Wednesday, June 3, 2009

"On Fridays": The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

Over the years, I’ve often been asked about the short stories in Lovers and Strangers Revisited (MPH 2008), winner of the 2009 Popular-The Star Reader's Choice Award in Fiction, previously published by Silverfish (2005), and originally as Lovers and Strangers (Heinemann Asia 1993). Where I got the ideas? How I wrote them? Why I revise them even after they’ve been published! And are the stories true?

In the preface to the original collection I wrote, “There’s a lot of truth in all fiction and a lot of fiction in all truth, so what may seem real may, in fact, be made up, and what may seem made up could very well be based on fact. The characters in this collection only exist in the author’s and the reader’s mind and if they bear a resemblance to anyone you know, then it’s merely a coincidence.”

As we all know there’s a blurry line between truth and fiction. Some stories that I wrote started out based on fact and got changed along the way to make it a better story. Others started out as pure fiction but some truth got added in to make the story seem more realistic. I tried to make all the stories seem real, as if they had happened. Maybe that’s why these 15 – now 17 stories – have been published, at last count, 78 times in eleven countries (updated, 2 September 2010), taught in numerous Malaysian universities, private colleges, in SPM literature, and even a high school in Canada.

So with the new version of Lovers and Strangers Revisited published by MPH, I thought I would do a series of blogs on the stories – the story behind the story – which I hope will answer these questions about truth and fiction and also, perhaps, inspire some of you who write to take another look at your own story ideas, to see if you can make them resonate with the reader, and perhaps even break you from your own truth, which often gets in the way of a good short story.

Already I can hear protests, “But that’s the way it really happened!” Yes, no doubt, but to get to the essential story, the “real” story, sometimes you need to take a step back from your truth and ask yourself, does your truth serve the story, or does it hamper it? Of course, I’m referring to writing fiction not a memoir. And by making the necessary changes, you never know where you’re story will take you. For example, I started a story about a man riding in a taxi and it ended up being published 13 times, and now it’s the lead story in this collection.

The original idea for “On Fridays” came when I was part-time adviser for MACEE, Malaysian American Commission on Educational Exchange. Every Friday I would take a sixteen kilometer taxi ride into George Town. It was a share taxi, whereby we share it with other passengers, who get on and off at various locations.

I saw this taxi as a metaphor for multiracial Malaysia, where people of various races live and work in close proximity and in relative harmony. So I added an unnamed Westerner, an expat, who becomes interested in a Malay woman sitting beside him in a taxi, yet because of the other passengers, he feels too self-conscious to act.

Although I normally write in the third person, I chose to write this story in the first person at the expense of people assuming that it’s autobiographical. As many of you know, when you use the first person “I” as the narrator, people naturally assume it’s the author or in this case, it’s “me”. Unlike the character, by the way, I don’t paint, and the character taught English years before I ever did.

The effect I was going for, I felt, would be better served using “I”, because I wanted the reader to closely identify with the narrator, to see himself in this, or in a similar situation, and think about what he or she would do - to make the story more personal. From the comments I got in the past – it works. This was the one story from my collection that people would bring up and then relate a similar experience of their own.

Another choice I made was not using the past tense and opting for the present tense, because I felt it would give the story more immediacy, and hopefully a timeless quality. And perhaps make it linger, as does the ending, so it would seem that this just happened.

Also from the hundreds of taxi rides I took while living in Penang, I chose to “create” one that was representative of all those rides. By using the senses – see, hear, feel, taste and smell – I tried to make this one taxi ride as realistic as possible by putting the reader in that taxi with me. If they believe in that taxi ride, then they’ll believe in the story. That it’s the “truth”; that it “happened”; that there really was “a girl”; and that I’m still “searching” for her....When my creative writing students read this story, they inevitably ask me, “Have you found her yet?”

When I first wrote the story I had a lot of details describing the sights along the way. An editor from the UK made the comment that it read too much like a travelogue. So I cut out the descriptions that weren’t necessary. It was also suggested that I make the character single. His being married raised some moral issues – like is he cheating on his wife? Good advice, which I took, and an example of how "facts" or "truth" can have unforeseen consequences in your fiction. This is the version that first got published in Female in Singapore, Plaza in Japan and Going Down Swinging Australia.

A reader, unfamiliar with Malaysia, asked me what’s the big deal if he does touch her in the taxi, so while revisiting the story for Lovers and Strangers Revisited, I worked in the character’s concerns about being arrested for “outraging her modesty” since he’s an expat in a Muslim country, something that many people outside of Malaysia who are not familiar with Muslim countries would know. As a writer, you can't always assume that overseas readers, if that is who you also want to reach, will "get it".

