When it comes to creative projects, Bernice Chauly is a one-woman artistic machine. From making documentaries to acting in films, from creating poetry to taking photographs to writing short stories, there’s little this intrepid author and educator hasn’t tried her hand at.

Chauly, however, had to face her greatest creative challenge a few years ago: writing her first novel, a task she describes as “the hardest thing” she’s ever done.

“The novel is the most profoundly difficult thing to write. Ever. It’s the pinnacle of literary work. There were times while writing when I was filled with doubt and self-loathing. I was like, do I even know what I’m doing? It’s very difficult.

“That’s why I keep telling people who are working at novels: you have to keep at it,” says Chauly, 49.

She started six years ago. But today, Chauly’s Once We Were There has finally been completed and can now be found on the shelves of both Malaysian and Singaporean bookstores. (Read the review.)

“I’d been thinking about writing this novel for years, and the fact that it’s done is so liberating. I feel that if I can do this, I can do anything!”

This interview is being held at Chauly’s cosy little place in Kuala Lumpur, its furnishing an effortless blend of old-world tradition and modern comfort. In one corner, a large television with DVDs of all the latest movies and television series; in another, two rustic typewriters sit on a table next to a wayang kulit puppet. Old books, some first editions from colonial days, sit on shelves close to modern paperbacks.

Youthful-looking, yet with a piercing gaze, Chauly is candid as she talks about her new novel, and reflects on her long and colourful creative career.

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Malaysian author Bernice Chauly. Photo: The Star/Yap Chee Hong

A novel idea

If you’re involved in any way in the Malaysian arts or literary scenes (or even just read about them), you would definitely have heard Chauly’s name before. She is, after all, the award-winning author of five poetry and nonfiction books; Going There And Coming Back (1997), The Book Of Sins (2008), Lost In KL (2008), Growing Up With Ghosts (2011) and Onkalo (2013).

Chauly has lectured for over 12 years in creative writing at colleges and universities in Kuala Lumpur and was an honorary fellow in writing at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program 2014. She is the founder and director of the KL Writers Workshop and currently lectures at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. Her photographs and films have been exhibited and screened worldwide.

Published by Epigram Books, Once We Were There is Chauly’s debut novel. It opens in 1998, with much of East Asia in turmoil. Nations are still reeling from the effects of the Asian financial crisis which began the previous year. And in Malaysia, political unrest is brewing. Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has been sacked by Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the Prime Minister at the time.

This action gives birth to Reformasi (Malay for reformation), a massive protest movement which sees many Malaysians resorting to demonstrations, civil disobedience, online activism, and even rioting to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo.

“It’s a time in Malaysian history where things were really turned upside down.

“The Government became a force to be feared, not to be reckoned with. People were very confused, they took to the streets. It’s a very important time, because I think this is the first time Malaysians took things into their own hands, said they’re not taking this lying down,” Chauly says.

“It’s a time which has not been written about much in contemporary Malaysian literature. And I felt a need to address that.”

Caught up in these events is journalist Delonix Regia (a name derived from the scientific name of the royal poinciana, or the flame of the forest tree), who is involved in the hedonistic drug scene of 1980s Kuala Lumpur. She witnesses first-hand the changes in the capital city after the genesis of Malaysia’s Reformasi movement, and the changes in her own life as she settles down, gets married, and has children.

In this tumultuous time, Delonix struggles to maintain her idyllic family life even as she discovers the dark secrets of KL, where babies are sold and women and children are trafficked, with sometimes fatal consequences.

What results is a dark and devastating tale of love and loss, which greatly changes the lives of several characters; these include Omar, Delonix’s half English, half Malay husband; and Marina, a transgender sex worker from Sabah.

“It’s about Kuala Lumpur. KL is a character that features in the novel. Its about people who survive, and people who don’t,” Chauly says.

“I really think KL is one of the most fascinating cities on the planet. It’s a place that I kind of both love and loathe. This novel is a love song to my country. I must warn you, though, it’s kind of bleak. It’s not a happy-clappy book.”

Born storyteller

Storytelling has always been a major part of Chauly’s life; the author describes herself as an avid reader since she was a child, reading anything and everything in her parents’ extensive library.

Chauly was born in George Town, the eldest of the three children of teachers Loh Siew Yoke and Surinder Singh, who fell in love and got married despite fierce objection from their families at the time. Much of Chauly’s early life, however, was spent in Kelantan, as her parents taught in schools there.

Growing up with a Chinese-Punjabi heritage, seen as very unusual back in the day, Chauly struggled with issues of identity.

“I was teased in school. I didn’t know who I was, I never felt like I belonged, I was confused, I was angry. People made fun of my name. There were times I was actually ashamed of it. Teachers would make fun of my name, ‘Bernice why is your name so long, what kind of name is Chauly?’ Now I love my name. But then, as a teenager, you’re awkward, you’re insecure, it was very difficult,” Chauly says.

When she was about four and a half years old, tragedy struck Chauly’s family: her father died in a drowning accident while the family was at Batu Ferringhi, Penang.

“He was a good man, a good father. He used to read to me, he used to sing to me. I remember drinking fresh cow’s milk with him every night before bed,” Chauly reminisces.

“When he died, my whole world fell apart. I was a changed person after that. I had to find a way of dealing with that. So I turned to writing.”

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Chauly in Taiping, in 1973, complete with cheeky smile. Photo: Bernice Chauly

Chauly’s family eventually moved to Perak, first to Taiping and then Ipoh, where the author studied at the  Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus. There, the teen lived in her own little world – so much so that her friends nicknamed her “Blur-nice”.

