Tag Archives: Japanese Invasion of Malaya

When the Future Comes Too Soon

I’m thrilled to announce that my second novel, When the Future Comes Too Soon, will be published on July 18, 2017, by Amazon Crossing! The book’s stunning front cover is below.

This is the second book in The Malayan Series, but it is a stand-alone novel; in fact, all the books in the series will be stand-alone. In other words, every one of them can be read independently – you need not have read The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds before being able to enjoy this latest book!

In When the Future Comes Too Soon, Malaya is at war and occupied by the Japanese. The story follows an ordinary, middle-class family – the Wong family – through the three and a half years when their country is turned upside down. The narrator, Wong Mei Foong, who is a young woman on the eve of the Japanese invasion, must find ways to survive with her husband and their five children. For those who’ve read The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds, Mei Foong is the first daughter-in-law of the matriarch in that previous novel.

Every Malaysian family has its own memories of the Japanese era. As a child, I was fascinated by that period and clamoured to hear my family’s stories. I devoured these tales without fully understanding their implications, and it was only while writing this second novel that I have come to appreciate how profoundly Japan’s occupation of Malaya changed our country.

This novel means a huge amount to me, so I’m pleased that the book has already received accolades from leading authors. Here’s what María Dueñas, who wrote the New York Times bestselling The Time in Between, has said about When the Future Comes Too Soon:

“Selina Siak Chin Yoke has created an intensely visceral evocation of life in Malaya during World War II, when a young wife and her family confront the harshness of life under the Japanese occupation and the ethnic polarization it causes. Mei Foong is a hauntingly original character, torn between loyalty to her family and the risk of betrayal — a woman who fatefully defies the constricting conventions of her society.”

And from Man Asian Literary Prize-shortlisted Musharraf Ali Farooqi, author of Between Clay and Dust, has come the following praise:

“As Malayan society grapples with the changes brought on by war and occupation, Mei Foong barters away pieces of her existence in order to survive, and rebuild and reclaim her life. She must finally contend with the realization that one could only wholly reclaim oneself by acts of self assertion requiring greater courage than needed merely to survive. When the Future Comes Too Soon by Selina Siak Chin Yoke is an intricately drawn network of human relationships.”

Some of you must be wondering how it is that my second novel is coming so quickly! My literary agent, Thomas Colchie in New York, spent nearly two years looking for a publisher for my first manuscript, but when Thomas agreed to work with me, he knew I was planning a series. Naturally, he advised me to start writing the second book while he continued searching for a publisher for the first work.

I had already completed two drafts of When the Future Comes Too Soon when Thomas came bearing the sort of message every aspiring author wants to hear. At that point, I had to stop writing – life just became too exciting! As the process of preparing my debut novel for publication got underway, I went back to my second manuscript and continued polishing it.

When I finally felt that it was ready to be shown to the world, I sent it off to Thomas and his wife, Elaine, who approves all the manuscripts that pass through their literary agency. I cannot tell you how nervous I was! This second novel is quite different – necessarily so, since the country is ravaged by privation – and I had no idea how anyone would react. When Elaine’s response came through one night, I had to calm myself before daring to open her email. I then walked on air for the next few days because she told me how much she loved it.

And it is thanks to you, dear readers, who gave my debut novel – The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds – such heart-warming reviews, that Amazon Crossing quickly made an offer on the second manuscript and is bringing the finished book to you as early as they can. I hope you adore the front cover as much as I do – it presents a powerful image, as vivid as the first. For this superb art work, I must once again thank the entire design and production team at Amazon Crossing, plus the artist, David Drummond, and of course my editor, Elizabeth DeNoma.

There are now three months to go before publication. Am I nervous? Absolutely. Excited, but nervous, too; I’ve poured so much of myself into this book. I really hope that you, the reader, will like it. When the Future Comes Too Soon is already available for pre-order. Below is a selection of links you can use.


Amazon USA              Amazon UK                Book Depository

Barnes & Noble         Waterstones              Kinokuniya MY



Filed under Malaysia, Novel, Publishing, Writing

When do you Stop?

In just a few days, the Snake will give way to the Horse (in the Chinese zodiac). It was roughly a year ago, before the Snake had even entered, that I finished my tome of a historical novel.

Here’s what I mean by ‘finished’: I planned it, did my research, wrote the first draft, and then ‘edited’ that draft twice – from the first page through to the last, where editing included the heavy re-writing of particular chapters. I was aided throughout, even in the early stages, by Dr. Nathalie Teitler, poet, director of The Complete Works II and a professional developmental editor. Some writers think this unusual, but for me, feedback is invaluable while I’m still crafting a story.

