During a visit to Singapore, I arranged to meet Ivy at the East Coast Lagoon Food Village. We sat beneath a canape in the busy food hall. Although warm, there was a refreshing sea breeze. The aroma of fish oil, garlic and seafood combined to make my stomach rumble: the choice was overwhelming. I wandered from one stall to the next unable to make my choice. I ordered a prawn noodle dish and Ivy chose seafood laksa. She wore white shorts and a halter neck lime green top and her bag was a leopard print mini backpack…
In it I discuss how Middlesex University helped me find my writing voice:
Jessie: Growing up in Malaysia then studying in Middlesex must have presented a contrasting experience. What were the main differences?
Ivy: Middlesex University was an eye-opening experience. I went in there thinking I was going to be Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot et al but Middlesex made me who I am today. I found my writing voice there. I was given a reading list consisting of books I would never read in a million years. I became aware that I could and do have a totally unique narrative. I became Ivy Ngeow the writer. And this narrative was what has made me stand out amongst 1500 entrants to win the Middlesex University Press Literary Prize of 2005.
This is a FaceBook review for which I was pleased to receive the “notification”. I was nervous as it is the first review by a Malaysian reader, about a Malaysian novel and naturally if anybody can spot errors, it would be a Malaysian!
What is the connection between a pretty tattooed Iban girl adopted by a Scot planter in Segamat who forced a local doctor to marry her because she became pregnant from an accidental one-night outing to an Iban guy who had to serve 10 years in prison in Kuching for murder?
Ms Ngeow certainly has a story to tell and it is quite a story. But more than just her story this book is also rich in information on the culture, custom and beliefs of the Iban community.
My only reservation about the book are on the chapters featuring the Iban characters – these chapters are written in Iban pidgin/creole English which made it quite difficult ( at least it was for me ) to decipher – for example GWAN for going, CHILES for Child etc etc.
Thank you to Dr Ngeow Man Fah, my classmate in medical school, who presented this copy to me as a gift. Ivy Ngeow is her niece. She grew up in JB and graduated from Middlesex University with an MA in Writing. This book won the Proverse Prize ( Hong Kong ) 2016.
A proud moment for me to be alumni of the Writing MA at Middlesex Uni. My award-winning debut novel Cry of the Flying Rhino has made it to the Middlesex University newsetter, Unihub. I started writing it while I was an MA student Read the Newsletter HERE.
I was on the Writing MA programme at MDX . Prior to this recent award, I won the Middlesex University Press Literary Prize in 2005 while I was a postgraduate student for my short story, the ladyboys they have just wake up (2005). In my 5 minute acceptance speech at the November 2017 Proverse Prizegiving Ceremony, I thanked Middlesex University and my lecturer, Dr. Josie Barnard. I found my writing voice at MDX, at a time not so long ago, yet it was a time so devoid of ANY cultural awareness or issues of diversity. This is why Middlesex University is so important in raising authors. It values and nurtures every writer no matter who you are. For me as a writer from an ethnic minority, a woman, an immigrant, to have written in my second language and to be published is a feat in itself. A door has been opened.
A warm welcome to my guest, the legendary Bill Colegrave,
who has collected and been inspired by travel books for more than four decades. He was the owner and publisher of the Cadogan Guides travel series.
And now over to Bill…
The unforeseen complications of a one-night stand
are the foundations of this tale and the adventure that ensues. Benjie, a Chinese Malaysian Doctor is quickly diverted by his new assistant, a tattooed Iban, an indigenous Bornean; once hooked, he remains on the line. The more he discovers of her history, the deeper he becomes embroiled.
Children tattoo children to ensure the art never dies.
Debut novelist, Ivy Ngeow is Malaysian and international and she uses all her multicultural skills to explore the interaction of her character cast of Chinese, Malay, Scottish and Iban. The latter are the catalysts for the drama.
“A man or a woman without tattoos is invisible to the gods.” – Iban proverb
Elderly Sea Dayak woman of Borneo with thigh, feet and hands tattoo
Everyone has heard of Borneo, but most can’t place it on the map.
