Her words of advice continued to linger on my mind even after leaving our meeting place at the One World Hotel, Petaling Jaya. Her smile radiates that of a very calm person with a quiet confidence – one that if shaken, can emerge victorious.
Chiew-Siah Tei was born and bred in Tampin, Negeri Sembilan, a small state south of Malaysia. She went to UK to study in the 1990s and now lives in Glasgow. Little Hut of Leaping Fishes is her first novel, and was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2007.
Her first story was published in our local Sin Jiew Jit Poh, sent in by her primary school teacher. This was the story that sparked Tei’s interest and passion in writing. “I was really excited, seeing my work published in the papers,” she said with smile.
Little Hut came to being after her first trip to China in 1999. “I went to China as a Chinese, but I felt different. There were certain cultures and practices that were different too. I started questioning myself. What is it that’s making me feel so different in my ‘own’ country as compared to Malaysia? If I don’t ‘belong’ to China or Malaysia, then where do I belong? What made my great grandparents migrate?” With that, she began digging her roots, burying her nose in piles of books, and four years later, Little Hut was born. (Just google it to find out about the story)
On her writing style
When I first read the book, I thought Tei adopted much of her screenwriting techniques in writing her story, using montages, sound effects and play of camera angles. (Oh, I have studied a little on film & tv, so I know some ‘stuff’ :P)
“I wanted to present a film on the pages. I used my background in screenwriting and film studies, and made use of my knowledge in film language and techniques into this book (Yes! I was right!). My intention was to give my reader the cinematic effect, by allowing them to look at the scenes or people through the camera’s eyes.”
Such was seen in a sequence in chapter 19 when Mingyuan was in a feud in a market place (page 337) – a fast moving image of a knife, the blood and the scream (one line in each paragraph) – setting a fast reading pace for the reader with those montages displayed in the reader’s mind. This was one of the many examples she applied for a cinematic effect.
On developing her story
I’ve been told, after speaking to a few editors on fiction writing, that when I write, I should let my story go with the flow (i.e. let my heart lead the way). But what I had in mind was to first have a structure of the story, then write. (I’ve been doing it all this while, when I write articles for my magazine). And I did just that when I attempted my first short story. But guess what? It didn’t work. One of the editors told me that the story didn’t feel ‘natural’ and was too ‘planned-out’. (And I spent sleepless nights structuring the whole story!)
So I posed the question to Tei, on structuring her story, hoping that she’d tell me what I want to hear. But I was dismayed when she said, “I didn’t have a plot to begin with. I began writing it with a concept of homelessness/sense of belonging. I wanted to write about a man who was discontented about his environment and wanted to change his life and the people involved in it. With that, I created the main character (Mingzhi) who was born in a feudal family, deep-rooted in their Chinese traditions and cultures for many generations.
In my story, I wanted things to happen when it should happen. I referred to the historical events and make my characters live along these events and create moments that became plots. For example, when reformation movement failed in 1898, I arranged for Mingzhi’s wife and unborn son die. I planted these details subtly. It’s kind of metaphorical.”
On her future plans
I commented on the abrupt end to her story. “I’m planning for a trilogy. The second book follows Mingzhi to Malaya in 1900 to 1930s, while the third book tells of the present – 1990s to the 20th century, when migration becomes a norm. With the past that has happened, and the present that’s happening, the question to ask again is – where is home?”
Before I left, she gave me this piece of advice, “Keep on writing. Believe in yourself and be determined. Persevere. Read extensively! (I’m trying, I’m trying!)”
The two books which inspired her:
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, and
One Hundred Years of Solitude (in Chinese) by Gabriel García Márquez