Belfast writer Paul McVeigh made a name for himself as a playwright and writer of comedy shows before he penned his first novel, The Good Son, published in 2015. The novel, which won the Polari Prize and the McCrea Literary Award, is a coming-of-age story of 11-year-old Mickey Donnelly set in Belfast during The Troubles. It is an evocative, thoughtful and well-written book that’s full of humour despite the bleakness of its setting.
We had the privilege to host Paul in an author event at Lit Books on 17 June, 2023, where he charmed us with his warmth and wit. The novel is very much drawn from his own experience of growing up in Belfast during this horrific period of Northern Ireland history, and he tells us that humour was a survival mechanism. He shared with us stories from his life in the hour-long conversation with Min Hun and our audience – the following are edited excerpts from the session.
On the history and personal background that informs the book: I was born in 1968 and that is recognised as the beginning of The Troubles. I thought if I was going to write a book, everything in it I would have to know is absolutely true. In order to do that, I thought I would set it where I grew up and in the environment I grew up in… In Belfast, it was war but they never called it that. They called it The Troubles, which makes it sound like something a little bit annoying, like bad traffic. It minimised what it was – it was actually a war and it was absolutely barbaric.
Where I was born, in Ardoyne, which is where the book is set, at the bottom of my street there were walls and barricades so I couldn’t get out. At the top of my street there were walls and barricades and I couldn’t get out. Two streets away was a Protestant community, and three streets another way was a Protestant community. Ardoyne was unique in that we were surrounded by our enemy. It was like an open-air prison.
The second and probably more damaging thing, because it affected everyone’s psyche, was you couldn’t be different. Any difference was not tolerated at all. You couldn’t have your hair different, you couldn’t wear different clothes, you couldn’t be LGBT, you couldn’t be artistic, you couldn’t want an education because somehow that was an insult. If you wanted an education, you were trying to better yourself and that meant where you were at wasn’t good and you want to be better than that. So you couldn’t do well or stand out in any way – it was really oppressive.
On how this novel came about: I was a playwright and I wrote for stand-up comics. After one of the shows, someone asked if I would like to write a short story. One of the major repercussions of growing up working class is that you never think you could be a writer. You think you’re stupid so how could you write a book? When these people asked me, I was a writer already for comedians and for plays where you could write and be inarticulate. You can just say funny things, you can use bad grammar and have a limited vocabulary… When they asked me to write a short story, I thought I was never going to be able to because I had no confidence even though I had been up for awards for these comedy shows and plays. I don’t know how to write a sentence that describes anything; I only write dialogue. And so, I said I’ll cheat – I’ll write in the voice of a little boy and he can make loads of mistakes. So the whole book is a monologue of him thinking. That is genuinely why I wrote the initial story [that became this novel].
On the experience of writing a novel derived from personal story: It was quite a traumatic experience writing the book, I’ll be honest… When I was reliving those things I was thinking, I can’t believe I just accepted that as normal, you know? But growing up during The Troubles, we didn’t know any different… When I was writing this, it was just a litany of the most horrible things. I had to rewrite it and remember that each page had to have laughter and love. It really is funny, the book. It sounds depressing but there are a lot of jokes in it.
On the protagonist Mickey Donnelly: I think he’s an absolute hero because when everyone’s telling you you’re wrong but you know you’re right, you put up with all sorts of abuse because you know in your heart that you’re right. He protects his family – he makes massive sacrifices to protect his mother and his little sister. He does things that are going to affect him for the rest of his life but he has no idea. He will go through all that torture because he refuses to be cruel and he refuses to be nasty and harsh. There’s another way, there’s love… he’s gonna take on The Troubles, he’s going to take on Ardoyne and the way people behave, and he’s going to say, ‘You’re the one that’s going to change’.
On modelling Mickey’s mother after fierce and courageous women: My mom was fierce. It was women who ended The Troubles. it was women that got Catholics the vote. Everyone thinks The Troubles started because the IRA started shooting and bombing people. The Troubles started because of the right to vote [Catholics didn’t have the right to vote at the time]. It was started by a 16-year-old girl who got a march going from Belfast to Derry for the right to vote, housing and the right to get a job. It was a human rights march, happening at the same time for black people in America. It was women who did it… They would take on the world to protect you.
