Saturday 9 December 2017

Elaine Chiew converses with multi-talented Bernice Chauly, author of Once We Were There

Photo courtesy of Daniel Adams
Bernice Chauly may be no stranger to readers in Asia but here AsianBooksBlog has the pleasure of talking to her about her first foray into the novel form and the challenges she found in writing her book Once We Were There.

Bernice Chauly is a Malaysian writer, poet, educator and festival director. Born in George Town to Chinese and Punjabi teachers, she read education and English literature in Canada as a government scholar. She is the author of six books of poetry and prose: going there and coming back (1997), The Book of Sins (2008), Lost in KL (2008), Growing Up with Ghosts (2011), which won the Readers’ Choice Awards 2012 in the non-fiction category, and a third collection of poems, Onkalo (2013), described by J.M. Coetzee as ‘direct, honest and powerful’. 

For 20 years she worked as a multidisciplinary artist and is recognised as one of the most significant voices of her generation. Since 2011 she has served the director of the George Town Literary Festival, shortlisted at the International Excellence Awards at the London Book Fair 2017, and is an Honorary Fellow in Writing from the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program (2014). She currently teaches creative writing at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. She is also the founder and director of the KL Writers Workshop. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, Once We Were There, was published in 2017 by Epigram Books (Singapore-London) and won the inaugural Penang Monthly Book Prize.

EC: Welcome to AsianBooksBlog, Bernice.  An honour to have you.  First of all, congratulations on winning the inaugural Penang Monthly Book Prize for your just launched-novel -- Once We Were There, a provocative and somewhat titillating read for me (laugh! we will get to that below).

BC: Thank you. A pleasure to be on this platform.

EC:  Right, the elephant in the room in any public political discourse in Malaysia --WHOSENAME shall not be mentioned.  But you do so in the novel in spades, depicting actual events during this turbulent period -- the jailing of Anwar Ibrahim which made international news and sent financial jitters across the globe, and which began the Malaysian Reformasi period.  Were you in any way worried, as you were writing, about censorship, or if and when published, repercussions?

BC: Yes, of course. I think I would be foolish to not think of possible repercussions, but I really couldn’t worry about it too extensively, otherwise I would not have finished the book. I also wanted to push the boundaries of what is deemed sayable and unsayable in a work of fiction about the Reformasi, so I really had to just write what I needed to write and deal with the possible consequences later.

EC:  Just to name a few of the hats you don, you’ve written a few volumes of poetry, a memoir, made documentaries, and you’re a documentary photographer whose works, according to Zhuang Wubin in Photography in Southeast Asia: A Survey, derive poignancy from the marriage of photography and poetry with the personal, a combination “rare in Malaysia.”  As one of the most versatile artists in Southeast Asia, you have the rare talent of being able to choose the form/genre in which to shine a spotlight on Malaysian political corruption, nepotism, and child trafficking issues.  Why did you choose the format of a novel?

B: To me the novel is the highest and most difficult of all literary forms, and the only way I could narrate the story I wanted to tell was in the novel. I would never ever have considered the novel twenty years ago, because it seemed so unreachable, unattainable, beyond the sphere of any understanding of what it would take to write one. I started as a poet - which is the form I always return to - but when I was able to finish writing the memoir - which was then the hardest thing I had ever done - I immediately started research on the novel, which would take six years to write. I am very much a purist at heart, I believe in learning things thoroughly, and becoming as good as one can be at a particular form, so the novel was probably the steepest learning curve for anything I’ve ever done, and probably the most liberating as well. There are no shortcuts really, and if I was going to write a novel, I was going to learn how to do it and take as long as I needed and as many drafts to get the best possible version ready for publication.

EC: To what extent do you feel that the ability to migrate across genres inform your writing and/or artistic practice, and the writing particularly of this novel, and to what extent is it sometimes an encumbrance?

