Wednesday, 13 November 2013

A Storyteller's Christmas Gift

The original manuscript for this book came when we were looking for titles to publish. After editing it for I-can't-remember-exactly-how-many rounds and a chat with the author, I can conclude that while most of the stories are interesting and infused with a local flavour, the stories behind the stories in this collection are just as interesting.

"A Bird for the Journey", for instance, is based on author Paul GnanaSelvam's experiences in an Indian Christian family. Apparently, there's a fair bit of drama, particularly when a wedding is being planned: dowry negotiations, catering, church selections and the like. Why "bird for the journey"?

"I wanted something that evokes the image of a send-off," he said, citing the Citibank ad where Richard Gere buys a whole flock for a girl who wished to release a bird for her brother's ... successful exam?

"The Shadow Boy", meanwhile, gives a glimpse of life in a semi-rural setting where local beliefs are strong. In our discussion, Paul provided some background about the "shadow boy" and his father, a priest and exorcist.

The story that inspired him to write "A Journey's End" was that of his grandmother (or was it great-grandmother?) and her old metal trunk which held her few belongings from the time she set out from India and arrived on these shores. He spoke of the trunk fondly, treating it as a glittering heirloom. Sadly, the trunk was sold off as scrap metal.

What was most compelling, I feel, was the story behind "Latha's Christmas", about a mother of three who lives in a slum. Pick up this collection and Malaysians might recognise the backdrop of its titular tale. Compelling, because Paul said he was there on that day and saw and heard lots.

With all that Paul had witnessed and experienced, it's no surprise that he was inspired to write them out into stories, fictional or otherwise.

"As an Indian I believe that each of us has a destiny, charted just like the lines on our palms," he writes in the preface. "As such I believe that every individual has a story to tell. People's lives are filled with stories and it is through stories that we learn about ourselves and others.

"We tell stories in order to be heard, to be loved, to be accepted and to belong in the world. It is stories, that, for ages unknown, that keeps the human race glued together. I write stories because they must be told. And all stories are worth their while."

It would've been nice if everything from that weekend chat at Plan B, Mid Valley had gone into the book, but I wasn't sure if it would have worked. And the collection was already overdue.

So here it is: a compilation of Paul GnanaSelvam's previously published and unpublished short stories, just in time for your own Christmases. Despite the title, it has a very Indian flavour overall, from all the words in the glossary.

I've taken to using the Tamil phrase aiyo kaduvuleh (loosely translated, "oh my g*d") on occasion. A Tamil colleague seemed impressed.

Ipoh-born Paul GnanaSelvam's letters to editors and personal reflections have appeared in the Malaysian English-language daily The Star. He also has short stories and poems in e-magazines Dusun and Anaksastra, as well as short-story anthologies Write Out Loud, Urban Odysseys, Body 2 Body, the biannual literary journal ASIATIC, and the Lakeview International Journal of Literature and Arts from the Sacred Heart College in Kochi, India. Latha's Christmas and Other Stories is his first book.

Though his postgraduate research centres on teacher-learner communication psychology, Paul's reading interests include works of writers from the Indian diaspora, gender criticism and ethnic studies. He is currently lecturing at Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman in Kampar, Perak.

Latha's Christmas and Other Stories
Paul GnanaSelvam
MPH Group Publishing
176 pages
ISBN: 978-967-415-157-7

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