After being diagnosed with cancer in 2009, Selina Siak Chin Yoke decided on a career change. She quit her job as a city trader and started writing. She has since written two books, the first of which took inspiration from her great-grandmother and explored Malaya in the 19th century. Her second novel, When The Future Comes Too Soon (Amazon Publishing, £8.99) , continues the story and shows the country trying to cope with the Second World War.
Tell us about your career change from city trader to writer and how it affected your life.
I began writing out of desperation and a cherished dream. In 2009, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Chemo took place over four months, during which I had a medical routine. When chemo ended I thought I would be better, but I felt worse. The ground beneath me seemed to have collapsed. I found no equilibrium – until I started writing. It was a miracle: the act of putting words into sentences transformed me. I remembered a dream I’d had of writing a novel loosely based on my great-grandmother’s life. With every page I wrote, my strength returned. Writing saved my life.
Your novel focuses on one woman, Mei Foong, who must protect her family as best as she can from the horrors of war. Why was this such an important story to tell?
Most people know what happened during the Second World War in Europe but what happened in Asia is often overlooked. If the story has been told at all, it has often been from a colonial perspective – involving the resistance, for instance, the so-called tiny band of Force 136, which actually had little impact on the vast majority of Malayans. For most Malayans, the stresses of war were immense. I wanted to show what it was like for a local family and to tell the story from the perspective of a woman who is like many women of the time – strong without knowing it.
Is historical accuracy important to you, and how do you go about achieving it?
Historical accuracy is important to me – I can’t see the point otherwise of writing historical fiction! To be accurate, I cross-check facts and use a mix of sources: archives, libraries, the internet, anecdotes from interviews and subject experts. I also reflect the world as it was in my stories. In my debut novel, The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds, there are many children because families were large in those days. An early reader wrote in her review that I should have “kept to five children”. From a literary viewpoint that would have been easier. But it would have been unrealistic.
Did you approach researching your family history in the same way and what discoveries did you make?
Absolutely, and our family secrets will remain secret! The one thing I can reveal is that my great-grandmother migrated from southern Thailand to Penang in Malaysia on the back of an elephant. This may seem exotic now, but that was how people travelled then. Tracing family history in South East Asia is difficult because there are no records. We don’t even know where my great-grandmother came from. While the story in my first novel is inspired by her life, it is fictional, as is my new novel. The historical events took place, but no character is based on a real person
Your first novel focused on the late 1800s and consequently a slower pace was required. In the first few pages of this novel, in contrast, we see a Japanese bombing and the havoc this wreaks on the town of Ipoh. How have you adapted to this change in writing style?
I had no difficulty with this change. I begin each story by remembering my aims as a novelist, which are to touch emotions, to entertain and to do both intelligently. My creative process therefore begins with an outline of the key events in a story. Because the backdrop in this new novel is dramatic, I wrote the story with a faster pace quite naturally. In the same way, the first book had to begin slowly, to mirror life in 1878. We also have a new protagonist here. She won’t please everyone, but there’s no question that she is different!
In the novel, we see the rupture that comes with the British abandoning Malaya and the Japanese taking over. How did the two colonialisms differ?
Both regimes were similar in that they subjugated us. It’s telling, though, that what many people said when Britain reoccupied Malaya was: “But the Japanese were worse.” They thought this even though under the Nippon government locals were given positions of authority for the first time. The Nipponese were also more overt in their use of divide-and-rule, which pitched Malaya’s Chinese and Malays against one another. The British also ruled by dividing but because they needed the races of Malaya to co-operate, they were more subtle.
You say “the wounds inflicted on Malaya over 70 years ago have not truly healed”. How does Malaysia’s colonial history influence it today?
First, the use of imported labour changed Malaya’s demographics in a very short period. Secondly, prior to the Second World War it was expedient for the colonial government to encourage the Malay community to regard itself as having a “special position”. In reality Malays also came from elsewhere, even if their ancestors arrived before the 19th century Chinese and Indian labour that was imported by the British. Unfortunately, the prevailing political narrative in Malaysia emphasises the primacy of Malay rights – with everyone else regarded as an interloper. When the Second World War broke out, Malaya’s Chinese were staunchly anti-Japanese. The racial divisions bared by war have since been exploited for political purposes.
How do your historical novels challenge the current UMNO (the political party that has ruled for 60 years) corruption in Malaysia and what are your hopes for the future of the country, and your own?
My books are not overtly political in that sense. What I’m trying to do is show what Malaysia used to be: open, tolerant, more truly one than the Malaysia presided over by the current prime minister, who coined his empty slogan “Malaysia”. This 31 August, Malaysia celebrates 60 years of independence from Britain. There is much to be proud of but its slide into corruption, communalism and growing intolerance is undeniable. I hope Malaysia pulls back from the brink. It has the potential to become a country where diversity is fully celebrated, and where all citizens are treated as equal.