Posted on

Lit Recap: Author event with Shivani Sivagurunathan

After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, we hosted our first in-person, in-store literary event on Saturday, 4 June, 2022. The occasion was to fete Malaysian author Shivani Sivagurunathan and her first full-length novel, Yalpanam, published by Penguin SEA last year. The novel is about the unlikely friendship of 185-year-old Pushpanayagi and her 18-year-old neighbour, Maxim Cheah, and how both would have to revisit the past in order to become whole persons and move forward in their lives.

Shivani, who is assistant professor in English and creative writing at the University of Nottingham Malaysia, spoke with Lit Books owner Fong Min Hun about the long journey it took to write her first full-length novel and the intricacies of the story and characters. Excerpts from the conversation is reproduced below.

Min Hun: How did you come to write this particular story and how long did it take you to write it?
Shivani: It was a very convoluted journey because I started writing it in 2011 just after my first book was published, Wildlife on Coal Island, which is a collection of short stories. I was on a writing spree basically; something was unlocked within me. The first image that appeared with regards to this book was of Pushpanayagi herself. What I saw was a really fat old woman in a white saree doing a bit of gardening. It was a very compelling image. I saw that the garden was very fertile, almost Edenic, and at a slight distance was an old colonial-style house. 

That was a very magnetic image that I started to follow and basically, image followed image followed image, and then a story was unfolding. The first half of the novel, right up to the point where Maxim moves into yalpanam, would flow beautifully. It was very engaging; I was really getting into the mood of writing. I felt very much in control. When I reached the middle point of the novel, things would just fall apart. I would be lost; it drove me mad. From 2011 to 2014 I was writing and rewriting this novel.

This book went through so many changes and finally in 2014, I put it away. I thought fiction writing isn’t for me; I’ll just go back to poetry. In retrospect I see that what had to happen was I had to grow up as a person and as a writer in order to complete this book. I put it aside, got a job teaching creative writing at the University of Nottingham Malaysia and frankly, that was the training I needed.

In 2018, I managed to score myself a sabbatical. I got six months off work to do something. Initially I was not planning to go back to this novel… I had a novella written in 2014 so I thought to return to that novella and work on that. But a writer friend of mine took me away to Tioman and encouraged me to go back to the novel. Very interestingly I realised that the distance, the time spent away from the manuscript, really helped me to see it more clearly. I could read it more objectively; I could see where it was problematic. I basically rewrote it. 

MH: How autobiographical is this book?
S: I’d say that all fiction is autobiographical; it’s just a question of how [much so]. This novel is not very overtly autobiographical but I definitely did draw on my complex relationship with my Sri-Lankan-Tamil heritage, exploring the complex relationship one can have with one’s own inheritances in terms of the question of displacement and the pain of feeling severed from one’s own culture. 

MH: It’s a challenging book to read, Shivani, but at the same time rewarding. I find with a lot of difficult literature, if you persist with it, while there may be parts that you don’t fully understand, you find yourself rewarded by it at the end. Your book was one of those. There were two or three different timelines going on at the same time and at the start, I think you deliberately try to confuse your reader. For example in the book, you talk about the rupturing of the notions of reality and when I read that I thought to myself, ‘This is what Shivani is doing. She is trying to shake me out of this comfort zone from the very start of the book.’ Was that what you were trying to do?

S: Absolutely. I’m really glad that you experienced that. When the novel starts, we see Pushpanayagi, who’s basically been a recluse for close to seven decades. She lives in this house on her own, and the only person she meets is Hadi the vegetable seller who comes to her house to collect the vegetables that she grows; that’s how she earns a living. She’s been living in a state of stagnation for seven decades and she has a very myopic vision of reality, of the world, and of herself. The way she lives life is a very narrow way of living. The process of transformation that she goes through is a process of dismantling these fossilisations, a rupturing of this perception of reality that has basically kept her in a kind of paralysis.

Similarly, with Maxim — she’s been brought up in this very sheltered home, she’s been fed on a diet of certain beliefs and ideas that are very limiting. The journey that they’re both on is one of dismantling these encrustations and that necessitates a questioning of what they’ve been believing, a questioning of assumptions, and then seeing what else is there. It’s problematising reality, problematising what is. It’s saying that reality is so much bigger and so much more complex than we think it is. There are multiple versions, multiple perspectives. It’s sort of asking the reader also to consider what you’ve been taking for granted and saying let’s open up the world. 

