For Vanessa Chan, home is where the heart is


In the US, Chan says it requires ‘an extra level of convincing’ to get readers there interested in her book, whereas in Malaysia, there has been a lot of celebration surrounding the book and its success. Photo: The Star/Art Chen

For author Vanessa Chan, coming home to Kuala Lumpur is usually a celebration of sorts.

“I try to come back every year for Chinese New Year, and call it good juju or fate, but all the good things that have ever happened with this book have coincidentally happened while I was in Malaysia,” says Chan, 37, who is based in New York.

She is back in town to promote her debut novel The Storm We Made, which was released in the United States in January.

“In 2022, just before my flight home, my agents sent the book out. I got on my flight, and about 24 hours later when I landed in KL and turned my phone on, it started overflowing with notifications about publishers interested in the book!”

That week, Chan sat through a whirlwind of meetings, and by the end of it, her book (rights) was sold. Her paternal grandmother, whom Chan was close to, was one of the first people she told.

“I said to my grandmother, ‘I sold the book that I wrote about you!’ and she responded, ‘Lovely, lovely ... now, tomorrow is Chinese New Year. Who is going to sweep the house? Are you going to stand there and continue to jabber, or are you going to sweep the house?’

“Family keeps you humble,” says Chan, 37, with a laugh.

Her return the following year was a more sombre occasion, as she had to attend the funeral of the same grandmother.

“It’s a shame that she never got to hold a copy of the finished book,” says Chan.

This year, her trip to Malaysia comes following the release of The Storm We Made, which has generated plenty of buzz here and abroad – in January, it was named the read of the month for US TV show Good Morning America and the BBC Radio 2 Book Club, and will be published in more than 20 languages worldwide.

While Petaling Jaya-born Chan has been happy to see support and praise for the book coming in from all around the world, it’s a different level altogether here in Malaysia.

“My family is very supportive; they keep coming for my book events. At a recent one, my aunt was happily walking around thanking everyone for coming, as though it was her wedding. During the Q&A, my dad asked three questions!” shares Chan, with equal parts fondness and exasperation.

'The Storm We Made' is a saga about the horrors of war; the fraught relationships between the colonised and their oppressors, and the ambiguity of right and wrong when survival is at stake. Photo: Handout'The Storm We Made' is a saga about the horrors of war; the fraught relationships between the colonised and their oppressors, and the ambiguity of right and wrong when survival is at stake. Photo: Handout

“My dad told me, ‘Most people don’t get to walk into a bookstore and see the name of someone they know on a book in the display window.’ It’s been a good reminder to me of why I do this,” she adds.

There is, however, perhaps one shortcoming: “I have to be careful of what I say when I’m in Malaysia. Everybody knows my history, especially my family, so I can’t simply make anything up or exaggerate – they will know!”

PR life to literary spotlight

Chan’s debut, set in colonial Malaya, takes readers back and forth between two time periods – in 1945, at the tail-end of the Japanese Occupation (the book’s “present”), and a decade earlier in the 1930s, when a bored housewife, Cecily, began sowing the seeds that result in unintended consequences for herself and her family.

Based on the stories that her grandparents shared of their harrowing experiences during the Japanese Occupation, the book doesn’t mince words or tread lightly around the horrors and violence of war. The fear, uncertainty and anguish experienced by Chan’s characters in the book reflected her own inner turmoil at the time of writing – she had written the book in the throes of grief during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, during which she lost her mother and uncle.

“I was trying to wake up every day and be all right, but I really wasn’t,” admits Chan.

“When someone in your family dies, you’re usually able to gather and grieve together, to celebrate the life of the person who passed. But I couldn’t do that. So I was grieving alone and the only thing that kept me going was writing – I would wake up and give myself a goal, which was to write 888 words, because eight is my lucky number.”

Prior to becoming a full-time writer, Chan was a director of communications at Facebook with a background in public relations and an undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley in political economy (which Chan jokes is “economics for people who are bad at maths”).

When Chan, who has Chinese and Eurasian roots, is back in Kuala Lumpur, she usually enjoys Peranakan food, especially curry buah keluak. Photo: The Star/Art ChenWhen Chan, who has Chinese and Eurasian roots, is back in Kuala Lumpur, she usually enjoys Peranakan food, especially curry buah keluak. Photo: The Star/Art Chen

So what made her want to take the risk of leaving a stable corporate job to pursue writing?

“Writing didn’t seem like a viable possibility as a career until I had more stability,” explains Chan.

“It was only when I finally got my green card that I was able to seriously consider becoming a writer. At the same time, I was going through a millennial existential crisis and wondered if there was something more beyond the paycheque, something more fulfilling.”

“Some people can keep their full-time job and write, but I can’t multitask, so I decided to go all-in and give it a shot,” says Chan, who quit her job and moved to New York to enrol in an MFA in creative writing at The New School in 2019.

A familiar place

Sharing the differences between promoting The Storm We Made in the US and in Malaysia, Chan says that in the US, getting readers to want to read the book feels like it requires “an extra level of convincing”, whereas in Malaysia, there has been a lot of celebration surrounding the book and its success.

“It comes from a place of knowledge. People here know or have heard of the experiences written in the book. In the US, people like that the book has a lot of plot, but they don’t necessarily relate to it,” she says.

Chan is seen with her publishing representative and staff from Kinokuniya KLCC at her first book talk in Kuala Lumpur last month. Photo: Vanessa Chan Chan is seen with her publishing representative and staff from Kinokuniya KLCC at her first book talk in Kuala Lumpur last month. Photo: Vanessa Chan

“I was once at this conference as part of my tour in the US, and this lady came up to me and she said, ‘Pitch to me why I, as a person in the American South, should read your book.’ While I gave her a polite answer, I thought about how all my life, I’ve been reading books about things that I don’t know and I’ve been fine with it.

“I think this speaks to the privilege that Western audiences have, because most literature and arts relate to them. For those outside this bubble, we’re used to everything not relating to us our whole lives. If we only stuck to the things that we could directly relate to, we wouldn’t be able to read or watch anything,” she points out.

Though the excitement around The Storm We Made is nowhere near fading away quite yet, we’re curious as to what’s next in the pipeline.

Chan’s next release is The Ugliest Babies In The World, a short story collection expected to be released in 2026 (which Chan describes as “funny, kind of wild and feral, and a bit more contemporary”), in addition to two novels that are still in the early stages.

When prodded for a hint, Chan shares: “One of the books asks the question about how some tourists like to say that they don’t want ‘the tourist experience’; they want an ‘authentic’ experience. So the book asks: can that ever be true? Can tourism ever be an authentic experience? There’s a scam involved, there’s grifting. It’s definitely going to be less sad and stressful than my first novel.”

Vanessa Chan will be appearing at Lit Books in Petaling Jaya (March 16, 11am) and Eslite bookstore in Starhill Gallery, Kuala Lumpur (March 17, 11am) as part of her book tour. The Storm We Made is available in all good bookstores.

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