Elizabeth Wong: "I had begun with an image of fishermen hauling their nets out of the sea"
Guest essay + Q&A: A novelist on how a trip with her mother to a fishing village—and the complicated feelings it surfaced about privilege & belonging—led, years later, to her debut.
Friends and friendly strangers,
I said a couple of letters back that I would start publishing occasional guest writers here, and here’s the first of them.
Elizabeth is a friend of friends I met on several occasions while studying in the U.K. I knew her as one of the braver people who studied English literature (with a side of practicality: as part of a double major combined with geology), and saw on my Facebook feed some months back that her first novel, We Could Not See The Stars, was to be published by Hachette’s John Murray Originals in July, which is good news at any time but particularly during a pandemic. I read her short story “All Lonely Roads Lead to Old Sembahnang”, which she also narrated at a Malaysian monthly literature series called Readings that has gone online, and was struck by how evocatively she describes the landscape. That’s when I reached out to her to write here, suggesting that she could start from a place that had inspired her debut novel—and what you’re about to read is what she wrote. We also have a short text exchange at the end about her long-percolating writing journey.
I hope you enjoy reading, and if you’d like to write a guest essay here too, feel free to get in touch. Thanks again, Liz, for kicking this off!
A guest letter from Elizabeth Wong
Photographs also by the writer
Elizabeth Wong is Malaysian and grew up in Kuala Lumpur. She is the author of We Could Not See the Stars and a geologist. She is interested in stories of Malaysia and of this large world we live in—deserts, seas, rocks. Liz has degrees in Geology and English from Yale University and Imperial College London. She lives in London with her husband and two children. Find her at theelizabethwong.com
In the summer of 2007, my mother and I spent two weeks in a small fishing town along the west coast of Malaysia called Pantai Remis. We were there—or rather, I should say, I was there—to learn about what life is like in a fishing village, as part of a research trip for my undergraduate fiction writing project at Yale University. My mother was my chaperone. And, as it turned out: translator, facilitator, and interviewer.
Located in the state of Perak, Pantai Remis recorded about 16,000 inhabitants in 2012, most of whom worked in fishing or related activities. The town itself was bisected in half by a trunk road, aptly named Jalan Besar (Malay for “big road”), with shops and restaurants on either side. Sitiawan, its more famous cousin and the port for Pangkor island, is a forty-minute drive south along this trunk road.
My mother and I stayed at Hotel Lam Seng, just off Jalan Besar. It was modest, and we shared a double bed. A standard double room today costs about sixty ringgit a night, roughly the same as what I remember the prices to be some thirteen years ago, as if untouched by inflation. I can’t remember exactly what we did on that first night in Pantai Remis, but likely, we had dinner at a local restaurant, watched Astro in the hotel reception area, and went to bed.
To graduate with an English major, specifically the Fiction Writing concentration, I had to write an extended work of sixty pages—some 19,000 words—in my senior year. This was a huge undertaking, considering that the longest paper I had written hitherto was fifteen pages. I was also a slow writer (I still am a slow writer), was poor at time management, and had another senior thesis to write for my Geology major.
I wanted to set my story in a fishing village in Malaysia. I usually start my stories with an image, an emotion that I want to explore more deeply. For this novel, it was the expansive, depthless sea. I had written in my diary, “I imagined something like a romantic fishing village, a pastor’s home and chapel made from wood, people living in harmony with nature, the sea stretching for miles and miles, horizonless.” I read Malay Fishermen, an anthropological account of Malay coastal areas written by Raymond Firth in the 1940s, but I wanted to stay in a fishing village to collect realistic, current, everyday details, through proper on-the-ground research. I planned to do this in the summer holidays before my senior year began.
So I wrote to a few people to ask for help: a professor at the National University of Singapore, several government officials, a friend whose parent had friends in a fishing village. An official from the Department of Fisheries in Sabah wrote back to me: Yes, they could host me under one of their projects, Projek Perintis Pengkulturan Rumpai Laut (“Seaweed for Poverty Eradication Program”). And yes, I could stay with one of their staff members, a woman, in a village on an island near Tawau.
I was excited. I started researching flights there. I told my mother my plans over our Skype calls.
Is the official Malay? Mum asked.
Yes, I said.