MH: Maxim wasn’t particularly enigmatic but I couldn’t figure her out. Why was she so hurt by her family’s circumstances that she felt the need to run away? Tell me more about Maxim and how she fits into this picture.
S: Maxim is, you’re right, not a very enigmatic character. She’s also very young. There is a big contrast between someone who is 185 years old and an 18-year-old who is particularly emotionally immature. She’s a deeply lonely person. She’s friendless. She hasn’t really had that kind of training in looking at her emotions, at her interior world, and being able to process it and understand what’s going on. In terms of her response to her situation, I think it’s fitting for the kind of person that she is.

MH: There is something very broken about Maxim, or something fundamentally missing in her and we do get that part of the story later on when she tries to uncover her own secret history. You were talking about how reality is not all that it seems to be and there is something about reclaiming history and the past for an alternate future. So, this is a book about secret histories, isn’t it?
S: To some extent, yes, the unearthing of stories that have not been heard before, the stories, the voices, the experiences and feelings that have been repressed that have been banished to some kind of psychical outer space that need to be aired in order for us to get a fuller perception of reality. What does it mean to open up reality? It is to bring in these perspectives that haven’t been seen before. In that sense, yes, there is a lot of secret histories that are coming to the surface. 

MH: There does seem to be a lot of writing with a preoccupation with secret histories, or an attempt to try to flesh out the world as we know it through knowledge that was once known but perhaps now hidden or now lost. I’m wondering, why do you think there is this current in contemporary writing? Is it because we are somehow dissatisfied with who we are today? Is modernity so sterile and so limiting that we want to recover something about ourselves that we no longer have?
S: That’s a great question. I think it comes, yes, from our dissatisfaction with who and what we are now because we feel lost in terms of our identity. Maybe we don’t feel like we’re grounded enough or that we understand where we are. What do you do if you you’ve lost your way? You can’t move forward without going back. There’s always something that occurred in the past that hasn’t been resolved, accepted or processed, that hasn’t been truly grasped. And so, we have to keep returning to the past in order to really understand where we are now.

MH: There are two very distinct voices throughout the book. One voice is very poetic, uses a lot of imagery and allegory. The other one is more straightforward prose. Was this tension between these two voices deliberate?
S: Yes, in a very practical sense because there are actually three narrators in the novel. There’s Pushpanayagi’s point of view, there’s Maxim’s point of view, and then there’s a third unnamed narrator…. the grandiose, philosophical, poetic voice. I had to make sure that the language Maxim uses and the language that Pushpanayagi uses were authentic to the kind of people that they are. Maxim would never speak in very poetic, grandiose ways. For Pushpanayagi, in the initial stages of writing her, her voice did come out very poetic, but then as I clarified her voice, I realised that it wasn’t actually that philosophical or that dense. Then I realised that there was still space for a lyrical, philosophical voice, hence, the third narrator. I have a very clear idea of who or what that narrator is and it’s sort of related to the core of the story, which is asking metaphysical questions.

Yalpanam is available here.

Posted on Leave a comment

Lit Recap: Author session with Suffian Hakim

Suffian Hakim’s The Minorities is a fantastical supernatural tale of four very unlikely housemates embarking on a journey to help a lonely Pontianak return home to Melaka. It is a wacky, witty, cheeky and laugh-out-loud funny parody, but it is also layered and emotionally rich.

Together with the lovely ladies from Two Book Nerds Talking podcast, Diana Yeong and Honey Ahmad, we had the pleasure of hosting Suffian for a meet-and-greet at Lit Books on July 27. The full podcast will be aired soon, but here are some gems from the delightful hour-long conversation with Suffian.

On the protagonist opening up his house to immigrants of suspicious origins:
For me it was the idea of kindness derived from depression [the protagonist was mourning the death of his father]. If you want to pull yourself out of depression, you do that through kindness, through opening yourself up to other people.