Signed copies of The Good Son is available in-store and online, while stocks last!
Join us for a conversation with Japan-based Malaysian writer Florentyna Leow who will be speaking with Elaine Lau about How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart, an intimate collection of essays about navigating life, friendship, and belonging in the storied city of Kyoto, Japan. The talk will be followed by audience Q&A and book signing. Tickets are RM10, and you will receive a RM10 voucher to use on event day.
About the book:
Twenty-something and uncertain about her future, Florentyna Leow is exhilarated when an old acquaintance offers her an opportunity for work and cohabitation in a little house in the hills of Kyoto.
Florentyna begins a new job as a tour guide, organising elaborate trips around Kyoto’s cultural hotspots. Amidst the tourist traps and temples, she develops her own personal map of the city. Meanwhile, her relationship with her new companion develops an intensity as they live and work together. Their relationship burns bright, but seasons change and things grow strange between the two women.
How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart is a collection about the ways in which heartbreak can fill a place and make it impossible to stay.
About the author:
Florentyna Leow is a writer and translator. Born in Malaysia, she lived in London and Kyoto before moving to Tokyo. Really, though, she lives on the internet. Her work focuses on food and craft, with an emphasis on under-reported stories from rural Japan, like English Toast (neither English nor toast), a shrine dedicated to ice, and Japan’s rarest citrus. She cannot go five minutes without thinking about food. How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart is her first book. She can be found @furochan_eats on Instagram and Twitter, or at www.florentynaleow.com
Malaysian visual artist Red Hong Yi is renowned for her larger-than-life portraits and art installations created using everyday objects and materials not typically associated with art-making: socks, teabags, bamboo chopsticks, eggshells, and coffee stains, to name a few. An architecture graduate who found her true calling in making art, Hong Yi has established a worldwide following with her unique creations and artistic vision.
Hong Yi spent the better part of the pandemic writing How to Paint Without a Brush, an autobiographical survey of her work over the past decade, charting her growth and development as an artist. The book, which features Hong Yi’s earliest works and her transformation from promising architect to global artist, was put out by American publisher Abrams in May this year.
Lit Books hosted Hong Yi in an author event on 27 May, 2023, and the wonderfully down-to-earth artist spoke candidly with Fong Min Hun and our audience about how the book came together, her art and journey as an artist. The following is an excerpt from the hour-long chat.
On how the book and its format came to be: What’s amazing about Abrams my publisher is they were open to ideas. They said we could do something that’s about your culture as an Asian artist or a compilation of your projects or it can be a materials book… If it’s purely autobiographical, they told me from the get-go it might not sell as well as a how-to book. That is why there’s a how-to at the back, so it appeals to a more general crowd. I thought if I’m going to come up with a book, I want it to reach as many people as possible.
On the process of writing the book, the challenges and joys: I found it quite intimidating at first. I love reading, and I do enjoy writing but I never thought of myself as an author… The best advice I was given was just to write the way you speak. I read a lot of advice tips from authors and they said your first draft is going to be bad; you’re going to have to edit and edit, which is what happened.
The first draft was hard. I felt it was really rigid and boring. My mom read the first draft and she was like, ‘The first page makes me want to sleep.’ That was really scary for me and I thought I better get rid of all this jargon and make it more personal. I was trying to make it sound hyper-intellectual at first. But then I thought maybe I should write it in a tone like I’m talking to a friend, so I changed it completely. I quite enjoyed that process.
The introduction was the part that was the hardest for me — to come out and be vulnerable. You’re talking about challenges you had, your childhood, and I felt I had to really dig things out of me. That was daunting, but also beautiful, too.
I had [art consultants] Rachel and Beverly from RogueArt help me. I felt I needed feedback from people in the art industry that knows art in the Southeast Asian context so they read the draft and helped me with the edits quite a bit.
I dedicated this book to my mom and dad because they were the ones who taught me how to paint and draw when I was a kid. My mom especially — she had a Picasso print from Ikea in her room and I remember she told me, ‘Look at it — it’s just a few lines, but you can tell it’s a person. You don’t have to make it elaborate.’ I thought that was so profound.
