The sto­ry­teller

Ber­nice Chauly reaches ‘the pin­na­cle of lit­er­ary work’ with the re­lease of her first novel.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Front Page - By TER­ENCE TOH star2@thes­

WHEN it comes to cre­ative projects, Ber­nice Chauly is a one woman artis­tic ma­chine. From mak­ing doc­u­men­taries to act­ing in films, from cre­at­ing po­etry to tak­ing pho­to­graphs to writ­ing short sto­ries, there’s lit­tle this in­trepid au­thor and ed­u­ca­tor hasn’t tried her hand at.

Chauly, how­ever, had to face her great­est cre­ative chal­lenge a few years ago: writ­ing her first novel, a task she de­scribes as “the hard­est thing” she’s ever done.

“The novel is the most pro­foundly dif­fi­cult thing to write. Ever. It’s the pin­na­cle of lit­er­ary work. There were times while writ­ing when I was filled with doubt and self-loathing. I was like, do I even know what I’m do­ing? It’s very dif­fi­cult.

“That’s why I keep telling peo­ple who are work­ing at nov­els: you have to keep at it,” says Chauly, 49. She started six years ago. But to­day, Chauly’s Once We Were There has fi­nally been com­pleted and can now be found on the shelves of both Malaysian and Sin­ga­porean book­stores. (It’s reviewed on page six.)

“I’ve been think­ing about writ­ing this novel for years, and the fact that it’s done is so lib­er­at­ing. I feel that if I can do this, I can do any­thing!” This in­ter­view is be­ing held at Chauly’s cosy lit­tle place in Kuala Lumpur, its fur­nish­ing an ef­fort­less blend of old-world tra­di­tion and­mod­ern­com­fort.In one cor­ner, a large tele­vi­sion with DVDs of all the lat­est movies and tele­vi­sion se­ries; in an­other, two rus­tic type­writ­ers sit on a ta­ble next to a wayang kulit pup­pet. Old books, some first edi­tions from colo­nial days, sit on shelves close to mod­ern pa­per­backs.

Youth­ful-look­ing, yet with a pierc­ing gaze, Chauly is can­did as she talks about her new novel, and re­flects about her long and colour­ful cre­ative ca­reer.

A novel idea

If you’re in­volved in any way in the Malaysian arts or lit­er­ary scenes (or even just read about them), you would def­i­nitely have heard Chauly’s name be­fore. She is, af­ter all, the award-win­ning au­thor of five po­etry and nonfiction books; Go­ing There And Com­ing Back (1997), The Book Of Sins (2008), Lost In KL (2008), Grow­ing Up With Ghosts (2011) and Onkalo (2013).

Chauly has lec­tured for over 12 years in cre­ative writ­ing at col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties in Kuala Lumpur and was an hon­orary

fel­low in writ­ing at the University of Iowa’s In­ter­na­tional Writ­ing Pro­gram 2014. She is the founder and direc­tor of the KL Writ­ers Work­shop and cur­rently lec­tures at the University of Not­ting­ham Malaysia Cam­pus. Her pho­to­graphs and films have been ex­hib­ited and screened world­wide.

Pub­lished by Epi­gram Books, Once We Were There is Chauly’s de­but novel. It opens in 1998, with much of East Asia in turmoil. Na­tions are still reel­ing from the ef­fects of the Asian fi­nan­cial cri­sis which be­gan the pre­vi­ous year. And in Malaysia, po­lit­i­cal un­rest is brew­ing. Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Datuk Seri An­war Ibrahim has been sacked by Datuk Seri Dr Ma­hathir Mo­hamad, the Prime Min­is­ter at the time.

This ac­tion gives birth to Re­for­masi (Malay for re­for­ma­tion), a mas­sive protest move­ment which sees many Malaysians re­sort­ing to demon­stra­tions, civil dis­obe­di­ence, on­line ac­tivism, and even ri­ot­ing to ex­press their dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the sta­tus quo.

“It’s a time in Malaysian his­tory where things were re­ally turned up­side down.