BC: Poetry is still the most personal of all forms – this is the way I write of my place in the world – the memoir served as an exercise in non-fiction as that was the only way to write it, I have a collection of short stories as well, and the novel is well, it is what it is. I have written across many genres, including writing for the stage and screen, and I was also a journalist for many years, so the issue of working across genres is not one that I grapple with. It really depends on what kind of beast the task is – the most important precursor to everything - except poetry - is research. I recently wrote a 3,000 word commissioned essay on the Malayan Emergency, and that took weeks of research before I was even able to write a single word. This next book – yes, it will be another novel - deals with the mammoth issue of climate change, among other obsessions, and I have already been researching this for the past six months, and I reckon it will take another year or more of research before my characters even come to life. It’s a grueling, arduous process of fact-finding and really sinking my teeth into a subject where I eat, breathe, know it, dream it – that’s the first of many tasks. Then it’s finding the right style of language for the story I want to tell. In short, it’s just hard work, a lot of hard work.

EC:  In photography, often what is depicted side by side or chosen for the frame invokes hidden layers of meaning.  Here, in this novel, can you talk about why you chose to juxtapose Malaysian politics and the sodomy charges against Anwar Ibrahim with the K.L. underworld of syndicate child trafficking, drugs, the sex trade and nepotism deals? 

BC: I wanted to write about Kuala Lumpur, which I think to be one of the most fascinating cities on the planet. There are many layers to any city but the challenge was to ‘expose’ KL in a way that it had not been written about before in contemporary Malaysian fiction. Malaysians talk about politics all the time, and the challenge was how to make it part of the story which impacts on the lives of my characters. I think there is a lot of truth in what I write about in the novel, truths that KL-ites many not even want to see, as it somehow makes us culpable and complicit in the kind of reality we live with, but I also wanted to really document what the Reformasi years were like. I wanted to try and create a vast tapestry that was the Malaysian landscape of that time in all its warts and glory. I wanted to make the city as real and visceral as possible to the reader. I wanted to make KL a character, give it a voice, and the only way to do it was to try and cut through as many layers a possible.

EC:  One certainly senses the personality of KL itself in the book.  A rambunctious, ambitious but also somewhat seedy character.   

One of the quotes attributed to you in your photographic work, in:sights:out, highlights how you, as a female artist, often cross public and private lines, and certainly many narrative strains in the novel borrow from your autobiographical details, e.g. all the couples that get together in the novel depict mixed marriages or relationships, and the protagonist, Delonix Regia, herself is a product of a mixed marriage and grew up with only one surviving parent, Delonix has studied in Canada as you’ve done, works as a journalist and activist and becomes a mother, journeys which could be said to parallel yours, and has covered or interviewed sex workers, which you’ve also done.

To what extent do you feel autobiographical details enrich or work against a narrative? Do you feel there’s a danger that readers correlate too intimately certain biographical similarities between you as creator and your protagonist?

BC: I write about things I want to read about, and yes, there are very few mixed narratives in contemporary Malaysian fiction, told especially from women, so this is something that really concerns me. Readers are free to infer whatever they want into my own personal life - that just comes with the territory of writing as a woman about another woman. I think female writers are judged more than male writers, especially when you’re writing about female characters who don’t quite conform to what readers think they ‘should’ be. Yes, of course there are certain aspects of me in all my characters, including Marina, and I don’t see why this is an issue at all. I was an activist, I was a journalist, I was tear-gassed and I use these experiences in creating character. This is what writers do. This is the democracy of the novel, you are allowed to create a fiction, and however you do it is irrelevant, as long as you serve the god that is the novel, first and foremost.