That is because Borneo is the name of an island, which is not a country; 75% of it is the Indonesian province of Kalimantan, the rest is the Malaysian outposts of Sabah and Sarawak plus the tiny but powerfully oil-rich Kingdom of Brunei. The Borneo of Cry is Sarawak, the home of the Iban.
The story engaged my attention but I was also learning about the Iban,
and learning to admire the Iban. Marriage, we learn, should be considered in practical terms:
“Every boy should look to marry a girl that is top class at weaving…..Boys want girls that are good at weaving, because it is a tough, tough life in the jungle. The girls, they weave to make clothes for war and for every day. They weave pua and the blankets make you dream well. In Iban, dreams are the most important gift from the Gods.”
Traditional Sarawak weaving of Pua Kumbu
A traditional Borneo longhouse
Central to the tale are the two Iban boys, Minos and Watan, who are taken under the wing of a English pastor, who has not understood that the 19th century ended a few years ago and that he is not helping anyone by trying to convert Iban to Christianity. But what he can offer is attractive to the eager Iban. Minos complains that there is no TV.
“Ingland says no. If plentymoney says No, it means No. But Pastor says Yes. Someone from the church give a TV. It is only the size of a chicken.”
I hope I remember to use that splendid simile when I am next buying a TV. Let me also remember Minos’ advice about mushroom gathering:
“….if all rotten and covered in worms, means OK to eat. If fresh and untouched, means poisonous.”
Cry of the Flying Rhino is charming as well as compelling
as a story, partly because the author creates her own moral code, as a result of which almost all crimes committed by her characters can be forgiven, so long as they can be held to be avenging a greater wrong.
The charm of the book and its insights into the ways of the jungle people of Borneo have drawn me to the island.
When I get there I will be thanking Ivy and two other writers:
My friend Robin Hanbury Tenison, whose Finding Eden – A Journey into the Heart of Borneo, has just been published. It tells the story of his time leading the Royal Geographical Society expedition to the same area in 1977 and starts with his chance meeting with Nayapun, a Penan tribesman:
“The Penan have a quality of stillness….They melt into the shadows and that is their life”.
2. and the American, CS Godshalk, whose novel Kalimantaan, brought back to vivid but fictional life the time of Rajah Brooke, the Briton who became an effective Rajah of Sarawak in the mid 19th Century.
“When we affect to condemn savages, we should remember that by doing so we asperse our own progenitors; for they were savages also. Who can swear that among the naked British barbarians sent to Rome to be stared at more than 1500 years ago, the ancestor of Bacon might not have been found?–Why, among the very Thugs of India, or the bloody Dyaks of Borneo, exists the germ of all that is intellectually elevated and grand. We are all of us–Anglo-Saxons, Dyaks and Indians–sprung from one head and made in one image.” – Herman Melville
Have you been to Borneo and have you met an Iban before? If you have enjoyed this blog post, please share, join my mailing list or email me with your comments and feedback. We would love to hear from you.
Ivy Ngeow lives in London. Cry of the Flying Rhinois a debut award-winning novel set in Malaysia and Borneo. Her second novelHeart of Glassis published by Unbound in 2018. Find me at www.writengeow.com, tweet me @ivyngeow, or write to me here: ivy_ngeow at yahoo dot com
Bill Colegrave is a travel writer and explorer. He was publisher of Cadogan Guides, which he bought in 1989, and also a Director of Everyman’s Library. His book Halfway House to Heaven (Benefactum, 2011) tells the story of his expedition to find the source of the River Oxus in the Wakhan Corridor and Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan. He is also co-creator of Not The Times, a parody of The Times during its year-long strike. He has an extensive travel book library and has travelled to 110 countries and counting. He has three grown children and one grandchild, and lives in London. Scraps of Wool was published by Unbound on 16 November 2017. Write to him here: scrapsofwool at gmail dot com
This is the first time I am reading from Cry of the Flying Rhino. It is also the first time I am reading in a Scottish accent (Ian’s voice). I first had the idea in the car on the way to Brixton, and I just thought, what the hell. Let’s do it.