“The Gov­ern­ment be­came a force to be feared, not to be reck­oned with. Peo­ple were very con­fused, they took to the streets. It’s a very im­por­tant time, be­cause I think this is the first time Malaysians took things into their own hands, said they’re not tak­ing this ly­ing down,” Chauly says.

“It’s a time which has not been writ­ten about much in con­tem­po­rary Malaysian lit­er­a­ture. And I felt a need to ad­dress that.”

Caught up in these events is jour­nal­ist Delonix Re­gia (a name de­rived from the sci­en­tific name of the royal poin­ciana, or the flame of the for­est tree), who is in­volved in the he­do­nis­tic drug scene of 1980s Kuala Lumpur. She wit­nesses first­hand the changes in the capital city af­ter the ge­n­e­sis of Malaysia’s Re­for­masi move­ment, and the changes in her own life as she set­tles down, gets mar­ried, and has chil­dren.

In this tu­mul­tuous time, Delonix strug­gles to main­tain her idyl­lic fam­ily life even as she dis­cov­ers the dark se­crets of KL, where ba­bies are sold and women and chil­dren are traf­ficked, with some­times fa­tal con­se­quences. What re­sults is a dark and dev­as­tat­ing tale of love and

The novel is the most pro­foundly dif­fi­cult thing to write. Ever. It’s the pin­na­cle of lit­er­ary work. There were times while writ­ing when I was filled with doubt and self-loathing. I was like, do I even know what I’m do­ing? It’s very dif­fi­cult. — Ber­nice Chauly

loss, which greatly changes the lives of sev­eral char­ac­ters; these in­clude Omar, Delonix’s half English, half Malay hus­band; and Ma­rina, a trans­gen­der sex worker from Sabah.

“It’s about Kuala Lumpur. KL is a char­ac­ter that fea­tures in the novel. Its about peo­ple who sur­vive, and peo­ple who don’t,” Chauly says.

“I re­ally think KL is one of the most fas­ci­nat­ing cities on the planet. It’s a place that I kind of both love and loathe. This novel is a love song to my coun­try. I must warn you, though, it’s kind of bleak. It’s not a happy-clappy book.”

Born sto­ry­teller

Sto­ry­telling has al­ways been a ma­jor part of Chauly’s life; the au­thor de­scribes her­self as an avid reader since she was a child, read­ing any­thing and ev­ery­thing in her par­ents’ ex­ten­sive li­brary.

Chauly was born in Ge­orge Town, the el­dest of the three chil­dren of teach­ers Loh Siew Yoke and Surinder Singh, who fell in love and got mar­ried de­spite fierce ob­jec­tion from their fam­i­lies at the time. Much of Chauly’s early life, how­ever, was spent in Ke­lan­tan, as her par­ents taught in schools there.

Grow­ing up with a Chi­nese-Pun­jabi her­itage, seen as very un­usual back in the day, Chauly strug­gled with is­sues of iden­tity.

“I was teased in school. I didn’t know who I was, I never felt like I be­longed, I was con­fused, I was an­gry. Peo­ple made fun of my name. There were times I was ac­tu­ally ashamed of it. Teach­ers would make fun of my name, ‘Ber­nice why is your name so long, what kind of name is Chauly?’ Now

I love my name. But then, as a teenager, you’re awk­ward, you’re in­se­cure, it was very dif­fi­cult,” Chauly says.

When she was about four and a half years old, tragedy struck Chauly’s fam­ily: her fa­ther died in a drown­ing ac­ci­dent while the fam­ily was at Batu Fer­ringhi, Pe­nang.

“He was a good man, a good fa­ther. He used to read to me, he used to sing to me. I re­mem­ber drink­ing fresh cow’s milk with him ev­ery night be­fore bed,” Chauly rem­i­nisces.

“When he died, my whole world fell apart. I was a changed per­son af­ter that. I had to find a way of deal­ing with that. So I turned to writ­ing.”

Chauly’s fam­ily even­tu­ally moved to Perak, first to Taip­ing and then Ipoh, where the au­thor stud­ied at the Con­vent of the Holy In­fant Je­sus. There, the teen lived in her own lit­tle world – so much so that her friends nick­named her “Blur-nice”.

