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Vancouver-based author Syahidah Ismail talks about her debut novel, women stories and the invisible pull of home

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“I’ve been away from Singapore for much longer than I’ve been living there, yet Singapore is still home to me.”

In our first Nusantara Stories feature, we speak to Syahidah Ismail, a Singapore-born writer based in Vancouver, Canada. Her first novel, Saltwater Spirits is a coming-of-age story about Norma, a young seamstress who lives in the idyllic village of Kampung Rhu.

This wasn't just a story I loved — it was a story I knew. As a Malay from the Southeast Asian archipelago, the connection the book had to my own culture and experiences were a relief to read. The familiarity of the characters and their experiences were deeply moving. In a story that could so specifically be Singapore felt very much akin to being seen and that in fiction is a powerful emotional experience. It reminded me of Gypsied's journey to connect with a larger history outside of myself and to understand the collective heritage cultivated right here at home.

Syahidah Ismail currently resides in Vancouver, Canada. Photo by K.Ho

Born in Singapore, Syahidah has led an atypical life. Having moved between cities at various junctures, she lived in Japan the first two years before moving back to Singapore in 1991 where she stayed till she was 15. “Those were really wonderful days, to have a childhood at home.”, she chimes. After a brief stay in Dubai, she moved to Vancouver, Canada, where she completed her tertiary education in Women’s Studies and Psychology at the University of British Columbia, found love and family, and has resided ever since.

Despite the 16 hour time difference, I speak to Syahidah about how Saltwater Spirits came about, the invisible threads we have to our heritage and home and the importance of telling women's stories.

Ok let’s start with the first most obvious question. Where is home?

Singapore is home. I was born there. Even though I’ve lived in Vancouver, Canada for awhile now.


Why is that so? 

The plight of indigenous communities here made me realise that Canada is not home for me. I’m merely a guest here.


How long then have you been away from home? 

I’ve been away from Singapore for much longer than I’ve been living there. As my dad traveled for work, I lived in Japan for the first 2 years, followed by Singapore for 12 years after. Later I moved to Dubai for a bit before coming to Canada for tertiary education. It’s been 12 years now in Vancouver, but Singapore is still home to me. I want to return home but now that I have built a family here, that makes it a little more complicated.


I understand. I suppose it is akin to the concept of tanah air or bumi putra. You are saying you empathise with the indigenous people of Canada S: for the same reasons?

Yes. I draw parallels between the Canadian indigenous people and being born in Singapore and a native of the land.


Tell us more about your story — being Malay in Singapore is accompanied by deep links of heritage to various races.

S: My mom is of Bugis descent while my father is Baweanese and he is a proud Baweanese, haha. Boyan Power!


Let me guess. Did he have the sticker on his car?

S: There’s a sticker for that? I want to say that’s ridiculous but I’m part Baweanese so...


There is something magical in being able to make a connection with an ancestor or lineage. I have a grandmother from Patani who moved to Singapore in her teens to marry and it is said she wore batik everyday of her life and spoke in a different Malay dialect. She passed before I was born but I have often wondered if my fascination with batik and feelings of longing for home come from her. She never returned to Patani.

It is funny you should say this, what a coincidence. I never met my paternal grandfather, but it is said that he was a writer for UMNO in the 1960s. His name was Iswan Bin Samsam. Like your grandmother, I never met him. But one day while on an outing with my family to the National Museum of Singapore when I was about 8 years old, I came across a picture of someone who looked like my father at an exhibition and I pointed this out to my mum. She was surprised and told me who it was.  has been in conscience ever since. I tried for a very long time to find out more about him and his work.


Fascinating! How did the search go? 

S: It wasn’t very fruitful, but today at the very least I have a photo of my grandfather that I obtained from the National Library from Singapore. This was after several enquiries with them. 


How about your extended family, do they know anything about his work?

There is an unverified story that one day, a group of people came and took away his writings. Perhaps there is a collective amnesia in my family and perhaps that can also be said of the Malay community at large with regards to our origin stories.


I feel you. I can’t help but see how you may have drawn inspiration and courage from these experiences. The dots do connect backwards after all. Would you say this has brought you to your current path in being a writer? 

I’d like to think so, yes. I’ve written in diaries since I was a child, so writing is a way of coming back to myself, not only my ancestry and community.


Tell us how many years did it take to write Saltwater Spirits?

S: 4 years! I became pregnant when the final draft was completed, so that made the time taken to finish this book much longer. 


4 years is a long time! Tell us about Kampung Rhu, the main plot of the story.

In 2012 when I was visiting Singapore, my husband and I brought my maternal grandfather to Kallang where he used to live, for a walk. He pointed out a tree that used to be abundant in the area then — the Rhu tree. This is how Kampung Rhu came about in the book. 


This book feels a lot like Singapore to me. Which years would you say this to be? 

I would say 1950s-60s, though I did not specifically state this in the book. There are definitely references to the Bukit Ho Swee Fire here.


I enjoyed reading this book, especially the stories of the women in them. The protagonist Norma is a young woman navigating her newly found adulthood and growing independence, while her boss Maryam is considered a woman of her time because she runs a business and lives on her own. The tension between Norma and her stepmother, Sophia, is interesting to dissect too.

Women’s stories are important to me. I studied Women’s Studies in university, followed by work at a non-profit focusing on media literacy, youth work and women’s issues. Therefore so much of Saltwater Spirits is about the stories of women. And how often do you get to read about South East Asian women? From Norma, to Maryam, to Sophia and even Amira the seeming antagonist. There are many types of  women and this book encompasses that. Essentially, Saltwater Spirits is a book through the eyes of a Malay woman, Norma. I don’t want to call this a coming-of-age story as I feel the stories of these women are timeless.


Will there be book #2? Because I cannot wait to know more about what happens to Kampung Rhu and the people in it.

Yes the continuation is currently being written, though it will be through the eyes of another woman. Norma’s story is pretty much done.


Tell us about the writing process of this book. Also, do you have a writing ritual or advice for anyone who is looking to start writing?

I had an image of a woman looking out to sea. She haunted me for a long time. So taking a literature professor friend’s advice, I did a writing exercise with the character and basically went with it. 

When I started taking my writing seriously, I would wake up in the morning and do “morning pages” every single day. This is a writing ritual described in the book “The Artist Way”. I recommend this book to anyone interested in pursuing an artistic or creative life. 

The daily ritual helped me learn discipline and the importance of showing up for my writing. 



[GIVEAWAY ANNOUNCEMENT]

We are giving away one copy of Saltwater Spirits and a Sastra Tote bag to a lucky reader. To take part, head on to our Instagram, answer a simple question and tag a friend! Winners will be announced Sunday, 29 December 2019 at 9pm. Good luck!

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