ON THE COUCH ... Siew Siang TAY
The world of the mail-order bride
SIEW SIANG TAY talks to ERIC FORBES about her début novel, Handpicked, a compelling observation of words and actions‚ expectations and consequences‚ truth and happiness
MALAYSIA-BORN Siew Siang Tay’s début novel, Handpicked, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in April 2009. The novel is about an Iban village girl who escapes from her longhouse in Sarawak to become a mail-order bride to a fruit-picker living in Renmark, a town in South Australia’s rural Riverland area, some 254 kilometres northeast of Adelaide, on the banks of the River Murray. Tay, who was born in Malacca to second-generation Chinese parents, worked for eleven years in the petroleum industry in Malaysia before leaving the corporate world and emigrating to Australia in 1992 with her daughter. She now works as a web editor at the University of South Australia in Adelaide where she maintains content on the university’s corporate website. Her short stories have been published in such literary magazines as Meanjin and Dimsum, among others. In 2007, she won the Varuna-HarperCollins Award for Manuscript Development which led to the publication of Handpicked.
Siew Siang Tay spoke to Eric Forbes over a series of emails in February and March 2009:
Tell me something about yourself.
I’m a bit of a frustrated artist. At school (in Malacca), I excelled in art and English, and after my Higher School Certificate (HSC) I wanted to go to art school, badly. Somehow that didn’t happen, so my next best choice was to study Mass Communications at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), where I majored in Journalism. So in a way, after a long journey, my two passions have finally come together in that I’m now able to find artistic expression through my writing. I’m a private and sensitive sort of person, and writing allows me to express what matters to me, my view of life, which I would not otherwise be able to find an outlet for.
When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer? Was it something you had always set your heart on?
Even though much of my working life involved writing in some form or the other, I did not consider writing fiction until much later in life. After graduating from university, I got a job in the public affairs department of Shell Malaysia but throughout my 10 years there, there was a sense of anxiety lurking underneath because time was ticking by and I was drifting further away from what I really wanted to do, namely writing. I wrote features for magazines on the side but it wasn’t enough. So I took a salary cut and joined a publishing company as assistant editor of Expression, the American Express cardmember magazine. It was the most enjoyable period of my career. The following year, 1992, after my mother died, I emigrated to Australia.
After settling in Australia, the same restlessness returned but I didn’t do anything about it until 1999. Also, between full-time work and looking after my little girl, there was hardly space for much else. That year, I became close to someone who was very literary who helped expand my world of literary appreciation. I decided then to teach myself the craft of creative writing. I started with short stories. My daughter was older then, which meant I could devote more time to myself. Thus began the long road of writing, and realising it was the only thing I wanted to do. So, yes and no, writing was something I had not consciously set my heart on but the decisions I took in my life helped steer me towards that path. I guess deep down I knew it was the only direction for me.
Was it difficult getting your stories published in literary magazines? Was it difficult getting your first novel, Handpicked, published? Did you experience difficulty in finding an agent or a publisher for your first book?
Yes, getting published was tough. Fiction writing, as you know, is fiercely competitive. When I first started writing I knew it was going to be a long uphill road. The author of the creative writing book I studied said her first short story was published after about 115 rejections! But something spurred me on, I persevered, continued learning, refining my craft and sending out my short stories out until they got accepted.
With Handpicked, luck was on my side. In 2006, I won a master class at Varuna, The Writers’ House, a national resource for writers, located in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales. I workshopped my half-written novel there, received positive feedback, and the Creative Director of Varuna encouraged me to complete the novel and submit it for a Varuna-HarperCollins Award for Manuscript Development. I did as he suggested and was delighted to be one of the five winners of this award in 2007. It entailed spending a week at Varuna with a dedicated HarperCollins editor each, who critiqued our manuscripts and suggested ways to get them to a publishable state, although there were no assurances of publication. After I returned, I worked on those areas of my manuscript, submitted it to HarperCollins, and it was subsequently accepted.
Varuna was a godsend for me. Most writers would need a literary agent to represent them as publishing houses generally do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.
I am always interested in the kinds of books writers read during their formative years. What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up? Who are some of your literary influences? Who are some of your favourite American authors? Why?
When I was a child, I read a lot of Enid Blyton and Mills and Boon. Then I progressed to Daphne du Maurier, W. Somerset Maugham, Han Suyin, Pearl S. Buck, Anita Brookner, Julian Barnes and Tim Parks. For a time, I was into Thomas Hardy and the Brontë sisters, and yet another, Japanese writers such as Yukio Mishima and Kensaburo Oe. I love the quiet, still, almost zen-like, quality of some Japanese writing.
