In her debut novel, Preeta Samarasan tells the story of both one ethnic Indian family and the whole country of Malaysia, reminding us that History is the individual people it happens to. This is a tale of layered mysteries and secrets, of misunderstandings and the assignations of blame — among family members in a divided house, and between Malay, Indian, and Chinese citizens in a country where race determines a person’s legal rights and social identity. It’s 1980 in Ipoh town, and the prosperous Rajasekharan family (Appa, Amma, and children Uma, Suresh, and Aasha) is forever changed when grandmother Paati cracks her skull in the bath and dies. Was she pushed, and if so, who did it? What did six-year-old Aasha see? As in Ian McEwan’s Atonement and William Trevor’s The Story of Lucy Gault, a child makes a terrible, irreversible mistake in the name of love. The effect is exhilarating: we love and sympathize with lonely imaginative little Aasha, even as we recoil from what she sets into motion. Chellam, the family’s eighteen-year-old servant girl, is blamed and dismissed the same week that Uma, their oldest daughter, leaves for college in America. Meanwhile, Appa (the father) is prosecuting — in a highly publicized, racially charged trial — a Malay defendant who might have been scapegoated for the rape and murder of a Chinese girl. (You can read my full and glowing Amazon review/summary HERE.)
This interview was conducted over a series of Facebook chats between May and July of 2008.
ANNE: Why do you write fiction, rather than nonfiction or poetry?
PREETA: I used to write poetry, but it was awful. I guess the answer lies in why it was awful: I think I see the world in big swathes of time rather than small moments. I do still sometimes write nonfiction, and I want to do a lot more of it, particularly about Malaysian politics. But it’s true that fiction comes to me most easily. And I think it’s because I really like narrative — I make narrative even when there isn’t any.
The kinds of connections that poets make between microscopic observations and larger truths just don’t come easily to me. I am always impressed by them, but I never would’ve thought to make those connections myself.
And yet you do make these observations, I think, within your fiction.
Your language is poetical, certainly.
I guess I do, and in fact one critic who *didn’t* like my book objected that it was microscopically focused, which, when I think about it, is somewhat true. The other thing, though, is that stylistically speaking I’m a bit of a maximalist, and poetry doesn’t lend itself to maximalism.
What has it been like, as a debut novelist (and a book reviewer), to read reviews of your book?
Hmm…. I hope this will change, but at the moment I read all the reviews. And I do take them to heart: the good ones really make my day (or week), and the bad ones make me feel that I should stop writing and become a receptionist. There have been a few reviews that I felt *really* understood what the book was about — not just generalised praise, not just things that everyone would notice, but really smart observations. And whenever I come across one of those, it makes all the bad reviews worth it. So for now, I’ll keep reading.
What do you think makes a good book review? By good, I mean well-written and useful to you as a writer who reads.
I think a good review gets to the heart of the writer’s intentions. Whether the reviewer *likes* those intentions or not, he or she understands them. And as a reader, if I can read a review and have an idea of the intentions and the style (I think a good review should include a few striking examples of stylistic elements), I come away with an idea of whether I would get something out of the reading experience or not.
What books and authors influence(d) you as a writer?
Graham Swift’s Waterland for its ideas about Time and History — the idea, particularly, that History consists of individual people’s lives, and that all it is ultimately is a manifestation of our human desire to know why things happen, to always be asking Why, why, why — that question fuelled so much by regret — and to be constantly wondering how far back we’d have to go to “fix” things.
And Dickens’ Bleak House for its preoccupation with class and justice, as well as its narrative style. I love that big 19th-century narrator, the unapologetic prolixity, the somewhat formal, yet playful, diction.
I think Midnight’s Children was also a big influence. I wanted to write a Midnight’s Children for Malaysia — yet I wanted also to make a book that was in some ways more *female* than Rushdie’s. I think Midnight’s Children is a pretty male book. Ultimately it’s so much about the political message, more than about character — so much of it becomes allegory. Brilliant allegory, but still allegory.
Evening is the Whole Day has that wonderful, BIG narrator like Rushdie’s. Would you describe the point-of-view as omniscient? How would you characterize the narrator? Is it, say, female?
I don’t think of the narrator as female, necessarily. But I do think the narrator of Midnight’s Children distances his characters a bit — looks at them from a distance — in a way that could be interpreted as “male.” Whereas my narrator sits on their shoulders. In that sense the reviewer who noted a “microscopic focus” was right — my narrator is a bit more gossipy, like an Austen narrator. Maybe my narrator is a gay man! I like that, actually.
Returning to the question of this book’s value as Fiction, what can a novel about a specific family in Malaysia do that a larger history of Malaysia cannot?
