Thursday, February 18, 2016

Hidden in the "Liminal Grid"

So now that "Liminal Grid" has been up for a few months now, I guess I should talk about some of the things I wrote into the story that are very personal to me!

My father did get around to reading it, while he was waiting for his car to be done, and emailed me afterwards telling me he couldn't stop reading it. Since the first audience of "Liminal Grid" is Malaysian, that was really gratifying! Especially since I had a lot of family on the brain while writing it. He also noted the setting.

Falim Heights is named after an apartment complex, Farlim, in Penang, in a town called Bandar Air Hitam (Black Water Town). I changed the town to Bandar Ayer Puteh (White Water Town) for plausible deniability. That's where my eldest aunt, who I used to be very close to, lived until she became too senile to take care of herself. It's several storeys high, with a courtyard down the middle that I always thought would be great for growing something. The problem is that it doesn't get a lot of light, and it's not very brightly-coloured, so it looks a bit squalid. It's a far cry from the luxury condominiums of the story!

This fictional Bandar Ayer Puteh is somewhere in Selangor, which is my home state! (I come from a town called Subang Jaya, which used to be part of the Petaling Jaya municipality. My mother owns a shop in a business park on Jalan Ampang in Kuala Lumpur.) It's a semi-rural suburban town that one finds along highways, with its own agriculture, and I always thought it might be neat if these towns could be self-sustaining. Rural agriculture gets really stiffed over, and the divide between rural poor and urban rich is incredibly large--this despite the affirmative action for Malay people, who comprise the majority of the rural folks! But there are rural Chinese and Indian, too, although, like the protagonist says, it can be hard for those of us suburban and urban Chinese and Indians to think of. Growing up with the narrative of "Chinese in towns, Indians on plantations, Malays in bureaucracy," I was surprised to find out that there were, in fact, other ethnicities besides Malays in the agricultural sector. I firmly believe that the prosperity and happiness of a nation depends on the prosperity and happiness of the people who grow its food, and wanted to write something to salute our farmers and all our hard workers in the rural areas of Malaysia. 

Now, Ah Ma's mahjong app... my dad didn't get the reference at first, but I had to remind him: sometime a couple of years ago, while visiting my grandmother's youngest sister in Oregon, Dad and I went walking and blackberrying. He's been on a health kick for a while trying to persuade me to watch my sugar levels, because both his parents had strokes from high blood pressure and suffered diabetes.  

I don't actually have many memories of my Grandma. The clearest memory I have of her is my brother trying to get her out of the car after she had been committed to a hospice, and my brother commenting that my Grandma's fingers were strong because she wouldn't let go of the overhead handle. I was perhaps six. 

So my dad had, of course, to take the opportunity to tell me a story about Grandma. He told me that after my grandparents went back to the Hutton Lane house (in Penang! It is still standing! It is, unfortunately, now a restaurant, a sommelier, and a fucking hipster hostel), they were retired so didn't really have much to do.

So my Grandma was like, well, I like mahjong, so I guess I'll set up a mahjong table for people to play. She charged folks RM2 for a game, and would go to the nearby coffeeshop and get a pot of coffee for 50 sen, pouring free coffee for people all evening long.

"Is that legal?" I asked. "That doesn't sound legal."

"No, I don't think it was," Dad agreed. "But anyway, at the end of the night, like 3pm liddat, Grandma would see people home and see that the coffeepot still had stuff at the bottom, so she would just finish all that coffee, don't want to waste, you know?" 

"Uh-huh," I said, not actually that interested anymore.

"And of course the sugar and all the thick stuff is at the bottom, so one day I went to visit her and noticed that her pee had a really strong smell, and she said it had been like that for a while! And that's one of the first signs of diabetes." 

"So what you're saying is," I replied, purposefully missing the moral of the story, "Grandma got diabetes because she was running an illegal mahjong racket." And if that's not cool, I don't know what is.

So there's my Grandma, given tribute in my story by updating it into the 21st century! 

HUGE thanks go to the Strange Horizons team, particularly An Owomoyela for the first incredible feedback and then to Catherine Krahe for believing in the story and working with me closely to make it what it is! 

I'm very glad folks have been enjoying "Liminal Grid," and a conversation with a friend in Malaysia spurred me into writing this. It is my first professional short story, and I'm glad it's in a venue I've enjoyed for a really long time! 

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