On marring very real father-son issues on the one hand with an epic demon army battle on the other in one book:
As a person I believe you cannot experience the world just one way. When I was writing the book it was always clear in my mind that this person’s life, what the narrator and his friends are going through [with the Pontianak], is as important and as real to them as their own personal emotional journeys. You can’t exclude one from the other. We go through our lives — we get into relationships, we break up — but in the meantime, a war is going on in Iraq and all that. But we’re also having our own personal emotional journeys and I wanted to make sure that both arcs play out to their logical conclusions.

On the use of food puns as titles of chapters:
The idea with the chapter titles like ‘Diet Coke and Mentos’, ‘Chinese Century Egg’, ‘Gula Melaka Dreamsicle’, ‘The Long Arm of the Coleslaw’ was that I wanted to parody the fact that when most people consider a minority group by ethnicity, the only way they seem to connect or contextualise that group is through food, but not so much the rich history or heritage they might have. It was to bring to light the fact that a minority group is more than their food.

On an almond that recurs throughout the story and its significance:
The almond that keeps popping up in the book, it’s a cheap thrill for me as an author (laughs). In Arab Muslim cultures, when a boy comes of age it’s tradition for his dad to give him a bag of almonds as a gift. The almond in the story represents the narrator’s issues with his dad, the baggage that he keeps because of his strained relationship with his dad. What he does with the almond in the end signifies the fact that he’s finally letting go of his issues with his dad.

The Minorities is available at Lit Books for RM69.90.

Posted on Leave a comment

Lit Recap: What Dementia Teaches Us About Love

Few things in life are as heartbreaking as bearing witness to the steady decline of a loved one. It is particularly tragic when the decline pertains directly to that sense of self and identity which makes a person distinctive, special and, perhaps more importantly, makes them the unique individual that we have come to care and love over a lifetime. But this is precisely the area in which dementia — described as the disease of the century — affects. 

It is a great irony of our age that the medical technologies and breakthroughs of the day have done so much to prolong and extend life, and yet it is precisely because of this extension that cases of dementia have been increasing. Though the exact cause of dementia has yet to be determined, there is a definite and observable correlation between dementia and old age, which raises the spectre of new challenges for countries such as Malaysia where average life expectancy is on the rise. 

In her recently published book, What Dementia Teaches Us About Love, Nicci Gerrard provides a comprehensive account of how dementia affects us — as patients, caregivers, society — and the challenges that exist now and in the future in coping with a growing number of dementia sufferers. Having lost her own father to the disease, Gerrard’s book is a moving account of personal tragedy but also explores important philosophical questions such as the meaning of self, and what it means to live a meaningful life. 

At Lit Books, we were inundated with readers who reported their own challenges of living with or interacting dementia patients, and who picked up Gerrard’s book in search of information, perspective or perhaps just to locate a shared experience — caring for a dementia patient can be a lonely undertaking. In view of this great interest in the subject matter, we invited Dr Rishikesan Kuppusamy, consultant neurologist at Pantai Hospital Kuala Lumpur, and BFM89.9 presenter Lee Chwi Lynn to talk about the book and on dementia in general at a public panel discussion held in our shop recently. Edited excerpts from the discussion is reproduced below. The podcast will be available on BFM89.9 sometime in September. 

Lee Chwi Lynn: Doctor, can you take us through the definition of dementia?
Dr Rishi: Dementia is a syndrome. It’s like a fever — you could have fever because of an infection, because of cancer — so dementia is just an umbrella term. What it essentially means is it’s a chronic condition and it’s degenerative — that means it will progress over months and years, resulting in loss of memory, although memory is just a small subsidiary of this. It also involves losing the ability to carry out your day-to-day tasks, things you’ve already learnt, things you’re already good at: driving, cooking, managing your finances. That’s what dementia roughly means.

Everyone has had the experience of leaving their house and thinking, ‘Did I lock the door, did I switch off the iron, did I do these things.’ At what point in these little flickers does somebody need to consider to go see a doctor?
Dr Rishi: If you’re losing your keys, you forget where you parked your car, you should just tell yourself what I tell myself every day: You’re fine. That’s normal. The fact is that this disease makes you completely oblivious that you are losing it. It’s usually the people around you who will say something is off — you’re embarrassing yourself or you’re making cock-ups which are atypical of yourself. We’re not talking about forgetting where you parked your car because you know you forgot where your car is. These are people who didn’t even know they brought their car and they have problems with managing space, parking, and so on. The involvement here is not just one isolated thing like forgetting your keys; it’s a multi-factorial domain.