South London, are we ready? I am coming straight out of my garret to read from my new award-winning debut, CRY OF THE FLYING RHINO, at the Brixton Book Jam, on Monday 5 March 2018 7:30pm at The Hootananny. (95 Effra Road, London SW2 1DF) – a large pub with a performance space that can hold 600 people. It also provides cooked food. The closest tube station is Brixton (Victoria line) and buses 2, 3, 415, 432 and 196 will transport you very near to the venue. Guess what, it’s FREE to attend!
This will be the FIRST TIME that I am reading aloud from this book and answering any burning questions you may have about it or about me.
During the intervals, resident DJ Andy Carstairs will spin melodic stylings from his hard drive. Check out The Hootananny. See Brixton Book Jam for detailed biogs of each author and his/her book description.
Somerset Maugham famously said that there are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
How to Write Like Tolstoy by Richard Cohen
should be read with caution. It is, like all other writing books, a How To book that is a How Not To, which means it shows and not tells you via anecdotes and countless examples of great literature, broken down into a structured and systematic analysis what is essentially the magical and unknown journeys we take when we read and when we write. It is a tour de force of all your favourite books in one and why they are. The content page alone is proof that editor and author Richard Cohen has attempted to turn the business of creative writing into practical advice.
Reading about the writing business is an illness that you already know too well, like flu or cold symptoms. For me, it is also a secret and guilty passion because in my heart, I know that you will never know what a great book is until it is a great book so how can this magic, this art be unravelled?
You recognise the symptoms of the infection straightaway. When you start reading a book about writing, they all tell you the same thing, and that is, all books begin in the same way:
“the opening paragraph, the whole question of starting off right. Thereafter the chapters are roughly organized according to the creative process. How characters are created seems paramount – most often, a character will stay with us long after the particular story has faded away – but how does one give them life? What names does one bestow, how much of a back story should be included?”
Can you teach creative writing?
The question is raised in the preface. Hanif Kureishi in the Guardian on 4 March 2014 famously said you can’t. “Creative writing courses are a waste of time,” he said.
“A lot of them [students] don’t really understand,” said Kureishi. “It’s the story that really helps you. They worry about the writing and the prose and you think: ‘Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.’ “
He also says that 99.9% of his students are not talented and the little bit who are left are. If skill comes with talent, then the skill can be taught and improved but the original talent still has to be present. That is why when all else fails, writing is referred to as a craft, akin to knitting a jumper or wood-whittling. If it is crude and wrongly-made, that’s just tough. You have to make it again and again until proportionally, structurally and aesthetically it is just right. There is no magic in it.
The short-lived Brendan Behan (1923-64) described himself as a “drinker with a writing problem”.
“He was invited by a prestigious American university to deliver an afternoon lecture about his craft. Behan’s reputation as boozer and rabble-rouser meant that the lecture hall was filled to capacity with students standing at the back and perched in the aisles, but the appointed hour came and went, with still no sign of the great man. Time laboured on; the stage remained empty. After forty-five minutes or so, a more than usually dishevelled Behan stumbled in, and the audience waited, in equal parts expectant, curious and alarmed. “Good afternoon,” he crooned. “Now hands up all of you who want to be writers.” Nearly everyone raised an arm. Behan viewed this forest with disgust. “Well, then,” said he. “Go on back home and frickin’ write.” With that, he reeled off the stage.”
Kurt Vonnegut who for many years was on the faculty of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, also believed that one could not make writers. He said he himself was like a golf pro who could at best “take a few shots off someone’s game”.
Hemingway said what must be a classic truism by now: the only way for a writer to learn his craft was to go away and write. Despite hours of tutorials from Gertrude Stein, Hemingway had to write to her: “Isn’t writing a hard job though? It used to be easy before I met you. I certainly was bad. Gosh, I’m awfully bad now but it’s a different kind of bad.”