Are you staying in the kampung? Cannot go by yourself, she said. Not safe, single woman.
We discussed it for some time. And by that, I mean I pleaded really hard over a dodgy internet connection and a twelve-hour time difference. As a Good Asian Student and Filial Model Eldest Child, I found it difficult to do anything my mother disapproved of. (It only took me four years before I told her, when I was twenty-four years old, that I wasn’t going to church anymore.)
Then, an idea occurred to my mum. How about I come along, she said. Follow you to the fishing village.
I wrote back to the official. He said no, they could only accommodate one person.
There were many racial and gendered assumptions in my mother’s words. Some of these assumptions were grounded in the truth of growing up Chinese and female in Malaysia; some were not.
A couple of months back, BBC World reported that Ain, a seventeen-year-old Malay Muslim student, was being threatened with expulsion from school and harassed online after she revealed on TikTok that a teacher had made a rape joke in class. (The teacher is now suing her for one million ringgit; she’s countersuing for five.) Her experience is uncomfortably familiar to my experiences of growing up in Malaysia. When I was twelve years old, I remember riding through a kampung with a family friend, and a group of boys, who looked no older than ten, started shouting at us, “Puki, puki!”
Still, I had grown up relatively sheltered. A twenty-one-year-old undergraduate, I had no experience traveling on my own, and no internal barometer to tell me whether staying by myself in a remote fishing village near Tawau would be safe. I reluctantly used my mother’s barometer instead, and declined the official’s offer. Now, thirteen years older with more experience of the world, I read the official’s emails again and can find no hint of danger, nothing I couldn’t cope with.
I wasn’t happy with my mother, but she used her aunty powers to fix the situation. A week after I turned down the offer to the village near Tawau, my mother said, “The pastor of your aunt’s church has moved to a fishing village. We can stay there and he can show us around.”
The pastor was Chinese and Christian, like the community he had been posted into, like us. And my mother would accompany me.
During our time at Pantai Remis, Pastor Choong graciously introduced us to some of his churchgoers, most of whom worked in the fishing industry. He was a friendly, kind man in his thirties, and brought us around town in his church van.
From Sungai Beruas, the main estuary where hundreds of boats were docked, my mother and I followed a fisherman, Hock Wah, out to sea. We watched him and his worker cast their nets and haul them up in the afternoon heat.
There were few boats out; we were near the river mouth, where only smaller kampung fish were caught. Most boats left in the night or the early hours of the morning to escape the full force of the equatorial sun, heading out into deeper waters.
Both Hock Wah and his worker covered up their bare skin to protect themselves—old t-shirts wrapped around their heads, their arms, their legs. As they brought in fish from the nets, the entire boat became a mass graveyard. Thousands of fish breathed ever more slowly until they finally died. Their bodies piled on top of each other, pressed by their own weight.
Later, we visited the warehouses where thousands of kilograms of fish were brought in and sorted. Fishing in Pantai Remis is a hugely manual process, involving a lot of people and foreign workers, commonly from Myanmar.
The pastor also brought us to the home of one of his churchgoers, and we watched his wife make household items out of broken fishing nets: chair seats, dish sponges, baby bouncers, things that I would never have imagined.
Another churchgoer owned a large prawn farm—the size of a football field—containing shallow artificial pools of water, where prawns were grown in batches to maintain a steady supply. “There are 200,000 prawns in each pond, but not all of them survive the 4.5 months of rearing,” he told us. It was very hot when we visited. The only shelter from the sun was a makeshift house made of zinc, and four smaller guardhouses to watch against prawn thieves.
At night, we ate fresh seafood from restaurants in Pantai Remis, which were casually set up, with the head waiters readily reciting the menu from memory.
Pantai Remis is a working town. While there, we met no tourists from out of state.
Most people we met were fluent in Hokkien or Mandarin and spoke limited English. On the other hand, my command of both Chinese languages is limited—I can understand some Hokkien and a little Mandarin, but I can’t string together enough words to ask questions.
My mother is fluent in both. And beyond that, she is an extrovert, a typical nosy aunty. Though she doesn’t have an undergraduate degree or even A-Levels qualifications, she is a better communicator than I am—or so I told myself. I was a book-smart introvert, a Yale undergraduate, and yet I became paralyzingly uncomfortable when interacting with people I didn’t know.
