They say it is difficult to truly know a person. That no matter how smooth or polished his or her veneer may be, every person has a hidden, darker side that others rarely see.
The characters in Tee Lin Dee’s short stories are certainly more than meet the eye. In Panam, we meet a rough and unruly money lender who ends up developing compassion. The Young Doctor features a passionate young medical officer who learns the profession of saving lives is not all its cut up to be.
In Flat Kids, a group of underprivileged children learn that charity can be exploited.
These diverse characters light up Tee’s anthology Superficiality, which peels back the civil exterior of contemporary Malaysian society, to reveal the hidden truths within.
“Every character in my book is based on someone I have encountered – some near, some distant, some who would merely consider me an acquaintance. I gather some would be shocked to know they had been immortalised into a story, I may potentially ruffle a feather or two. The stories are loosely based on my observation of that person, ” says Tee, in a recent email interview.
“Each character has a fascinating viewpoint that I consider less heard. Their stories are not big revolutionary accounts, but a perspective nevertheless that I felt would contribute to the perceptions in society.”
Born in Taiping, Tee is a writer (who had been with The Star for 14 years) and TV producer. She is also the founder of SchoolHeroes, a programme aimed at teaching contemporary life lessons to predominantly rural students.
Tee has always been an avid writer, often telling stories out loud as a kid, and writing Bahasa Malaysia stories in her exercise books, which she would distribute to her friends. Writing a book had always been her dream, but procrastination, work and other life goals often got in the way.
Several years ago however, the spirited Tee decided to take her writing seriously. She joined the Silverfish Writing Programme, under mentor Raman Krishnan, and learned to hone her skills. Tee also met local director Mior Hashim Manap, who taught her screenwriting and the art of storytelling.
The duo even worked on a screenplay together.
“At the end of 2019, I felt that enough was enough and I had to have a book out. I had a portfolio of stories by then that required some editing, and that was what I did during the March 2020 lockdown, ” says Tee.
Tee approached independent publisher Gerakbudaya with her manuscript last March. Unfortunately, it was unable to publish her book at the time.
Gerakbudaya informed her about its self-publishing option instead, and Tee accepted.
In these troubled political days and pandemic times, Superficiality makes for a good read, offering reflection through a collection of honest tales derived from the many layers of Malaysian society. Issues such as poverty, class and culture are all tackled in Tee’s no-nonsense writing.
Her biggest challenge was tackling stories where the characters were very different from her. Panam, for instance, centred around Jay, a Tamil-speaking male, while The Chinese Teacher was about Freddie, a Chinese-speaking man.
Her personal favourite in the collection is Kit Kat Decides To Lose Some Weight.
“It’s probably the most superficial story, but perhaps because of the character, it was the easiest and most enjoyable to write. Kitty Kat is an English-speaking girl with cotton in her head, who lives in the city, so it wasn’t too hard to write about her. I laughed so much when I wrote that story and the lines just poured. There wasn’t much of a stuck moment in brandishing Kitty Kat into the world.”
Some say that writers tend put a little of themselves into their work, and in Tee’s case, it’s literal. Keep your eyes peeled for a character named Swensen, who appears in every story.
“Well, I suppose this is where it gets a bit indulgent. Swensen is my alter ego. I keep her in the background just because I think it’s a nice idea. When I initially handed the manuscript to Gerakbudaya, I had titled it ‘The Adventures of Swensen’. I knew deep down it wasn’t a great title and so when William Tham of GerakBudaya nudged me to change the title, I acquiesced easily.”
Tee is thinking of writing a Bahasa Malaysia anthology in the future. She’s always enjoyed writing in the national language.
“Stories and knowledge enter society and thus shape it. I hope Malaysians will get to know other Malaysians a little better through my book. I know it sounds very SchoolHeroes, but I hope it triggers some interest in friendship between races and a little more understanding and patience toward vastly different viewpoints, ” she concludes.
Superficiality is available now at local bookstores.