The first story which I wrote and submitted was for the 1984 New Straits Times Short Story Competition. It was called Miel and the Honey Bunch or something pretentious-sounding like that. The exact story and wording are all gone now. Success came to me early as a writer, to my detriment, as I since then I always thought I would be a professional and successful writer without much effort. I developed a complacency towards the creative act of writing.
I was then 14 years old and the youngest entrant. There was no such thing as YA genre at the time. You were either an adult or a child. I didn’t get a mention and didn’t win anything. I competed as an adult but any competition was as tough then as it is now. Out of hundreds and maybe thousands of entries, there can only be one winner and the rest runners up or in the commended list. I was fine. I remember thinking that I just wanted to send it out, no matter what.
In 1986 I entered the same competition again. I was now 16. As per two years before, I wrote the story by hand and dictated it to my mother who typed the story up in triplicate on this typewriter pictured, the Royal 240. My dad bought it in the Johor Bahru NAAFI in 1970*. It was attractively wood-panelled. It had red and black ribbons. I remember that distinctive strong fresh chemical smell of the typewriter ink. It had two discoloured or stained keys, I am not sure why. Graphic designers? Anybody? When I saw this photo (which is the same model but it is not the actual typewriter that was used) I noticed that it also had two discoloured keys! Imagine my excitement at the discovery. I could not type and neither could she. She used two fingers and typed out 1,500 to 2,000 words. I sat next to her and read out a paragraph first, where we would edit manually, orally or aurally, then a second reading word by word for it to be typed. It took some time but in those days you have time! Everybody had time! We used and re-used the carbon paper for the triplicate copies until it was transparent, until you could put it against a window and see the view beyond the window, until an abstract pattern was made by layers and lines of juxtaposed and superimposed text which no longer made sense, which no longer could be read legibly.
She was strangely a perfectionist and I did not know it then, I just thought ‘Damn! Mummy’s fussy!’. We quarreled, I sulked, we came back to the typing, we snapped, we sent it off. Now I feel grateful now that my mother was so supportive and meticulous about it too. When the words looked messy or clumsy on the page, she would rip the paper out and crush it into a ball like those cartoon caricatures of writers. And then we would start again. As she typed I remember her correcting my grammar and turns of phrases. ‘Is’ or ‘was’, ‘would be’ or ‘would have been’, she would ask, sometimes to herself, sometimes to me, and we would discuss. The final decision was sometimes hers, sometimes mine and sometimes joint. Letter by letter, word by word, sentence by sentence, my story was typed out.
This time I won a prize of a weekend writing workshop at the New Straits Times headquarters: 31 Jalan Riong, 51000 Kuala Lumpur. I got to meet the amazingly kind and funny writer Robert Raymer, a poet called Jeya and a film critic called Kee Thuan Chye. You must remember that I was born and raised in Johor Bahru where nothing happens and most definitely, nothing exciting. It is like saying you are from Hull. The address and postcode of The New Straits Times office is etched in my memory forever. I referred to the letter until I memorised it. It went everywhere I went. It was more valuable than money or keys. I just had to have it with me. I held it in my hand, my school bag, my drawer until it tore at the creases where it once folded. I do not have it anymore. Sometimes I wish I still have it but maybe it was the right thing after all that it has perished over time. The letter had served its purpose which was to endorse me as a writer when I was still young.
*The Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI /ˈnæfiː/) is an organisation created by the British government in 1921 to run recreational establishments needed by the British Armed Forces, and to sell goods to servicemen and their families.
Where to start? What nails? I have no more nails to bite. Come to think of it, no cuticles either. Where am I going to get my daily intake of protein from? I’m going to be eating a low carb humble pie from now to eternity. I can stomach this. There is no room for dignity.
It has been a crazy week. I have never done this before. I am learning myself each day. I learn from others. I am learning the ropes. I am learning to give what people want and need, which is this niche I seem to have created, a grave I have dug, back rod I have carved, for myself. The niche of international fiction, postcolonial writing, crime noir, etc. Exactly! What is the et cetera bit?
I have taught myself patience and humility. This is the opposite of vanity publishing. If anybody thinks this, it’s the total opposite. Don’t even go there! Being vain has sold nothing. Ask any cosmetic-peddling salesgirl in a brightly-lit luxury departmental store. Never in my life after three degrees would I think I would have a sales job. Yet now, I have a sales job. I could be selling makeup but I am not selling makeup. I am selling something that does not even exist yet. I am selling the idea of potential, of investment in writing, of myself, selling a dream.
This is me reading from near the beginning, but not the beginning, in my Unbound shed vlog.
Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre is set in the tiny village of Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire where he lived for 36 years. He was also buried in the village. I took a train from Marylebone with the family on a bright October day in 2015. We enjoyed a surreal vision of a horse on the ceiling:
Pink horse alert: on Marylebone station ceiling
Upon closer inspection, it is a mythical white horse.
It was so poetic and befitting an intro to our outing, since we were going to the village of one of the most treasured children’s authors of all time.
The village of Great Missenden
After 45 minutes we arrived and walked through the pleasant and pretty village surrounded by hills.
We saw some interesting old buildings and antique shops. Some of these old shops were actually in his stories, such as the Red Pump Garage on Great Missenden High Street, which appeared in Danny, The Champion of the World (1975), the Post Office Great Missenden… and… Sukhothai Thai fine dining restaurant? Just kidding.
Mock Tudor building
Red pump garage
Sukhothai Fine Dining
Impressive mosaic at butcher’s
Great Missenden High St
Great Missenden PO
was very inspiring for readers and writers.
WW’s Chocolate Factory gates
Wall that looks and smells like real chocolate
Willy Wonka’s top hat
There was so much information on how to generate plots and create characters.
Sticky Note Plots
More importantly, I actually visualised Roald Dahl in his shed working away.
RD’s chair in his shed
Although he was a successful bestseller author and probably minted, he was so frugal and humble. His shed has no decoration or anything pretty to look at. He wanted no distractions. He made all these makeshift fittings himself out of scraps and what he had. His old armchair was threadbare, he made a suitcase filled with logs for his footrest, he rolled up corrugated cardboard for his wrist rest. Nothing was designery, trendy, handmade or even shop bought. When you see his carefully and meticulously reconstructed shed, you will realise that nothing matters but the writing itself.
The most luxurious place is in the mind, I think Mark Twain once said.