I ask myself now how much of this narrative was true. Perhaps if I had been coached to interview people, prepped to ask questions, encouraged to speak my mind, by my mother and by the system that educated me? Perhaps if the model Malaysian student wasn’t someone who took in the facts quietly and laid them out in perfect written form in exams, but rather someone who came up with their own answers and justified them with reasons? Perhaps if my opinion had been encouraged rather than ignored or, worse, shouted down? Perhaps then I would have had a different narrative for myself.
What’s innate, what’s learned? I look in wonder at my children, growing up in London and voicing their many opinions out loud, and I think, what kind of privilege?
During our time in Pantai Remis, we took the opportunity to go to a hair salon along Jalan Besar. “Prices in this small town are cheap,” my mother said. We both got our hair steamed, and I got a haircut.
The hairdresser asked us, “Where do you live?”
“We come from KL.”
“Why come to Pantai Remis? There is nothing here!” And she laughed, incredulous that two city folk would want to come to this town, writing notes about her hair salon.
I used this encounter and similar others in my novel. The hairdresser’s comments echoed a general sentiment in Pantai Remis—there was nothing in this town, and most of the fishermen’s children had left for greener pastures. One child of a retired fisherman was studying in Taiwan, while his other child was working at the local Swiss Garden hotel nearby. Another fisherman said that one daughter was studying at University Science Malaysia, while the other was “doing accounts” in Singapore; only his son remained, leading his second boat. Others said that their children were not interested in continuing in the business. Too much competition, too much hard manual work in the sun.
I had begun this journey with an image of fishermen hauling their nets out of the sea. By the end of the trip, I was completely disabused of my romantic notions. There were no swaying coconut trees and wistful sunsets over water. The commercial fishing business, even at small scale, was hard work—for the owners, and especially so for their workers. Tash Aw’s novel We, The Survivors, published in 2019, specifically explored migrant slave labor in a fishing village not too dissimilar to Pantai Remis.
While my mother chaperoned and interviewed, I had quietly gathered the words of Pantai Remis’ inhabitants and tried to capture their emotions in a story that started off in a similar place, but ended up somewhere very, very different. It has taken me many drafts since I wrote my first to finish my novel, which is now finally published, some thirteen years later, as We Could Not See the Stars.
This is the Town of Winds. The children of the town leave for the coast every year, and they do not come back. One day a big storm will blow through the town and nothing will remain.
Being able to take you with me, every step of the way, means a great deal. So please sign up if you would like to receive more letters like this in your inbox and to support my writing and curiosity. Thank you! ❤️
A Q&A via WhatsApp
Emily Ding: So, catch me up a little bit. We know from your piece that your book started out as a final-year fiction writing project during university. What happened between then and now? Were you tinkering with it intermittently, or did it sit somewhere for a long time before something made you go back to it?
Elizabeth Wong: Hahahaha, as you probably gathered, it has been... a while since that final year writing project. I had sixty pages written, then had intended on working on it but life got in the way. The story sat in an unopened Word file. I made a few attempts at writing but nothing serious. Then I got laid off in 2015—life in the oil and gas industry!—which was a good reason for me to restart the project again. I had about three months of f-unemployment while I wrote a detailed synopsis, characters’ backgrounds, history, all of which never went into the final version but was helpful as scaffolding. I think I wrote some 10,000 words in those three months too. It was a good few months of intense activity to get the project chugging away again.
ED: Amazing! And did you finish the first draft of the novel then, or did it take a few more years? Can you briefly summarise your journey to publication?
EW: So I got back into full-time work soon after, and kept working on the novel in the margins. It took me... three years to get to first draft? 😅 In my defence, I was also planning a wedding and had a baby during that time... 😂 And then revisions took another six months. So it was a loooong process.
It was the start of 2019 when I felt my novel was ready to go out to be queried. I had submitted my novel to about thirty-odd literary agents and received a number of full requests. Most of them came back and said they would pass, as they didn’t know how to place my novel. Some publishers also have an open submissions period, during which authors can submit directly to them. Hachette had an open submission period, so I submitted. I didn’t think too much of it—too used to rejections!—but several months later I got a request for a full manuscript. I thought, good news, but also didn’t think much of this. And then several more months later, I got an email from John Murray Press, a Hachette company, saying they were interested in publishing my manuscript!
