The author and renowned socio-political activist takes time off to field questions about her latest book, The Apple and the Tree: Life as Dr Mahathir’s Daughter, her creative process and how she likes to spend her weekends.
Options: Congratulations on your new book but what really prompted you to write The Apple and the Tree (TAATT)?
Marina Mahathir: I had always wanted to write a book from start to finish, rather than the compilations of my columns that were my previous books. In 2018, I did my Master’s in Biography and Creative Non-Fiction in the UK to learn how to write longer pieces. When I returned in 2019, I kept myself busy writing bits and pieces, doing workshops with my former classmates and an online memoir-writing course, especially during the Movement Control Order. Then, by chance, in October 2020, Penguin Random House approached me to write a book specifically about being the daughter of Dr Mahathir. As it happened, I had been writing essays on the subject already. So, I thought, why not?
What were the main highlights and challenges of writing it?
It was challenging putting everything I learnt about writing long form into this, after over 30 years of writing 800- to 1,200-word columns. I had to learn to be more descriptive, for instance — to be like a camera taking a picture of the scene. But it was also a challenge, as it is non-fiction, which meant that everything in it had to be true. So, I had to do quite a bit of work getting dates and the timing of events right.
What were your biggest fears working on the book?
Doubting my memory, probably. I have always been amazed by memoirs that could name every person, date, time and place. For the past few years, however, I have been keeping a daily journal, which I could refer to. It even reminded me of details I had forgotten.
What do you want people to walk away feeling or understanding after reading TAATT?
I was striving to show that public figures are human, in the end, with virtues and flaws. Sometimes, the public projects their own idea of what the figure should be like onto the person, based on what they read. Those [projections] may not be accurate. So, I have tried to show the ordinary and more personal side of us.
Take us through your writing routine for TAATT and how different it is from your usual creative process.
Like I said, I didn’t have to start from zero when I was asked to write it. Some chapters had been written and workshopped into my MA class. One chapter, in fact, was the essay I had written for my application to the university. I also workshopped one chapter in the online memoir-writing course, which encouraged us to write ‘morning pages’ — essentially 500 words that you put down, on any topic, as soon as you wake up. Those became the starter dough for my memoir loaf of bread. Essentially, I wrote a lot of essays and then pieced them together chronologically.
Some women authors have said writing a memoir is ‘like pulling teeth [and] emotionally draining’ (Carmen Maria Machado) and that ‘fiction is like listening to someone’s heartbeat through a stethoscope while a memoir is like open heart surgery and holding that person’s heart in your hands’ (Maya Shanbhag Lang). How would you describe your experience?
Yeah, I guess. I have never written fiction, so I didn’t really know any better. But having written this, I realise it’s so much easier to write fiction because you can just make things up. In non-fiction, you can’t (some people may debate this, though). But my book is very personal so I guess I was holding my own heart in my hands. I also think, in Malaysia at least, there aren’t very many memoirs written by women and I think we bring a different perspective to things. I am pretty sure neither Tommy Thomas nor Nazir Razak talked about giving birth in their books!
What advice would you give to people who want to write?
I believe everyone has a story to tell but there’s no point in just keeping it in your head. It needs to be written down, even if nobody gets to read it. There’s nothing on earth to say you must publish what you write. Sometimes, writing for yourself can be cathartic.
On a lighter note, what are some of your favourite memories growing up with Malaysia’s legendary strongman?
My father was strict and we children, of course, never thought of him as a ‘strongman’. He has a cheeky side and, despite his sternness, he does have a soft heart. He keeps people on staff who, in my mind at least, exceeded their sell-by date because he can’t bear to fire them. One of my favourite memories, though, was of him taking me on a trip to Hong Kong and Japan as a reward for doing well in my Lower Certificate of Education. It was just the two of us. And he was very indulgent when I kept wanting to look at shops.
What are you reading right now, and why?
I am very slowly reading several books in different formats because that is the only way I can get through them. One is Edinburgh by Alexander Chee, who is a wonderful Korean-American writer whose other book, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, I loved too and found helpful. I am also listening to the audiobook of Suzanna Clarke’s Piranesi, which just won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021. I have Ibram X Kendi’s How to be an Anti-Racist staring at me from the bedside table. I have to read different formats — fiction, non-fiction and audiobooks — so I don’t get confused. Oh, and I’ve just finished Farish Noor’s The Long Shadow of the 19th Century: Critical Essays on Colonial Orientalism in Southeast Asia, which I found so enlightening. So, I gave one to my dad too.
Which books do you always reread, and why?
Rarely any because I can’t get through the books I have yet to read. But I did rearrange my bookshelves to find titles for my Busy Reading Books podcast and realised that I would really like to reread some of them. Just send me to a resort somewhere with a whole pile!
How do you unwind after a particularly taxing bout of writing?
I don’t find writing taxing. I find meetings and other daily stuff more taxing. So, every evening, I download the entire day by writing in my journal. I belong to the community of journallers obsessed with notebooks, pens, washi tape, stickers and rubber stamps. I have since discovered I do possess a tiny bit of artistic talent in creating my layouts. But I do write a lot in them too.
Describe your perfect weekend in Kuala Lumpur.
It would be when I have absolutely no work to do! I would go for a walk in one of KL’s parks with a friend and then on to breakfast somewhere. It would not be rushed and there would be no need to go anywhere in particular. Perhaps there would even be time for a nap. Admittedly, these are rare occurrences.
Purchase 'The Apple and the Tree: Life as Dr Mahathir’s Daughter' at RM104.95 from Gerakbudaya here.
This article first appeared on Nov 22, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.