Conversations and Explorations: Leela Devi Panikar - Spinning Short Stories

Leela Devi Panikar’s latest collection is out, full of tales written with sensitive restraint.

Leela Devi Panikar.

There’s little doubt that the short story is having “a moment”. Of course, many great novelists have also been known for their short stories: think of James Joyce or Jean Rhys, Gabriel García Márquez or Clarice Lispector, and in our own day, Haruki Murakami or Jhumpa Lahiri. But writers who have made their names through the short story, who have claimed the form as their own, have received much less acclaim – until recently. The evidence for a sea change is compelling. In the last few years, supreme short-story writers like Alice Munro, Lydia Davis and George Saunders have won a succession of prestigious literary prizes. The short story is no longer regarded as the poor relation of the novel. Its practitioners are no longer viewed as lacking “ambition”.

Malaysian readers have not been slow in coming round to the short story’s charms. Independent publishers like Fixi have made a virtue of publishing single-authored collections of short stories, while their anthologies – including writing from the wider region – offer excellent vehicles for an eclectic range of styles and forms, including the extreme concision of flash fiction. Literary magazines and websites offer another home for high-quality short fiction.

For one Penang writer, the short story is the perfect means of expression. Having spent most of her adult life as a wanderer, Leela Devi Panikar has returned recently to the island, quietly honing new tales and publishing three well-received collections. Her journey into writing has not been the modern, conventional one – no creative writing courses, no cosy coterie of other denizens of the word. She’s ploughed a singular furrow. And it seems that she’s still on the outside looking in, (re)finding a sense of place, constantly refining her métier.

Panikar’s latest collection, The Darjeeling Affair, is just out. And like the others, it carries all the hallmarks of good short-story writing: brevity, fleetness (sometimes even curtness), and unflinching attention to small details. The best of them leave you with something unforgettable in just a few pages. As she says, “I enjoy writing with restraint.”

Characters carry names that signify who they are or might be. It’s enough. And places are evoked by taut evocations: the rain and warm earth smells of a tropical hill station; the dark secrets of a haunted copse; the silence of the pre-winter cold. It’s in the exploration of irregularity that provides the consistent motif of the new collection: friendships or marriages that shouldn’t exist, relationships that shouldn’t exist, because they carry within them the potential for harm. Susheela falls for the charming stranger who may be a smuggler; Siu-mei plots revenge on her philandering boyfriend; a daughter constantly censures her mother; a wife’s words, “I don’t love you”, sear into the memory of her drunkard husband. This is what creates the stories’ propensity for cruelty, from time to time paired with sensitivity or vulnerability. They succeed precisely because they sometimes give us less and, as Panikar says, “much is left to the reader to interpret and experience”.

I’d like to start by setting out a sense of your own literary journey. Tell me a little about your childhood and youth, and the ways that books and reading played a part in your early life.
The most pleasurable memory I have of books and owning them goes back to when I was 10. My father bought me a writing table with many drawers and shelves on the sides. That became my very private and special world. Drawers full of notebooks and pens and pencils, shelves full of books – these gave me the incentive to read and write. My parents put more stress on school textbooks and homework, and discouraged me from reading novels. I did not do much reading of books outside of schoolbooks. Later, my secondary school, Convent Light Street, instilled in me a love for poems and classics, which were part of the curriculum.

When you were younger you confronted things that might have broken a less resilient character. Could you say something about those experiences and the ways in which you think they moulded you – your personality, your ethos and perhaps even your ideas as a writer?
I came home one day from kindergarten and told my mother a few girls in school called me “kelenga kui”. She explained what it meant. She said the reason they called me that was because they envied me, that I was not only different but better than them. From then on I strove to be the best in everything, succeeded in most things, but turned out to be a miserable failure in sports.

Floating Petals, my first collection, came to me while I was sitting on our patio in Hong Kong, not far from a small stream. I could hear the stream. I imagined things floating by. I had already written a few stories, and like the river collecting flotsam, I decided on a collection.

There were always racist remarks throughout my schooldays, and nasty comments even from Indians – richer Indians, lighter-skinned Indians, who looked down on the less well-off and darker Indians. None of the taunts bothered me. I think they helped me grow up strong and confident. My parents brought me up with much pride and dignity. This formed my personality.

Going back to the question of the part books and reading played in my early life, I loved literature and poetry in school and spent all my spare time in the school library, and outside of school in the Penang Library – the most beautiful library I can remember. Old, hushed; walls of shelves with big fat books; wooden tables and chairs; shiny, well-trodden wood floors that creaked. You walked up the wide stairs with anticipation to a place of discovery, entered as if entering a shrine, and then, hours later, reluctantly left.

The library was housed in the current Penang Supreme Court building. In every country I have lived, I have maintained a home library, but despite my compulsive book buying, reading and love for poets and authors, I had no desire to become a writer. My ambition was to be a painter, an artist. Instead, I became a businesswoman, enjoying what I did and the independence it gave me.

