Growing Up With Ghosts by Bernice Chauly.

MEMOIRS are, by definition, works in progress. They should, for all intents and purposes, take a lifetime to write. They should communicate change. They should symbolise growth. They should be reflective. In an age where everyone is looking for their 15 seconds of fame, we have come to expect so much more from these sorts of things. We want revelation. We want honesty and candour. We want to be surprised. For what is the point indulging in such reading if we didn’t actually learn from it, something new, something that would, God forbid, further enrich our reality.

Suffice to say that Bernice Chauly does not disappoint. It has taken her over two decades to put this book together and it is an absolute masterpiece. A magnum opus about family, love, death, the plight of star-crossed lovers, the diaspora of all those displaced by time and by space. It will tear your heart out. It will make you bleed. It will likely be the most Malaysian thing you read this year. Why? Simply because this story, of Chauly’s parents, of their forbidden love, steeped in passion and punctuated by tragedy, is as much hers as it is ours. Also because we have all had startlingly similar experiences, be it in our own lives or in those lives close to ours and this quest — of self-discovery, coming to terms with one’s sense of self, dealing with those complex questions of identity — is something we’ve all undertaken, or likely will, at some point in our lives. Why is that? Well, very simply because it comes with the territory. It is our tendency — the inescapable consequence of our curious living arrangements.

This book is nothing short of a labour of love. It is a work suffused with so much blood, sweat and tears. Every sentence is steeped in sentiment, in emotion so raw, so natural and instinctive, that its appeal is nothing short of universal.

There is a wonderful quality to Chauly’s prose. It is a style that stems from her well-established poetic roots. It is lyrical. There are moments when it borders on verse. Arranged with an almost metrical rhythm. Like when she writes of her origins. “I am Punjabi, a sardarni of the Khalsa. Of the pure, from the tenets sprung from the loins of Guru Nanak. From the plains of the Punjab, and the wheat fields of Amritsar. I am Chinese, from the port city of Canton, from Fatshan, from Lam Soy Chea, from the village of fishermen and of joss stick makers.” It possesses a choral character that demands to be read and read out loud. This is because Chauly has written more than just a memoir, she has compiled more than just a poignant catalogue of letters and diary entries and personal observations and scrapbook excerpts. Growing Up With Ghosts is an inadvertent play for voices.

Growing Up With Ghosts is many things. It is a biography, a diary and a history. It’s also a love story, a searching journey into the heart of the Punjab and into the Guangdong province and the story of an ancient curse. But most of all, it is the story of a little girl just looking for her father.

‘… leave my mother alone! Take me!’ This space is dedicated to publishing new writing from local and foreign writers. This month, we’re highlighting Growing Up With Ghosts by Bernice Chauly. Here, an excerpt of the memoir Loh Siew Yoke. Jelapang, Ipoh. 1944 They were older than me actually and I must have been about four when they died. I don’t even remember their names. They were always sick so they had to be sent away. My mother never talked about them at all. My dead sisters.

When the war broke out, I was sent to live in Jelapang, I lived with my eldest sister, Third Aunt and my grandmother, Ah Ma. My mother lived in the shophouse called Ying Woh on Leech Street with my father and Ah Yeh, my grandfather. Third Aunt was quite sickly as well. I think she suffered from heart disease. My grandparents favoured boys so my father and uncle were treated differently. Third Aunt was very good to me, took care of me and she used to sew me clothes. She was a good tailor. I remember she had to eat raw liver all the time. We believed that you had to treat blood with blood, you see. So Ah Ma would chop raw liver very fine, pour boiling water on it, swirl it around with chopsticks and Third Aunt would have to drink the liver water. She died when she was 28 or 29. She was so young, her body was so swollen when she died. I remember touching it. She was cold. Swollen and cold.

We lived on sweet potatoes for almost two years. There was nothing else to eat during the war. The shophouse sold pork but there wasn’t much meat then. I remember my stomach got so big once and Ah Ma said I had worms. It was from the sweet potatoes. Maybe because it wasn’t cooked long enough, maybe the water wasn’t clean enough. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I was barefoot all the time. I had sores on my feet and had to soak my feet in hot water every day for hours. Just sitting there for hours with my feet in a tub of hot water.

Then one day, they came. The Japanese came. The house was old, wooden, and in the back there were jambu trees and then there was the jungle. I loved to climb the jambu trees. So one evening, they came. There was a commotion outside. I thought it was from the neighbour’s house. There was a lot of noise outside the door. They barged in, two or three of them, they had guns. They were talking very loudly and one of them went into the bedroom and started ransacking the drawers. I shouted at him in Cantonese, “What are you doing?” He turned around and slapped me. I ran to hide. They found nothing. They must have thought we were rich because we had a horse cart. We went from Jelapang to Ipoh in a horse cart in those days.

