Tuesday, December 9, 2008

“Mat Salleh”: The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

If I have a favorite story in Lovers and Strangers Revisited it would have to be “Mat Salleh” for sentimental reasons. It’s my first short story, written back in 1984 while still living in the US, my first published story (in the New Straits Times, January 28, 1986), my first story published overseas (My Weekly, May 23 1987, in the UK, with color photographs of my first wedding!), plus it’s fine memory meeting my former in-laws and extended family for the first time, with a surprise wedding.

The original title was “Mat Salleh: A Malaysian Encounter”, and I didn’t even know the story was published until a relative contacted us the following week. I had to go from house to house asking if any of my neighbors had the NST! In the UK, the editor changed the title to “Meeting the Family – The Malaysian Way”. By the time it appeared in Lovers and Strangers (Heinemann Asia, 1993) I had shortened it to “Mat Salleh”.

“Mat Salleh” is a non-fiction narrative that I crafted into a short story; however, I kept to the truth thus making it a non-fiction short story, the only one in the collection. This story has remained a favorite for a lot of readers, particularly the Malays, as well as those married to Malaysians, or even those who have a Western relative in their family and have shared a similar experience of everyone in the family coming out to meet the new mat salleh for the first time.

I first wrote “Mat Salleh” while still living in the US after I took a correspondence course, on writing the short story from Writer’s Digest, so a lot of the initial details were fuzzy. The photographs I took and the diary I kept were a big help. Once I moved to Malaysia and visited the kampong again, I was able to add in more ambiance and some details I had overlooked, as well as finetune the rest, making the descriptions less general and more specific to the kampong and to Parit, Perak. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, being at the physical location does wonders for the writer.

By beginning the story on the drive to the kampong, I was able to work in a little backstory and contrast not only the climate and scenery but also my former wife’s first visit to the US to meet her in-laws, and also our reasons for coming back (her father’s lingering illness) so by the time we arrived, the story is ready to move forward. One of the problems I had initially was there were two many immediate relatives involved, three elder brothers and elder sister and their respective spouses plus several uncles and aunts who lived nearby or even across the street, and all those nieces and nephews! So I focused only on a handful necessary to the story.

In the original published story I added an epilogue stating that my father-in-law had passed away two months after I had left and that a year and a half later, we had moved to Malaysia. In Lovers and Strangers, I worked the fact that he had passed away into the final sentence, by saying “Although he died shortly after…” In the Silverfish version, I left that out, because in an earlier paragraph it was implied that he would soon die, when I stated, “I knew he would never get a chance to spend…” so I felt that would be sufficient. I didn’t want the story to end on a negative note. Instead I focused on his positive reaction to my small monetary gift and my feeling like one of the family, which was the thrust of the story.

By the time I revisited the story in 2005, I had been divorced from my ex-wife for seven years and remarried to someone else from Sarawak for three years, so revisiting all the kampong-based stories were a bittersweet experience, especially “Mat Salleh”. As I wrote in the forward to Lovers and Strangers Revisited, “Still, I kept faithful to the original story and to the other stories, recalling how I felt back when I first created them. I came to appreciate these memories, particularly the kampong visits to my then mother-in-law’s house, as privileged experiences.”

I expanded the kitchen scene by including the monitor lizard and Yati reminiscing about the time she and her brother had killed a cobra. I felt, however, that I needed a new scene, a transition after the wedding, something that would show my efforts of trying to fit into the family. While thumbing through the photographs of that first visit, I came upon a photograph of me holding a long bamboo pole. Then I remembered the time that I learned how to cut down a coconut with the nieces and nephews, who played an important part in the story. This would also show another side to them, as well.

The actual wedding itself was on Christmas Day, which made the event for me even more memorable. Ask me the one Christmas that I would never forget, and it would have to be this non-Christmas event in a Muslim country that I wrote about in “Mat Salleh”.

As a footnote, one of my former nieces that I wrote about all those years ago, recently contacted me out of the blue, after having come across my website. I’m sure she’s going to love this story, and perhaps share it with her own children about that time her uncle from America came to visit the family, a memory that goes all the way back to 1983.

Lovers and Strangers Revisited is now getting translated into French as Trois autres Malaisie.

*Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

**Here the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and for Trois autres Malaisie.

Here are three reviews of Lovers and Strangers Revisited: The Star (MPH), The Expat (Silverfish), and NST (Silverfish) and a link to the other story behind the stories for Lovers and Strangers Revisited.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

“The Stare”: The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

Every Hari Raya the Malays would visit the family graves, clear them of debris, and say their prayers. After that first kampong Hari Raya, I thought, what a great location for a story! Later I attended a funeral of an uncle and was fascinated by how the body was wrapped in white cloth and turned sideways (without a casket) to face Mecca. The Malays bury the dead fast, often the very next day. For relatives living outstation, including sons and daughters who have to travel by buses and trains, many don’t make it home in time for the burial.

