“We were on the beach in Batu Ferringhi. One minute he was alive, and the next, dead,” writer Bernice Chauly recalls the death of her father when she was just four and a half years old.
His death would later inspire her to write her first memoir, Growing up with Ghosts.
“His death was a tremendous form of trauma. I was grieving a lot in my childhood. I was a pretty angry child who didn’t fit in. My father left behind an expansive collection of literature, so I’d sit at home with a glass of water and a plate of Marie biscuits and just read. I’d daydream my way through school.”
An author, educator, activist and single mother, Chauly is recognised as one of the most significant voices of her generation.
She was born in Georgetown to a Punjabi father and a Chinese mother. As a child, she lived in Kelantan, Pasir Puteh and even spent a few years in Taiping, tagging along as her teacher parents were posted there.
Things changed after her father passed away, as the family moved to Ipoh to be closer to her mother’s family.
“After his death, I felt like I was on the outside of the Punjabi culture looking in, as opposed to being on the inside.”
There are some regrets scattered around, as Chauly wishes she had picked up the Punjabi language and learnt the rituals and aspects of the Sikh religion from her Bapuji (grandfather), who was a priest at the Gurdwara.
Unfortunately, Bapuji passed away in the 90s, when Chauly returned from Canada after graduating from the University of Winnipeg.
“All the men in my family died, which was very odd. It’s sort of why I wrote Growing up with Ghosts, because we were told that their deaths were part of a family curse,” she adds.
Chauly thinks the book was a form of catharsis, as it stemmed from grief. “It took me 23 years to write it. I lived with that book. I went to Punjab, to my ancestral village, and interviewed as many relatives who were willing to be interviewed. It was a very difficult journey, but at the end of the day, it is also about letting go, and acceptance.”
To her, writing Growing up with Ghosts was transformative. “I would not be the person I am today if I had not written that book.”
Although she acknowledges that different styles of writing present unique challenges of their own, Chauly is no one-trick-pony. She started as a poet but has since built a literary repertoire that consists of short stories, memoirs and novels.
She describes her poetry collections as a trajectory of her life, as each collection represents a particular decade of her life.
Now in her 50s, Chauly’s newest poetry collection, Incantations/Incarcerations is set to be published in July.
In true Chauly fashion, this book will include complex themes like climate change, and topics that are generally steered away from, such as the slow demise of the human body, losing one’s children to the world, and menopause. “It is writing from the point of view of the older woman, the woman who has lived and lost.”
All things said and done, Chauly says writing the novel is the most difficult thing she has ever done.
She recalls feeling extremely lonely and sad, full of self-loathing while trying to finish writing her first novel, Once We Were There. It took her six years.
If you’re going to put your name to something, you have to make sure that it is the best possible version of what it can be.
“Why am I doing this? Is anyone going to read this book? Does the world need another book? I think these are questions that frequently plague writers. I remember thinking that I couldn’t do it. I did not have the confidence that I could finish the novel, because it was so hard. It was such a difficult process,” she reflects.
However, the characters she’d created kept her going. She remembers talking to her characters daily, wishing them ‘Good morning’ and ‘Goodnight’. “I even had conversations with them in the car, like a crazy person,” she laughs.
Chauly says she felt that it was her responsibility to tell her character’s stories, as she had created them. “I created them, and they all told me eventually, where they needed to go.”
If completing the novel is a challenge on its own, looking for a publisher is another. Chauly received 14 rejection letters before Epigram books decided to publish her novel.
“The West has a very definitive idea of what Asian literature is, or should be, and it’s tough. It’s becoming harder and harder because publishers are becoming very specific about what they want. It’s either something that’s fresh and exciting or something that fits into a certain kind of genre, a certain kind of ilk, a certain kind of romantic Asian colonial period piece,” she adds.
She says that Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children paved the way for Indian writers, who she thinks are abundant in Southeast Asia. “The issue lies here though, it often takes some type of recognition from the West before we even acknowledge our writers, and that’s wrong. We don’t respect our writers enough, and that has to change.”
The problem is systemic, according to Chauly. “I think the Malaysian education system is in dire straits. As someone who went through the public education system in the 80s, taught in the public school system in the 90s, and someone who’s now taught in
We must allow school children to have access to literature, to global culture. We must allow them access to their own minds and their own thoughts
private institutions for 20 years, it is important for us to allow our kids to think. We have to give them the opportunity to think instead of telling them what to think. We must allow school children to have access to literature, to global culture. We must allow them access to their own minds and their own thoughts.”
Chauly was posted to a religious school in Labu, Negeri Sembilan upon returning from Canada. She taught English while monitoring the debate team.
It only took her a year before deciding that she couldn’t hack the Malaysian education system, so she left. “That also meant I broke my bond because I went to Canada on a government scholarship. I paid it back. It took me 15 years but I paid for my education,” she smiles.
Ironically, Chauly never intended on becoming a teacher, although that has since changed. “I like teaching, I think it keeps me grounded.”
She spent two years teaching Creative Writing classes at a refuge run by the Women’s Aid Organization. “It was about using writing as a form of therapy, as a form to address trauma.”
Although it was fulfilling, Chauly says some of the stories from the women, which included stories of sexual assault and human trafficking, were emotionally taxing. They collectively produced a book titled Tina’s Journey, which Chauly describes as an “amalgamation of different works by the various women.”
You exist, your story exists, you are not just a number or someone with no name. You do exist.
Chauly thinks that it is part of her responsibility as a writer, to give a voice to the voiceless - this includes indigenous people, refugees, trans workers, and sex workers, the latter two of which were represented in her novel, Once We Were There.
“My mother was an activist. When I was 13, she took me to a slum in Ipoh and that was life-changing because I’d never seen poverty like that before. She was trying to get this family ICs because they had no birth certificates. It was something as simple as that.”
“I have a sense of what is fair and what is unfair. I suppose that’s idealism in a way, but to me, it’s about giving a voice to people who have no voice, and to tell them that by the single, simple act of writing, or by telling me what your story is - you exist, your story exists, that you are not just a number or someone with no name. You do exist.”
If she could give one piece of advice to budding Malaysian writers, she says “Read. Don’t be impatient. Make sure that the work is good because it will have to stand the test of time. If you’re going to put your name to something, you have to make sure that it is the best possible version of what it can be. Be patient. Rewrite. Accept criticism from people you trust and develop confidence in yourself.”
As for parents, she says “encourage your children to read. Read to them and teach them to develop a love for books; physical books, not just the Kindle or tablet, but for the actual book itself. Teach your children to love the book, to love the word.”
A master of words, one of Chauly’s closing lines during my last film-writing class with her last semester is permanently etched in my memory. “Remember that even if you have lost everything, you will always have words.”
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