On why she uses materials in her artistic creation: I think a lot of it really comes from my background in architecture. When I graduated I realised that I really wanted to create all these portraits but painting, which is something I used to do in high school, didn’t come naturally to me anymore. What’s me is reading floor plans, playing around with the material, understanding space and scale. If I’m going to create art that’s really me, I thought I should make it with materials and tools I know best… Till today that speaks to me.
On her wide choice of materials: I see this book as a compilation of my first 10 years. Some of my early inspirations were artists like Ai Wei Wei, who uses a range of materials. That became my inspiration at the start. My first decade is about experimenting with materials. But the next decade, I do want to stick to a certain type of material and master them. I’ve been burning red paper in particular and searing that red pigment onto canvas. That’s become my focus and I do want everything to be predominantly red — I’m going through this red phase right now. I’m hoping it would become a more recognisable material in the future.
Fourteen years after her critically acclaimed debut novel Evening is the Whole Day was published, Preeta Samarasan returns with her second full-length novel, Tale of the Dreamer’s Son. It is an ambitious and darkly humorous book that examines the hubris and frailties of a community of Malaysians. Novel and insightfully written in a way that only Preeta can, the book delves into the synthesis of religion, politics and violence that lies at the heart of this country.
The France-based Malaysian writer celebrated her homecoming and launch of the new novel at Lit Books on 5 Nov, 2022. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation she had with Min Hun.
On how the novel first took shape: This book very much began with the characters, with their individual stories. […] It’s about the children, first and foremost, who are just dragged along their parents’ weird, spiritual quest. It’s, of course, also about the way that the Malaysian political context shapes the destinies of the characters, in a quite obvious way.
I began with the child, the narrator Clarence Kannan Cheng-Ho Muhammad Yusuf Dragon. I started with him because I have been very interested in the way that parents decide what values their children are going to believe, the values that they’re going to pass on. I think this is true for all children but it’s sort of more apparent when the parents embark on some unusual spiritual journey.
I tend to not begin with themes. Everything grew out of this idea of who would this child be, what would it be like to be an observant child yet a child sort of marooned in this weird situation where your parents, they have this weird relationship to the cause. And you’re there trying to figure it out. I did have this novel be bookended by May 13th and Operasi Lalang, and I think the themes emerged out of that as well.
On whether the novel is the story of Malaysia writ small: It is this one guy who’s a visionary trying to build what he feels he can build… Yes, Malaysia writ small. He’s building a small community where all of what he wants Malaysia to be can be done in this hermetically-sealed context. He’s lost hope that it can happen on the grand scale, but he can at least do this.
On how she came up with name and concept for the Muhibbah Centre for World Peace in the book: It went through several iterations. I had various, different names, and none of them felt right. And then one day, we were discussing the whole concept of muhibbah on social media and I was like, ‘That’s it!’ That’s the Orwellian concept this book needs … you know, this big hope but it ultimately means nothing. It’s empty. It doesn’t ever happen.
It’s not based on any one particular sect or cult. My parents, they never entered into any residential commune like this where they were fully involved in the cause, but they experimented in a lot of different things. My mom especially was always seeking truth. As a child I was exposed to a lot of religious movements and the characters are amalgamations of people that I ran into and also of the infighting that I saw in all of these movements. And also, the way that I was exposed pretty young to different religious leaders and the way they’re all this sort of weird mix of really believing in the cause, being really committed to their values but also being flawed human beings, having their own desires and imperfections.
On whether May 13th continues to be a major issue in Malaysia: I think on a conscious level, no. I think most people don’t think about it, really. It’s sort of gone. But I think that, the fact that people don’t think about it is the exactly why it continues to matter. Because I think we’re not really exorcising those ghosts; we’re not really facing our history and not really talking about why and how we would want to depart from where we were. Precisely because we don’t talk about it in any meaningful way, it’s still very much a part of our biological makeup as a nation.
On whether her role as a fiction writer is about seeking redemption: I feel like that’s kind of what almost all writers do. We tell these stories in an effort to somehow fix something in the retelling, even if the retelling is not in an obvious way because it’s not like we retell the story and then put some happily-ever-after perfect ending. But somehow in the retelling, it’s a way to relive it and to fix certain things. I think this is an idea that was there in my first novel and it’s very much there in Ian McEwan’s Atonement. It’s in a lot of books, this idea of going back into history and somehow if you can think about it the right way, if you can just fix the story in your head, that you’ll change something, that you could change the way that we experience the present.
