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.