Malaysian author's debut makes 'Good Morning America' book club pick

A screen grab of Malaysian-born author Chan appearing on ABC's 'Good Morning America' earlier this month to talk about her Malaya-inspired debut novel 'The Storm We Made'. Photo: YouTube

“In Malaysia, I like to say our grandparents love us by not speaking,” says US-based Malaysian-born author Vanessa Chan.

“The experience of the Japanese Occupation is very much shrouded in ‘don’t talk about it’ and ‘let’s move on’,” she elaborates, an experience that is undoubtedly relatable to many Malaysians with family members who lived through that time.

Chan’s debut novel The Storm We Made, which is out now, is set in the same harrowing time period.

The book has been creating waves since its recent release this month, with US TV channel ABC naming it January’s "Good Morning America: Book Club Pick".

Chan, originally from Kuala Lumpur, also made a live appearance on the influential US breakfast show. In recent weeks, her book has been recommended by The New York Times, The Guardian and picked as the first BBC Radio 2 Book Club choice (on Jan 9) of the year.

In Chan's book, we follow Cecily, a mother in pre-independence Malaya (beginning in the 1930s), who becomes an unlikely spy in Kuala Lumpur for the invading Japanese forces during World War II, which eventually leads to shocking consequences for her family and community.

The story is told through the alternating points of view of Cecily and her three children – Jujube, Abel and Jasmin – taking us between 1945 (the story’s “present”) and as far back as 10 years before, when Cecily’s actions planted the seeds of what would happen later.

A family affair

Chan, a former Facebook director of communications, quit her career in public relations, uprooted from San Francisco and pursued an MFA in creative writing at The New School in New York in 2019.

In her new home in Brooklyn, she began working on The Storm We Made book in early 2020 during the pandemic, when none of the libraries and archives were open. Her past work and short stories have appeared in publications such as Esquire, Conjunctions, Electric Lit, and Kenyon Review.

“Even the facts I had from my textbooks were sparse – I knew that the Japanese ingeniously invaded from the north via Thailand riding bicycles, while the British cannons were pointing south at the sea, and that they dropped red propaganda flyers about an ‘Asia for Asians’ as they invaded, both a warning and a call to arms,” recalls Chan.

“Instead, I first relied on my memory and the stories I had heard before from my family, that I had internalised but never really put to paper,” she adds.

As the eldest grandchild on her father’s side, Chan spent a lot of time with her grandparents, and over the years, she was able to glean fascinating and often horrible anecdotes from her grandmother, delivered in a matter-of-fact way.

“In one such anecdote, when she was 12 years old, a bomb from an air raid fell behind her as she was cycling home – it missed her bicycle by 30 seconds.

“She told me with an almost childish glee how her siblings, who had not realised she had made it home, dug in the rubble for hours looking for bits of her, thinking she had died,” says Chan.

To help in her research for the book, Chan’s uncle in Australia mailed her a book of old photographs of Malaysia, and when she was finally able to return to Malaysia after international borders had reopened, Chan made sure to check details with her grandmother.

“My father, a history buff, also fact-checked many details, such as the kind of dishware and shoes that were used in the 1930s and 1940s. I suppose, true to form, my novel became a family affair.”

‘I needed to give myself some joy’

The idea for the story came to Chan during a writing workshop in the United States in late 2019.

“I wrote what I thought was a throwaway homework assignment – about a teenage girl struggling to get home before curfew, before Japanese soldiers storm the streets.

“I remember the handwritten comment from the instructor: ‘Keep this precious thing close and keep writing it’.”

As Chan was busy writing the novel, she received tragic news from her family in Malaysia: her mother had passed away, followed by her uncle, within two weeks of each other. Chan was unable to attend either of their funerals due to the travel restrictions at the time.

Based in New York, Chan began working on the book in early 2020 during the pandemic lockdown, when none of the libraries and archives were open. Photo: Mary Inhea KangBased in New York, Chan began working on the book in early 2020 during the pandemic lockdown, when none of the libraries and archives were open. Photo: Mary Inhea Kang

“During those tough days it felt as though this novel, and the ability to scratch out some words a day, was what was getting me out of bed. In a way, it saved me,” says Chan.

It was due to this personal tragedy that a significant change was made to the story.

“When I first began writing this novel, it was a story about three sad children living through the end of WWII in Malaysia. But as an author living through terrible personal grief, I needed to give myself some joy. I needed to give my characters the agency that I didn’t feel I had at the time.

“I love spy stories and narratives, so as an experiment, I decided to infuse some spy craft into my novel. Before I knew it, Cecily – the mother who made the decision to take a side and spy – became the story’s central figure,” says Chan.

The Storm We Made is available in good bookstores in Malaysia.

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