Eric's given me the green-light to put up this interview with Preeta which appears both in the most recent issue of MPH's Quill and the special Ubud edition. I've split it into two parts because it is rather long and will post the second tomorrow. Enjoy!
When did you first decide that you wanted to be a writer? Was it something that you had always set your heart on?
I always loved writing; I remember making up little stories and writing them down from the time I could write full sentences. In Standard Three I wrote a tragic, multi-generational saga about a family of cockroaches in a notebook which is now, thankfully, missing. But when I decided I wanted to be a writer -- that’s a much tougher question. My parents encouraged us to pursue a variety of interests, but in their thoughts on career choices they were quite traditional and conservative. I think this reflects Malaysian society in general, especially as it was in the ‘80s, so I didn’t think of writing as something that real people could actually choose to do as a career. Being an author was, you know, for dead people, or white people, or (ideally) for dead white people. So I tried a number of other things (while continually fantasizing about being a writer) and went through a period of disaffectation before I decided, in the winter of 1999, that I was going to finish a novel and try to get it published, and see where that took me. I was at the time enrolled in a PhD. program in musicology; a few years after that, when the novel was going well and I was getting a lot of positive feedback, I decided to leave and Become A Writer.
You dedicate the novel to your parents and brothers who you say taught you that words matter. How exactly was that love of words fostered during your childhood?
My mother taught us to read when we were very young, and books and language were always accorded great respect in our house. While my father was teaching, he would bring home a fresh batch of books from his school library every week, and this was understood by all of us to be the finest of treats. There were books everywhere, and books were an expense my parents never questioned, even though we were not rich by any means. Even now, when I’m browsing in a bookshop in KL with my mother and I stop myself from splurging on hardcover books, my mother protests, “But it’s books, what!” As a child I was encouraged not only to entertain and better myself with books, but -- and I think this is crucial -- to seek solace from them. This is what I mean when I talk about words mattering: the understanding that beautiful language, in and of itself, is fundamentally good for the spirit. I’m grateful for being allowed to discover that at a very early age.
You decided to do an Master of Fine Arts degree (MFA) in Creative Writing. One criticism of creative writing courses that I’ve heard repeated is that they push authors to write in particular way. Did you find this?
No, absolutely not. I’m not sure if that might have been true in the 1970s; it isn’t true now, of any good creative writing program. The programs I know about do not even try to “teach” people how to write; they select students who already can write, who have strong, distinct voices and a demonstrated commitment to their art. They merely help you do the best writing you want to do, as you define it, and they do this primarily by asking questions and getting you to think deeply about your own writing.
How did the course actually help you? Is it a path that you would recommend to other people who want to write?
Getting my MFA was immensely helpful in three ways: 1) it gave me the time and money to concentrate on my writing for two years, and this, when you think about it, is a pretty substantial statement of validation for an emerging writer: We think you’re good enough to make it, so we’re going to pay you to come here and write for two years; 2) It introduced me to some amazing, generous mentors who had been writing for longer than I had, and who therefore gave me lots of new ways to think about writing and the writing life; 3) It introduced me to some truly gifted writers of my own generation. The connections I made in the MFA program will last my whole life; we still read each other’s drafts, discuss what we’re reading, and encourage each other. This kind of community of writers is possible to forge outside an MFA program, of course, but it’s more difficult. So my answer to “should others go?” is a resounding yes: if you can get into a good creative writing course with significant financial aid.
What was your starting point for Evening is The Whole Day?
I began with the idea of these two sisters, one in America and one left behind; and with the image of a skinny young servant girl, accused of a crime, friendless and confused. I’ve always been interested in the place of live-in servants in their employers’ households. In many cases the relationship is a basically feudal one that persists in affluent, apparently Westernised societies. I wanted to get to the heart of such a relationship, to the precariousness of a servant’s place in the household and to her employers’ constant justification and willful blindness.
Those were two separate ideas in the very beginning, but they quickly came together, and I can’t quite explain how; the more I thought about these three characters, the more the parallels and the links revealed themselves.
The novel is about the secrets and betrayals in an Indian family living in Ipoh. How far is the family based on your own?
Not far at all. I have two siblings and we lived in Ipoh. That’s about the extent of the similarity. The plot is entirely invented; we never had servants, and my parents are nothing like the parents in the book. We had a lot less money and a completely different lifestyle. Some of the minor characters are amalgamations or modifications of people I came across or heard about in real life -- Malaysian readers will recognise some familiar elements in the murder trials scattered throughout the main narrative, for example, but even in these cases I’ve invented more than I’ve preserved. There isn’t a novelist on earth who doesn’t draw from his or her environment in this way, and no one in their right mind would argue that it counts as autobiography. A few material objects are taken from my own life, because, for some reason, I have very strong memories of material objects. The red Formica table, the green PVC settee, and the grandmother’s rattan chair are all real objects from my childhood, though not all belonged to my immediate family. There is a lot of emotional truth in the book, of course -- this, again, is true of all novels -- and I think the material objects helped me to access that emotional truth, if that makes sense. I’ve felt the father’s resentment at the political situation (though I wasn’t born early enough to experience the disappointments of the immediate post-independence era) and the mother’s anomie, and at various moments in the narrative I found myself identifying with one or the other child.
Which of the characters do you most identify with? You seem closest to the youngest daughter, Aasha at times, yet Uma’s story surely reflects your own to a great extent as she’s the gifted child who leaves Ipoh to go and study in the US.
Much of Uma’s story reflects the stories of many smart children from middle- and upper-middle-class Malaysian families; I do identify with her to some extent, but if I had to pick one character, it would be Aasha. Like her, I was much more of a watcher than a talker, and though I never had to keep such momentous secrets as she does, I did occasionally feel responsible for protecting the adults around me from what I knew or thought I knew -- again, in my case, this was more often a consequence of my personality than a reflection of reality. The perception of responsibility, in other words, was usually inaccurate, while for Aasha it is quite accurate. Popular rhetoric depicts children as trusting creatures who vociferously announce all their needs and desires; yet having been a deeply distrustful, secretive child myself, I wanted to speak for, even to defend, such children. Many of my favourite novels are about children who have too much knowledge (and/or who end up making terrible, irreversible choices): Waterland, The God of Small Things, Atonement, The Go-Between, The Story of Lucy Gault.