ON THE COUCH ... Preeta SAMARASAN
A Spellbinding Début
Sharon Bakar speaks with Preeta Samarasan in conjunction with the release of her first novel, Evening Is the Whole Day
Photographs by Miriam Berkley
PREETA SAMARASAN is the latest Malaysian writer to make it internationally with her first novel, Evening Is the Whole Day (Houghton Mifflin/HarperCollins, May/June 2008). Preeta grew up in Ipoh, but moved to the U.S. to complete high school. She initially studied musicology, but while working on a dissertation on gypsy music in France, she began to write fiction seriously and decided to complete the novel she had embarked upon. She studied for a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan where an early version of her novel won the Avery and Jule Hopwood First Novel Award. She recently won the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Short Story Award.
When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer? Was it something you had always set your heart on?
I have always loved writing; I remember making up little stories and writing them down from the time I could write full sentences. In Standard Three I wrote a tragic, multi-generational saga about a family of cockroaches in a notebook which is now, thankfully, missing. But when I decided I wanted to be a writer—that’s a much tougher question. My parents encouraged us to pursue a variety of interests, but in their thoughts on career choices they were quite traditional and conservative. I think this reflects Malaysian society in general, especially as it was in the 1980s, so I didn’t think of writing as something that real people could actually choose to do as a career. Being an author was, you know, for dead people, or white people, or (ideally) for dead white people. So I tried a number of other things (while continually fantasising about being a writer) and went through a period of disaffectation before I decided, in the winter of 1999, that I was going to finish a novel and try to get it published, and see where that took me. I was at the time enrolled in a PhD program in musicology; a few years after that, when the novel was going well and I was getting a lot of positive feedback, I decided to leave and become a writer.
You dedicate the novel to your parents and brothers who you say taught you that words matter. How exactly was that love of words fostered during your childhood?
My mother taught us to read when we were very young, and books and language were always accorded great respect in our home. While my father was teaching, he would bring home a fresh batch of books from his school library every week, and this was understood by all of us to be the finest of treats. There were books everywhere, and books were an expense my parents never questioned, even though we were not rich by any means. Even now, when I’m browsing in a bookshop in KL with my mother and I stop myself from splurging on hardcover books, my mother protests, “But it’s books, what!” As a child I was encouraged not only to entertain and better myself with books, but—and I think this is crucial—to seek solace from them. This is what I mean when I talk about words mattering: the understanding that beautiful language, in and of itself, is fundamentally good for the spirit. I’m grateful for being allowed to discover that at an early age.
You decided to do a Master of Fine Arts degree (MFA) in Creative Writing. One criticism of creative writing courses I’ve heard repeated is that they push authors to write in a particular way. What do you think?
No, absolutely not. I’m not sure if that might have been true in the 1970s; it isn’t true now, of any good creative writing program. The programs I know about do not even try to “teach” people how to write; they select students who already can write, who have strong, distinct voices and a demonstrated commitment to their art. They merely help you do the best writing you want to do, as you define it, and they do this primarily by asking questions and getting you to think deeply about your own writing.
How did the course actually help you? Is it a path that you would recommend to other people who want to write?
Getting the MFA was immensely helpful in three ways. Firstly, it gave me the time and money to concentrate on my writing for two years, and this, when you think about it, is a pretty substantial statement of validation for an emerging writer: We think you’re good enough to make it, so we’re going to pay you to come here and write for two years. Secondly, it introduced me to some amazing, generous mentors who had been writing for longer than I had, and who therefore gave me lots of new ways to think about writing and the writing life. And thirdly, it introduced me to some truly gifted writers of my own generation. The connections I made in the MFA program will last my whole life; we still read each other’s drafts, discuss what we’re reading, and encourage each other. This kind of community of writers is possible to forge outside an MFA program, of course, but it’s more difficult. So my answer to “should others go?” is a resounding yes: if you can get into a good creative writing course with significant financial aid, you should most definitely go.
What was the starting point for your novel?
I began with the idea of these two sisters, one in America and one left behind; and with the image of a skinny young servant girl, accused of a crime, friendless and confused. I’ve always been interested in the place of live-in servants in their employers’ households. In many cases, the relationship is basically a feudal one that persists in affluent, apparently Westernised societies. I wanted to get to the heart of such a relationship, to the precariousness of a servant’s place in the household and to her employers’ constant justification and willful blindness. Those were two separate ideas in the very beginning, but they quickly came together, and I can’t quite explain how; the more I thought about these three characters, the more the parallels and the links revealed themselves.
The novel is about the secrets and betrayals in an Indian family living in Ipoh. How far is the family based on your own?
