Interview with Anne Teoh on her first book, “The Call of Love”, recently published
Anne Teoh wrote two interesting articles on Beyond Thirty-Nine ‘in search for Timothy Mo’, which garnered a huge appreciation and hundreds of shares. We are grateful for her stubborn scout: Tim Mo is a great writer and his disappearance, perhaps voluntary, remains one of the most catching mystery of the present literature. Now, Anne Teoh has just published her first book, The Call of Love, a collection of short stories, and we are keen to know more about her and her works.
Ciriaco. Dear Anne, what background do you have?
Anne. I have a South-East Asian background and ancestry going further back to the Hokkien race in Fujian, Southern China; I was born in Penang, Malaysia and I became British Chinese. My background is a comparatively dark spot in the English-speaking literary world. There’s little or no literature from Malaysia and SE Asia; the only author I know, of note, was Han Su Yin, and Timothy Mo, of course, and a very few others yet unknown to the wider reading public. Asian culture is materialistic, and people are not inclined to study and commit to literature in general; though many people love their Shakespeare and Dreams of the Red Chamber: even more so, there is so much wealth and culture in South-East Asian lives. But unless we have SE Asian writers, their culture will remain forever static.
My parents were Chinese Malaysian, half peranakans (of Straits born descendants) from their maternal sides. My grandparents owned land, shops, village houses and girl slaves. My father took over his father’s construction company and my mother was the second wife he fell in love with, after being matched made to the first, he didn’t like. My parents separated and I lived with each at different times, but we had an extended family lifestyle. There was an extremely rich and mixed culture, as far as I can remember, of my childhood days.
I was not brought up in a literary environment. Around the age of 7 ( pre school age), I found the Chinese Home Anthology – a manual about life and the different stages, I think, on the shelf. It had illustrations which I made sense of. It started with creation – I can’t remember the details now, but I think it’s like a Daoist manual on life. There were also Chinese comics with illustrations and simple language – in Chinese. I could follow the sequences in the stories. At about ten, I started to enjoy reading the Penang papers, ‘The Straits Times,’ and would start discussions on politics with my cousins and uncles. I remember giving my opinions, commenting on the situations and most of all, the look of utter amazement on the adult faces. My nanny used to tell everyone I had psychic powers and could make predictions.
I listened to American and British pop music, watched Western and Chinese (HK) movies and read all kinds of schoolgirl comics, Chinese movie magazines ( in pictures ) girls’ annuals, Enid Blyton, the English and American classics, Barbara Cartland and moved towards more serious literature when I opted for the literature courses from the O and A levels days. At university, I studied English Literature from 1600 to the present day for my BA in the time of 1969-1972. I left Malaysia to travel India and we were posted to Cambodia. I was persuaded to travel to England where I decided to settle down after my daughter was born. It made sense, as English has always been my main language.
I travelled for two years before settling down to a career in education, simultaneously burrowing seriously into reading and research in linguistic matters from bilingualism to sociolinguistics; which proves an indispensable knowledge for my writing. I was a single mum by choice and brought my daughter up in a world of classical music and travel. I worked as a teacher from 1980, opted for premature retirement in 1999, but continued to work abroad and off and on till 2014 when I retired completely and started writing.
C. When did your involvement in writing start?
A. I had writing in mind since young; usually had my work read out in class. I started with short compositions for the Catholic or Readers’ Digest, an article for SACU making comments to newspapers and on FB and dabbled with poems. I created and wrote schemes of work for language learning and multicultural projects quite copiously. In 1997, the phone rang and out of the blue, I was commissioned to write a short story based on Gladys Alyward’s work in China for BBC Radio 2. That was my first real writing assignment. From 2010-12, I started on three different novels simultaneously working and writing in between. I decided on a collection of short stories for my first book in 2013. I was lured back to work for a short term in Singapore in 2011 and in China in 2013-2014. I took up writing seriously only July September 2014 when I was fully retired. ‘The Call of Love,’ was completed in 2014 and published in June 2015.
