ESSAY ... LAU Siew Mei
Transforming Reality in Fiction
LAU SIEW MEI, the author of Playing Madame Mao and The Dispeller of Worries, talks about the merging of the real and the unreal to create what is called fiction
I USED TO THINK that writers made up everything in their novels. Living in Singapore and reading the fictional works of writers like Enid Blyton, I thought things like horse-drawn caravans, drinkable streams, swimmable lakes and ivy-covered cottages were wonderful figments of the imagination, together with the elves and pixies that scattered throughout her books.
I tried sitting on the grass like the children in her books did, in the hot and humid back garden of the little terrace house I grew up in, and within a few minutes my bottom was itching, so I thought sitting on the grass was a thing of the imagination as well.
When I began writing, I thought I should also imagine things like castles, goblins and a temperate climate.
A while later, I discovered that eatables like éclairs, muffins and scones existed but because the ones I managed to taste were the ones sold commercially, I didn’t know what the fuss was about or how anyone could rave about a muffin that tasted like the muffins at a popular fast-food chain.
I thought how delicious the things were that I ate, like the yellow strands of moist Hokkien mee, the rich broth of prawn noodles, the flamboyantly tossed-in-a-wok chay dow kway, the sweet-and-salty-golden-brown-bubbling-in-hot-oil ham chin peng and the tiny delicate flour and coconut putu piring resting on its banana-leaf bed. Readers didn’t know what they were missing.
I began to have the wish to transfer my reality onto the page, transforming it as did those fictional writers, although not having the knowledge, I wasn’t sure how much in a fictional work was real and what was made up.
It took me a while to figure out that sometimes in a work of fiction, certain cities really existed but certain streets were fictional or whole towns made up but based on real places the author had lived in or travelled to.
When I was writing Playing Madame Mao, I lived in Brisbane. One road in Woolloongabba that I walked had a restaurant that seemed to be always closed for business. I could see, looking in through the glass windows, the always-spotless tablecloths, neatly laid out cutlery and chairs empty of customers. I think the restaurant was called The Cloak and Dagger. I imagined it was a place for intrigue or a front for sinister activity. On a different street, there was a poky Chinese restaurant with a dim interior and a name, The China something or another, probably Palace. I merged both restaurants in my imagination and transported the now one restaurant to Singapore, where it became The China Den, the restaurant where Tang goes for dinner and a meeting place for conspirators.
Through trial and error, I realised that fiction was a leap of the imagination from the real. The best works would include an element of reality or what the authors had experienced and mixed up with other elements of reality or experiences, not necessarily their own—maybe hearsay, gossip, research or observation and into that mix a large dose of the imaginary was added, thus stirred so the configurations changed. Finally, they peppered the mix with magic. That was when I discovered I did not need to reject what was around me or who I was or what I experienced or what people around me experienced. Reality was a necessary ingredient.
I have worked as a journalist and journalists are supposed to report facts and what really happened. All journalists know this is never quite true. Newspaper policy, what sells and what your editor or subeditor wants all go into warping the news. Interestingly, people easily forget what they read in a newspaper. T.S. Eliot once said that humankind cannot bear too much reality. The great magic of fiction is that it is more easily believed. The truths of fiction live on in the souls of the readers: the passions, emotions, thoughts, and observations transit in a more palatable form from the page to the mind.
I came to appreciate the intense non-fictional research behind some fictional work—historical, architectural, natural and so forth. I remember once telling someone about the massacre at Amritsar that I had read in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and he said, “But that’s a work of fiction.” He said that because he had not heard of this massacre. Later he saw on the television the Queen laying a wreath for the victims of this massacre in India.
As a child, I learned a great deal of information from reading fiction. I have forgotten most of what I studied in school. I cannot recall the names of my textbooks. However, the names of storybooks stay with me and many of the stories have enriched me.
Sometimes I find fiction derives its impetus from unreliable memory. In The Dispeller of Worries, I took a house my Penang-born mother had told me was haunted, and made it the centre of the novel.
When I was a child in Singapore, my father often drove the family to Malaysia for beach holidays. Along the road to Batu Ferringhi in Penang, we would pass a deserted house, a house which was called Adorable.
For me, the house exists as a memory, but as a condition of entry into the fictional world, it takes on another form, a living form that cannot exist in the real world.