THE PLOT, TITLE and aesthetics all make a novel. To some authors, the writing comes easier than sketching out the storyline, this often requires research that may or may not span years. In fact, J.K. Rowling dedicated half a decade to planning the plots and refining the Harry Potter characters before she even put pen to paper.
The same holds true for author William Tham when he started on his second novel The Last Days, which sees 1981 as the starting point. Dr. Mahathir had just come into power, and Malaysia was prime to take the plunge into widespread capitalism and modernisation.
Tham originally toyed with the idea of setting the novel in the Malayan Emergency, “but there were already so many books on the subject that I decided to give it up. But I did keep the seeds of the idea in mind for a long time.”
A chanced stumble on an old stash of the Far Eastern Economic Reviews, however, became a catalyst for renewed inspiration. “The Reviews stretching from the late 70s to the early 80s, and the articles on Malaysia by K. Das shed light on a period of unrest – the student protests, the ongoing insurgency and of course, the rise of a certain Dr. Mahathir,” he shares, identifying the moment as a turning point where elements of his novel started to fall into place: a fugitive Communist operative, a woman with a mysterious past and a country on the verge of change.
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While on a solitary train journey, Tham drafted out details of the storyline. There was no reception for the most part of his travel, and the scenery beyond the train window was rather monotonous – the landscape was flat, the sky uniformly blue and there were no mountains or rivers to gaze at. The world, as it were, appeared frozen in time. This enforced idleness offered Tham ample time to craft out the plot.
The Last Days was written within a month, but a lot of miscellaneous reading had to be done first. Soon after, things simply assembled and fell in place. “I can’t put it down on paper, there’s no reason or rhyme why they fit together the way they did. Something just clicked – it was very alchemical in a way,” he says of the writing process.
The Significance of #4
The novel is deliberately divided into four acts, with four main characters. In fact, readers may notice the number “4” appearing throughout the novel. “I borrowed this from some of the works of Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer – the Buru Quartet, and the four-act The Fugitive. There was also the film by Mouly Surya, Marlina Si Pembunuh Dalam Empat Babak. It felt natural to have a similar underlying structure. The number ‘four’ also appears in various configurations, such as the number of characters and certain repetitions scattered throughout the text.”
Tham says that somewhat organically, the plot developed into a narrative that added more nuance to the History syllabus taught at school. “The basic facts are there, such as the date when the Emergency was declared and the establishment of the New Villages, but now the narrative felt more complete. It was not just a black/white, good/bad narrative. There were many factors at play.
“When I was growing up, I never really questioned much. But after reading into history, I realised there were all these possibilities, things that could have been but never quite worked out for various reasons. I think Malaysia is still a work-in-progress because most of us have very selective ways of viewing history.
“We’re used to judging our own society in a harsher, more prejudicial manner, and we don’t really talk about the underlying implications of why things are the way they are. Perhaps, we don’t have much capacity to imagine other possibilities – we just accept how everything is, and expect it to be the same in the future too. That’s why I like history; it’s always a matter of knowing that things weren’t always the way they are now and there were possibilities of alternate circumstances.”
The same can be said for how Tham became a published author.
Getting to Know the Author
As a child, Tham dabbled in writing fanfiction; but upon entering university, he found himself pursuing a biochemistry degree instead. Still, he kept his love for writing fiction alive; it proffered him a form of escape.
When Buku Fixi – through its Fixi Novo imprint – started soliciting short stories, Tham submitted a sentimental piece set in Penang. To his surprise, the editor liked it enough to include it in its collection. By then, it dawned on Tham that he could make a career for himself in the local literary sphere. This led to him returning from Canada where he had been based since 2011 to work as an editor for the bookshop and publishing house, Gerakbudaya.
I think Malaysia is still a work-in-progress because most of us have very selective ways of viewing history.
Tham is currently taking a well-deserved break, but says that his next literary venture will be to revisit his first novel, Kings of Petaling Street. “I think it would have been good to properly describe Malaysian society, but I kind of skirted around the topic when I first drafted the book as an undergrad,” he says. “A good chunk of the novel will still remain, but I want to flesh out historical events like Ops Lalang, as well as explore the characters’ personalities beyond stereotypes and archetypes from pulp fiction.”
In contrast, characters from The Last Days emerged more organically, though bringing to live the enigmatic H took a lot of thought. Tham needed to make her into a believable character with the right motivations, especially since her trajectory becomes very dramatic in the story.
On the flip side, he identifies with the journalist Dain the most due to how easily the journalist is able to uproot himself – switching from one city to another, but all the while missing out on the present because he is unable to let go of the past.
Tham reveals his move to Canada came with culture shock. “A lot of figures of speech and everyday behaviours taken for granted felt alien to me. Learning to navigate new cultural mores took a while, but it was always a learning experience over many years. Part of it was the introduction to larger questions of politics, social responsibility and ways of thinking about societies, histories, race and class. I never did assimilate, right to the end, at best I acculturated by volunteering or travelling,” he recalls. “But I was always pretending to be someone else, and eventually it became very uncomfortable.”
That being said, Tham has a feeling that he may be back in Malaysia for good. Seeing writing as a personal statement, he believes that all writing, no matter how personal or escapist, has political implications, and thus political responsibilities. And literary success, to Tham, means writing something that matters and resonates; not making money but rather encouraging people to imagine a different, better world.
“I think Malaysian writers can be inspirational in many ways. Literature can shape how we view ourselves, and to let us see the possibility for other worlds – political, environmental and cultural,” he says, “it allows us to see that there are possibilities which are often lost in daily life, chewed up by the economic system, and that each writer has some responsibility to leave the world in a better place than it was before they set pen to paper.”
Esther Ping Dominic is a writer who is surprisingly still alive despite the saying “curiosity kills the cat”. Having been on the receiving end of undeserved kindness, she aims to live her life reflecting that.