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

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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

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