The book deals with this question of identity. At what point does someone not become themselves anymore? A little bit of a philosophical question for you, but what is the self?
Dr Rishi: In dementia, there is a gradual evolution of change because the disease is multifaceted. It’s not just the component of memory, but losing executive function, which is loss of ability to carry out an already learned skill. You have these inhibitive values — for example you used to be someone who’s very quiet and someone who likes to listen but now you’re the loudest one in the room. Bit by bit you start becoming somebody else. I think this is a very abstract point. But the truth is it’s difficult and the system doesn’t really recognise this because we identify you by name, by IC number, by your fingerprints and your signature. We have a system that’s built for that but we are lost when it comes to this.

Min Hun: The book offers two very good views on what the self is. On one hand you have those who say the self is no longer the self if you sever all connections with people around you. If I can no longer be a son, or a husband or employer, then I am no longer myself because I can only define myself in relation to another person.

But then there’s also another perspective that no matter how you change, you’re still you. We’re not the same people we were 20 years ago; we are changing all the time. It’s just that the change is more gradual. But do I now say I’m not me because I’m not the same me that I was 20 years ago? That second idea of the self is talked about in some detail in this book and you find that these people who believe that even though they have changed, even though they might be suffering from dementia and they are no longer the same person they were before, they actually live fairly full lives: they actively go out and do things in the community. Yes, perhaps not in the same capacity as they did before, but in their new capacities. I think what’s interesting though especially within a Malaysian context is at what point do we recognise or say that you no longer have the power to decide because you’re no longer able to.

Min Hun thanks for getting us there because I wasn’t asking tricky philosophical questions for fun. It was leading to this point about being able to grant permission. In the medical fraternity, the patient’s right to choose is a huge thing. In a situation where you’re dealing with somebody who has loss of certain levels of identity and faculty, what options are there for people to make decisions ahead of time? How much does that respect the patient’s ability and right to change as well?
Dr Rishi: We call this an advance directive, that means you sign a note with your closest family members present or your legal counsel stating very clearly that in case of medical emergencies you do not want to be resuscitated. This is on a pretext that you already have a bad condition… or for whatever reason there’s a car accident or something sudden that requires certain things to be done. You’re very clear on what should be done, where the line has to be drawn.

The thing about dementia, it is a slow continuous progressing condition. If you make this advance directive in January, how sure are you in July that you won’t change your mind? This is where the problem is; it’s not so clear-cut. From a medical perspective, patients are given the liberty to make advance directives but it’s very clear that it’s for acute medical situations and not for long-term conditions where the outcome is variable and there may be issues with patients changing their minds.

Ideally, the patient has decided for himself and the family is on the same page with the patient. But this is a taboo topic here. We rarely have patients talking to their kids and saying, ‘Hey if this happens, I think it’s only right that you let me go.’ It’s not within our culture to talk about that. These are the challenges.

The irony is that advance directives are also for the benefit of the family. I’m curious whether there are specific things that are unique to our Asian culture when it comes to care-giving with our notions of filial piety, which is a very important value to us.
Dr Rishi: I don’t think it’s fair to say it’s Asian values and that’s why we are going to give our parents more. I’ve been hammered for saying this. In the western world they’ve got their own rationale, how they approach things. It’s not due to a lack of love. The system works differently. The social support allows them to do what they are doing now. The social support system here doesn’t allow you to engage an institution or a home close-by to the hospital where dad or mom were admitted. And here we have a stigma concerning nursing homes. But it’s not necessarily true; some of them are run very well. But the perception that a lot of people have is that if I send my folks to a nursing home, I’m letting them down. Sometimes you’re doing them a service because they are allowed to engage with people, activities are being done, health issues are being attended to faster. Maybe we are in denial because we feel that we have to just hold on to this value system where I care for you like you care for me but you may be giving less than what the home can provide. We have to be more open about this.

