Memoirs are, by definition, works in progress. They should, for all intents and purposes, take a lifetime to write. They should communicate change. They should symbolise growth. They should be reflective. In an age where everyone is looking for their 15 seconds of fame, we have come to expect so much more from these sorts of things. We want revelation. We want honesty and candour. We want to be surprised. For what is the point indulging in such reading if we didn't actually learn from it, something new, something that would, God forbid, further enrich our reality.
Suffice to say that Bernice Chauly does not disappoint. It has taken her over two decades to put this book together and it is an absolute masterpiece. A magnum opus about family, love, death, the plight of star-crossed lovers, the diaspora of all those displaced by time and by space. It will tear your heart out. It will make you bleed. It will likely be the most Malaysian thing you read this year. Why? Simply because this story, of Chauly's parents, of their forbidden love, steeped in passion and punctuated by tragedy, is as much hers as it is ours. Also because we have all had startlingly similar experiences, be it in our own lives or in those lives close to ours and this quest -- of self-discovery, coming to terms with one s sense of self, dealing with those complex questions of identity -- is something we ve all undertaken, or likely will, at some point in our lives. Why is that? Well, very simply because it comes with the territory. It is our tendency-- the inescapable consequence of our curious living arrangements.
This book is nothing short of a labour of love. It is a work suffused with so much blood, sweat and tears. Every sentence is steeped in sentiment, in emotion so raw, so natural and instinctive, that its appeal is nothing short of universal.
There is a wonderful quality to Chauly's prose. It is a style that stems from her well-established poetic roots. It is lyrical. There are moments when it borders on verse. Arranged with an almost metrical rhythm. Like when she writes of her origins:
I am Punjabi, a sardarni of the Khalsa. Of the pure, from the tenets sprung from the loins of Guru Nanak. From the plains of the Punjab, and the wheat fields of Amritsar. I am Chinese, from the port city of Canton, from Fatshan, from Lam Soy Chea, from the village of fishermen and of joss stick makers.
It possesses a choral character that demands to be read and read out loud. This is because Chauly has written more than just a memoir, she has compiled more than just a poignant catalogue of letters and diary entries and personal observations and scrapbook excerpts. GROWING UP WITH GHOSTS is an inadvertent play for voices.
GROWING UP WITH GHOSTS is many things. It is a biography, a diary and a history. It s also a love story, a searching journey into the heart of the Punjab and into the Guangdong province and the story of an ancient curse. But most of all, it is the story of a little girl just looking for her father. --Umapagan Ampikaipakan, the New Straits Times (31 August 2011)
BERNICE CHAULY is a writer, poet, photographer, filmmaker and lecturer. She has published two collections of poems, going there and coming back (1997), The Book of Sins (2008) and a collection of short stories, Lost in KL (2008). She studied TESL and English Literature in Winnipeg, Canada and has worked extensively in the arts in KL for the past twenty years. An ex-journalist, radio correspondent, food writer and publisher, she has also written, acted and directed for the stage and screen. GROWING UP WITH GHOSTS is a fictive memoir in five voices, based on her Punjabi/Chinese family's history and stories. Her work has been published in regional and international anthologies and she has performed in festivals in the Dutch Antilles, Suriname, South Africa, Indonesia, India and Hong Kong. She lives in KL with her two daughters.