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

Friday, October 12, 2018

Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Trailers

The trailers are out for the documentary Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed parts I & II that I recently took part in.  Recently I had blogged about being beheaded at the hands of Rentap’s warriors and then portraying the younger Captain Keppel 

Here is the trailer to Part 1

The documentary, a Rack Focus Films production, is the Third Season in the highly suc­cess­­ful Road to Nationhood series, and was originally scheduled to be aired 16 September 2018—on Malay­sia National Day—on the National Geographic channel, Astro.  Because of some unexpected delays, it was pushed back until October. 

Here are the times and Astro channels for Part I & II

Part 1: 13 October at 8:00 p.m.  Part 2: 14 October at 8:00 p.m. 
Repeat Part I:  16 October at 10:00 a.m.  Part 2: 16 October at 11:00 a.m. 
Repeat Part 1:  20 October at 4:00 p.m.  Part 2:  21 October at  4:00 p.m.

Part 1: 13 October at 11:00 p.m.    Part 2: 14 October at 9:00 p.m.

Part 1: 13 October at 9:00 p.m.    Part 2: 14 October at 9:00 p.m.

Part 1: 15 October at 9:00 p.m.    Part 2: 16 October at 9:00 p.m.
Repeat Part 1:  17 October at 9:00 p.m.  Part 2:  18 October at  9:00 p.m.
Repeat Part 1:  19 October at 4:00 p.m.  Part 2:  19 October at  10:00 p.m.

Here is the trailer to part 2:


Joseph Conrad and Me 

Somerset Maugham and MePart I-V 

Beheaded on the Road to Nation­hood—Part I 

Beheaded on the Road to Nation­hood—Part II 

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Beheaded on the Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part II

Robert Raymer with Ernesto Kalum as Retap and Iban war party

After being beheaded as Alan Lee  in the documentary Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed by Rentap and his war party, my head didn’t hurt, nor was there any swell­ing, but I could really feel the pain in my ribs that night—I must’ve bruised or cracked one when I fell several times while being killed—which made it difficult for me to sleep.

Back in my twenties, I cracked a couple of ribs after getting kicked in taekwondo, so I knew there wasn’t a whole lot a doctor could do except X-ray it for confirmation and give you something for the pain.  They used to wrap your chest but they stopped doing that decades ago.  The pain was manageable; it only hurt when I laughed or slept or rose from sitting, so I opted not to see a doctor, but I did need to repair my black leather shoes.  Maybe from all of the falling or banging it on the short steps at the Iban Long­house, the sole in front started to come off.


Since I was not needed until Saturday, my big day where I was to play several characters—the Governor of Singapore; John Brooke, who had been passed over in favour of Charles Brooke as the second White Rajah; and the younger version of Captain Henry Kep­pel, a British naval officer who had served in the Opium War and assisted the first White Rajah James Brooke’s campaign against the Borneo pirates and Iban warriors—I had plenty of time to find a shoe cobbler to fix the problem.



Throughout the day, I kept receiving photos of the shoot being posted on the WhatsApp Group.  Some made me pause and wonder because they looked like my scenes.  I knew there had been some changes on the shooting schedule, so I double checked Friday’s call sheet to make sure my name was not on it.  I thought, perhaps, I had overlooked it.


Late that afternoon, I got a message from Mark to confirm that I needed transportation for Saturday.  Then two hours later, Prisca contacted me and asked if I could drive out to the Sarawak Cultural Village on my own.  Seems there was a problem with the tide for the boat scene and they needed to start shooting a lot sooner than planned.  I needed to be there by 6:30 am, which meant I had to get up at 4:30 am if I wanted to make the 50 km journey from my house on time.

My wife told me to take a new shortcut to Damai, via Pending, the opposite way we nor­mal­ly took, via Satok; both would head north on the other side of the Sarawak River.  Last night it had rained and was still drizzling when I arrived at the Bidayuh Longhouse, the new base of operations at exactly 6:30 amwithout getting lost, surprising my wife.


Alex and Charles Rentap (real name!)