Then I got to thinking, why doesn't he get out of the taxi at the jetty and follow her (I would!), and if he does, I would also need to make it clear why he has to return to the taxi, for fear of losing his job, something difficult for an expat to get without a work permit. So I added this new scene to the story.

A US editor suggested that I lop off the final paragraph. I didn’t like his suggestion, yet I felt he had a point, so we compromised by rearranging a couple of paragraphs at the end, to make the story more effective, so the focus wasn’t on the man’s loneliness, but on his obsession. This became the version that was published simultaneously, as a joint-venture, between a literary magazine in France, Frank, and The Literary Review in the US, and with some minor editing, this MPH collection, and now Cha: An Asian Literary Review

Lovers and Strangers Revisited is now getting translated into French as Trois autres Malaisie. Here's a link to the French blog set up by the publisher Éditions GOPE.

Here are three reviews of Lovers and Strangers Revisited: The Star (MPH), The Expat (Silverfish), and NST (Silverfish) and a link to the other story behind the stories for Lovers and Strangers Revisited.

*Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

** Here's the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and Trois autres Malaisie.

"The Future Barrister": The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

In the mid-80s I was standing outside Komtar in Penang, Malaysia at the bus stop, a rather seedy, smelly, low-lit area, late at night, when a young Indian man started in a one-sided conversation about his studying to be a barrister in the UK. He had this Clark Gable look about him, with a neatly trimmed moustache and sideburns. He was handsome and he knew it and he also had this way of winking as he talked, as if he was letting you in on a secret. He was also full of contradictions.

In the middle of our conversation, an attractive woman approached him and tried to pick him up. She totally ignored me. He dismissed her with a wave of his hand. I’m thinking, this guy is a real character! As soon as I got on the bus, I started making notes to turn him into a story. I even used one of his lines to open the story, “There are seven hundred barristers in Penang, and I will be number seven hundred and one!”

I changed the location of the story from a bus stop to a pub, 20 Leith Street, and I had him invite an American to join him at his table. I used the American as a minor first person viewpoint character merely as a witness to give the Future Barrister and his story credibility. I purposely didn’t give the American or the Future Barrister a name, though I referred to him as Clark Gable. Near the end of the story, I even say, “I was glad that I didn’t know his name.”

The biggest problem when I began to write it was the backstory, his relating about what had happened to him in the UK, why he was back in Malaysia and not continuing his studies. He mentioned he had run out of money and that there was a girl involved, Sarah. (I don’t remember if that was her actual name or if that was merely the name that I gave her in the story.) I had a feeling he was not telling me the real reason, as if he was hiding something, and that something was sinister, a skeleton in the closet. Maybe it was my imagination or the way he kept winking at me. So I needed to fill in the gaps and create a believable backstory.

Also I needed to break up his monologue into smaller chunks with descriptions that could showcase his character. I wanted to show how he interacted with the American and the other patrons, including a boy selling newspapers, dismissing him, as he did the woman at the bus stop, with a disdainful wave of his hand. I also wanted to show the irony, that he had become like the British Raj to his own people, a racist and a snob.

I entered this story in the 1987 Star/Nestle Short Story Awards here in Malaysia, but the contest got cancelled when the newspaper got cancelled for political reasons. Fortunate­ly, the newspaper got reinstated the following year, so when they announced the 1988 contest, I reworked the story – glad for the opportunity to do so. It won third place and was published in The Star.

Despite the early success of the story and it being published in Malaysia, India and Australia, I felt it needed something more. The random numbers on the lottery ticket didn’t seem all that confusing, even when drunk, so I changed them to 5355353, whereby the 3s and 5s, if published close together, could blur into one another. It was recently pointed out to me that there are a couple of thousand barristers in Penang, but that’s nearly twenty years later, so I kept the original quote.

While revisiting the story for Lovers and Strangers Revisited, I introduced a minor subplot with the American being interested in an Indian woman sitting at the next table who reminded him of his ex-wife, but who later rebuffed him. In contrast, I also added an attractive Western woman who walked into the pub with several friends, and she caught the Future Barrister’s eye. Later, he asked her to dance and she accepted. Of course, this gets him talking more about his ex-girlfriend in the UK, so more of the story, the truth, comes out.

