Sunday, June 15, 2008

Shirley's Shawl

Author Shirley Lim was wonderful fun yesterday, as she launched her new book, Princess Shawl, written for women aged :
... from 9-90!
Looking enviably slim and energetic in a floral dress (don't you just love the irrelevant sartorial details?), Lim explained how this was her first experience of writing for children, and described it as her most joyful book.

She was approached to write a children's book by R. Ramachandran, the director of the Singaporean Book Development Council who realised that most of the children's books available in Singapore are published in the West, and she says that being seen for the first time that someone had seen her as a local writer rather than as a "transplanted writer" (she has lived in the US for 40 years) and that touched her in a way she hadn't felt before.

She set out to write the book without any idea about who would publish her, was turned down by publishers including Marshall Cavendish, but at the no point lost faith in the value of her work. In the end Maya Press took the gamble, except, says Lim laughing, it isn't even a gamble because they will lose money on it.

She said that she was retelling a story that had meant a lot to her as a young girl and it took her back to her earliest memories of Malacca (which she jokingly calls "Blackbird Town" because the Singaporeans turn up there singing "Cheap! Cheap!").

She talked about how she used to go up St. Paul's Hill to study, sitting by the open windows in the ruined church to read and study so that there is a great deal of Malacca in herself :
... malacca air, malacca breezes, malacca particles
Pricess Shawl borrows elements of traditional fairytale writing. There is a quest - the child Mei Li is given the quest of rescuing princess Hang Li Po exiled to the island of pulau tikus and unable to come to Malacca to marry the Sultan. And like many children's books, Princess Shawl involves time travel. Lim actually describes the book as a kueh lapis* story because it goes back and forward between layers of time, visiting the time of the Baba-Nyonya's, the Dutch Colonial war, the Portuguese period and the defeat of the Malacca Sultanate, the botton layer of the cake being the C15th.

The character of Great Aunty Mei Li, Lim says was based on the much admired lawyer, P.J. Lim - one of Lim's childhood heroines. The book itself is layered so that there are references in there that an adult reader would appreciate - as Lim puts it, she's smuggled in plenty about the diaspora Chinese. (The book is in the process of being translated into Chinese in Taiwan.)

To write the love story between Princess Hang Li Po and her Sultan, Lim said that she went back to reread Jane Eyre! She also seems to have had delicious fun making the good women get younger, and the bad women get older!

The question time opened into a nice discussion about local children's books (we agreed - too many have beautiful illustrations but the content is very weak indeed), Singapore's generous support for its children's writers, and the origins of Malay legends.

I was intrigued by her attitude to publication: she said that she never worried about whether her work is published or not as long as it is out in the world, and she had a lovely quote from Indian author Shashi Tharoor to show what she means:
I write, as George Bernard Shaw said, for the same reason a cow gives milk: it is inside me, it has got to come out, and in a real sense I would die if I could not.
She talked about writing "heuristically" and her advice to writers :
You learn what you have to say as you write - if you don't surprise yourself, you won't write anything interesting.
We had a nice social time after that. It was nice to meet John of Maya Press and Mr. Law King Hui, the poor organiser of the KL Bookfair who had to change all his banners and posters because of me! (See here and here.) Aiyoh, I felt so shamefaced that I caused so much trouble, but he was astonishingly sanguine about it.

Also had a nice chat to Prof Kayum - am seriously thinking a writing a thesis of some kind on the Malaysian novel. (How long have I been saying that for? My life is full of unrealised projects.)

Had a giggle with Phek Chin and Raman about an entry in the new The Complete Residents' Guide to Kuala Lumpur which describes in Raman, in it's section on bookshops, as the "charismatic" owner of Silverfish. (Not grouchy, huh???)

Then dinner with Daphne and Priya to think up some nice pieces of literary activism and exchange all our gossip.

* A traditional Malacca rice flour cake which is made in layers and very time consuming to produce.
** Actually Tharoor wrongly attributes this - the original quote is from Henry Louis Mencken : his exact words:
I write in order to attain that feeling of tension relieved and function achieved which a cow enjoys on giving milk.
But I think there's something wrong with you as a writer if you don't have that feeling so no wonder others since have appropriated it!


Anonymous said...

Hi Sharon.
The bit about "the much admired lawyer P.J.Lim - one of Lim's childhood heroines". Who is this much admired lawyer? Malaysian?
Could it be P.G. Lim?


bibliobibuli said...

probably is, zahra, wondered why i couldn't find any info! will check it out and change it

Chet said...

It is PG Lim, and there's lots of info on her when you google, including this one:
The woman that is P.G. Lim