Idle speculation and a lifelong fascination with the many ways in which children are dragged along on their parents’ spiritual journeys, sometimes being successfully indoctrinated and sometimes not, led Preeta Samarasan to write Tale of the Dreamer’s Son.
She explores themes of religious freedom, belief in general, race, racial politics and class in her writing — as well as childhood, memory and its unreliability, and sibling and parent-child relationships. “You can see that many of these recur in both my books, as different as I think they are,” she tells Options in an email.
Her debut novel, Evening is the Whole Day (Houghton Mifflin Co, 2008), follows an affluent Indian immigrant family’s life in Ipoh. Appa’s grand dreams for himself and his brood parallel those of Malaya on the cusp of independence. But guarded secrets and lies are tucked within the folds of saris and dhotis, and things start to unravel after Paati dies in mysterious circumstances, an older daughter leaves for university in the US, and the family’s servant girl is dismissed for unnamed crimes.
Released on Nov 4, Tale of the Dreamer’s Son moves back and forth between 1970 and the present day and is built around an idealistic community housed in a former Scottish tea planter’s mansion in the highlands of Peninsular Malaysia. “All are welcome” at the Muhibbah Centre for World Peace, led by spiritual leader Cyril Dragon, who ignores the changing political climate and increasing religious intolerance around him. Then a Malay Muslim woman arrives at his door, with a child in tow.
Preeta completed her manuscript early in 2017. “I wrote it slowly because I always write slowly and also because I gave birth to my children during those years. But it took a shockingly long time to sell. Editor after editor raved about the prose, the voice and the energy but declined to acquire it.”
She ended up changing agents and selling the book to a small independent publisher with a global outlook. After that, there was still the editing and production process.
“There’s always pressure to produce another book fast because ‘the industry has a short memory’. I found it impossible to produce anything I would truly be proud of in the supposedly optimal time frame.”
A YouTube post on her publisher World Editions’ website whisks readers to the idea behind the book. From personal observation, children whose parents are certain about their own answers to life’s big questions — God, life, justice and eternity — grow up quite differently from those whose elders are not. Most children who never saw their parents and authority figures questioning claims about how to worship and what they could or could not do did not ask very many questions themselves, Preeta says.
Her family was different. “My parents questioned many things and searched quite a lot for ‘the truth’, but it’s only the spirit of their questioning that remains in the novel. They read widely, everything from the Bible to Krishnamurti to New Age quacks whose names I can’t remember, and my mother, especially, tested out several different religions. But the characters have nothing else in common with my parents.”
Born and raised in Malaysia, Preeta has lived in France since 2006 and, before that, the US for 14 years. She was doing her PhD on gypsy music in France while writing fiction, and decided to pursue the latter. She received her MFA from the University of Michigan, where an early version of Evening is the Whole Day won the Hopwood Novel Award. Her short fiction has won the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Short Story Competition and been selected for the PEN/O Henry Prize Collection.
The title of her debut work is taken from her favourite English translation of Tamil Sangam poetry as it captures what she was trying to do with time in the book: It is relative as beginnings can be endings and vice versa. Some moments last forever and the past never goes away.
Preeta says: “I don’t think I’m ever trying to tell readers one thing through a novel — this simply isn’t what novels are for — but that concept of time as nonlinear was definitely a feeling I hoped would stay with my readers.”
She adds that writing is her only job but hesitates to call it full-time because she does not do it nine-to-five. Being a parent to two school-going children is her “other work”.
Yes, she carries a Malaysian passport and her parents still live here. And “bringing issues that bug us” into her books should not surprise readers, she feels. It is an apt description of the act of writing, fiction or otherwise.
“Writers write about the issues that bug them. Also, none of my characters are ‘named after’ politicians” — she replies in response to Najib and Mahathir popping up in Tale of the Dreamer’s Son — “but real politicians do make cameo appearances in the book.
“I am hardly the first or only writer to do this; real-life politicians have made appearances in many novels throughout history, and if I have to explain why, I’d say it’s because they have an impact on the lives of ordinary people. People’s life stories would be very different without the variously well-intentioned or misguided decisions of politicians.
