Sharon BAKAR interviews Chiew-Siah TEI in Off The Edge
Yet another Malaysian writer receives world attention as the debate on indigenous and immigrant Malaysians enter unchartered waters
WRITING in The Independent in July 2008, critic Salil Tripathy noted the “quiet emergence of new Malaysian writing,” naming novelists Tash Aw, Rani Manicka and Tan Twan Eng among those who had put the country on the world stage. And, of course, Preeta Samarasan, whose first novel, Evening Is the Whole Day, he was reviewing at the time. Then, barely a month after the launch of Samarasan’s novel, we found ourselves cheering for yet another Malaysian author published internationally.
Chiew-Siah Tei won critical acclaim for her novel even before its publication in June 2008. Little Hut of Leaping Fishes was longlisted for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007 while still in manuscript form. The book was launched in Kuala Lumpur in June 2008 at an event jointly organised by The British Council and book distributors Pansing Marketing, ahead of its U.K. launch in early July.
Tei grew up in small-town Tampin, Negri Sembilan, one of seven children in a cramped, wooden shophouse which housed three generations of the family. Describing herself as a sensitive child she says she found her escape from the noise and chaos through fiction. The parents of a playmate were teachers and had a house full of books which became her refuge. She most vividly remembers how she devoured the picture books of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories, most especially The Little Match Girl, as well as Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince.
Her grandfather also fed her imagination with stories about the old days when she used to accompany him for his morning yam cha as his guide after he lost his sight. From him she heard tales of the young Emperor and the Dragon Lady, and the Boxers who fought the white devils, and of his parents’ journey to Malaya on a fishing boat. It was all material that would resurface in her work.
“The instinct of storytelling came to me very early,” she recalls, and her early attempts at writing were fostered by a teacher at the local Chinese-medium school she attended. “When I was ten, the teacher began to teach us composition in the Chinese school. I wrote my first story and he liked it and asked me to copy it down on ‘proper paper.’ Then he sent it to a Chinese newspaper (I think it was Sin Jiew Jit Poh, which at that time had a children’s section), and it was published. He gave me so much encouragement and he began to ask me to write compositions with different titles from other students, so I wrote more. I loved it, and I learned more quickly than other students, and the habit of writing started from there.”
Tei’s Chinese-language fiction won a series of awards, including the Hua Zong International Chinese Fiction Award. Now that her first novel is published, will we be seeing translations of those early works? Tei says not. “The prose style would be very different. The essence would be lost, and it would be like writing a new book.”
Tei admits that she is much more widely read in Chinese literature than Western, but the two authors who have left a lasting impression on her life are not Chinese: “When I finished secondary school, the first two books by international writers I read were Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, both of which opened her eyes to the possibilities of literature.
Tei studied media at Universiti Sains Malaysia, staying on to teach there before embarking on media and film studies at Glasgow University in 1994, to fill a personal void she could not explain. She had no scholarship and had to work to support her studies by working part time, although she had supportive friends and family members who also helped her out.
Two years later, a chance participation in the BBC Scotland’s Migration screenwriting workshop fused her love of film and creative writing; her film, Night Swimmer, won best short film at the Vendome International Film Festival in 2000.
Then out of the blue one day, she received an email from literary agent Toby Eady after a friend of Tei’s had sent him a copy of her film. He asked her to send him samples of her work for him to read. “At that time I didn’t have anything,” she says “But I began to keep in touch with him.”
In fact, Tei says, she initially had the idea for Little Hut of Leaping Fishes as early as 1999, but felt that she couldn’t begin writing it until she felt more confident of using the English language. English is her fourth language behind Hokkien, Mandarin and Malay, and even now she finds herself modestly apologising for not speaking the language very well.
When she embarked on a cross disciplinary PhD at Glasgow University in 2002, she turned up in class with part of a first draft of Little Hut of Leaping Fishes in her hands. Fellow course-mate and recently published novelist Rodge Glass, writing recently in the Glasgow Herald, remembers her as “a mature, interesting writer who was far ahead of most of us.”
Her professors, who included renowned Scottish novelists Alasdair Gray and James Kelman, and poet and dramatist Liz Lochhead and Tom Leonard, gave Tei the encouragement and confidence she needed to move forward with her novel.
