A couple days ago I posted a review of Elsie Sze’s new novel, Ghost Cave: a novel of Sarawak (Hong Kong Women in Publishing Society, 2014). Not only is this a fabulous historical novel, but it was also the winner of the inaugural Saphira Prize in 2013. Elsie has so graciously written the following guest post about her research trip to Sarawak. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I do! Here’s Elsie!
In my father’s copy of Ghost Cave: a novel of Sarawak, I wrote: “You are the reason for this novel, Dad.” Sarawak was my 97-year-old father’s birthplace, home of my ancestors who migrated there from southern China at the turn of the (20th) century. The novel is the result of several years of research involving a few trips to this remote corner of the world, the largest province of Malaysia on the island of Borneo.
For this novel, I trekked the hot and humid tropical jungles, combed limestone caverns where myriads of swiftlets (swallows) and bats hung out, spent a few nights in Dayak longhouses far from my North American comfort zone, and explored outlying bazaars (their name for villages) that had deteriorated into pseudo ghost towns from their heyday of yesteryear.
Like a tourist seeing for the first time the waters of Niagara or the pyramids of Giza – pardon the far-out analogy – was I thrilled to the bone when I first laid eyes on the pitiful, weather-beaten, torn and shabby stubs that were the remnants of the flagpole that had played a significant part in Mau San, the nineteenth-century mining town where major turbulent scenes and heartrending tragedy were played out in the region’s history and in my story.
And when I was brought to the very entrance of Ghost Cave in a currently functioning gold mine, I was overwhelmed with the poignancy it evoked. A wooden altar sat across the entrance, apparently erected there by Taoist followers to appease the spirits within. With reverence I had gazed into the dark recess of the cave, paying a silent tribute to those who perished in there long ago.
For the more recent segment of the novel, the communist insurrection in Sarawak of the 1960s, I was driven to the town of Serikin near the border with Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo. From there, I walked the last mile to the border checkpoint through dense jungle vegetation, over muddy paths. In the Sixties when Chinese and Indonesian communist guerrillas were crossing from Indonesia to Sarawak, the ground I trod could well be the battleground of the guerrillas and the British and Malaysian anti-communist troops.
The places I covered for my story were so interesting, and often exciting, but the most meaningful part of my research process and the writing of Ghost Cave had to be the reconnection with my father’s birthplace and homeland, with my extended family with whom relationships had dwindled since my father left home for a higher education in Hong Kong as a young man. It was as if an ancestor’s ghost had intervened to bridge the gap resulting from great physical distance and the prolonged elapse of time. In this sense, my greatest reward and satisfaction in the writing and publication of Ghost Cave have been in the making up for lost years with my extended family. As in my novel in which two sides of the protagonists’ family are in the end reconciled, I have reconnected with my father’s homeland and family there. Unintentionally, yet extraordinarily to say the least, the story of Ghost Cave is a reflection of my own passage of renewal. My writing journey to Ghost Cave is my personal journey home.