Malaysian Bernice Chauly writes about child kidnappings, Reformasi and transgender people

Malaysian writer Bernice Chauly has been tear- gassed more than once, having pounded the streets of Kuala Lumpur as an activist.
Malaysian writer Bernice Chauly has been tear- gassed more than once, having pounded the streets of Kuala Lumpur as an activist.PHOTO: ENG CHUN PANG

Multi-hyphenate Bernice Chauly writes about child kidnappings, Reformasi and the woes of transgender people through the eyes of a journalist

The taste of tear gas is something you never forget, says Malaysian writer Bernice Chauly.

"You feel like your eyes are being gouged out. People around you are screaming and throwing up. You think you are going to die."

The 48-year-old has been tear- gassed more than once in her life - when she pounded the streets of Kuala Lumpur as a young activist during the Reformasi protests of 1998, and as recently as three years ago, when she took part in the Bersih movement and was gassed while buying water in a provision shop.

She drew on these experiences to write her first novel, Once We Were There, whose heady opening tumbles the reader straight into the tumult of Reformasi, during which thousands of people across Malaysia protested, following the sacking of then Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who was later jailed on charges of sodomy and graft.

"There is a great void in Malaysian letters about the Reformasi movement," says Chauly, who wears many hats as a poet, university lecturer, playwright, photographer and documentary film- maker and has been director of the George Town Literary Festival since 2011.

"Contemporary novelists don't want to deal with it because it's a very difficult topic for us. Anwar is still in jail today and his is not a name you can say openly."

She drew on chronicles such as writer Sabri Zain's Reformasi Diary and the archives of Saksi, a site for citizen journalism which she used to write for and which makes an appearance in the novel.


The book follows Malaysian journalist Delonix Regia - named after the flame of the forest tree - through the years, from her time as a young idealist championing Reformasi, through her marriage and difficult motherhood, to the event that unspools her life, the kidnapping of her two-year-old daughter.

This was one of the hardest parts of the novel for Chauly; she wept as she wrote. A single mother of two daughters aged 21 and 16, she is painfully aware of the many cases of children going missing in Malaysia, often falling into the hands of human traffickers.

A close friend of hers almost had her child snatched from her while in an upmarket mall in KL and she herself once lost her younger daughter in an art gallery for more than 15 minutes. "It's the most horrific thing of all for any parent," she says.

Apart from Delonix, the novel also follows various characters navigating the merciless urban jungle of KL - among them Marina, a transgender sex worker from Sabah whom Delonix befriends, who is based loosely on a sex worker that Chauly interviewed years ago.

Transgender people in Malaysia "continue to be persecuted and shamed - sometimes killed", says Chauly, who volunteered with non- profit Pink Triangle, which in the 1990s worked with people who were HIV-positive, and taught English to sex workers at a drop-in centre in Chow Kit.

"My characters are people who try to survive in KL. Some do, some don't, but Marina survives and just gets stronger and stronger."

Once We Were There simmers with anger at the system - Delonix observes that there are two things that bring Malaysians together, food and anger, and both are plentiful in the novel.

Chauly loves laksa and it does not take much to make her angry these days, what with living in KL.

"There are days I wish I didn't have to deal with such depressing news all the time. But it's part of what keeps me on my toes, those little anxieties and tensions that spur you on."

She took her manuscript to more than 30 agents and publishers around the world, including one in Malaysia, but met with rejections until Singapore publisher Epigram Books picked it up.

Even now, she has no idea how the Malaysian public will react to the sensitive issues within its pages. The Malaysian edition has had to be labelled "mature readers only".

It is her first novel, although she has authored five books of poetry and prose. These include Growing Up With Ghosts (2011), a memoir that took her 23 years to write and tracks her family's heritage over a century.

She is Punjabi on her father's side and Cantonese on her mother's, and her parents faced considerable social prejudice because of their mixed-race union.

She began writing as a child as a way to cope with grief. Her father died in an accident at the beach in Penang when she was four years old - one moment, they were playing in the waves, and the next, he was gone. It is not clear if he drowned or died of a heart attack.

"My father's death evicted me from the world," she writes in Ghosts. "I had to write myself back into it."

Having finished her first novel, which took her six years and was "the hardest thing I have ever done besides giving birth", she is working on a second, which will involve "climate change, suicide, shamanism and shape-shifting".

Although it will have a more global perspective, she wants it to retain a Malaysian element.

"This country inspires me," she says. "My stories come from Malaysia and I can't imagine being anywhere else right now."

•Once We Were There by Bernice Chauly is available at major bookstores and for $26.64.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 25, 2017, with the headline 'Spurred on by depressing, horrific news'. Print Edition | Subscribe