On her favourite character in the book: Oof. They really aren’t likeable characters. They each have their moments where they’re actually being kind of a halfway decent human being. I have a lot of sympathy for the narrator, especially when he is a child. But would I want to be his friend? No, absolutely not. He’s terrible. I mean, I wouldn’t want to spend more than two hours with him. When he’s a child, he’s my favourite character in the book. He has the possibility of becoming what he doesn’t become.
On portraying identity and class in the novel: I think it would’ve seemed too unrealistic to have everyone treating everyone, regardless of race or class, with the utmost respect all of a sudden. You can’t just switch on a switch and all of a sudden Malaysians, or anyone anywhere in the world, becomes capable of never thinking about class or race. Of course, they arrive at this community and the idea is that they’re never supposed to think about race and class. But they just can’t do it. In the end, they’re just conditioned by their prior lives. I’m not trying to make any larger point but as a writer, I felt myself constrained by reality. Like how would Malaysians behave if they suddenly found themselves in a place where they can’t talk about race? I don’t think they could do it.
On how different the experience of writing this second novel was from the first: It was quite different, for one because Evening Is A Whole Day is so much closer to my immediate life experience. It was about a Malaysian Tamil family. It wasn’t autobiographical, but it drew a lot on my familiar world. In this one, I had to, sort of, invent a lot more, speculate a lot more, imagine a lot more. So the experience of writing it was very different. The experience of publishing it was night and day. […] It’s not a book that’s easy to pigeonhole ethnically and because it’s a much less South Asian but much more Southeast Asian book, it’s much, much harder to sell because Southeast Asia is unfamiliar to the West. And the West is not particularly interested in Southeast Asia yet. They say they are, but they’re not really. So yeah, it was very different in that sense as well.
During an author event here at Lit Books on Nov 2, 2022,Audrey Magee, author of The Colonyand former journalist, said that while writing her novel, she had to keep the reporter within in check. Notwithstanding the self-professed demarcation of roles, The Colonyis a fine example of a key journalism precept, namely, show, don’t tell. The result is an achingly beautiful novel written with a fluency and sparseness of prose that draws all emotion out from the page to inject them fully within the soul of the reader.
Such is the prowess of Magee’s Booker-longlisted novel that it makes absolute sense as to why it didn’t win the prize: it simply reads too well. Also working against it Booker prize-wise is that rather than it being a simple story masked in complexity, it is a complex story that masks itself in simplicity. The Colony recalls to mind that other quietly powerful novel, John Williams’ rediscovered Stoner, which similarly traverses the themes of class, ambition and betrayal within similarly narrow confines. Indeed, Julian Barnes’ verdict on Stoner can and ought to be restated in respect to The Colony: “the prose was clean and quiet; and the tone a little wry”.
Set in a fictitious remote island in the Atlantic at the height of Irish sectarian violence in 1979, The Colonycentres around the arrival of two neo-colonials, an Englishman and a Frenchman — an artist and a linguist, respectively — to an unnamed island. Entitled and oblivious, both arrive with the aim of seeking out and capturing for themselves an authentic Irish experience, to the amusement and bemusement of the islanders.
Despite initial reservations about the intentions of Mr Lloyd, the Englishman, some of the islanders begin to warm to him, particularly James, an island boy with a preternatural gift for painting. Recognising James’ talent and in appreciation of his willingness to run around as his dogsbody, Lloyd promises to take James home with him to London and showcase his precocious, if naive, talent at his wife’s gallery. In the meantime, Lloyd is also painting James’ mother, Mairead, in the style of Gauguin, despite the disapproval of the remaining islanders.
The Frenchman, Jean-Pierre Masson, has arrived on the island to complete his longitudinal research on the Gaelic language. He has been coming to the island annually for five years to document and capture changes in the language on the island, which, thanks to the remoteness of the location, was relatively free from outside influence. Viewing himself as a protector of the authenticity and survival of the language, Masson finds favour with the matriarch of the family who fervently insists on keeping with the old ways. Masson expects to be lionised for his work; the islanders know better.
