Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Sun review and the Introduction to Lovers and Strangers Revisited

The Sun, August 20 2008
Lovers and Strangers Revisited
Author: Robert Raymer
Publisher: MPH Publishing

US-BORN writer Raymer has lived in Malaysia for 20 years and taught creative writing at two of our local universities. His short stories and articles have been published in various magazines such Reader’s Digest, The Expat and Far East Traveller.

This book is a series of short stories, some which the writer based on real life incidences and some as a mere observer. You get a strong feeling that stories like "Mat Salleh", "Lovers and Strangers", "Dark Blue Thread" and "Only in Malaysia" may be very personal as they all talk about an American man and his relationship with an Asian woman.

They also talk about the vast gap between both worlds in a manner that is believable and are among the best in the collection.

Another interesting story in this book is "Neighbours", which is about a man who tries to kill himself and is rushed to the hospital by a neighbour. His neighbours start gossiping about the man and his family but none stick around to tell his wife and daughter what happened when they return home.

"Waiting", on the other hand, is a bit of a disappointment. The story of a woman waiting for her father to return home only to be faced with a startling reality is all too familiar and lacks the depth of the other stories.

As a whole, the short stories are all well written and Raymer doesn’t meander about the plot, even if the stories sounds a little too personal. Read the introduction as it will give you an insight into the writer’s mind. – S. Indra Sathiabalan

It’s always nerve wracking reading the first review (all reviews) of your book. You pray the reviewer is kind and gets the details right. No personal attacks. So I was relieved by the following review, except maybe about the story “Waiting”, which was really about her waiting for her boyfriend to return; that was the undercurrent.  The story has since been published in Thema, in the US.  So far it has been published four times, in Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, and now the US.

The stories, at least the stories that involved “an American” were said to be “too personal”, and I take that as a compliment, because only one of the four stories cited, and the only story in the collection that is, in fact, factual is “Mat Salleh”. I tried to make all the others as realistic as possible by blending in “realistic” details to create realism, whether I was writing from the point of view of a Malaysian character or an American character. Since I am American, readers tend to think I’m writing about myself, thus the whole story is “true”. Instead, I was merely capturing the truth of what it can be like for an American or an expat to be married to a Malaysian to make the rest of the story seem believable, as if it were based on fact.

But, oh, the line between fact and fiction does blur, which is why I wrote The Story Behind the Story blog series of Lovers and Strangers Revisited. I was glad the reviewer mentioned the introduction, since I had put a lot of effort revising and shortening the Silverfish version.

When I first moved to Malaysia over 20 years ago, I was fortunate to have lived in a medium-income terrace house where I had a Malay family on my right, a Chinese family on my left, a Tamil family directly across from me, a Punjabi family three houses away in one direction, and three houses in the other, a Chinese woman married to an Indian man who were both Christian. Each of the four streets in this new housing area had Malays, Chinese, and Indians living side-by-side – a mini Malaysia at my doorstep.

While living in such close proximity to my neighbours, I was able to observe their comings and goings, and they were able to observe mine. They would regularly invite me into their homes to celebrate birthdays and open houses. They would ask me about my life, and I would ask them about theirs. It was a great learning experience. I was also able to observe from close up their weddings, their funerals, their festive celebrations and their family feuds. I watched their children play badminton, squabble among themselves, and occasionally get knocked down by a passing motorcycle.

One day I came to the aid of a Chinese neighbour when I heard his persistent moaning. In an attempt to kill himself, he had drunk the weed-killer, Paraquat. He was still breathing, so I contacted another neighbour and we rushed him to the hospital. I stayed with him for several hours while he was on his deathbed. Upon returning home, I found several of my neighbours standing outside his gate gossiping about the family. When the man’s wife and daughter returned home from shopping, all of them refused to ‘get involved’, so I was left with the task of having to inform them of the man’s death. I used that experience as the basis for my story, ‘Neighbours’, now being taught as part of the sixth cycle for SPM English Literature in Malaysia.

My original goal in writing this story and others in Lovers and Strangers Revisited was to depict Malaysia not from the viewpoint of an outsider, an expat generalising from a distance, but as a connected through-marriage insider and as a neighbour. Thus I felt comfortable writing about characters like Yeoh, a Chinese man with bitter memories of the Japanese Occupation, who was being teased by the neighbourhood children in ‘The Watcher’; or an Indian child’s jealousy of her elder sister’s special treatment in ‘Sister’s Room’; or, even a Malay child’s curiosity over a dead cockroach in ‘Symmetry’.

Over the years I made numerous trips to my ex-wife’s kampong in Perak and to the kampongs of her extended family. Through her and her family, I learned how the rural Malays lived, how they celebrated with a kenduri, how they buried their dead, and also how they believed in superstitions and spirits and sometimes consulted bomohs, a traditional healer, mystic, witch doctor. This knowledge allowed me to climb inside the head of Rosmah, who was in despair over the fate of her dying husband in ‘Smooth Stones’; or Ida, who felt betrayed when her father took a second wife in ‘Home for Hari Raya’; or even Matemah, a blind, elderly woman navigating her way through a graveyard in ‘The Stare’.

Even when I used the viewpoint of a Western character, I tried to use them almost passively, to serve the story, as opposed to having them be the centres of attention, as I did in ‘The Future Barrister’ or ‘On Fridays’, a story about Malaysians sharing a taxi, a metaphor for multiracial Malaysia, where people of various races live and work in close proximity and in relative harmony.

These pieces eventually became Lovers and Strangers, a collection of short stories set in Malaysia and Singapore, published by Heinemann Asia in 1993, and then Lovers and
Strangers Revisited, a heavily revised version published by Silverfish Books in 2005.

