‘As a ‘nice’ Asian woman you don’t write about the body’: Bernice Chauly

By Wasafiri Editor on July 7, 2020 in Articles

Bernice Chauly is a Malaysian novelist, poet, educator and former director of the George Town Literary Festival. She has published seven books of poetry and prose: going there and coming back (1997), The Book of Sins (2008), Lost in KL (2008), the acclaimed memoir Growing Up With Ghosts (2011), Onkalo (2013), her debut novel Once We Were There (2017) and most recently, her fourth poetry collection, Incantations/Incarcerations (2019). For over twenty years she worked as a multi-disciplinary artist and her photographs and films have been exhibited and screened worldwide. She is the founder and director of the KL Writers Workshop (KLWW) and is the first protem President of PEN Malaysia.

Alex Tickell for Wasafiri: Bernice, to start can you tell us something about your background?

Bernice Chauly: As a product of a Punjabi father and a Chinese mother who were both very well educated, and who spoke English at home, I was privileged. They met at the Malayan Teachers’ Training College in Glugor, Penang in 1966. It was love at first sight but of course there was tremendous opposition from both sides of the family. I lost myself in books, which became my refuge after my father’s tragic death in 1973: I lived through and believed in certain characters. I read and daydreamed my way through high school. I knew in my early teens that writing meant something to me. I started thinking maybe I could do this – become a writer. It was only when I went to university in Canada (for four years) – I had a government scholarship to do TESL and English Literature (at that time there was a drive in Malaysia to create a more Anglophone literate society) – and when I was under the tutelage of my creative writing teacher that I started wanting to become a writer.

Do you think cosmopolitanism is a political aspect of your creativity?

Language has always been very political in Malaysia: you either write in English or Malay – it defines you – and I write in both. But I wanted to write Malaysian stories and when I was doing research for my book Growing up with Ghosts I only had two reference points: one was Shirley Geok-lin Lim’s Among the White Moon Faces and the other was Hilary Tham’s Lane With No Name. Both were poets, both were Chinese and both moved to America. Both were writing in exile and both were married to Jewish men. There was nothing in our canon that gave me a visual language of how to write about mixed identity, how to write about ancestry, how to write about diaspora, and I wanted to do it specifically—to write not just in my voice but the voices of my mother, my father, my Punjabi grandfather, my Chinese grandmother (as both her and my Punjabi grandmother were illiterate). In Growing up with Ghosts it was [perhaps] a grandiose idea: I wanted to create this tapestry of two families with multiple voices. It was [originally] going to be a play but then a workshop with the Australian playwright David Pledger convinced me that I had to write it as a memoir. Even before that, as a poet, I wanted to write from the personal and the political because no one was doing it in a way that was real and visceral. I was told many times ‘You can’t write about this, you are an Asian woman, you can’t write about these subjects. Things like grief and divorce and heartbreak are taboo.’ I would go to a [literary] reading and see male poets read, but would rarely see female poets read, so I wanted to create something that was distinctly Malaysian, distinctly female, and honest.

How do readers and students locate your work within a literary genealogy? You talk about there not being precursors or reference points to draw on. For instance, how useful is the term ‘postcolonial’ for you?

The term postcolonial is quite redundant to me—writers like Lloyd Fernando, Shirley Geok-lin Lim and K. S. Maniam needed to engage with those issues in their work as did the writers who wrote in Malay in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, but now there is a huge leap in ideas and language. The word ‘contemporary’ is therefore more relevant as language has to evolve. There has also been a massive development in the diversity and global development of multiple Englishes. We don’t write the way that earlier generation wrote; we can’t be expected to. The poet Wong Phui Nam said several years ago at a literary forum, ‘There are no more Malaysian writers writing in English’, and many were very critical of that statement. So if we conceptualise the postcolonial linguistically – in terms of the divide between a standard English (the ‘Queen’s English’) and what could be considered multiple global Englishes—then the term is reductive.

Reflecting further on the redundancy of the postcolonial, are the kinds of influence completely different now from then?

That is a very complicated question. Many of us do not map [ourselves] against empire any longer as that history and tradition is redundant; but having said that, I’m glad we have that body of literature. The writing that is happening now is very much about the present: we are trying to navigate our way through what it means to be Malaysian and to write our stories from the here and now. The word postcolonial is very much an academic term used to define Malaysian literature of the past [immediately after the end of colonial rule] and not necessarily of the present.

But what is Malaysian identity? The government wants to categorise us and label us to tick the right boxes – Malay, Chinese Indian, Other – and that’s something many of us are trying to get rid of. After all, we are all Malaysian, and we are trying to find an authentic voice and to find it in a way, in a language, that suits us in this combination of so many different influences.

