Guest Blogger Audrey Chin is the South-East-Asian author of As the Heart Bones Break, a novel about Vietnam’s wars and the aftermath.In this post she defends her right to write about “the other”. Provocative and passionate, this essay asks the important questions – Who can claim to represent a character? What makes for an authentic inside-a-culture work?
The unasked question simmered — “Who are you to write about it?”
I was attending a Singapore Writers Festival session on Malaysian writing. The panelists were — an American woman who had lived in the region for some time, a Singaporean man of Indian ethnicity who wrote about a bicycle trip through the country and a Malaysian of Indian ethnicity who left the country twenty years ago. All three wrote in English. Amongst the audience were “real” Malaysians from the countries majority ethnic group, writers in the national language. There were also ordinary readers, checking the authenticity of the works against the appearance and credentials of the authors.
It couldn’t be helped, that background unease, the simmering question. The authors seemed far more removed from their subjects than the writers in the audience or even some of the readers. Finally I gave voice to the simmer.
“Have you ever been asked …”
The American woman attacked the issue head on. “It’s fiction,” she said. “The question is does it read well; does it work?”
As a Singaporean woman author of As the Heart Bones Break, a Vietnamese story spanning 60 years of the country’s recent history and one Vietnamese man’s life, I too have been asked that question. Unlike the American woman, I’m unwilling to dismiss the challenge implied in it.
Must one be Malaysian to write a Malaysian story? Or Vietnamese to write about a Vietnamese man who resented American involvement in his country then regretted his own participation in the Communist victory?
It’s a question which begets more questions.
Who is qualified to tell a story authentically? The outsider looking in with fresh eyes? The insider screaming to be let out? The one standing at the margins – part of but not quite?
I can only defend my own particular position. I claim simply the right to write what I know.
The American author belittled herself by dismissing her work as fiction, implying everything was fictionalized. She indeed had lived among the Kelantanese in North East Malaya. She did know a great deal about them. The fact that she was there but not them added a certain arms-length perspective to the writing which I felt was incisive. A person who had grown up immersed in the Kelantanese culture would not have seen the details she did.
As for the Singaporean who wrote about the cycling trip. If not a citizen of modern Malaysia, he did inhabit a historical Malaya. Born to parents who had been citizens of that other political entity, his reactions to his 21st century experiences were genuine and coloured by that inheritance of history.
The gone-away Malaysian who wrote from memories was least deserving of dismissal. Having left and not having experienced the recent changes in the country, his recreation of the Malaysia of the 1980’s and 1990’s was perhaps truer than that of someone who’d lived there all their lives and whose vision of the period would have been tainted by what came after.
I am reminded of a waking dream I had after hearing these lyrics from a church hymn – Every day and every hour are your province, in our longings may you be near. What I saw as the choir sang was a vast landscape, fields of days and hours spread out before me. It came to me then that time does not flow chronologically. The days and hours of our creation are spread out like the land, past and present cheek by jowl. In writing, we can go back where we will and as we will.
Our only duty, in representing “the other” that we have experienced, is to be genuine about what we have felt and tasted and seen.
We write to make sense of the landscapes we have passed through; we write to make sense of ourselves. We also write to be read.
Ultimately, the proof of our claim that our writing is representative and true comes finally and only from the reading.
Listen to your readers.
Audrey Chin is a South-East-Asian writer who has been a daughter-in-law of the Vietnamese diaspora for over thirty years. As the Heart Bones Break, her latest novel featuring the life of a South Vietnamese man and his family over the last sixty years was launched and sold out at the 2013 Singapore Writers Festival in November. Purchase her book here: http://www.amazon.com/Heart-Bones-Break-Audrey-Chin/dp/9814484075/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1389804964&sr=8-1&keywords=As+the+Heart+Bones+Break