This different kind of bad confirms that the teaching of the craft only highlights how difficult it is to stand out or be original. Once you become a writer aware, you become writer beware. Although teaching writing and publishing is a big business now, with creative writing Masters programme costing thousands of dollars or pounds of fees, it always comes down to: but Dickens didn’t do an MA, neither did Hemingway, Atwood, Orwell, nor J K Rowling. In reality, no one did because it was only recently (in the last 20 years) that creative writing courses came to exist. There was no such thing before. Either you were a writer or you weren’t.
My MA in Writing at Middlesex University
From a personal viewpoint, I became a “professional” when I did my MA in Writing at Middlesex University. I was already a writer. Doing the course did not make me a writer (I had been writing since I could write i.e. from the age of 8 or 9). But it turned my writing from a noun into a verb. Before there was such a thing as MA in Writing, I attended a writing group, the City Lit Writers’ Club in the late 1990s. Being “taught” creative writing was the best thing that ever happened to me as a writer. I am a very small person physically and socially, so I feel I need to be part of a big organisation. It gave me confidence that more than one person (i.e. myself) liked my work. I know that writing is like fine arts, a self-taught interest/hobby/profession/career but I still believe that I need to be self-taught in a group. Most recently, I attended the London Lit Lab’s weekend workshop (a story in a weekend). I am still working on that same story now, editing and perfecting it. However, I would not have written 3000 words in a day had not been for the workshop where I was being “taught” to start writing from scratch after a long period of not writing.
Any university course aims to give you skills or to improve your skills, even more so a Writing MA. Cry of the Flying Rhino was born at Middlesex. Yes! It’s actually a North Londoner! Without having attended the MA at Middlesex, I could not have written the book I wanted to write, nor been granted the opportunity to say what I wanted to say, free of constraints, fear, guilt, grammar, market desirability and proverbial voices over the shoulder, free of boundaries of race, language, culture. A book that experimented with patois, multiple voices, a book that is pure literature. A book that ultimately, after 12 years of dormancy on my hard drive, was submitted for an international literary prize and won. Now that I have written two books and am writing my third, I would not hesitate to say that I was “taught” something: that an MA in Writing is the most freedom you will ever get as a writer.
What about George Orwell?
What about him? He is one of my literary heroes. Perhaps what I liked about his honesty and his writing was what he “taught” me, which is not to aim for popularity but to say what you want to say but make it clear:
“Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.”
He began his career as a clumsy writer. At the age of 24 he moved into cheap lodgings in London, and was befriended by the distinguished poet Ruth Pitter. The two would go for long walks along the Embankment discussing his stories, or meet for dinner of a bottle of red plonk when she would give him unsparing criticism and therefore taught him to compose those stories even though the original gift for storytelling was in fact his own.
is formula, a template. The titular Leo Tolstoy once said all great literature is one of two stories. A man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.
Naturally this is sexist and I shall avert my eyes. Man is generic. It could be a child or woman or a living thing. Sexism aside, it is not so simple. If it were, then there would not be so many narratives available.
Carlo Gozzi, an Italian playwright of the 18th century said there were 36 plots. 2004’s bestselling Seven Basic Plots won approval of many writers. Oxford philosopher Roger Scruton called it “a brilliant summary of storytelling.”
Rags to Riches
Voyage and Return
These are just nonsensical hashtags in my view. If there are only 7 then how come all the greatest books have all of the above?
Naturally I turned to this chapter first being someone who can’t, won’t and doesn’t write about sex. As it happens this is a very interesting chapter. It is not about erotica or pornography. “It’s nearly always best to avoid detailed descriptions or elaborate imagery” which is how one turns the writing about sex into erotica or pornography.
William F Buckley liked to recall a dinner with Vladimir Nabokov who told him that he was smiling because he polished off his OSS in that afternoon’s writing session.
What’s an OSS? asked Buckley.
Nabokov explained. Obligatory sex scene.