In the book there is a focus on the language we use when we talk to old people in general, people with dementia, things like not calling everyone ‘my dear’ but instead using their names, and not referring to putting someone in a home as if that person were no longer a person but an object. I’m curious, doctor, how important is language when you are talking to patients?
Dr Rishi: I don’t think this is just a medical issue; it’s an issue that encompasses all facets of life. If your neighbour was Mr Nathan, it should always be Mr Nathan even if he has now become less of what he was before — we honour what he was before by still calling him Mr Nathan. That’s the human element to medical care. He may not be able to express his thoughts in the most rational fashion but he was somebody and he still is somebody. It’s also like dealing with children in school. Just because they express something which is not typical, it’s not fair that we label it as different. That’s why I say this is not just a pure medical thing; it’s across the board. You respect each other’s presence — don’t rob someone of their identity just because they are going through some trouble. The whole idea of dementia care is until the last day he is with us, everything should be done to preserve his dignity.

What Dementia Teaches Us About Love is available in-store at RM98.90.

Posted on Leave a comment

Lit Recap: Author meet-and-greet with Hanna Alkaf

On Saturday, Feb 17, we celebrated the publication of Malaysian author Hanna Alkaf’s debut young adult (YA) novel, The Weight of Our Sky, with a meet-the-author event that saw more than 70 people in attendance. We were heartened to see the enthusiastic response to Hanna’s novel, which is about a music loving teen with OCD, Melati, who does everything she can to find her way back to her mother during the historic race riots of 1969 in Kuala Lumpur. This is one of those books that on the one hand, is gut-wrenching, but it is also heart-warming. There are heart-breaking depictions of human cruelty, but also of immeasurable kindness. Most of all, it is an empowering tale of hope and courage in the face of terror, both from within and without. Min Hun conducted a Q&A with Hanna, an edited version of which is reproduced below.

Min Hun: Tell us about how you came to write a novel set during the riots of 1969.
Hanna: The Weight of Our Sky was a book that had lived in my head for a long time before I started writing it, mostly for the reasons you mentioned, that we don’t talk about May 13. I remember it from my history textbook but it was really glossed over and sterilised. It always fascinated me what we were not told and what voices we were not hearing, and what was being obscured.

What sort of research did you do to write this book?
I love doing research; it’s so fun to me. But I’m also a journalist by training so I approached it a lot like as if I were writing an investigative feature. I read everything that I could on it: articles written at the time, both from in and out of the country, I read government white papers, any book that I could find. I interviewed survivors and I consulted experts on the things that I needed to get the details right for — although I did end up missing a couple of things.

How did you create your characters?
They are an amalgamation of different people and they are fully Malaysian. It’s very hard to see characters like that in the current YA novels… I write YA and I write for kids because as a kid who read a lot of English books growing up, I don’t think I ever saw anybody who looked like me. I feel like when you’re reading as a kid, a teen or young adult, that’s when what you read is most formative. I think it means a lot to a kid to be able to read a book that they can see themselves in.

There is a theory from researcher Dr Rudin Bishop, who says in kid lit it’s important that children have both mirrors and windows. They should have windows into experiences other than their own and they should also be able to see themselves reflected in the fiction they read. Malaysian kids get a lot of windows but we have very few mirrors. I also enjoy reading YA, and I just really wanted to write Malaysian stories for Malaysian kids.

It was full house with standing room only at the event.

Mental illness is a big part of this book and your first collection of stories, Gila, is also about mental illness. Can you tell us about your interest in the subject and why mental illness is an important part of this novel?
I wrote Gila, a nonfiction book in 2015. I wrote it after I had my daughter, and I was freelancing at that time. I was working on an article about postpartum depression, a very relevant topic to me at that time. I had interviewed 4 or 5 women, and the thing that I noticed was that all these women were educated and lived in urban areas, but not a single one of them — even though they had reached the point of psychosis — had gone to see a psychologist or psychiatrist. They relied on other things — they relied on faith, on community and family but they never went to see a professional. This was weird to me because if you’re sick, you go to a doctor. If your brain is sick you go to somebody who can help you but that wasn’t the case. And I started thinking about why that was. I started doing some research, and I thought if there was something interesting to be uncovered here, I could pitch it as a series of articles. As it turned out, it was one of those topics where the more questions I asked, the more questions I came up with. It became clear that it was a topic that really needed to be talked about in a lot of different but interconnected ways, and that’s how Gila came about.

When I wanted to start writing the novel, I knew that I wanted to create a protagonist who was dealing with this intersection of faith and mental illness, which was a thing that was coming up a lot in the interviews. As Malaysians, we are surrounded by faith, whether you’re a person of faith or not. I wanted a book that explored that intersection between faith and mental illness because I think at the age the protagonist is at, you’re questioning a lot of those things. 

