Exorcising her past

August 22, 2011

IT HAS taken 23 years for author, poet, actress and filmmaker Bernice Chauly (right) to complete her memoir, Growing Up with Ghosts.

It’s the story of her parents and her ancestors. Her mother, a Chinese, and her father, a Punjabi, fell in love and got married despite fierce family objections. Their first child brought peace to the family but then tragedy struck.

The 43-year-old author shares some intimate details of how the memoir came about here.

What motivated you to base this memoir on your parents?

This book is not just about my parents. It’s about the Chinese and Punjabi diasporas and about how my ancestors (from China and India) came to this country. It is 100 years of my family history set against the history of this region.

I managed to trace five generations of my family from both sides and I have taken some creative liberties in telling their story. I call it ‘fictive’ autobiography.

The book is told in six different voices, so it has many narrators. I wanted to give voices to my ancestors. I have also used existing documents to tell this story.

My parents left everything behind, almost as if they were saying: ‘Bernice, here are our letters, our journals, our scrapbooks, our photos, so tell our story.’ And that is what I did.

What is the appealing factor of this book?

I think many Malaysians will be able to relate to this memoir because so many of us come from mixed marriages. It’s a very Malaysian story.

It is about the history (of Malaysia) told by ordinary people. It is about knowing that your ancestors lived through great difficulties – how they had struggled and survived.

It is about coming to terms with who you are and about bloodlines. It is also about love, death, grief and acceptance.

Tell us the process of writing this book.

I knew I would have to write this book since I was young. I started collecting my family stories and writing them down when I was a teenager in university.

But the actual writing and structuring of the book began about fours years ago. It was my mother’s death in 2007 (she died at the age of 66 from cancer) which propelled me to finish it.

After her death, I went to Verka in Punjab, India, where my father came from, to get answers that I needed for the book. I spent two weeks in India, and I came back a different person.

What motivated you to be a writer?

I lost my father when I was four. We were swimming in the sea at Miami Beach in Batu Ferringhi, Penang. He drowned in four feet of water. He was a good swimmer and he was only 33.

Death does many things to you. It takes away the people you love and mortality hits you in the face and you really don’t take time for granted.

My dad’s death made me a writer. His death evicted me from the world. I had to find myself in the world again and words were all I had. I had to make sense of what’s happened. I had to confront myself in many ways. It was not easy but I had to do it.

All my writings – my poems, my short stories and even this memoir – were a part of this process.

Since you are a filmmaker too, do you plan to turn this book into a movie?

We shall see (she smiles).

Growing Up with Ghosts, priced at RM40, will be launched on Aug 23, after which it will be available at all major bookstores and Amazon.com.

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Post taken from theSundaily