I am often asked how ideas for a book emerge. Have You Eaten Rice Today? has been fermenting for years, probably way before I decided I wanted to write books. So how far back shall I go? That’s the question. I suppose to when memories are mine and not those of others nudged to the surface by others, or photos, or books.
I’ve had a most fortunate life.
Snapshots flicker through of being a little girl in Nigeria. I remember being woken in the middle of the night by my mother because we had to evacuate the house as the one next door was a blazing pyre. I remember the smell and infernal noise. Our house did not burn. I also have happy memories, mostly centered around our last home, in Aba, our animals and the men who made our lives infinitely easier — Ali and Sam, the cook and houseboy who spoilt me and from whom I learnt much.
There were brief interludes in England where I resented being sent to a village school – an outsider in the country of my birth.
And then Malaysia.
The excitement when the P&O ship, SS Chitral, docked at Port Swettenham and Dad waving from the wharf as Mum and I waited to disembark after three weeks at sea. The warmth, the smells, the clutter of people, whilst not Africa, felt so much more me than the cool damp of a rural England. Even at six.
As the years in both Singapore and Malaysia — ten in total — added up and I reached adolescence, the stories of my parents’ meeting in the jungles of Pahang during the communist uprising known as the Emergency of the late 1940’s and ’50s, became the romantic backdrop to the country I then considered home.
My parents met on a road deep in bandit country. My father’s Jeep had broken down. My mother’s ran smoothly. He, an officer seconded to the Malay Regiment from the British Army, refused to leave his pistol. She a tall, attractive and very pragmatic Australian nurse working for the Red Cross refused to allow a weapon in her vehicle. So she left him stranded, although did leave word of his whereabouts at the next military post. Perhaps that meeting should have warned them of a volatile life ahead. As well as being a soldier, Dad was a poet, a dreamer, a man who loved to be in love. My mother was the opposite, a realist who nonetheless fell in love with the much younger man.
They left Malaya, as it still was, in 1955 and returned in 1964 with me in tow. Dad no longer a soldier, but a businessman; Mum no longer a nurse but deeply involved with the Malaysian Red Cross.
School was a melange of colours, creeds and cultures. What better way to learn about the world? Then in 1969, it was decided educational stability was needed and so I went to boarding school in Australia – an outsider in the country of my mother’s birth.
But I adapted and enjoyed the benefits of an Australian education, not just at school. And as an impressionable teenager home for the holidays, my parents’ story fascinated me. It emerged, not in one fell swoop but in dribs and drabs. I remember going to the Port Dickson Club where the manager knew Dad from his army days. We stayed at the Rest House in Raub, the village in which Mum ran a clinic — a detour on the way to the Cameroon Highlands to pick strawberries during a week’s local leave. During the Emergency, Mum also set up a clinic on the west coast of Malaya just north of Port Dickson in Tanjong Sepat – about the only place in Have You Eaten Rice Today? that is not mentioned. But it was from the townsfolk there she received the medallion with the words I stole for Dee’s present from the people of Raub.
Fire came again into my life when, one sultry night in December 1970, standing on the padang across from the Dog — The Royal Selangor Club — we watched it burn down. We had been there for dinner and carol singing. I remember the smell and the infernal noise.
After seven years in Kuala Lumpur, a slice of my heart will always be in Malaysia. The last time I visited I stood on where I calculated our house had been. A lovely old black and white torn down to make way for the Petronas Towers. I cried.
So many memories. Mine interwoven with those of my parents. But Have You Eaten Rice Today? is not my parents’ story, although I have stolen freely from their anecdotes, their papers and photographs which merged into the book of my imagination.
Dee, a delightful sprite of a character, did not come from Armidale – the town of my mother’s birth — but from Townsville in Queensland. Simon, an ex-soldier and retired rubber planter, is not my father although I have drawn from him as far as speech and a partiality to whisky is concerned. Dad did not know one end of a hoe from the other but did speak multiple languages, including Malay and Cantonese. Max. What can I say about Max? A young man searching for his own story.
London, and Dorset in the south west of England, are places I know well. I have been to Hell, and had a delicious pub lunch in Chetnole. I’ve climbed Bubb Down, and visited the church at Melbury Bubb to marvel at the rather extraordinary font with a frieze of a stag, a lion and a wolf carved from an upturned base of an Anglo-Saxon cross.
Research is a delight. The tricky part for any writer is to know when to stop adding the fascinating tidbits we come across as we delve into the past.
Or just when to stop!