“I think I day­dreamed my way through sec­ondary school. I re­mem­ber once I went to school

with­out wear­ing socks, and so I went to the toi­let, and I wrapped toi­let pa­per around my an­kles so I wouldn’t be caught and pe­nalised by the pre­fects! I was in a world of my own. I es­caped into my imag­i­na­tion,” Chauly says.

Af­ter sec­ondary school, she stud­ied Ed­u­ca­tion and English Lit­er­a­ture at the University of Win­nipeg, Canada, as a gov­ern­ment scholar, a time she de­scribes as one of the most ex­cit­ing in her life. It was there she pub­lished her first piece – an ar­ti­cle in the university news­pa­per – and also where she had the first pub­lic read­ing of her work.

Af­ter fin­ish­ing school in Canada, Chauly re­turned to Malaysia in 1993. Her rea­son for re­turn­ing? A doc­u­men­tary called Ring Of Fire: An In­done­sian Odyssey, which tells of the decade-long jour­ney of the Bri­tish film­maker broth­ers Lorne and Lawrence Blair around Bor­neo.

“There was a seg­ment about the Pe­nan peo­ple. And the tribe was doc­u­mented and de­picted in such a way that made me go, wow, this was fas­ci­nat­ing! I knew I wanted to do some­thing like that some­day. I wanted to tell Malaysian sto­ries,” Chauly says.

“I was re­ally com­pelled by that episode. I met Lawrence Blair later, in Bali, and I thanked him for changing my life.”

And in 1996, Chauly ac­com­plished what she had come home to do: she wrote and codi­rected

Bakun Or The Dam?, a doc­u­men­tary about the plight of the na­tive pop­u­la­tion in Sarawak in the shadow of the con­struc­tion of the Bakun Dam.

“It was a trans­form­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. I lived with the Pe­nan, I lived with the Kayan, I lived with the Iban, in dif­fer­ent long­houses, and it was just amaz­ing.

“But it was also heart­break­ing, be­cause all these peo­ple were go­ing to lose their land,” she says.

Es­tab­lish­ing her­self

Since re­turn­ing home, Chauly has worked prac­ti­cally non­stop. Among (many!) other things, she worked as a pro­ducer for leg­endary Malaysian dancer Ramli Ibrahim, and was a jour­nal­ist with the mag­a­zine Men’s Review.

In 1998 – long be­fore in­die pub­lish­ing was a thing – Chauly and the late Fay Khoo (also a cre­ative artis­tic force, Khoo died, aged 48, ear­lier this year of lung cancer) formed the now-de­funct Rhino Press, an in­de­pen­dent pub­lish­ing house, which pub­lished 11 lo­cal ti­tles, in­clud­ing the well-known Black And White Se­ries.

Other no­table works are Chauly’s doc­u­men­tary, Se­man­gat In­san – Masters Of Tra­di­tion (2000), which show­cased var­i­ous dy­ing art forms in Malaysia, and Face To Face –

Con­fronting The Hu­man­ity Of Refugees In Malaysia, a se­ries of refugee por­traits com­mis­sioned by the United Na­tions Com­mis­sion for Hu­man Rights.

In 2005, she and au­thor, pub­lisher and cre­ative writ­ing in­struc­tor Sharon Bakar founded Read­ings, cur­rently the old­est live lit­er­ary read­ing event in Kuala Lumpur, a lively monthly af­fair nowa­days.

One of Chauly’s more well­known works is un­doubt­edly her 2011 book, Grow­ing Up With

Ghosts, a “fic­tive mem­oir” that won third prize in the nonfiction cat­e­gory of the 2012 Pop­u­lar-The Star Read­ers’ Choice Awards.

In the book, Chauly tells of her jour­ney, in the light of her fa­ther’s death, to un­ravel the mystery sur­round­ing a curse that is thought to have plagued her fam­ily. She traces 100 years of her fam­ily his­tory to Fat­shan, China; and Verka, In­dia, to re­count and re-live her an­ces­tors lives against the his­to­ries of In­dia, China, Sin­ga­pore, and Malaya.

