Living in between two cultures provides substantial materials for my writing / Q&A with author Chiew-Siah Tei

If there is a perfect example of world literature it would be The Mouse Deer Kingdom. In it, author Chiew-Siah Tei enlightened me at least with a story a Chinese immigrant who fled poverty and corruption and moved to Southeast Asia in the early 20th Century. Now living in Scotland, Chiew-Siah Tei took a few moments from a busy schedule – and from the news from her homeland of Malaysia – to answer a few questions.

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How long have you been writing? What inspired you to start writing?

A: My interest in writing began when I was at Primary Four. My class teacher picked up my first composition and submitted it to the student column of a national newspaper. The piece, a short personal essay, was subsequently published. Continuous encouragement from the teacher had given me so much confidence and made me realize it was possible to achieve something despite coming from a disadvantage background.

However, as someone who grew up in a conventional family and society, it had never crossed my mind that I could become a writer, a profession unacceptable by our social values. After obtaining my first degree, I put writing to one aside and worked unhappily in a busy corporate environment. It took me a few years before I finally gave up everything to come to Scotland in 2002 to pursue a career in writing.

You used Goodreads to promote your book. What was that experience like for you? Did you use any other platforms to promote yourself?

A: It was the first time I tried giving copies of my book away on Goodreads. It was easier than I thought. I aimed to reach out to the reading community, making them aware of the book, and I think I achieved my purpose to certain degree though I know I haven’t done enough. I am a keen writer who is more interested in perfecting my craft. I am not awfully good at self-promotion, I must admit.

Who are some other writers that you admire? What are you currently reading right now?

A: I read very widely. Growing up in Chinese literature, I was first engrossed in poems of the Tang and Song Dynasties (among my favourites is woman poet Li Qingzhao, which I mentioned in my books) and later taken to works of Mainland and Taiwanese authors, such as Mo Yan, Su Tong, Eileen Chang and Yan Geling, to name a few.

During varsity times, Milan Kundera and Gabriel García Márquez made me realise the vast possibilities of creative writing. V.S. Naipaul’s works on the themes of immigration and displacement struck a cord in me when I came to Scotland. I also love Annie Proulx’s clean, clear prose and Anne Michaels’ poignant, lyrical renditions; and Arundathi Roy’s magnifying eye takes creating writing to a different realm. There is a long list of them if I were to continue.

Apart from fiction, I spend my time reading non-fiction of various subjects and studying practical philosophy. I am currently reading The Orange Book: A Method of Self-Realization; it’s a series of talks and answers by His Holiness Shantanand Saraswati, on the emotional realization of Unity in the midst of life.

Are you planning any new writing projects in the future?

A:  I am working on my third book which, again, is set in Malaysia. I am unable to reveal the details at this stage.

Do you (Or did you do any) public readings of The Mouse Deer Kingdom? If, yes,what was the experience like for you?

A: I have been doing public reading since even before my first book, Little Hut of Leaping Fishes, was published. I regularly attend local, national and international book events at which readings are usually required. From feeling uncomfortable during my earlier experience to getting accustomed to it, I have resorted to bring my audiences closer to my characters and their worlds through readings, which I now enjoy.

You recently wrote on a blog piece: I am fortunate to have learned more than one language; as a writer, this allows a larger space for me to fully release my creative energy. Did you write your original manuscript in English? Did you have an English-speaking audience in mind when you first wrote it?

A:  All my works that are published in English are written in that language. My multi-lingual experience enriches my writing and this is an asset for a creative writer who is keen on literary experiments. My background in Chinese literature has added to the advantage. Readers who have read my books, especially Little Hut of Leaping Fishes, will find between the passages the influence of Chinese literature, in the forms of rhythmic and lyrical prose, for example, which is quite similar to those of classic Chinese verses.

Are there personal stories or family stories set in the plot of The Mouse Deer Kingdom? Or is a work of complete imagination?

A: The Mouse Deer Kingdom is a book of fiction. It doesn’t base on any story or character I personally know of. There are, however, traces of historical incidents, such as the visit of Dr Sun Yat Sen to Malacca, the uprising of the revolutionists in Yunnan in 1908, during which a shipment of firearms promised by the Japanese was sunk. Black Eagle, which I orchestrated to rob the shipment, was a prominent pirate during his time. I studied historical facts, fictionalized them and weaved them through my book.

You seem to spend a lot of time traveling – especially between Scotland and Malaysia. Does that help you with your writing at all? Is there still much of a culture shock between the two countries now or has globalization homogenized life of the two countries.

A: Living in between two cultures provides substantial materials for my writing. I am particularly interested in cultural and political issues. While my status as an alien in a foreign land allows me to dig into migration-related subject matters, the freedom I enjoy being outside my country enables me to scrutinize without fear social injustice and corrupt practices of the Malaysian government.

You have a steady presence on Twitter. Does social media help you in your writing at all?

A: Actually, I don’t spend much time on social media. I work from home and sometimes log on Twitter or Facebook to receive news updates, especially when there are crucial incidents closer to home, such as major political events in Malaysia and the recent disappearance of the Malaysian Airline MH370. I also log on Facebook to share some light-hearted moments with friends or to look at beautiful photos and video clips, to relax a little after hours of writing. That’s why I don’t usually engage in lengthy, serious discussion as I am usually stressed up after work when I logged on and would not like to strain my brains and my eyes on the small prints. It could be distracting but I have set a rule not to log on before lunch, after most parts of the work scheduled for the day are done.

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Chiew-Siah Tei’s website

Picador Books page for “The Mouse Deer Kingdom”

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