Bernice Chauly’s debut novel, Once We Were There, combines the personal and political in a defiant, uncompromising way. This is a coming-of-age novel that is also about a specific moment in the history of Malaysia, and a love letter to its capital city at the muddy confluence, Kuala Lumpur. A novel that has a woman as its central character, that takes as its primary concern the period of “Reformasi” politics in 1998 and its immediate aftermath, and weaves into the narrative the events in a young woman’s life within this milieu: sex, drugs, a journalism career, marriage, motherhood, and the loss of a child.
Chauly is a significant name within the local literary scene; not only has she published collections of poetry, short stories, and a memoir, she is also a photographer, actor, filmmaker, and is the festival director of the George Town Literary Festival as well as a teacher of creative writing at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus.
The novel’s central character is Delonix Regia, known as Del, and when we meet her she is a journalist at The Review, a monthly magazine that is self-funded by its well-off editor, Roslan. The other journalists she grows close to, Sumi and Imran, also come from relatively privileged backgrounds and were educated overseas. Del and Sumi become fast friends; they attend Reformasi protests together both for work and because they believe in the cause.
What that cause is, is less clear, and for readers with the wisdom of hindsight, reading this novel in 2017, much of the novel’s politics – its anti-Mahathirism and pro-Anwarism and straightforward acceptance of opposition politics at face value – seem a little embarrassing as we read the current headlines about Pakatan Harapan and learn that Mahathirism lives on in new and even familiar faces.
Del is an idealist, and she throws herself into anti-Mahathir diatribes with passion. Juxtaposed against this is the KL Mahathir likes to think he built all on his own asserting itself on a global scale as a city for foreign investors. The novel is attuned to the sex, drugs, and debauchery that is the backdrop for so much of its development.
Interspersed with Del’s story about meeting her husband Omar in the midst of this chaos, then falling in love and starting a family with him, is the story of Marina, a transgender sex worker who moves to the big city from Lahad Datu, Sabah. As the novel progresses, the paths of Del and Marina converge, and as tragedy befalls Del when her daughter is kidnapped, Marina becomes a trusted friend.
There is a lot of territory covered in Chauly’s ambitious novel, and while I wanted to love it unreservedly, there were certain things that made it less than successful, in my opinion. The depiction of young, privileged journalists spending a lot of their time getting drunk and talking about changing the world while brandishing PKR flags in Bangsar rang hollow at times.
These early pages feature occasional weak writing that is uninspired, like Del’s thoughts before meeting Omar: “That’s how I met him. The man who would one day become my husband and transform my life forever.” Or, “This was the man I would fight with, for a country that we both loved. For justice. For freedom. For Malaysia”. This sounds like editorialising instead of vibrant language. Too much foreshadowing runs the risk of reading like a gimmick; the authorial hand trying to force a pattern onto the book becomes evident.
In other instances, when Chauly lets the images form on their own, her writing soars. For example, international journalists are described as having “an air of fatigue around them, of blood and bombs”. Or in reminiscing about her mother’s presence, which felt more like an absence, Del comes to this conclusion: “I don’t think I ever felt the hard crush of a mother’s love”.
I found Marina’s story as a sex worker and a trans rights activist to be particularly strong, and here Chauly’s skill in narrative eloquence shimmers with understated beauty. She depicts Marina’s story with generosity, empathy, and emotional truth. Marina’s story never hits a wrong note. Unfortunately, her story sort of trails off towards the end, and there is a sense that perhaps the novel could not quite accommodate the narrative strands of both Del and Marina’s stories.
Midway through, the promise of marriage and motherhood began to fade for Del and tragedy occurs. The latter parts of the book are particularly emotionally devastating and written with rawness and urgency. Del is a complicated character, and her early memories of her fraught relationship with both an emotionally distant father and mother (the mother now dead) are the clues to understanding her self-destructive behaviour.
Chauly is brave to write about the ugly, even abject and grotesque, side of motherhood. This is the anti-Facebook status update of parenting. If motherhood is revered in Malaysian society to the point of coexisting peacefully with misogyny, where women are not valued for anything other than reproduction, then Del’s howl of pain is a woman rewriting herself into the narrative as human, first and foremost, as someone greater than the sum of roles one is supposed to take on as a woman.
The psychic, emotional, and mental costs of mothering must never be talked about in polite society. Del’s struggle with motherhood, and its demands on her autonomy, both bodily and mentally, is necessary and vital and something rarely seen in local literature in English. It’s not pretty or pleasant, and you can’t gloss over it with an Instagram filter to make it palatable. Chauly’s resolute writing on Del’s trauma after her child is taken and her subsequent breakdown are some of the best sections in the book.
On the whole, this is also a time capsule in novel-form and gives a glimpse of KL at the turn of the 21st-century. It begins with all the hope contained within the promise of a change, and ends in personal tragedy for Del and a descent into her own inferno. As the narrative unfolds, it’s also a commentary on the city and its excesses in the name of development. It’s a KL most readers might prefer not to know.
It’s been a long wait for a local English language novel that’s not about horror stories or future dystopias or a collection of self-help advice or satirical pulpy noir with a male gaze or historical nostalgia or multigenerational family sagas. This is, instead, a complex reckoning of modern KL with a troubled and flawed wife and mother at its centre. It holds up a mirror to certain segments of local society and is a stirring and necessary read.
Once We Were There
Author: Bernice Chauly
Publisher: Epigram Books, fiction