A depressing scenario is when writers put in a sex scene, badly-written because they hope it will boost sales, or win them popularity or whatever. Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris has a section for erotica and it is aptly called L’Enfer. Hell.
Shirley Conran, bonkbuster bestseller, subcontracts her erotic scenes to Celia Brayfield. Detachment from the characters is still a great way to get attached to them. The irony. Summary about writing about sex?
Writing about sex is a fine ambition but difficult to carry off successfully. Try, but be ready to junk the pages.
The Song of Songs, a long erotic poem, in the Old Testament has been described as the single most instructive example of how to write effectively about physical love. The second most successful love scene is John Donne’s “To His Mistress Going to Bed”:
Now off with those shoes: and then safely tread
In this love’s hallow’d temple, this soft bed…
By this these Angles from an evil sprite,
Those set out hairs, but these our flesh upright.
Licence my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O, my America! My new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d…
To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.
Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee.
The advice in a nutshell is to use poetic licence. Language is still language. Do not describe body parts. Less is more. End of scene.
There is no need to recap or to sum up with a great statement of “wearisome” arguments already made. “When you have said what you want to say,
Thanks for reading this blog post! If you like South-east Asian and vintage arts and cultures, you will love my award-winning novel Cry of the Flying Rhino set in Malaysia and Borneo in the 1990s. It is dark, macabre and thrilling, it has received a handful of five-star reviews already. And of course, it is stylish like you and I.
What were the inciting incidents which inspired Cry of the Rhino to become an award-winning novel? Asian Books Blog ran a 500 word article with answers and much more. I was also covered by the American author Robert Raymer in his insightful and entertaining blog, the Borneo Expat Writer. Robert and I interviewed each recently.
You can also read the article here below:
Cry of the Flying Rhino was written thirteen years ago after I made my one and only trip to Borneo with my mother. I was inspired by the dark, macabre and gothic nature of communal longhouse living and the tribal civilisation and culture which have been around for thousands of years. Two things triggered some ideas.
Firstly, during the trip, I saw a tattoo parlour called Headhunters. It piqued my interest in the traditional art and symbolism of Iban tattooing, performed manually with a hammer, steel pin and ink made from tree ash.
Secondly, long after our trip, I dreamt of a girl in a longhouse with eyes as huge as the “hollows of the benuah tree”. Those words came to me in the dream. I wrote them down. She looked sad and haunted and there was also terror in her eyes. I did not know who she was or what the dream was about but something unpleasant and unusual had happened to her and I set about finding out about the Iban culture, which I later discovered, is based on dreams. That dreams were everything, our hopes, work, happiness and luck.
In exploring the two triggers above, I found out that indigenous cultures are threatened and dying, because of loss of habitat due to logging and deforestation, and due to the conversion of the Ibans to other religions. As a result, orang asli (original people) like the Ibans are forced to leave their habitat for the city because their livelihood, dependent on being able to survive in the jungles on the fat of the land, is diminishing due to the jungles being cleared. Their way of life which is so rich in folklore, superstition and traditions will soon be lost. Ultimately the rapid destruction of the jungles will impact upon the rest of the world via climate change and so on. I also found out that children tattooed children which ensured that the art would never die. If adults were one day wiped out by an epidemic or a massacre, the surviving children would all have learned and mastered all survival and artistic skills including tattooing.
Cry of the Flying Rhino is a modern novel set in the railway town of Segamat, which has already been deforested and turned into miles of plantation, and Borneo, whose jungles are under threat. The Chinese GP, Benjie, has been forced to marry Talisa, a mysterious and tattooed teenager, and the adopted daughter of wealthy crass Scottish landowner Ian. Benjie has to discover for himself his wife’s true identity, when Minos and Watan, two Ibans who leave the jungle and appear in Segamat one day, looking for Talisa.
Cry of the Flying Rhino raises uneasy themes of identity, poverty, religion, race, greed, colonialism and post-colonial struggles, and deculturalisation because I want to convey to readers the issues and conflicts which affect Asia today using the medium of fiction. I hope the story will take them to another world.