Not far at all. I have two siblings and we lived in Ipoh. That’s about the extent of the similarity. The plot is entirely invented; we never had servants, and my parents are nothing like the parents in the book. We had a lot less money and a completely different lifestyle. Some of the minor characters are amalgamations or modifications of people I came across or heard about in real life—Malaysian readers will recognise some familiar elements in the murder trials scattered throughout the main narrative, for example, but even in these cases I’ve invented more than I’ve preserved. There isn’t a novelist on earth who doesn’t draw from his or her environment in this way, and no one in their right mind would argue that it counts as autobiography. A few material objects are taken from my own life, because, for some reason, I have very strong memories of material objects. The red Formica table, the green PVC settee, and the grandmother’s rattan chair are all real objects from my childhood, though not all belonged to my immediate family. There is a lot of emotional truth in the book, of course—this, again, is true of all novels—and I think the material objects helped me to access that emotional truth, if that makes sense. I’ve felt the father’s resentment at the political situation (though I wasn’t born early enough to experience the disappointments of the immediate post-independence era) and the mother’s anomie, and at various moments in the narrative I found myself identifying with one or the other child.
Which of the characters do you most identify with? You seem closest to the youngest daughter, Aasha, at times, yet Uma’s story surely reflects your own to a great extent as she’s the gifted child who leaves Ipoh to go and study in the U.S.
Much of Uma’s story reflects the stories of many smart children from middle- and upper-middle-class Malaysian families; I do identify with her to some extent, but if I had to pick one character, it would be Aasha. Like her, I was much more of a watcher than a talker, and though I never had to keep such momentous secrets as she does, I did occasionally feel responsible for protecting the adults around me from what I knew or thought I knew—again, in my case, this was more often a consequence of my personality than a reflection of reality. The perception of responsibility, in other words, was usually inaccurate, while for Aasha it is quite accurate. Popular rhetoric depicts children as trusting creatures who vociferously announce all their needs and desires; yet having been a deeply distrustful, secretive child myself, I wanted to speak for, even to defend, such children. Many of my favourite novels are about children who have too much knowledge (and/or who end up making terrible, irreversible choices): Graham Swift’s Waterland, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between and William Trevor’s The Story of Lucy Gault.
Your former writing teacher Peter Ho Davies has compared your writing to Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy. How far did you absorb the influences of these, and indeed other favourite authors?
It would be disingenuous and ungrateful for any postcolonial writer worth his salt to deny Rushdie’s influence. Rushdie gave us permission to speak (though he would probably not phrase it that way himself: I suppose you could say he showed us that we could give ourselves permission to speak), and he gave us the language with which to speak. His impact on postcolonial writing in English is immense. I’ve been inspired by him on many levels: by the energy of his language, by his elevation of Indian English into poetry, by his use of magical realism to depict events and emotions too large for conventional Western realism. I think of Arundhati Roy as someone who inherited these ideas and made them her own instead of simply imitating Rushdie, and I tried my best to do the same: to absorb and digest their influences, and come up with something entirely my own. But no, the comparison doesn’t bother me in the slightest; I’m flattered, really, because I’ve always seen them as major influences. Other major influences of which I was very conscious while working on this novel: Waterland (from which I took one of the novel’s epigraphs) and Charles Dickens’s Bleak House.
The writing is gorgeous with every sentence so perfectly crafted and images on every page that are fresh and surprising. Was this a writing style that was particularly hard won?
Thank you—what lovely praise! A writer, as Thomas Mann said, is one for whom writing is more difficult than it is for others. Writing this book was the hardest thing I have done in my life so far. I did a massive amount of revision, because in the beginning my learning curve was so steep that by the time I got to the middle of the book I would hate everything I’d written. This happened four or five times. My standards were getting higher and I was learning so much about myself as a writer, about my voice, my priorities, etc. I had revised the first half or so an uncountable number of times before I even applied to MFA courses. Then I revised the first few chapters four or five times in the MFA program. Once the novel was sold I revised the entire thing twice with my editor at Houghton Mifflin—these were major, major revisions, the first of which involved cutting more than half of what I’d written. Then I worked with a copyeditor on smaller scale revisions. The novel was sold in the summer of 2006, and I just finished my last revisions with the copyeditor in late 2007. So yes, it’s been a long, hard road to getting published.
Did you find it hard to let go of your manuscript in the end?
At the very end, no, it wasn’t difficult to let go, because I felt ready and the book felt ready. I felt like I’d been pregnant for eight years. Get this thing out of me!
The story moves incrementally back in time for the most part, slowly revealing the motivations and back stories of your characters. How did you decide this was the way you wanted to tell your story?