Still the story never sat well with me. I couldn’t put my finger on it. By then I had been experimenting with the present tense in a novel that I was working on, and it seemed to solve some problems. I tried it out on “The Future Barrister” and it felt right, so for this latest MPH collection, I rewrote the story in the present tense. This was then published by Descant in Canada in 2010.

This is the fifth time that one of my short stories from Lovers and Strangers Revisited was published in the USA or Canada twenty years after I first wrote it. So the lesson here is, never give up on your stories, especially if you have been revising them all along.

As a footnote, the story and the interview of me in The Star proved to be a catalyst when I met another Penang character, an expat, shortly thereafter, and later wrote a lengthy non-fiction piece about him as a tribute to someone who had died alone in a far away land in my book Tropical Affairs: Episodes from an Expat’s Life in Malaysia. (MPH 2009) For me, “The Future Barrister” and this expat will always be intertwined in a way I could never have imagined.

In case you’re wondering, do I always write about people I meet? No, but when a good character walks into your life, take plenty of notes, especially if the character is a story waiting to happen. By the way, I never did bump into the Future Barrister again, though I feel he would have been pleased with the story. After all, it was all about him.

Lovers and Strangers Revisited is now getting translated into French as Trois autres Malaisie. Here's a link to the French blog set up by the publisher Éditions GOPE.

Here are three reviews of Lovers and Strangers Revisited: The Star (MPH), The Expat (Silverfish), and NST (Silverfish) and a link to the other story behind the stories for Lovers and Strangers Revisited.

*Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

** Here's the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and Trois autres Malaisie.

“Neighbours”: Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

Hearing some persistent moaning coming from a neighbor’s house two doors away, I went to investigate. With the help of another neighbor, we took the Chinese man, in his mid-fifties, to the Penang General Hospital, where he eventually died. He had drunk the weed killer Paraquat.

For me the story began when I returned to the man's house and found several neighbors gossiping. I was fascinated by all of the comments the neighbors were making, the wild speculations about the family and why the man had taken his life. Some of the things they had said were mean and spiteful. Later, when the man’s wife and daughter returned home, they quickly dispersed, so I was left with the task of having to inform them about the man’s death.

This was the story that fascinated me. The story I wanted to tell was not a first person narrative of my finding this man and all that took place that day (although later I will write about it). Instead, I chose to write about the neighbors themselves and what they said about this family in the aftermath of the suicide. When I began to write the story, after some years had passed, all the details were fresh inside my journal, including details that had completely slipped my memory. This is one of the reasons I insist that my writing students keep a diary/journal.

In writing the story, I decided to leave me, as a character, out of the story. I felt the story would be better without a Westerner or a mat salleh in it. I wanted the dialogue to be natural, spontaneous, and an expat present would alter the dynamics of the group, including the dialogue. My goal was to show how self-centered everyone was, and despite all the bad stuff being said about the man, I wanted the sympathy to shift back to him.

I purposely wrote the story in a neutral tone with the viewpoint of an observer, to avoid racial bias, so no one race in this multiracial society is talking down to another, which became crucial twenty years later when it began to be taught in SPM literature in schools throughout Malaysia. I also wanted to make the story universal, so readers around the world could relate to the characters and also learn about Malaysia, where different races freely mix and socialize, and yes, gossip.

Initially, too many people were coming and going and it was difficult to get a fix on any one character. There were far too many for a short story, so I merged a few characters to make it less cumbersome. I also slowed down the pacing by balancing it out with descriptions and even added a dog, a Pomeranian Spitz (which, I just noticed, was misspelled in the first collection!).

The original title of the story was “Aftermath” and it first appeared in Commentary, a Journal of the National University of Singapore Society, in 1990 and then in Northern Perspective in Australia. By the time the first collection Lovers and Strangers came out, I changed the title to “Neighbors”, which is what the story is about.

Over the years, I changed the names of several of the characters. Sometimes you need to trust your instincts as to whether the name is appropriate for your character. Other times, you try the name on for size and if it doesn’t fit, try another. It’s a not unlike naming your children, but in stories we usually know their character, their traits in advance so that helps.

The story originally began with a paragraph or two of description, to help set the scene, but after revisiting the story for Lovers and Strangers Revisited for the second collection, I opened the story with dialogue: “I suppose there’s a mess in the back seat!” This sets the tone of the story and pulls the reader in quicker. This is the version that was accepted to be part of the 6th cycle for SPM literature (Big L) to be taught throughout Malaysia 2008-2112.

