Thursday 25 March 2021

Elaine Chiew Chats With Catherine Menon about her startling debut Fragile Monsters

Photo Credit: Paul Emberson

 Catherine Menon is Australian-British, has Malaysian heritage and lives in London. Her debut short story collection, Subjunctive Moods, was published by Dahlia Publishing in 2018. She is a University lecturer in robotics and has both a PhD in pure mathematics and an MA in Creative Writing. Fragile Monsters, published by Viking in April 2021, is her debut novel.

Synopsis: Mary is a difficult grandmother for Durga to love. She is sharp-tongued and ferocious, with more demons than there are lines on her palms. When Durga visits her in rural Malaysia, she only wants to endure Mary, and the dark memories home brings, for as long as it takes to escape. But a reckoning is coming. Stuck together in the rising heat, both women must untangle the truth from the myth of their family's past. In her stunning debut novel Catherine Menon traces one family's story from 1920 to the present, unravelling a thrilling tale of love, betrayal and redemption against the backdrop of natural disasters and fallen empires. Written in vivid technicolour, with an electric daughter-grandmother relationship at its heart, Fragile Monsters explores what happens when secrets fester through the generations. 

EC: Welcome to Asian Books Blog, Catherine. Congratulations on your startling debut,
 Fragile Monsters (Viking, 2021).  It literally begins with a bang, one revelation following another like a series of explosions through the book, keeping this reader on her toes. Every character has an incredible secret, even Karthika, the grandmother’s domestic helper. Tell us about the making of this book: was there a clear starting point and what was the process of writing it like?


CM: Thank you so much for having me, Elaine. The inspiration for Fragile Monsters came from the bedtime stories my father used to tell me about his own childhood in Pahang. It was only as an adult that I began to understand the context of these stories. Kuala Lipis, where he grew up, was the headquarters of the Japanese army in Pahang during the Occupation. 


I began to read memoirs and interviews with other people who’d lived through that time, and I was struck by the extent to which all of these speakers were taking ownership of their own narratives. They were describing what had happened to them, but with a focus on the emotional truth rather than the specific events. This was an amazing thing to realise: the sheer resilience that they had had to show in order to take back control of the past. 


I very much wanted to reflect this imperative – this need to own your own past – in the character of Mary. Mary understands the importance of stories and the power that they have over our memories. Durga, of course, is the exact opposite. She values logic, certainty, a kind of rigorous and exacting thought process that doesn’t allow for something to be “right, instead of true”, as Mary tells her. In writing the book I tried to keep their characters and perspectives distinct, even when they were, in effect, telling the same story. These two women are opposite sides of a mathematical equation – as Durga would put it! 


EC: One dilemma I encountered when I was living in London was distance from the historical sources I wanted to delve into. This story, taking place as it does in Pahang, a Malaysian state, as well as going back in time to 1922, and spanning wartime years to the Malayan Emergency, must have been difficult to research. How did you go about your research, and what were some of the hurdles you faced?


CM: I spent a lot of time reading through old newspapers, letters and interviews in the British Library. It was very important to me to access primary sources and as far as possible to hear people tell their stories of that time in their own words. This was partly as a result of one of the hurdles I faced in doing my initial research, which relates to the way in which that time period – WW2 and immediately afterwards – is typically presented in a lot of mainstream media and history books. There’s a tendency in that type of media to focus on the war in Europe rather than the Pacific, and to subsume the experience of Malaysians and Singaporeans into a global, Eurocentric perspective. Of course, not all Malaysians experienced the Occupation in the same way – certainly the different ethnic groups had different experiences, as did people living in towns vs villages – but life in occupied Malaya was very different, for example, to life in occupied France.


Censorship was also an obstacle. All the newspapers, letters, official documents and so on in Malaya had to pass appropriate scrutiny by the Japanese administration there, so a lot of information about daily life simply wasn’t recorded. One of the challenges I faced during the research was to pull together everything that hadn’t been said in these accounts: to create a story from the words that had been omitted.


EC:  At the heart of the book is granddaughter Durga’s dysfunctional relationship with her grandmother, Mary. Mary’s story is told in fragmented sections (zipping between past and present) and by a curious disembodied voice, ostensibly the granddaughter’s though not identified outright as such. Given how tight-lipped her grandmother is about her past, and herself an ‘unreliable narrator’, tell us about your creative decision to lean on the ‘unreliable narrator’s’ voice and imagination, what you wanted to achieve through this device, and what considerations weighed on this decision.

