Lim explained that the novel about the three sisters had grown out of a short story (the now much anthologised Mr Tang's Girls) she had written very much earlier in her writing career. (It won the Asiaweek short story prize.) This time though, the girls kill their father in a completely different (and pretty inventive!) way and carry the burden of guilt throughout the novel. Swing is in fact the nickname given to the middle sister, Swee Wing, who is at times moody and contradictory.
Since Sister Swing is a coming-of-age novel and an important part of growing up is becoming sexual, Lim says that she had to find ways of writing about it without being either too graphic or evasive. I thought she'd struck just the right note in the extract she read from the first chapter ... about the girls examining their private parts in the mirror!
The novel also explores racism in the US (Lim's adopted country) which she sees as not just a question of white vs. other, but also other vs. other (for example, the riots in LA pitched Koreans against blacks). Lim describes herself as an "equal opportunity offender", drawing attention to different permutations of prejudice in the novel, which features also a white supremisicist boyfriend.
Lim described how she tried to overcome the problem of giving the three sisters distinctive voices. She has Swee speaking Manglish in the novel which she says is hardly ever represented on the printed page.
(I interject at this point to say that the linguist in me takes issue with the use of the term Manglish to talk about Malaysian English, and it is an issue that I want to return to in another post - especially with reference to how it affects the choices made by Malaysian writers.)
Lim points out that writers from other language backgrounds have taken pride in using dialect forms. (She gives the examples of Derek Walcott and Jamaica Kincaid who both use West Indian patois to great effect in their writing.) She says that she asked herself why she had been afraid of writing in Malaysian English up to that point. (Although when she did include a passage written in Malaysian English in Joss and Gold, a reviewer wrote "this book could have been better edited"!)
She said she asked herself while writing the book:
If I don't try to write in Malaysian English now, then when? And if I don't do it, then who will?Is it a little churlish to point out that Kee Thuan Chye has used it to great effect in his plays and in the extract from his novel in progress (which progresses no further sadly) published in New Writing 10?
She struggled with Swee's voice, rewriting many times. Worried that the Malaysian English might alientate American readers and then worried that when she used Standard English she lost the voice, she eventually struck a compromise between the two. (The Silverfish audience yesterday felt it to be rather too watered down.)
Malaysian writers really do have a struggle to position their writing. Just who are they writing for? (Writers in Britain and the US I think cannot even conceive of this struggle, for obvious reasons.) Lim says that she was intitially targeting the Asian American audience, but as she wroe the book it became more and more Malaysian.
The book is published in Singapore by Marshall-Cavendish and in fact there are problems of distribution in the US. How do local publishers break into the overseas market? (This is a problem that bedevils Raman too.) As Lim says, there is "unadulterated prejudice" against non-American, non-British publishers.
In all, it was a lively event and raised some very pertinent issues for local writers. I was happy to get my copy of Sister Swing signed, and meet up with a ton of friends.
(For another take on the event check out Yvonne's blog - and she has lots more pictures.)