I experimented with so many structures before it finally hit me: the reader needed to already know what was going to happen in the end, so that the weight of that ending would imbue everything that came before. There’s a certain inevitability that film scenes or photographs from the historical past exude, that the present can never quite match. The simplest way to give my narrative that kind of gravity—to make the whole thing past instead of present—was not through frequent and coyly oblique flash forwards (oh, how annoying they were!), but by moving backwards from the end. The further back the narrative goes, the more significance every little detail gains, so that by the time we reach the end (which is really the beginning), I don’t have to do much to expose the sadness inherent in that hopeful beginning. When I read Graham Swift’s Waterland, the idea of moving backwards began to seem inevitable. As he says (and I paraphrase), we’re always asking why, why, why; as human beings, we’re always wondering how far back in time we would’ve had to go to “fix” this or that present problem. I wanted my novel to enact that obsessive backtracking literally.
How did you decide on the rather god-like omniscient narrative voice?
I have always had a thing for that grand 19th-century voice. I like sweeping stories and authoritative narrators; in this, I’m a bit old-fashioned because that god-like narrator has fallen out of favour, particularly in America. But the stories I love best have big, bold narrators who refuse to explain how they know what they do (the narrator of Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, for example: logically speaking, he should not know nine-tenths of what he does!). As a writer, I love the power and freedom that that narrative voice gives me.
What has the path to publication been like for you?
Ah, another significant benefit of MFA programs: agents come to visit the good ones, because they are constantly scouting for new talent. My agent came to visit in my first year of the course, and I signed with her well before I graduated. Compared to the writing itself, the path to publication has been surprisingly easy. The novel was sold within a few days of my completing a reasonable draft, the summer after I graduated with my MFA. My agent sent it out to only three publishers in the U.S., and two of them offered to buy it. After the revisions were done, it sold very fast in other countries—much faster than any of us had expected.
Successful Malaysian novelists such as Rani Manicka, Tash Aw and Tan Twan Eng all write from outside the country. Does being outside of things here in some sense free you up to write more honestly, and do you think you could have written the same book if you had stayed here?
It’s too easy to say of course: of course, one has to leave to be a writer; of course, people who never leave don’t see the same things about their country. But I actually believe the reality is slightly different. I think writers are people who identify as outsiders whether or not they have the opportunity to leave physically. Frequently, they identify themselves as outsiders from childhood, though they are not always sure why—sometimes it’s simply a matter of temperament. Perhaps those who feel they’re outsiders are more likely to leave, and that’s why so many writers—not just Malaysian writers—have been expatriates at some point. But they don’t have to leave to feel like outsiders. Conversely, plenty of people leave but never give up their unquestioning patriotism: Nothing like Malaysia-lah! So, to answer the rest of your questions: I think I would have still written, and I think I would have made many of the same observations about Malaysia if I hadn’t left. But one thing would probably been different: I don’t think I would’ve been brave enough to say these things as loudly as I’m saying them now. Like most Malaysians, I had lots of unexamined fears when I lived in the country. Fears of the government, fears of what people will think—between those two, it’s hard to say which is the greater! I think of my expatriate status as a luxury that allows me to say what I want without these fears.
You are the first Malaysian novelist I have read who actually ventures into the events of May 13, 1969, and it has been little discussed even in nonfiction. (Lloyd Fernando’s novel, Green is the Colour, being a notable exception.) Why did you decide to place your characters right in the heat of the fighting? Did writing about that incident take particular courage?
Writing that doesn’t take courage is not worth doing. Serious fiction (and nonfiction!) should take on the hard subjects—whether they are hard for emotional or political reasons, or both. Which is not to say that other novelists have not chosen other hard subjects—there are plenty of hard subjects in Malaysia, more than enough to go around! In my case, this novel is so much about race that to leave out May 13 would’ve seemed like a glaring omission. I also wanted to include May 13 precisely because it has been little discussed in Malaysia, and I think it’s the job of writers to talk about things people don’t want to talk about. Race defines everything in Malaysia, and yet, ridiculously, it is a “sensitive” subject. Historically, writers have been the consciences and voices of their nations—that may sound presumptuous, but I really believe it very strongly—so if you’re going to abdicate that responsibility, you may as well do something else for a living. As to why I put my characters right in the heat of the fighting—the only way to get into it, to immerse the reader fully in the event, was to put some of my characters there. They needed to experience it directly, not just hear about it.
Why did you decide to handle this part of the book in such an abstract way—with the personified Truth and Rumour dancing in the streets?
This is the very best sort of question—something I hadn’t even thought about myself until you asked it! Now that I have to articulate it, I think it has everything to do with Rushdie’s explanation of magical realism. I wish I could find the essay in which he talks about this, but the basic idea is that some events and emotions are so huge that they don’t seem to be governed by the laws of realism. The best magical realism captures what the incident feels like in a way that a “realistic” portrayal could never have captured it. In that part of the book I’m resorting both to magical realism and to allegory, because I also want to get across the idea that Truth and Rumour have taken on lives of their own, become actual characters. And I think this is still true in Malaysia today. We are still a nation mesmerised by Rumour’s sexy moves. “Eh, people say ...,” “I heard somewhere ...,” “It seems ...,” etc. And then, bit by bit, the “people say” is dropped and the rumour becomes true. If I had ten sen for every time I heard a rumour presented as if it were truth, I’d be able to buy myself a mansion in KL with just that money.