For the latest MPH collection, I still had some difficulty getting that initial description of their arrival from the hospital and where the neighbors lived just right, so I kept working on it. I also experimented with the present tense. I liked the effect this created and it seemed to solve some problems, too and it gave the story, and the neighbors, a timeless quality. In 2008, this was published in Thema, in the US, 20 years after I first wrote it.

For students and teachers, I’m providing a link to the on-line discussion of “Neighbours” in the MELTA (Malaysia English Language Teaching Association) forum for literature, which had about 18,300 hits, 30 pages of comments before it was archived. (*As of Feb. 2011, there are 20,500 hits.) If you wish to add your own comments, it’s free if you enter via Special Interest Groups, under literature.

Here's also a link to Denis Harry's article on Mrs Koh in NST 28 August 2010! Comment: Are you a Mrs Koh?

Also, I’ve adapted “Neighbors” into a play, turning a tragedy into a comedy titled, “One Drink Too Many”, which had been play read twice by Penang Players. I then made a 10-page version of that, "Back from Heaven", ideal for schools or competitions. At least one school had a good run with it. Just contact me via my website (below) or Facebook if you want a copy. A good story can be expressed in many different ways.

Lovers and Strangers Revisited is now getting translated into French as Trois autres Malaisie. Here's a link to the French blog set up by the publisher Éditions GOPE.

Here are three reviews of Lovers and Strangers Revisited: The Star (MPH), The Expat (Silverfish), and NST (Silverfish) and a link to the other story behind the stories for Lovers and Strangers Revisited.

*Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

** Here's the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and Trois autres Malaisie.

"Smooth Stones": The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

I had been contemplating writing a story about the power of faith, the power of belief, when I came across a brief article in the New Straits Times in Malaysia about a man being conned over some “moon” stones. I had read similar accounts before, so I played with this idea. I envisioned a desperate woman wanting to save her husband from dying (she needed a strong enticement) who buys the stones from a friendly man, a Haji, who happens to stop by her kampong house.

The questions I wanted to raise in the reader’s mind, are the smooth stones merely stones from the river or do they come from Mecca and have special healing powers? Is Rosmah being conned out of her money, or being instructed on how to save her husband from dying? Does her husband, in fact, get better?

I wrote the story from Rosmah’s point of view and I guess I got it right because when I read an early draft for a workshop conducted by K.S. Maniam in Kuala Lumpur the two previous winners of The Star contest thought “Smooth Stones” would win. I was surprised when it didn’t even win a consolation prize, though two other stories from Lovers and Strangers Revisited did win, including “The Future Barrister”, which won third prize.

At the award ceremony the judge, a celebrated Malaysian author, approached me and said he and the other judges tossed out “Smooth Stones” because they thought I had plagiarized it. They felt that a Westerner, a male “mat salleh”, couldn’t write such a “Malay” story about bomohs from a woman’s point of view! I wished they had consulted me first! I guess you could call this a backhanded compliment!

To make the story seem as real as possible I had created a “real” setting and brought in “real” characters. For the setting I used two actual locations and blended them into one. I used my former in-laws kampong house in Parit, Perak that I was very familiar with and for the surrounding area, a kampong in Kedah, where I spend a weekend attending a wedding. Since the house was full of people, the bathing area was converted into a clothes-washing room. In order to bathe, I had to wear a sarong and hike down to the river like everyone else. I remember coming back along this path that bisected a field and this water buffalo gave me a look of reproach, as if I were intruding. I used that detail in the story for good effect.

I based the character Rosmah on my former mother-in-law. Her husband, at the time that I met him, was dying from cancer. (See the nonfiction story “Mat Salleh”, or the story behind that story.) For Haji Abdullah, I borrowed one of my ex-wife’s uncles. He had such a serene face with sparkles in his eyes; there didn’t seem to be a dishonest bone in his body. While writing the story, I kept a photograph of him handy, which made the character all the more real to me, since I actually knew him.

Usually I don’t outline stories in advance, but this story I did. I had five or six set scenes in mind and that kept me focused until the very end. In two hours I had the first draft of the story written. Usually when I start a story, I like to add some real details to anchor the story. In this case, I too had sat on an embedded-in-sand fishing boat. I had also, on another occasion, watched fishermen standing in the water with their fishing net while someone beat the water with a bamboo pole.

Because of the subject matter, I used a lot of symbolism. The men fishing with their nets symbolize Rosmah’s desperation, her willingness to cast out a net to “catch” anything that could save her dying husband. Hadn’t she already tried to catch “doctors and bomohs”? Fishing, by the way, is itself a trial, a test of manhood for her son Hasri, who now has to take over his father’s role as a fisherman, not as a “boy” but as a “man.”

