By: Melissa Lin
Bernice Chauly is a writer, photographer, poet, lecturer and film-maker. Having been active in the Kuala Lumpur arts scene for almost two decades, Chauly has contributed in a myriad of ways to the evolution and richness of the local arts and literary scene.
Her memoir ‘Growing up with Ghosts’ is a quintessential Malaysian story that seamlessly weaves the diverse threads of ancestry, history, politics and personal narrative. Released just last year, it has now gone into its third reprint.
Chauly has recently completed a two month long residency program by the Nederlands Letterenfonds in Amsterdam and is currently working on a new novel and a new collection of poems.
Interview with Bernice Chauly
Hello Bernice, apart from being a prolific writer of poetry and prose, and now your memoir ‘Growing up with Ghosts,’ you are also a photographer and work with film. You obviously have an immensely rich and varied creative life. Can you tell us more about what drives you and your work, and more about yourself?
I guess I am driven by a desire to tell stories, and that I am passionate about the human condition; its flaws, its foibles, its desires and loves, its losses. I always knew that I would create some kind of art, whether it be music, art, writing. I am also an actor and I love being on stage and working with a good script. I chose writing because it suits me best, although I did seriously consider becoming a musician at one point. My writing is very personal, I use poetry as a ways and means of identifying myself in the world, and how I place myself, and my experiences in it. I am driven by extremes; by love, loss, pain. All of these experiences are translatable into words. I try to make sense, make meaning of things. The singular most important event of my life was my father’s death when I was four. This is why I am a writer and this is the subject of my memoir.
Please share with us something of the story of Growing up with Ghosts. How would you describe it?
It’s essentially a love story, a forbidden love between a Chinese woman and a Punjabi man. My parents fought great odds to fall in love and marry and they came up against great opposition from their families in the 60s. It was literarily unheard of. A strict Punjabi, Sikh man marrying a Cantonese, Buddhist woman then was an absolute no-no. So my parents had to do what was necessary. They both decided to convert to Catholicism and married in a church far away from their families in Kelantan. After I was born, I became the peacemaker. Four years later, my father died, in a tragic accident that I witnessed. It changed my life forever. The book is essentially a way of exorcising my grief, of coming to terms with many things, of putting my ghosts to rest and writing myself back into the world.
You worked on this book for 23 years, and it is a work that has been described by many as epic, and important. In many ways, it goes beyond being a memoir as it is a love story, a historical one that charts the Chinese and Punjabi Diaspora in Malaysia and a record of the lives of your ancestors. Can you tell us what inspired you to write this book, and why was it important for you to tell these stories?
I lived with the book for 23 years. I started writing it when I was 18, in the middle of winter in Winnipeg where I was at university. It really began with a letter to my Bapuji, my Punjabi grandfather. I wrote him asking for a history of our family in the Punjab. When I received his letter and the information in it, I knew that I had to write this book. It was difficult, painful, as I had to go to places within myself that were very confronting. I was fortunate as my parents kept many things like their love letters; my mother wrote a journal about falling in love with my father after he died, my father kept a sketch book of when he traveled to Europe in 1960; which had coins, postcards, ticket stubs; I had photos, documents, evidence. I had material to work with, so the physical work was basically to structure it and write it all down.
I also started interviewing my mother and my Popo, my Chinese grandmother. I had to get stories, their stories. This is also history. Ordinary people living through wars and difficult times. These are stories of survival, great suffering. It’s a history of India, Malaya, Singapore and how my two families traversed time to collide through love and death. We know of so many stories from the Japanese Occupation, so many of our ancestors lived and died, and their lives have been forgotten. We need to remember our past, as Malaysians, this is crucial to an understanding of who we are, as a people. We need stories like this to remind us, that we all mattered. We need to see the importance of oral history, of stories. This is why I had to tell my story. I had all the material right there. And so I had to do it.
Many Malaysian cultures have the tradition of honoring their ancestors, and keeping the connection to the ancestors alive through prayers and other rituals. You did some deeper research into your ancestral lines by going to India for your book, what did you uncover, and has that changed your relationship to your ancestors?
Going back to India was one of the most rewarding yet terrifying trips of my life. I did not know what to expect, I had all these questions. I went to my ancestral village of Verka, just outside Amritsar and met my last living relative Bhagwant Chawla and his family. I was taken to the land that still belongs to us, to the snake mound that is on our land and the Chauly family shrine. I discovered for a fact that I am descended from snake worshippers and that the snakes, cobras to be specific, are revered and held sacred in my family. It was like coming face to face with an ancient tradition and ritual that my ancestors practiced. It was so powerful and moving yet ordinary at the same time, but it changed everything I knew about my world. It all made sense, something clicked, aligned itself into place. It changed me forever.
Has the process of writing and putting out this labor of love changed you as a person and as a writer from when you first began to the completion, and now, with the release of the book. If so, in what ways?
