Award-winning Malaysian-born author Chiew-Siah Tei’s second novel continues to explore themes of identity,
culture and belonging.
CHIEW-SIAH Tei’s long-awaited second novel The Mouse Deer Kingdom hit the bookstores last month, and the author was back in Malaysia to speak at the George Town Literary Festival 2013.
Tei, who grew up in Tampin, Negri Sembilan, has made Glasgow, Scotland, her home, and her first novel Little Hut Of Leaping Fishes was nominated for the Best Scottish Fiction prize in 2008.
“It was a surprise,” she concedes. “I never thought that a book set in China and written by a Malaysian would be nominated and shortlisted for the prize.”
The book was also shortlisted for the inaugural Man Asian literary prize in 2007 and won the Popular-The Star Readers’ Choice Awards in 2010.
Did the success of the first novel put extra pressure on her when she was writing this book?
“Not at all. I just get on with my writing, that is the most important thing for me. As writers, if we are too concerned about prizes, it will affect what we want to work on, and how we are going to work on it.”
Tei describes how totally immersed in her work she needs to be.
“When I work on a project, I have to live in the world of my characters, and it’s quite difficult to pull myself out of it, because if I did so I would have a problem getting into the world again. My emotions and feelings become my characters’, and vice versa.”
It comes as no surprise, given her background in filmmaking and theatre, that Tei describes herself as a very visual person who sees the action of the story in her head as if she was watching a film.
The Mouse Deer Kingdom continues the story of Chai Mingzhi from Little Hut Of Leaping Fishes, and it was conceived as the second part of a trilogy.
Mingzhi is a sensitive soul who becomes first a scholar and later, a mandarin.
At the end of the first book, he joins the exodus from China to South-East Asia with his makeshift family.
This second novel is especially close to the author’s heart.
“Because this book is not just for me. You can see I dedicate it to (here she flicks back to the inscription at the beginning of the book and reads it out loud) the sons and daughters of Malaysia and to the land to which we all belong – despite our ethnic background, our religion and skin colour, and regardless of where we come from. If you look at history, we are all immigrants.”
To underline this point further, she weaves the legend of the 14th-century king Parameswara into the narrative, mirroring the story of Mingzhi and his coming to Malaya in the first years of the 20th century.
“Their journeys were alike, and the main purpose of putting this in was to show that both of them are immigrants” she says.
The novel took her two to three years to write, but she says there was a long period when she found herself unable to work, following her mother’s death two years ago.
She has also struggled with macular degeneration in one of her eyes, which has made both writing, and the reading that feeds it, much more difficult.
Was the second book as she envisaged it would be when she first set out to write the trilogy, or did the concept change over time?
“The second book I initially planned was to take place in Malaya and I intended to end it with my character having to leave for somewhere else. But I struggled quite a lot with Mingzhi as the main character. I realised that in this new setting in Malaya, I should give prominence to other people. Also, I tried to adopt the same style as the first book, but after a while but I realised it wouldn’t work because it was set in a different place and my emotions and feelings for the characters were different.”
Engi, the orang asli boy whom Mingzhi adopts, becomes a witness to Mingzhi’s struggles and various betrayals.
Engi is, Tei agrees, in many ways like the mousedeer in both Paramaswara’s story and local folklore: he embodies courage and wit, and is able to move around stealthily in the night.
“He has to be clever enough to survive in a world where people deceive him and try to bully him,” says Tei.
For this writer, the most interesting character in the novel is Mingzhi’s niece Jiaxi, who is feisty and determined, and arguably the most fully-fleshed out of all the characters.
How much did Tei sympathise with her as a woman?
“She’s a woman of a newer age who knows how to get what she wants,” Tei says, pointing out that she wanted to show through her female characters how the attitudes of women evolved over time, beginning with Mingzhi’s mother who embodies traditional values, to Mingzhi’s much more daring sister Meilian, and finally to the completely liberated and amoral Jiaxi.
The character Tei identifies with most is Mingzhi.
But isn’t he a rather weak character?
“He is. He’s weak because he isn’t able to get what he wants. What he really wants is to be with his family, and when he has lost that, he turns into someone who is unrecognisable. The house (the villa that he builds) represents the family that he doesn’t have anymore.”
Tei is not afraid of showing us the darker side of her characters, and the theme of corruption is explored, albeit indirectly, in both novels.
“It’s a way of life even now in present-day Malaysia. In the book, it only happens within the Chinese community, but of course it happens in every segment of society,” she explains.
At the moment, Tei says she doesn’t know yet which of her characters will carry the final book of her trilogy.
She is, in fact, putting the third book on hold for now, because she wants to work instead on a new novel set in a small town in 1960s Malaysia.
She doesn’t want to reveal more just yet, but says it will still centre around the themes of home versus dislocation and displacement that she has been exploring in her first two novels.