Sunday May 25, 2008

Legacy of Fact and Fiction


SHAHRIZA Hussein was born in Selangor in 1943 and completed secondary level studies at the Victoria Institution. He was a part of the VI contingent at the opening ceremony drill at Stadium Merdeka when Malaya’s independence was declared on Aug 30, 1957.

After completing his Higher School Certificate (now the STPM), Shahriza was awarded a Colombo Plan scholarship and read for his BA Hons and DipEd at Monash University in Australia.

Upon his return, he taught at Alam Shah Secondary School for four years. He then served the Education Ministry as exams specialist and curriculum designer.

In 1977, Shahriza left for the private sector and set up a publishing firm that he operated until his retirement in 2005. Legacy is his first novel.

The Petaling Jaya resident is married to a Thai academic and has two daughters and four grandchildren.

Shahriza Hussein makes his debut with a fascinating story that teases with glimpses of history mixed in with poignant human drama.

Thanks to the Internet, “authors” are a dime a dozen – but a good storyteller is as rare as hen's teeth.

A good storyteller can spin a tale about anything, even the kitchen sink, and make it sound interesting. Shahriza Hussein is one such rare find.

His debut novel, Legacy, is different from so many of today's novels that seem to be written for attention-deficit readers: it unfolds at a luxuriously slow pace, revealing layers of details as it does.

Yet, the story, which cannily weaves together historical fact and fiction, will have you turning pages eagerly to find out what happens next – surely the mark of a master storyteller.

Storytelling is, perhaps, in his blood, for Legacy is based on tales handed down to him by his parents and grandparents.

“The basic story is something that I learnt in my childhood,” the writer explains at a recent interview. “When my father died about 25 years ago I felt that somebody, one of us, had to leave something behind for the next generation.”

Unfortunately, work and other commitments got in the way of Shahriza putting ideas and thoughts down on paper until two years ago. That’s when, at age 63, Shahriza finally was fed up with working full time; he was then editor of motoring magazine Auto International. He made the momentous decision to stop working on other people's writing and begin on his own.

Legacy starts by telling of a timepiece taken off the body of assassinated British Resident of Perak James W.W. Birch. The timepiece finds its way to a woman called Mastura and remains in her family for 82 years.

As it wends its way through the generations, we learn about Mastura and her family in Malaya's pre-independence years, the people who become entangled in their complex lives, and how they face the horrors of two world wars.

Woven into the story are figures from Malaysia’s history, including Chinese community leaders like Kapitan Yap Ah Loy and Loke Yew; Maharaja Lela, whose assassination of Birch sets everything off; and Frank Swettenham, the Federated Malay States' first Resident General.

Also, says Shahriza, more than half of the events in the book are based on fact. Which half, we ask, intrigued. He's not telling!

“I don’t want people to read it and keep harping on or wondering about that (which are the facts). Let people read it for the enjoyment of the story. If some mysteries tickle the reader’s imagination, fine, go ahead, solve them if you can,” he says with a smile.

Instead of presenting Legacy as “grandmother’s stories”, this fan of historical novels has woven fact and fiction together seamlessly.

“Since the story is local, and we are rich in local traditions and history, I thought, why not blend them together,” Shahriza explains.

“I have long been a fan of historical fiction, like Shogun by James Clavell. I am interested in the way historical fiction writers present the story, in an episodic manner, instead of as a linear narrative. So you get shifts of scenes, and happenings moving from time period to time period and from place to place. It is up to the reader to join them all together. I thought, why not try that.”

The result is that his book reads more like a screenplay than a conventional novel. In fact, with each chapter cleverly ending with a cliffhanger, it's easy to see it being adapted for a TV miniseries.

Indeed, Shahriza has looked into this idea, and has gone as far as sending copies of his book to actress/producer Datin Seri Tiara Jacquelina (yes, she of Puteri Gunung Ledang and P. Ramlee, the Musical fame) and others in the local movie industry.

Who knows? We may hear of Mastura, the Musical being staged in the near future....

Adapting the screenplay-like text for stage or screen would be further aided by the fact that, unlike most historical novels, Legacy leans more towards dialogue than dry exposition.

This is because, while Shahriza wanted to pique readers' curiosity with titbits of history, he also wanted to leave some parts to the reader’s imagination and resourcefulness: “As a reader, I don’t want to be spoon-fed. By that same token, any reader of Legacy will have to do his or her own contextualisation,” Shahriza explains.

Not that Legacy is light on context. The writer spent months in the National Library and National Archives, on the Internet, and even at museums getting details to ensure the setting and details of that period are as authentic as possible.

Take, for instance, the effort he put into coming up with the fictional timepiece belonging to Birch.

“I had to go on the Internet and visit the library to find a model of a watch made by a watchmaker that would suit the 1860s. I had to figure out, in the context of Birch in the early days in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), what kind of watch he would have been presented with when he left the service there.

“And food.... You won’t believe the timeline I have on food! Marmite was introduced in 1912. Woodwards' Gripe Water was introduced in 1922. If I mention little things like that, I would have researched them all,” he says with well-deserved pride.

While the writer has been faithful in accurately reproducing settings and details, he has – fortunately, we feel – avoided the formal language of that time.

“Towards the turn of the (last) century, novelists used phrasing that was a bit archaic. I wondered if I should do that. Although I knew how to do it, it would have been a bit jarring to the modern reader. So I tried to keep it modern, but not so modern ... still suitable for the times. It’s a balancing act.”

One point that comes across strongly in Legacy is how characters of different races live together in harmony. But Shahriza insists that there are no political messages in his book, and any social message is secondary to the story.

“I do try to present the more noble values – you will notice that I make no difference between Malays and Chinese, for instance.

“With Mastura’s family you will find that it’s blended, they don’t care (about people’s races). They’re all living in the same place at the same time, and they have to make the best of things together.

“If readers want to ennoble that as racial harmony, okay, go ahead, but I’m not emphasising that.

“Anyway, that sort of thing (caring for each other regardless of race) happened a lot in the past in real life. I remember that my parents had half sisters or half brothers who were Chinese because they had been adopted. My own grandmother was adopted.

“Nobody bothered about colour, race, or religion then. They looked at each other as fellow humans. I’m beginning to wonder nowadays whether such values are beginning to be eroded. In my own way, I’m trying to present that,” says the writer.

“Basically, Legacy is for my family, and it’s also for young Malaysians if they bother to read it. If they don’t, that’s okay.

“I’m not a blogger. A lot of people blog, they leave everything in cyberspace. I am old fashioned enough to feel that if I leave something behind, let it not be in the air, let it be in tangible form,” he says.

Shahriza, now 65, is currently working on his second project: a play.

“It’s huge. I think I’m a masochist. It looks like I’ll have to spend another six months in the library,” he says laughing.

It should be well worth the effort, for his readers, anyway.

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Created on 2 April 2008.
Last update on 23 April 2008.