A shorter version of this interview was first published on 22nd November, 2011 in The Star
WHAT stands out for me when I think of Bernice Chauly’s book Growing Up with Ghosts – A Memoir, is the story of her father’s death. It is where the book begins and Chauly’s dreamlike and poetic description of how her three-year-old self deals with the sudden loss of a beloved parent is, for me, the most heartbreaking and compelling thing in this book.
Later, when introduced to the young Bernard – the curious, adventurous trainee teacher, the passionate young lover, the idealistic newly wed – it is my initial vision of him as a loving, devoted father that fixes my attention and makes me want to learn more about him.
His death affected Chauly powerfully, but it was just one of many losses her extended family had to endure. Deep in the heart of the book is the family curse that Chauly seeks to understand. Its almost gothic details, including a pilgrimage to India to visit an ancient snake temple, imbue the book with a sense of mystery and deep, devastating horror.
In our interview (conducted via email), Chauly said the real reason for writing the book was to find ‘the root of the curse’, and understand why all the men in her family died. ‘I grew up haunted by grief, and my grief became a ghost, I had to confront it and finally let it go, she said.
She went on to say that she used ‘ghosts’ as a metaphor ‘for many things – for untold histories, for the voices who lived through difficult times, who were never heard; for things that scare you, and things that come back to haunt you, for the dead whom I mourned, for the dead that my ancestors mourned, the dead who became ghosts, who were forgotten, who never told their stories and who were never heard, and who never got a chance to exorcise their grief.’
Writing the book, Chauly says, was ‘cathartic in every way’, an exorcism of sorts that allowed her to make peace with the ‘ghosts’ and with herself. The author uses the voices of her grandparents and her parents to tell a story of struggle and of hardship, of hope and of love. Chauly’s own narrative binds the different voices together and represents the link between the past and the present.
How did you decide on the way the book is presented? What was your aim?
I did not want to write it in a straightforward narrative style – meaning one singular narrative throughout, mine – as I felt that this would be too conventional and did not best serve the stories I wanted to tell. I wanted to redefine memoir writing. History needs to be told from many perspectives and I didn’t want to be the sole voice. I needed to be honest to my ancestors, to use their own words, and to re-tell their stories. My Punjabi grandmother was illiterate and my Chinese grandmother could read and write basic Mandarin, the men on the other hand were literate and educated. I wanted to include their voices, their stories. The aim was to have a tapestry of voices, to use existing words that were left behind and to piece together something that was indicative of real people, to celebrate oral history in ways that may challenge the notion of the conventional memoir.
Why did you decide to use original documents – letters from your father to your mother, your mother’s journal, your letters to your mother etc – in the book?
My parents kept everything – photos, letters, cards, clothes, books. A lot of these things I still have, but their letters, journals and scrapbooks are the most precious. My grandfather’s letter is one of my most treasured possessions. As a writer, I appreciate these documents very much. It just seemed to make sense to use them all. This is a work of non-fiction. If I had chosen to write a work of fiction, it would have been a completely different book.
Why didn’t you write about your marriage or the birth of your children?
I saw that as a part of my life that was separate from my personal history, my Self. That those were issues of a different nature, that related to me more as a woman, a mother, a creative person, my personal and politics, someone struggling to find her voice, her art, make sense of the world. I think my poems reflect this more and that is what my poetry is for. This [book] was about me coming to terms about my personal history, of being the product of two distinct cultures, of coming to terms with who I am, first and foremost.
What appeal do you feel the book will have for those who are not part of your family or close friends of the family?
I think it’s a universal story, a search for bloodlines. So many of us come from different places, it’s the search to find roots, one’s place in the larger scheme of things, to acknowledge that we share similar histories, to study the Punjabi and Chinese diasporas and how we came to be where we are. It’s acceptance of who we are, and to not forget where we came from.
What are your plans now that this book has been published? What are you working on at the moment?
I had plans of wanting to adapt it to a one-woman play, to have it staged. The Australian writer/photographer/performer William Yang has done something similar with his own family stories, Silence, which was a multi-media performance with slides and film. It was very inspiring when I was grappling with this work. But I think the weight of the book has now been lifted. I want to let it go and move on. I am currently working on curating a writers festival in Georgetown Penang and doing research for a novel. I have also started work on a new collection of short stories and a collection of poems.