What is South East Asian literature? It’s a lot. It’s Thai, it’s Bahasa Indonesia, Burmese, it’s the creolisation of different languages. It is a very interesting and challenging time to be a writer in South East Asia; there is so much good work that’s coming out of the region. Because of the lack of translation in South East Asia, a lot of us are not reading each other. English, unfortunately, is the lingua franca (it has to be) of the region but there are a great many literary traditions. So South East Asian literature is also a remembering of what was written in the Hikayats of Malay/Jawi narrative traditions and then leapfrogging to the future and trying to make sense of that background, and making sense of the craziness, the volatility that’s happening around the region. There’s a lot of violence in much of the work—reflecting current political regimes. A lot of the work written now is very political.

Could you reflect on who is in the vanguard of Malaysian writing now?

The key contemporary names are of course Tash Aw, Tan Twan Eng, and Preeta Samarasan who are published in the west. Many young Malaysian writers aspire to what they have accomplished, but there are also many who are very critical of their work as they live abroad, and are sometimes viewed as ‘outsiders’.

For me as a writer, I need to be in Kuala Lumpur, I need to have my feet on the ground—and to write from a real place, not an imagined place. Living in Malaysia has its challenges, and I sometimes feel like an exile in my own country, but that’s a reality many of us live with. To answer your question: the journalist Rehman Rashid was important because he wrote about the reality of what was happening in the country, and was also a great journalist (sadly he died recently). And writers like Somerset Maugham I still go back to, alongside Anthony Burgess, Henri Fauconnier – who wrote as a planter in Malaya –and Isabella Bird who wrote The Golden Chersonese. There are quite a few authors writing in Malay and some are really good, but there is a tendency towards genre right now and this is a problem in publishing in Malaysia (what one publisher calls ‘disposable fiction’). This is what a lot of contemporary writing is veering toward now, so very little literary fiction is being produced at the moment, especially in English. That’s a real concern. My own novel is published by Singapore’s Epigram Books for instance. The danger now is that a whole generation of writers and poets who write in English are not going to be heard and read.

Contemporary literature in English also sometimes presents a particular view of Malaysia that caters to Western tastes. Certain subjects sell internationally but others don’t. I had so much initial interest in Once We Were There (2017) but then I encountered resistance and rejection from publishers in the west because of the subject matter and also because of unfamiliarity with the country and its history: some audiences were not really prepared for a Reformasi novel. So there are certain pressures and filters which define what sells.

Have you always felt at home in a range of genres?

I started with poetry, which gave me sense of metre and rhythm and sound—and all the formalities which go with poetry. The memoir was always there. It sort of lived with me for twenty-three years and it eventually all came out after my mother died. So I know poetry and non-fiction were there. I never thought I’d write short stories, but I did after a terrible break-up. But yes, the poetry has always been consistent (my fourth collection Incantations/Incarcerations [was] published in 2019). But the novel, Once We Were There, that was really something I never thought I’d do: the leap from poetry to the novel is a huge transition, it’s a different conspiracy of words. It was the hardest thing to do—and at times it felt like six years of agony. Poetry is so lyrical and personal and in this form [the novel] you have to describe everything, ‘open the door, walk through the door, take your shoes off, walk in, etc.’. I mean that seemed tedious [as part of the creative process].

Other challenges were the plot and narrative but the hardest thing was finding the characters. It was only when I was in my third or fourth draft that I realised that my characters had to be real – they had to be flesh and blood real – I had to imagine them as alive and living in Kuala Lumpur … I talked to them constantly – like a madwoman – I would wish them good morning, I would sort of line them up every night and speak to them. And that’s when the book became completely real.

Where did the idea for your novel come from?

I was part of the Reformasi movement [initiated in 1998 in protest against the then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad]. I was in demonstrations and tear-gassed, so those events were real and the drug scene was an intrinsic part of Kuala Lumpur at the time. What I write about is the time: people were angry and high (it really was like that!) and I knew someday that I would write about it. There were so many extremes. A friend was murdered (she was a casualty of the drug scene). We knew it was going to be historic because [the Deputy Prime Minister] Anwar [Ibrahim] was arrested (I was at his house every night after he had been sacked by Mahathir) and we knew that we were witnessing the birth of something new. So that story stayed with me. Initially I had different versions of the story, and then one stuck.

I was fascinated by the intersections of politics and generational development in the novel – your characters start off very young and idealistic and then become more aligned with (or reliant on) the Establishment as they grow older.

Yes, this is especially the case with Omar because he is Malay and privileged—that is the catch. As you mature, you [sometimes] opt out of the revolution. Coming back to your earlier question, I really wanted to write about Malaysia (and this interest is very apparent in Growing up with Ghosts) and I became obsessed with Kuala Lumpur and its multiple histories and multiple voices. Through the work I was doing with sex-workers and marginalised communities I slowly constructed a world, which was Kuala Lumpur.