Revising these stories was an opportunity for me to revisit my past, not just as a writer, but who I was, where I lived, and what I had experienced and learned from living in Malaysia for nearly half of my life. Many of the memories that had inspired particular scenes, settings, or even the characters themselves, have become bittersweet, including my own failings as a husband. For one, I was no longer married to the woman that I wrote about in the semi-autobiographical story, ‘Mat Salleh’. Still, I kept faithful to the original story and to the other stories, recalling how I felt back when I first created them. At the same time, I came to appreciate these memories, particularly the kampung visits to my then mother-in-law’s house, as privileged experiences.

For this third, revised edition of Lovers and Strangers Revisited published by MPH, I have added two stories written during the same period from 1985-1990, including one set in Thailand.
One concern that I had was the fact that life in Malaysia and Southeast Asia had changed in the intervening 20 years since I began writing the first drafts of these stories. For example, the Station Hotel had been upgraded and is now called The Heritage Station Hotel Kuala Lumpur, and its lobby moved to the ground floor, inside the restaurant. I tried to keep the stories in their original mid-80s, early-90s time frame, yet at the same time, I tried to make the stories feel timeless, so even 20 years from now they would still capture the essence of Malaysia.

For me, rewriting the stories has been a culmination of over 25 years of writing, 20 years of living in Malaysia, and10 years of teaching creative writing. So far 16 of the 17 stories have been published 62 times in nine countries. Three have been translated into Japanese. Five stories have been taught in four universities in Malaysia, in secondary schools throughout Malaysia (SPM English Literature) and a high school in Canada. Lovers and Strangers Revisited is now being taught at Universiti Sains Malaysia.

With this third edition of Lovers and Strangers Revisited, I’m presenting the latest incarnation of my stories—stories that seem to have taken on a life of their own as if the characters that I had created didn’t want to be forgotten; they wanted their stories retold.

             —Borneo Expat Writer

.*Update, the 20th anniversary of 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. 


Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I 

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

“Neighbours”: Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

Hearing some persistent moaning coming from a neighbor’s house two doors away, I went to investigate. With the help of another neighbor, we took the Chinese man, in his mid-fifties, to the Penang General Hospital, where he eventually died. He had drunk the weed killer Paraquat.

For me the story began when I returned to the man's house and found several neighbors gossiping. I was fascinated by all of the comments the neighbors were making, 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, they quickly dispersed, so I was left with the task of having to inform them about the man’s death.

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 later I will write about it). Instead, I chose to write about the neighbors themselves and what they said about this family in the aftermath of the suicide. When I began to write the story, after some years had passed, all the details were fresh inside my journal, including details that had completely slipped my memory. This is one of the reasons I insist that my writing students keep a diary/journal.

In writing the story, I decided to leave me, as a character, out of the story. I felt the story 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. My goal was to show how self-centered everyone was, and despite all the bad stuff being said about the man, I wanted the sympathy to shift back to him.

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 multiracial society is talking down to another, which became crucial twenty years later when it began to be taught in SPM literature in schools throughout Malaysia. I also 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.

Initially, too many people were coming and going and it was difficult to get a fix on any one character. There were far too many for a short story, so I merged a few characters to make it less cumbersome. I also slowed down the pacing by balancing it out with descriptions and even added a dog, a Pomeranian Spitz (which, I just noticed, was misspelled in the first collection!).

The original title of the story was “Aftermath” and it first appeared in Commentary, a Journal of the National University of Singapore Society, in 1990 and then in Northern Perspective in Australia. By the time the first collection Lovers and Strangers came out, I changed the title to “Neighbors”, which is what the story is about.

Over the years, I changed the names of several of the characters. Sometimes you need to trust your instincts as to whether the name is appropriate for your character. Other times, you try the name on for size and if it doesn’t fit, try another. It’s a not unlike naming your children, but in stories we usually know their character, their traits in advance so that helps.

The story originally began with a paragraph or two of description, to help set the scene, but after revisiting the story for Lovers and Strangers Revisited for the second collection, I opened the story with dialogue: “I suppose there’s a mess in the back seat!” This sets the tone of the story and pulls the reader in quicker. This is the version that was accepted to be part of the 6th cycle for SPM literature (Big L) to be taught throughout Malaysia 2008-2112.  (*Link to the story, revised after French translation.)

For the latest MPH collection, I still had some difficulty getting that initial description of their arrival from the hospital and where the neighbors lived just right, so I kept working on it. I also experimented with the present tense. I liked the effect this created and it seemed to solve some problems, too and it gave the story, and the neighbors, a timeless quality. In 2008, this was published in Thema, in the US, 20 years after I first wrote it.

There used to be an on line discussion of "Neighbours" for students and teachers created by MELTA (Malaysia English Language Teaching Association) on its forum for literature, which had over 20,500 hits and 30 pages of comments before it was archived.

Here's also a link to Denis Harry's article on Mrs Koh in NST 28 August 2010!  Comment: Are you a Mrs Koh?

Also, I’ve adapted “Neighbors” into a play, turning a tragedy into a comedy titled, “One Drink Too Many”, which had been play read twice by Penang Players. I then made a 10-page version of that, "Back from Heaven", ideal for schools or competitions.  At least one school had a good run with it. Just contact me via my website (below) or Facebook if you want a copy. A good story can be expressed in many different ways.

*Here is link to a recent Google Meet with students at UiTM-Penang during a Q-and-A session about "Neighbours" and the motivation of the various characters and why I ended the story where I did. 

Lovers and Strangers Revisited is now getting translated into French as Trois autres Malaisie.

 Here is a review in The Star (MPH) and a link to the other story behind the stories for Lovers and Strangers Revisited.

Update, the 20th anniversary of 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. 


Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I