Tei sees herself primarily as an artist, and exhibits the qualities of tenacity and masochism that romanticise the breed. “That’s why I like to take up challenges; I like to experiment with form and medium. I’m not satisfied if something is easy.” And when she was commissioned to write a play for the 2005 Edinburgh Festival, she wrote an ambitious piece called Three Thousand Troubled Threads, the title referring to a Chinese phrase using hair as a metaphor for the difficulties and challenges in life. “I tried to put film on stage, but not all people liked that kind of approach,” she says.
If Tei’s first play was not entirely a critical success, her novel struck gold. She sent Eady her finished manuscript in March 2007 and was thrilled when he replied with the following four days later: “It touched my heart.” Eady immediately became her agent and the novel has also been launched in Australia and the U.K. and is being translated into several languages.
Set in late 19th-century China, Little Hut of Leaping Fishes tells the story of Mingzhi, the treasured first grandson in the Chai Mansion in Plum Blossom Village. His grandfather a feudal landlord who soon learns that opium is a more lucrative crop than rice, rules the household with an iron fist. Mingzhi’s future as a scholar and later a mandarin is mapped out for him, but this sensitive soul finds an escape learning from the cloying atmosphere of the household with its rivalries, adultery and addiction through books and learning.
But Little Hut of Leaping Fishes is as much a story about China as about the characters. “These historical events in 19th-century China are woven into Mingzhi’s life. He is not just a witness of these events. He is part of them,” says Tei.
Tei says that she did a lot of research to get the details right. “I found out the timeline of historical events which was very useful. I merged every important period in Mingzhi’s life with important events in Chinese history. When I realised that Emperor Guangxu was enthroned in 1875, I arranged for Mingzhi to be born in that year. When Mingzhi’s wife dies with their child while in labour, it is on the same day that the Hundred Days of Reform failed, and the reformers are toppled by the empress. When Mingzhi is waiting for his wife to give birth, he counts to a hundred and just can’t get past that number. There are many tiny details like this I don’t know if everybody will get them.”
Tei says film is her primary language, and she employs minimal dialogue and vivid images in her writing. Indeed, with its sentence fragments and use of the present tense, Little Hut of Leaping Fishes sometimes reads like a film script. The imagery if often striking, while the relative simplicity of the language, as well as its working of resonant themes, should win the novel a broad readership in Malaysia.
The end of the novel has Mingzhi and his friends escaping to Malaya, along with a whole wave of Chinese immigrants fleeing poverty.
Is the novel in anyway based on the lives of Tei’s own ancestors who arrived on these shores at about the same time? Tei says that she doesn’t really know much about her great grandparents, but she does remember seeing a black-and-white photo of someone in a Mandarin’s costume that used to sit on the family altar, although she has no idea who he was and how he was related to her.
The novel is actually planned as the first part of a trilogy, all centred on the concept of “home,” a theme which has particular resonance for Tei, living between a Scotland where she still feels an outsider and a Malaysia where she feels like a tourist on her return visits.
The sequel to Little Hut of Leaping Fishes takes place in the early 20th century when a conflicted Mingzhi tries to remake home in the new land. “So he has to think, what is home to him, here or there? There is a conflict.”
The third and last book in the series will be set between the 1990s and the present. “It will redefine the concept of home in modern society when everything is moving so quickly and people become so busy. People can just go from one place to another so easily and some people even have houses in different places. So it explores how we define home and how sometimes home just equals a sense of belonging.”
Her writing is, Tei says, much influenced by film, which she describes as her primary language, and she is concerned with using minimal dialogue and vivid images to tell the story.
Indeed, with its short sentences and sentence fragments, and its use of the present tense, Little Hut of Leaping Fishes sometimes reads like a film script. The writing is very visual, the imagery is often striking, while the relative simplicity of the language, as well as its working themes, will be very relevant to the local audience, should win the novel a broad readership in Malaysia.
Although Tei has her hands full with the writing projects at the moment, she says that she sees all her work as interconnected and does not rule out a return to filmmaking. She may also return to writing in Chinese, although she says she does not know when yet.
So how does it feel being one of the growing list of Malaysian authors who are winning recognition overseas and locally? Tei says she was tremendously encouraged seeing Tash Aw and Tan Twan Eng longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and winning recognition for their work. And it is an encouragement that she no doubt will be passing forward in turn.
Reproduced from the August 2008 issue of Off The Edge magazine