An Interview with Malaysian Novelist Chan Ling Yap on her Writing Days & Forthcoming Book, Bitter-Sweet Harvest

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by Susan Abraham


Introduction:

The UK-based Malaysian novelist, Chan Ling Yap will celebrate the release of  her second novel Bitter- Sweet Harvest, to be published by Marshall Cavendish and out in the bookstores  in Asia this autumn. Marking a sequel to an earlier fascinating novel on old Malaya available worldwide and titled, Sweet Offerings,  Bitter-Sweet Harvest by contrast,  offers a unique multicultural flavour as it salutes a promising Malaysian tale that  describes captivating contradictions of culture and religion plotted through an enduring love story. It is expected to be launched in the UK and Europe in early 2012. Sweet Offerings was first published by Indepenpress UK in 2009 and later, Marshall Cavendish in 2011. Both the books stay complete stories in themselves and can be read in any order.

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Something about Chan Ling Yap:

Chan Ling Yap was born and raised in Kuala Lumpur. She later obtained a Phd. in Economics while receiving further education in England. After a stint of having held a lecturing position at the University of Malaya, Chan Ling Yap joined the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome.  She worked for 19 years as a senior commodity expert responsible for rice.  She was Head of the Rice Commodity Group in the Organization and eventually returned to the United Kingdom with her family in 1997.  To find out more about the accomplished writer, you may visit her website and do scroll below for an interview.

A newspaper interview with Chan Ling Yap may be found in The Star, Malaysia while a short magazine one may be found in   Her World Malaysia Recently, Malaysian booksellers Popular nominated Sweet Offerings for the Readers’ Choice Awards.

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Upcoming Author Event: Chan Ling Yap to Speak at at the Thame Arts and Literature Festival, UK on 14th October 2011.

Thanks to the overwhelming popularity of the novelist’s first expansive novel Sweet Offerings from where she recited with exquisite, meticulous flair,  the  tale of an impoverished young maiden who leaves her rural village to work for an overbearing tyrannical matriach in Kuala Lumpur, Chan Ling will be a guest speaker at the Thame Arts and Literature Festival (TAL) at 11.00 am on 14th October,  in the upper gallery of the Thame Library, North Street, Thame in Oxfordshire, OX9 3BH, UK, as part of the First Novelist Panel for the TALExtra Festival Fringe.  Chan Ling will share her morning with another debut novelist, Angie Voluti and in this free event organised by the Oxfordshire library for the TAL, the novelist will talk about her newest atmospheric fare, Bitter-Sweet Harvest.

Chan Ling was also invited recently together with novelist Priya Basil to speak to budding novelists at a VAANI (for Asian Women Writers & Artists) event on a theme called, Love, Pain and Cheats. Both pulled the enjoyable event off like a dream.
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In This Rare Detailed Interview, I Speak to Chan Ling Yap About Her Writing Life

What are your feelings in general about speaking at the Thame Festival?

“I am absolutely delighted to have the opportunity to do so. I was told that Sweet Offerings is a ‘constantly borrowed’ book, so I expect that, in addition to those that have not read the book, I will be able to meet many who have read it. Having direct feedback from readers, is very important to me. I am an avid reader myself and I know that when I am involved with the characters in the story, my enjoyment of it is more intense. So I look forward, with some trepidation, to see if I have achieved this.”

What will you bring to the table about both your books, at the Festival?

“People who have read both books – Bitter-Sweet Harvest in manuscript – say that they have learnt a lot about Malaysia, a country that they had previously known as a spot on a map, or a country that produces rubber and tin. So I would say both books bring a deeper understanding of Malaysia, its’ history, the diversity of its people and their culture, subjects which are so topical in today’s world. I quote from some readers’ reviews on Amazon.”

How do you think book festivals help novelists?

“Book festivals are very important for readers and authors. They are two sides of the equation. Without readers there would be very little incentive to write and publish. Without authors, there would be little to read. Novelists learn from readers; the latter, if constructive (a very important caveat), can be their best critic. I have on occasions found myself liking a book recommended to me by ordinary readers much more than one that has won a literary prize. For me, I read for enjoyment; I don’t necessarily just enjoy a book that is promoted by literary pundits.”