Floating Petals.

You didn’t study literature in any formal way. Instead you seem to have had a rich, peripatetic life. What are your memories of that time?
I have no formal literary education. I did extracurricular courses in law, public relations and such. I trained as a teacher, I taught in Malaysia, Wales, Hong Kong and Vietnam for a few years. But most of my life, I’ve owned antique shops and pubs in Malaysia and Hong Kong.

How then did you get into writing? And what are the creative dynamics and processes like for you?
My writing career began in December 1999, at the end of a millennium, a time when there was much talk of doom and the end of the world.

I had sold all my businesses to look after my 80-year-old mum. I felt as if my life had ended. I had no business, no income and no wild social life. I was a nobody. One day when I was feeling particularly sorry for myself, I spotted a newspaper advertisement: “Why Not Write?” it said. Why not, indeed? What a great idea, I thought. Such an easy thing to do, I told myself. That’s how my writing career started.

I learned to use a computer. I joined an online short-story writing group. But I soon found out that writing fiction was not as easy as I had imagined. After writing a few short stories and working on a rather rambling novel, I realised there was a lot more to writing than what I was doing, that if I wanted to be a good writer there were basic things to learn. I needed to know structure, character, opening lines, plot, conflict, dialogue, setting, style, rhythm and more before I could develop as a writer with my own voice. I purchased books on writing, read them, studied them, reread them, and to this day I enjoy books on writing.

A word, an image, a sound – each triggers ideas, and a story begins to form in my mind. It spins like a windmill, round and round it goes day and night. It’s disjointed but doesn’t take long to take shape. Once I sit at the computer, the story evolves further, the draft starts to make sense. At this stage, I get excited. The story begins to flow.

Let us turn now to your own published literary work, both short stories and longer forms, since you work in different genres. Does the form you’re using affect how and what you write? What are the similarities and differences? And perhaps you could say something about the particular strengths and values of the short story as a form of expression.
I enjoy being fully engrossed in short projects. The ideas and words come fast, and it does not take me long to write a first draft. After the first draft, I rewrite the piece many times over, edit and re-edit and proofread over and over again. It takes me at least 30 revisions and a very long time to polish a short story to my satisfaction. How I know when I am ready? During one of my rereads I feel comfortable with the story, I like it. I am done.

When writing a short story, I keep to a few characters. I like writing descriptions, but in a short story I can’t and don’t resort to long descriptions. Everything is compact. Much is left to the reader to interpret and experience. Some of my readers are not too comfortable with that and think I should fill it out more. They would like me to give the reader more answers to what, when, where, why and how? Sometimes critics ask me to elaborate, but I don’t. I like the way I write.

Bathing Elephants is less eclectic. There are six stories, compared to 14 stories in Floating Petals, and they are more serious. They’re from my travel experiences. Each story is set in a different country: Thailand, Iran, Malaysia, China, Nepal and Myanmar. Each portrays loss and disappointment – there are tales of widowhood, a fatal accident – but they all end with hope and strength.

As you’ve already highlighted, you have a particular regard for the use of language and for economy of writing. And there is a certain understatement in your work. That must be a self-conscious choice. Could you elaborate a little on this signature motif?
I enjoy writing with restraint. My love for tight expression began when I entered a BBC international short-story competition – the theme was “My Hometown” and the word limit was 200. I was living in Hong Kong and I wrote about returning to Penang for a visit. I think the first draft was about 500 words and I rewrote it many times, finally reducing the piece to 199 words. I turned myself into a nervous wreck over whether or not to submit it … so much for my confidence and finally, with much encouragement from my husband Don, I sent it off.

Months later, BBC Radio called to congratulate me. I received the best encouragement a beginner writer could get when Peter Kemp, the fiction editor of the Sunday Times, said, “‘My Hometown’ compressed in a really magnificent way so many aspects of the hometown … it terrifically evoked all the senses.” I acquired a taste for the challenge of compact writing. I feel energised writing short stories, rewriting over and over to make them tight. Much that is not stated is understood. It is like being on a stage with just one set. Nothing else counts, just that.

Bathing Elephants.

You’ve published three short-story collections now. Tell me something of the process of writing Floating Petals, which came out ten years ago, and how you chose what to include and what it meant to you?
I do not plan my stories. Once I’m in the mood, I go to the keyboard and a story starts to flow. Each first draft just happens – it’s like my computer and keyboard write it for me.

Floating Petals, my first collection, came to me while I was sitting on our patio in Hong Kong, not far from a small stream. I could hear the stream. I imagined things floating by. I had already written a few stories, and like the river collecting flotsam, I decided on a collection.

I can illustrate this with a couple of stories from that collection.

