We often call writing creative, understanding it to be the making of something new, but in truth anything that can be written is never entirely new. Each time I read fiction, the most moving details are those that seem to have arrived from the furthest reaches of memory. We spend our lives forgetting, and when our pasts are summoned back they are even more affecting – they are tender, more intimate.
Summoning pasts can feel like peeling a snake fruit for the first time. The first time I encountered snake fruit was at a market in Jogyakarta, Indonesia, and I could only describe the smell, and then the taste, as like a combination of mangosteen and strawberry, with a hint of ripe mulberry.
While writing we recover memories, recover moods, and we start to interpret them. It is as though a ghostly hand swoops in, concocting things at once familiar and brand new. Nothing can be perfectly duplicated.
Many of the stories in my collection Lake Like a Mirror were inspired by specific objects, such as a chest, a pair of shoes, telephone lines. Sometimes readers expect these kinds of ‘things’ to reveal the essence of a locality, but more often what go into my stories are things that hold memories – of intimacies, of past lives. For example, in ‘The Chest’, a heavy wooden chest is found in a forgotten corner of a shophouse, and this discovery is followed by an attempted burglary dismissed by the police. The police can’t help much with the burglary, and the daughter of the old woman who owns the chest can’t help much with her mother’s loneliness.
I often write of characters in a liminal state. The foreground is blurry, and the story is never complete. My characters are all waiting to do something, or to finish something, in order to finally move on.
In the story ‘Wind Through the Pineapple Leaves, Through the Frangipani’, there is an amphibious character, who first appears to the protagonist, Mei Lan-Aminah, as a kind of saviour, or guide; a possible solution to her predicament. This amphibious character emerges from between the layers of the political-religious narrative, with its unresolved apparitions. They are not a fantastical creature, so much as a product of Mei Lan-Aminah’s thought processes. They are a way for her to reflect on the ambiguity of her unsettling dual identity, as someone with a Chinese father and a Malay mother.
By law, all ethnic Malays in Malaysia must be Muslim, even those with only one Malay parent, and it is very difficult for a Muslim in Malaysia to go against this law and receive permission to leave Islam. Mei Lan-Aminah is imprisoned in an Islamic rehabilitation centre for having attempted to do so, and she often wonders how the issue might be resolved.
Will she have to continue being one way on the surface and another inside, living a kind of double life? What if she doesn’t want to live in hiding anymore? Is there a way she can live freely and completely, without needing to deny any side of her identity? It seems to me that when a person is at their most natural, their identity is never static. We adapt in order to survive, and the boundaries that we might once have thought defined us disintegrate and blend.
Sometimes my stories also contain unreal things, such as the stone in ‘March in a Small Town’. The stone has mysterious river-washed lines on its surface that change over time, like the lines on a palm.
To talk clearly and definitively about something is to impose a kind of restriction on it: to demand that everything can be spoken aloud means all that is buried and vague about an experience is eliminated.
During the writing process, there were things that became clear to me, but there were also things I felt should be expressed without being clearly spoken. In working to reveal subconscious feelings, the stories needed to have space for the parts of life we can’t speak aloud. Can a story brush up against a situation for which there are no words? If so, perhaps we will be able to experience, rather than be told.
Not long ago I was rereading the English version of the story ‘March in a Small Town’. I turned to a page at random. In the scene I landed on, the protagonist, Cui Yi, enters the kitchen, sees her older male cousin and immediately wants to retreat. For some reason, in English the scene feels more drawn out than in Chinese. Reading it was like lifting up a dusty pane of glass and suddenly seeing what lay beneath. The translation seemed to have unlocked the original intention of the piece.
Cui Yi is on holiday from school, she wants to rest, but even around her own cousin she is unable to relax. She doesn’t know what is causing this unease. She is helping in her aunt’s guesthouse, where the same guest keeps checking in and out, but only she seems to notice. Possibly, the guest is her own creation, sprung from her anxiety and the constant rain. And yet he is a real character in the story.
During puberty, a person often feels vague, uncertain emotions around others. Our relationships to other people are often presented as fixed in place, as though adhering to safe, pre-defined models. But this is an illusion. Society attempts to dictate our desires but in the mirror it holds up to us, our reflections are never clear. We hide all kinds of hazy moods; all this anxiety and unease. There are things we simply cannot say, and they slowly accumulate inside our bodies.
And if this is all Cui Yi is capable of feeling, without being fully conscious of it, then the narrator of the story can hardly speak more on her behalf.
While we’re in these states, we can’t yet know the significance of whatever is unfolding and our emotions come in torrents, drenching us like rain.
For Kikuko, the Japanese protagonist of the story ‘October’, her own desires come to be more important to her than those of the men she encounters. This allows her to know herself in a way she never has before, and to seek out sexual experiences that fulfil those desires.
We are so often seeking to define ourselves through our relationships with other people. The respect and kindness that Kikuko receives from a Christian pastor leads her to feel entirely different to her past self. Their interactions awaken her desires, and I see this awakening as a gift: a way to transcend the restrictions imposed by religion.
Literary creation is as uncertain as reading the future from palm lines. But, from among its hundreds of uncertainties, literature provides me with a sense of belonging – not anything so concrete as a house, but something more tender, something like another body. Because what can be written, as well as what cannot be written, must break off, must pause; writing cannot help but be full of cracks. It is not a flawless craft. I write in Chinese, my mother tongue, and yet I often feel that it is a language I will never completely master – even if I switched to writing in another language, I think I would feel the same. As the poet Gu Cheng wrote, with each word we take a bite.
I like the brokenness of things, their vestiges, much more so than some idealised perfection. The residue tells me that something has been here and that it wasn’t fixed in place.
Photograph © Matthew Klein