Do you suffer from stage fright?

“My previous post as Secretary of the Intergovernmental Group on Rice in the UN Food and Agriculture Organization required me to speak in public forums.   That said I still have ‘butterflies’ whenever I speak. Speaking as a novelist is not the same as speaking to delegates at an intergovernmental meeting. Speaking as a novelist is more intimate, more personal. That in itself can be daunting. However, the people you meet are often so warm and encouraging that they carry you and bring out the best in you.”

Please tell us the setting for Bitter-Sweet Harvest.

“Sweet Offerings was principally set in Malaysia. By contrast, the setting for Bitter-Sweet Harvest is quite different. As mentioned in the cover of the book, the story takes the reader on a journey through contrasting cultures: from the learned spires of Oxford in England to the east cost of Peninsular Malaysia; from vibrant Singapore to Catholic Rome and developing Indonesia.”

Tell us about the captivating cover design.

“The cover design for Bitter-Sweet Harvest was inspired by the wish to maintain a central theme that connects this, my second novel, with my first. Hence, we chose the use of an early 19th Century Nyonya porcelain jar to connect with the Nyonya teacup in the first book. This is of significance because it represents the early Chinese immigrants to Malaya that have adopted the way of life, dress and even speech of the Malays living there. The Chinese families involved in the story were descendents of such families. By contrast, the backgrounds in the covers of both books are completely different. In Bitter-Sweet Harvest, you see the Nyonya jar set against a scene where mosques are juxtaposed against the spires of learning in Oxford, and Cathedrals. In Sweet Offerings, you have the simplicity of early life and dwellings as the setting.

“While the idea originated from me, it was Marshall Cavendish, my Publisher, that put it together so beautifully into a work of art. My thanks and compliments to the designer.”

What would the world take from Bitter-Sweet Harvest?

“Both novels are works of fiction and are meant to entertain. So I hope that at the end of the book, I would like readers to say, ‘What a fascinating book!  I really enjoyed it and I would like to read another book from the same author! I think I would like to visit the country to see for myself!  It reads so real and stirs up such memories!’  The book is not meant to preach. Readers will take from the book what they seek and each reader will have a different perspective. In writing both novels, I have never painted a black and white situation. I have tried to give the perspective of the characters themselves, with their weaknesses and strength.”

If readers could warm to your characters, which are the one or two you hope they choose?

“In Sweet Offerings, I would have no difficulty in selecting a character that I warm to the most. It would be Nelly, the second wife. In Bitter-Sweet Harvest, the central characters have their equal share of weakness, strength and ‘lovability’, so it would be difficult to choose between them in an unbiased manner. If I had to choose, it would be An Mei because of what she had to go through, from a young girl, fired with the idealism of love, to a disillusioned and much damaged young woman. My sympathies are with her.”

Do elaborate on your personal thoughts about writing Malaysian literature for the world.

“I think it is always exciting to be writing about Malaysia because the country has all the ingredients of the modern world: multiculturalism. One important point to note, however, is that multiculturalism is not new in Malaysia so it might not always be appropriate to draw direct parallels with other countries recently receiving large inflow of migrants. It has been there for centuries and, of course, we are not talking about pockets of minority groups of different origins in the country. The Chinese represented 45 percent of the population in the 50s though the current proportion is much reduced (one source says to 25 percent).

“It is very exciting to write about people who speak two or more different languages to each other, switching from one to the other with ease; and, of course, there is that all inspiring Malaysian cuisine. Malaysia provides a very colourful background to my writing.”

I read about your creative writing discipline in The Star newspaper.  Did you follow the same routine for penning Bitter Sweet Harvest? Waking up at 6.00 and writing for straight five hours or so?  If not, could you tell us the new routine you adopted for writing Bitter Sweet Harvest?

“I could not follow the same strict writing routine that I had when penning Sweet Offerings due to family circumstances. My husband was very ill. There were long periods when I was writing Bitter-Sweet Harvest that I did not write at all. But the story must have continued to develop and churn in my mind for when I did return to it, the story just flowed. It was a period of my life where I became very sensitive and aware and that, I think, was transferred into my writing.”

