Bitter-Sweet Harvest Interview

Please tell us the settings for Bitter-Sweet Harvest and Sweet Offerings.
Sweet Offerings was principally set in Malaysia. By contrast, the setting for Bitter-Sweet Harvest is quite different. As mentioned in the cover of the book, the story takes the reader on a journey through contrasting cultures: from the learned spires of Oxford in England to the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia; from vibrant Singapore to Catholic Rome and developing Indonesia.

What would the world take from the books?
Both novels are works of fiction and are meant to entertain. So I hope that at the end of the book, I would like readers to say, “What a fascinating book!  I really enjoyed it and I would like to read another book from the same author! I think I would like to visit the country to see for myself!  It reads so real and stirs up such memories!”  The book is not meant to preach. Readers will take from the book what they seek and each reader will have a different perspective. In writing both novels, I have never painted a black and white situation. I have tried to give the perspective of the characters themselves, with their weaknesses and strength.

Do elaborate on your personal thoughts about writing Malaysian literature for the world.
I think it is always exciting to be writing about Malaysia because the country has all the ingredients of the modern world: multiculturalism. One important point to note, however, is that multiculturalism is not new in Malaysia so it might not always be appropriate to draw direct parallels with other countries recently receiving large inflow of migrants. It has been there for centuries and, of course, we are not talking about pockets of minority groups of different origins in the country. The Chinese represented 45 percent of the population in the 50s though the current proportion is much reduced (one source says to 25 percent).
It is very exciting to write about people who speak two or more different languages to each other, switching from one to the other with ease; and, of course, there is that all inspiring Malaysian cuisine. Malaysia provides a very colourful background to my writing.

What motivated and encouraged you to write Bitter-Sweet Harvest?
I was motivated by the readers of Sweet Offerings.  I had the great opportunity to meet with many readers because I was invited to their readers’ group meetings. I attended more than a dozen of these and most, if not all, asked if I would write a sequel. I had similar requests from readers submitting comments to my website.

You mentioned in a newspaper interview that you were still finding yourself as you penned Sweet Offerings.  As a result, did any new discoveries lie before you with Bitter-Sweet Harvest?
When writing Bitter-Sweet Harvest, I rediscovered how much I love writing and the research that goes with it. I always try to make the historical background as real as possible. Most people believe that Sweet Offerings was biographical and I am very flattered by it. For the genre of books that I am writing, I believe that you have to make it real for the readers to carry them with you.

Did nostalgia beckon when you wrote Bitter-Sweet Harvest? Did any memory cajole you to a forgotten remembrance?
Neither book is autobiographical so I am not recounting my childhood. But I do draw upon my knowledge of all the places described in the novel, and of course, I also draw upon my memories of, say, eating out in Malaysia, sitting in the stalls, hearing conversations around me etc.

How essential is characterisation to you?
The characters in the novel take on a life of their own. When I am writing I am totally involved. I am each character. I do not, however, let them take over my life away from my desk.

What were your sentiments when you touched on the last line of Bitter-Sweet Harvest?
Once a manuscript is out of my hands and on its way to printers, I always feel a sense of anti-climax. I have worked so hard on it and suddenly it is not there anymore. I try not to look at it again though because I fear I might wish to write and re-write again. It is never as perfect as it can be.

In a way, you don’t say goodbye because once published, you revisit the story over and over again. You speak about it in interviews and when meeting people who have read the book. It is a lovely and very satisfying feeling when you see your work in print and in bookstores.

How did you manage your research for both Sweet Offerings and Bitter-Sweet Harvest?
For Sweet Offerings I did a lot of research in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. For Bitter-Sweet Harvest, my research ranged from interviews to reference books. I also did a lot of research for both books on-line.

Who are some of your favourite novelists and books?
My favourite authors include: Barbara Kingsolver, especially her novel, The Poisonwood Bible. I like Hilary Mantel – I found A Change of Climate fascinating. I enjoyed The Outcast by Sadie Jones. It was very tersely written. I love The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. They were books that gave such insight into Afghanistan. I also love Anthony Trollope and was inspired by his penetrating views on the political, social and gender issues of his day.

What’s next on the cards for a writing project?
I plan to write another novel. I have two ideas and have not decided which I should pursue.