I think you also represented the way our society tends to approach mental illness. It is still largely a taboo topic of discussion, or it’s something you can’t explain. In the novel, Melati’s mental illness was stifling in a way because this sense of losing control, of being enslaved to mental illness, is something we’re all naturally uncomfortable with.
You’re not the only one. I’ve had people say things like the parts where she’s dealing with her OCD, they’re tedious to read and they’re painful. But that’s what OCD is. OCD is tedious and it’s painful. It’s not having these quirks of needing to clean one’s hands or arrange things a certain way. It’s tedious and it’s painful. I wanted the text to reflect that and really put you in her head.

Given how sensitive we are as a society with racism, were you at any point concerned about what you were writing?
Not really, only because we’re not a society that talks about it and that’s a problem. The more we don’t talk about the painful parts of our history, the more likely we are to never learn from them. If we just keep obscuring things that are hard and that are painful and uncomfortable… we have to sit with our discomfort. This is a thing that happened in our history, we have to accept that it happened and we have to figure out why. 

The Weight of Our Sky is available at RM55.90.

Posted on 1 Comment

Lit Recap: An Evening of Murakami-Inspired Music by WVC Malaysian Jazz Ensemble

It’s not often that Elaine and I are able to indulge in two of our great loves — reading and music — together at the same time. So when Tay Cher Siang from critically-acclaimed jazz band WVC Malaysian Jazz Ensemble proposed a Murakami-inspired performance at our store, it didn’t take us long to ask ‘When?’ and ‘Can we really do it?’ And do it we did.

On Wednesday Aug 15, WVC played to an intimate sold-out crowd of 40-something attendees at Lit Books. Featuring original music inspired by Japanese literary master Haruki Murakami and covers of songs mentioned in his novels (e.g. Star-Crossed Lovers and Danny Boy, among others), the band brought the much-loved stories to a new, higher level.

The connection of Murakami and jazz is evident — Murakami’s novels, like jazz, demand interpretation on the part of the reader. The playful presence of eccentric characters and surreal scenes demand that the reader conjure for themselves the significant and meaningful connections which are not always immediately evident. As most Murakami readers will readily concede, trying to ‘understand’ Murakami can be immensely frustrating. Because of his preoccupation with the subconscious and the unconscious, his characters are typically richly textured and range from the mundane to the supernatural.

Murakami’s readers, by being forced to tease through the neural maze of these rich personalities, become strangely familiar and emotionally invested in these characters who nevertheless retain an impenetrable sense of distance. And though these characters arrive at some kind of resolution in their inner lives, this sense of closure and completion is not reflected in their outer lives, which in turn preserves the distance felt by the reader. I interpret this to be  a deliberate artifice on Murakami’s part, as a comment on the vicissitudes of reality and outer life, as against the closed systems of internal life. Nevertheless, there is interplay between the two worlds: between inner and outer life, between conscious and unconscious thought, between the world of imagination and dreams, and the world of lived experience. 

This freedom and sense of play is endemic in jazz, which, of all genres of music, best incorporates the ideas of  spontaneity, unpredictability and free play. The occasional discordant note, the sudden change in tempo and the modulations from the various competing instruments and the dependence on the various players may sometimes seem chaotic, but it is, as the German philosopher Kant would call it, a “purposive” chaos. It is purposive in that there is a significant sense of agency behind the chaos; it is not random, but controlled. Jazz seems to have a purpose but to what end is uncertain. Kant calls this the “free play of the imagination and the understanding”, and this seems to suit both Murakami and jazz just fine.

WVC’s bandleader, composer and pianist Cher Siang, a self-confessed fan of Murakami’s writing, is a scholar of the Japanese master. To our ears, he has done wonderfully well to interpret Murakami as jazz, although he confesses as much himself that Murakami–a conservative jazz classicist, would find WVC’s music unbearable. We beg to differ on this point.

WVC Malaysian Jazz Ensemble will be releasing their third studio album in September 2018. 