Most writers struggle with a fervent writing discipline but you appear to carry this off very well? How do you manage the motivation & focus?

I have always been disciplined and focused. To say this may seem boastful but I do not mean it that way. It is just that I have always got on with the job in hand rather than putting things off to another day.”

What motivated and encouraged you to write Bitter-Sweet Harvest?

“I was motivated to write Bitter-Sweet Harvest by the readers of Sweet Offerings.  I had the great opportunity to meet with many readers because I was invited to their readers group meetings. I attended more than a dozen of these and most, if not all, asked if I would write a sequel. Sweet Offerings ending was open to a sequel. As one reader wrote on my website:  ‘I cannot recall ever reading a book where the very last word carried so much meaning for the future.’

“Another wrote, ‘A book that is impossible to put down and cannot wait for the sequel.’ “

Which is your favourite season to write in and why?

“Winter is still my favourite writing season. I have fewer distractions. We have a very big garden and in summer, there is always something to do.”

Do you write in a room with a view?

“No I do not have a view in my writing room. That would be a distraction. When I need a break, I make a mug of tea and take it to the garden. I like to feed the fish in our pond. We have two fishponds. The big pond with a waterfall is in what we call the wild garden. I would sit with my tea, sometimes with my husband, in the wild garden, by the pond to listen to the gurgling of the waterfall and the rush of water in the little brook that separates us from our neighbour. I find it very therapeutic.”

Where do you write? Tell us about your writing place.

“A quiet room. I write in an office, packed with books and filing cabinets, which I share with my husband. Sometimes, he wants to chat when I am writing and sometimes I talk, when he is writing. So it becomes less ideal for both of us. But other than that, I love him to be in the same room. He is very supportive.”

Do you have any eccentricities that guard your writing desk? What do you write on?

“I don’t have any unusual writing habits that I am aware of. I try to keep everything very neat and tidy. I have a stack of paper on my right where I jot down ideas that I would like to return to. On my left is my tray for matters that I need to attend to. At the other corner of the room where my husband works, the scene is quite different. He has pieces of paper everywhere and they have to be kept in an untidy array because then only can he find them. He does not like me to tidy them. So I write in the midst of chaos and order. I keyboard and I use a Mac.”

You mentioned in a newspaper interview that you were still finding yourself as you penned Sweet Offerings.  As a result, did any new discoveries lie before you with Bitter-Sweet Harvest?

“When writing Bitter-Sweet Harvest, I rediscovered how much I love writing and the research that goes with it. I always try to make the historical background as real as possible. Most people believe that Sweet Offerings was biographical and I am very flattered by it. For the genre of books that I am writing, I believe that you have to make it real for the readers to carry them with you.”

Please describe a good writing day.

This is on a good writing day. I wake up very early, around 6 am. I lie in bed for 5 minutes or so and go through what I have to do for the day. I get up and do a series of stretching exercises for about 12 – 15 minutes to keep supple. Then I breakfast. I cannot function without eating. Breakfast is just cereals with berries of some sort (blueberries and raspberries are my favourite) and soya milk, and two mugs of tea. I then tidy-up the house, take something out from the freezer for the evening meal and then I shower. I write until lunch. I rest for about half an hour after lunch, potter in the garden and then sit to write for a couple of hours. When I am really into it, my greatest fear is for someone to pop into the office and ask, “What’s for dinner?

“I try not to write in the evening, as I might not sleep because my mind would be active.  The routine is slightly different on days when I run exercise classes.  I still teach Fusion Fitness, an exercise discipline I devised.  These are mainly in the mornings so on those days, my writing is confined to the afternoon.”

When you sit down to write, how do you manage drafts and revisions?

“I write straight through so that I can maintain my story line. In the first draft, it is the story that counts, although I do try to write well. Then I revise and rework over and over again.”
Did nostalgia beckon when you wrote Bitter-Sweet Harvest? Did any memory cajole you to a forgotten remembrance?

