Interview: Shi-Li Kow

shih-li2This interview was first published on 11th July, 2014 on the now deleted ‘local’ blog.

Shih-Li Kow is a Malaysian writer published by Silverfish Books. In  2009 her short story anthologyRipples and Other Stories was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.

Previously, Kow’s stories had appeared in News from Home, a collection with two other Silverfish writers Rumaizah Abu Bakar and Chua Kok Yee.

This year, Silverfish published Kow’s first novel, The Sum of Our Follies. In the following Q&A, Kow talks to local about growing up in a small town, what needs to happen for Malaysian fiction to be more widely read, getting edited, and whyFollies isn’t ‘really a novel’.

Daphne Lee (for local): You mentioned that The Sum of Our Follies isn’t really a novel. Why do you feel that way? Admittedly it doesn’t have the usual thee-act structure of most novels … is that the reason you would hesitate to call it that?

Shih-Li Kow: I see Follies sitting mid-way between a collection of short stories and a novel. It has anecdotes that could be expanded into stand-alone stories. If I look at the book as a novel, meaning a work with an all-encompassing, dominant storyline and characters that grow and snowball into a form of resolution at the end, then some of the stories and characters don’t have to be there because they don’t serve that purpose. At the same time, the stories were not written to be extracted per se as short stories and there is continuity of characters and a framework for them. So, it’s an in-between. Perhaps not the best place to be, especially when we all look for categories and word length definitions.

DL: As readers and writers, Malaysians may be said to be too preoccupied with the way the average European and American novel is structured. How do you feel this affects they way we read and write? How does it affect you as a reader and as a writer?

SLK: I feel that’s too general a statement. True, many of us have read more European or American writing than other sources, and all this takes up a big space in the database sitting in our sub-conscious which gets called into action when writing or making comparisons about books. I wouldn’t call it a preoccupation but perhaps it’s like an education, which we have not unlearnt.

However, as I get a little older and a little more aware of how I read and write, I find I am more influenced by real experiences, emotional responses and certain preferences, which have developed over time and less by things like structure. I guess we can only unlearn once we start learning anew.

DL: Do you think of your readers (potential readers) when you write? Who (if anyone) are you hoping to reach with your fiction?

SLK: When writing, I don’t think of potential readers. I almost feel like I should apologise for that but I won’t.

When writing, I think of stuff like my language, my intentions, whether my opinions should be there or not, whether I’ve picked up someone else’s views and how I translated them and to what purpose. It’s inward and exclusive. Occasionally, I think about whether my son would understand the way I see the world if he ever reads my books. That’s about it.

Then comes editing and that’s when I worry about who’s going to read it. But by then, it’s too late to tailor the writing to a particular target audience. So to your question about reach, it’s a shot in the dark.

Talk to a marketer, and they’ll tell you the first rule of the marketing game is to understand the target customer. Unfortunately, I am rather averse to this kind of targeted approach to writing because I already I spend all my time trying to ‘understand the target customer’ in my day job. I like to think that creative fiction is a freer animal, for both writer and reader and I know I can say that only because I don’t write for a living.

DL: Would you ever write so that you meet expectations for exotic Asian fiction? Do you think that, at the moment, it’s the only way for Malaysian fiction to appeal in the West? If so, what do you think has to happen before British and American readers accept Malaysian fiction on its own terms?

SLK: Probably not, because I don’t think I can style my writing to meet a certain set of expectations. I don’t believe it’s the only way, but it does seem like a proven and faster way to get through to a larger segment of Western readers.

For Malaysian writing, I think volume has to happen first before anything else. Volume of books being written, translated and read in all genres. When we have a decent bell curve distribution, then we’ll have books that range from trash to those that will cross shores and last through the ages.

And for volume to happen, we need a much larger pool of people who read and write and produce and make up the industry and push it forward. For that to happen sometime in the future, something drastic needs to happen in the schools soon.

In the shorter term, I don’t see any sudden changes that may bring about wider acceptance of different forms of Malaysian fiction abroad. Breakthroughs will likely be the work of individuals – individual writers who produce perhaps something of exceptional quality or hit a spot with the readership, individual publishers working the scene, individuals who get the marketing right etc.

DL: You live in a city … is that one of the reasons why you chose to write about a remote village? What inspired you to create Lubok Sayong?

SLK: I spent many of my growing up years in small towns. I went to boarding schools in Kulim and Kluang from Form 1 to Form 5, and for another two years for A-levels. This was in the eighties. Kulim and Kluang have changed beyond recognition since.

My parents were from Kulim and moved to KL when they married. My aunt still runs the printing press in there, so some parts are pretty close to home. I do feel that my writing gives me opportunities to record circumstances and bits of Malaysian living that will be lost if we don’t, and because we did not notice them enough to remember.

Rambling on a bit here, but I saw The Journey with my fifteen year old. He has no recollection of Cameron Highlands and we’ve never been very good at keeping up Chinese customs. To him, the wedding scene at the end was authentic because they had mineral water cups on the tables with the red table cloth. I didn’t even notice it but it just goes to show…

DL: How do you think you’d fit into a place like that?