Posted on Leave a comment

Lit Recap: Author meet-and-greet with Zaheera Hashim

On Friday, Aug 3, we had the pleasure of hosting Zaheera Hashim, a Singapore-based artist and writer, for a meet-and-greet at Lit Books. She was in town to promote her debut graphic novella called Lost, which comprises vignettes on the the theme of loss. Accompanying the text is Zaheera’s soulful artworks. Min Hun had a Q&A with her, an edited version of which is reproduced below.

Min Hun: Tell us about your book.
Zaheera: This book has taken me almost a decade to complete. It’s not that it took 10 years to write but 10 years to put together. The writing and the paintings have been done in stages, in different periods. Life has got ups and downs, and I started writing when I was in the down period… At the end of the day it’s a compilation of a lot of things that happened in my life.

Lost is about two boys. The inspiration is my two boys who are the centre of my world really, but they’re also the centre of a lot of angst and stress — so a lot of material for a book. The pictures were independently created but they also accompany the words, the stories, because not everything can be explained in words. It’s about two of them losing each other and finding each other again. It’s about healing.

One thing I would say when I read the book is there is a very distinct sense that it’s autobiographical. I know you mentioned your two children and how they were your inspiration but what about the particulars of the stories?
Every chapter has a bit of me in it… in that way it’s autobiographical.

Is this book something you view as a work of catharsis?
Catharsis is a bit of a strong word. It’s more of a healing, an acceptance maybe. A lot of times we go through things that we don’t understand, and this was the time I finally understood some of the things that happened and put them together. So, perhaps, yes, in a way it was quite cathartic.

The story is about a lost sibling and there’s also an old uncle who loses his soulmate in a fire. There’s a lot of tragedy and grief. You address the theme of loss from several directions. Why does this theme interest you so much?
I think it’s a universal theme. A lot of people have lost someone or something. for me, it’s also the loss of time, the loss of opportunity that bothers me a lot. And the fragility of life, how you have someone one day and then not, the next. And you don’t really know what you’ve lost until it’s gone. It’s clichéd but it’s the truth.

I wouldn’t call it a cliché. I think you’re carrying on that tradition of loss and loneliness that’s so prevalent in works of literature. What inspires you in terms of literature?
The Little Prince is one of my favourites and I used to read it to my sons chapter by chapter every night. The theme there that resonated with me from beginning to end is how things are not always as they seem — the fox, the rose in the jar.

One artwork in the book that struck me is the Schubert — it features a painting of a clockwork doll grieving on a piece of sheet music. Tell us about this piece.
That piece is a song about Gretchen at the spinning wheel, spinning and spinning for her lover to come back but he doesn’t come back…. And in that chapter, it’s about waiting for the son who never comes back. It portrays that longing and sadness.

One thing about the book is the typesetting is not done in the traditional way where it’s just a block of text. There’s ornamentation in the text itself. The first time I read it I thought it was a bit distracting but once you get used to it, you realise it plays a particular function. Can you explain to us the thought process behind this?
I have to admit it wasn’t my idea. I worked with a friend who’s a book designer. At the end of the day I had to decide whether it was a literary work or an artwork. I decided it was going to be an artwork so it might as well look like art even in the text. He had this idea of using typographical styles to bring out certain words and certain parts of the book. There’s one chapter where some of the words are actually right at the edge of the page. My printer saw this and thought it was an error and asked me if I wanted to move it in. I told them to just leave it because that’s meant to be — the words have actually fallen off the page. The story was about the one who’s lost from his mother’s view, so it’s intentional.


Lost by Zaheera Hashim
When his older brother, Alif, abruptly leaves home and never returns, Sol is left to watch his mother withdraw into a world he can no longer enter. As they search for each other in their respective worlds, they reminisce their common past, eventually comprehending the reality of what they’ve lost. One story unfolds after another and they finally meet… or do they?
Hardback, RM90

Posted on Leave a comment

Lit Recap: Author meet-and-greet with Carol Jones

On June 16, we had the pleasure of hosting Australian author Carol Jones at Lit Books to talk about her novel, The Concubine’s Child. The great majority of the novel is set in 1930s Kuala Lumpur, where a young girl is sold off to become the unhappy concubine of the rich Chan towkay. All hopes and dreams shattered, she curses the family and its descendants with her final breath. Fast forward 80 years and Nick, the last surviving heir of the Chan line, finds himself lost and adrift, and decides to return to Malaysia to discover his roots. However, he may have found more than he had intended in uncovering these musty old skeletons.