EC:  One of the most powerful things this novel does, as Salil Tripathi who reviewed it for the South China Morning Post says, is that it breaks all kinds of taboos. For example, the transgender sex-worker character Marina goes through a horrific experience, and the same casual brutality happens to Delonix in Canada.  It’s an experience all too common for women.  The novel lets these events unfold in plain, unadorned, by-the-by prose.  Not to mention the orgies of drug-taking and interludes of gay sex.  And this is not giving anything away: Delonix’s two-year-old child is taken by child traffickers, which begins Delonix’s descent into madness and hellishness that as a mother myself, reading it evoked feelings of inconceivable torture and nightmare. This breaking of taboos, for me, also forms a tension and counterpoint with the religious aspects highlighted in the novel, the power of the Syariah court, as well as the sodomy charges brought against Anwar. 

BC: These are all realities that Malaysians live with, and these are horrors that are very real and hit close to home. These are laws that we have to live with, and I think the novel illustrates how the far-reaching arm of the law can adversely affect lives.

EC:  Process wise, how long did it take to write this novel? I noticed also that you had done various residencies -- was time spent in the residencies helpful?  Can you tell us a little about this novel’s journey from point of inspiration to completion?

BC: Once I finish a book, I immediately start working on another. This has been the experience now for three books – poetry takes time, years in fact, and something that cannot be rushed as it has a pace and tempo of its own. I started researching Once We Were There at a residency in Amsterdam from Dec 2011 till February 2012. I worked on the first draft when I was in the Iowa for the IWP residency in 2014 and finished it in Alaska. Then I revised it to Draft 4 until Epigram signed the book in mid-2016 and went into overdrive for the next 12 months, revising it non-stop until Draft 10. It took six years in total, which is a terribly long time. If I hadn’t had that residency in Iowa and Alaska (14 weeks in total), the book would not have come to be. I needed to have total isolation, and time and space to write. It was a form of hell really, forcing myself to sit at my desk and write from morning till night. There’s nothing romantic about writing, it’s brute work. It’s like squeezing every single muscle in your body for that word to come out, hour after hour, day after day, month after month. The scenes where Alba is taken and Del’s descent into madness were particularly difficult to write, at one point I remember asking myself - if there was a hell for women who wrote about this, or if I was going to be cursed for writing this. But I had to persevere, I had to try and wrench that grief out of Del – there are so many women who have had their children taken from them, and I wanted to try and give a voice to that kind of pain.

EC:  In what way was speed, pacing, and  what Walt Whitman called  ‘the power of motion’ a deliberate consideration in the formation of each scene? 

BC: I was not thinking consciously of the speed and pace of the narrative when writing, but I did want it to be a good read. I am guilty of starting books and not finishing them, and I wanted readers to finish this book, so I wrote it in a way that I myself would find riveting. A book has to have movement, it has to have highs and lows and the language need to work for the narrative, and in this case, there is perhaps a sense of urgency that penetrates throughout, and that is maybe why there is an obvious sense of the ‘motion’ in which you speak.

EC:  There are many steamy sex scenes in the book.  There are writers who find writing about sex as easy as Yeats described writing poetry, “I made it out of a mouthful of air” and others who find it awfully difficult, as Barbara Kingsolver confessed (hers as truncated as “She said if he had a condom in his pocket, it would be his lucky day. He did. it was.”)   Where are you in the spectrum -- Yeats or Kingsolver? What about the nature and writing of female lust here should we contemplate?

BC: I make it very clear from the first page that KL was going through some kind of sexual renaissance at the time – the drugs, anger, idealism – all gave rise to a very unique time in Malaysian history. My characters were in love and in their prime, Marina is a sex worker, so there is sex in the book, simply because the story demanded it. Malaysians were then embroiled in a sex scandal and the lurid newspaper headlines at the time of Anwar’s trial were shocking because sex was displayed so openly, there was nothing prudish about it at all, and the media played into it with much hype, feeding us graphic image after graphic image daily. I had never really written about sex before so it was a challenge, and I wanted to stay away from clich├ęs, so I wrote and rewrote certain sections many times until it felt right.

 EC:  Thank you, Bernice! I hope many of your readers will enjoy the book as I did.

Details:  Once We Were There is published in paperback by Epigram Books and is available in local bookstores at local currencies.