“I think I daydreamed my way through secondary school. I remember once I went to school without wearing socks, and so I went to the toilet, and I wrapped toilet paper around my ankles so I wouldn’t be caught and penalised by the prefects! I was in a world of my own. I escaped into my imagination,” Chauly says.

After secondary school, she studied Education and English Literature at the University of Winnipeg, Canada, as a government scholar, a time she describes as one of the most exciting in her life. It was there she published her first piece – an article in the university newspaper – and also where she had the first public reading of her work.

After finishing school in Canada, Chauly returned to Malaysia in 1993. Her reason for returning? A documentary called Ring Of Fire: An Indonesian Odyssey, which tells of the decade-long journey of the British filmmaker brothers Lorne and Lawrence Blair around Borneo.

“There was a segment about the Penan people. And the tribe was documented and depicted in such a way that made me go, wow, this was fascinating! I knew I wanted to do something like that someday. I wanted to tell Malaysian stories,” Chauly says.

“I was really compelled by that episode. I met Lawrence Blair later, in Bali, and I thanked him for changing my life.”

And in 1996, Chauly accomplished what she had come home to do: she wrote and codirected Bakun Or The Dam?, a documentary about the plight of the native population in Sarawak in the shadow of the construction of the Bakun Dam.

“It was a transforming experience. I lived with the Penan, I lived with the Kayan, I lived with the Iban, in different longhouses, and it was just amazing.

“But it was also heartbreaking, because all these people were going to lose their land,” she says.

Establishing herself

Since returning home, Chauly has worked practically nonstop. Among (many!) other things, she worked as a producer for legendary Malaysian dancer Ramli Ibrahim, and was a journalist with the magazine Men’s Review.

In 1998 – long before indie publishing was a thing – Chauly and the late Fay Khoo (also a creative artistic force, Khoo died, aged 48, earlier this year of lung cancer) formed the now-defunct Rhino Press, an independent publishing house, which published 11 local titles, including the well-known Black And White Series.

Other notable works are Chauly’s documentary, Semangat Insan – Masters Of Tradition (2000), which showcased various dying art forms in Malaysia, and Face To Face – Confronting The Humanity Of Refugees In Malaysia, a series of refugee portraits commissioned by the United Nations Commission for Human Rights.

In 2005, she and author, publisher and creative writing instructor Sharon Bakar founded Readings, currently the oldest live literary reading event in Kuala Lumpur, a lively monthly affair nowadays.

Chauly was tasked by United Nations Commission for Human Rights to create portraits of refugees in Malaysia in 2005. Photo: Filepic

One of Chauly’s more well-known works is undoubtedly her 2011 book, Growing Up With Ghosts, a “fictive memoir” that won third prize in the nonfiction category of the 2012 Popular-The Star Readers’ Choice Awards.

In the book, Chauly tells of her journey, in the light of her father’s death, to unravel the mystery surrounding a curse that is thought to have plagued her family. She traces 100 years of her family history to Fatshan, China; and Verka, India, to recount and re-live her ancestors lives against the histories of India, China, Singapore, and Malaya.

“I’m glad I did it. It was very transformative, to exorcise all the grief I had over my father’s death. It was starting to become a weight, this heavy baggage that I was carrying. I felt I needed to tell this story, to be free of it,” Chauly says.

The author also took the time to participate in three writing residencies: the first in Amsterdam in 2012, then at the Sitka Island Institute, Alaska, and the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, both in the United States in 2014.

“Residencies are very important. If I hadn’t had those three residencies, I don’t think I would be able to even come up with a first draft for the novel. They help you to read, and to focus, and to do nothing but write,” Chauly says.

“We don’t have a writing residency in Malaysia. But it’s crucial! I really hope that some day, we will recognise the need for them. You need a space to write and think and let the process unfold. It takes time!

“I’m talking to some people in George Town. I’m hoping that sometime, maybe even by the end of this year, we will have a writing residency in Penang.”

Speaking of Penang, Chauly has also served as festival director of the George Town Literary Festival since 2011, helping to make it one of the events with the fastest growing profile in the region.

Surging forward

Chauly now lives in Kuala Lumpur, with two daughters (from her former husband, filmmaker Farouk Al-Joffery) and a little dog named Lucca, “named after my favourite city”.

The author already has plans for the future – there might be a new collection of poems coming. And while the experience of writing the first novel was quite an ordeal, Chauly can’t wait to start work on her second, which she says will be set in a few different locations, and deal with “climate change, shamanism, suicide, and shapeshifting”.

Wow. Don’t say you wouldn’t be interested in a novel with any, let alone all four, of those elements. While we eagerly anticipate seeing Chauly’s new novel, the author, on the other hand, says she wants to see more books on contemporary issues.

“I think it’s the best time to be an artist right now. But I don’t think there’s enough literature being produced now. There’s a lot of genre work. But I think we need more writers putting out more literary work,” Chauly says.

“Literature needs to be written. Why isn’t anybody writing it? It’s worrying. In 20 years, what are Malaysian readers going to look back on, what did we produce in this quarter of the century? I think there’s a lot of talent here. But it needs to be nurtured.”

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Chauly with Sharon Bakar and a stack of the first book of short stories that emerged in 2011 from Readings, the live literature event they began in 2005, which is still going strong today. There have been two other books published, in 2013 and 2016. Photo: Filepic