C. What is The Call of Love about?
A. It’s a miscellaneous collection of stories I had in mind. The underlying theme is that actions are moved by a spiritual connection with love, which comes from various sources – like a vocation from god, our parents, the quest for knowledge and truth, dreams, the need to experience consciousness and clarity of mind and synchronicity, or fate, as in ‘UFO Days’.
The book aims to give representations of ordinary people’s lives and experiences as lived, but the lines between conscious actions and subconscious resolutions are blurred and left to interpretation. They are presented as a way to transfer fleeting experiences into conscious states, or statements.
Some, like Acorns of the Oak Tree are more complex and has a multiple layer of voices. The Call of Love seeks to present a little Chinese perspective and an appeal for the great missionary, Gladys Alywards, to be regarded as someone whose life and work was above politics. Across the Rubicon gives representation of middle class Malaysians and an aspect of their social lives and thinking. The Translator’s Trousers downplays the promiscuous behavior of a neighbor to be fit for a comic urban gossip which is basically, all that we can do in dealing with others lacking a moral conscience. Two of the stories came to me in dreams and UFO Days recreates the essence of what really went on in the 70s Hippy Trail and its significance, of course.
My writing was purely a descriptive record of the facts with no attempt to interfere or justify. It’s rather like minimalism writing.
It’s my first book and I can see the constraints in this way of approach but there’s generally little room for using a range of narrative techniques in short stories.
C. What about your inspiration? Tell us more.
A. I’m inspired by many writers from East and West, in the sense that their writing connect, or bring out the pathos, to a cathartic point or have a great plot – some names I remember – Han Su Yin, Lu Xun, Lin Yu Tang, some modern red stories and post Mao stories whose authors’ names I can’t remember, the Chinese classics – Dreams of the Red Chamber, The Scholars etc. from the East; Hemingway, Romantic poets, Charles Dickens, Virginia Wolf, Herman Hesse, Aldous Huxley, Jack Kerouac, Dylan Thomas, Vikram Seth, Richard Rayner, Murakami, John Grisham, Timothy Mo… the French novelists.
There is a lack of true spiritualism in our literature today. We have arrived on the inception of the age of enlightenment without the spirituality but the excesses of decrepit moral, gross inequalities and helplessness. There’s a cold war building up and we seem to be on the brink of a war nobody wants. We also have a glut of literature promoting egoistic, class and material values under a variety of linguistic guises or quirkiness; it’s still very much a Eurocentric middle class world or that of conformed Asian stereotypes.
We need writers to break down the wall of mainstream representation and it can only happen when we have writers who have crossed borders, and found a truly discerning voice to connect with a world vision while being their own individual selves.
At an early age, I was inspired by Hemingway’s idea of the “slice of life”, and Somerset Maugham’s description, “walking on the razor edge”, which are both about the prerequisites for writing in the vein I described for, The Call of Love. That was how I related to writing for myself. That is reflected in the stories about going on The Hippy Trail, which implies a rediscovery of innocence in the Jungian sense. Consciously, the protagonists are taken to believe they would be travelling with a best friend and a few others, but when friends change their plans and go different ways, the protagonists are left alone to reconnect with their subconscious quest, which is the seeking of knowledge and enlightenment; achievable only to those with a pure heart.
C. Why short stories eventually, and not a novel or a book of memories?
A. The stories I have fit into the short stories genre. I wanted to present the intrinsic value of ordinary people’s experiences as a reflection of what life is about. I put off working on plot, themes and characters, as I wanted to represent the wonder of real life experiences in the natural vein; avoiding craftsmanship. There were constraints on projecting authenticity in the characters and language, but I wanted an unadulterated writing style, which will bring out the essence and intrinsic qualities of character and situation like we often know the real truth lies in the silence and speaks for itself.
I had an offer for a partial contribution publisher, went for self-publishing as the staff proved to be very efficient. However, that meant I had to do all the editing and proof reading. But the end result also depends on the thoroughness of the typesetters. I aimed for 100% accuracy in the written convention but it might be closer to 99%. I found one misspelt word – sometimes technology can be a pain and self- correct mindlessly too. Publishing is a very untidy business and can be time consuming as it takes the co-operation between writer, agent, typesetter and technology.
