Friday, September 26, 2008

“Sister’s Room”: The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

This is the third story in Lovers and Strangers Revisited to earn me money after it placed third in the National Writers Association short story contest (USA) back in 1987. I started experimenting with a childlike tone for a short story, and the opening words came to me: “Mama is making chapattis and tea for breakfast. I’ll only get the chapattis – the small ones. Not the tea. Sister gets the tea and Mama doesn’t spare the sugar. Not for Sister. Mama doesn’t spare anything for Sister.”

It was this voice, this tone, this desire to capture the child’s innocence and then playing with the idea I had of sibling rivalry and child prostitution that pulled me through the story rather quickly. I knew I had something good in my hands, but maintaining that voice, that tone, and wondering where to break my sentences was giving me problems. Do I string them together with a bunch of “ands”, as I was initially doing, or break them up, staccato-like? Or find some happy balance? I was forever tinkering with this story through its various drafts. The story, essentially, remained the same from the beginning, but I was constantly tweaking it, nearly every other line it seemed, particularly during the fight scene, even in this final MPH version.

I admit I was having some qualms about the physical setting of the story, which is more Pakistan/India than Malaysia, though I could easily imagine how this could have been set in Malaysia not that many years ago, where bullock carts  were still common (I had seen plenty in the early eighties and a few Chinese junks, too!) and ice men still brought large blocks of ice to various shops. The open fruit market and spice markets are readily found in Malaysia today. I did visit several little India sections in Malaysia and even took the trouble to visit several brothels, mostly in Penang and KL, including some in the poorer Indian sections of town for research for a novel that I was working on, as well as some sleazy restaurants cum nightclubs. Not a pleasant experience, but memorable. No, I did not partake!

From the opening voice, I knew this would be a first person, present tense story, the first I had ever written; again this was an experiment for me, since unlike “On Fridays” which I wrote several years later, I was writing from the viewpoint of an Indian female child. Also I purposely used descriptions that would take on larger symbolic meanings in the story, such as “Uncle pinches my cheeks and squeezes my shoulders and looks me over like he would a melon at the fruit market to see if it’s ripe.” In the previous scene the child was doing exactly that at the fruit market across the street, and now Uncle was sizing her up to be a prostitute, just like her sister.

Right away, I had a lot success with this story; it was published in Northern Perspective in Australia, Her World in Malaysia, and a couple of years later in India, France and Denmark.
When the Indian-American writer Bharati Mukherjee visited Penang, Malaysia, I met her and her husband and after I commented on several of her stories at a discussion, she agreed to read a couple of my short stories, including “Sister’s Room”. She felt the ending scene needed to be a “bigger moment,” that it should linger before I bring the story to an end, advice I gladly seized upon. So I expanded that moment, nearly doubling its length, and this was the version that Thema in the US accepted and published in 2005.

While I was revisiting the stories for the Silverfish collection, I changed the beginning of the story, at the last moment, by substituting “Amma” for Mama and “Appa” for Papa. I even called Child “Younger Sister.” Call it a moment of weakness. After it came out, I wished I hadn’t done that. So with the MPH version, I gladly changed it back to how I had it.

As a footnote, while I was in KL launching Lovers and Strangers Revisited for MPH, a woman told me that nearly twenty years ago when she was ten, her mother came across the story in Her World and thinking it was innocent story about children, asked her to read it. She was horrified to learn that the story was about child prostitution! She never did tell her mother.

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

Here are three reviews of Lovers and Strangers Revisited: The Star (MPH), The Expat (Silverfish), and NST (Silverfish) 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 the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and for Trois autres Malaisie.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Writing Novels: Making a Commitment

Saying, “I want to be a novelist” is not good enough. Wanting means nothing. Don’t we all want to be wealthy, healthy, happy and loved? But are we? Have we made a personal commitment to being wealthy, to being healthy, to be being happy, to being loved? What daily actions have we committed to in order to achieve these results? What we sow, we reap. That’s biblical and logical, too. If you don’t sow your novel you will not reap it either. If you don’t spend the vast amount of your writing time on writing a novel, it will not get written, let alone published. Wishing and hoping will not take you very far in life, so that’s why I’ve decided to make a commitment. I will not only publish my novel, I’ll publish a series of them, and they will provide me a healthy living. This is my novel project. I’m committed to this.