Edits with my editor took another year, as I had another baby in that time 😅
Hope that counts as brief 😂
ED: Haha, yes, that counts as brief. I’m sure there was a lot more to it.
And congratulations! I have so much admiration for anyone who writes a whole novel before knowing what will happen to it. I think as a freelance journalist I’m too used to the commission-first process 😆
You said some of the agents came back to you saying they didn’t know how to place your novel. What do you think they meant by this? Can you tell us a little bit about your book?
EW: I’ll start with going a little off-piste. I have been reading Chris Fox’s Writing to Market, which is an introduction mostly for writers who want to go into self-publishing, about the concept of writing to market. Read in that specific genre, pick a couple of tropes, and don’t stray too far from the genre’s beats. Fulfill the audience’s expectations about what a, say, cosy mystery or urban fantasy would be. If they want a $5 hamburger, they are not going to be happy with a $20 burger with blue cheese and chicken slices. His theory: know your market and sell to it.
So that’s one way to approach a novel-writing career. The other way is to write avant-garde experimental novels with no knowledge of the market... I’m kidding. Somewhat. I had no knowledge of “the market” as I was writing my novel. I just knew the story had to be written, and there was a vast hole in my life where that novel would be. I wanted the novel to start small and beautiful, in a fishing village on the coast of Malaysia. It would be an adventure, taking the reader and the characters from the intimate to the sublime, somewhere vast and grand. I think I achieved this, hopefully. For this reason, I think the second half of the novel scared off some agents. It’s analogous to the movie Parasite, where the second half of the movie goes off on a completely different tangent altogether. Similarly, We Could Not See the Stars takes on a different direction, so that doesn’t help in identifying the market for it. So I’m thankful to my editor and publisher for taking that risk in publishing my novel.
Btw, I learned the word “sublime” from reading Wordsworth and other eighteenth-century Romantic poets, who crossed the Alps in search of some greater feeling, bigger than their human selves. I love that concept, and when I look at landscapes, I think about how old the rocks are and how deep time is.
ED: I’ve read your novel’s synopsis, and hearing the way you describe it here, I can’t wait to read it. I’m especially looking forward to the sense of place I anticipate you bringing to it. I reached out to you to write here after I read your short story “All Lonely Roads Lead to Old Sembahnang”, which felt transporting. I envy the fact that you’re a geologist as well as a writer. You must have a greater vocabulary with which to describe the world, with greater specificity. And you seem to have come to both geology and writing early on, at university. Were they both long-time twin obsessions for you? How would you say being a geologist has informed your writing?
EW: You are very kind about my short story! There are issues with it, but I find it hard to articulate why. It probably needs a stronger editor, I think. I am glad though that the story has found its way into the world and contributes to Malaysian literature. There’s not much Malaysian writing out there, though it is improving.
I always wanted to be a writer growing up, but there were no available role models for me, growing up in middle-class Malaysia. My dad worked at a bank, my mum was a stay-at-home mum, and most of my parents’ friends were engineers, doctors, accountants, or owned their own businesses. Very typical stable middle-class jobs. I never thought writing could be a career, let alone one that could (maybe) pay off financially, or at least enough to pay the bills. So my backup plan was to do geology, which I was drawn to as geology is—as ridiculous as this sounds—a physical manifestation of the other sciences. Like, you can see the rocks, formed by some process that involves physics or chemistry or biology.
More importantly, there were proper jobs at the end of a geology degree: environmental consulting, mining, oil and gas, etc! I definitely loved studying geology and practicing it. Not enough to pursue an academic career in pure geology, but enough that I like to read about geological scenarios and imagine ways to incorporate this into my writing. And the major perk of working as a geologist is that I have traveled and worked in some places that I would be unlikely to visit as a tourist—Ukraine, Mauritania.
ED: What exactly were you doing in Ukraine and Mauritania? Sometimes I think that’s the best way to travel, in service of another purpose beyond travel itself, so you get to see what’s hidden from the average person.