My most important literary influence is Richard Ford. More than his Frank Bascombe trilogy, Wildlife and his short stories have had a tremendous effect on me as a writer. I love the way Ford develops his characters; their motivations are so vivid and compelling they haunt you long after you’ve put the book down. Plus his prose and dialogue are just beautiful.
Other American writers I like are Anne Tyler, Elizabeth Strout, Elizabeth Berg and Steve Martin. I like the depth of Tyler’s stories, the strength of Strout’s settings, the crispness of Berg’s prose, and their insights into men-women relationships. I like Martin’s unique, effortless prose which just takes you along with it.
What kinds of books do you read nowadays? Any particular genre, and why?
Mostly literary fiction. I like things deep and intense, and that extends to books and films. I’m fascinated by the study of human character and relationships, and the meditative aspects of the literary genre. I read a lot of Australian writing nowadays because it’s everywhere around me. My preferences are inconsistent in that I may like just the one book by the writer and, or I may like their short stories over their novels. Some examples are Helen Garner, Brian Castro, Luke Davies, Tim Winton and Peter Cowan. I seek out Asian or non-western world writers too, notably Khaled Hosseini, Hanif Kureishi, Ha Jin, Yu Hua and Anchee Min. I’m impartial as to whether a book has won awards.
Tell me a bit about your first novel. What are some of the themes you explore? Were you conscious of these themes when you first set out to write the story?
Yes, I was certain of the theme when I set out to write the novel, and kept it as my focus while writing it.
Handpicked grew out of a short story I wrote. Even after it got published, the characters continued to burn in me. I was compelled to develop it further, so I tweaked the plot and it took off. I was drawn to telling this story because I’ve always been fascinated by what goes on ‘behind closed doors’ for couples, particularly intercultural couples. This fascination was fuelled by the horrendous stories you hear about mail-order brides from Russia, China, Thailand, the Philippines, and the huge risks they take in their desperation to escape their poverty. At the Central Market in Adelaide, which is next to Chinatown, on Friday nights where I would go to get my Chinese meal fix, I would see scores of these couples, hand in hand, and I used to wonder what it was like for these women, giving up so much to come to Australia to be with men they hardly knew.
So I concocted this story to give my readers a glimpse of this world. I created Laila, an Iban girl, determined to escape her no-hope existence in her longhouse in rural Sarawak. Like other mail-order brides, Laila is lured by the promise of a better life in the western world. Then there’s Jim, a fruit-picker, who’s picked fruit all his life and who’s always struggled with motivation. With a string of broken relationships behind him, Jim thinks a ‘bought’ wife would solve his problems.
When the two come together and discover that the reality of each other does not match their expectations, they are forced to face some hard truths about themselves. The story traces the parallel journeys by Laila and Jim as they muddle their way through their suffering and grapple with the true meaning of happiness. The overriding theme is gratitude. Handpicked takes a realistic look at the hazards of romance. It also questions the common ideals for happiness—material riches and emotional security through marriage.
I also seek to articulate the cross-cultural and migration experience, the sense of displacement, of being caught between two cultures, something I’m familiar with. For Laila, this experience is exacerbated as she has to struggle with that as well as the turmoil from her marriage.
Who or what do you read if or when you take a break from writing?
Fiction. Always. I find this useful as a way of extending that stream of consciousness, so even though I’m not hammering away at my laptop, I’m still engaged in the world of literature.
Do you have a favourite short story or short-story collection? Do you think short stories are gaining more popularity?
Yes, two: Richard Ford’s Rock Springs and A Multitude of Sins, for the reasons mentioned previously. I also like Raymond Carver’s short stories. Cathedral is quite magical, and will forever stay in my mind. I’m not sure whether short stories are gaining more popularity, but I do hope so. I love reading short stories myself, so I would like to see a surge in their popularity. The two collections that I must mention are Tim Winton’s The Turning and Hanif Kureishi’s Midnight All Day which were a joy to read.
Publishers find story collections a hard sell. Do you think it is harder to publish story collections than novels? Why do you think this is so? What can we do to make people read more of such collections?
I agree that short-story collections seem not to be regarded in the same light as novels. What publishers take on is driven by market demand as the economic factor is a reality of the industry. There’s also a belief, and I’m not sure if it’s based on reality, that publishers will only take on a collection of short stories from authors who have already made their mark as novelists, although I know of writers who have broke this pattern. The other thing with short-story collections is that the themes can be quite diverse as the stories may have been written over a length of time and not as part of a collection, resulting in a rather hotchpotch feel. Awards might be a way to boost the profile of short-story collections, and more reviews and interviews with writers of short fiction perhaps.
