Malaysian author finds unlikely link between mushrooms and mourning in new book

Long Litt Woon found solace in mushrooming after the death of her husband. Photo: Johs. Boe

You would be forgiven for raising a brow, or even two, when presented with this unlikely premise: a book on mourning and mushrooms. Surely there must be some mistake, perhaps a case of alliteration taken to extremes?

But no. Author Long Litt Woon, raised in Taiping, Perak, and currently based in Norway, not only did it – but she has done it with flair. Her book, part memoir and part mushroom-hunting adventure, invites us into her life, beginning with that one terrible, dreadful day when husband Eiolf “went to work and didn’t come home”, to her coping with his untimely death.

And framing it all is another tale, of mushroom hunting, of learning a new skill, of resilience and perseverance, of getting acquainted with something that is bigger, older and more magnificent than it looks on the surface.

As unlikely as death and bereavement seem to go together with mushroom-hunting in the Norwegian forests, Long makes it work in this book.

“The book grew into itself rather organically. I started writing a personal book about mushrooms, how I got hooked and about the mushroom people. I am an anthropologist and was fascinated by this weird tribe I met in the forest. Only later, when wondering how to put into the book that it was my husband’s death which led me to mushrooming, and I started writing about losing him, that I realised that this book is about two journeys, not just one, ” says Long, 61, in an email interview.

The Way Through The Woods: Of Mushrooms And Mourning is getting some buzz: It was longlisted for the Swiss Jan Michalski Prize for Literature this year, and it was the most translated nonfiction book from Norwegian last year, 14 languages.

Long returned to Malaysia to launch the book at the George Town Literary Festival last November.

She is no stranger to having her writing published, having had a column in Aftenposten, Norway’s largest newspaper; she has also authored academic reports and evaluations, and edited an anthology.

But The Way Through The Woods is her first entirely personal book.

Long met Eiolf when she went to Oslo on a college exchange programme when she was 18, and he, 21. For the next three decades and a bit, they shared a life together.

And then the unexpected happened.

“How can he be dead, this man who I had always expected to outlive me? Only a few hours earlier, there had been two of us, sharing a life.... Now he was in the emergency unit at Ulleval Hospital. Dead. So alive one moment. So dead the next. Only a heartbeat separating the one state from the other. My best friend was gone. I was alone in the world, ” she writes in her book.

A year after her husband died, Long signed up for a mushroom class; it was something they had talked about doing together. Little did she imagine that this would be a long-term pursuit, but perhaps even more unexpectedly, it helped her rediscover stable ground beneath her feet.

Long, the author of 'The Way Through The Woods', with her late husband, Eiolf. Photo: Long Litt WoonLong, the author of 'The Way Through The Woods', with her late husband, Eiolf. Photo: Long Litt WoonShe sums it up in three words: pleasure, purpose and peace.

Mushroom-foraging has given her all these, and more.

“The whole process of mushrooming and mourning has taken a long time and things have moved very slowly for me. I first knew that I could be ‘saved’ by mushrooms when I experienced joy for the first time after my husband died. Even though I did not know how mushrooms could help me, this was the only thing which lit up in my very dark life at that time.

“Deciding to take the so-called mushroom exam and wanting to join the ‘inner circle’ of mushroomers gave me a task, a purpose and a direction when I was wandering around aimlessly. Finally, the forest gave me a sense of wholeness and peace. I write about how mushroom-foraging awoke my senses, senses which had dulled or shut down after my husband died, ” she says.

Long is now a full-time author and a certified mushroom expert in Norway.

She shares that all her previous writing efforts have been about convincing people and about appealing to logic and rationality. The Way Through The Woods is a stark departure from this.

There were many lessons gleaned from writing this book, of which the most important is that her writing can move people emotionally.

“Obviously, people who are interested in either mushrooms or mourning will be attracted to those parts in the book, ” she points out.

Indeed, the book is presented in a way that makes it possible for the readers to skip to either journey and read it from start to finish, if they are so inclined.

“But mushrooms are just incidental – even though there is a lot about them in the book – and mourning is about loss, a universal fact of life. People lose their jobs, their health, their homes and so on. This book is about how I found an antidote to my life’s greatest loss.

“Hopefully, the story can inspire others in similar situations. But most of all, I hope my readers get an utterly enjoyable reading experience. I know some do, ” she says.

Although this book touches on what is intensely personal, Long shares that it was not at all difficult to address that part of it. What posed more of a challenge was to try to write about it in a way that was true to her process while remaining engaging to the reader.

“I am lucky in that I enjoy the challenge. I enjoy writing and developing my writing. I liked both structuring the book and playing with language. I think about what I am working on all the time, also when I am not writing. It is a joy – and a great privilege – to only do the one thing I want to do, ” she says.

As to be expected when you write a book on grief and bereavement, many people have asked her if it was therapeutic to do so.

“But that was not the reason I wrote. I wrote because I like writing and I felt I had a story to tell. But, in retrospect, I definitely see the therapeutic effect of writing.

“In fact, it continues also after the book has been published because I meet so many people with new and interesting questions when I travel around with my book.

“With every new question, something clicks and falls into place and I become new and more whole, ” she says.

Her book has taken her around the world, yet she finds time to go mushrooming whenever and wherever she can.

“The good thing about travelling with my book is that I always meet people who have read my book who want to show me their secret mushroom spots! I enjoy that very much, ” she shares.

In the meantime, Long is working on her next book. She’s keeping mum on the details for now, but it is not about mushrooms!

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