Bold words, I know. Life has a way of challenging our words and our so-called commitments, even in the form of success. Since the republication of Lovers and Strangers Revisited in late July I have hardly spent any writing time on my novel. I edited 100 pages on the way to Kuala Lumpur and thirty pages on the way back to Kuching and then dropped the ball. I let other projects crowd out my novel writing time (nine workshops, readings and book talks in just over 30 days didn’t exactly help, not to mention grading overdue papers). But I had opportunities to squeeze in some writing here and there, which I chose, for whatever reason, not to.

In order to get to where you want to be in your writing life you must take stock as to where you are right now. Financial planners tell you the same thing. Ok, I’m looking into my finances, too, and making a commitment in that area as well (and my health, my happiness, my being loved and giving plenty of love to my family). They all go together. Sorry, I don’t wish to become a miserable, embittered, lonely, broke novelist slowly drinking himself to death in the tropics. A cliché, too.

Or worse, one who ends up killing himself like a lot of good novelist have done (while revising this, I read about David Foster Wallace, author of Infinite Jest, which poignantly and rather sadly reinforces my point). I choose to be happy, healthy, loving, and wealthy. Years ago, I also made a decision not to drink, which helps me in all other aspects of my life. (Having alcoholic relatives, friends, and co-workers when I was living in States clearly demonstrated to me that this was not the way to go – they were not happy, their love lives were a wreck, their health were failing, and you can guess as to the state of their financial affairs; not to mention they were overly obnoxious when drunk and constantly complaining when sober.) This is not a choice, but a personal commitment to me, to my family.

So where am I as a novelist in this novel project? And what decisions can I make to get to where I want to be, and what personal commitments can I make to ensure that I get there? Last September I made a commitment to rewrite my novel The Lonely Affair of Jonathan Brady (*now The Resurrection of Jonathan Brady) so that it would be ready for the 2008 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Novel Competition, which had a deadline by April 1.

To be honest, I thought I could whip this out in a month or so since I had already been through this novel 14 times, though it’s been a couple of years since I last looked at it, and then plow through another novel that I was hoping to finish in time, too. But while rewriting this novel, I made several decisions that would require a major overhaul and several more drafts before it would be ready. Painful, time consuming decisions. But I remembered the advice of Lucy, an editor friend of mine, who said I’d be better off devoting a lot of time to one novel to get it right than rushing through several novels, which I often did in the past.

To help me get The Lonely Affair of Jonathan Brady ready, I set an earlier deadline, March 1st, which was the deadline for The National Writer’s Association Novel contest. Through some massive effort, I met this deadline. More importantly, I could now change gears, set the novel aside for a cooling off period. To help take my mind off of it, I got busy rewriting the first fifty pages of my other novel, The Girl in the Bathtub, which is set in Malaysia, for the Novel-in Progress category.

Then once again back to The Lonely Affair of Jonathan Brady. I was appalled by the number of careless mistakes I had made while rushing to meet the earlier deadline and how much I needed to rewrite. I was even shifting large chunks of material around! I was doubly glad I met that earlier deadline so I had the time to do this, and was pleasantly surprised when this previous draft won Fourth Place in the 2008 National Writers Association contest and was glad to have their valuable feedback from their fiction critique scoring system, which scored high in marketability.

As for the Faulkner-Wisdom contest, The Lonely Affair of Jonathan Brady just missed out in being one of the finalists. It placed in their “almost finalist” category. The Girl in the Bathtub was a semi-finalist in the novel-in progress category, a disappointment, but an improvement over last year. (Last year, by the way, my short story “Malaysian Games” was runner-up in the short story category.) So now I have two viable novels and two other novels, one set in Malaysia and in the US, both of which are scheduled for rewriting next month for the 2009 Faulkner-Wisdom contest. I will also be entering my two Malaysian novels for the Man Asian Prize. All four novels are part of my novel project, and the publication of one could lead to the publications of the others.

Before I had learned of the results, I was already looking through chapter one of The Lonely Affair of Jonathan Brady and began rewriting it again, making massive changes in those first few pages, which, I admit, have been problematic. I wanted to make them as good as I can before I start writing to some agents later this month, now that the results are in, because I know that they can quickly tell from those opening pages whether they have something saleable in their hands. If they see too many red flags, their experience tells them it’s not worth their time, so they’ll pass.

