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Making an impact
The Malaysia Star
Sunday April 23, 2006


Malaysian Vyvyane Loh’s debut novel is one of 10 short-listed for the world’s richest literary prize. LYN LOH catches up with her via e-mail.

LAST November, when her phone rang at 1.30 in the morning, Vyvane Loh’s immediate response was of alarm and fear of bad news from home.

It turned out the caller was a Singaporean reporter who wanted her “reaction” to making the long list of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for Breaking the Tongue, her first novel.

Loh’s second thought, after her initial confusion, was that the call was part of an elaborate joke by a prank-loving friend.

She only began to take the whole thing seriously early April, after receiving e-mails from the IMPAC committee and the W.W. Norton publicist informing her that Breaking the Tongue had made the short list, announced on April 5.

Even then, Loh had her reservations. She remembered telling her Brazilian engineer husband, Mauricio Toledo: “I just got some e-mails. I think I made the IMPAC shortlist – but I may have gotten it wrong. Let me read them again.”

She is one of 10 writers up for the IMPAC award, the most lucrative for a single work of fiction. The winner, to be announced on June 14, will receive 100,000 Euros (RM490,000).

Born in Ipoh and raised in Singapore, Loh graduated from Boston University before attending Boston University Medical School. She practised medicine full-time before accepting a scholarship to the MFA Program for Creative Writing at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, United States.

This year, she is a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and is currently working on her second book for W.W. Norton. Her original plans have changed very much since the description of her work was posted, she adds, and considers herself fortunate to be writing in an age when there are so many exciting writers around internationally.

Breaking the Tongue, told through the eyes of Claude Lim, is set against the complacent, uneasy days of British colonial rule. It climaxes in the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in World War II.

Claude has been raised to detest his own heritage and venerate his British colonisers, but as British defences disintegrate (aided by double agents and the apathy of British expatriates), he is forced to examine his divided loyalties.

As if growing up in wartime Singapore was not hard enough, Claude is constantly pushed and challenged by the iron-willed women in his life: his eccentric Grandma Siok who is determined Claude should accept his true cultural heritage and reject his father’s anglophilic ways, and Ling-Li, the fierce, battling waif who exercises her own peculiar brand of scorn and prejudice upon her imperial rulers.

Loh does not tip-toe around issues like racism, anglophilia, xenophobia and nationalism in her book. In our interview, she empathetically contends that people eager to believe that such issues and “colonial stuff” are beyond today’s society are very much in denial.

As Breaking the Tongue comes to its end, there is a section where the text is suddenly written in Chinese characters. The author excluded an English translation, deliberately shutting out English-only readers, leaving them to grope their way through via context and insinuation, only half-joking when she says she wanted her readers to “work a little”.

But she is admits to her own Mandarin being a little rusty for lack of practice, unless one counts ordering in Chinese at Chinese restaurants.

When people think of “Asian” literature, it’s inevitably set in India, China or Japan. Why is there a dearth of books set in the South-East Asian region?

I am not sure. I think the literary scene in South-East Asia is expanding, but in the past it had been pretty dead. In Singapore there was a lot of emphasis on science and technology, and anything in the arts was seen as impractical, something you’d pursue as a hobby, not a career.

Did you deliberately set out to write about Singapore?

Yes, for this book.

How much of your own experiences growing up in post-colonial Singapore seeped into Breaking the Tongue and seeded the beginning of Claude’s story?

I think that writers are constantly taking in things around them consciously or unconsciously.

I had always wanted to be a writer when I was a child though I didn’t think I could write a book like Breaking the Tongue. I was always writing in my notebooks, observing people and listening to their stories. I think my experiences as a child informed my writing of this book, but I have to say all characters and the plot are the result of the imagination.

People tend to view every book as a memoir of some sort. It’s almost as if they have no faith in the power of the imagination.

Yes, I suppose you could classify this book as historical fiction but people focus too much on the “historical” part and forget that it is merely the adjective describing the noun “fiction”.

In the book, you wrote that the Chinese thought every other race barbarous, but they seemed hell-bent on emphasising their own class-divide and believing themselves superior to others of their own race. Occasionally, I catch myself thinking that being English-educated makes me slightly better off, but my parents are quick to remind me to be proud of my own heritage. Do you ever catch yourself in such self-indulgent moments?

