Monday 2 August 2021

Raelee Chapman chats with Audrey Chin, author of The Ash House.


At the 2014 Singapore Writers Festival, I met Singaporean author Audrey Chin by the coffee cart. This super-friendly petite lady with short spiky hair was raving about the muffins. We got talking and introduced ourselves. I was covering some festival events for this blog. It was awkward and embarrassing to admit I hadn't heard of Audrey or known that her novel 'As the Heart Bones Break' was nominated for the Singapore Literature Prize. Fast forward seven years, Audrey and I are good friends and co-run a book club together that focuses on reading Asian literature. I am thrilled to invite her back to Asian Books Blog to discuss her new Asian gothic novel 'The Ash House'. 

The Book: 
The Tjoa Ash House, originally intended for ancestral tablets, has stood at the top of Kota Cahaya's exclusive Green Hill for a century. Now it is a haunted house with a haunted heir in it. Arno Tjoa is a cripple obsessed with Barbie dolls whom Sister Mary Michael, a clairvoyant nun, must set free. Arno believes a meddling pipa diva spirit named Bing Fa is the key to solving the house's misfortunes and releasing Girl, the family's troubled young maid. But as the nun unravels the stories and pacts made by the Tjoa family past and present, she soon realises it is not in her power to save everyone or everything. 

RC:  Welcome back, Audrey and congratulations on the publication of The Ash House. When we met in 2014, you were promoting As the Heart Bones Break and had forthcoming work in the pipeline with your collections Nine Cuts (2015) and When the Heart Meets Spirit (2016) and still had a day job. Do you always work across different projects? 

 AC: Yes. I like the diversity of working across different projects. The Vietnamese poet Han Mac Tu has a great line about inspiration – 
    “Thơ là người khách lạ, đi giữa nguồn tơ tưỡng trong trẽo.” 
    “Poetry is the unknown guest who walks amidst the pure springs of our imaginings."  
Periodically setting work aside and focusing on something else is a great way to wait for the arrival of ‘the unknown guest.’   

RC: When you first drafted The Ash House, did you envision it as a ghost story or Asian gothic novel? 

 AC: I wanted to write a ghost story. I had no idea there was a genre called ‘Asian gothic’. However, the setting is a hoary old house, so the story has become this hybrid creature – an Asian gothic ghost story. The idea then was for a literary work along the lines of the Akira Kurosawa movie Rashomon, with the different characters telling different and conflicting versions of the story.

RC: That is not far removed from how the novel turned out? Sister Mary Michael must listen, intuit and make sense of several different stories being told. The book is structured around these retellings and moves fluidly between them. Would you agree? 

AC: Yes, we still have the different characters with their unreliable narratives. However, their stories are now linked by Sister Mary Michael. This creates a sense of continuity that hadn’t been there previously.     

RC: A few years ago, in one of our conversations about writing, you spoke about hearing your characters speak before writing them down. The Ash House has several characters, and I wondered which character’s voice you heard first? 

AC: The first voice I heard was Big Mother’s telling Gran they had to evict the pipa diva from the house. Yet, when the novel starts, she is long dead and only ever referred to in the third person. It is the consequences of her actions that propel the story forward. Her deception is the source of the mystery we need to unravel. However, she’s never seen. She’s present, but not, like all ghosts.

RC: That is so spooky! What made you want to pursue a ghost story? It is quite different to your other novels Learning to Fly and As the Heart Bones Break

AC: The Ash House is the first long-form ghost story I’ve written. However, as a writer of South-East Asian stories, supernatural elements and ‘voices’ communicating to characters are sprinkled all over my work. For example, I have a short story about two cannibal ghosts and another about a lucky lottery number predicting fish in the anthology Nine Cuts. I don’t usually think of genre when I start a piece. I am simply prompted to write the story as it comes to me. When I heard Big Mother speaking to Gran, I clearly understood that the pipa diva she wanted to evict was a ghost. Since I had to figure out the relationship between them and how Gran was involved, I couldn’t help but write a ghost story.

RC: The Ash House features a large cast of characters, including the Tjoa clan, Sister Mary Michael, the domestic staff and the spirit Bing Fa. Do you feel the story belongs primarily to any one protagonist?  

AC: The story could not have moved forward without any of them. Without Bing Fa, Big Mother and Gran, there would be no first cause. Without Girl and Arno, there would be no pawns. Without B.K. Tjoa, no villain. And without Irene Tjoa, no motive. So, yes, all the protagonists are essential, and I wouldn’t privilege one over the other.

RC: I love the cover, by the way! Without giving too much away for our readers, can you explain where the Barbie dolls come in! In particular, the doll on the cover doesn’t look like a modern-day Barbie doll. 

AC: Arno collects and trades Barbie dolls and has a huge collection lining his bedroom walls. He is fondest of a 1959 brunette Barbie doll that he believes exudes the essence of a Shanghainese diva. The image on the cover is that of an original 1959 brunette Barbie.

RC: As a reader, I was concerned about Girl, the fresh off the plane maid. When she joins the Tjoa household, she left her lover Buffalo boy behind. As the story unfolds, Girl longs to learn more from the spirit Bing Fa and toys with changing her lot in life, so she can rise above being just a ‘hungry, angry girl.’ I love the brilliant scene where she spills the expensive bird’s nest soup and must act quickly to avoid getting in trouble. Tell us about Girl and why you don’t name her. How did she become so crucial to the storyline? 

AC: Girl does have a twenty-four-alphabet-long name. I chose not to reveal it because, like many girls in the region, she has never been thought of as an individual. She was her mother’s daughter, then a second maid and finally an object of obsession and lust. A mere girl. She is crucial to the story because, as in all good horror stories, she is the sacrifice, the one whose virgin blood must be spilt. And, of course, that bird’s nest scene is a metaphor for that future sacrifice.  

RC: You are donating a portion of the royalties of The Ash House to the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME). What is your connection to HOME

AC: I don’t have any official affiliation with HOME but am hugely supportive of their work. The author Karien Van Ditzhuijzen initially introduced me to HOME. Their advocacy for the often-ghosted population of foreign domestic workers is hugely important. Too many work silently in terrible conditions. A not insignificant number are abused. Indeed, I was so impressed, I agreed to write a foreword for their book Our Homes, Our Stories: Voices of Migrant Domestic Workers in Singapore. A central theme of The Ash House is the struggle of poor women working in affluent homes. Girl’s contract demands she pay off a portion of her salary as commission to her introducer, have her hair cut off at her employer's whim, and not have any holidays for the first six months of her work. This is only the mildest of the indignities foreign domestic workers must endure. Therefore, it is a given that the proceeds should be shared with this organisation dedicated to these women’s well-being.

RC: If you had only three words to say what this novel is about, what would you say? 

AC: Love gone wrong.

Details: The Ash House is published by Penguin SEA. To support HOME, you may order a copy here.