I wanted to start my New Year interviews off with a celebration! So, when I learned that Aneeta Sundararaj, one of my London School of Journalism students, had won The Trisha Ashley Award, I asked her to share the inspiration behind her winning story.
First, thank you for inviting me to your website, Valerie. It’s much appreciated. I must also thank the organisers for running this competition, choosing my story to be forwarded to Trisha, and to Trisha for choosing it as the winning one.
You are welcome, Aneeta, and I passed on your thanks to both.
Margaret James of Creative Writing Matters who runs the competition was delighted and explained,
When we first set up the Exeter Story Prize, Trisha asked if we would like her to sponsor an award for a quirky or humorous story, and we said lovely, please do. So, when Cathie, Sophie and I have read all the entries, we choose a few that we hope Trisha might like, and she picks the winner, who gets £200. Also, anyone can enter the ESP, so Aneeta was up against some very well-published authors, and she did very well to win.
The Weathermen – A Love Letter was based on a conversation I had with my friend, Swagata. I was sharing some of the challenges that I (and many girls I’ve spoken to over the years) faced. When the phone call ended, I decided to write it all out. More than inspiration, writing this story was a form of therapy.
Trisha had this to say,
I loved the quirky and original voice of the narrator in this unusual story. It was, for me, the knock-out winner and I hope will lead to much more writing success in future.
So, huge congratulations, Aneeta!
When did you discover a need to branch into creative writing after a successful career as a lawyer?
I left legal practice a long time ago. I didn’t plan on a full-time career as a writer. I knew it would take me at least three months to find another job. So, I wrote the first draft for The Banana Leaf Men I found that I liked ‘this writing thing’ and decided to try it for a while longer. I’ve never stopped.
You are an experienced writer/journalist – what appealed to you about the challenge of writing for the RomCom genre?
This is a very good question, Valerie. I think that it wasn’t so much a challenge, but more applying all I’d learnt thus far. It starts with my need for variety. For instance, for years, I was a contributing writer for the Lifestyle section of the Sunday papers. This meant learning the art of writing feature pieces. When this sojourn ended, I focused on writing/fine-tuning the novel, which came with its own set of elements to follow. Then, I did something completely different and that was to pursue a PhD which meant returning to writing for academia. Once that was complete, I went back to fiction. This time, I focused on the short story form and creative non-fiction, like a piece called ‘Lord of the Ocean’. This story was about an invasion near my hometown that happened close to 1000 years ago. So, The Weathermen – A Love Letter was part reportage, part academic writing with a huge dose of all the elements of writing fiction.
What challenges did you find or did the story flow naturally as the idea occurred.
The main challenge was to strike that balance between having the courage to tell the story, still respect the practices of the East and make it all plausible for a Western reader. Nothing is worse than reading stories about a Malaysian or Malaysians that I don’t recognise. It’s painful! The best example from The Weathermen – A Love Letter is when a spiritual master asked Anjali if she was ‘clean’ to make sure that she wasn’t on her period. I understand the religious strictures at play. However, ask any Indian girl how she feels when she’s asked this question in the presence of men and I guarantee her honest (operative word, here) answer will be a negative one. If she’s ‘dirty’, she cannot step into a spiritual centre or temple and is only good for sweeping up rubbish. We girls are taught to hide our shame, but I often wonder how a man would like it if I asked him, “Are you clean?” My challenge was to write this without causing maximum offence.
Whenever I’ve faced such challenges, I think of two things. One is that there must be readers like me elsewhere who are open-minded enough to appreciate the practices of others. I mean, if I can accept reading stories about stigmata and what people put themselves through during Easter, why can’t others understand what my people will put themselves through in the names of faith and religion. Second, I go back to the British television series, Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. The topics discussed were always so serious, but the writing was entertaining and everlasting.
The Age of Smiling Secrets is an intriguing title – but the topic covered is very serious and highlights the problem of having religious law running alongside that of the country’s High Court, where the two can give conflicting outcomes. This is obviously a subject that is close to your heart. Why did you decide to write a fictional tale to illustrate the issue?
Thank you for saying that the title of The Age of Smiling Secrets is intriguing.
I started to think about this story as early as 2005. As you’ve said, Malaysia is in the unique position where both the laws of Syariah and the Civil Law are practised concurrently. It was only a matter of time before conflicts about which jurisdiction should apply would arise. For ease of reference, my fictional story is based on the legal position when such conflicts arise. It’s about a family torn apart when a man converts to Islam and, without the consent or knowledge of his wife, converts their child as well.
As a lawyer, I understood the position of every person involved in this drama from the lawyers pursuing and defending the case, and the judges who had to hear the arguments from both sides, to the plaintiff, defendant and the children.
No one I know has ever looked at the all the emotions at play such as love, loss, betrayal, sacrifice and so much more. What happens when everyone returns home after a day in court? What does a parent say to the child at bedtime? “You’re my baby, but the court said you’re not.” How does the wife reconcile with the fact that the man she married is no longer her husband, or vice versa? And that’s simply because a court that has no jurisdiction over her says so? Why is the second wife accepted as a legal wife in one court and the husband is committing bigamy in another? Why is the child of the second wife considered legitimate in one court and the child of the first wife is considered illegitimate in another? Worse, how on earth does a parent explain all this to a child?
I cannot imagine what it must be like for a mother when the laws of the land allow her child to be taken away from her. So, these are the emotions I wanted to explore.
I must add that I remain surprised at how successful the publication of The Age of Smiling Secrets has been. I didn’t make much effort submitting the manuscript to agents/publishers after one of them asked me to fundamentally change the story so that a British reader would ‘get it’. It implied that the average British reader was too dumb to understand the conflicts that would arise and use of local lingo. I knew that this wasn’t the case. And after ten years of the story ‘percolating and marinating’ in my psyche, I wanted it published. So, I didn’t bother with the British publishing industry, stuck to the story I wanted to tell and worked with the wonderful team at MPH Publishers in Malaysia. I am not at all active on social media and I didn’t take part in the kind of publicity that I’ve seen so many authors do. I was, therefore, pleasantly surprised and delighted when the novel was short listed for the 2020 Book Award organised by the National Library of Malaysia. Furthermore, since it’s publication, edited versions of various chapters of this novel have been periodically included in various anthologies published internationally. Many readers have written to say that they cried at the end of reading the novel. Like all my books, once the first print run was over, I didn’t bother with another one. I’ve just placed them all on Amazon.com.
What is next for Aneeta?
I spent 2022 learning about submitting my short stories for many online competitions and literary journals. I figured out what it was like from the inside and, now, I’d like the chance to give back to others. So, together with a few friends, I’m using my website to host a short story competition. It’s called ‘Great Story Competition’ and we will open for submissions shortly.
Thank you, Valerie, for this chance to share my stories with you.
You are very welcome. I wish you every continued success with your projects and a happy and healthy 2023!
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