By Sharmilla Ganesan
(1019 words, 9-minute read)
It is unlikely that, while writing her novel Once We Were There, Bernice Chauly foresaw the events currently taking place in Malaysia’s political landscape. Yet, the timing of the book’s publication now, set in Kuala Lumpur at the height of the 1990s Reformasi era, seems uncanny.
Early December last year, Malaysia’s main opposition party, the Pakatan Harapan, announced that Mahathir Mohamad would be its candidate for prime minister in the upcoming general elections.
For many who have lived through the last two decades of Malaysian politics, it is a surreal turn of events. After all, Mahathir, besides being the country’s longest serving prime minister, was also the figure against whom this current wave of opposition began – specifically, with the Reformasi movement which started in 1998 after the sacking and eventual jailing of Mahathir’s deputy, Anwar Ibrahim.
To see Mahathir now standing on the same side of the fence as his former political nemeses – which include not just Anwar, but also the likes of Democratic Action Party leader Lim Kit Siang – is the type of development one might more commonly expect from fiction. That these unlikely allies have come together to bring down current prime minister Najib Razak, who was once handpicked by Mahathir himself to lead the ruling party, only underscores the irony.
Chauly’s novel, therefore, occupies a complex space: to hark back to a vital period in history that is rarely represented in Malaysian literature, but from a contemporary vantage point that often makes the events of the book feel hollow.
The contrast is rich with potential, particularly since the novel seems partially inspired by Chauly’s own experiences as a journalist during the 1998 political crisis. The possibilities, however, are only intermittently mined in Chauly’s narrative.
Once We Were There revolves around Delonix Regia, or Del, a female journalist working for a monthly magazine in Kuala Lumpur in the late 1990s. We meet her and her fellow journo friends on the cusp of the Reformasi.
For Del and many other Malaysians of her generation, it is a turning point. Mahathir’s promise of a Malaysia ready to join the first world, symbolised by the modernity and infrastructural development of Kuala Lumpur, is belied by the Asian Economic Crisis and Anwar’s shock ousting.
Chauly captures the energy and passion of the era with quick, often stark prose – a departure from the lyricism of her previous poetry collections and memoir, Growing Up with Ghosts. The story develops similarly, in rapid snapshots of personal and national significance.
As the few journalists not writing for the mainstream media, Del and her friends are swept up in the fervour of the rallies and protests that follow. However, beyond attending these events and reporting on them, it is never made quite clear what exactly drives these characters’ involvement in the cause.
Part of the issue is that they are overwhelmingly of a particular kind: middle- to upper-class, foreign-educated urbanites who spend as much of their time drinking or partying as they do railing against corrupt politicians. As committed as they seem to changing the status quo, there is an air of privilege and self-importance to their actions that keeps us from empathising fully with them.
In reality, the Reformasi was very much a grassroots-led movement, and the lens through which the novel views this period feels limited. As such, the political turmoil of that time often ends up being not much more than the background to Del’s own tumultuous life – a journey that sees her grappling with addiction and emotional baggage while trying to build a life with her lover and eventual husband Omar.
It is difficult to know where exactly the book stands in its depiction of its characters. On the one hand, the superficiality of these people who are angered by the corrupt system and yet participate in it is obvious; on the other, the novel seems to be quite earnest about them.
It could well be that these hypocrisies and contradictions are the point, but such self-reflexivity often gets lost amidst what feels like setpieces: Del socialising with hardened foreign journalists; Del getting tear-gassed at a rally; Del getting high at yet another club.
It doesn’t help that the book tries to incorporate a plethora of issues – besides sex, drugs, and politics, the story has threads on post-partum depression, transgender rights, rape, and child trafficking, just to name a few.
Some of these sit well within the main plot. One of the novel’s most memorable characters is Marina, a transgender woman from Lahad Datu, Sabah, who starts off as a sex worker in Kuala Lumpur, but eventually becomes a trans rights activist and one of Del’s closest friends.
Marina’s point of view is the only representation in the novel of KL’s less privileged groups, and Chauly writes her with empathy and sensitivity. The character, however, deserves more space than she gets, and ends up feeling like a plot device within Del’s story arc.
Other elements, though, give the impression of the novel being stretched too thin, including a late-in-the-game development where Del and Omar’s young child is abducted, leading to explorations of baby smuggling and illegal adoptions.
Once We Were There is most successful when it narrows its scope to the personal, particularly Del’s experiences with motherhood. Here, Chauly is unflinchingly honest in capturing not just the joys of being a mother, but the ugly, unvarnished pains too.
Following the birth of her daughter Alba, Del struggles with loneliness, resentment, and jealousy as Omar seems to take immediately to parenthood. And when Alba is kidnapped, Del’s breakdown is terrifying precisely because of how real it feels. Indeed, for all its overt politics, this is where the novel is at its most daring.
The relative dearth of Malaysian literature that addresses the Reformasi makes Once We Were There stand out, particularly in its decision to frame the events through a woman struggling with her own demons. However, in evoking a period of Malaysian history that continues to have direct resonance today, Once We Were There does not go far enough beneath the surface of the past to help make sense of the present.
Once We Were There was published in June 2017 by Epigram Books.
Guest Contributor Sharmilla Ganesan is a journalist, culture writer, and literary columnist based in Malaysia. A former features journalist with The Star (Malaysia), she has also written for The Atlantic, South China Morning Post, and Reader’s Digest Asia. She was a Fulbright/Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow at the University of Maryland in 2015/2016, and an Asia Journalism Fellow at the National University of Singapore in 2017. Sharmilla also writes short fiction, and has been published in several anthologies and literary journals in the region