CM: I wanted to explore the way we all tell stories about our past, the way we mythologise certain events and gloss over others until we’re no longer even sure what our real memories are. It was important to me to show Durga doing this as well as Mary, and to suggest to readers that Mary is, perhaps, just as much a construct and product of Durga’s imagination as she is of her own. Durga is telling Mary’s story for her, both literally and metaphorically.


One aspect I did take into consideration was the extent to which this can be said to leave Mary powerless. In a very real sense, we never hear her voice directly, we only hear Durga’s interpretation of it. There are a number of voiceless characters in the novel, and I wanted to leave readers with a sense of discomfort that Mary – who in other aspects is very active, very controlling – could be interpreted as one of them.


EC: One of the folktales Mary told resurfaces throughout the book:the tiger-prince, the frog-monster, and the princess. Mythology exerts a powerful grip on the postcolonial literary narrative from this region. In interweaving mythology (especially those particular to this region – orang minyak, for example) with history, how did you approach the polarities of harnessing the power of these myths to invade the imagination and reality of those who lived during these turbulent times in Malaya while also balancing the exoticising impulse expected of storytellers from the Global South?


CM: It helped that I’d grown up with a lot of these stories in my childhood, before I’d realised they were supposed to be “exotic”! I think that there’s a definite expectation that stories from Asian cultures will be somehow made palatable to Western understanding, that the characters will be neatly placed into their boxes: the mystic, the oppressed woman, the ambitious pauper.


The thing is, of course, that stories – and even myths – don’t fall neatly into such partitionings. Durga would have grown up with a similar fusion of stories and folklore as I did: she’d have told stories of pontianaks to terrify her friends at school, she’d have waited for Father Christmas to arrive and she’d have seen stories from the Ramayana on tv on Sundays. Myths and folklore tell us something deep and true about ourselves, because there’s a reason that these tales have persisted in our consciousness. In writing Fragile Monsters it was very important to me to acknowledge the power of these stories without falling into the trap of reductionism. People are – I hope the characters in Fragile Monsters are – so much more than the stories they’ve heard.


EC: In this tale, woman-to-woman relationships are prickly and distrustful: Durga and her grandmother (who makes Durga feel unworthy and unloved); Durga and Kartika, both in love with Tom, but Durga is a professor and gets to exert her power over Kartika; Durga and her bff Peony, in whose drowning accident Durga traumatically had a part to play. But male-to-female relationships are equally problematic (her grandmother’s husband Rajan was absent most of the time, and Tom is possibly sleeping with three women in the same period). Within these complicated mired relationships, what was uppermost in your mind in shaping the narrative? 


CM: I wanted to explore the complexity of relationships – both positive and negative – and to explore the extent to which these are shaped by societal pressures. Take Tom and Karthika: Tom has economic, class, gender and racial privilege over Karthika, and acts in a way to take full (distasteful!) advantage of that. But similarly, Durga and Peony – ostensibly equals – also have a fraught childhood friendship, which partially explains the guilt which Durga feels about Peony’s accident.


While Durga vehemently rejects the idea that she is defined by her past, other characters in the novel don’t have that privilege. Karthika is the prime example, of course, but Mary’s own reactions to events show how much she felt constrained by cultural and gender expectations when she was Durga’s age. It’s only a true outsider – perhaps like Sangeeta, off-page and observational – who presents a detached view of these complex relationships, while paradoxically lacking the cultural context to truly understand them.


EC: I want to highlight the particular episode where Mary and her brother Anil as children may or may not have dropped a durian on the head of their servant sent down a well (and almost killed her). This episode for me, amidst all the other traumatic happenings, brings home not merely the cruelty of children, but also the punch in the gut of the title – that these characters, given the times they lived in and the demons inside, were turned into monsters, but they are fragile ones. As they walked off the page, what redemptive hopes did you cradle for them?


CM: It’s such an important question: what happened after?! I think there is a possibility of redemption for the characters. At the end Durga comes to the realisation that Mary’s stories have always been true, in some slippery and yet essential way. I think it’s this that gives her the strength to walk away, to go back to KL and begin her life there without the constant ambivalence that’s defined her, without her pervasive defences against rejection. I think there’s also redemption for Tom, in a way, in that he comes to a truer understanding of himself. And most certainly for Karthika; she’s one of my favourite characters, if I’m allowed to have them. She’s exactly the kind of person that’s typically expected to be voiceless, but she takes back control. She says her piece, plants her flag in the ground. Karthika is, more than anyone else, a survivor. 



NB: Fragile Monsters is available everywhere at local prices, but Catherine would like to give a special shout-out to independent bookstore Owl Bookshop, in Kentish Town. She says, "It is such an amazing place to browse. They’re open for click and collect right now at and in-person on 12th April.