back (her father’s lingering illness) so by the time we arrived, the story is ready to move forward. One of the problems I had initially was there were two many immediate relatives involved, three elder brothers and elder sister and their respective spouses plus several uncles and aunts who lived nearby or even across the street, and all those nieces and nephews! So I focused only on a handful necessary to the story.
In the original published story I added an epilogue stating that my father-in-law had passed away two months after I had left and that a year and a half later, we had moved to Malaysia. In Lovers and Strangers, I worked the fact that he had passed away into the final sentence, by saying “Although he died shortly after…” In the Silverfish version, I left that out, because in an earlier paragraph it was implied that he would soon die, when I stated, “I knew he would never get a chance to spend…” so I felt that would be sufficient. I didn’t want the story to end on a negative note. Instead I focused on his positive reaction to my small monetary gift and my feeling like one of the family, which was the thrust of the story.
By the time I revisited the story in 2005, I had been divorced from my ex-wife for seven years and remarried to someone else from Sarawak for three years, so revisiting all the kampong-based stories were a bittersweet experience, especially “Mat Salleh”. As I wrote in the forward to Lovers and Strangers Revisited, “Still, I kept faithful to the original story and to the other stories, recalling how I felt back when I first created them. I came to appreciate these memories, particularly the kampong visits to my then mother-in-law’s house, as privileged experiences.”
I expanded the kitchen scene by including the monitor lizard and Yati reminiscing about the time she and her brother had killed a cobra. I felt, however, that I needed a new scene, a transition after the wedding, something that would show my efforts of trying to fit into the family. While thumbing through the photographs of that first visit, I came upon a photograph of me holding a long bamboo pole. Then I remembered the time that I learned how to cut down a coconut with the nieces and nephews, who played an important part in the story. This would also show another side to them, as well.
The actual wedding itself was on Christmas Day, which made the event for me even more memorable. Ask me the one Christmas that I would never forget, and it would have to be this non-Christmas event in a Muslim country that I wrote about in “Mat Salleh”.
As a footnote, one of my former nieces that I wrote about all those years ago, recently contacted me out of the blue, after having come across my website. I’m sure she’s going to love this story, and perhaps share it with her own children about that time her uncle from America came to visit the family, a memory that goes all the way back to 1983.
Lovers and Strangers Revisited is now getting translated into French as Trois autres Malaisie.
*Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited
Here is a review of Lovers and Strangers Revisited: The Star (MPH) and a link to the other story behind the stories for Lovers and Strangers Revisited.
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.
Five part Maugham and Me series
Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I