At its core, Magee’s novel is a restatement of the violence of colonisation, and a revelation of the play of power within a complex weave. It is when this dynamic is normalised — when the one who wields power and the one over which power is wielded forget their place — that the nuanced wretchedness of the colonial relationship is revealed. Indeed, this is stated with some force in The Colony where each chapter is divided by a short report on some incident of violence that happened in Northern Ireland in 1979, culminating in the assassination of Lord Mountbatten on August 27.
No such ruckus disrupts the quietude of the main story, save for a rather menacing, albeit ambiguous, ending for some of the islanders. The Colony ends the way that Irish novels must: a melancholic return to the status quo with everyone just that little bit more sad.
The author session we had with Magee and Pusaka founder Eddin Khoo was thanks to the support of the Embassy of Ireland in Malaysia. Below are edited excerpts from the hour-long conversation.
On achieving a sense of distance in her writing: I think I grew up in an Ireland that was kind of almost distant from itself. The core of this novel is the violence — the violence that was the backdrop to my childhood, to the childhood of the people of my generation. And it was obviously distant from me as I was living in the south, but the violence was up in Northern Ireland. And most of the time you lived your life, but sometimes it cut into your life and it became very difficult to absorb.
I think you naturally created a distance from your identity to protect yourself from the violence. I say this because as a child, your identity was so defined by what you thought of the violence. For anybody growing up in a violent situation, whether it’s a violent marriage or a backdrop of violence, they can become quite distant as a way of self-preservation. I think a lot of us became quite distant from our heritage and our sense of Irishness — by that I mean our relationship with the language, our relationship with the flag because it was so politicised. Everything about our identity was politicised. So our flag is green, white and orange, which embodies the Catholics, Protestants with the neutral white between us. That was deemed to be an appropriate foundation of the state — and it was. But when the violence started again in the late 1960s… most of us just distanced ourselves.
I became very interested in otherness, and I became very interested in France and Germany. It was an easier space than Ireland. And then I continued that passion by going into journalism; it’s not your story, it’s somebody else’s story. So that kind of life as a viewer became quite a natural space for me, to stand outside of things. That’s a very valid space as a writer.
That fed into the titles. My first novel is called The Undertaking. It’s the Second World War from the perspective of the ordinary German — again, standing back to analyse. The Colony is obviously about colonisation, what it is to be colonised, what it is to be the coloniser. But I deliberately went with the definite article and a noun. I suppose drawing to a large degree on Camus and that whole L’Étranger/La Peste, that sense of creating an environment from which you can stand back to then explore. So it’s a distance to create an exploration because we assume we know what happened in Nazi Germany. We assume we know what happened in Ireland, what happens when you’re colonised, what happens in colonisation. But I’m much more interested in the latencies, in the things that are hidden from one generation to the next. Or the things that are passed on from one generation to the next by parents, grandparents, schools, institutions, politicians, society in general that we don’t even understand we’re inheriting and that we’re still repeating. And to do that, you need a distance. […]
But I can create a space for us all to think about what we know, what we’ve inherited, what we don’t know, what maybe we should think about. […] I wanted to understand the implications of that for all of us. We go on because we’re always focused on the future, because we have to be. We have to focus on the next generation. But sometimes to bring the next generation to the right place, you have to go back a bit to go forward. And that’s the space I’m trying to create.
On the passage from journalism to writing her first novel: I really had to — and I kid you not — go on a detox programme. I had to unlearn everything I had learnt about writing and create a freedom of space for something to happen. When you’re in journalism it’s always very preordained — obviously much more so in news writing than in feature writing and I did both — but also to no longer be certain. I had always been involved in otherness because that was exciting. Journalism is the epitome of other. But sitting with [the man who’s family was killed] the most precious thing we can hope for is an ordinary life. So I became compelled to try to create that ordinariness, and what was the impact. I wrote my first novel, which is what is the impact of fascism on the ordinary person. and then I was halfway through The Colony when I realised I was actually writing a triptych of power and the ordinary person. So we have fascism and the ordinary person, [The Colony] is colonisation and the ordinary person. There is a third novel, it’s got “the” in the title and that’s all I can tell you.
