Thor Kah Hong's column in yesterday's Star interested me. It's about time someone wrote about Peter Ho Davies in the local papers! He's a superb short story writer for a start. He was acknowledged by Granta magazine as one of the best young British novelists in 2003. His work appeared in the 1995, 1996 and 2001 editions of Best American Short Stories and the 1998 O. Henry Awards. And he has a strong Malaysian connection - his mother is Malaysian-Chinese, and apparently Ho Davies also worked here.
I bought his collection of The Ugliest House in the World (which won PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen and the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize) when it first hit the bookshops. There was the immediate rush of pleasure at discovering it contained a couple of stories set in Malaysia. And I enjoyed the whole collection very much indeed. In the beautifully surreal Buoyancy, a boy remembers his grandfather who drowned himself in the water jar in the back garden. And then there's the last story in the collection The Silver Screen, set in Brickfields during The Emergency.
This is what Thor had to say about it:
"The last story, The Silver Screen, (first published in Harvard Review and The Best American Short Stories 1996) was the one that gave me a few problems in the reading.
It raised all kinds of thoughts and questions about the imagination and creative licence. In the preceding page of “Acknowledgments”, Ho Davies credits Noel Barber’s The War of the Running Dogs as a particularly valuable source of historical information and notes: “Any inaccuracies are my responsibility, as, of course, are the occasional historical liberties I’ve taken.”
Log on to the website www.contemporarywriters.com set up by The British Council, and in the essay/comment on Peter Ho Davies, one is told that here is a writer who is “completely convincing” with “an exhilarating and vivid attention to detail”.
Therein lies my problem. In The Silver Screen he is not “convincing” because the “historical liberties” were more than “occasional”. I couldn’t have a smooth read because I kept stopping in irritation every time I came across inaccurate or risible details of a country, a neighbourhood, a time I lived through/in.
Starting with the first paragraph:
“From the end of the Second World War until the outbreak of the insurgency in 1948, the fourteenth Kuala Lumpur branch of the Malayan Communist party held its meetings at the Savoy Cinema on Brickfields Street.”
(I’d better establish my credentials. The first 23 years of my life were spent in Brickfields, 1950-1973. I have written, had published, and have performed on various stages several pieces entitled Brickfields Now and Then about growing up in Malaya in the 1950s.)
Brickfields Road instead of Street, the Lido cinema instead of the Savoy. Just names. I had no problem with that. And fiction can accommodate “the fourteenth KL branch of the Communist Party”.
My uneasiness first surfaced when I read that the “Savoy was an open-air cinema – four high walls with no roof and a huge canvas screen stretched out against the night sky.” Such alfresco entertainment was available in many parts of the country during that time, but the Lido had a roof and “first-class” seats upstairs. Inadequate research or someone patronising quaint primitives for foreign readers?
I’ll resist listing all the nits I picked out, just a couple of the more obvious howlers that stood out. In a propaganda leaflet dropped into the jungle to tempt the starving commies to surrender there is a photograph showing “dishes of chicken’s feet, fish-head curry, clay-pot bean-curd, prawns with asparagus, char-siu pork, and lemon chicken”.
Ho Davies may have tucked into this feast in some Chinese restaurant in Britain or when he was working in Malaysia and Singapore, but in Malaya in the 1950s? Asparagus? Ha! Chicken’s feet? Yeah, everybody knows the Chinese will eat anything. Fish-head curry and lemon chicken?
And it must have seemed reasonable for Ho Davies to have two of his characters, with practically no food and no equipment other than a rifle, wander in the jungle for almost two weeks and find themselves 200 miles from where they started.
Anyone who has ventured into the Malaysian jungle will know what an awesome feat that is. Excuse me, Mr Ho Davies, this is not Sherwood Forest.
Am I being unfair? Not seeing the forest for the trees? What about the story? The colourful characters? The prizes and the glowing endorsement by writers such as Gish Jen and Lee Chang-rae (whose works I enjoy reading)?
This is one time I feel the owning up to creative liberties and the possibility of inaccuracies does not absolve the writer of the charge of mining a vein of exotic sensations."
I hadn't noticed the factual errors in this story myself, but bow to Thor's knowledge of Brickfields and the '50's.
But I think the point that Thor is making here is an extremely important one. No matter how good the writing, the credibility of a story is destroyed whenever readers spot errors of fact.
Fiction is fiction is fiction, and writers will invent characters and places and events. That's fine. Every reader will respect that.
BUT, once you begin to draw on the "real world" a writer owes it his readers to get the details (historical, sociological, geographical, numismatic, ornithological - whatever!) right. (I've discussed this issue before, still feel strongly about it.)
I think it's laziness not to do so!