Thursday, December 18, 2008

Daphne LEE talks to Robert RAYMER

Personal and real
An American in Sarawak explains why his short stories are not your typical condescending ‘Mat Salleh in the exotic East’ collection

ONCE UPON A TIME, a young American read about James Norman Hall—author, with Charles Nordhoff, of Mutiny on the Bounty—going to a tropical island to write a novel. He thought he might do the same.

It’s not a new idea: over the centuries, many a Westerner has travelled to the “exotic” East to stretch creative muscles—though not all that many have been successful at actually creating anything tangible. Robert Raymer managed it, though.

Robert Raymer:
“I was ... trying to capture ‘the truth’ of what it can be like for an expat
married to a Malaysian to give the story some backbone.”

Like Hall, whose Mutiny on the Bounty he had read as a youngster, Raymer came to a tropical island—Penang, specifically, in 1984—and began writing. Over the years, he has been pretty prolific, albeit at writing if not publishing: he’s written two novels set in Penang, and two set in his homeland, and published a well-received short-story collection, Lovers and Strangers.

When one of the stories in the collection, “Neighbours,” began to be taught for SPM Literature in schools throughout Malaysia this year, Raymer decided it was time to release an updated and completely revised edition of Lovers and Strangers, which had originally been published in 1992.

In their earliest incarnation, some of these stories were published in magazines and newspapers around the world and on the Internet, including The Literary Review: An International Journal of Contemporary Writing, The London Magazine and Reader’s Digest.

Raymer, who teaches creative writing at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak in Kuching where he now lives with his wife and two young sons, chats via e-mail about the collection and his unfinished works.

What’s the difference, for you, between writing a novel and writing short stories?
Erica Jong once said that writing a novel is like marriage and short stories are like flings. I agree. When your marriage is going flat on page 280, a ‘fling’ of a short story seems awfully tempting. It’s also satisfying to complete something. To knock something out that’s shorter so you can feel you’ve actually finished something!

Two of the stories in Lovers and Strangers Revisited, “Dark Blue Thread” and “Only in Malaysia,” are about American men who marry Malay women. “Mat Salleh” and “Teh-O in KL” feature the same. To what extent did you draw on personal experience to write these stories?
Reviewers, especially for those stories involving ‘an American,’ often comment (and assume) that the stories are ‘personal’ or ‘autobiographical.’ Only one story in the collection is factual, and that is ‘Mat Salleh.’ As I writer, I tried to make all the stories as realistic, or as personal, as possible by blending in realistic details, whether I was writing from the point of view of a Malay female, an Indian child, an elderly Chinese man, or an American. Since I am American, readers tend to think I’m writing about myself and my ex-wife [he has since re-married], thus the whole story is ‘true.’ Instead, I was merely trying to capture ‘the truth’ of what it can be like for an expat married to a Malaysian to give the story some backbone, which then makes the rest of the story seem believable, as if it were based on fact.

Did you struggle to write any of the stories?
The story that gave me the most problem has to be ‘Sister’s Room’ (about child prostitution), finding that voice and maintaining it. I’m never satisfied with it; each time I go through it, each page is marked up! ‘The Future Barrister’ was a problem too, having him tell his story and needing to break it up so it’s not some long, boring monologue. For the MPH collection, I did ‘The Future Barrister’ in the present tense, and by doing that forced other changes too, and these changes I really liked. It felt like I was giving the story a fresh coat of paint and all the cracks were finally covered up!

Tell us what’s happening with the novels.
Realistically, a Penang novel might not have much of a market outside of Malaysia, while a U.S. novel has more potential worldwide. For my U.S.-based novels I’m looking to the U.S. or U.K. Right now everything is on hold because I’ve recently decided to expand a novel that’s done well in two contests in the U.S. into a trilogy, which I believe will make it easier to market. I’ve been reluctant to publish a novel in Malaysia for fear that it won’t get out of this region or that no one outside Malaysia will take it or me seriously. Of course, with Tash Aw’s book (The Harmony Silk Factory) and so many recent breakouts by Malaysians [Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain and Preeta Samarasan’s Evening Is the Whole Day], things are starting to change. MPH Publishing and other publishers have been actively seeking to publish Malaysians writing in English. They’ve got great stories to tell! So I am thinking, okay, maybe the time is right, maybe I should publish my novel, Tropical Moods, here.

Before that, though, Raymer will be publishing another collection, of narratives and articles, tentatively entitled Twenty Years in Malaysia. It is slated for release in 2009.

To find out more about Raymer, visit his blog at

Why Robert Raymer released a third edition of his Lovers and Strangers, and added “Revisited” to the title, is a long and (okay, slightly) convoluted tale.

The collection was first published by Heinemann in 1993 as Lovers and Strangers. Unfortunately for Raymer, the publishing house’s fiction list was discontinued shortly after the book came out. Fast forward more than 10 years to 2006, and the collection was put on Universiti Sains Malaysia’s English syllabus. However, Raymer had revised the stories so extensively that he felt a new edition, Lovers and Strangers Revisited, was called for.

The Kuala Lumpur-based Silverfish Books ( agreed to publish it, but there were problems with distribution in Sarawak, which frustrated Raymer since he lived there.

Eventually, Raymer contacted MPH Publishing and proposed yet another re-issue. He had heard that MPH Bookstores was opening a branch in Kuching and figured that distribution would not be a problem.

MPH Publishing agreed to publish it, so we now have this further revised edition of Lovers and Strangers Revisited with an additional two stories, ‘Only in Malaysia’ and ‘Transactions in Thai.’

1984 (published in 1949) by George Orwell: “It keeps coming true in so many ways, from the high-tech gadgets and the government’s ability to spy on us to all those cameras everywhere that practically traces everyone’s public movements from the moment they leave the hospital until they die.”

Crime and Punishment (1866) by Fyodor Dostoevsky and War and Peace (1865) and Anna Karenina (1875) by Leo Tolstoy: “At the thick end [compared to The Great Gatsby], you have the Russian novels ... War and Peace, the greatest novel in the world—God, to be able to write like that on such a grand canvas!”

Catch-22 (1961) by Joseph Heller: “Just for the sheer fun of it, and the I-can’t-believe-they’re-doing-that-and getting away-with-it.”

The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald: “An important book for me as a writer …. Such a powerful story with so many subplots inside, yet it’s marvellously thin!”

To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee: “You’ve got these kids wanting to flush out Boo Radley that you can relate to, and this big story that’s going on (the no-win trial), and then the two stories collide in a way you never quite expected.”

Recent reads include A New Earth (2008) by Eckhart Tolle and Inner Drives (2005) by Pamela Jaye Smith: “Inner Drives is an insightful book for developing characters for writers that I stumbled upon by chance at the library—see, another benefit of going to the library!

“When I first moved to Sarawak I was reading all these books on Sarawak and Borneo, but lately I’ve been reading all these self-help books while trying to figure out why I haven’t been all that successful as a writer and as a person despite been relatively decent, intelligent and hardworking!”

(This interview first appeared in the November 30, 2008 issue of The Sunday Star)


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