I guess this all ties in to my conception of history. There’s that quote by John Berger that everyone keeps bringing up nowadays, and that Arundhati Roy used as an epigraph: “Never again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one.”
Malaysian history is so hybrid, so vexed, so different depending on whom you ask, that to me the *only* way to reveal that history is through individual lives. A Malaysian Indian family will have experienced a different Malaysian history than a Malay family or a Malaysian Chinese family.
Anyway, that’s the whole purpose of fiction: to tell the big story through small stories. And that’s what I love about it. The whole thing, all of fiction since the beginning of time, has been an effort to show that History is about real people.
Do you hope that people reading your novel will be tempted to read more about Malaysia — and more of its literature?
Yes! I think the West knows woefully little about Malaysia, and it is a fascinating place.
Can you recommend some fiction and/or nonfiction books for these readers?
I think people would be shocked and fascinated and horrified to know more about the political system — which is apartheid under a different name — and everything that festers under our tourist-brochure-perfect facade. Here is some excellent fiction:
The Long Day Wanes (also known as The Malayan Trilogy) by Anthony Burgess; The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng; any of K.S. Maniam’s short stories.
For nonfiction, there is so much great work going on now. I recommend a website called The Other Malaysia www.othermalaysia.org — full of excellent essays; the book Shape of a Pocket by Jacqueline Ann Surin (available only online or in Malaysia); and New Malaysian Essays (two volumes out so far) edited by Amir Muhammad.
Amir Muhammad also makes great short films and documentaries, which anyone interested in Malaysia should see if they ever have the opportunity.
Thanks for all of the great recommendations. I want to ask you some writerly craftish questions, too. How did you determine the novel’s structure, and in what order did you write it? What would be lost if you told the story in chronological order?
It took me a long time to realise I wanted to tell most of the story backwards. I started it in all sorts of different places, but always I found myself flashing forward to the “end” — to what happens to Chellam — so that the reader would know the Grave Consequences of every little event. Those flash-forwards got to be so annoying and heavy-handed that eventually — especially after I read Waterland — I realise that what I had to do was to literally enact that “why, why, why” — to backtrack. I interspersed the first few chapters with necessary backstory — there used to be a lot more backstory, but I took it out so that what is left is basically the backwards story of one year. One chapter, as you know, is pulled out of order and put at the end. For the same reason. I guess I tried to put everything where I thought it would have the most weight. I hope the end result of this structure is that the seemingly trivial/happy things that take place at the beginning of that year (1979-1980) feel poignant/tragic. I’d also admired other stories that played with “normal” emotional trajectories in that way. Like The God of Small Things does with its “happy” final chapter — you already know what happens to the lovers — and like Atonement does (you either love or hate that ending, but you can’t deny that it comes like a punch in the gut).
I guess I don’t mean “normal,” just the emotional trajectory that the reader comes to expect through the course of the novel.
You worked on the novel for nine years. What stayed constant throughout? You’ve told me before that you actually originally began with a scene in upstate New York of Uma at college — a scene which is now no longer within the book’s narrative. Why did you decide to cut out the “post-Malaysia” portion of the book? A related question — do you see the book as more one character’s story than any of the others? Was it more Uma’s story at first, and then it grew to be the whole family’s?
There was never really a *substantial* post-Malaysia section. When I first started the novel, I had a few scenes with Uma in the US, making friends and living her life.
But I very quickly found I couldn’t write about America. The writing sounded so fake and clichéd, like, well, a foreigner trying to mimic American-ness. Every little gesture or line of dialogue felt mannered. So I knew I couldn’t write that whole storyline — though one scene, of Uma in her dorm-room, remained until close to the end.
I cut it because in the end, I decided I wanted the emphasis to remain on those who were left behind (most notably Aasha) — I didn’t want to detract from that. A lot of reviewers see the book as mostly Aasha’s story. Aasha is definitely the character to whom I feel the most allegiance, because she and I share many traits. She is basically the childhood Preeta thrown into a situation I never experienced. The situation is made up; the character is almost me. But I don’t think of the whole novel as *her* story. In fact I often find myself thinking of it as Appa’s story. The story of his disenchantment and apathy — which is the story of middle-class Malaysian Indians. In a way, it’s his disillusionment that is the catalyst for everything else that happens in the book. It’s a book about what one person’s disappointment can do to a family.
What do you think happens to Uma in America? Or is this a “Is Dumbledore gay?” question?