The following are highlights from the Q&A session.

Min Hun: Why did you decide to write this story and what was the research that went into it?
Carol Jones: I’ve been coming to Malaysia for a long time. My husband’s Malaysian and we’ve been married for 27 years. We visit for 2-3 weeks every year. It’s a fascinating place; Kuala Lumpur is a great city and there are a lot of interesting stories. I married into the Chinese culture and I find it’s a really interesting culture with all sorts of contradictory elements to it. It was a way for me not only of writing for another audience but exploring stories for myself… It was a way for me, I suppose, to process a lot of things I’ve experienced over the years. I was inspired by some things my family had told me. For instance my mother-in-law, who grew up in the 1930s, she never actually went to school; she went to the clan association. This, in fact, inspired the first chapter of my book.

MH: The story of the unhappy concubine is one that’s familiar to me because it’s so much of my lived experience. I have an uncle with two wives and I know my great grandfather had multiple wives. I’m curious as to how you fell into this particular story, this particular trope of the concubine.
CJ: Reading some of the memoirs of people growing up in the early 20th century in the Straits settlements, what’s interesting to me was the idea of the concubine seemed quite matter-of-fact. People just took it for granted that any man with any money had more than one wife. When I was researching this book, one of the first things I did was come back to those memoirs: Down Memory Lane in Clogs (Growing up in Chinatown) by Si Jing, Memories of a Nonya by Queeny Chang, and Nyonya Mosaic: Memoirs Of A Peranakan Childhood by William Gwee Thian Hock.

MH: In the book, you incorporate cultural and linguistic constructs that are unique to the Cantonese Chinese or to Malaysia. How much do you expect your non-Malaysian readers to understand them?
CJ: It’s like any metaphor… These Cantonese Chinese phrases or sayings that I put in there, sometimes I would say, “Like the old saying, blah blah”, but often I just put them in there. I’m not really worried about people not understanding it; I thought they’d just see it as a metaphor and work it out. I’m actually more concerned they would think I’m a lot smarter than I am. They might think I made up this really clever, funny metaphor when in fact it’s a Cantonese or Malaysian saying.

It’s always a balancing act when you’re writing for an international audience. I’ve got to balance writing a wonderful story with enough information that the non-Malaysian reader can get the gist of what’s going on and also get enough colour in the story that they will find it interesting. But I have to balance that with the local reader so they don’t read and think ‘why did she have to explain that’ and for it to become really boring. It’s a balancing act and I think you never get it totally right. There were some things where I chose not to explain and I just left them there as a little extra thing for a local reader.

MH: In this age of political correctness, was cultural appropriation something that crossed your mind when you were writing the book?
CJ: It did cross my mind; I was conscious of it all the time when I was writing the book. But I wanted to write the story — it had been growing in my head for several years. I had to write the story; it wouldn’t let me go. I just had to make sure that I was as thorough as I could be with my research and that I was true to the history and to the characters, and that I try to understand why they would act the way they act. That’s all I think you can do when you’re writing the story.

One American book blogger — I think she’s coming from the perspective of you should never write about a culture that’s not your own, which is a stance that a lot of people have — she was saying that she thought the book was just critical of every character in it. I thought she just didn’t understand the book. I was trying to get beyond the surface and show how people felt.

MH: I really liked your 1930s arc. I thought that story was great: nostalgic, sentimental — a lot of stuff I could relate to. The contemporary arc, however, I enjoyed it less. What was the role of the contemporary arc? To bring closure to the saga or…?
CJ: I expected that. When you have a dual timeline story, a lot of people enjoy the historic story more than the contemporary one. That’s just what happens. I think it’s because the historic story is usually a mystery and it usually has so much more of an exotic flavour. This is not just my book but in general with any dual timeline story. Of course, in this instance, it’s all that nostalgia as well.

[The historic and the contemporary arcs], they are mirror stories. The contemporary story is the reverse of the historic story. I won’t explain how because that would ruin the story for those who haven’t read it. The contemporary story finishes what started in the 1930s and that’s why it’s called The Concubine’s Child, because the concubine’s child is the key to both the historic story, the contemporary story and the future.

The Concubine’s Child is available in-store for RM69.90.