The Surreal Stories of “Lake Like a Mirror” Show How Power Distorts Reality
Ho Sok Fong on the future of Malaysian Chinese literature
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Ho Sok Fong is without a doubt one of the most lauded Malaysian short story writers working in Chinese. Since winning her first literary prize in 2002, she has authored two story collections, namely Maze Carpet and Lake Like a Mirror, both published in Taiwan. Lake Like a Mirror is now available in an English translation by Natascha Bruce, who has beautifully captured Ho’s lyrical, evocative style.
I first encountered Ho’s work in its original Chinese as a young adult. The story I read was her first published, “Never Mention It Again,” which she talks more about in the interview below. For as long as I live, I will never forget that story. Ho has an incredible ability to combine poetic passages that invoke raw emotions alongside blunt imagery that sharply criticizes power and political systems in place. At the risk of giving away too much, I’ll mention that the story’s final, arresting scene involves a corpse defecating.
Obviously, I was deeply affected by “Never Mention It Again.” In many ways, it broadened my mind to what was possible with fiction. Perhaps I wouldn’t have tried my hand at writing “political fiction” if I hadn’t read Ho Sok Fong. That seems entirely possible to me.
I was beyond honored to speak with her on the occasion of her English debut. We talked about multiple layers of translations in her work, the past, present, and potential future of Chinese Malaysian literature, and life as an engineer-turned-writer, among other things. Our interview was conducted in Chinese and translated into English by me.
YZ Chin: What was your involvement like during the process of translation?
Ho Sok Fong: Natascha Bruce will ask me questions, and I’ll give her various details about Malaysia. Sometimes I’ll relay the intentions behind certain passages, especially the subtler ones. Usually we avoid explaining our own work. But when that necessity arises, you then have to re-read the stories, and the process shocks into revival those ideas and memories that were hazy when you first put pen to paper. I think I suppressed and gradually forgot those ideas because they clashed with the commonly accepted speech or ideologies in daily life. For example, if such thoughts, emotions, or intentions are considered unimportant by the literary discourse of the day, they will then submerge into unrecognizable forms—because they aren’t given a place in the existing framework of discussions, they become unthinkable. When I re-read certain stories (such as “March in a Small Town”), I continue to derive different meanings from them, like I’m now glimpsing previously hidden corners. This really moves me. It means that no matter what I comprehend, it is always incomplete, and always capable of transformation.
Therefore, I’m very grateful for Natascha’s translation, which contains a poetic style that is also remarkably clear.
Another type of conversation between us, which was more frequent and very complex, involved Malaysia’s politics, culture, and landscape, especially the trend of Islamization in recent years. For a while I was worried that English readers in the U.K. and U.S. would approach the book through the lens of Middle Eastern Islamic societies. Malaysia’s situation differs greatly from the culture of Islamic governance in the Middle East, especially with the added complexity of our multicultural society, in which Malay citizens make up over half the population, Chinese citizens close to one-fifths, followed closely by Indian citizens, plus indigenous citizens who number even fewer.
Because the country elevates Malay citizens above all others, it has to define who counts as Malay and who doesn’t in order to safeguard their special rights. And because Malay citizens cannot leave their religion, Islam becomes a core definition of “Malay.” On the other hand, if a Malaysian Chinese (or Indian, or other minority) citizen were to convert to Islam, they or their offspring and later generations may enjoy the abovementioned special rights. In recent years, people have come to feel that this has resulted in even more racial animosity. Minorities like Malaysian Chinese citizens feel not only left out by the country’s ruling institutions, but they also sense a vague existential threat; no matter how much you love your home country or assimilate, you will forever be viewed as an outsider, or a guest (tetamu).
Because Malaysia is itself a multilingual cultural landscape, I was astonished to realize that not only was Natascha translating, but in reality translation already happened during my original writing process. For example, Mahua (Chinese Malaysian) literature doesn’t just consist of elegant, pure literary sentences, but instead deploys a mixture that absorbs words from different languages, dialects, and vernaculars. Multiple languages are present in one particular story, “Radio Drama,” which features a character that speaks Malay with an Indonesian accent, though in the story this is still conveyed through Chinese. I suppose we’ll have to wait for a Malay translation of the story to enact a “reverse translation.” Many of my friends say it’s a good thing that the story collection has been published in English, because this allows Mahua stories to initiate conversations across languages.