Having completed the line editing for the rest of the novel, which, thankfully, was minimal, I’m now in the process of making those corrections on my computer. This is where I’m at as a novelist. Knowing that the previous two drafts have done well in two U.S. contests this year gives me hope that I’m onto something good and I can only make it better, so when an agent requests to read it I can send it out immediately, confident that I’ve done my best.

To further improve those opening five pages, I recently exchanged them with another Faulkner “almost finalist” writer who contacted me after the results came out. I’ve just given him detailed feedback on his pages (my gut reaction to them and some helpful suggestions to improve them) and am waiting his comments on mine. Just because I choose to live in Borneo doesn’t mean I have to write in isolation! Later, I’ll write about the valuable lesson that came out of this exchange (and from previous exchanges with other novelists while living in Penang), that sometimes we’re too close to our own writing that we’ve been honing for years to see our own flaws that’s preventing it from publication. This was a rude awakening for me. This is also another important step on the road to publication and a happy ending to my novel project. Wish me luck, and I hope your own novel, or book project, is coming along just fine. If not, make that commitment!

*Update: The Resurrection of Jonathan Brady just advanced to the Quarterfinals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2012!  It was also short listed for 2011 Faulkner-Wisdom Award.

***Here the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and for Trois autres Malaisie.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

"Smooth Stones": The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

I had been contemplating writing a story about the power of faith, the power of belief, when I came across a brief article in the New Straits Times in Malaysia about a man being conned over some “moon” stones. I had read similar accounts before, so I played with this idea. I envisioned a desperate woman wanting to save her husband from dying (she needed a strong enticement) who buys the stones from a friendly man, a Haji, who happens to stop by her kampong house.

The questions I wanted to raise in the reader’s mind, are the smooth stones merely stones from the river or do they come from Mecca and have special healing powers? Is Rosmah being conned out of her money, or being instructed on how to save her husband from dying? Does her husband, in fact, get better?

I wrote the story from Rosmah’s point of view and I guess I got it right because when I read an early draft for a workshop conducted by K.S. Maniam in Kuala Lumpur the two previous winners of The Star contest thought “Smooth Stones” would win. I was surprised when it didn’t even win a consolation prize, though two other stories from Lovers and Strangers Revisited did win, including “The Future Barrister”, which won third prize.

At the award ceremony the judge, a celebrated Malaysian author, approached me and said he and the other judges tossed out “Smooth Stones” because they thought I had plagiarized it. They felt that a Westerner, a male “mat salleh”, couldn’t write such a “Malay” story about bomohs from a woman’s point of view! I wished they had consulted me first! I guess you could call this a backhanded compliment!

To make the story seem as real as possible I had created a “real” setting and brought in “real” characters. For the setting I used two actual locations and blended them into one. I used my former in-laws kampong house in Parit, Perak that I was very familiar with and for the surrounding area, a kampong in Kedah, where I spend a weekend attending a wedding. Since the house was full of people, the bathing area was converted into a clothes-washing room. In order to bathe, I had to wear a sarong and hike down to the river like everyone else. I remember coming back along this path that bisected a field and this water buffalo gave me a look of reproach, as if I were intruding. I used that detail in the story for good effect.

I based the character Rosmah on my former mother-in-law. Her husband, at the time that I met him, was dying from cancer. (See the nonfiction story “Mat Salleh”, or the story behind that story.) For Haji Abdullah, I borrowed one of my ex-wife’s uncles. He had such a serene face with sparkles in his eyes; there didn’t seem to be a dishonest bone in his body. While writing the story, I kept a photograph of him handy, which made the character all the more real to me, since I actually knew him.

Usually I don’t outline stories in advance, but this story I did. I had five or six set scenes in mind and that kept me focused until the very end. In two hours I had the first draft of the story written. Usually when I start a story, I like to add some real details to anchor the story. In this case, I too had sat on an embedded-in-sand fishing boat. I had also, on another occasion, watched fishermen standing in the water with their fishing net while someone beat the water with a bamboo pole.

