If you’re looking for depictions of historical Malaysia in our local fiction, then wow, you’re in for a treat. We really love to read about our country’s colourful past: you could probably fill an entire library with works featuring post-colonial Malaya, or our country during the Japanese occupation!
Examples of historical Malaysia in fiction are Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift Of Rain, Tash Aw’s The Harmony Silk Factory, Preeta Samarasan’s Evening Is The Whole Day, Rani Manicka’s The Rice Mother, Lat’s The Kampung Boy, Chiew-Siah Tei’s The Mouse Deer Kingdom, Adibah Amin’s This End Of The Rainbow, and even Anthony Burgess’s The Malayan Trilogy.
One author who is very experienced with historical Malaysia is Chan Ling Yap, a former lecturer at Universiti Malaya who is now based in the United Kingdom. Yap has written four novels set in the past: Sweet Offerings, Bitter-Sweet Harvest, New Beginnings (which won first prize in the Popular-The Star Reader’s Choice Awards in 2014), and A Flash Of Water.
Her quartet of novels trace the lives of one family against the turbulent political, economic and social changes in China and Malaya from the mid-1800s to the 1970s.
Why do you enjoy writing historical fiction?
I love the research that goes with it. The past often influences the future. I learnt a lot about Chinese and Malay heritage from researching for my books. Until I wrote New Beginnings I had not realised how the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion in China had such important roles in shaping Malaya. Without these two events, there might not have been the mass migration of Chinese into Malaya and Singapore, which has so defined both countries. It is the discovery of the past that makes the writing of historical novels exciting and rewarding.
Is there a particular period of history you enjoy writing about?
I do not have a particular preference for a period of time in the past. Each period has its own fascinating stories to tell. I am now working on a novel which is set during the Emergency, just after World War II. The rise of insurgency in the country provides an intriguing background for my story.
What are some tips an author can follow to capture a time and place they have never visited through their writing?
To capture the past, you have to immerse yourself fully into the lives of people in the period you are covering. You have to know the clothes they wear, the food they eat, the way they talk, think, behave, their social values. That requires intensive research. I read everything I can get hold of to catch the ambiance of the period. I need to empathise with the past to do justice to my characters.
To describe a place well, it is best to visit it even though the place would have changed with time. If that is not possible, then it is best to form a picture of the place in your mind based on research.
What are the challenges of writing fiction that is set in the past?
Writing fiction set in the past is demanding when information is scarce. I found Malaysian history particularly hard work because not much is documented. The further back in history, the more difficult it becomes.
What kind of research do you normally do when writing your novels?
I read everything I can find. I look at photographs and pictures of the past, I visit places, I talk to people and ask questions about their past, I visit museums. The list is endless. Research takes a big chunk of my time when I am writing a historical novel. When I wrote Sweet Offerings, for example, I spent time verifying if telephones were used by ordinary people during and just after the Japanese occupation. So even small details, such as this, had to be verified.
Do you feel there are any parts of Malaysian history that more people should write about?
There are many aspects of the past that are interesting and worthy of writing. The individual has to choose which he/she prefers. So little has been written that there is an abundance of opportunities.
At the moment I am writing a novel set in the period just after World War II when Malaya returned to British rule after the Japanese occupation. It is tentatively entitled Where The Sunrise Is Red. It takes the reader through to independence and after. It is a time of declining British influence and rising Malayan nationalism. The story, however, is about the estranged English wife of a British planter and his Malayan mistress.
Why is it important to write works set in the past?
Historical fiction brings history to life. In history an event is recorded as an event; it could be dry. Fiction, however, breathes life into the event. It humanises it, populates it with people who lived through the time and shows their hopes and aspirations. It is exciting.
Writing historical novels is important. We learn from the past, from the mistakes and successes of times gone by and the reasons why the present is as it is. In the case of Malaysian history, where relatively little has been documented, reading historical fiction – when it is well researched – is a window to life in the past. I hope my books would contribute to discovering some of this.