YZC: Reviewers of the English translation describe the collection as surrealist. Do you agree with that description? If so, what do you think surrealism accomplishes that cannot be done with realism?
HSF: Some of the stories are surrealist, and some aren’t. These stories still take place in a Malaysia familiar to us, not in an unrecognizable alternate universe. But it’s true several stories start bending reality slightly through specific details. I think a surrealist style can twist the surface of a reality that presents as neutral. Then we can see reality as a screen that has been yanked askew, and its seemingly solid surface starts to be pulled apart. Through this we realize that reality can be distorted by power. This isn’t something realism can achieve. Surrealism manages it because it switches the position of observation, retreating from the object of its description—reality. With this distance, it is possible to perform a kind of dissection or experiment on the idea of writing what’s real.
YZC: Many Mahua writers have found success with Taiwanese publishers. Why do you think this is?
HSF: Yes, many writers of our generation who work in Chinese have a pretty intimate connection to Taiwan, from seeking education to finding publication. Many Chinese Malaysians seek opportunities elsewhere because of the marginalization of non-Malay citizens in terms of politics and resource allocation. To Chinese Malaysians, Taiwan has seemed generous with its educational, cultural, and publication resources. Taiwan has one of Asia’s few liberal political systems; it really implements democracy and respects freedom of speech. For that reason, my first story “Never Mention It Again” was published there. The story concerns a Chinese Malaysian contractor who dies and has a funeral held for him by his family. Suddenly religious authorities appear to confiscate his body, and it is only then that the family realizes the deceased converted to Islam before death. In the ’70s and ’80s, there were indeed many businesspeople who converted for the benefit of obtaining special rights. I remember that after the story won a prize in Taiwan, Malaysia’s Chinese newspapers were not allowed to publish the story. Not just the story—even reviews or related discussions were barred from being published.
Malaysia’s higher education quota system alone is agonizing for young people. After graduating secondary school and while applying for spots in universities, they’re suddenly confronted with the violent shock that spots are restricted because of their ethnic identities. They sense that they’ve been relegated to a secondary position by national institutions, that they’re placed in an inferior position fixed before birth. What’s sadder is, this feeling of rage shapes how you see yourself and others. The prejudice beams inward even as it shoots outward. But of course this is well-covered ground.
I want to add that when a person has traveled afar, the experience may prompt them to embrace skills of interpretation and also creativity, regardless of whether they return to their place of birth. They’re having to face down the question of “Who am I?” You could say their self-examination stems from a wish to heal the wounds caused by their position of marginalization. Many who pursued studies in Taiwan threw themselves into local cultural efforts after they returned to Malaysia. They also deviated from previous efforts, which focused solely on the world of Chinese language while maintaining a distance with other ethnicities. It’s not so much an expression of patriotism than a self-awareness that one must interact with one’s surroundings; you know you cannot survive alone; there is a need to rebuild strands of connection with others, be it through artistic creations or other forms of caring. This doesn’t rely on transformation from the country, because the country’s systems may not evolve for a very long time. But in literature, facing outward is itself meaningful. As you’ve brought up: How does a person return home? It is difficult to situate home within the abstract idea of a country. Instead it is in the self, through an immersion in interpersonal relationships and the process of forming intimate emotions with others.
YZC: Two stories in your collection each have a central character named Aminah. Those stories come prefaced with explanatory notes respectively clarifying Islamic law as enforced in Malaysia, and the prevalence of the name “Aminah.” Were these notes in the original text, or were they added for readers of the English version of your book?
HSF: They were added in the English edition. I’d given editors and translators context about Malaysia’s ethnic groups and code of law. Malaysia’s unusual situation may be unfamiliar to readers of the English edition, and so I agreed to explanatory notes under story titles. The additional explanations are meant to emphasize, too, that although the two stories “Wind Through the Pineapple Leaves, Through the Frangipani” and “Aminah” respectively feature a heroine named Aminah, the two characters are not the same person. Their experiences, background, and class are all distinct.
YZC: Since the notes exist only in the English version: Do you think a similar gap in context exists for, say, readers in Taiwan? Or do you think readers in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China are sufficiently acquainted with Mahua narratives?
HSF: Most Chinese story collections come with prefaces, so that’s what a reader would see when they first open the book—sometimes the preface is by the author, and other times it’s by a third party recommending the book. We touch upon various subjects in prefaces; for example, in the original Chinese edition, both I and the recommender Professor Lim Choon Bee brought up “religious conversion,” pointing out the prickly conflict between a nation’s legal code and individual identity. That said, neither of us went out of our way to explain it. We simply expressed ourselves directly, writing as if the reader knows as much as we do. But in reality, I’m not too sure how much comprehension a Taiwanese reader may have.