“Both books are not autobiographies so I am not recounting my childhood. But I do draw upon my knowledge of all the places described in the novel, and of course, I also draw upon my memories of, say, eating out in Malaysia, sitting in the stalls, hearing conversations around me etc.”
As with your work in Rome, do you bring a high form of strategy to novel-writing?

“When I ran the UN FAO’s Intergovernmental Group on Rice I wrote all the papers for the annual intergovernmental meeting and these had to be translated into four different official languages and dispatched at precise dates. So we had a strict schedule of dates that we had to meet. If I failed to meet them, it would mean that others would also be unable to meet their deadlines andcommitments. This must have contributed to making me disciplined.”
How essential is characterisation to you?

“The characters in the novel take on a life of their own. When I am writing I am totally involved. I am each character. I do not, however, let them take over my life away from my desk.”
What were your sentiments when you touched on the last line of Bitter-Sweet Harvest?

“Once a manuscript is out of my hands and on its way to printers, I always feel a sense of anti-climax. I have worked so hard on it and suddenly it is not there anymore. I try not to look at it again though because I fear I might wish to write and re-write again. It is never as perfect as it can be.
“In a way, you don’t say goodbye because once published, you revisit the story over and over again. You speak about it in interviews and when meeting people who have read the book. It is a lovely and very satisfying feeling when you see your work in print and in bookstores.”
How did you manage your research for both Sweet Offerings and Bitter-Sweet Harvest?

“For Sweet offerings I did a lot of research in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. For Bitter-Sweet Harvest, my research ranged from interviews to reference books. I also did a lot of research. I also did a lot of research for both books on-line.”
Do you belong to a writer’s group?
“I am not part of a writer’s group. I have friends who are writers, but they are not necessarily located in London.”
How do you think you fit into the Malaysian writing scene?

“I don’t think I fit into the Malaysian writing scene: I do not live in Malaysia. I feel, however, that those with a Malaysian heritage are best equipped to write about Malaysia because they see the country with the eyes of a local person. The most famous writers about Malaysia, at least for the world at large, are Somerset Maugham and Anthony Burgess, but they see it from an expatriate point of view and do not really get under the skin of the local people. I am glad to see many up-and-coming writers with Malaysian and Singaporean heritage.”
How do family and friends take you to being a novelist?

“I think my family and friends are not particularly surprised. They seem to take everything that I say I’m going to do as something that is given, whether it be writing a book on exercise or a novel.”
Tell us something about your library.

“I have lots and lots of books. I don’t have a library in the sense of a single room filled with books, although I have a tiny additional study area on a mezzanine floor. But almost every room holds books.”
What are some of your favourite novelists and books?

“My favourite authors include: Barbara Kingsolver, especially her novel, The Poisonwood Bible. I like Hilary Mantel – I found A Change of Climate fascinating. I enjoyed The Outcast by Sadie Jones. It was very tersely written. I love The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. They were books that gave such insight into Afghanistan. I also love Anthony Trollope and was inspired by his penetrating views on the political, social and gender issues of his day.

What remain your present affliations with Malaysia?

“When I am in Malaysia, I visit relatives and friends. My mother died last year. Until then, I spent almost every day with her whenever I visited Malaysia. Recently I met up with old classmates from St Marys and we went as a group to Malacca. Eating and shopping are our favourite activities in Malaysia. When the children were small we tended to spend a lot of time in the island resorts of Tioman, Langkawi and Penang.”

…and surely the classic question of what makes for your favourite Malaysian cuisine?

“It is difficult to say which is my favourite Malaysian cuisine. I like Malay coconut rice – nasi lemak – as much as I like the Indian dosai bread dunked in dhall curry. If I have to point to a dish, it would be the nyonya spring rolls – popiah – and that in part is because it is a healthy dish since it consists mainly of vegetables packed into a thin roll made with rice batter and dipped in chilly sauce!”

What’s next on the cards for a writing project?

“I plan to write another novel. I have two ideas and have not decided which I should pursue. I will let you know when I am more certain.”

Further Reading:

i) An extract from Sweet Offerings

ii) An extract from Bitter-Sweet Harvest


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