Then they dragged Ah Ma by her hair out the door and Third Aunt said, “She’s old, leave my mother alone! Take me!” But they were already out the door. We were crying, hugging each other, not knowing what to do. Somehow the news got to Ying Woh and then the rest of the family came. My father had to make a police report and the policeman came to ask us questions. Ah Ma had been kidnapped by the Japanese. I cried and I cried. We could not sleep that night.

The next morning, I got up very early, I went to the window to look out. And I will never forget this for the rest of my life.

I saw her running. Ah Ma looked as if she was flying, she was running through the air through the back of the house, through the jungle and the jambu trees. Her hair was wild. She ran into the house and collapsed onto the floor. Her feet were swollen and torn. She told us that she had escaped in the middle of the night when one of the Japanese soldiers went off to urinate. She had started running and ran and ran until it was dawn.

She said she was guided out of the jungle by a white butterfly.

post taken from New Straits Times

A recent gathering of authors elicits descriptions like ‘inspiring’ and ‘entertaining’.

IT’S been several years since Kuala Lumpur played host to a literary festival, so the city’s book lovers were understandably excited when Malaysian writer and poet Bernice Chauly announced the Writers Unlimited Tour KL/Makassar 2011 a couple of months ago.

At the time, there was some doubt whether the festival would happen as the organisers were having problems raising the necessary funds (a common problem faced by arts and literature groups all over the world). Fortunately, Chauly’s appeal for RM22,000 was met in the nick of time by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and Institut Terjemahan Negara Malaysia.

The event was jointly organised by Writers Unlimited and Readings@CeritAku. Writers Unlimited, formerly known as Winternachten, is an initiative that organises an annual international literature festival in The Hague, as well as literary events abroad, in cooperation with local partner organisations. Readings@CeritAku is Chauly’s creation, a showcase (held at KL café-bar No Black Tie) for Malaysian writers, and a continuation of Readings, the platform for published and unpublished writers that was started by book blogger Sharon Bakar and that is now a monthly event in the Klang Valley.

Going great guns: The afternoon session at the Writers Unlimited event featured moderator Umapagan Ampikaipakan (with mic) and writers (from left) Dain Said, Abeer Soliman, Rodaan Al Galidi, and Chua Guat Eng.

 

Chauly met Writers Unlimited director Ton van de Langkruis at the UtanKayu Literary Biennale in Jakarta back in 2009 and through him became part of the touring festival. She is the first Malaysian to have toured with them and this is the first time the festival has come to Malaysia.

The festival in KL lasted for three days and comprised readings at Taylor’s University, readings and panel discussions at the Annexe Gallery, and more readings at No Black Tie.

I attended the readings and panel discussions on the second day of the festival and was inspired as well as thoroughly entertained by what I heard. The Annexe Gallery at Central Market was an ideal venue for these sessions, being small enough to create a sense of intimacy between the writers and the audience.

Two sessions split the nine featured writers into two groups. Gündüz Vassaf (Turkey), Maaza Mengiste (Ethiopia/US), Dipika Mukherjee, Uthaya Sankar S.B., and Kee Thuan Chye appeared in the morning, while Rodaan Al Galidi (Iraq/Netherlands), Abeer Soliman (Egypt), Chua Guat Eng and Dain Said appeared after lunch.

Chua Guat Eng: Fiction allows her to explore things, and leave them in a state that allows further exploration.

The writers read published and unpublished works, and then answered questions posed by sessions’ moderators Amir Muhammad and Umapagan Ampikaipakan as well as the audience.

Central to the discussions was the idea of how the truth may be presented in various ways. This was in keeping with the festival’s theme, Writing The Truth – Fact Or Fiction?, which was decided jointly by van de Langkruis and Chauly.

Said Chauly at a later interview, “I wanted to work with a theme that would resonate with readers, writers and audiences here. Issues like religion, identity, nationality, conflict, corruption are issues that we deal with along with people in many parts of the world. And so we began working on the theme which would deal with writing and truth.”

The blurred lines between fact and fiction are what Chauly is more than familiar with. Her most recent collection of poetry, The Book Of Sins, is a deeply personal and painfully truthful exploration of life, love, death and disappointment, while her latest work, Growing Up With Ghosts (to be published by Matahari Books in August), is a fictive memoir based on her Chinese-Punjabi family’s history.

Gündüz Vassaf: Writers should avoid dealing with only their own truth and view themselves and their beliefs with a critical eye, questioning them constantly.

Unfortunately, she did not read from her work at the sessions I attended. However, the featured writers I did hear presented richly diverse material in a variety of voices and styles, all reflecting their lives, their experiences and the places they’re from. Based on truth, the work was written and presented as fiction.

