Corrected on 27 July 2009 at 11.25am
BERNICE Chauly says her work as a poet, photographer, filmmaker and writer is all about telling stories. Her work often has themes of marginalisation and identity. She’s written a play about sex workers, taken pictures of refugees, and made documentaries about indigenous peoples and Kelantanese folk traditions. She has also published two collections of poems and a collection of short stories.
Chauly is currently working on a literary autobiography about her family history. “I’m very interested in stories, and what people have to say about themselves and who they are,” she says. “And I guess what I’m doing now is writing my own story.”
In an interview on 3 July 2009 in Petaling Jaya, Chauly talks to The Nut Graph about the roots of that fascination.
Where are you from and where are your parents from?
My father is Punjabi, my mother Chinese. I was born in Georgetown, at the Penang Maternity Hospital, in 1968. My father was born in Penang, my mother was born in Ipoh. My parents got married in 1966, which was not the norm at that time, and there was tremendous opposition from both sides of the family.
What kind of opposition?
Well, to answer that, I need to go way back. My father’s family came from the Indian Punjab, a small village called Verka, outside Amritsar. My great grandfather was born in 1880. He was a farmer and then he joined the Indian cavalry. He went back to becoming a farmer after leaving the army, but his bullocks had died, so he left India and went to Singapore, where he became a tram driver and a night watch. My grandfather was born in Singapore in 1913. That’s my father’s side of the story.
My maternal grandmother came from China. My grandfather was born in Ipoh, but my grandmother was born in Canton. She came to Malaya when she was very young to marry my grandfather. It was an arranged marriage.
My parents met in 1966 at the Malayan Teacher’s Training College in Gelugor, Penang. They fell in love and decided to get married. There was tremendous opposition, because my father came from a very traditional Sikh family. My mother was Confucian Buddhist, and it was just not done. You didn’t marry outside the race and the religion in the ’60s. It was just unheard of.
How did that affect you growing up?
When they got married, they converted to Catholicism, so I was raised Catholic, but knowing that I was half Punjabi and half Chinese. It was great, I embraced it, but at the same time it was a very strange set of paradoxes — of being in Malaysia, being brought up as a very strict Catholic, going to missionary school, and having two sets of very different ethnic identities.
Did you struggle with identity when you were younger?
Of course, definitely. It took me a long time to come to terms with my name, because Chauly is not a typical Malaysian name — well, what is typically Malaysian, anyway? It’s Malaysian in the sense that yes, I am a product of this country.
But Chauly is actually my clan name from Punjab, and it took me some time to come to terms with my name, because Bernice is very Anglo, and Mary Jane is kind of American, and Chauly is very, well, is it French? What is it? Most of the time people say, “It’s French!” And I say, “No, no, it’s Indian!” (laughs)
So coming to terms with my name was one thing. My childhood was marked by tragedy because my father died suddenly when I was very young, and this is why I write, this is why I do what I do. I’ve been reading a lot of theory because of this book [I’m writing] and Helene Cixous, the great French feminist theorist, says that “to begin writing or living, we must have death”.
It’s almost like I’m keeping the trace that my parents left behind. Both my parents are dead now, and sometimes I feel like an orphan. But I have great memories of my childhood. Even though my father died when I was very young, my mother kept us in touch with his side of the family, so going back to Penang was almost like a ritual of going back to the old house, you know? My childhood was filled with scents. A lot of sights, smells, textures. It was very sensorial.
Bernice tells a story about her father and butterflies
Can you remember any in particular?
My Punjabi grandmother always smelled of chappati, of atta flour and ghee. My Chinese grandmother, Po Po, always smelled of soya sauce and lard (laughs). I come from very humble origins. So I guess I associate my grandmothers with smells of food and of childhood, which are very evocative. And of course of chai, which is the Punjabi tea, from my paternal grandmother, my Manji.
How do you think your own struggles with identity have shaped your work?
Malaysians don’t have one particular root. We are Indian, Chinese, Arab, Javanese, Bugis, English, we are a bit of everything. We’re not like the Persians who go back 6,000 years, we’re not like the Greeks. So it’s very difficult to place us as a nation, as a people.
We are a very new country, we were formed in 1963, and this whole question of identity is well, what is Malaysian? If we’re not Malaysian, then what are we? But this is the question that we need to ask ourselves as individuals first before we can answer as a collective.
Ethnic identity and cultural identity are different things. National identity is perhaps the most confusing for us right now. We are told that we cannot discuss issues of race, religion, sex, politics — questions that are integral to understanding how we see ourselves in the world. How then do we view ourselves, first and foremost? If we don’t understand who we are, how do we even begin to understand others?
We suffer from historical amnesia, so much of our past has been erased, it’s like we are almost afraid of it. We are afraid of our Hindu past. We bind ourselves to this landscape; this is our home, yes, but we need to trace it, not erase it. Old buildings are being torn down. The Twin Towers come up, and there are consequences. Some of us are not ready. Is this greatness? Do we tell the world to look at us this way?
As artists, we have to ask ourselves: Why do I do what I do? These are not easy questions. Who am I? How did I get here? It’s confrontational. I really believe it’s the knowledge of the self, first and foremost, that makes us confident in who we are as individuals, before we can even start embracing each other as a nation.
“Harmony is a myth”