It was quite a process. I had to go back to the writing I was writing before I ever went into journalism. I was a ferocious letter writer, I had dabbled in short stories and plays but then buried them thinking I’ll never be a writer. You’re also dealing with the legacy of Irish writing. It’s hard to underestimate the legacy of four Noble Prize winners. Where do you begin? So to even put yourself forward and use the word writer was such a huge step for me. I couldn’t do it; I couldn’t say I’m a writer. In journalism I was never a writer; I was a journalist who wrote. It’s just such a precious word in Ireland. Writer is a very precious space, and I revered that space. Therefore, to enter it, I had to leave journalism behind me.
On how European literature shaped her fiction writing: I was 16 when I met French writer Marguerite Duras for the first time. I had a wonderful French teacher in school who is my friend. She decided to do Moderato Cantabile with us which is one of Duras’ very sparsely written books. It’s a beautiful book, not a lot happens and yet a ton happens. I had been reading as part of my English curriculum all the Dickens and the Jane Austens and they’re all grand, lovely, great. But there was no space for me as a reader. I was always being told what to think, what to feel. I found that a bit boring. And then I met Duras and I was like, ‘Oh my god’. This is so radical for me because she created a space for me where I could engage; I could make my own decisions and I could analyse things for myself. She treated me as somebody who had thoughts and that was utterly radical. [Albert] Camus was huge because of his integration of narrative, politics, philosophy and sociology all into a novel and I thought that was thrilling. There was obviously Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, Heinrich Böll, Thomas Mann — the list is long and wonderful.
I had two amazing departments in University College Dublin (UCD). In 1980s Ireland we were doing French feminism while there were rows raging about divorce, abortion, homosexuality — all these things were really introduced by the church and anybody who stepped out of line was in trouble. I was on the fourth floor of UCD immersed in French feminism, French film, French linguistics, French language, German philosophy. I mean it was the most incredible space of otherness and it absolutely fed into me. But I think it fed into me in a very interesting way as well because you know you might be reading Goethe in German or German in the Middle Ages. And of course I didn’t understand a thing. So you learnt how to grasp onto a tiny phrase that gave you an understanding. When you read in a foreign language, you learn how much you can actually say with very little, that you can cut out tracks and tracks of description and put it into two words and you still pass your exams.
That really fed into understanding the impact of just two words, or three words or a phrase and how much that can carry, and how little you need to carry a whole scene.
Signed copies of The Colony are available to purchase in-store and online.We also have Magee’s first novel, The Undertaking.
Malaysian author Hanna Alkaf’s third novel, Queen of the Tiles, is set in the world of competitive Scrabble. Hence it was only fitting that the author session held at Lit Books on 2 July, 2022 would feature life-size Scrabble boards where attendees could try their hand at fielding high-scoring words. The event was organised by the Two Book Nerds Talking podcast headed by Honey Ahmad and Diana Yeong, who are no strangers to those who have been following us for a while. This dynamic duo has collaborated with us on numerous literary events over the years.
The morning of Hanna’s event dawned bright and beautiful, and the audience who came were eager to get up close and personal with one of their favourite authors. Hanna spoke at length with Honey and Diana about Queen of the Tiles, a mystery novel set in the world of competitive Scrabble that explores teenage friendship, grief and mental health. The full podcast will be out soon, but in the meantime, here are some snippets from the hour-long interview.
On how she came to write Queen of the Tiles: I grew up in a time when my brother was playing competitive Scrabble. There used to be weekly tournaments at the Park Royal Hotel downtown, and I used to teman my mother to send my brother and pick him up. I sort of absorbed the atmosphere and would watch my brother walking around with these massive printed out lists of words that he bound with duct tape on one side — he would study them.
While I was thinking about what my next book would be after The Weight of Our Sky [Hanna’s debut novel], the idea came to me to write about a Scrabble tournament because I’d never seen books that really centred a Scrabble tournament before. And then I thought, well, what if I added murder…
On how she crafted Najwa, the novel’s main character: Najwa was tough in a lot of different ways to write because first of all, Najwa is dealing with such immense grief. In order to write those kinds of emotions, I find that I have to mine them within myself and really explore my own feelings in order to bring that to the page, and that’s a tough thing to do. You have to scrape away the layers of protection you put around yourself and really sit with your own ideas of grief and loss.
The other level is just that Najwa is much smarter than me so it’s very hard to get into her head and write the way that she thinks, which is to float from word to word, definition to definition, and tie it altogether. I wanted to write her that way and I was also very mad at myself for writing her that way because it made my life much more difficult. The search for the perfect word at the perfect time that would tie to the next word and the next word, that wasn’t an easy thing to do. It didn’t come naturally to me. It involved a lot of reading of the Scrabble dictionary.
