Aural tradition: Bernice Chauly
SH Lim attended the launch of Bernice Chauly’s latest work and heard her read in a performance.
She is in a fetching one-piece, above-the-knee length black dress. With absences which bare her shoulders. When she sweeps back her hair, she reveals large hoop earrings. Bernice Chauly sits, crossed at the knees on a low barstool with a microphone in front of her. On the wall behind her, and above her on the inclined ceiling are large projected images of sepia-toned monochromes, circa 1960s and earlier (as early as 1913). A time before colour photographs. She opens her latest book, ‘Growing Up with Ghosts’; her eyes focus on the opened pages. The pianist, sitting just beyond her reach, strikes the keys and her music sets the tone. Soon after, as on cue, Bernice voices the words she has written.
This isn’t my first encounter with her, her words or her works which cover a variety of genres. Bernice is an artist, which means her finger is in almost anything that requires the artistic use of words or vision. She writes and publishes poetry, just as she edits and puts together anthologies of short stories. She photographs and documents with her camera; she curates photography exhibitions. She is a filmmaker and an actor. She participates in international writers’ events and she organises readings of original works by writers. And most recently, a literary event which brought in writers from several countries, including Turkey, India and Egypt. At the time of writing this feature, word is circulating that folks in Penang have asked her to organise a literary event there too. With all her commitments, it amazes that this mother of two children can find the time to write this... this work.
It is certainly hard to tell what ‘Ghosts’ is. Where would it be shelved? Under which heading? Together with history? Biographies? If you were on the floor of a bookstore, where would you go find yourself a copy? It is not exactly fiction either, though parts of the book are written as if with a novelist’s eye more so than a chronicler. At the heart of this work is Bernice’s father-and-mother’s – Surindar Singh (@ Bernard Chauly) and Loh Siew Yoke – star-crossed- lovers story, told in a sequence through her father’s letters to her mother during their courtship; told in part also in a special journal entry that her mother wrote many years after the fact to Bernice and her two siblings. But then there’s also a document by her paternal grandfather, anecdotes by her other relatives on both sides. And old photographs, newspaper clippings, a genealogy chart that traces her roots to ‘the plains of the Punjab and the wheat fields of Amritsar; and to Canton, Fatshan, from the village of fishermen and joss stick makers’. Bernice provides more than just the connecting words which link events and people.
Bernice reads. As the piano accompaniment softens a little, her amplified voice reverberates, ‘I remember the day my father stopped singing’. The crowd in No Black Tie stills, watches and listens to the book’s opening line which harkens to the key event that provides the narrative’s emotional energy. Bernice continues to intone how the sea took her father away, ending the first selection with, ‘I was a child of four, and my father never sang to me again.’ But now it is Bernice who is singing. Her work is a long prose poem written with a poet’s ear for words. Textured words which have to be heard to be tasted, heard to be felt, heard to be moved and delighted. ‘Ghosts’ is written in the aural tradition. Cadenced sentences. Bernice confesses, ‘To be honest, I wrote a lot of the book with rhyme and metre in mind. I can’t help it, I am a poet and I think of language in some form of verse. I also wrote a lot of it hearing it read, performed. It’s almost like a play in words, a spectacle of many voices, all coming alive.’
Like many things that are meant to be heard, ‘Ghosts’ deploys repetition as if to remind the reader where he is in the story when the chronology doesn’t quite take a straight line. Certain key events are revisited like the chorus of a song underscoring its theme. Or revisited but from a different perspective. Explaining the organisation of her work, Bernice says, ‘I agonised many months over deciding where to place things and how to structure the book; I referred to semiotic readings as well, that is, Raymond Williams’ ‘keywords’ which helped decide on a general linear time-line. I wanted to create a sense of continuity, so that all the stories and characters had voices. I did not want to write this from a singular narrative. The retelling of some incidences were done with a purpose, so that the reader could see the source of the story, and then how I retell it. And because some incidences are repeated, I wanted to give a sense of time and perspective, that these stories meant something, they were repeated again and again by many sources, and became part of the family’s psyche.’ But for me, the story is woven into the very fabric of our country that claims a happy multiculturalism. A reader aptly remarks that ‘Ghosts’ is the most Malaysian book that he’s read.
Bernice reads a few more selections about these people who clearly mean very much to her. She reads them to life and when she is done, she tells the crowd to stay on. While the music of her love poem has ended, another music is about to begin.
‘Growing Up with Ghosts’ is now available at major bookstores.