“History writes the best stories.” What do you think of this statement?
I agree that large-scale, harrowing historical phenomena such as the Holocaust, the Cultural Revolution, the rule of the Taliban, and the great wars, make amazing backdrops and thematic material for stories. But I think it is a challenge for writers to inject a fresh take in humanising these events so the stories don’t slip into cliché. In this regard, Khaled Hosseini does it extremely well. I actually prefer reading non-fictional accounts of poignant periods in history. Two that spring to mind, powerful beyond words, are Jung Chan’s Wild Swans and Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking.
“Good books don’t answer questions, but they give us questions to enjoy for a long time.” What do you think of this quote?
Yes, questions posed by writers underpin good fiction. But just as important is the manner in which this is done. To me, subtlety and implication is crucial; you don’t need to hit the reader in the head with the message or be overly didactic. It’s about how you unfold the story so the questions loom between the lines. I also enjoy reading stories that don’t have a strong theme, where you indulge in the beauty of the prose for its own sake, where you glide along with the writer and it doesn’t matter that you are not left with ‘the big message’ in the end.
What is the difference between writing short stories and full-length novels? Which form do you prefer working on?
Novels are more gratifying as they take more out of you. The impact on the reader I think is greater, too. There’s also the enjoyment of riding the journey with your characters, thinking about them, aching with them, as you would, say, loved ones, and the thrill of drawing them out over a span of time and situations. A huge relief and sense of achievement follows the completion of a novel, but there’s also a kind of mourning. Suddenly the characters are no longer a part of your life. However, short stories are fun, too. They require a different skill—terseness with prose, ruthlessness with what to include and what to ditch. You haven’t got the luxury of length to develop your characters but there’s a lesser need to deal with issues like coherence, momentum and pacing.
Do you think more competitions or creative writing courses are imperative in increasing the number of good writers and/or improve the quality of writing?
Certainly. The process of learning never ends. You can always write a better novel, a better short story. I guess it depends on what works best for the writer—some blossom through short workshops, some through a full-blown three-year degree, some through articles on the internet. The quality of writing today is very high. There are many good writers out there.
What do you think of the suggestion that writing short stories is training ground for novelists?
This was very much the case for me. Writing short stories enabled me to fine-tune my craft. The shorter form made it easier to practise elements such as starting with a conflict, showing versus telling, believable dialogue and so on. It’s also less daunting. You can write as many short stories as you like and they may end up in the slush pile, and you wouldn’t have invested as much time and energy as you would have with a novel.
In your opinion, what are the essentials of good fiction?
Freshness of vision. A genuine and sincere voice. Steering clear of pretentiousness. Writing to express, not impress, meaning the author taking second place to the story. Accessibility is one that is constantly debated. Should your prose be so high-brow, arty or ‘new’ that only two hundred people can understand and appreciate it as opposed to two million? That’s a subject that requires a separate interview but my leaning is towards not labouring the reader. If it’s hard work, he or she will put the book down. Lastly, compelling characters. Their motivations must ring true and the reader must care for them.
What was it like growing up in Malaysia?
My parents were not rich so we learnt to find pleasure in simple inexpensive things, like playing hopscotch and five stones. One of my most cherished memories is catching tadpoles and baby guppies with my bare hands from open monsoon drains. I’m grateful to have grown up in ‘sleepy hollow’ Malacca, where things were slow and easy. I loved having Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian and Portuguese classmates. Negotiating adolescence in the 1970s was both challenging and exhilarating. The community at USM in Penang was cosmopolitan and colourful, and the rolling greens of the campus formed a backdrop for many new experiences, vivid still in my recollections as if they happened yesterday. Penang has a special place in my life.
What do you miss most about Malaysia?
The food, firstly. Then, the casualness, the informality, the simplicity. When we were kids, relatives and friends would just drop in and if it happened to be dinner time, we’d pull out the extra stools and offer them the best portions of the meal. And the neighbourliness, and I don’t mean just literally. The sense of sharing and caring that comes easily, whether it is with a colleague, or the fruit vendor and fishmonger in the wet market. You pick up the sincerity and genuineness of their ‘how are you’ greeting. They might call you ‘sister’ or ‘auntie’ and an instant bond is created, natural and unforced, and they’ll ask you about your life with real interest. In the western world, everything has a formality about them and there isn’t that immediate letting down of your guard. And I miss my family and friends, and the ease with which friendships are struck.
ERIC FORBES is a senior book editor with MPH Group Publishing in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He has always been obsessed with the relationship between literature and life, and the role it plays in society. He has edited many books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. He is the co-editor of Urban Odysseys: KL Stories (MPH Group Publishing, 2009).