Bernice Chauly reaches ‘the pinnacle of literary work’ with the release of her first novel.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Chauly with laureate A. Samad Said, moderating a panel session of the travelling Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference during its Kuala Lumpur programe in 2013.
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