At some point in everyone’s lives, we need to know where we came from.

WHAT stands out for me when I think of Bernice Chauly’s book, Growing Up With Ghosts – A Memoir, is the story of her father’s death. It is where the book begins and Chauly’s dreamlike and poetic description of how her three-year-old self deals with the sudden loss of a beloved parent is, for me, the most heartbreaking and compelling thing in this book.

Later, when introduced to the young Bernard – the curious, adventurous trainee teacher, the passionate young lover, the idealistic newly wed – it is my initial vision of him as a loving, devoted father that fixes my attention and makes me want to learn more about him.

Exorcism: Bernice Chauly wrote her family memoir in part as a means of dealing with the many deaths the family has endured.

His death affected Chauly powerfully, but it was just one of many losses her extended family had to endure. Deep in the heart of the book is the family curse that Chauly seeks to understand. Its almost gothic details, including a pilgrimage to India to visit an ancient snake temple, imbue the book with a sense of mystery and deep, devastating horror.

In our interview (conducted via e-mail recently), Chauly, 43, said the real reason for writing the book was to find “the root of the curse”, and understand why all the men in her family died. “I grew up haunted by grief, and my grief became a ghost, I had to confront it and finally let it go,” she says.

She goes on to say that she used “ghosts” as a metaphor “for many things – for untold histories, for the voices who lived through difficult times, who were never heard; for things that scare you, and things that come back to haunt you, for the dead whom I mourned, for the dead that my ancestors mourned, the dead who became ghosts, who were forgotten, who never told their stories and who were never heard, and who never got a chance to exorcise their grief.”

Writing the book, Chauly says, was “cathartic in every way”, an exorcism of sorts that allowed her to make peace with the “ghosts” and with herself. The author uses the voices of her grandparents and her parents to tell a story of struggle and of hardship, of hope and of love. Chauly’s own narrative binds the different voices together and represents the link between the past and the present.

How did you decide on the way the book is presented? What was your aim?

I did not want to write it in a straightforward narrative style – meaning one singular narrative throughout, mine – as I felt that this would be too conventional and did not best serve the stories I wanted to tell. I wanted to redefine memoir writing. History needs to be told from many perspectives and I didn’t want to be the sole voice. I needed to be honest to my ancestors, to use their own words, and to re-tell their stories.

My Punjabi grandmother was illiterate and my Chinese grandmother could read and write basic Mandarin; the men on the other hand, were literate and educated. I wanted to include their voices, their stories. The aim was to have a tapestry of voices, to use existing words that were left behind and to piece together something that was indicative of real people, to celebrate oral history in ways that may challenge the notion of the conventional memoir.

Why did you decide to use original documents – letters from your father to your mother, your mother’s journal, your letters to your mother, etc – in the book?

My parents kept everything – photos, letters, cards, clothes, books. A lot of these things I still have, but their letters, journals and scrapbooks are the most precious. My grandfather’s letter is one of my most treasured possessions. As a writer, I appreciate these documents very much. It just seemed to make sense to use them all. This is a work of non-fiction. If I had chosen to write a work of fiction, it would have been a completely different book.

Why didn’t you write about your marriage or the birth of your children (Chauly has two daughters)?

I saw that as a part of my life that was separate from my personal history, my Self. That those were issues of a different nature, that related to me more as a woman, a mother, a creative person, my personal politics, someone struggling to find her voice, her art, make sense of the world. I think my poems reflect this more and that is what my poetry is for. This (book) was about me coming to terms with my personal history, of being the product of two distinct cultures, of coming to terms with who I am, first and foremost.

What appeal do you feel the book will have for those who are not part of your family or close friends of the family?

I think it’s a universal story, a search for bloodlines. So many of us come from different places, it’s the search to find roots, one’s place in the larger scheme of things, to acknowledge that we share similar histories, to study the Punjabi and Chinese diasporas and how we came to be where we are. It’s acceptance of who we are, and to not forget where we came from.

What are your plans now that this book has been published? What are you working on at the moment?

I had plans of wanting to adapt it to a one-woman play, to have it staged. The Australian writer/photographer/performer William Yang has done something similar with his own family stories, Silence, which was a multi-media performance with slides and film. It was very inspiring when I was grappling with this work. But I think the weight of the book has now been lifted. I want to let it go and move on. I am currently working on curating a writers festival in George Town (see story above) and doing research for a novel. I have also started work on a new collection of short stories and a collection of poems.

Growing Up With Ghosts by Bernice Chauly (ISBN: 978-9834484583) is published by Matahari Books and is available in most Malaysian bookstores and from Amazon online.

Post taken from The Star

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

Excerpt of an interview with The Nut Graph:

BerniceChauly
(All pics courtesy of Bernice Chauly)

BERNICE Chauly says her work as a poet, photographer, filmmaker and writer is all about telling stories. Her work often has themes of marginalisation and identity. She’s written a play about sex workers, taken pictures of refugees, and made documentaries about indigenous peoples and Kelantanese folk traditions. She has also published two collections of poems and a collection of short stories.

Chauly is currently working on a literary autobiography about her family history. “I’m very interested in stories, and what people have to say about themselves and who they are,” she says. “And I guess what I’m doing now is writing my own story.”

In an interview on 3 July 2009 in Petaling Jaya, Chauly talks to The Nut Graph about the roots of that fascination.

Where are you from and where are your parents from?

