Wednesday, June 3, 2009

"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.

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