I’d like to complete second and third books, two novels and eventually, my memoirs, if anyone’s interested in my life and cerebration. I hope to have some reviews to help me gauge the state of my writing.
C. Do you have a mentor?
A. I’m my own mentor. I believe in authentic writing; getting my thoughts direct from the source that moves me to write. But, strange as it may sound, sometimes my mentor, or muse, comes mysteriously – in my dreams. I won’t shut out the possibility of a mentor.
C. What is your next project? Anything coming up soon?
A. I have just finished another short story titled, The Painting and the Script, as an entry for the Galtelli Literary Competition. I used the first person, which I find a very ingenuous device for communication.
I shelved two novels I had written to a fair extent when I assembled my short stories. My second book, which is half finished, is called The Overseas Chinese. I hope can be published at the end of the year. If you know of any literary agents or publisher accepting unsolicited scripts, let me know.
I had also started on a semi- biographical novel but then I was caught up with the new theories about the ancient geography and history of The Sunda Shelf and the Golden Chersonese by the revered, Professor Arysio Santos and pushed my story as far back as the second ice age… that might be my third book and it would require a huge amount of research and gumption.
I hope to write stories from the UK too, at least, after my second book. I‘m a lazy writer who work best when commissioned or given deadlines.
C. It is quite hard to publish a book nowadays. How do you feel about this?
A. Nearly all traditional publishers don’t accept unsolicited scripts and literary agents reject short stories or unknown writers. Sounds like a closed-door policy? Aspiring writers need to inject their own cash and go for self-publishing but I hear there’re some very bad companies, to make the problem worse. Multicultural writers need more support and publicity for they write about our world today and tomorrow. I was commissioned to write a short story by the BBC because, they actually approached the Chinese cultural embassy and was given my name and phone number as I happened to be doing a Chinese project at that time. That came out of the blue for me so I am inclined to think that in the publishing world, it’s all about powerhouse contacts and recommendations.
I feel very sad that such a great contemporary writer like Timothy Mo, might have been driven to the backwaters of the Philippines due to the lack of support from the publishing establishment, the governments and the readers. Something has to be done in this area for great published living writers like him e.g. yearly stipend from a literary heritage fund.
Besides, there’s such hypes going on too, when the media – newspapers, reviewers and movie industry hype up a writer they support, to brainwash the gullible public and make an assembly line for taking in the megabucks. Writers with such luck could reinvest to help out aspiring writers or established writers.
Many friends favour getting self-published, and mention Amazon as a great help. I am sorry to say I think unpublished writers are treated contemptuously by traditional publishers who would rather have nothing to do with them – no unsolicited scripts, no replies, no feedback, no return of your work. I was quite saddened by the arrogance and disregard for aspiring writers. It’s a very tough and hard world for them and I hope elected governments will step in to study the problem. I do think writers can contribute toward the economy of their country, but more so, a country cannot be deemed to be civilized if it’s not backed up by a variety of literary productions and a core of intelligent writers.
C. Any suggestion for young writers – and for aged writers too?
A. We should organize a Writers’ Conference to look at ways to improve the situation for writers. It makes me sad to think that a very fine contemporary writer, an Oxford scholar with an all encompassing mind to make our world a better understood and better place to live by virtue of his scholarship, wit and humour (and dedication in those unstoppable pages), has to be pushed into the backwaters of the Philippines to survive on his paltry income.
It would be great to have a collective specifically for writers. I think there’re some excellent self-publishing companies who are immensely helpful and they should be recognized for their contribution in opening doors to writers facing the wall of No Trespassing.
I can’t see the difference between young or older writers – writing is ageless; but you have a point there. For some, like myself, writing is the extended work we do after serving society in our career years.
C. Thank you so much, Anne. I’ll read your book and I’ll come back to you soon.