Maaza Mengiste said, “Fiction gives us breathing room – gives our imagination room to play and helps us fill the gaps left by memory.”

Her novel, Beneath The Lion’s Gaze, is set in the 1970s and describes life in Ethiopia under the repressive and cruel Derg regime.

“Writers confront the facts,” she said, “but fiction allows us to get into people’s hearts – it’s a more visceral connection. If writers remain silent we have lost everything.”

Mengiste and the other visiting writers showed how fiction is used to explore reality. Abeer Soliman, whose blog and book (Diary Of An Old Spinster) deal with the problems single women face in Egypt, spoke about how literature is used by writers in the Arab world to “run from restrictions”. She described how a certain writer got around the impossibility of writing about religion by depicting god as a mysterious and powerful man. “Reality is more surprising than fiction but we can use fiction to manoeuvre around the truth.”

I was incredibly moved by the work read by Soliman, Mengiste and Al Galidi. Al Galidi’s poems I found especially affecting. They are based on his experiences as an Iraqi refugee in The Netherlands, and, in translation (Al Galidi performed, with panache, the pieces in their original Dutch, but English versions were projected on to the wall behind him), the nonchalance, whimsy and wry humour of the pieces underline all the more the bitter irony of the situations they describe.

I had a less favourable reaction to Dipika Mukherjee’s reading of the prologue of her soon-to-be published novel Thunder Demons. The piece describes the murder of a beautiful young Tibetan woman at the behest of a corrupt Malaysian politician and sounded to me more like gossipy reportage than creative fiction.

While I don’t deny the importance of writing about controversial events and “outing” leaders guilty of committing atrocities, I feel that there is no merit in simply presenting the same “facts” as discussed in coffee shops and taxis up and down the country. Sorry, but a bunch of adjectives and fictitious names doesn’t make it good fiction.

I would much prefer our country’s troubles and foibles be explored through the depiction of how they have impacted ordinary Malaysians. Perhaps Mukherjee’s book goes on to do this and if so, the prologue is misleading.

Chua Guat Eng, in answer to a question on why writers choose to write fiction, said that this was a form that allowed her to explore things and leave them in a state that allows for further exploration. It seems to me that this approach helps a writer avoid the pitfalls of preaching just one view point, thus coming across as didactic.

To avoid didacticism, Gündüz Vassaf advised writers to avoid dealing with only one truth – their own. He stressed the need to view oneself and one’s beliefs with a critical eye, questioning them constantly.

Kee Thuan Chye read an amusing story that left no one in doubt about his politics. He has always worn his heart on his sleeve in any case, and is admirably forthright in his articles for online news sites MalaysiaKini and Malaysian Digest. I think he has the potential to create powerful and affecting fiction. But first, he needs to stop writing stories as though they are op-ed pieces. (Kee was an associate editor at The Star and also editor of the paper’s Mind Our English column.)

One of my favourite stories from the sessions was Uthaya Sankar S.B.’s Cat, an absurdist tale of a multi-lingual feline who learns that the most successful civil servants are seen, not heard.

The story ends with Uthaya stating his point rather too plainly, but at least the rest of the story manages not to suggest that Malaysians are unable to draw conclusions without the aid of an instruction manual. And I have to say, the writer’s deadpan expression leads me to believe he would do well as a stand-up comedian.

I left the sessions wishing there were more such events to look forward to. When I e-mailed Chauly to ask if Writers Unlimited would be back, she replied, “Writers Unlimited has had its share of budget cuts in the arts and there is a real possibility that they will lose their funding for these tours in two years.” However, we should not rule out the possibility of Chauly organising an event of her own.

“I think its important to have a regular literary festival in KL,” said Chauly in her e-mail. “I think the model that I have learnt from this festival and from the tours is that it’s important to keep it small enough to engage the writers and the audiences. I also have a sense of how the literary scene works here, having organised readings for so many years now. So, as an organiser, a writer and a reader, I have a better idea, more so now than ever, how to make a literary festival in KL work.

“Rodaan Al Galidi took me aside after the final reading on Sunday and said, ‘For 11 years I have been to literary festivals, and this is the first time I have been to a festival like this. It is so great, thank you.’ ”

My sentiments exactly.

——

(Post taken from: The Star: Truth in Fiction)

Lost in KL review

March 3, 2009

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Review of Lost in KL, by SH Lim, in Time Out KL magazine

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Photo by Bernice Chauly

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Read going there and coming back, poems and prose by Bernice Chauly

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Standing out most from the collection is Bernice Chauly’s startlingly poignant expressions of love possessed and retracted in Airborne, a story about a young Malaysian woman completing her final semester in college during a Winnipeg winter.

Published in The New Straits Times