“I’m glad I did it. It was very trans­for­ma­tive, to ex­or­cise all the grief I had over my fa­ther’s death. It was start­ing to be­come a weight, this heavy bag­gage that I was car­ry­ing. I felt I needed to tell this story, to be free of it,” Chauly says.

The au­thor also took the time to par­tic­i­pate in three writ­ing res­i­den­cies: the first in Am­s­ter­dam in 2012, then at the Sitka Is­land In­sti­tute, Alaska, and the In­ter­na­tional Writ­ing Pro­gram at the University of Iowa, both in the United States in 2014.

“Res­i­den­cies are very im­por­tant. If I hadn’t had those three res­i­den­cies, I don’t think I would be able to even come up with a first draft for the novel. They help you to read, and to fo­cus, and to do noth­ing but write,” Chauly says.

“We don’t have a writ­ing res­i­dency in Malaysia. But it’s cru­cial! I re­ally hope that some day, we will recog­nise the need for them. You need a space to write and think and let the process un­fold. It takes time!

“I’m talk­ing to some peo­ple in Ge­orge Town. I’m hop­ing that some­time, maybe even by the end of this year, we will have a writ­ing res­i­dency in Pe­nang.”

Speak­ing of Pe­nang, Chauly has also served as fes­ti­val direc­tor of the Ge­orge Town Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val since 2011, help­ing to make it one of the events with the fastest grow­ing pro­file in the re­gion.

Surg­ing for­ward

Chauly now lives in Kuala Lumpur, with two daugh­ters (from her for­mer hus­band, film­maker Farouk Al-Jof­fery) and a lit­tle dog named Lucca, “named af­ter my favourite city”.

The au­thor al­ready has plans for the fu­ture – there might be a new col­lec­tion of po­ems com­ing. And while the ex­pe­ri­ence of writ­ing the first novel was quite an or­deal, Chauly can’t wait to start work on her sec­ond, which she says will be set in a few dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions, and deal with “cli­mate change, shaman­ism, sui­cide, and shapeshift­ing”.

Wow. Don’t say you wouldn’t be in­ter­ested in a novel with any, let alone all four, of those ele­ments. While we ea­gerly an­tic­i­pate see­ing Chauly’s new novel, the au­thor, on the other hand, says she wants to see more books on con­tem­po­rary is­sues.

“I think it’s the best time to be an artist right now. But I don’t think there’s enough lit­er­a­ture be­ing pro­duced now. There’s a lot of genre work. But I think we need more writ­ers putting out more lit­er­ary work,” Chauly says.

“Lit­er­a­ture needs to be writ­ten. Why isn’t any­body writ­ing it? It’s wor­ry­ing. In 20 years, what are Malaysian read­ers go­ing to look back on, what did we pro­duce in this quar­ter of the cen­tury? I think there’s a lot of tal­ent here. But it needs to be nur­tured.”

BER­NICE Chauly’s de­but novel, Once We Were There, com­bines the per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal in a de­fi­ant, un­com­pro­mis­ing way. This is a com­ing-of-age novel that is also about a spe­cific mo­ment in the his­tory of Malaysia, and a love let­ter to its capital city at the muddy con­flu­ence, Kuala Lumpur. A novel that has a woman as its cen­tral char­ac­ter, that takes as its pri­mary con­cern the pe­riod of “Re­for­masi” pol­i­tics in 1998 and its im­me­di­ate aftermath, and weaves into the nar­ra­tive the events in a young woman’s life within this mi­lieu: sex, drugs, a jour­nal­ism ca­reer, mar­riage, moth­er­hood, and the loss of a child.

Chauly is a sig­nif­i­cant name within the lo­cal lit­er­ary scene; not only has she pub­lished col­lec­tions of po­etry, short sto­ries, and a mem­oir, she is also a pho­tog­ra­pher, ac­tor, film­maker, and is the fes­ti­val direc­tor of the Ge­orge Town Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val as well as a teacher of cre­ative writ­ing at the University of Not­ting­ham Malaysia Cam­pus.