I was told that all of the afternoon shoots had been cancelled, confirm­ing my suspicions.  Since yesterday, Friday, was a public holiday, the staff would not be around at the Bishop’s House, so they decided to create the shots they needed at the Sarawak Cultural Village using two other Caucasians, the Fort Guards, Alex and Charles for the Governor of Singapore and John Brooke. 


Malaysia and Sarawak flags

Swapping roles at the last minute was quite common.  Sometimes, someone couldn’t make it for the shoot, so they would grab whoever else was handy; others, as requested, sent a re­place­­ment for them­selves.  Jimmy, one of the extras, told me that he played nine roles.  A little makeup, a change of costume, and he could pass for one race or another.  Others played at least five or six roles, one or two primary, up-close shots, and the rest secondary to fill out the numbers.



For the battle scenes, which took place last night, they made about a dozen peo­ple look like a hun­dred, taking multiple close-up shots from different angles, catching various parts of their bodies.  Those working on the actual footage reported how impressed they were seeing it on film.


After we were dressed in our costumes, they drove Alex, who was to portray the 14-year-old Charles Brooke, and me, as the younger Captain Henry Keppel, to a nearby jetty in Santubong where we boarded a fishing boat with a trimmed down crew.  Altogether, including the director, Fendi, and Rob, there might have been eight or nine of us.  Since it looked like it was going to pour anytime soon, we were all in a rush to get set up and to start filming.   


Fendi, the Director


They had Alex and me stand at the bow, looking off to­ward our left, with the camera posi­tioned behind us, shooting us, the sea and the black­ening sky assuring us that a storm was approaching.



While filming, I explained to the young Charles Brooke, the future second White Rajah of Sarawak that someday, all of this would be his….It was Charles Brooke who greatly ex­panded the territory of Sarawak beyond the original city of Kuching to its present bor­ders.


Luckily for me, I wore a hat when it began to drizzle; unluckily, the British flag that they had mounted kept pushing at the back of my head nearly knocking the hat off before they tied the flag down. 


To get the angle they were looking for, we had to kneel on the deck, with our backs erect.  The position was uncomfortable, so we were glad when the director suggested that we re­move our shoes, which helped.



Later, when it began to rain heavily after the shoot­ing, as I was rushing for cover, the hat flew off my head, but I somehow managed to catch it midair before it was lost forever at sea.


Author Robert Raymer and Rob Nevis, Executive Producer

I had planned to get some shots of the fishing boat that we had used but the heavy rain pre­vented me from doing so; I wished I had taken the shots before boarding but we were in a rush to beat the rain....Alex and I returned to the Bidayuh Longhouse, while the others stayed behind to shoot more river foot­age.

They then spend the rest of the day and the follow­ing day taking B-roll shots—out­takes with­out actors—at notable sites such as Fort Mar­gheritathe Istana, the Courthouse, and other historical buildings, and the surrounding envi­rons to work into the documentary.

The A-roll shots are the main scenes with the actors and extras, the most costly part of the filming, which is why they try to cram it all into several long days for documentaries or a few intense weeks for feature films.

Rob Nevis and Jason Brooke

Before leaving Kuching, Rob managed to have tea with Jason Brooke, grandson of the last Rajah Muda of Sara­wak.

Even though the rescheduling of the shoot made me miss out on some important scenes, including having a private tea with James Brooke as the Governor of Singa­pore, no doubt suggesting that he seek his fortune in Borneo, I was quite happy to keep my head about me at all times, just in case someone decided to, well, you know, this is land of the headhunt­ers, and that Iban war party did kill me in that other scene 

It was also quite an honor to be a part of recreating his­tory—an honor for all of us involved from the cast, the crew and production—in the Road to Nationhood: Sara­wak Reclaimed.

—Borneo Expat Writer

#  #  #


Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I 

Beheaded on the Road to Nation­hood—Part II 

Joseph Conrad and Me 

Somerset Maugham and MePart I-V 

See the trailers:

Road to Nation­hood: Journey to Independence part I (1945-1957) 

Road to Nation­hood: Journey to Independence part II (1957-1965)