Short and sweet

18 Dec 2019 / 12:21 H.

IPOH-BORN writer Elaine Chew had a very interesting career journey before she became a published author.

Chew had initially wanted to become a writer but her mother thought she should have a more professional career, especially in the field of law.

Chew managed to get a scholarship to study law in the United States, and even though having a US law degree meant she would not be able to practise in Malaysia, she persevered and graduated from Stanford University.

After working for a US law firm for some years, she joined the investment bank Goldman Sachs and worked at its Hong Kong office for three years.

Chew currently lives in Singapore with her husband.

I caught up with her in a major bookstore in Kuala Lumpur where she was giving a reading for her first published book, The Heartsick Diaspora And Other Stories.

This book is a collection of short stories that Chew has written over the years, and features key characters who are of Malaysian or Singaporean Chinese descent.

Speaking of her journey into publishing, Chew said: “I was very much into reading when I was young. It was the usual stuff such as Enid Blyton and Edith Nesbit. I didn’t like girly stories; I liked adventure stories. I liked Sinbad. I liked Treasure Island. I liked adventures on the high seas. I really wanted to write adventure stories.”

As a young girl, Chew also tried her hand at writing.

“I did some writing as a teenager. It never went anywhere. I wrote just for fun. A lot were magical type stories. I got excited and wanted to try them out for myself.” Chew describes her works from that period as a form of “fanfiction”.

In law school, she was still an avid reader, but had stopped writing.

She recalled: “My hours were too long and I barely had time to read. I stopped writing fiction, [and] wrote a lot of legal briefs. After I got married, I stopped practising law and we moved to London.

“[There], I decided to pick up writing again. It was quite slow and I wasn’t very serious about it initially. Then I started taking writing classes, a lot of them online. I also started reading lots of short stories; I fell in love with short stories. I cannot not read a short story.”

Her first few works even earned her a few writing awards.

Chew was also a writer, visual arts researcher, and editor of another anthology published in 2015, Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World.

Short stories are not easy to write and, in Chew’s case, a lot of research went into them, as seen in the case of The Coffin Maker, the first short story in The Heartsick Diaspora.

The story is set during the Japanese Occupation, with the protagonist searching for his missing sister, while fighting a growing attraction for a Japanese interpreter who is aiding him.

“I had to do quite a bit of research for that story ... I had to find out what people actually ate during World War II, which was whatever was available if they did not have the money to buy food,” Chew said.

When asked if it was difficult to put together short stories that were not of the same genre, Chew said: “For the longest time I had a lot of trouble putting all the stories together as one coherent collection. I was told that the stories were very different in terms of tone, subject matter, characters and voice.

“I wanted to cast a spotlight on the experience of diaspora (I don’t think anyone has done that) for the Straits Chinese in the US and the UK. I hope that experience reaches across the different race categories.”

Chew also revealed that she is currently writing her first full-length novel, based on an original idea and not an extension of any of the short stories from the book.

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