Living history: a family’s story of tumultuous times in Malaysia’s past

14 April 2024 - 00:00
By Mila de Villiers
Debut novelist Vanessa Chan.
Image: Mary Inhea King Debut novelist Vanessa Chan.

The Storm We Made ****
Vanessa Chan
Hodder & Stoughton

“I had to come to terms with the fact that when your history isn’t really written, the stories will have to do.”

Speaking to me via Zoom from her homeland, Malaysian author Vanessa Chan’s debut novel The Storm We Made recounts the history of British Malaya in the 1930s and Japanese-occupied Malaya in 1945 — a period of hostile control shrouded in near-obscurity.

In Malaysia, our grandparents love us by not speaking. More specifically, they do not speak about their lives from 1941-1945, the period when the Japanese imperial army invaded Malaya (what Malaysia was called before independence), tossed the British colonisers out, and turned a quiet nation into one that was at war with itself, Chan writes in the introduction.

“It was a very traumatic time,” Chan says of past generations’ reluctance to discuss the Japanese occupation of her country. This tendency of “putting the past away and moving forward” has manifested itself in the present too, with Chan pointing out that she received “minimal” information about the occupation while at school, citing “general facts and dates” as all that which was taught. 

“It’s quite a blank in our history, even for those of us who were born and raised here.”

For this reason, the value of historical fiction (“to get those stories down on paper”) as a means to preserve a country’s history is “really important”. She says, “This generation that lived through war — they’re going away. Stories and the history could die with them.” 

Enter Chan’s story of the (fictional) Eurasian Alcantara family: patriarch Gordon (an “unsuspecting middle manager for the British administration”), mother (and dissatisfied housewife) Cecily, and their three children — feisty, intelligent eldest daughter Jujube; teenage Abel, abducted and forced to work in the Kanchanaburi labour camp on the Burma/Thailand border; and the young, precocious Jasmin. 

Structurally, the novel is set during two timelines (the 1930s and 1945), with the chapters alternating between the third-person narration of Cecily, Jujube, Abel and Jasmin.

It’s suave Japanese general Shigeru Fujiwara and his promise of an independent Malaya and an “Asia for all Asians” that lures Cecily into agreeing to become his personal spy, and this decision inadvertently results in the rupture of her family and a severe period of dictatorship in Malaya under Japanese rule.

“She’s someone who has a fair amount of access [to power] because of her husband’s job, she’s observant, she’s underestimated because she's a woman, and she’s on a quest for fulfilment,” Chan says of Fujiwara favouring Cecily as a spy. Meanwhile, it is the enticing prospect of autonomy that attracts Cecily herself to the world of espionage.

“What’s really nice about being in Malaysia is that I don’t need to explain myself. I’m back home. It’s been a relief to be here, where I don’t need to justify or explain myself, or the history our country has been through,” US-based Chan says of her Heimat. 

Owing to the lack of archival material about the occupation, Chan “spent quite a bit of time with my grandparents over the years”, drawing on their stories and memories, “which became the background for the book”. 

“Earlier on, when I got questions about sources and research, I used to get a little bit nervous. I always imagined writers of history and historical fiction digging away in the library in the dark; working through old newspapers, their fingers stained; and doing reams of research,” she says with a smile. “I didn’t do any of that — partly because I was writing during the pandemic and there wasn’t much out there.

“And actually there isn’t much out there! There aren’t a lot of sources about this experience of [the Japanese] occupation in Southeast Asia, especially in Malaysia, from the perspective of regular Malayan people living at the time. There are only sources from British administrators and European prisoners of war in the labour camps,” Chan explains.

“I had to rely on some of the stories my grandmother told me, some of her memories.”

Chan cites a section in the book where Jujube recalls Cecily’s advice about air strikes: Warplanes, her mother had taught her, are not most dangerous when they are flying directly above you, casting a dark shadow over your head. In fact, they are most dangerous when they have flown diagonally ahead of you, because the bombs they shed from their tail fall to the ground at an angle, destroying everything in their path.

“And that was something my grandmother told me,” says Chan. 

In the introduction, she writes that chapter 4 evolved from a writing workshop she attended in 2019. What prompted her to start writing what she did? 

“That’s a really good question, because the instructor gave us this prompt: ‘Write about a person who did something on loop or repeat.’ She expected us probably to write about routines, or something you do over and over. I would have expected myself to write something about that too.

“But I sat down and what came up was this girl running through a series of checkpoints — repeated checkpoints — to get home. [The concluding pages of the chapter depict Jujube passing a checkpoint and being harassed by a Japanese soldier.] It wasn’t even quite what the assignment was looking for, but maybe all of these stories lodged in my mind just needed the impetus to come out, and the impetus happened to be that prompt. 

“After the short story was done, I didn’t think it was a novel. I had the same teacher tell me, ‘You didn’t write a short story — you wrote a novel.’”

'The Storm We Made' by Vanessa Chan.
Image: Supplied 'The Storm We Made' by Vanessa Chan.

In the same chapter, Chan refers to many violent aspects of the Japanese occupation, including Abel’s disappearance (a common occurrence for young men at the time), the abuse he was subjected to in the labour camps, and the omnipresent threat of sexual assault.

“A lot of readers, when they read this book, say, ‘Gosh, there’s so much violence, so much sexual violence, as well as violence against children.’ At times it’s hard to read,” says Chan of the historical horrors recounted.

“This history doesn’t really have its place in the canon — it doesn’t have its place in history books. I didn’t think it would be right for me to ‘clean up’ or to sanitise what really happened,” she adds of her decision to include graphic passages describing (among other incidents) Abel’s confinement and rape at the labour camp; his incarcerated friend Freddie’s cutting his hands and using his blood as paint to chronicle his time at the camp; and Jasmin’s young friend Yuki’s being forced into sex slavery.

