Marrying the dead

Marrying the dead

SINGAPORE - Raised on nights of ghost stories during blackouts in 1970s Perak, America-based Malaysian author Yangsze Choo naturally turned to the supernatural for her first novel.

The Ghost Bride is a fantasy story about a Chinese girl in 1890s Malacca who is betrothed to a dead man, but in love with his (live) cousin.

Published last Tuesday by Harper Collins, the book has already garnered rave reviews in the United States and was named pick of the week by the influential Oprah's Book Club.

The confluence of Chinese tradition and South-east Asian myth was what made HarperCollins pick up the book, said a spokesman for the US publisher.

The publisher will next month also publish Singaporean writer Ovidia Yu's Peranakan mystery novel, Aunty Lee's Delights, citing a growing appetite for fiction from the region.

California-based Choo will be in Singapore in November for the Singapore Writers Festival and is looking forward to renewing her acquaintance with local food and culture after several years away.

"My weakness is condensed milk," the 39-year-old says in a telephone interview from her home. "At one point while writing the book, I was buying tins and tins of condensed milk for my tea."

The title of her novel, The Ghost Bride, references an old custom in which Chinese parents sometimes "marry off" adult children who died unmarried, to ensure the dead person had a happy after-life.

To outsiders, this might be creepy or even hilarious, the author says in a telephone interview but, to people in Asia, these customs are part of the fabric of life.

"The supernatural is part of the culture. Anyone can tell you stories. My grandmother loved to tell these horrific Cantonese ghost stories," she says.

The daughter of a Malaysian diplomat and a scholar of Chinese literature, Choo was born in the Philippines, grew up partly in Kuala Lumpur and studied in international schools in countries from Japan to Germany.

Her fondest memories are of school holidays spent in her parents' hometown in Perak, in a house near a Chinese movie theatre that mostly screened horror films.

As the mother of a seven-year-old son and six-year-old daughter - her Chinese- American husband works in Silicon Valley - she now understands why her mother refused to let her watch those movies.

However, in those days, she scanned the gory posters with awe and begged family elders for ghost stories.

"On a very, very hot night when there was a blackout again, we would light candles, fan ourselves because it was so hot and people would tell stories," she says.

"I remember feeling very, very frightened, but also thrilled because no one would put us children to bed early."

She wrote stories as a child, but gave up the idea of a writing career after a self-confessed "disastrous" first novel.

"It was about an elephant who was a detective. It was a very complicated novel," she says, breaking into a laugh.

After reading social studies at Harvard University, she worked as a management consultant for several years until the birth of her children.

Once her daughter began attending pre-school, she returned to her private hobby of writing and crafted The Ghost Bride just for fun over three years.

Friends who read the manuscript insisted she try to get it published. An early query letter caught the attention of literary agent Jenny Bent of The Bent Agency and HarperCollins signed the book deal last year.

For Choo, it has been like a fairy tale come true, so apart from numerous revisions and reworking - "I wrote a lot of different endings for this book," she admits - she agreed to record the audio edition of the book.

"Then I realised I had to say things in Hainanese and I can't speak Hainanese, I speak Cantonese and Mandarin. It made me panic."

To accurately reflect the many dialects spoken in colonial Malacca, she had relied on input from friends and relatives. They also pitched in again to correct her pronunciation before the recording.

At present, she is consumed with publicity for The Ghost Bride and glad that it is coming out at a time when other Malaysian writers such as last year's Man Asian Literary Prize recipient Tan Twan Eng and this year's Booker long-listed Tash Aw are bringing global attention to writing from the region.

Whether or not she completes another novel, she says, "I'd like to encourage anyone writing a book to keep on writing. It's nice to hear more voices in world literature.

"South-east Asia is a treasure trove of stories. There could be more, many, many more books."

The Ghost Bride retails at major bookstores at $20.49.

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