Friday, 2 May 2014

Elsie Sze - author interview

1. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was born and grew up in Hong Kong. I left for Canada to pursue graduate studies at 22. I subsequently taught high school in Toronto, got married and moved to the United States. In our years in the States, my husband and I raised a family of three boys, and I worked as a librarian upon completing a master’s degree in Library Science at the University of Chicago. In 1987, I returned to Canada with my family. I was with the Toronto Public Library for nine years. During this time, I took a summer workshop and a correspondence program in creative writing for three years with the Humber School for Writers. In 2001, I gave up my job as librarian to devote my time to writing. My first novel Hui Gui: a Chinese story was published in 2005, followed by The Heart of the Buddha in 2009, and now, Ghost Cave in 2014.

2. Can you give us a brief description of Ghost Cave: A novel of Sarawak?
Ghost Cave is historical fiction with the main focus on two devastating events in Sarawak history, the Chinese miners’ rebellion of the mid-nineteenth century and the communist guerrilla war of the 1960s. In 1849, Liu Hon Min and his friend Lo Tai left China for Sarawak, Borneo, in search of fortune, with the intention to return home to a better life for themselves and their families. They worked in the gold mines of Mau San, but became embroiled in a rebellion of the miners against the ruling Englishman James Brooke which ended tragically. Trapped by Brooke’s men inside a cave (later named Ghost Cave), Liu Hon Min was rescued by a native girl and afterwards married her. A hundred years later, one of their descendants Tak Ming fought as a communist guerrilla in the jungles of Borneo against Malaysian and British troops.  Ghost Cave was the setting where the two protagonists, over a century apart, were connected not just by bloodline but in an uncanny way by what transpired inside Ghost Cave. All this came to light when Tak Ming’s granddaughter, a young woman from Canada, went to Sarawak to find material for her journalism program, and in so doing unraveled her family’s past. 

3. Your father’s homeland is Sarawak; how, and to what extent, has your family history influenced the writing of this novel? 

Elsie Sze's 97-year-old father looking at the book Ghost Cave in Edmonton recently
Ghost Cave is by no means biographical. My father’s family and their history have had no bearing on my novel. My father’s grandparents were the first generation in our family tree to migrate from southern China to Sarawak in the late nineteenth century, many years after the Chinese miners’ rebellion – thank heavens! They were not miners but rubber and pepper plantation growers and traders.  As far as the plot and storyline go, my father’s family history has not influenced the writing of this novel. However, it was because of them that I decided to use Sarawak as the setting for this novel, something I wanted to give back to my father and his (our) family in Sarawak. It was my way of reconnecting with my roots.

4. Did you find it harder or easier to write about a place with close family connections?

A cousin and I at the grave site in Buso, Sarawak, of our great parents who migrated from China. The inscription on the right tombstone, that of our great grandfather reads: "Born 1862 Guangdong Dongguan / Died 1943 May 15th Kuching"
Before I answer this question, I must say I found it more interesting and alluring to write about a place with close family connections. I was thrilled to be at the sites where important and often calamitous events had occurred in the time periods of my story. My relatives in Sarawak made it possible and easy for me to go to those places time and again. My father’s village of Buso was one of the scenes where the massacre took place.   And there I was, walking down its main street where blood had flowed profusely in 1857! I suppose in a way you can say it’s easier to write about a place with close family connections, because of the ready access to information and research, but then the poignancy of the subject matter made it emotionally more taxing and therefore harder for me to write about it. 

5. This novel won the inaugural Saphira Prize (Women in Publishing Society, Hong Kong). What made you decide to enter your book? 

I had just completed the manuscript of Ghost Cave when the Women in Publishing Society invited submissions for the inaugural Saphira Prize for unpublished writing in the winter of 2012. At the time, I was in the process of negotiating an agent and finding a publisher, and when I read about the Saphira Prize, I thought I would submit my manuscript, to give it a shot. The result is the published Ghost Cave: a novel of Sarawak. You can say an ancestor or two must be looking out for me! 

6. Your first novel, Hui Gui: a Chinese story, was published in 2006. What made you decide to start writing after a career as a teacher and a librarian? 
I’d had a passion to write ever since I was in high school.  My goal to be a writer was not formed late in life, but I knew when I was younger that I wasn’t ready, in terms of life’s experiences and writing skills. It took me two full and gratifying careers as a teacher and a librarian which I had enjoyed very much before I felt it was time to start writing seriously if I was to stand a chance of realizing my life-long goal. That was when I took an early retirement from the library to pursue my dream.

7. You are an avid traveler; to what extent has this influenced your writing? 
To a very great extent! My travels have played a big part not only in my novels, but also the short pieces I have written and published. For Hui Gui: a Chinese story, I did not need to travel much, as my story was set in China and Hong Kong. I had been to China several times before the writing of Hui Gui, and I grew up in Hong Kong. Mostly I researched the historic period for the early part of the story with the help of books, films, the Internet and interviews. However, my second novel The Heart of the Buddha depended a lot on on-site research in Bhutan. I fell in love with the little Himalayan kingdom in 2000 when I first accompanied my husband on a business trip there. I decided there and then that I would write a novel about Bhutan. We returned to Bhutan two years later solely for my research. I interviewed monks and lamas, including a rimpoche (reincarnate lama), visited formidable dzongs (monasteries for administrative and religious purposes), even trekked the foothills of the Himalayas to over ten thousand feet altitude. Incidentally, Timeless Books, an Indian publisher, bought the right from me a few years ago to republish the novel for distribution in the Indian subcontinent which included Bhutan. I was very happy the book was finally ‘home’, made accessible to the Bhutanese people.  As for Ghost Cave: a novel of Sarawak, I wouldn’t have been able to write it without traveling to Sarawak. I paid five visits there in the last eight years, partly to see my family, and partly to research.  

8. Is there anything, or anyone, else that inspires you to write? 
Apart from my travels to countries that have inspired me,  there were my high school English teachers who gave me lots of encouragement, and English authors such as Emily and Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, whose works I have studied and loved. And my mentor and friend from the Humber School for Writers in Toronto, Isabel Huggan, a renowned Canadian author. 

9. What can we expect from you in the future? Are you working on another novel? 
I intend to keep on writing, with the main focus on novels. I do have another novel in mind, and have started my research. I don’t make it easy for myself: my next novel will again involve a lot of research on an off-the-beaten-track land, massive in size yet unfamiliar to most of the world. It will again transport me and my readers to another time, another place, far from the comfort zone and familiar domain of my North American home base. It will require a lot of traveling again, but it will be worth it. Much of the fun is in getting there.

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