On being unapologetic about injecting Malaysian elements into her stories: There are things about the Malaysian experience of growing up that stick and that I really want to see written about normally in the narrative, the same way that we accepted tea parties with tea and crumpets, nurseries and governesses — we all read this as kids and we just accepted that they were the narrative of our childhood even though it didn’t look anything like our childhoods. And that’s what I wanted for us. I wanted to read it and be like this is just a thing. It’s one of those things that I write without trying to make it a big deal. It’s not a focal point; it’s not a thing I want outsiders to look at and exoticize. I just want it to feel familiar to you.
When we talk about who I’m writing for, I’m writing for Malaysians. I may be published in the US, but I’m writing for Malaysians. I want them to feel like they are home to you. I write them thinking about how I was at that age, how I grew up, how my kids are growing up, what’s normal for us, and what’s normal for them.
On plotting an absorbing and compelling mystery: Queen of the Tiles is in many ways my most technically difficult book because plotting a mystery is very difficult. Writing any sort of mystery is very difficult and very technical and it involves a lot of meticulous planning and follow-up, going back and forth and making you’re foreshadowing right and adding the correct red herrings and making sure that you’ve led people astray enough times and all sorts of stuff like that.
On her favourite word: One of my favourite words is obsequious. I just like the way that that falls off the tongue. It sounds like exactly what it is — a slimy person. There’s something about the way you say it that’s very satisfying.
Watch out for the full interview with Hanna Alkaf soon on the Two Book Nerds Talking podcast, which you can subscribe to on Spotify and Apple podcast.
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.
We’re delighted to have Suffian Hakim return to Lit Books in December with the illustrated edition of his first novel, Harris bin Potter and the Stoned Philosopher, in which a bespectacled boy finds out that magic is disappearing in Singapore… and has to stop it.
Together with literary podcaster Two Book Nerds Talking and Lit Books’ very own Fong Min Hun, come with Suffian into the world of wizardry and milo dinosaur, and of parodies and fan fiction. Admission is free, and we will be giving away 3 copies of the book to 3 lucky attendees. Join us!
UPDATE: We’re sold out of tickets. Thank you all for your support!
We’re excited to welcome Tash Aw back to Lit Books in December! For those of you who missed out on his author session in August, this is your chance to catch the London-based award-winning Malaysian author in person. Lit Books’ very own Fong Min Hun will be leading the discussion with Tash about his literary life and work.
Tash’s latest novel published this year is We, The Survivors, an exploration of class, education and the inescapable workings of destiny through the story of an ordinary man, Ah Hock and the years building up to his appalling act of violence: the murder of a migrant worker. Tash has previously written three critically acclaimed novels — The Harmony Silk Factory (2005), which won the Whitbread First Novel Award and a regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize; Map of the Invisible World (2009) and Five Star Billionaire (2013) — and a work of non-fiction, The Face: Strangers on a Pier (2016). His novels have twice been longlisted for the MAN Booker prize and been translated into 23 languages.
Join us for a casual afternoon of conversation and book signing. Tickets are RM10, which you can use as a rebate towards any purchase on event day.
UPDATE 31 AUG 2019, 1.29PM: The podcast is back up and running! We’re now hosting the recording via Soundcloud and the player and link is visible in the top-right corner of our homepage. We’ve also posted the link below. Send us a message on FB or Insta if the link doesn’t work for you.
UPDATE 31 AUG 2019, 11.31AM: Dear friends, we did not expect the recording to be as popular as it turned out to be and the sheer number of downloads and streams crashed our website. We are now seeking an alternative solution to hosting the website and will make an announcement here when we have done so. We apologise for the inconvenience!
Welcome to the first episode of Lit Rewind, our very own podcast.
Every now and then, we invite authors and other guests to our shop to discuss books, their work, and answer questions from our very enthusiastic crowd of readers.
On a stormy Thursday evening in August, our shop was filled to capacity with about 100 eager fans waiting to talk to and meet Malaysian author Tash Aw. Tash’s novel, We, the Survivors, was published earlier this year. We began our interview with him by asking him to describe the novel.