Romancing the Japanese Occupation
Text and photographs by TAN MAY LEE
BEFORE THE HIGHLY ACCLAIMED TASH AW AND TAN TWAN ENG, there was Rani Manicka who also put Malaysia on the international literary map. While the rise of Indian writers in the late 20th century made it seem like there was no room to fit another epic story surrounding Indian culture, Manicka came along to offer a tale many authors couldn’t relate to—one of Indians who left their homeland for Malaya in the early 20th century.
Publishers recognised this unique insight and Manicka’s The Rice Mother became one of the most fiercely-contended manuscripts. Hodder & Stoughton won the battle to publish the novel (it was published in 2002), and it has since been translated into 23 languages. It also won the 2003 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the Southeast Asia and South Pacific Region for Best First Book.
Despite her success, her second novel, Touching Earth, and a recent reprint of The Rice Mother that includes a study guide, Manicka the author remains an enigma to many. The public doesn’t see much of her—she humbly suggests that “author appearances are for really big authors, like John Grisham or Frederick Forsyth. Then you have a queue of people and it’s worth it.”
Yet there’s no denying the excitement when news of her third novel, The Japanese Lover, informed that it was slated for release in May 2010. Last Saturday, she returned to Kuala Lumpur for one of her biannual visits, timely as she presents herself with her novel fresh from her distributor’s warehouse.
In person, Manicka looks elegant, with the charm of other illustrious Indian authors such as Jhumpa Lahiri. She speaks with only a faint accent despite living in England for about 20 years. With a smile, she describes herself as “a rootless person,” who returns to Malaysia twice a year to see her family, but otherwise “can just go and land anywhere” and be at home. Her words are measured when she talks about her latest novel, which details the life of a girl who leaves Ceylon to become the mistress of a wealthy household in Malaya. However, the heroine Parvathi fails to experience love in her arranged marriage. When the Japanese arrive in Malaya, she sacrifices herself to become the comfort woman to Hattori, and in the enemy’s embrace, she discovers the passion that she has always been yearning for. However, this is not just a love story; The Japanese Lover, at its depth, addresses the cultural tensions in Malaysia’s past and present.
TAN MAY LEE spoke to RANI MANICKA on May 25, 2010 in Petaling Jaya:
How long did it take you to write the new novel?
I didn’t spend a lot of time on this book, because it’s very similar to The Rice Mother. I didn’t need to research because I already had it all in my head. A friend of my grandmother’s inspired most of the book. It was kind of like her life story. She had a really hard time [during the Japanese Occupation]. She obviously didn’t have a Japanese lover though.
What would you say is the protagonist Parvathi’s main conflict or desire in The Japanese Lover?
There is only one real goal, and that’s looking for love. I think all the characters portray that, expressing love in different ways. From Parvathi’s love with Hattori, with her husband, even the love between her and her maid Maya, her son who does horrible things but she still loves him. It’s an idea of all the aspects of love.
I found it very interesting that Parvathi couldn’t find the passion she wanted in her husband, but she found it with Hattori. What are your thoughts about cross-cultural love?
We can’t tell who we fall in love with. Sometimes we fall in love with people whom we never thought we’d ever fall in love with. Parvathi had an idea of love in her head so she was only looking out for it. She just happens to find it in Hattori, immediately wanting him, and he also wants her and that makes it explosive.
Could you tell me more about the character of the Japanese lover, Hattori?
Hattori is a complete figment of my imagination, because when I wrote The Rice Mother, I had given such bad press to the Japanese and I thought, “Okay, let me put a nice Japanese guy.”
A very interesting scene for me is where Hattori dresses Parvathi up as a geisha. What was the significance of that scene?
I think I wanted to portray masks. In a way, we all put on masks and nobody ever sees our real person. How you are with me wouldn’t be how you are with your mother or lover. You just show one side of yourself, so that’s one side of Parvathi that she didn’t know about herself.
Was it necessary to include pivotal events such as May 13, 1969, and the more recent events with Hindraf?
With May 13, because mainly it was the trouble between the races in Malaysia buried underground, and it’s still underground. When you read the papers, it isn’t there. Any foreigner coming to the country would think, “Look at the three races living happily together,” but it’s not true. There’s all these undercurrents that you feel at the market, on the road and in the housing market, everywhere. In a way, May 13 marked the beginning of this tension. In order to tell Indians to look at themselves and think, “I’m not that bad, I’m okay,” you know you have to start somewhere, so you start there.
Would you say this reflects your point of view on the current political situation?
Yes, I suppose I can’t help but write from my point of view. I can’t write from anybody else’s.
What do you think of all the ongoing conflicts in Malaysia?
I think it’s quite sad because Malaysia is such a rich country. The level of poverty of some of the races in this country is not necessary. Saying this is going make me unpopular, but if I had three kids, and I spoilt one kid to the exclusion of the other two, and I give that kid everything, when my kids grow up, the kid I spoilt would be the worst of the lot, no matter if I thought I had given him the best. At the end of the day, that kid would not be able to stand on his own two feet. The other two kids, whom I gave nothing to and deprived them of everything, they’d probably become much tougher, much more able to fend for themselves. The policy of wanting to lift up a race by giving it everything is actually self-defeating. Even if you had this for another 40 years, they would not be better off. Maybe a few people would be extreme billionaires, but the rest of them would soon become backward.
Do you feel that the past has more to offer, and is that why you chose to write about events set in the past in The Rice Mother and The Japanese Lover?
I think that the present and future hold more hope. I started to write about the past simply because my grandmother inspired The Rice Mother and after that I wrote a book [Touching Earth] which had nothing to do with the past. Then I wrote another one set in ancient Persia, just for the fun of it, but it was deemed not commercial enough, so I put it aside. I wrote The Japanese Lover as a follow-up to The Rice Mother because that’s what the publisher wanted.
Do you think the book industry is dictated by what publishers and agents say?
I think it’s dictated by what people want to read—books that are easy to read, things they can digest for a little while, then go watch their videos or play their computer games.
Should writers give in to what readers want all the time?
Let’s say that I didn’t want to give in and wanted to write what I wanted to write. There wouldn’t be anyone who would want to publish me, and there wouldn’t be any point, would there? You should either write what people want to read, or you’re wasting your time. It’s like going into a bakery and buying a delicious cake. The next time you ask for that kind of cake, and bite into it and it’s different, you feel disappointed. It’s the same thing with books. There are some authors who get away with it though.
Would such a novel then be, to an extent, not genuine?
The thing is, you have to write from the heart, and I don’t think you can write a really good book unless you felt it. If you decide to write for the sake of money, then you’d write a simple thing that you don’t put your heart into, producing two or three books in a year using a formula. That’s how Barbara Cartland did it. She dictated stories and put out three or four books a year. But she had a real talent for that.
Currently, what are you reading?
I have just finished Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and All the Pretty Horses. Now I’m going to read Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger.
Do you feel any pressure from the expectations people might have because you had so much success with your first book?
No, I don’t have expectations. I always just write for fun, just to please myself. If it [success] happens, then it happens.
Reproduced from The Malaysian Insider of May 30, 2010