Another symbol was the sarong that belongs to Yusof, which represents Yusof himself and is used to wrap the coconut containing the smooth stones, to protect it – to protect Yusof’s very life. Then of course there’s the smooth stones themselves, a symbol of faith, or the power of belief. The ordinary stones from the river that Siti’s son has are used to contrast the extra-ordinary, or “extraordinary” stones brought back from Mecca.

Throughout the story I purposely used references to religion as a symbol of faith, a powerful symbol of God from antiquity to our present day. For example, I mention that Abdullah as being a Haji, that he is holding a Quranic book, and produces Quranic verses, and also Mecca – all powerful religions symbols to a Muslim.

By mentioning that this man is a Haji, I invoke the religious performance – that he has performed the Haj, a requirement or goal of all Muslim. The title “Haji” itself connotes respect for someone who had performed this very act, someone who is knowledgeable about the world (has traveled far away from home) and had obtained “religious wisdom” from Mecca. The fact that he says to Rosmah, “I have come from Mecca” speaks volumes. It implies that he has come directly from Mecca with special healing powers, power to heal her dying husband.

Again, the religious symbolism in Mecca is powerful to a Muslim. It would be akin to a Christian bringing back “Holy water” from Jerusalem. It’s the faith that this water, from the Holy Land is somehow closer to God than ordinary water. Therefore the Mecca stones are more powerful than “river stones”. Again, it’s about faith, the power to believe that this is a “fact”. “Mecca” stones must be “powerful” because the stones come from Mecca. Rosmah has no way of knowing if such stones could even be found in Mecca or maybe she’s thinking that the stones were “blessed” in Mecca. It’s that association with Mecca that convinces her that the smooth stones can truly save her husband.

I also needed to make Haji Abdullah convincing as a salesman. Notice his selling pitch – she had to buy two stones – not one – because they only work in “pairs”. It was only after she reluctantly admitted that she had money in the Post Office, that he brought up the most powerful (and most expensive) stone of all, the black one – and naturally it wouldn’t work without the other two. Had he mentioned that black one early on, she may have balked at price and not have taken the bait. A good salesman, like a good fisherman, learns to entice the fish to his hook with bait. If they nibble you don’t jerk the line, or you lose them for good. Only after they bite (after mentioning the post office money), then you reel them in.

When Rosmah vacillates over the two white stones, Haji Abdullah plays on her emotions like some salesman do. He asks, “Was your husband a good man? Did he treat you and your family fairly?” Then later, when referring to the black stone, he asks, “Maybe this is what you need to save your husband from dying.”

I also had him insist, on numerous occasions, that Rosmah “believe”, which eventually she does. Later, Yusof tells Azman, “Only Rosmah believed I would get better.”

This is one of those rare stories for me that was easy to write the first time around, maybe because I had put so much thought into the story, into the characters, into the setting before I even wrote it. No doubt that outline worked, too! It quickly got published in Singapore, UK, and Australia. Editing over the years has been minor, mostly cosmetic, even when I revisited it for Lovers and Strangers Revisited. One editor suggested that the ending was “too predictable”, yet a critic presenting a paper on Lovers and Strangers Revisited for a short story conference in the UK stated that “the ending gave him goose bumps”. When I tried to revise the ending for the latest MPH version, the editor I was working with, overruled me, and insisted I go back to how I had it, so I did. She too had faith in the story.

The story recently came close to being accepted in the US, though in the end, in the final round of judging I was told, they opted for another story from this collection, “Waiting”, which again surprised me. Then another US editor really liked the story and they requested a rewrite, so my fingers are crossed.

Lovers and Strangers Revisited is now getting translated into French as Trois autres Malaisie. Here's a link to the French blog set up by the publisher Éditions GOPE.

Here are three reviews of Lovers and Strangers Revisited: The Star (MPH), The Expat (Silverfish), and NST (Silverfish) and a link to the other story behind the stories for Lovers and Strangers Revisited.

*Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

** Here's the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and Trois autres Malaisie.

“Sister’s Room”: The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

This is the third story in Lovers and Strangers Revisited to earn me money after it placed third in the National Writers Association short story contest (USA) back in 1987. I started experimenting with a childlike tone for a short story, and the opening words came to me: “Mama is making chapattis and tea for breakfast. I’ll only get the chapattis – the small ones. Not the tea. Sister gets the tea and Mama doesn’t spare the sugar. Not for Sister. Mama doesn’t spare anything for Sister.”