Ultimately, the whole endeavour took two years. This, I was told, was not that long, given the scope of what I attempted: a story commencing in 1878 and ending just before the Japanese invasion of Malaya in 1941 (a period which spans sixty three years), where real history is incorporated into a fictional setting.

Writing my book made me look at art and artists in a different way. Most of us see only the finished piece, be it a book or play, opera or painting; we don’t usually think about how much effort a ballerina or opera singer, actor or painter, has had to put in. Now I know.

My novel Spirit of Kueh contains roughly 145,000 words. To give you an idea of what that means, the first two paragraphs of this blog-post contain approximately 100 words. Imagine writing 1,450 more paragraphs like those and then editing each twice, and you will perhaps see why it took so long. By the time I finished, I had reached the point of exhaustion. I closed the folder on my PC marked ‘Manuscript’ and could not look at it again. There was no way I could have edited my novel a third time – not then anyway.

In this age of bite-sized concentration and 140-character sound bites, I’m aware that a novel of 145,000 words is deemed long, especially for a first-time novelist. A published novelist I met (who hasn’t read any of my work) claimed I would never find a publisher. We shall see.

I don’t doubt the challenge, but having put a lot of thought into the way my story should be structured, I believe it hangs together as a coherent whole and some impact would be lost if the story were to be split up. Also, we’re not short of drama: the female protagonist, who is illiterate, starts her own business while raising a family of ten children. Ten children! How many of us could imagine raising ten children? All of this takes place against a backdrop of a rapidly westernising Malaya. Hence the themes in my novel are rather contemporary : the ongoing conflict between modernisation and tradition, and especially for those of us living as minorities in a foreign land: what is the true cost of (our) cultural assimilation?

My next step then, after three months of research, was to send off query letters to agents, together with a synopsis and the relevant pages or chapters. Each agent, incidentally, is different: writing to them is like applying for a job; there is no ‘standard’, and everyone asks for something slightly different, which means that each query takes time to prepare. I wrote to five agents, received one response – a no – and was ignored by the others.

Fortunately or unfortunately, life then took over. I became bogged down with managing a house renovation project in a new country (France) and my routine went kaput. In snatched moments, I wrote. Not being able to focus in the same way, I turned my hand to non-fiction, jotting down hundreds of snippets about the many surprises France laid my way. I also wrote two pieces of flash fiction (published in Litro Online and Postcard Shorts) and several short stories (now under consideration for publication). Without a proper routine, it was impossible for me to even think about what Helen Dunmore, the award-winning author who visited us during the one Arvon Foundation course I attended, called ‘writing biz’: the process of dealing with the commercial, non-creative side of writing. Agents and publishers fall into this category.

Now that we are about to enter the Year of the Horse, it feels to me that the time has come. I have looked again at the folder marked ‘Manuscript’ and have, inevitably, begun further editing. This time, I bring a fresh eye and new skills, skills I could only have gained by writing short fiction. Indeed, I find that many of the published novels I read today could use further editing. In art though, there is no right or wrong; you could continue editing a story ad infinitum. When do you stop?


Filed under Novel, Writing

Tan Twan Eng, the Garden of Evening Mists and Memories of War

I’m always on the lookout for writers and artists from Malaysia. I get a particular thrill when a piece of literary or artistic work reflects Malaysians as we are, in the places we know and love. It is rare to come across such work outside Malaysia. So when it happens, and the work then goes on to achieve international recognition, I’m doubly excited!

This is what has happened with Malaysia-born Tan Twan Eng. (Surname: Tan, name: Twan Eng. See my blog-post What’s in a Chinese Name?). His two novels have both been long-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize – a remarkable feat. I first heard of him in 2007 when his début novel The Gift of Rain was published in the UK. A former banking colleague had recommended I read it. “It’s beautiful,” he told me. He was right. The Gift of Rain is set on the magical island of Penang, home of sandy beaches and swaying palms. The story in it unfolds in lyrical prose as light as stardust.

Yet, Tan Twan Eng is not especially known in Malaysia. This is a shame – because his work ripples with themes Malaysians would find interesting.

To begin with, both novels are about the War and its aftermath. For Malaysians, there is but one War: the Second World War – when Malaya was occupied by Japanese forces. This occurred between 1941 and 1945. Roughly seventy years may have passed, but we continue to be affected by the events which took place then. They changed Malaya irrevocably, in ways we are only beginning to explore and understand.

