Friday 17 November 2023

Dear Chrysanthemums: A Novel in Stories by Fiona Sze-Lorrain

 Devika Misra reports.

Singaporean-born, Paris-based Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a poet, translator, musician, and now novelist. Her debut work of fiction Dear Chrysanthemums can be read as a novel or as separate interconnected short stories. Set in Shanghai, Beijing, Singapore, Paris, and New York, the protagonists are all victims of difficult circumstances; young Asian women, alone, vulnerable and struggling to survive displacement and sometimes violence and assault. Despite suffering lifelong mental anguish, they prove emotionally resilient and are keen to connect with the wider world as they construct different personas in challenging and ever-changing landscapes. 

FSL: “What I wanted to work with in the book was parallel destinies, parallel fates, parallel lives and then it evolved into something much more circular… then you had the idea of time and with the years ending with the number six and the connection with Chinese divination. I wanted to look into women’s lives when there exists a bigger sweep of history in the background and then you have all the little personal struggles in life that put together has a narrative. It’s a novel in stories. You can read everything as a novel but at the same time you can read each story just as a story in itself and it stands on its own. And that in itself, that concept, is already a parallel destiny in a way.” 

The women’s lives are interwoven with historic/political events and characters. Mao’s favourite opera is mentioned and Madame Chiang Kai-shek’s favourite salad becomes the theme of a tale. 

FSL: “It's my attempt at trying to understand what history is and what historical figures are really exactly and also the idea of authenticity. I believe that the important thing in life, really, is to re-live an authentic life behind the image, behind the mask, behind the social role, which is what all the other women are also struggling with all the time, you know the construction of different selves. In the book I even started to poke fun at the historical figures sometimes. I also had a lot of fun to make them exist in worlds next to, for instance, a corpse, in Death at the Wukang Mansion, and, in News from Saigon, an old French writer alongside a waitress and a waiter. So beyond creating a democracy between all the different narratives and voices, I'm looking at how the parallel and conflicting possibilities of history versus present and what is present and what is history anyway? Ultimately there's no real binary opposites. I'm consistently trying to dismantle that. And so in a way we are starting to normalize and see Madam Chiang Kai-shek, it's not Madam Chiang Kai-shek but a woman who wants to eat a potato salad that's called sela. So there are huge figures in it and there are also very interesting, you know, what we call ordinary people. I think the word ordinary, it's not all that ordinary after all. So ordinary lives are really far more than ordinary.” 

In this work of historical fiction Sze-Lorrain goes beyond exploring well known political figures, she delves into political landscapes. One narrative she develops, for instance in The Invisible Window, is around the taboo topic of Tiananmen Square. 

FSL: “I was just very interested because we don't know much about Tiananmen Square. We're not allowed to know much about Tiananmen Square” Readers wouldn’t be to blame if they wondered whether her accounts of the event are completely fictional. FSL:” Yes and no. Fictional, fictionalized only because the details were a composite. But in fact, it's not made up. It is a composite truth. A composite character, a composite of details. So in that sense, they are fictionalized. But the emotional truth and the emotional honesty, there's a certain level of truth. I do have friends who have been through Tiananmen. That was back then in 1989 and now we are in 2023. These people have aged. They live all over the world now, in fact. Yet we don't know much of it - of Tiananmen. And what struck me was the collective amnesia there. Like just in 30 years, everything was just gone. except for what we have as dialogues, memories, which by the way are absolutely unreliable. …Documentations, but dispersed throughout the whole world.” 

Sze-Lorrain describes the experience of tackling a new writing genre. 

FSL: “It is not difficult, but it's not easy. Once you think about difficulty, then that will become a problem. It's more about the desire of whether you want to do it or not. If you have a desire to write a poem, you would do it. If you have a desire to write fiction, you would do it. If you have a desire to tell a story, you have to tell a story. Technique-wise, however, that's something else. It's like driving a different kind of car, taming a different kind of horse…that is actually apart from the desire. I find the desire a much more interesting vehicle, discourse, and how to stay motivated in that desire. Poetry and fiction each has its own difficulties and ease. Poetry is a lot about waiting. It's about waiting and listening. And you can create that poetry in fiction too, by (practising the art of) waiting and listening in the storytelling in itself. But when it comes to fiction, I think you have to let the story push you. You can come out with a plot, and then the next day you come back, and you see what you've written: nothing works. And then something else, again, another series of action. I do not think everyone has the same experience or working method…that's what it is for me.” Ultimately, she says she is less interested in the nomenclature or even the material “technique” of working in different artistic genres. The key she asserts is the actual creative process - “it’s about the quality of energy one brings to the creative process.”

Details: Dear Chrysanthemums is published by Simon & Schuster, in paperback, priced in local currencies.