It was this voice, this tone, this desire to capture the child’s innocence and then playing with the idea I had of sibling rivalry and child prostitution that pulled me through the story rather quickly. I knew I had something good in my hands, but maintaining that voice, that tone, and wondering where to break my sentences was giving me problems. Do I string them together with a bunch of “ands”, as I was initially doing, or break them up, staccato-like? Or find some happy balance? I was forever tinkering with this story through its various drafts. The story, essentially, remained the same from the beginning, but I was constantly tweaking it, nearly every other line it seemed, particularly during the fight scene, even in this final MPH version.

I admit I was having some qualms about the physical setting of the story, which is more Pakistan/India than Malaysia, though I could easily imagine how this could have been set in Malaysia not that many years ago, where bullock carts were still common (I had seen plenty in the early eighties and a few Chinese junks, too!) and ice men still brought large blocks of ice to various shops. The open fruit market and spice markets are readily found in Malaysia today. I did visit several little India sections in Malaysia and even took the trouble to visit several brothels, mostly in Penang and KL, including some in the poorer Indian sections of town for research for a novel that I was working on, as well as some sleazy restaurants cum nightclubs. Not a pleasant experience, but memorable. No, I did not partake!

From the opening voice, I knew this would be a first person, present tense story, the first I had ever written; again this was an experiment for me, since unlike “On Fridays” which I wrote several years later, I was writing from the viewpoint of an Indian female child. Also I purposely used descriptions that would take on larger symbolic meanings in the story, such as “Uncle pinches my cheeks and squeezes my shoulders and looks me over like he would a melon at the fruit market to see if it’s ripe.” In the previous scene the child was doing exactly that at the fruit market across the street, and now Uncle was sizing her up to be a prostitute, just like her sister.

Right away, I had a lot success with this story; it was published in Northern Perspective in Australia, Her World in Malaysia, and a couple of years later in India, France and Denmark.
When the Indian-American writer Bharati Mukherjee visited Penang, Malaysia, I met her and her husband and after I commented on several of her stories at a discussion, she agreed to read a couple of my short stories, including “Sister’s Room”. She felt the ending scene needed to be a “bigger moment,” that it should linger before I bring the story to an end, advice I gladly seized upon. So I expanded that moment, nearly doubling its length, and this was the version that Thema in the US accepted and published in 2005.

While I was revisiting the stories for the Silverfish collection, I changed the beginning of the story, at the last moment, by substituting “Amma” for Mama and “Appa” for Papa. I even called Child “Younger Sister.” Call it a moment of weakness. After it came out, I wished I hadn’t done that. So with the MPH version, I gladly changed it back to how I had it.

As a footnote, while I was in KL launching Lovers and Strangers Revisited for MPH, a woman told me that nearly twenty years ago when she was ten, her mother came across the story in Her World and thinking it was innocent story about children, asked her to read it. She was horrified to learn that the story was about child prostitution! She never did tell her mother.

Lovers and Strangers Revisited is now getting translated into French as Trois autres Malaisie. Here's a link to the French blog set up by the publisher Éditions GOPE.

Here are three reviews of Lovers and Strangers Revisited: The Star (MPH), The Expat (Silverfish), and NST (Silverfish) and a link to the other story behind the stories for Lovers and Strangers Revisited.

*Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

** Here's the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and Trois autres Malaisie.

"Symmetry": The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

The idea for “Symmetry”, my shortest story at 950 words and the second story that I wrote for this collection, began when I went upstairs to work and found a dead cockroach in a cup of tea that I had forgotten from the previous evening. Once I got over my initial disgust, I became fascinated by the symmetry of the cockroach, with its three pairs of legs of varying lengths spread out and the antennae fanned in opposite directions around the contour of the cup.

The writer in me saw the potential, so I put myself into the viewpoint of a female Malay child, who overcomes her initial fear and becomes fascinated by this dead cockroach “floating in someone’s neglected tea”.

For the setting of the story, I used the kitchen of my former in-laws kampong house in Parit, Perak since I knew it so well. In fact, I used this setting in several of my kampong stories like “Smooth Stones”, “Home for Hari Raya” and “Mat Salleh”.