I think when I was a child going to an English-education school, I did. I noticed that most kids in my school thought themselves superior to the Chinese-educated kids and would make jokes about them.

At the same time, I was brought up by my parents to be proud of my Chinese heritage; my mother was Chinese-educated. So I think deep down I was proud to be Chinese. It was only in school where it got confusing.

As an adult I am proud of my heritage, but I also have an interest and a love for other cultures.

Claude’s coming of age would have been a meaty story in itself, but you weaved in themes of betrayal, intrigue and spying. Did you plan that from the start or was it something you added in as you went along?

Even when I wrote short stories, I was told they had a “novelistic” feel to them. I think this is because I love throwing in everything, including the kitchen sink, the juice extractor and the lawn mower!

In my mind, rather than merely betrayal, intrigue and spying, Breaking the Tongue is about history as a narrative and how particular narratives are chosen over others, the unreliability and malleability of narrative and hence history, and how we invent our own personal and national identities.

You wrote about locals who resented the British, who dominated their lives socially and economically, despite being the minority then. As an Asian in America, do you find it that certain sections of Caucasian society feel the large influx of Asian migrants are dominating the economy and draining resources at their expense?

I think racism is a reality in our lives and that we are all guilty of it to some extent. I am irritated most by the stereotyping and exoticising of Asians in the United States. That whole submissive, demure Asian woman thing makes me want to give a loud fart whenever I encounter it!

If you’d always wanted to be a writer, why did you pursue a medical career?

If you are from an Asian family, security is a big thing. I gave in to parental pressure. I like medicine and I learned a lot about life by being in this field, so I am grateful I became a doctor. It’s just not my passion.

Besides being a physician and a writer, you are also a choreographer and dancer. It’s amazing you found time to write a novel and, before that, attend a writing course.

I quit working full-time as a physician when I got a full scholarship to pursue my MFA in Writing. That meant living very frugally and simply – we ate oatmeal a lot and didn’t spend money on material things. I taught aerobics, spinning, dance, Portuguese, English, worked as a personal trainer and when I could, I freelanced as a physician.

Over time, the physician temping jobs became more regular and I didn’t have to do other stuff so much.

It was hard for three years but it was more important for me to pursue my dream than live a life of luxury or keep up with the Joneses.

Oh, I have the added advantage of hating TV ... always have. My mother used to make me watch TV as a child because she thought I read too much and kept to myself too much. People say they don’t have time, but they spend three to four hours a day watching TV.

Hypothetically, how would you like to be remembered – as Vyvyane Loh the physician, the dancer/choreographer or writer?

I wonder why people seem to think you have to choose one thing over another. For me, one field enriches the other and it’s all one big thing to me. That is the creative act.

IMPAC shortlist

THE 10 books on the shortlist of International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award are:

Breaking the Tongue by Vyvyane Loh; Graceland, Chris Abani; Maps for Lost Lovers, Nadeem Aslam; Havoc, In Its Third Year by Ronan Bennett; The Closed Circle, Jonathan Coe; An Altered Light, Jens Christian Grøndahl (translated from the Danish by Anne Born); The Swallows of Kabul, Yasmina Khadra (translated from the French by John Cullen); Don’t Move, Margaret Mazzantini (translated from the Italian by John Cullen); The Master, Colm Tóibín, and The Logogryph by Thomas Wharton.

The IMPAC award, established in 1995, is administered by Dublic City Public Libraries. Each year, libraries around the world nominate books for the long list. Breaking the Tongue was nominated by the New York Public Library. It is the first work by a Malaysian writer to make the IMPAC shortlist.

The judges this year – Scottish writer Andrew O’Hagan, Italian poet Paolo Ruffilli, novelist Mary O’Donnell and academic/editor Jane Koustas – sieved through 132 entries to pick the final 10.

American writer Edward P. Jones won last year for The Known World. The winners from 2004 to 2001, respectively, were This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun; My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk; Atomised (The Elementary Particles) by Michel Houellebecq and No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod.

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