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.