In order to capture the child’s innocence while she observes the cockroach inside the cup I had to become an actor and acted out the part so I could physically describe her. I tried out several positions before I settled on the final version:

“The child pulls up on her batik sarong and sinks into a squat before setting the plate down next to the cup and saucer. She hugs her knees – chin nestled on top, arms braced underneath – and rocks back and forth in a slow rhythmic movement, her large brown eyes opened as wide as possible. She draws in her breath and takes another peek. Not satisfied, she leans closer. Finally she hunches her body forward, knees and palms to the floor, her long black hair, held back at the top by a purple plastic barrette, flows like twin waterfalls against the sides of her face. With her head now directly above, mere inches from the rim, she peers into the cup.”

In the first version that was published by Teenage in Singapore in 1991, I did not give the plastic barrette a color, but by the time it was published two years later in Plaza (in both English and Japanese) and Foolscap in the UK, I added the color blue. I changed the color to purple for the MPH edition of Lovers and Strangers Revisited. Subconsciously, perhaps, I saw her as wounded by her father’s absence (which I also added in the final version); thus the color purple is symbolic of the purple-heart given to American soldiers wounded in action; in fact, her brother even threatens her with a knife.

For me, this story has always been about lost innocence. The brother’s violent use of the knife to taunt her and to chop the dead cockroach underscores this. This child will never be the same. (She will always be afraid of cockroaches, too, but that’s a minor point.)

When I revisited the story for the Silverfish edition of Lovers and Strangers Revisited, I began to play with the wording to make it more specific, thus in the opening sentence, “dishes” became “plates and saucers” and “wood” became “plank”. I also changed the story from past to present tense.

For the final edition, after some prompting by my editor at MPH, I added a new element to the story to make it fit better with the themes of the other stories in the collection. In the opening paragraph I wrote, “unlike in the past when her father was still living with them…” Then a couple of pages later, I made another reference about the father’s absence, “[the brother] would only boss her around or torment her, which he has been doing ever since their father went to live with that other woman.”

I also mention that the brother is having disciplinary problems at school. In an effort to calm down the crying child near the end of the story, “[mother] even assures her that her father will return home and that everything will be just like it was before.”

We know that is not likely to happen. It’s too late. Her innocence is lost. She, too, no doubt, will develop disciplinary problems at school as she faces a brother who’ll become more brutal at home while living in a harsher, fatherless world.

Ah, it's so nice to have an editor who pushes you to improve a story in unexpected ways!

Lovers and Strangers Revisited is now getting translated into French as Trois autres Malaisie. Here's a link to the French blog set up by the publisher Éditions GOPE.

Here are three reviews of Lovers and Strangers Revisited: The Star (MPH), The Expat (Silverfish), and NST (Silverfish) and a link to the other story behind the stories for Lovers and Strangers Revisited.

*Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

** Here's the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and Trois autres Malaisie.

"The Watcher": The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

After my first Chinese New Year in Malaysia, unable to sleep that night because of all of the fireworks, I went jogging the next morning and the stench of charred gunpowder was everywhere, as were the red remnants of the fire crackers, some strung from the roofs of many of the terrace houses the previous evening. Discarded red ang pow envelopes were being pushed across the road by a breeze. I wrote these details into my journal, knowing that they would eventually end up in a short story --the third in this collection that began that way, a bunch of jumbled ideas. Later, when I began to write about it, after reading some firsthand accounts of the Japanese Occupation, I thought I could combine the two.

Having no one person to base my character on, as a model, which I sometimes do, I had to come up with my own unique characters (though based loosely on a composite of several people I've met over the years), an elderly Chinese man, still embittered about the war, and his two granddaughters and their respective husbands. For their children, I used my observations of my neighbor’s children, who every Chinese New Year, would huddle around their respective gates and launch fire crackers. I tried to mimic their actions, including the non-Chinese neighbors who would watch and react vicariously.

I also imagined I was Yeoh, who was watching them and wondered what they would think of me, someone so old that they could no longer relate to. I’m sure they would have a nickname for him and eventually I came up with “the one who watches”, or “the watcher” which then became the title of the story.

As with many stories that I begin to write, I’m not all too sure about the ending. I knew it would involve sparklers, which I had recently played with during Hari Raya at my ex-wife’s kampong. I tried to capture that sense of rediscovery, that child-like feeling of pleasure, of wild-eyed wonder and passed it on to my Chinese characters, both the elderly man and his great grandchild.

