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 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 

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