“The most violent parts of the novel are true,” is Chan’s response when asked by readers which parts of the novel stemmed from her imagination and which were historical facts. 

“It is true that the younger girls were taken away to serve us as ‘comfort girls’ and ‘comfort women’, though they were not even women yet,” says Chan. This reality informed her depiction of the character of Yuki.

“Yuki, you’re bleeding.” Jasmin pointed down the inside of Yuki’s dress.

Yuki tugged at her dress. “It's not painful any more.” 

“Yuki, what’s wrong with you? Don't you want to play?” Jasmin was used to seeing Yuki with cuts here and there, but the blood down her leg seemed fresher, and the shine in Yuki’s eyes a bit dimmer. 

“There was an uncle today. He was rough.” 

“What do you mean ‘an uncle’?” 

Yuki shook her head and picked up a handful of marbles. “I’ll start the game,” she said ... After clacking her marbles into the divots on the board, Yuki said, “Do you know the feeling when something goes in there?” She pointed at Jasmin's vagina ... “It feels like vomiting the wrong way ... Like someone punching you all the way inside till it comes out your mouth.” 

Jasmin felt the bile rise in her own throat and tears prick the back of her eyes. She had never heard Yuki’s voice shake this way.

“The most heartbreaking parts were the ones I felt it was important to portray realistically, because they did happen,” Chan resolutely states. 

Quote: The female characters in Chan’s novel instinctually strive for the agency they’re denied and deprived of, and they also (often very successfully) challenge the status quo

“Yuki came about organically,” Chan says of creating her characters, explaining that when she started writing the novel, it had three point-of-view characters: the children. 

Jasmin, Abel and Jujube were “easy enough for me to write”, and she most identified with Jujube.

“It was easier for me to inhabit Jujube being myself a beleaguered eldest daughter,” Chan quips. “I’ve been a teenage girl, I’ve been through teenage rage. That wasn’t too hard for me to inhabit or imagine.”

Furthermore, Jujube reflected “my grandmother’s experience, because she was a teenage girl during the war who did have a brother go missing”. Thus, there was a foundation on which she could build.

Employing her imagination with Cecily was “really fun”, but harder to write “because there was no foundation”.

“Abel was challenging in a different way,” Chan muses. “One, because he’s a teenage boy, and I don’t inhabit that experience. But it was also tough for me to write — in the way it is tough to read — because I came to understand I have ancestors who have been through things that are so difficult” she explains.

“Jasmin was fun because it’s fun to write a kid,” Chan says with a chuckle.

She concedes that she was just “plodding along writing these children, and then the pandemic happened”. She says, “We were stuck in our homes, we didn’t know what was going on, and it was very traumatic. In addition to this, I had my own personal grief because, in the early part of the pandemic, my mother died after a long illness, and then my uncle passed away from Covid-19.

“I was writing about these three sad children while I myself was pretty sad!” she laughs. “I realised this novel was too sad for me to write, and that’s how Cecily came about.”

Chan describes Cecily as “an experiment” for herself, because the character stemmed from a need to reclaim her sense of agency during lockdown: “I needed to give myself a character who could run around and do irresponsible things and make decisions ... all the things you could do when you were able to leave your house. 

“I made her a spy because I like to watch a lot of spy TV and read spy books. I figured, ‘I’m the author, I’m the master of this work, and I can always take her out later if it doesn’t work.’ She became the emotional core of the novel who bound everything together.”

On the issue of empowerment, the female characters in Chan’s novel instinctually strive for the agency they’re denied and deprived of, and they also (often very successfully) challenge the status quo.

“That is a really good observation! No-one’s asked me that before... 

“Aside from Abel, who’s taken away, the three female point-of-view characters are all — even if they’re seven years old right up until 30 — striving for something more. They know they want something else, but they just haven’t quite figured out how to get there,” Chan elaborates.

“It was important for me to write about the things that women want ... Women have desires and wants. But often we’re not allowed to have those — we’re not allowed to display dissatisfaction and discontent, or irritation about the circumstances we find ourselves in,” says Chan. “I wanted to show three women, of three different ages, who knew there could be something better for them, but because of the times they lived in were not able to reach it. And when they did, the consequences weren’t always what they wanted them to be,” she adds.

And as for employing four point-of-view characters and setting the novel in two timelines?

“Don’t do it!” is Chan’s stock response when she is asked by aspiring writers of historical fiction if they should structure their work a-chronologically. “It’s very hard and complicated, and you do not want to do that to yourself!” she laughs.

Writing four points of views “felt important because the characters all exist in different locations”. She says, “To be able to be close to them, as a writer, I wanted the reader to feel close to the characters. I wanted the reader to be able to feel like they were in the space with them.”

She adds, “Coming from a big, sprawling extended family ... where aunties are always telling you gossip” contributes to “different strands [of a story], but they’re really all the same story, with the same sources, and it’s up to you as the reader to pull the information together and synthesise it and come up with the actual truth.”

“And I think that’s how I ended up writing this novel, unconsciously, because that’s the way my brain processes information. I take a whole lot of disparate things and a whole lot of viewpoints and bring them together. That’s how I filtered that final chapter, with everything coming together on a single day.”

Our conversation reaches its coda with a question pertaining to Horlicks (a rare delicacy in the Alcantara household). Is Chan herself a fan of this malty hot bevvie? 

She laughs uproariously and says, “Actually, I like the Horlicks sweet more than the Horlicks drink. I always found the drink to be kind of sticky because it’s malty, but I loved the candy!”

“I love that, I love that!” she laughs. “Because no-one, absolutely no-one, has picked that up! I like Milo better,” Chan confesses. “That’s my favourite!”