Monday, August 11, 2008

Pendatang Part 1

My piece of Chiew-Siah Tei appears in this month's edition of Off the Edge where it looks very pretty on the page (left) and is titled Pendatang (Immigrants).

This is a somewhat different earlier version and I am posting it in two parts :
Writing in The Independent last month, critic Salil Tripathy noted the “quiet emergence of new Malaysian writing” naming authors Tash Aw, Rani Manicka, and Tan Twan Eng as being among those who had put the country the world stage. And of course Preeta Samarasan whose first novel Evening is the Whole Day he was reviewing at the time. But barely a month after the launch of Samarasan’s book, we found ourselves cheering for yet another Malaysian author published internationally.

Chiew-Siah Tei won critical acclaim for her novel even before its publication : Little Hut of Leaping Fishes was longlisted for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize last year while still in manuscript form. The book was launched here on June 19th at an event jointly by The British Council and book distributors Pansing, even ahead of its UK launch in early July.

Tei grew up in small-town Tampin, Negri Sembilan, one of seven children in a cramped wooden shop house which housed three generations of the family. Describing herself as a sensitive child she says that she found her escape from the noise and chaos through fiction. The parents of a playmate were teachers and had a house full of books which became her refuge. She most vividly remembers how she devoured the picture books of Hans Anderson stories, most especially The Little Match Girl, as well as Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince.

Her grandfather also fed her imagination with stories about the old days when she used to accompany him for his morning yam cha as his guide after he lost his sight. From him she heard tales of the young Emperor and the Dragon Lady, the Boxers who fought the white men, and of his parents’ journey in Malaya on a fishing boat. It was all material that would resurface in her own work.

“The instinct of story telling came to me very early,” she says, and her early attempts at writing were fostered by a teacher at the local Chinese medium school she attended. “When I was ten years old the teacher began to teach us composition in the Chinese school. I wrote my first one and he liked it and asked me to copy it down on proper paper. Then he sent it to a Chinese newspaper, I think it was Sin Jiew Jit Poh, which at that time had a children’s section, and it was published. He gave me so much encouragement and he began to ask me to write compositions with different titles from other students, so I wrote more. I loved it, and I learned more quickly than other students, and the habit of writing started from there.”

Tei’s Chinese language fiction won a series of awards, including the Hua Zong International Chinese Fiction Award. Now that her first novel is published, will we be seeing translations of those early works? Tei says not. “The prose style would be very different. The essence would be lost, and it would be like writing a new book.”

Tei admits that she is much more widely read in Chinese literature than Western but says that there are two very important authors in her life : “When I finished secondary school the first two books by international writers I read were Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude, both of which, opened her eyes to the possibilities of literature.

Tei studied media at Universiti Sains Malaysia and stayed on to teach. But, she says, she felt there was something missing from her life. Since she had always loved the cinema, and decided to take a degree course in media studies and film at Glasgow University in 1994. She had no scholarship and had to work to support her studies by working part-time, although she says that had supportive friends and family members who also helped her out.

Two years later, a chance participation in BBC Scotland’s Migration screenwriting workshop showed her how her love of both film and creative writing might be integrated, and her film Night Swimmer won the best short film at the Vendome International Film Festival in 2000.

Quite out of the blue one day, she received an email from literary agent Toby Eady of Pan Macmillan after a friend of Tei’s had sent him a copy of her film. He asked her to send him samples of her work for him to read. “At that time I didn’t have anything,” she says “But I began to keep in touch with him.”

In fact Tei says, she initially had the idea for Little Hut of Leaping Fishes as early as 1999, but felt that she couldn’t begin writing it until she felt more confident using the English language. English is her fourth language behind Hokkien, Mandarin and Malay, and even now she finds herself apologizing for not speaking it very well.

When she embarked on a cross disciplinary PhD at Glasgow University in 2002, turned up to class with part of a first draft of Little Hut in her hands. Fellow course mate (and recently published novelist) Rodge Glass writing recently in the Glasgow Herald remembers “a mature, interesting writer who was far ahead of most of us”.

Her professors who included renown Scottish novelists Alasdair Grey and James Kelman, and poet and dramatist Liz Lochhead and Tom Leonard. They gave Tei every encouragement and she says the confidence to move forward with her novel.

Tei says that she sees herself primarily as an artist. “That’s why I like to take up challenges. I like to experiment with form and medium. I’m not satisfied if something is easy.” And when she was commissioned to write a play for the 2005 Edinburgh Festival, she wrote an ambitious piece called Three Thousand Troubled Threads, the title referring to a Chinese phrase uses hair as a metaphor of the difficulties and challengers in life. She says “I tried to put film on stage, but not all people liked that kind of approach”.

If Tei’s first play was not entirely a critical success, her novel struck gold. She sent Eady her finished novel in March last year and was thrilled when he replied four days later “It touched my heart”. Eady immediately became her agent and the novel has also been launched in Australia and the U.K. and is being translated into several languages.
(To be continued)

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