Malaysian novelists based overseas have sometimes been accused of “exoticising” this country for a Western readership. You seem to have deliberately gone the other way. Was this a deliberate decision?
I had an interesting discussion on exoticism the other day with Amir Muhammad. He pointed out that “exotic,” in its original definition, simply meant strange. And to highlight the strangeness of our culture—that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and some of the best books consciously try to be strange. But I think now when we complain about “exotic” writing we often mean writing that isn’t strange anymore—writing that merely trots out the same tired clichés about Asia. I’m not referring to any recent Malaysian novel; this is a general observation. On the surface such writing may appear to be pointing out unusual details, yet the choice of details, and the very way in which they are pointed out, is formulaic. The problem with this kind of writing is often that it self-consciously sets out to teach people about a particular culture, which is simply not the job of literature. The narrator takes you by the hand and explains everything; nothing is allowed to remain strange. So, to extrapolate from what Amir said, the writer is not exoticising but de-exoticising. I suppose what I’ve tried to do—and yes, I have thought about this in great depth because it’s a question on which I have very strong feelings—is to maintain the real strangeness of the place that is Malaysia—which lies not in the images any Malaysian Tourism Board advertisement can show you, but in the things we do not want to talk about. If on occasion—for example, when it comes to ideas about class—this strangeness makes us similar to other cultures instead of different from them—well, all the better, because Western readers don’t expect similarities and are invariably excited to discover them.
I was delighted to see that you have used a lot of local words, particularly Tamil expressions, and you neither provide a direct translation nor italicise them. Why did you decide to do it this way?
Well, I was delighted that my publishers never even questioned that decision. I didn’t know what to expect, but from the beginning I wanted to weave local words into the narrative in the natural way we do in Malaysia. We don’t translate, and we certainly don’t pause to note the non-Englishness of the word, which I think is the effect italicisation has: ATTENTION! PLEASE NOTE FOREIGN WORD HERE! To us it’s all one language, our language, and I really wanted to preserve that. The way we talk—our hybrid vocabulary, our loose syntax, our breathless lack of punctuation—embodies our collective character in ways I think most people reading this interview will understand. If I’m going to presume to speak for Malaysians, I should try as far as possible to remain faithful to the way they would say these things themselves.
The obvious reaction is: but won’t this make it harder for your Western readers?
Perhaps a little, though I think in many cases the gist of what’s being said is clear from the context, or the specific detail is not so important that a non-Malaysian reader will lose track of the story if they don’t grasp the detail. It’s a price I was willing to pay, because it’s also somewhat of a political choice. Other postcolonial writers have said this far better than I can (I’m thinking, in particular, of Jamaica Kincaid), but what I would say to any Western reader who complains is: the West is not the centre of the universe. Fifty, even thirty years ago, we were all taught to believe it was. Schoolchildren studying literature in the colonies had to navigate Cockney speech patterns, imagine for themselves what toad-in-the-hole might taste like, picture moors and bogs and fens and determine the emotional significance of each of these landscapes. Now we get to tell our own stories, and this requires your dealing with my rubber estates and char kuay teow and cursing in Tamil. In the long run, this will be good for all of us. A little cultural immersion never did anyone any harm.
It might seem too early to ask this, but what’s next?
I’m working on another novel, set mostly in Cameron Highlands. I’m not sure I can say more than that at this point! I’m very much at the groping-in-the-dark stage and I fear saying too much will paralyse me. So far it seems as if this one will not take me so many years—I’m keeping my fingers crossed. I’m also writing short stories and revising old ones. A couple of my stories will be published in the next few months in literary journals in the U.S. In the past I’ve considered putting together a collection, so we’ll see if that happens.
Sharon Bakar is a freelance writer and teacher trainer in Kuala Lumpur. Her work has appeared in a number of Malaysian publications, including The Star, Off the Edge, Men’s Review, Quill, kakiseni.com and Chrome. She is also the editor of an anthology of short fiction, Collateral Damage, published by Silverfish Books. She teaches creative writing in partnership with the British Council, and organises Readings, a monthly event for local writers, at Seksan’s Gallery in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur. Her blog on writing and publishing in Malaysia, thebookaholic.blogspot.com, attracts a wide readership.
Reproduced from the July-September 2008 issue of Quill magazine. Also reprinted in the special 2008 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival issue