SLK: In my daydreams, I fit in just fine. But I know I’ll want my car, my mamak place within a stone’s throw of a coffee joint which serves cake, preferably in an air-conditioned mall (the weather these days!) that sells pretty things.

The edge of the city sounds like a better fit.

DL: I enjoyed reading about the village and the people who live there, but at times I didn’t quite believe how sophisticated Mary Anne or Beevi sounded. How do you think you fared in creating these characters? What’s your opinion on the way they are and the way they come across to the reader?

I will leave that to the reader to decide.

In the present day, distances are now small, news and opinions travel fast. I feel it may be too simple to assume everyone who lives is a village lacks sophistication or understanding. I’ve met the crassest people right here KL.

Having said that, I got the feeling that Lubok Sayong and everything and everyone connected to it are all part of this fantasy world that might borrow from our reality, but isn’t meant to reflect it exactly. Can you comment on this?

It is fiction, after all. Fiction that is based on a familiar reality that is sometimes absurd enough to be unreal.

DL: There are some who believe that writers should use their work for social and political commentary. What are your thoughts on this. Were certain portions of Follies written to comment on Malaysian politics? Or were they just stories that coincided with real life?

SLK: And some writers should, if that is the nature of their writing and their interest.

The political anecdotes in Follies are there first, as stories and secondly, as a loose form of documentation of popular belief and what caught our imagination then.

DL: Who are your favourite characters in Follies or the ones you enjoyed creating the most, and why?

SLK: I like Ismet. He wasn’t the most dramatic character and he didn’t get a lot of airtime but I liked that despite some grouses, he appreciated what he had and made the most of what came his way. I don’t know anyone like him, and making things up for him to do was fun.

I am also fond of Auyong. Unlike Ismet, Auyong comes from a number of people I know. I think that fondness and familiarity allows a different kind of imagination to go to work.

DL: Have you ever written a friend or relative into a story? What do you think would be more likely to motivate you to do so – hate or love?

Yes, but disguised or amalgamated with other elements. Hate and love are equally interesting, but I find writing out of fondness is easier than writing through hate. I think because the immediacy of negative emotions is lost much faster, so to recall that as a driving factor after the fact is harder.

DL: Can you tell us a little about the writing and editing of this book? I believe you first wrote it as a series of linked short stories? What made you decide not to publish it in that format?

SLK: It started with several short stories. At first, I thought I they would be a collection of short stories set vaguely in one location but two or three of the stories kept getting longer with visits from additional characters. So, I thought I’d limit it to two narrators to keep things sane.

Then, there was more and more stuff in the news that I wanted to write about and it became necessary to have some sort of progression or timeline to keep things together. This led to the framework for the book.

Then, after all that, it seemed too clunky.  Hence, the short chapters.

sum-of-all-folliesDL: What were the main challenges you faced in transforming your book to its present incarnation? Was there anything you had to fight to retain or was reluctant to change about it? In what way, if any, did your editor, help shape the book and make it ready for publication?

SLK: Getting it to the final format took several iterations and every version involved rewriting. Sometimes, it was rewriting from a different POV. Sometimes, it was the order in which people or incidences appeared. This took a lot of time and teeth gritting patience.

I agreed to leave some stuff out and insisted on keeping some, despite my editor’s advice. I think we went through a fairly ordinary process of reasoning and negotiating. I also got feedback about some parts being harder to read than others. That influenced my decision on the chapters.

DL: How do you feel about being edited? What, in you opinion, is the function and purpose of an editor? Have you any thoughts on the way books are edited in Malaysia?

SLK: Being edited is necessary. An editor, I feel, should aim to make a book as readable as it can be while staying true to the author’s intentions, mood and style. That means picking up errors, looking at flow and sequence, and checking for consistency in characters, places and situations. Basically, to suss out the writer’s blind spots to make a better book.

I haven’t had enough experience to comment on editing in Malaysia in general. I believe being edited should be an active stage on the writer’s part, not a passive one. I think writers (who are also readers in their own right) should recognise the quality and limitations of the feedback being given, whether by an editor or someone asked to comment on his/her work.

If the editor is primarily concerned with grammar, say, and not plot, then the writer should be aware of this and be very clear about what he/she has to do. Does he/she get another reader who understands plot or is he confident enough to trust his/her own techniques?

DL: What are you working on now? As you’ve now had the experience of creating a book-length story, do you think you prefer writing short stories or are you looking forward to tackling your next novel?

SLK: For me, everything starts with a short story. I’m working on a couple of short stories and we’ll see what happens in the pot after a bit if stewing.

DL: Have you read any local fiction lately? Any recommendations?

SLK: I’ve been reading some non-fiction. Recently, Balan Moses’ book about Brickfields and Hishamuddin Rais’ Tapai, which is all over the place but quite enjoyable. Also, one of the Noir books (published by Fixi Novo).

Every time I’m asked about local fiction recommendations, I keep going back to Kasut Biru Rubina (by Sufian Abas, published by Sang Freud Press), which I found both entertaining and memorable. I also find the Silverfish New Writing collections contain many stories that have a certain integrity, although not so slickly written and getting a little old now.

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