I know I was obsessed with stories from the War era as a child. Whenever my now-dead maternal Grandmother visited, I would beg her to tell me what the War was like. She would sit, as calm as a lake on a still night, and in her deep voice, would tell me things I simply could not imagine. Soldiers rapping on doors and windows, looking for girls and women; men being rounded up, forced to stand in 30+ degree Celsius heat with no water; the screams that could be heard from one of the hospitals in Ipoh, where the Japanese had set up a torture chamber; heads on spikes, on full display at the front gates of Ipoh’s Central Market as a warning to the headstrong.

I thought I knew much about the War. Yet, both The Gift of Rain and Garden of Evening Mists, Tan Twan Eng’s latest novel, taught me new things.

For example, I grew up believing that the British Colonial administration had done its very best to defend our country. Not so, according to The Gift of Rain, and my own research confirmed this. Much has been made of the Malayan Campaign. But if we cut through it all, here is the bald fact: Britain largely abandoned us to the Japanese. Japanese forces attacked the north-eastern coast of Malaya first, before swiftly marching across the country: westwards and southwards, over mountains and across jungle our Colonial rulers had said was impenetrable. Yes there were battles – mainly in support of retreat – unlike in Europe, where the British army fought for every inch of ground, to the death. In Malaya, the Colonial troops retreated…and retreated…until they reached the island of Singapore and there was nowhere else to go. At that point, some hopped onto ships bound for Australia, following their women and children. Those who didn’t leave on time were captured when Singapore fell.

I was sorely disappointed by what I learnt. It still rankles today. The only thing I can do with my feelings is to write about what happened.

I imagine Tan Twan Eng must have been similarly affected, though he has worked wonders to weave history into his stories easily. His writing doesn’t feel dense, nor is there any rancour. Amazingly, each novel incorporates a Japanese central character. In Garden of Evening Mists, this happens to be the Emperor’s gardener; in The Gift of Rain, it is an aikido master. Tan himself has first-dan ranking in aikido, and has obviously studied Japanese thinking. He manages to convey some of its Zen-like mystery and beauty through slow, deliberately measured prose, so that even the positioning of stones within a garden becomes pure poetry.

Garden of Evening Mists tells the story of a young Malaysian-Chinese woman, Yun Ling, who goes on to become a lawyer, but who cannot forget the War. After graduating from Cambridge, she takes leave to learn the art of creating a Japanese garden from a man who was the Emperor’s gardener. This fictional garden is located high up in the Malaysian hills, in Cameron Highlands, a dreamy place once shrouded in jungle and mist. It was developed because it reminded British Colonialists of their home. Yun Ling hopes the creation of a garden will be cathartic; instead, it adds layers of intrigue and pain she only comprehends years later. 

Japanese themes also echo in The Gift of Rain. A Eurasian boy, Philip (Note: By Eurasian, I don’t mean someone from that piece of land known as Eurasia, but a person with one European parent and one Asian parent), who lives in Penang, is befriended by a Japanese man, Endo, before the War. Philip is taught aikido by Endo. Perhaps I read too much into it, but what develops within Philip is a depth of feeling which struck me as homo-erotic. (Though I stress this isn’t a ‘gay’ novel.) Philip learns not only aikido, but also the Japanese language. Then, the Japanese arrive, en masse. You will have to read the book to find out what happens to him, his family and Penang.

Incidentally, there is an explicitly gay character in Garden of Evening Mists. I mention this because it shows me that Tan Twan Eng isn’t afraid of tackling a subject we in Asia prefer to avoid.

Like a good story-teller, Tan Twan Eng folds his own experiences seamlessly into his writing. Having lived in Cape Town for the past few years, he inserted an Afrikaner into his latest book. There are therefore plenty of lekker braais (delicious barbecues) alongside descriptions of Cape Dutch houses and flora. And these are all made to fit into Cameron Highlands!

Reading Tan Twan Eng has inevitably made me reflect on my own work. My current novel deals with an equally dramatic period for Malaya – the years after colonisation but before the War. It was a time of great change: cars and airplanes came to Malaya then, Malayans started to learn English and many families became westernised. There was also a Japanese community in Malaya, whom we later learnt were spies. Many were photographers; one of them features in my novel towards the end, just before the eve of the Japanese invasion, when the matriarch in my story dies.

I had always intended my novel to be the first in a trilogy, with the second in the series focusing on the impact of the War years on a particular family in Ipoh. Reading Garden of Evening Mists has made me realise how much is left to explore…What an incredible life this is.


Filed under Malaysia, Novel, Research, Writing