It really was a sense of catharsis. Helene Cixous, the French-Algerian feminist theorist, wrote “In order to start living/writing, there has to be death”, and I agree with this completely. She too lost her father when she was young, and it scarred her. Many artists come from some kind of grief, a terrible loss that pits them against themselves, and against the world. It’s a search for meaning, to understand a void that can only be understood through great searching, contemplation and action. In the past 15 years I have written two collections of poems, a collection of short stories, numerous coffee table books and guide-books which were commercial works, but this was always in the shadows, waiting to be finished. It took every ounce of strength to write, toiling into the early hours every night – I would write between the hours of 10pm and 4am, sleep for two hours, get up at 6am to get my children ready for school, sleep a few hours, do the day and then start again – for two years, I had to just focus, and write it. The physical act of writing has happen, no book writes itself, then it was the rewriting and editing which took another six months. It was an arduous process, but its done. The book was finally done. Strangely, it was also death that propelled me to finish it. My father’s death made the write it, my mother’s death in 2007 made me finish it. Now, the book has set me free. I am now working on a novel and a new collection of poems. I can move on now, and write the novel I have always wanted to write.
In writing this book, was there a specific message or feeling that you wanted to communicate to your readers?
In essence this book is about family, our bloodlines, our history. I wanted to show ordinary Malaysians that our ancestors stood testament to history, that their lives were important. Especially so, because I am of mixed parentage. There are so many of us mixed Malaysians out there and it’s important that we recognize our narratives. But it’s crucial to put it in context. One reviewer put it very clearly as well, ‘it’s the journey of a little girl looking for her father’. And in that journey, I traverse history, grief, bloodlines and eventually catharsis. The book haunted me for years, it never left me, because I knew that it was imperative to my growth as a woman and as a writer. I guess what I saying is this, if there’s a book that bleeding out of you, write it.
You are also an organizer of various literary and poetry events in and around Kuala Lumpur. Can you describe and tell us about the literary scene in Malaysia, and recommend some of your favorite Malaysian writers?
The literary scene is burgeoning, and it’s becoming friendlier. There is a community of people who write and people who listen now, because events like Readings, which I started in 2005 and CeritAku in 2007, have created platforms for writers, local and foreign, to be heard. I also curated two literary festivals last year, one with Writers Unlimited, the literary festival in the Hague, because I toured with them to the Dutch Antilles, Suriname and South Africa and I learnt so much from the way they did things. When Ton van de Langkruis, director of Writers Unlimited asked me to run a festival in Kuala Lumpur, I said I would try, and it all worked out. Five months later, I curated the first George Town Literary Festival in Penang. Both were very successful and inspiring to the writers and audiences alike. I am now working on the second George Town festival this year, and I am hoping to work with Writers Unlimited again.
I love the Malay poets especially Latiff Muhidin, Usman Awang. Shirley Lim and Hilary Tham are also important female writers because their memoirs are some of the very few female narratives we have. Contemporary writers like Tash Aw, Preeta Samarasan and Tan Twan Eng are setting new precedents for Malaysian fiction, but they have very different styles. Most interesting is the burst of Malay pulp fiction, spearheaded by my publisher Amir Muhammad, and his imprint Fixi, which is creating cutting edge Malay surrealist fiction, which is brave, current and very bold.
Please tell us about what you are currently working on, and about your experience at the writing residency in Amsterdam, and your participation in the Writers Unlimited festival here in the Netherlands.
I am currently working on a new collection of poems, tentatively called “Ongkalo” inspired by a documentary film called ‘Into Eternity’ which is about a nuclear waste depository in Finland. Its an amazing metaphor really, this nuclear facility to host waste which has to last 100,000 years. It’s just a goldmine of metaphors and imagery. The second book is my novel, set in KL in 1998, the year Malaysians woke up. It was the year of Reformasi, Anwar’s ‘black-eye’ incident, police brutality, the Commonwealth Games, the year the Twin Towers were completed, but it was also the year KL was known as the ‘party capital’ of Asia. So, politics, sex, drugs, street riots. I want it to be a contemporary novel. I want it to capture the zeitgeist of that crucial time in Malaysian history.
The residency with the Nederlands Letterenfonds was amazing. I was paid to do nothing but write for almost two months. I first stayed in the Anna Frank house in Merwedeplein and then later in an apartment in the Spui, in the heart of Amsterdam. I met so many writers, publishers, festival programmers, artists. Some have become good friends. I walked every day down the canals, I wrote, and I ran in the Vondelpark. It was lonely at times, but it gave me time to just focus and write. The festival in the Hague was awe-inspiring. It was probably the best literary festival I have been to. It celebrates world literatures and cultures. It was such a tremendous experience, and for one weekend, I was in the company of some of the most brilliant people I had ever met. The sessions were provocative and meaningful. I performed twice, and felt that it was the first time I could really talk about my book, without being judged. The audiences were receptive, I felt completely at ease with all the other writers. It was such an incredible exchange of views, of dialogue, conversations carried on and on. It was simply amazing.
The Dutch have such a history and respect of words, of books. It was just incredible to see how audiences came out in support of writers. My time in the Netherlands made me feel so very fortunate to be a writer. It was a great honour to have been given the time there.
Finally what advice would you give to aspiring and young writers?
Read. Read. Read. Live. Breathe. Then write.