This may be just wishful thinking, but I assume readers do have background understanding. At first I naïvely thought that as long as readers know about the existence of Chinese Muslims in Malaysia, along with some basic knowledge such as the difficulty of leaving Islam, which requires court approval, then readers would have no problem immersing themselves in the stories. But then again, I don’t necessarily feel I need the stories to be “understood” through such lens. Because the stories’ threads of plot and vignettes are written in a sprawling, loose style, readers may make different discoveries if they read in other ways. There are no fixed answers in the stories.
In addition, unlike in the English publishing world, Chinese publishing seems likelier to add on explanations in the form of footnotes for translated or foreign literature. There were some explanations in the original text of Lake Like a Mirror, mostly clarifying words and phrases unique to Malaysia’s mixing of local languages.
Besides, Mahua literature has a decades’-long history in Taiwan by this point. In the past 20 years, Mahua writers like Zhang Gui Xing and Ng Kim Chew have broadened the perspective of Taiwanese readers toward Mahua literature, and at the same time they have introduced many political and historical topics that intimately affect Chinese Malaysians. In recent years, too, there’s been frequent and deep coverage of Southeast Asia by Taiwan’s online platforms. All of these might have helped.
YZC: You’ve said that Mahua literary journals shy away from addressing political concerns. Do you see this changing in the near future?
HSF: First, I have to clarify that Mahua literature hasn’t always shied away from political topics. I think there was a period of withdrawal during the cold war, and then because of the [Sino-Malay] sectarian violence on May 13, 1969, the Chinese society became warier; it shrunk back. Editorial opinions grew constrained, and activists of all ethnicities were detained, and so politics became detached from what writing that did get published. When I was very young, the literature I absorbed from around me did not encourage reflections of politics or historical memories in fiction, as if these elements would destroy the purity or beauty of literature. With that said, there were those who would still write about politics during those years—but more often it was poetry, more so than fiction or essays.
It wasn’t until I was almost 30 that I could start treating politics as a literary theme, alongside other human experiences like love, illness, and death.
I don’t know what changes the future may bring. It feels like many people are able to sharply express their concerns and opinions toward politics on Facebook. When I was a judge for literary prizes, I would also occasionally read probing stories by young writers that wove together politics, history, sexual desire, gender, marginalization etc. I feel like everyone is mining their own stores of creativity. They want the freedom to express, be it related to politics or not, and they also want ways to broaden their literary sensibilities.
YZC: You used to work as an engineer. Me too. I get this next question a lot, so I’m going to impose it on someone else for a change: Do you think your engineering training has had any effect on your writing style?
HSF: It’s been a very long time since I was an engineer. I barely wrote a single word during the first two years. At the time, I was working at a factory manufacturing microchips, wearing a white robe every day, a mask covering my face, gloves on my hands, anti-static shoes on my feet. I was suited up like a healthcare worker or an astronaut, my eyes the only body parts exposed to the outside. I could only gauge others’ reactions through observing the expressions in their eyes. As for speaking, I felt like a worker responsible for transporting the corpses of information. Every single moment of speech required an absolute level of accuracy. I had to cover all my bases; I couldn’t leave the tiniest detail out, or make any assumptions. If I realized I’d missed something, I’d have to race back and stop the other person to provide additional information. My god, now that I’m recalling it, that was a nightmare. I worried every day, but how was it possible to not miss a single scrap of information?
But in our habitual usage of language, the most interesting things like jokes, poetry, and adjectives are all riddled with misreadings, misplaced context, or hazy definitions, plus the useless, the exaggerated, the twisted, and falsehoods. When I switched careers to become a journalist, I was very happy even though the pay was low. Adjectives made me very happy. That I could continue writing made me very happy. But I realized something through my experience working in the factory: It’s not that people are devoid of creativity or complex feelings, but that they aren’t able to express these things. A large number of people work diligently around the clock, heads down in factories, bending themselves out of shape over microchips. Language deployed for functional use cannot cover our inner emotions. In all of Penang, [Malaysia], thousands upon thousands lead such a life. This is a reality that newspapers and media cannot describe, giving rise to blind spots. I think this is where literature comes in.