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Doing the Write Thing: Erni Salleh

Doing the Write Thing: Erni Salleh

Erni Salleh is one of the three finalists for the 2020 Epigram Books Fiction Prize. Hailing from Singapore, Erni is a librarian and a self-professed antiques aficionado. Her interest in colonial maps, art, religion, and ancient kingdoms of the region grew when she completed her Master's in Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.

Her first novel, The Java Enigma, is a deep dive into the cultures and histories of Southeast Asia. Here, she reveals what her novel is all about, the challenges and influences while writing her story, and what she hopes The Java Enigma can inspire in readers and writers alike.

What is The Java Enigma about?
This is an adventure-mystery that tries to uncover the trail of a sunken Portuguese carrack and the treasures that have been hidden for centuries by a secret organisation called the Gnostes. It follows Irin, a librarian-curator who works at the Borobudur Archaeological Park and her quest to uncover the clues to open a combination lock she had inherited upon her father’s death – clues which would later put her at the crossroads with the Gnostes and test her knowledge of old unspoken languages and ancient religions.

Photo by Eldes Tran

Along her journey, Irin is reunited with an old acquaintance of her father’s who gives her an important clue – at a price. Forced to forge a new but precarious relationship with his protégé, they later get mistakenly imprisoned off the coast of Sumatra, home to tribes known for their cannibalistic forms of punishment of criminals. To secure her freedom, Irin enters into an agreement with a member of the Gnostes, and she then finds herself tangled deeper and deeper in a web of mysteries and conspiracies dotted throughout the history of Southeast Asia.

What inspired this novel?
Last Christmas, I was in a small village in Wales to meet a local fisherman who had found a keris in his fishing net and was attempting to help date the item and possibly buy it from him. Just the fact that a traditional weapon originating from the Southern Philippines made its way across to the UK, provided the initial spark that made me think about how such relics travelled – who originally owned them, why were they chosen and how were they transported?

It then brought to mind the conversation I had with my late father regarding his heirloom keris, and if he would pass it down to me as the eldest child, even though kerises were traditionally given only to sons. I suppose this story is one of the "what-ifs" where I could revisit the past safely and imagine all the fancy things my father would have left me, from the treasured heirlooms to the random objects he had kept especially from his days as a salvage diver.

What were some of the challenges in writing this story?
I actually started writing this story in January last year and completing a full manuscript within six months is in itself a challenge, as it did not give me much time to experiment with different plot twists or include alternative characters. One of the possibilities I had to give up halfway was setting the story in the 1970s and writing it from my father’s point of view. But due to the additional research, I needed to do to make sure it sounded time-appropriate, I decided to jot it as a "prequel" kind of book I could explore in the future.

The second challenge actually came in the form of my inability to read or understand Dutch as I had to refer to a lot of colonial maps and reports from the VOC (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, the Dutch East India Company) as part of my research for this story – thank god for Google Translate! It had me questioning whether I should have explored other parts of Southeast Asia to set the story, as I was more familiar with English and French. However, in the spirit of authenticity and as a tribute to my father and his fair command of Dutch, I stuck to it.

What was the biggest lesson learnt by writing this story?
That it’s okay to write out of one’s comfort zone. I’m actually more a fantasy or paranormal or romance book reader and writer who only writes in the third person and sometimes omniscient narrative. So, to write in a completely new genre and in the first-person narrative was such a struggle as I could not reveal too many things but let the reader experience the developments together with the main character.

The other thing was not to let the fear of showing your vulnerability stop you from letting your feelings drive the story forward. For example, I had originally written a love interest for Irin, as I felt that having that emotional support during the main character’s lowest point would bring some depth to the story; but halfway, I felt that he just didn’t make the cut!

Does being a librarian make it easier to write a story?
I would say yes, to a certain extent. Being a librarian, I have access to books on a daily basis. When people go out for a coffee, for a break, my break time involves walking down the aisles, especially books that are related to religion, culture, writing language and of course, maps, travelling and history. Also, we are always encouraged to go for a lot of writing festivals – like the Singapore Writers’ Festival, the Asian Festival of Children’s Content – where I get the chance to meet a lot of authors as part of my work. So, being a librarian does encourage you to have a lot of contact with other people who are in the business of books.

However, when it comes to writing itself, it is a skill that needs to be practised. So I take a lot of time learning from other authors how they have done it, so listening to them as well as doing my own practices. This story, for example, is not my first manuscript but I have written and practised various types of genres as well as other methods to try and make the story more interesting, and that’s how I’ve learnt from all these authors as well as attending these festivals.

What do you do as a librarian?
Well, actually a lot of people think being a librarian is all about stamping books or like shushing people in the library. But being a librarian actually involves a lot of dialogue and discussion with people about social issues. For me personally, as the manager of the Mobile Library Services, our buses actually go out to those people who are unable to come to the library. So we visit a lot of preschools, orphanages, old folks’ homes, as well as special needs schools, so we can bring the books to them and ensure that everyone gets the chance to read books.

What/who are your favourite books/authors who have influenced your writing?
The book that partly started this map-craze of mine was actually The Power of Knowledge: How Information and Technology Made the Modern World by Professor Jeremy Black. His book had revolutionised how I approached the study of colonial maps as it got me looking beyond just content to see how places (or anything really) are immortalised or erased over time. It is also about how societies organised information where everything we know is because someone – a librarian, curator, religious teacher, etc – packaged ideas and wrote it down for us. I loved that!

During my editing phase, however, I picked up The Storyteller’s Secret by Sejal Badani and fell absolutely in love with her conversation-heavy writing style and how she weaves an almost personal story with that of history – almost similar to my own. It was then that I felt confident to continue with my own story, knowing that someone out there could possibly pick up my novel and identify with the story as deeply as I had with Sejal’s book.

What are your expectations for the novel?
For a start, I would be very happy if it inspires more writers out there to explore writing within this genre set in contemporary Southeast Asia, just to balance out the majority historical fiction in the market.

One thing I learnt during my MA was how Southeast Asia – its people, stories and cultures – were always studied and told by outsiders and rarely by the people themselves. So on a larger scale, I would really love for this novel to also spark conversations about our collective histories and identities as Southeast Asians, even if it is embracing all that is different about us.

Get a copy of The Java Enigma here.

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