“Whether we make them explicit or not, political actors and events hover in the background of every story. The more aware we are of this hovering presence, the stronger our duty to make it explicit, because the myth that some stories are ‘apolitical’ ultimately serves those with power and privilege.”
Preeta left Malaysia in 1992 but has returned every year except during the Covid-19 pandemic. How does she get a “real” picture of what’s happening here? Does she see things from an outsider’s perspective?
“I’ve always seen things from an outsider’s perspective, even when I lived here. I’ve come to believe that it has more to do with temperament than geography. How does anyone get a real picture of what’s happening anywhere and, more importantly, is there such a thing as a real picture?
“I get a rich and colourful picture of people’s subjective experiences by talking to them, which I do daily. Thanks to WhatsApp and other social media, I now have access to much more varied and diverse perspectives than when I was living in Malaysia. Back then, my social circles consisted of my own family, immediate and extended, and friends at school. However, I definitely don’t think I have exactly the same vantage point as someone who lives in Malaysia. They see and experience things I don’t, but the reverse is true too.”
Reviewers have lauded Preeta for blending language, stringing different words together and sometimes dispensing with punctuation altogether. Did she worry about readers not getting it?
She reckons some readers not getting it was probably why it took as long as it did to sell Tale of the Dreamer’s Son to a publisher. “But I knew from the beginning I would never compromise on that particular aspect of the novel. Inventing a literary form of Malaysian English is now one of my primary missions as a writer. I don’t say I succeeded perfectly, but if I can’t even try, I’d just as soon give up writing fiction.
“This book isn’t for everyone, but that’s okay. Malaysians who speak and think like this will get it; non-Malaysians who look for immersive reading experiences will also appreciate it, even if they don’t get everything. There is a certain kind of reader who doesn’t mind, and even enjoys, feeling a little lost. I myself have always been that kind of reader.”
Would she say, at heart, that the novel is about ideals versus reality, and hope and love despite disillusion?
“Ideals versus reality is what it comes down to in the end. That’s the story that wanted to tell itself, as they say, and it was beyond my control. I started out simply wanting to explore ideals and the effects they have on ordinary human beings. I suppose every novel is about hope and love, too.
“As for what I hope readers will gather from it, I never get that far in my thinking. There is no moral or didactic goal. I hope people will enjoy the story, feel for the characters, be amused and moved. I think the only real message at the end of every novel is that we are all human and flawed. Everyone is carrying hidden hopes, regrets and sorrows.”
Over the years, Preeta has been asked many times why she writes and her answer has evolved. “I would now say [it’s] because human beings fascinate me endlessly. Writing is a way for me to think about them. I won’t say figure them out, because no one will ever figure human beings out, no matter what they tell you. Writing is a way for me to move the puzzle pieces around.”
As a child and teenager, she read whatever she could get in Ipoh: Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Virginia Woolf. Later, she found V S Naipaul and Salman Rushdie, “mind-blowing” authors who showed her literature did not have to be about white people in England.
From Naipaul, she found her way to many other Caribbean writers and learned about voice, place and inventing one’s own literary language. “I also have to name Ali Smith as a writer who has been particularly influential in the last 10 years; she does with language what I often find myself trying to do — render human thought in as raw and unmediated a form as possible.”
Preeta is working on a third novel, set in the country, about two elderly sisters. Asked for details, she says she is one of those who firmly believe they should not talk too much about their work while it is still in progress.
Although not prolific by way of output in her literary journey, she sees herself coming a very long way in her thinking. “I’ve grown braver; I’ve realised I don’t just want to write about middle-class Indian families in Malaysia. I know now I need to try new things — in terms of form, voice, style — in every new project, or I may as well not bother. I also think much less about whom I’m writing for and much more about what I want to do with my material.”
Preeta Samarasan will take part in a panel discussion titled ‘Unravelling Race, Class and History’, on Nov 26, 6pm, at UAB Building,
Gat Lebuh Cina, Penang. The other speakers at this George Town Literary Festival (Nov 24 to 27) event are Karina Robles Bahrin and Viji Krishnamoorthy. See here for more details.
This article first appeared on Nov 7, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.