The novel’s cen­tral char­ac­ter is Delonix Re­gia, known as Del, and when we meet her she is a jour­nal­ist at The Review, a monthly mag­a­zine that is self-funded by its well-off edi­tor, Roslan. The other jour­nal­ists she grows close to, Sumi and Im­ran, also come from rel­a­tively priv­i­leged back­grounds and were ed­u­cated over­seas. Del and Sumi be­come fast friends; they at­tend Re­for­masi protests to­gether both for work and be­cause they be­lieve in the cause.

What that cause is, is less clear, and for read­ers with the wis­dom of hind­sight, read­ing this novel in 2017, much of the novel’s pol­i­tics – its anti-Ma­hathirism and pro-An­warism and straight­for­ward ac­cep­tance of op­po­si­tion pol­i­tics at face value – seem a lit­tle em­bar­rass­ing as we read the cur­rent head­lines about Pakatan Hara­pan and learn that Ma­hathirism lives on in new and even fa­mil­iar faces.

Del is an ide­al­ist, and she throws her­self into anti-Ma­hathir di­a­tribes with pas­sion. Jux­ta­posed against this is the KL Ma­hathir likes to think he built all on his own as­sert­ing it­self on a global scale as a city for for­eign in­vestors. The novel is at­tuned to the sex, drugs, and de­bauch­ery that is the back­drop for so much of its de­vel­op­ment.

In­ter­spersed with Del’s story about meet­ing her hus­band Omar in the midst of this chaos, then fall­ing in love and start­ing a fam­ily with him, is the story of Ma­rina, a trans­gen­der sex worker who moves to the big city from La­had Datu, Sabah. As the novel pro­gresses, the paths of Del and Ma­rina con­verge, and as tragedy be­falls Del when her daugh­ter is kid­napped, Ma­rina be­comes a trusted friend.

There is a lot of ter­ri­tory cov­ered in Chauly’s am­bi­tious novel, and while I wanted to love it un­re­servedly, there were cer­tain things that made it less than suc­cess­ful, in my opin­ion. The de­pic­tion of young, priv­i­leged jour­nal­ists spend­ing a lot of their time get­ting drunk and talk­ing about changing the world while bran­dish­ing PKR flags in Bangsar rang hol­low at times.

These early pages fea­ture oc­ca­sional weak writ­ing that is unin­spired, like Del’s thoughts be­fore meet­ing Omar: “That’s how I met him. The man who would one day be­come my hus­band and trans­form my life for­ever.” Or, “This was the man I would fight with, for a coun­try that we both loved. For jus­tice. For free­dom. For Malaysia”. This sounds like ed­i­to­ri­al­is­ing in­stead of vi­brant lan­guage. Too much fore­shad­ow­ing runs the risk of read­ing like a gim­mick; the au­tho­rial hand try­ing to force a pat­tern onto the book be­comes ev­i­dent.

In other in­stances, when Chauly lets the im­ages form on their own, her writ­ing soars. For ex­am­ple, in­ter­na­tional jour­nal­ists are de­scribed as hav­ing “an air of fa­tigue around them, of blood and bombs”. Or in rem­i­nisc­ing about her mother’s pres­ence, which felt more like an ab­sence, Del comes to this con­clu­sion: “I don’t think I ever felt the hard crush of a mother’s love”.

I found Ma­rina’s story as a sex worker and a trans rights ac­tivist to be par­tic­u­larly strong, and here Chauly’s skill in nar­ra­tive elo­quence shim­mers with un­der­stated beauty. She de­picts Ma­rina’s story with gen­eros­ity, em­pa­thy, and emo­tional truth. Ma­rina’s story never hits a wrong note. Un­for­tu­nately, her story sort of trails off to­wards the end, and there is a sense that per­haps the novel could not quite ac­com­mo­date the nar­ra­tive strands of both Del and Ma­rina’s sto­ries.