Uma…If I had to say *something,* I would say that she doesn’t live out Appa’s dreams for her. In fact, of course, I’m not even sure he believes himself when he outlines his dreams at the end. So I don’t think she totally escapes her past to become a rich and successful American. And I even wonder how fiercely she pursues her acting dream. Sadly, I think she ends up not wanting anything badly enough in the end. I picture her settling into her own kind of apathy/anomie—like her father. They are very alike, in some ways.
I found Aasha to be the book’s most emotionally compelling and sympathetic character. In a way, you could see it all as her story since everyone older than her impacts her life, and it’s largely her powerlessness that forces her hand (or seems to) when she tells what she saw. And yes, I can also see it as Appa’s story, and yet he’s blind to so much of what happens in the domestic sphere. Some reviewers have assumed that the novel is largely autobiographical, but your family was very different from the one who live in the Big House. Would you say in part that a fascination with servants (which your family didn’t have) inspired Chellam’s character?
Yes, my family was very different in all the concrete aspects: our financial circumstances, my parents’ level of education (my father certainly didn’t go to Oxford), my relationship with my brothers (my oldest brother did go to America, but he was nothing like Uma while he lived at home; he was very involved in my upbringing).
But as with all fiction, there are elements of emotional truth in the novel. My father was never involved in politics, but he was and still is deeply betrayed by the direction in which Malaysia moved after independence.
In what ways is the book’s Chellam’s story?
I think in as much as the book is about class—which is quite a bit—it’s Chellam’s story. For some of the same reasons that it’s Aasha’s story: because she is powerless, and other people’s decisions have such a huge impact on her. Everyone else determines her destiny more than she does herself. Within the context of the Big House, Chellam is at the other end of the spectrum from Appa, in terms of power. Though I hope the book shows that even Appa is powerless in the end. Another way in which it’s Chellam’s story is that she comes to the Big House with so much hope. She thinks it’s *all* going to be her story, she thinks this is the beginning of her life. So it’s the story of how wrong she is.
Of course you could also say that about Appa (about hope and big dreams).
Would you say this book is about all of the characters’ disappointments intersecting?
Yes, exactly. Everyone is disappointed and everyone is powerless in a key way, from Amma and Paati to Chellam and Aasha—to Appa. Disappointments that stem from race, gender, and class.
What do you make of it when American readers call characters unsympathetic? What does that mean? Do you find any of your characters to be unsympathetic? Or are the readers just unsympathetic??
Oh, man. I don’t know what to make of it, in any situation, about any book, not just mine,
because “unsympathetic” is just not a word that occurs to me when I read fiction. Some protagonists *are* questionable people, but what does that have to do with whether the book is good or bad?!? I mean, look at Lolita!
The point of fiction is to humanize even the “monster.”
And no, I don’t find any of my characters unsympathetic.
What are you working on now? As a huge fan of your stories, I’m crossing my fingers for a collection.
I’m working on another novel, though not very consistently at the moment — it’s hard to work on a bigger project this year with so many interruptions for promoting this first book. So in the meantime, I’m working on stories and essays. I can say a little bit about each of these projects:
1) The novel is set in Malaysia, and covers some of the same political territory as the first one, with totally different characters. I *think* I would like to keep exploring these same political events — particularly the 1969 riots — for a while, from different points of view, because they’ve been so little written about and I like the idea of a kind of loose trilogy treating different characters’ responses to the same events.
2) the short stories: I’ve got one in the current issue of A Public Space. And two stories are publishing later this year in a Malaysian anthology. Another will post on Five Chapters soon. I don’t know about a collection yet. I’ve thought about it, but I’m wary of putting together the kind of collection in which one or two stories are excellent and others feel disconnected, like filler, so I’m hesitating…
3) the essays: It’s occurred to me in the last few years that the rest of the world really knows nothing about the political situation in Malaysia. People are always surprised when I tell them: yes, our constitution stipulates that the Malays are the Master Race, and yes, my family are still considered immigrants even though we’ve lived there for more than 100 years. Even families who have lived on the Malay peninsula for 500 years are “immigrants.”
Even the book jacket copy refers to them as an “immigrant Indian family” doesn’t it?
Yes, the book jacket does. So I’d like to get more of this out to an international audience, in a more straightforward/immediate way than my fiction can.
I have one more question: If Evening is the Whole Day was made into a movie, who would you want to direct it, and is there anyone you know you’d like to see star in it?
What a great question (movie)! And a hard, hard question. I can’t see any of the roles being played by non-Malaysians. I may be foolish — maybe it’s possible. I would love for someone like Amir Muhammad (the Malaysian director I mentioned above) to direct it, but he doesn’t currently do feature films. Of course, I would kill for Wong Kar Wei to do it! In my dreams!
Wong Kar Wai would do wonderful things with the post-coital eating-chicken-in-bed memories.
