Wednesday, June 3, 2009

“Home for Hari Raya”: The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

After experiencing Hari Raya several times in Malaysia, I decided to write a short story about it, so I took my writing notebook with me to Parit, Perak and immediately started taking notes, describing all that I could, and observing my relatives, particularly my nieces and nephews. Since there were nineteen of them, spread between two houses across the street from each other, it wasn’t easy. I didn’t know what the story was going to be about; I just wanted to capture the whole experience, the essence of a traditional kampong-based Hari Raya. I also wanted to leave me completely out of the story (though years later, after a request from a magazine, I was asked to write about my own personal Hari Raya experience).

Then I got the idea to focus the story on three sisters, the elder two loosely based on my nieces, who were in fact cousins, and at the time, none of them were married. The younger, Ida, who I made the viewpoint character, would be a USM student where I taught creative writing. I made her embittered over the fact that her father, who had recently passed away, had taken a second wife. This was the heart of the story, an unresolved issue among the sisters that was threatening to tear the family apart.

I wanted to show how the three sisters viewed their father differently, and how the youngest, know-it-all-Ida couldn’t accept her sister’s views, let alone her mother’s complacency with the whole situation. Since Hari Raya is a time for asking for forgiveness, I knew this would play an integral part in the story and in its resolution.

In my ex-wife’s immediate family there were no one (at least not verified) who had more than one wife, although when my ex-wife was in primary school, another girl saw a picture of her father and told her, that was her father, too, and this deeply disturbed her. She also told me about a neighbor, who would bicycle back and forth between his two wives, and her classmates whose father’s had taken more than one wife. Among Malays, who are Muslim, this is quite common, an acceptable fact of life, but still problematic and often leads to divorce. My ex-wife, who was a reporter, was often involved in court cases and women forums, and she would tell me what was going on in these-multiple-marriage-gone-wrong cases.

Having a setting that I was already familiar with, and having first hand personal experience helping with the chores of cleaning up the house and the various rituals of preparing for Hari Raya year after year was a bonus. Also it’s an advantage to have real people to act as models, like my describing the antics of my nephews who were a lot younger than my nieces and who would go out of their way to irritate the girls. The scene with the three sisters on the motorcycles and bicycle happened, though I had no idea what they were discussing since they spoke in Malay. I felt the scene would work in the story by showing another side of their character, that although all three were young ladies, they were still close to being children.

After the story was originally published in Her World, but before it came out in Lovers and Strangers, I switched the names of the two elder sisters. I felt the name Sharifah seemed more mature than Mira, who at times in the story acted immature.

Later, while revisiting the story for the Silverfish collection, I showed it to a lecturer at USM who was the second wife of my colleague and, after she read the story, agreed to answer my questions as to why she decided to be a second wife. Her answers were quite helpful and gave me the confidence that I was on the right track.

It was important for Ida, as a strong-willed, independent, modern university student, to keep bringing up the unfairness of men taking a second wife. But the other sisters didn’t see it that way and I wanted their views known, too, to give the story balance. In the original version, Sharifah said, “Lots of men take second wives.” This I expanded in the first revisited version by adding, “It’s a fact of life. It’s better than them sneaking around and having affairs or visiting prostitutes, isn’t it? At least you know where they are.”

This only makes Ida more frustrated, who saw nothing except the men’s double standards. In the MPH version, I added in her mother’s typical kampong view, which I’ve personally heard countless times over the years. As if to defend her husband, she reminded Ida that Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him, had four wives. But Ida quickly countered, that it was only after his first wife had died.

A pivotal scene was having this second wife visit them during Hari Raya. This was a big moment, but I didn’t want to overdo it. What I was trying to avoid was a come-to-realize-that-the-second-wife-wasn’t-a-bad-person-afterall end to the story. I needed a stronger, more emotional ending, a bonding among all three sisters which I was able to achieve in the revised story, where I purposely underplayed it.

I tried different versions before I settled on just the right ending. Since the story is about asking for forgiveness, it was important for Ida to go to the graveyard to be at her father’s grave, an important part of Hari Raya, which she had refused to do earlier in the story. She wanted to sneak off on her own, but she needed her sister’s car, so she reluctantly agreed to let her sisters join her. Putting their differences behind them, at least for now, Ida instinctively reached out for sister’s hands. From the comments I got from readers, including expats, it works.

In May 2011, "Home for Hari Raya" was published in Istanbul Literary ReviewBy then I had already changed Ida’s name to Rina; it seemed to fit her better, after meeting some outspoken Rina’s while teaching and several quiet Ida’s.  In December 2011, Frederick Lewis, professor of film/video at Ohio University contacted me about turning “Homefor Hari Raya” into a film.  Initially, he was interested in “Mat Salleh” because one thing he was looking for was a strong Muslim female.  Thinking of the Rina/Ida character, I suggested “Home for Hari Raya” and sent him the Istanbul Literary Review link since his reference was the 1993 Heinemann Asia version of Lovers and Strangers.   

His team loved the story and after they got the financing approved by the university, they began putting together a screenplay.   In December 2012, Lewis led a team of 14 students to Malaysia who liaised with the Faculty of Film, Theatre and Animation at UiTM Shah Alam.  I find it fascinating that a short story I wrote over twenty years ago about three Malay sisters is now being turned  into a film  It’s not Hollywood calling, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction. 



Update: Ohio University posted HHR on YouTube  (It starts at 3:16, so scroll back to the beginning)


*Lovers and Strangers Revisited has now been translated into French and published 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 to my website, my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and Trois autres Malaisie.

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