Mid­way through, the prom­ise of mar­riage and moth­er­hood be­gan to fade for Del and tragedy oc­curs. The lat­ter parts of the book are par­tic­u­larly emo­tion­ally dev­as­tat­ing and writ­ten with raw­ness and ur­gency. Del is a com­pli­cated char­ac­ter, and her early mem­o­ries of her fraught re­la­tion­ship with both an emo­tion­ally dis­tant fa­ther and mother (the mother now dead) are the clues to un­der­stand­ing her self-de­struc­tive be­hav­iour.

Chauly is brave to write about the ugly, even ab­ject and grotesque, side of moth­er­hood. This is the anti-Face­book sta­tus up­date of par­ent­ing. If moth­er­hood is revered in Malaysian so­ci­ety to the point of co­ex­ist­ing peace­fully with misog­yny, where women are not val­ued for any­thing other than re­pro­duc­tion, then Del’s howl of pain is a woman rewrit­ing her­self into the nar­ra­tive as hu­man, first and fore­most, as some­one greater than the sum of roles one is sup­posed to take on as a woman.

The psy­chic, emo­tional, and men­tal costs of moth­er­ing must never be talked about in po­lite so­ci­ety. Del’s strug­gle with moth­er­hood, and its de­mands on her au­ton­omy, both bod­ily and men­tally, is nec­es­sary and vi­tal and some­thing rarely seen in lo­cal lit­er­a­ture in English. It’s not pretty or pleas­ant, and you can’t gloss over it with an In­sta­gram fil­ter to make it palat­able. Chauly’s res­o­lute writ­ing on Del’s trauma af­ter her child is taken and her sub­se­quent break­down are some of the best sec­tions in the book.

On the whole, this is also a time cap­sule in novel-form and gives a glimpse of KL at the turn of the 21st-cen­tury. It be­gins with all the hope con­tained within the prom­ise of a change, and ends in per­sonal tragedy for Del and a de­scent into her own in­ferno. As the nar­ra­tive un­folds, it’s also a com­men­tary on the city and its ex­cesses in the name of de­vel­op­ment. It’s a KL most read­ers might pre­fer not to know.

It’s been a long wait for a lo­cal English lan­guage novel that’s not about hor­ror sto­ries or fu­ture dystopias or a col­lec­tion of self­help ad­vice or satir­i­cal pulpy noir with a male gaze or his­tor­i­cal nos­tal­gia or multi­gen­er­a­tional fam­ily sagas. This is, in­stead, a com­plex reck­on­ing of mod­ern KL with a trou­bled and flawed wife and mother at its cen­tre. It holds up a mir­ror to cer­tain seg­ments of lo­cal so­ci­ety and is a stir­ring and nec­es­sary read.

Photo: YAP CHEE HONG/The Star

Photo: YAP CHEE HONG/The Star


En­gage­ment photo of Chauly’s par­ents, Surinder Singh and Loh Siew Yoke (aka Jane Chauly), 1967. Be­fore mar­riage, Surinder changed his name to Bernard Surinder Chauly.

Chauly in Taip­ing, in 1973, com­plete with cheeky smile!

Chauly with her friend Kristen in Mon­treal, Canada, in 1988 – her time at uni was one of the most ex­cit­ing in her life, she says.

A young Chauly with her fa­ther in Kota Baru.

— Filepic

Chauly with lau­re­ate A. Sa­mad Said, mod­er­at­ing a panel ses­sion of the trav­el­ling Ed­in­burgh World Writ­ers’ Con­fer­ence dur­ing its Kuala Lumpur pro­grame in 2013.

— Filepic

Chauly (left) was tasked by United Na­tions Com­mis­sion for Hu­man Rights to cre­ate por­traits of refugees in Malaysia in 2005.

Chauly (left) with Bakar and a stack of the first book of short sto­ries that emerged in 2011 from Read­ings, the live lit­er­a­ture event they be­gan in 2005, which is still go­ing strong to­day. There have been two other books pub­lished, in 2013 and 2016. — Filepic

Photo: Filepic

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