In Lovers and Strangers, I originally named the main character Yeo, but later I discovered that the spelling of the name, without the ‘h’, lives in Singapore. So I added the ‘h’ and he became a Penang Yeoh. I had also changed the great grandson’s name from Kim to Andrew. In the first collection, I also made a careless error by referring to the boy as his grandchild, when in fact he would be the great grandchild. I was surprised the editor I was working with or the proofreader never caught it. I don’t know how I missed it either. Sometimes you get so close to the story it’s easy to overlook obvious details.

For the setting I used the terrace houses where I then lived, which made it convenient. We had a cushioned bench in front of our house where we would sit to put on our shoes, so this was where I had Yeoh sit (though I took away the cushion) as he watched the goings-on of his neighbors, the children in particular, because he knew they were always up to something; and with fireworks, they were utterly reckless. A disaster waiting to happen. In the distance I could see some hills, but these weren’t apart of Penang Hill (in the center of the island at Air Itam), just hills that served as a backdrop and as a catalyst for his memories of hiding in the hills during the occupation and how some of his children had died before they could learn how to walk. A common occurrence. My former mother-in-law lost five children, some miscarriages and others from lack of food and nutrition.

Over the years, the story did not change all that much, just moving from general to more specific details as in all of my stories, and the beginning and the ending. In the early drafts I started the story with an elaborate, overblown description of a sunset. I was trying way too hard. The description seemed to go on forever. Then I toned it down and began the story with a line about Yeoh. In the second paragraph, I added in the sensory details that I had mentioned earlier, about the smells and seeing the firecrackers and the discarded ang pows.

Later, while revisiting the story for the Silverfish version, I realized that the sunset was too rushed, introduced too soon. I needed to get a fix on the main character first, anchor him in the story. So I rearranged the opening paragraphs. I kept the opening line, but all that followed now came from the second paragraph, and the sunset was placed in the middle of the new second paragraph, so it flowed better. I also tied it to his lighting a cigarette, which I felt was more effective. I also fixed quite a bit of the actual details.

Compare the first published version of the opening of “The Watcher” and the final MPH version where I delayed the sunset:

1) Yeo stared at the surrounding hills like he was searching for a way to escape. Suddenly, the sky erupted into brilliant hues of red, pink and orange, as though illuminated by a torch. The colors grew in intensity before gently fading into the soft darkness of dusk on this first day of the New Year. The first, and the last, if Yeo had his way…

He coughed and spat and ground out his cigarette as the smell of incense and charred gunpowder came on strong. A scraping sound soon caught his attention. Two small red envelopes were being pushed along the concrete drive­way by a persistent breeze.

2) Yeoh stared at the surrounding hills of Penang as though searching for a way to escape. The pervasive stench of incense and charred gunpowder were everywhere. He could even taste the bitter dryness on his lips. A soft scraping sound caught his attention. Two palm-size, red envelopes were being pushed, stubbornly, along the concrete driveway by a persistent breeze.

Sitting on an old wooden bench in front of his granddaughter’s terrace house, Yeoh coughed and spat and ground out his cigarette. He lit another as the sky erupted into brilliant hues of red, pink and orange, as if illuminated by a gigantic torch. The colors grew in intensity before gently fading into the soft darkness of dusk, the first evening of the Chinese New Year.

In the first version I didn’t even mention that he was in Penang or whose house it was, or whether he was standing or sitting. I even gave it away that he was going to die with that big, clumsy hint. I was also not very specific about which New Year and the time reference was wrong, calling it the first day when it was already evening. Careless minor slips often cause needless confusion, so I was glad I had the opportunity to get the details right. Notice that I also changed the word “small”, a relative term, to “palm-sized” which is easier to picture.

In the early drafts, I ended the story with both Yeoh and his grandchild playing together with the sparklers. I wanted to add some tension at the end, so I had Andrew wander away and then Yeoh noticed that the child is gone and that the other children had left the gate open. At the end of the MPH version, I reversed the final two paragraphs so the focus doesn’t shift to Andrew, but remains on him until the very end. By mentioning the hills, I also tie the ending back to the beginning.

While revising this for the French edition, I kept stumbling and it didn't feel right until I tried switching it from past to present tense, to give the story an immediacy that seemed lacking in the past tense. It was the only story that was significantly changed.

* Here is a link to the new revised version.

Lovers and Strangers Revisited is now getting translated into French as Trois autres Malaisie. Here's a link to the French blog set up by the publisher Éditions GOPE.

Here are three reviews of Lovers and Strangers Revisited: The Star (MPH), The Expat (Silverfish), and NST (Silverfish) and a link to the other story behind the stories for Lovers and Strangers Revisited.

**Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

*** Here's the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and Trois autres Malaisie.