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

Lost in KL review

March 3, 2009

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

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

Review of The Book of Sins

October 3, 2008

Taken from a review of The Book of Sins in Kakiseni

19. 03. 2008
The Virtues of Sin by Gabrielle Low

I rage into the night
of graffiti and poems

In Bernice Chauly’s small but substantial collection of poetry and prose, The Book of Sins, words indeed rage forth from the page, and they do so with a searing yet unembellished forcefulness.

It’s hard not to note, first and foremost, the urgent, pounding rhythm to some of the lines in this collection. In This Love, she writes “And she in her silence prayed that it would stop, that he would stop that he would realize that it was enough, that it was enough.” Each phrase crashes with a sort of drumbeat intensity. Each phrase hits directly at a nerve.

Other poems are distinguished by a stark immediacy. “Sweet Jesus, she cannot breathe” starts off the piece entitled Haze.

In other instances, words are staggered as if they are being exhaled bit by bit:

“When your husband leaves you
and your daughter of two
asks you
not to cry mama
not to

You just do.”

The brevity of the poems signals a conviction in her own words. In several of the poems, it is this economy of language that gives rise to a greater degree of meaning and exegetical possibilities. As she writes in Meaning:

“The world is full of metaphors
and I am one of them.”

A distinctly female voice emerges from this book.

It is a voice that is, at times, victimized, as in This Love quoted above, or bitterly disenchanted (“What difference will tonight make/on this street of sin/we still spread our legs for money”), or militant:

“And so she died
for the cause
And so she blew herself up
for the cause”

Taken together, these particular poems exude a somewhat predictable brand of old school feminist angst: sisters, we have suffered for too long, let us take up arms.

But in some instances, she lets this go, and gives way to a female voice that is more voluptuous and more at ease with red lipstick — the implication is that feminism need not preclude femininity:

“Let me wear
my silks and makeup

make my entry
like a lady”

Sometimes, however, that female voice becomes more subliminal:

“Plunging into
red depths, emerging
from many births

Dreaming through lifetimes
eating of roses, dark
wood and cactuses”

To me, those words, from the poem entitled Like He Once Said…, are a richer expression of the female than all references to virgins, mothers and prostitutes combined.

Bernice is not absolved of certain literary indulgences — poems that sound like confessionals (“I drink too much now/I cry all too much now”), or those that revel in their own melancholy (“Art is pain and pain is art”). Even the juxtaposition of carnality and religion — some of the chapters are named after a number of the Seven Deadly Sins (Pride, Gluttony, Lust) — is somewhat expected. But often, she gives her words enough color and enough truth to keep us with her, so that when she writes “and as the children slept I drank wine, smoked/while pounding pencils into powder on paper”, what comes across is not poetic affectation but words spoken in confidence. The strength of this book is that she sounds like she has lived these words.

At times, she crosses the threshold between poignance and misty-eyed sentimentality. Poems that touch on social issues, in particular, tend to lack the shades of meaning and the contemplative tone that distinguish some of her other pieces.

In Penan her restraint on romanticism and nostalgia is minimal:

“To you
ancient father of the mystic land
I bear no good news, yet
the flicker of hope in your eyes
tells of your pride
as we journey into Bakun.”

The strongest works in the book are the poems that sound less polemical, and more personal, when anger and heartbreak are expressed more as a sigh than as a rant. Some poems derive their texture from details (“the swing/you brought from the house/in Taiping -/it was white then”). Others are striking for their intimacy: “Between sheets/between breaths/between skins/That sometimes/met in secret” reads like an entry to a diary that someone has hidden under a clean white pillow.

Then there are the pieces are marked by a willingness to deal squarely with ambivalence—one theme that emerges on several occasions is the state of being torn between motherhood on one hand (“I feed them both from a bowl of rice”), and on the other, the realization that that entails giving up a degree of personal freedom:

“I now know

Why birth is a wing

And my child

A chain.”

It would have been too easy if she dwelled merely on her maternal instincts. Traditionalists might scold her for it, but it says a lot about her honesty as a writer.

The themes that bind most of the works in the collection—life and death, love and heartbreak, the religious and the profane—all seem to coincide seamlessly in what is perhaps the most powerful piece in the book, the only poem that makes up the section titled Forgiveness. What begins with memories of her mother and her childhood (“in the garden of my youth/that garden/your garden”) unfolds into a description of her mother’s illness (“Breathe Mother/just breathe”) and, finally, her passing:

“Let go Mother
it is time to greet
the self that still remains
that which life has maimed
in death, will recover.”


Gabrielle Low is a writer and editor. Her contributions to Kakiseni include articles on culture and visual art.

The Book of Sins is available in most major book-stores at RM24.00 per copy.

Related post: The Book of Sins is out!