Writ­ing home

Award-win­ning malaysian­born au­thor chiew-Siah Tei’s se­cond novel con­tin­ues to ex­plore themes of iden­tity, cul­ture and be­long­ing.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS - By SHARON BAKAR star2@thes­tar.com.my

CHIEW-SIAH Tei’s long-awaited se­cond novel The Mouse Deer King­dom hit the book­stores last month, and the au­thor was back in Malaysia to speak at the Ge­orge Town Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val 2013.

Tei, who grew up in Tampin, Ne­gri Sem­bi­lan, has made Glas­gow, Scot­land, her home, and her first novel Lit­tle Hut Of Leap­ing Fishes was nom­i­nated for the Best Scot­tish Fic­tion prize in 2008.

“It was a sur­prise,” she con­cedes. “I never thought that a book set in China and writ­ten by a Malaysian would be nom­i­nated and short­listed for the prize.”

The book was also short­listed for the inau­gu­ral Man Asian lit­er­ary prize in 2007 and won the Pop­u­lar- The Star Read­ers’ Choice Awards in 2010.

Did the suc­cess of the first novel put ex­tra pres­sure on her when she was writ­ing this book?

“Not at all. I just get on with my writ­ing, that is the most im­por­tant thing for me. As writ­ers, if we are too con­cerned about prizes, it will af­fect what we want to work on, and how we are go­ing to work on it.”

Tei de­scribes how to­tally im­mersed in her work she needs to be.

“When I work on a project, I have to live in the world of my char­ac­ters, and it’s quite dif­fi­cult to pull my­self out of it, be­cause if I did so I would have a prob­lem get­ting into the world again. My emo­tions and feel­ings be­come my char­ac­ters’, and vice versa.”

It comes as no sur­prise, given her back­ground in film­mak­ing and the­atre, that Tei de­scribes her­self as a very vis­ual per­son who sees the ac­tion of the story in her head as if she was watch­ing a film.

The Mouse Deer King­dom con­tin­ues the story of Chai Mingzhi from Lit­tle Hut Of Leap­ing Fishes, and it was con­ceived as the se­cond part of a tril­ogy.

Mingzhi is a sen­si­tive soul who be­comes first a scholar and later, a man­darin.

At the end of the first book, he joins the ex­o­dus from China to South-East Asia with his makeshift fam­ily.

This se­cond novel is es­pe­cially close to the au­thor’s heart.

“Be­cause this book is not just for me. You can see I ded­i­cate it to (here she flicks back to the in­scrip­tion at the be­gin­ning of the book and reads it out loud) the sons and daugh­ters of Malaysia and to the land to which we all be­long – de­spite our eth­nic back­ground, our re­li­gion and skin colour, and re­gard­less of where we come from. If you look at his­tory, we are all im­mi­grants.”

To un­der­line this point fur­ther, she weaves the le­gend of the 14th-cen­tury king Parameswara into the nar­ra­tive, mir­ror­ing the story of Mingzhi and his com­ing to Malaya in the first years of the 20th cen­tury.

“Their jour­neys were alike, and the main pur­pose of putting this in was to show that both of them are im­mi­grants” she says.

The novel took her two to three years to write, but she says there was a long pe­riod when she found her­self un­able to work, fol­low­ing her mother’s death two years ago.

She has also strug­gled with mac­u­lar de­gen­er­a­tion in one of her eyes, which has made both writ­ing, and the read­ing that feeds it, much more dif­fi­cult.

Was the se­cond book as she en­vis­aged it would be when she first set out to write the tril­ogy, or did the con­cept change over time?

“The se­cond book I ini­tially planned was to take place in Malaya and I in­tended to end it with my char­ac­ter hav­ing to leave for some­where else. But I strug­gled quite a lot with Mingzhi as the main char­ac­ter. I re­alised that in this new set­ting in Malaya, I should give promi­nence to other peo­ple. Also, I tried to adopt the same style as the first book, but af­ter a while but I re­alised it wouldn’t work be­cause it was set in a dif­fer­ent place and my emo­tions and feel­ings for the char­ac­ters were dif­fer­ent.”

Engi, the orang asli boy whom Mingzhi adopts, be­comes a wit­ness to Mingzhi’s strug­gles and var­i­ous be­tray­als.

Engi is, Tei agrees, in many ways like the mousedeer in both Para­maswara’s story and lo­cal folk­lore: he em­bod­ies courage and wit, and is able to move around stealth­ily in the night.

“He has to be clever enough to sur­vive in a world where peo­ple de­ceive him and try to bully him,” says Tei.

For this writer, the most in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ter in the novel is Mingzhi’s niece Ji­axi, who is feisty and de­ter­mined, and ar­guably the most fully-fleshed out of all the char­ac­ters.

How much did Tei sym­pa­thise with her as a woman?

“She’s a woman of a newer age who knows how to get what she wants,” Tei says, point­ing out that she wanted to show through her fe­male char­ac­ters how the at­ti­tudes of women evolved over time, be­gin­ning with Mingzhi’s mother who em­bod­ies tra­di­tional val­ues, to Mingzhi’s much more dar­ing sis­ter Meil­ian, and fi­nally to the com­pletely lib­er­ated and amoral Ji­axi.

The char­ac­ter Tei iden­ti­fies with most is Mingzhi. But isn’t he a rather weak char­ac­ter? “He is. He’s weak be­cause he isn’t able to get what he wants. What he re­ally wants is to be with his fam­ily, and when he has lost that, he turns into some­one who is un­recog­nis­able. The house (the villa that he builds) rep­re­sents the fam­ily that he doesn’t have any­more.”

Tei is not afraid of show­ing us the darker side of her char­ac­ters, and the theme of cor­rup­tion is ex­plored, al­beit in­di­rectly, in both nov­els.

“It’s a way of life even now in present-day Malaysia. In the book, it only hap­pens within the Chi­nese com­mu­nity, but of course it hap­pens in ev­ery seg­ment of so­ci­ety,” she ex­plains.

At the mo­ment, Tei says she doesn’t know yet which of her char­ac­ters will carry the fi­nal book of her tril­ogy.

She is, in fact, putting the third book on hold for now, be­cause she wants to work in­stead on a new novel set in a small town in 1960s Malaysia.

She doesn’t want to re­veal more just yet, but says it will still cen­tre around the themes of home ver­sus dis­lo­ca­tion and dis­place­ment that she has been ex­plor­ing in her first two nov­els.

Vis­ual sto­ry­teller: chiew-Siah Tei, au­thor of Lit­tleHutOfLeap­ingFishes and The­mousedeerKing­dom.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Malaysia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.