Because of the subject matter, I used a lot of symbolism. The men fishing with their nets symbolize Rosmah’s desperation, her willingness to cast out a net to “catch” anything that could save her dying husband. Hadn’t she already tried to catch “doctors and bomohs”? Fishing, by the way, is itself a trial, a test of manhood for her son Hasri, who now has to take over his father’s role as a fisherman, not as a “boy” but as a “man.”

Another symbol was the sarong that belongs to Yusof, which represents Yusof himself and is used to wrap the coconut containing the smooth stones, to protect it – to protect Yusof’s very life. Then of course there’s the smooth stones themselves, a symbol of faith, or the power of belief. The ordinary stones from the river that Siti’s son has are used to contrast the extra-ordinary, or “extraordinary” stones brought back from Mecca.

Throughout the story I purposely used references to religion as a symbol of faith, a powerful symbol of God from antiquity to our present day. For example, I mention that Abdullah as being a Haji, that he is holding a Quranic book, and produces Quranic verses, and also Mecca – all powerful religions symbols to a Muslim.

By mentioning that this man is a Haji, I invoke the religious performance – that he has performed the Haj, a requirement or goal of all Muslim. The title “Haji” itself connotes respect for someone who had performed this very act, someone who is knowledgeable about the world (has traveled far away from home) and had obtained “religious wisdom” from Mecca. The fact that he says to Rosmah, “I have come from Mecca” speaks volumes. It implies that he has come directly from Mecca with special healing powers, power to heal her dying husband.

Again, the religious symbolism in Mecca is powerful to a Muslim. It would be akin to a Christian bringing back “Holy water” from Jerusalem. It’s the faith that this water, from the Holy Land is somehow closer to God than ordinary water. Therefore the Mecca stones are more powerful than “river stones”. Again, it’s about faith, the power to believe that this is a “fact”. “Mecca” stones must be “powerful” because the stones come from Mecca. Rosmah has no way of knowing if such stones could even be found in Mecca or maybe she’s thinking that the stones were “blessed” in Mecca. It’s that association with Mecca that convinces her that the smooth stones can truly save her husband.

I also needed to make Haji Abdullah convincing as a salesman. Notice his selling pitch – she had to buy two stones – not one – because they only work in “pairs”. It was only after she reluctantly admitted that she had money in the Post Office, that he brought up the most powerful (and most expensive) stone of all, the black one – and naturally it wouldn’t work without the other two. Had he mentioned that black one early on, she may have balked at price and not have taken the bait. A good salesman, like a good fisherman, learns to entice the fish to his hook with bait. If they nibble you don’t jerk the line, or you lose them for good. Only after they bite (after mentioning the post office money), then you reel them in.

When Rosmah vacillates over the two white stones, Haji Abdullah plays on her emotions like some salesman do. He asks, “Was your husband a good man? Did he treat you and your family fairly?” Then later, when referring to the black stone, he asks, “Maybe this is what you need to save your husband from dying.”

I also had him insist, on numerous occasions, that Rosmah “believe”, which eventually she does. Later, Yusof tells Azman, “Only Rosmah believed I would get better.”

This is one of those rare stories for me that was easy to write the first time around, maybe because I had put so much thought into the story, into the characters, into the setting before I even wrote it. No doubt that outline worked, too! It quickly got published in Singapore, UK, and Australia. Editing over the years has been minor, mostly cosmetic, even when I revisited it for Lovers and Strangers Revisited. One editor suggested that the ending was “too predictable”, yet a critic presenting a paper on Lovers and Strangers Revisited for a short story conference in the UK stated that “the ending gave him goose bumps”. When I tried to revise the ending for the latest MPH version, the editor I was working with, overruled me, and insisted I go back to how I had it, so I did. She too had faith in the story.

The story recently came close to being accepted in the US, though in the end, in the final round of judging I was told, they opted for another story from this collection, “Waiting”, which again surprised me. Then another US editor really liked the story and they requested a rewrite, so my fingers are crossed.

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

*Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

***Here the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and for Trois autres Malaisie.

Here are three reviews of Lovers and Strangers Revisited: The Star (MPH), The Expat (Silverfish), and NST (Silverfish) and a link to the other story behind the stories for Lovers and Strangers Revisited.