The kampong graveyard in Parit, Perak (and the path from the road that led to it) was often overgrown and you would have no idea you were in one until it was too late since many of the graves were scattered among the shrubbery and trees. The older graves were even harder to find unless you stumbled on a large rock from the river or an inverted bottle, often used for the head and foot markers during the Japanese Occupation, when money was scarce.

After the prayers I would linger, make notes and ask questions: Who digs the graves? Whose land does this belong to? Who gets the fruit from the trees? Why were the graves with rocks or inverted bottles never replaced with proper minarets, even the simple, inexpensive ones?

My imagination would then take over as I search for a story. I pictured in my mind a lonely old woman, reminiscent of my former mother-in-law. I didn’t actually describe her as such. It just helps me to get a fix on a character, especially when I’m fumbling my way through an early draft trying to put disparate pieces and ideas together. I thought, what if this woman was the daughter of the man who lived in the adjacent property, someone who would help to dig the graves, and what if she were blind?

“What-if” questions, by the way, are a great way to get the creative juices flowing. So I tried to picture this woman sitting at her mother’s grave, running her hands over the coarse minaret headstone, wondering why her own mother had to die so she could be born.

To make this story effective I had to rely heavily on sensory details. Since I had no other characters other than her father in flashbacks, I had to put myself in Matemah’s shoes, imagining I was old and blind, and all I had to work with was what I heard, smelled, felt and tasted – plus the cemetery and the nearby river, which I could hear only if I came closer to it. Or was that my imagination giving me an idea, a possible ending, too, rare for me. The story itself, through the writing process, usually dictates an ending, which is often revealed at the last moment as I work my way through the story. But this idea stuck – and it gave me a goal to work toward.

“The Stare” was the second story from Lovers and Strangers Revisited published (though the fourth one written), back in 1986 after it won a consolation prize in The Star/Nestle contest and appeared in The Star. It's also the only story that I wrote that got published the very same year that I wrote it. Despite being published three times I was talked into leaving it out of the original Lovers and Strangers collection by an editor in favor of a new story, “Moments”. Later in 2005, while revisiting the stories, I had assumed all along that “The Stare” was in the collection, so I ended up dropping “Moments” and putting back “The Stare” as I had originally planned.

In the early versions, the main character was named Rubiah, but after consulting with a proofreader before sending it in for the Silverfish collection, the proofreader felt the name wasn’t appropriate (either it wasn’t pure Malay or it was too modern); she felt an older, more traditional name would be better. After giving me several options to choose from, I settled on Matemah because of how it sounded. This was critical to the ending of the story.

The arrangement of the paragraphs had always troubled me. Maybe it was because I was jumping back and forth to various flashbacks. Either way, it was affecting the flow, as well as the pacing, of the story. I needed to move the present action of the story along and get to the actual stare in the story and Matemah’s reaction to it sooner, to help break up all the flashback and backstory that this story required.

I didn’t notice until after I began to re-edit the stories for the MPH collection that something wasn’t right in the Silverfish version of Lovers and Strangers Revisited. Several paragraphs that were supposed to have been shifted a lot sooner, didn’t get moved. This was an oversight by the publisher, but admittedly this was a late change in the proofs, which I got while I was on vacation in the US. We were rushing to get the stories out in time so they could be used at USM where the collection was being taught (and we had to beat the Chinese New Year when everything shuts down in Malaysia for two weeks).

I then reversed paragraphs three and four so it would be a better transition for these now shifted paragraphs and smoothed out the rest of the transitions, too. Some writers actually use scissors and cut out all the paragraphs in strips to try and find the most effective arrangement. That never made much sense to me until I came to “The Stare.”

Lovers and Strangers Revisited is now getting translated into French as Trois autres Malaisie.

*Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

**Here the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and for Trois autres Malaisie.

Here are three reviews of Lovers and Strangers Revisited: The Star (MPH), The Expat (Silverfish), and NST (Silverfish) and a link to the other story behind the stories for Lovers and Strangers Revisited.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Star, 30 November 2008

Personal and real
By DAPHNE LEE

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.

Like Hall, whose Mutiny 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 (theliteraryreview.org), The London Magazine (thelondonmagazine.net), and Readers Digest (rdasia.com).

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, 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 as 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 US novel has more potential worldwide. For my US based novels I’m looking to the US or UK.

“Right now everything is on hold because I’ve recently decided to expand a novel that’s done well in two contests in the US 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, things are starting to change.

“MPH 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 next year.
To find out more about Raymer visit his blog, borneoexpatwriter.blogspot.com.


The publishing path

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 (silverfishbooks.com) 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 agreed to publish it, so we now have this further revised edition of Lovers and Strangers Revisted with an additional two stories, Only in Malaysia, and Transactions in Thai.


Raymer’s reads (books that have influenced him)

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 hard-working!”

*Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

**Here the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and for Trois autres Malaisie.