Dec 19, 2019

Vancouver-based author Syahidah Ismail on her debut novel and the invisible pull of home

In our first Nusantara Stories feature, we speak to Syahidah Ismail, a Malay author in diaspora. Now based in Vancouver, Canada her debut novel titled 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 we loved — it was a story we knew. The familiarity of the characters were deeply moving. A story that could so specifically be Singapore is akin to being seen and that, in fiction, is a powerful emotional experience.

Born in Singapore, Syahidah has led an atypical life. Having moved between cities at various junctures, she lived in Japan for the first two years before moving back to Singapore in 1991. “Those were really wonderful days, to have a childhood at home.”, she chimes. After a brief stay in Dubai, she moved again to the city of Vancouver 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.

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

Syahidah Ismail (SI): Singapore is home. I was born there. Even though I’ve lived in Vancouver for awhile now. 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?

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

SI: 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. To be able to make a connection with an ancestor or lineage can be a powerful marker of identity.

SI: My mom is of Bugis descent while my father is Baweanese and he is a proud Baweanese.

My paternal grandfather, he was a writer for Utusan Melayu in the 1960s. His name was Iswan Bin Samsam. 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. I pointed this out to my mum. She was surprised, and told me who it was. It has been in my 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?

SI: 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?

SI: 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 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.

How many years did it take to write Saltwater Spirits?

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

Tell us about Kampung Rhu, the main plot of the story.

SI: 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. Which years would you say this to be?

SI: 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.

The stories of the women in the book are incredibly interesting. 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. And then there's the tension between Norma and her stepmother, Sophia.

SI: 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. So much of Saltwater Spirits is about the stories of women, and how often do you get to read about Southeast Asian women? From Norma, to Maryam, to Sophia and even Amira the seeming antagonist. 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?

SI: 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. Do you have a writing ritual or advice for anyone who is looking to start writing their own novel?

SI: 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. 

Saltwater Spirits is now available at the National Library. Portrait images by k.ho.


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