My father is Punjabi, my mother Chinese. I was born in Georgetown, at the Penang Maternity Hospital, in 1968. My father was born in Penang, my mother was born in Ipoh. My parents got married in 1966, which was not the norm at that time, and there was tremendous opposition from both sides of the family.

BerniceChauly-GreatGpsBernice’s Chinese great grandparents with their children. Her grandfather, Loh Mooi Fatt, is standing on the far right.

To read the entire interview, please click on this link: The Nut Graph: Telling Malaysian Stories

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UNHCR flyer – front

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UNHCR flyer – back

View some of the photographs from Face 2 Face UNHCR here:

Page 1, page 2, page 3, page 4.

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(JP/Prodita Sabarini)

BERNICE CHAULY: (JP/Prodita Sabarini)

Malaysian multi-talented artist Bernice Chauly loathes and loves her country at the same time. She says she loves her home country but she is also toying with the idea of moving to Bali.

In Ubud, Bali, she told The Jakarta Post: “I thought of moving to Bali. But it’s not that easy. It would need a leap of faith.” She was in the Island of the Gods for the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival last month.

Being a single mother of two daughters, her children come first when considering moving to another country.

“It’s an exciting time (being in Malaysia). It’s a really frustrating time as well. I’m not going to leave. If I leave it must be for a good reason. I love my country, it’s my home,” she said while sitting in an antique wooden Balinese chair in one of Ubud’s resorts.

She looked beautiful in a simple elegant black tunic dress. She wore thick-rimmed glasses that gave her a slightly nerdy character, her straight, long black hair tied behind her head.

This year she published her second collection of poems, The Book of Sins, independently. Her first one, Going There and Coming Back, was published in 1997.

Chauly is an actor, filmmaker, photographer, writer, lecturer but foremost a poet. She is also one of the many Kuala Lumpur-based talented artists struggling to create works of art in an unsupportive atmosphere under an authoritarian government.

Malaysia has some of the toughest censorship laws in the world. The authorities exert substantial control over the media and can impose restrictions in the name of national security.

“I have a love-hate relationship with my country. It’s a great country but I think our politicians are running it into the ground and creating a lot of stress and turmoil for people such as myself who want to continue to live, work and create (works of art) in Malaysia. But it’s becoming really really hard, because you have a sense of frustration that things are just not going to get better,” she said.

“The situation in Malaysia is very bad, very uncertain. There’s no bloodshed but it’s brewing. All it would take is one small stupid incident to ignite some sort of riot. A lot of racial tension has been building since the election.

“I don’t want to sound like a prophet of doom, but things are really really bad. I’m really worried about the future of Malaysia. It’s very worrying and I think people are trying to downplay it as much as they can.”

Malaysian politics have been in turmoil this year. The March election shook five decades of status quo with voters shifting from the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition parties to opposition parties.

Meanwhile, racial tensions have caused minority groups in the multiethnic and multireligious country to rally against discrimination. Ethnic Malays comprise some 60 percent of the population. The Chinese constitute around 26 percent, while Indians and other nationalities make up the rest.

In November last year about 5,000 ethnic Indians held a rare rally organized by the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf); a larger one with some 10,000 protesters occurred in Febr. 2008. The Malaysian government banned Hindraf in mid-October. The state also jailed vocal anti-government blogger Raja Petra Kamaruddin in September.

The authoritarian quality of the rulers has made some artists leave the country.

“A lot of people are leaving. A lot of artists, a lot of people with great talent in this country, because they don’t want to live under that (repression),” she said.

For others who have stayed, they must find creative ways to produce art that, at the same time, does not betray their idealism.

For Chauly, it is by using English. She uses English in her daily life. Her poems and prose are mostly in English, with one or two written in Malay.

Born from a Punjabi father and a Chinese mother, English is her first language. But that is not the only reason she uses the language. According to her, writing in English in Malaysia is somewhat safer.

“Just in terms of the ratio, English-speaking Malaysians and English-reading Malaysians are a very small minority. When you write in Malay you’re appealing to a very large cross section of Malaysian society and if you’re saying something that is subversive and politically offensive or slightly provocative then you’re in trouble. And the police will investigate you.

“But if you write in English, you know (that) they don’t really care. As long as it’s not too offensive and it’s not too overtly political and provocative, it’s actually still OK. It’s allowed.”

She said that her book, The Book of Sins was not subversive in a political way but that it was too personal. “Too personal can be very subversive. You don’t talk about yourself in Malaysia. My poems are very very personal, almost to the point of being subversive.”

The Book of Sins deals with issues of relationships, love, identity and motherhood.

She is currently writing a memoir she began 20 years ago, which will take shape in different genres. “It can be a play. It can be a novel. A series of a memoir. A series of vignettes. But it’s one complete family story.”

Chauly said that her memoir was an attempt to voice her complexity. Her late father was born Hindu and her late mother Buddhist. They raised her a Catholic.

“I’m Malaysian but I’m not Malay. I’m Muslim by virtue of conversion for my ex-husband. It’s really complicated. Now that I’m divorced I still have to remain a Muslim. If I want to marry again, I have to marry a Muslim. It’s a very strange situation.”

She said that her memoir-in-progress was also an attempt to address a certain sense of place.

That is “because Malaysians are very confused”.

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From The Jakarta Post, by Prodita Sabarini. Published Sun, 11/09/2008 11:06 AM, permalink  to original article here.