I really think do think Kuala Lumpur is one of the most fascinating cities on the planet: then and now. 20 years ago it was different but still highly cosmopolitan and very educated. The ruling class was Oxbridge: men in suits but also shaped by corruption because of privilege and race. People got to where they were because of nepotism and who you knew. There was luck, of course, but few were as lucky as those who were already in line to be part of the new order.

[I should also mention] the shifting perspective. It is a third person narrative with Marina and Omar and then a first person narrative with Del (and Del is also very much part of the city). Readers who are not conversant with the ‘race’ politics of Malaysia may not register this but in Malaysia a number of readers picked up on the fact that Del has no race. [She is not identified with any of the official racial groupings of Malaysian citizenship] and this was a problem with a couple of editors who asked what race she was. I said, ‘she has no race’. The novel is bookended by Anwar’s arrest in 1998 and his first release from prison in 2004, so I had to end with a little bit of optimism, hence the epilogue.

Many critics have suggested that the nation is a constant in so-called postcolonial fiction. Are you building on this metanarrative of nationhood?

I wanted to write about contemporary Malaysia because very few writers do this. The unspoken rule of writing in Malaysia is ‘no sex, no politics, no religion, no race’ but it is all in Once We Were There. You know we have a Sedition Act, right? And all it takes is one person, one person to have an issue with anything at all, and then that’s it.

Is it potentially more dangerous to write in this way in English or in Malay?

It’s safer to write in English as you are addressing a smaller part of the population who are albeit more worldly, educated and aware, but if the work was in Malay, it would reach a larger audience, and could possibly present more problems.

Does this book voice metropolitan experiences in Malaysia that are invisible or proscribed or covered up?

There’s a lot of violence in the book—violence in the sense that is it done to people, to certain individuals, and there is also self-inflicted violence as well. In one scene Marina is raped by a policeman: she is violated and that happens a lot because she is a sex worker, but also because she is a trans person. There is also a lot of human trafficking in Kuala Lumpur—Malaysia is the hub for human traffickers in South East Asia right now. Babies are bought and sold every day under the guise of adoption. The city breeds these realities—so the abduction theme of the novel is entirely true.

Coming back to the theme of child-abduction, how important is theme of physicality and the body in Once We Were There?

The focus on the body was also a way of thinking about violence and the body—in Del’s case it’s how she abuses herself with drugs and alcohol, but [as I was saying earlier] it is also indicative of the physical violence that is prevalent in Kuala Lumpur: there is crime, there is physical abuse and violation. People are violated on an everyday basis, and if you are a migrant worker you are vulnerable to violence, so I wanted to explore that. You read the papers, and there are bodies decapitated and bodies found with amputated limbs, and so [I wanted to reflect on] how the body is treated with such disrespect. That image of the body in the suitcase is [therefore] something many would remember as it relates to a specific case some years ago: the body is treated with such obscenity and disrespect. I wanted to show how as a transgendered sex worker Marina is vulnerable in a very specific way, violated by the police and her clients, but I also wanted to show how she [is fulfilled when] when she gets lucky and meets Mr Ferrari! I also wanted to write about motherhood—about the physicality of pregnancy and childbirth and motherhood. Being a young mother was a tremendously difficult time for me, and when I became a single mother, my life was transformed completely. I had no freedom. Everything was dictated by my children.

Is motherhood as a bodily experience part of that theme?

Yes, yes, I have written about the body quite extensively in my poetry—and again that is a taboo subject. As a ‘nice’ Asian woman you don’t write about the body, you are not supposed to write the body.

There is an interesting mixture in Malaysia where you’re tackling taboo subjects and responding to a wider culture that you feel violates bodies, but in the public discourse there is presumably no space to have those kinds of discussions?

It is interesting because it is often the women who react. I wrote a prose poem in my second collection, The Book of Sins, and it was about when I divorced my first husband – it got violent when the marriage ended – and I wrote this long prose piece which I read at Readings many years ago – and I could see the women in the audience recoiling and then having them come up to me after and ask if it was real and ask me how I could write it. And conversely, when I went to South Africa and read the same piece everyone knew what I was talking about, domestic violence was a language they all understood, they loved the lyricism of the language, the images. Domestic violence is a contentious issue in Malaysia but no one talks about it or writes about it. Again, it’s taboo in so many ways. The body is viewed with so much shame.


Alex Tickell is a literary historian and critic. His research explores colonial and postcolonial South Asian and Southeast Asian anglophone literary cultures, contemporary fiction and conjunctions of writing and politics. His special focus is the work of the Indian author Arundhati Roy, and urban fiction of the so-called ‘New India’. Tickell is sole editor and contributing author on volume 10 of the Oxford History of the Novel in English: The Novel in South and South East Asia since 1945(Oxford University Press, 2019). He is currently involved in researching Chinese and Southeast Asian migrant and diaspora communities in Britain, primarily through a collaborative research project with colleagues at the University of Liverpool, SOAS and Keele University to archive a narrative history of British Chinese writings in English.