Indeed! I love Wong Kar Wai because he does place without doing Exotic. He really captures the sense of a place, but it’s not all superfluous local colour.
I just think it would be so interesting to see how a director would interpret your book.
Naturally I’ve thought about it, but—partly, I suppose, because I don’t know anything about making films—I wonder how one would get around the structure. Would it be told backwards, like the book?
Film can be a great medium for moving around in time. And between perspectives/realities – think of 2046 and the Chung King Express. Wong Kar Wai is especially good at symbol, too, at repeating imagesand connecting them, which not all film directors are good at, but which you’d miss in an adaptation from novel to screen if it weren’t there. I can see him loving the Uncle Ballroom scenes. And the way he could show Aasha’s perspective.
In the Mood For Love is still my favorite…partly because it reminds me so much of my parents — they were young and newly married in exactly that time period, and the settings are somewhat similar — Hong Kong then seems to have looked a lot like Malaysia. And my father still has Tony Leung’s hairstyle.
And despite its eviscerating sadness, there are moments of such wonderful humor in In the Mood for Love.
Which do you think are the funny moments?
His friend (Tony Leung’s friend, the bald one), is hilarious. And when they get stuck in her apartment all night because the neighbors’ mahjong game goes on and on.
Ah, yes. I’d forgotten about Ah Ping—and the never-ending game. I asked about humour because I’ve been thinking about it lately. When I was working on my book, I was quite adamant that it wasn’t funny. I made a point of telling people it wasn’t funny. But now I think some of it *is* funny, despite my best intentions.
I used to think I didn’t want to write funny stuff — and of course it isn’t high comedy.
But now the more I think about it, the more I think I feel the *absence* of comedy in books that are otherwise perfect (to me).
Reading Michael Ondaatje, whom I otherwise love — sometimes I find myself thirsting for humour. And his memoir was quite madly funny in parts — funny in surreal ways. But his fiction isn’t, at least not to me.
The In the Mood for Love neighbors are hilarious and nosy — and yet their nosiness is also very threatening. a thin line between humor and the very worst things. Which is what makes it so good. In your book, too! When writers take any situation too seriously, it drains a little bit of humanity from the characters. I got frustrated with people who didn’t like Life is Beautiful — they were offended that Roberto Begnini…
I know exactly what you’re going to say even though you haven’t typed it yet—and GOD yes, that drove me nuts! That was what MADE the movie!
…is joking around, imitating Hitler, etc. — but that’s what people did. Even when life is at stake, that’s the time when you need humor the most, and he was doing it for his son — keeping them human when they were being treated like animals or dirt.
But back to you, your book, this interview—it’s interesting to me that you didn’t think your book was funny.
I didn’t at first; I do now. The humor wasn’t plotted or expected. And I have to say one more thing about Begnini…it was equally bothersome was when a friend insisted that “Il Monstro” (another Begnini film) was even better because it had all the funny stuff “without the tragedy.” ARGH! That’s what made the movie so good! That mix of humour and tragedy makes everything sharper.
Humor for humor’s sake has its place…but it’s often less interesting and less funny.
And less memorable. Il Monstro wasn’t about the holocaust at all, obviously — it was just Begnini being silly. I can’t even remember the plot. It was totally forgettable.
The humour in Life is Beautiful or In the Mood for Love makes the tragedy sadder, and the tragedy makes the humour somehow funnier. Anne, do you realise that your stories are funny only when you show them to other people, or when you reread?
Both, a little. I think that every time I’m away from them (the stories) for even a few weeks, I forget there was anything funny at all in them. And I rarely put something in them to be ha-ha funny—though sometimes I realize that a certain situation or syntax is funny. And I *want* to be funny; I value it. I just think it’s better if you don’t overthink it. But there’s always a disconnect between the process and how I think of it later.
Yes, I know what you mean! There’s a line in my my wedding night scene that I realised was almost slapstick when I read it aloud for the first time: “Nice big window.” Amma says it as she comes to bed. But I didn’t put it in to be funny.
That line is a guaranteed belly-laugh. I love that you didn’t know it.
It really is the sort of thing nervous women say at home — drawing attention to some trivial external detail to take it away from themselves. I guess it’s not just at home, anyway — lots of people do that. Only maybe not quite so cluelessly. But it’s like you said, you might not write it to be funny, but then it turns out it is, by lucky yet unavoidable accident. As I wrote it, the line felt like exactly what that character would say…it was consistent, true. Later it sounded so dirty! I guess what makes a dirty joke so good is at least one character’s obliviousness, a double entendre, a misunderstanding.
You’re funny. Deal with it. And thank you so much for talking to me at such length about the book.