Once I saw a very large tree being cut down and thought of the birds that had lost their homes. That gave rise to “Homeless Sparrow”. On the surface, it’s almost a children’s story, but the deeper thought is how easily one can become homeless, a displaced drifter or a refugee losing all that is familiar, and facing the fear of the unknown, the trials of finding a new place.

A word, an image, a sound – each triggers ideas, and a story begins to form in my mind. It spins like a windmill, round and round it goes day and night.

“The Couple” came to me during the 2003 SARS epidemic in Hong Kong, a time of tragedy and heartache for many, but my take on it in the story was less serious. I do not see much tragedy in things. “The Couple” tells of a wife in an isolation ward, dying of SARS. No visitors were allowed, but the husband begged the nurses to let him see his wife one last time. Within a short time, he too contracted the disease. The couple died the day before the Hungry Ghost Festival, one day before they could enter the other world. United as ghosts they decided to find fun things to do on their last day on earth.

I make no conscious effort as what to include or leave out – it’s just a feeling, something feels right. And as the stream flowed gathering experiences and flotsam, so the stories gathered as a collection.

In many ways, your next collection Bathing Elephants is less playful, more rigorous and more tightly focused. I wonder how you see the shift in that body of work.
Bathing Elephants is less eclectic. There are six stories, compared to 14 stories in Floating Petals, and they are more serious. They’re from my travel experiences. Each story is set in a different country: Thailand, Iran, Malaysia, China, Nepal and Myanmar. Each portrays loss and disappointment – there are tales of widowhood, a fatal accident – but they all end with hope and strength.

The title story “Bathing Elephants” is set in Thailand at the time of the 2004 tsunami. We were in Khao Lak when the wave struck and we escaped the big tide by mere steps. I dedicated the story to “all those we shared the tsunami with, here and gone.”

“Sequinned Slippers”, set in Penang, somewhere in Love Lane, was painful to write and took me a very long time to get down on paper. My inspiration came from my younger brother’s life. He turned from a very intelligent and handsome young man to a drug addict at a time when the family knew nothing about drugs or addiction. He received no informed help and was lost to us.


Your new set of stories is just out – and again you are exploring what might be called extraordinary moments in ordinary lives.
My third collection, The Darjeeling Affair, took longer to put together. The title story came from my experience of witnessing the aftermath of an enormous landslide in Darjeeling, India. “Tsuru-ran” came from my maid telling me that while her mother was in hospital receiving treatment the doctor had to amputate one of her legs – which the family took home and buried. My warped sense of humour found this hilarious and “Tsuru-ran” was born from that. And on a visit to South Wales, I spent a couple of days writing in the Goytre cemetery – speaking of warped – and it was there that I found the inspiration for “The Gravedigger”.

You also maintain a blog where you contribute shorter, engaged essays on a whole range of topics – politics, film, food and much more. What role does this kind of writing play for you – as part of the broader projection of your ideas and identity?
I love doing short pieces for the blog site. Unfortunately, I do not have enough time or discipline to make it a regular commitment. It serves as an outlet: a review of a good film or a book that impressed me, and for my concerns about things around me, some injustice somewhere in the world.

I’d like to end by asking you to reflect a little on the state of literature in Malaysia – opportunities and challenges? What, if anything, would you like to see changed?
As a writer, I have been in Penang just over two years. Much of the first year was spent settling in, and the second year I spent finishing The Darjeeling Affair.

Unfortunately, I have very little knowledge of literature and authors and poets here. Having left Malaysia in my early twenties, my knowledge of literature here is rather sparse. At that time, there was no conscious effort on my part to read Malaysian literature. From my younger days, I do not remember much except for the adventures of kancil, the mouse-deer, a crocodile and a monkey. And later my love of Lat exposed me to the country’s ethnic groups.

I know Malaysia is rich in history, has a vast culture of different ethnic groups. There is much I have not been exposed to. I have read stories by Somerset Maugham and Anthony Burgess, and recently I read Tash Aw and Preeta Samarasan. One of my favourite authors is Tan Twan Eng.

I have met a few young writers in Penang – my peers in writing, not in age but in writing – with published works like me, and they seem to favour hantu and pontianak and folk tales and legends.

With my very limited experience of talking to people here, I feel there is a conscious fear of expressing views about freedom due to political concerns. Perhaps this will change.

I have attended literary festivals in various countries. When I was living in Hong Kong, I flew to Penang especially to attend one of the editions of the George Town Literary Festival prior to moving back here. I was, and continue to be, very impressed by the quality and energy of the festival. Keeping the venues close to each other, not spread out all over Penang Island, makes the festival one cohesive happening and helps maintain a certain festive mood. I’m looking forward to the next one in November.

Copies of Leela Devi Panikar’s Floating Petals, Bathing Elephants and The Darjeeling Affair are available from Gerakbudaya Bookshop.

Gareth Richards is a writer, editor and bookseller.

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