EW: Most of the work that I did was done remotely in the office in London or Aberdeen. I would analyze the data from the subsurface (all the rock underground) and figure out where there was oil and gas and how much. I worked on small, mostly gas fields in the beautiful Dneiper-Donets basin, near Poltava in Ukraine. So there would be a couple of well pads and well heads poking their head above the cornfields. (Gas is incredibly important for Ukraine, which would otherwise depend on expensive imported gas from Russia for their heating and energy needs. Or burn coal in their long, deep winters.) I would head to Poltava several times a year, usually in their warmer months, to meet with my colleagues in the local office in Poltava, where we would have discussions, presentations, and operational updates about the fields that we were working on.
As for the project in Mauritania, the company I had worked for was looking for hydrocarbons offshore. After months and years of studying the subsurface, we were finally drilling an exploration well to test our theories and get some real rock data. The well was the first deep-water well after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, so safety was very important. Safety is the highest priority for all oil and gas operations, but even more so for this well. I spent over two months watching data collection processes on the rig (important for me and my work) and observing operations both on the rig and from our local support base in Mauritania. It was completely different from my usual desk job and therefore very exciting.
ED: I’d like to hear about all that in more detail sometime. I’ve always been drawn to the work of writers who spend time in environments most people don’t have access to in order to document what goes on there. For example: Geoff Dyer, who took up a kind of “residency” on an aircraft carrier and wrote about it in Another Great Day at Sea.
EW: Yes, it’s so interesting, isn’t it. I read about the Container Artist Residency and really want to do that.
ED: Anyway, you said your pub day was on July 8? How did that go as a debut novelist—in a pandemic?
EW: I went for a nice long in-person lunch with my editor to celebrate! And the next day, I went around to a few bookshops in London with my husband, took pictures with my book on the shelves, and ate in Malaysian restaurants thereafter 🙂 It was a fairly average day, to be honest!
ED: Has the pandemic changed in any way your perspective or approach to writing and creative work?
EW: The pandemic, along with other reasons, has added impetus for me to leave my corporate job and concentrate on building a career in writing full-time. Like it has for so many others, the pandemic has made me rethink my life. I have realized that it is possible to make a living out of writing, something the younger version of me would not have been able to imagine. Obviously, having some savings and financial stability in my thirties really help with making this decision.
While many have found themselves in a position to write more in the pandemic, it hasn’t really changed my situation, to be honest! Having young children means my freedom of movement is greatly curtailed anyway 🙂 😂
ED: Best of luck with the next stage of your writing career, Liz. I’m excited for you to see where it goes.
EW: Thank you! I hope the writing career goes well too. Otherwise, it’s back to a corporate job. I have given myself three years 😅
ED: With your debut novel, you’re joining a new crop of Malaysian fiction writers in the English language who have been published in the past few years—Zen Cho, YZ Chin, Hanna Alkaf, Joshua Kam, Yangsze Choo. Have you felt that there is more openness now to hear from a greater variety of writers and experiences? And were there any things you felt you had to keep in mind to better speak to the world?
EW: Yes! When I started writing the novel in 2008, the landscape had far fewer Malaysians writing about Malaysia—or for that matter, the Southeast Asian region in general. I think Tash Aw’s first novel came out around then. Writing in Manglish felt quite radical at that point in time; it is still radical, but there are now other writers who have done it quite successfully.
There is definitely interest in reading and publishing works that center around Malaysian experiences, as opposed to exoticized Othered versions, but interest doesn’t always translate to sales. I always think of X Factor, or any other reality TV singing competition: the winner is usually someone who people think is the most talented and whom they want to win, but the most commercially successful, whose songs people actually buy, are usually the other finalists.
Anyway, my book is Malaysian (mostly—can’t give away spoilers!) and it’s centered around the Malaysian reader, but I am also conscious of the average Western reader’s experience as well. While I don’t translate any terms or give direct explanations, I do try to coach more unfamiliar terms in context. No good being an X Factor winner if no one is going to buy my albums! To some extent.
ED: To wrap this up, can you recommend a couple of your favorite books, perhaps any writers who have been influential for you?
ED: Haha, I have to confess my ignorance of Robert Jordan. Will look him up!
EW: Haha, Robert Jordan is (was) a fantasy writer who wrote long epic novels in my formative teenage years… A lot of problems with the novels, but they made a huge impact on teenage me!