My latest novel, The Age of Smiling Secrets was shortlisted for two categories in the Book Award 2020 organised by the National Library of Malaysia. When I reflected on the journey that this book has taken, I acknowledged the enormous influence of one of my all-time favourite books, Joseph Anton: A Memoir (ISBN 9780224093972 – hardcover) by Salman Rushdie. Written in the third person, the memoir is an account of Rushdie’s life during the fatwa that was issued as a reaction to criticism and a widespread controversy over his novel The Satanic Verses (1988). Rushdie used “Joseph Anton” as a pseudonym while in hiding.
This memoir was published in 2012 and coincided with two decisions I made in my writing life. First, was to dismiss an editor’s instructions when they didn’t make sense and second was to stop submitting the manuscript to literary agents / publishers in the UK. Reading Joseph Anton helped me through some of the challenges I would face in the aftermath of making these decisions, three of which are listed below.
“We Don’t Care What Malaysian Readers Thinks.”
The Age of Smiling Secrets is a novel about a family torn apart because the husband converts to Islam and, without the consent or knowledge of his wife, converts their child as well. The central issue here is the concurrent legal jurisdictions of Syariah and the Civil Law practiced in Malaysia which has given rise to great confusion and much heartache.
The editor I was working with refused to understand my story and insisted that I follow her strictures. One of the first was to change the names of characters, like Papa Aunty, because the British reading public wouldn’t be able to fathom that ‘Papa’ referred to a woman. I explained that this was a pet name for Tamil girls; indeed, my grandmother was ‘Papa’. Although I wanted to remain authentic, I was willing to change this to please the editor.
What I couldn’t stomach was the idea of pushing the conversion issue to the backburner to make the story a courtroom drama to prevent the conversion. This hasn’t happened in Malaysia and if I did this, my friends in the legal fraternity would laugh at me; as would other Malaysians. The editor’s exact words were, “We don’t care what Malaysian readers think.”
Now, it so happened that in Joseph Anton, Rushdie wanted his book Haroun and the Sea of Stories to be published ‘as is’. In Part IV (The Trap of Wanting to Be Loved), he chronicled being side lined by various publishers, having insulting clauses added to publishing contracts and editors who were willing to sign on the dotted line only if he agreed to change the location of this story, names of characters and so on. Even though I understood publishers’ reservations, I was astonished that publishers treated Rushdie, a Booker Prize winner, in such a condescending manner. Then, on page 249, he set out the conversation with an editor where he stood his ground and insisted that the book be published ‘as is’ or not at all.
I took the cue from this and decided that I would stand my ground. I found other editors to help me make the story I wanted to tell be accessible to the reading public.
Was It Right to Write?
Since 2012, I’ve refused to be active on social media. The backlash for this decision has been enormous. One was editors’ opinions that I didn’t have a following and, therefore, no one would buy my books.
The other was what happened after The Age of Smiling Secrets was launched. While the book was still in draft form, I’d asked a local editor for her opinion. She is much-celebrated here in Malaysia, perpetually active on FB and pro-British publishing industry. A book could be rubbish (and I’ve heard her saying in private that some books are), but if it was published in the UK, she’d be the first to promote it. The sad part is that her comments about my novel were good and I incorporated many of her suggestions. Through the grapevine, however, I was told ‘never to send her an invite,’ I should stop writing and that I would never be welcome at her events because of an allegation of plagiarism made against me. By this time, I’d already read Joseph Anton.
You see, The Satanic Verses gained much publicity after the fatwa was announced and reached the bestseller list. Still, on page 165, Rushdie wrote as follows:
It had never occurred to him before the attack to stop writing, to be something else, to become not a writer. … The reception of The Satanic Verses had, for the moment at least, robbed him of that joy, not because of fear but on account of a deep disappointment. … if when it came out, it was received in this distorted, ugly way, then maybe the effort wasn’t worth it. If that was what he got for making his best effort, then he should perhaps try doing something else. He should be a bus conductor, a bellhop, a busker tap-dancing for change in a subway tunnel in winter. All those professions sounded nobler than his.
I understood that other writers go through crippling insecurities and make enormous mistakes as well. When I chatted about my experiences with Uncle Tuan (a family friend who happens to be a psychiatrist) he introduced me to a new label – sycophants – and I began to see how it fit so many of the people I’d met in my career as a writer. Quite simply, Rushdie continued to write in spite of all he’d been through. I had to do the same.
Finding Genuine Friends
For so long, I looked for friends who were true, at the very least, to their own word. The experience was like sifting icing flour that’s past its use-by date only to find frozen lumps of saccharine sweetness. The cruellest encounter was when, after years of self-imposed social isolation, I allowed into my world a friend I’d thought was genuine in her friendship. It did not take her long to tell me that I was a failure as a writer because I was ‘toxic in mind, mouth and mood, rude and obnoxious’. She shared her uninvited opinion of me at a time when my mother was gravely ill and I was utterly alone. The repercussions of all this had a drastic effect on my overall health; I had to stop working for a long while to undergo intense therapy.
To aid in my healing, I turned to Joseph Anton. As I read his stories, it was as though in the past few years, similar events were being played out here in Malaysia. I will share a few here:
1. Malaysians of all strata who had no clue about the inner workings of the law, became overnight experts at deciphering legalese about events within the publishing industry from plagiarism and theft to sexual misconduct and bullying. There are many such stories in Joseph Anton and they’re on a global scale.
2. Malaysian bookshops were threatened with boycotts (or worse) for supporting one author, being friends with an established member of the industry or promoting a particular book. Bookshops were burnt and publishers killed for supporting Rushdie’s work.
3. Literary giants and prize winners in Malaysia weighed in on arguments, debates and outright nastiness only to be summarily kicked out of elite reading and writing groups. Rushdie chronicles the arduous journeys he endured to attend some events and being excluded from others. There were times people withdrew their participation at events because of his presence.
4. Industry leaders in Malaysia would champion writers in print and social media, but privately share malicious gossip about the very same writers, and sometimes about each other. It was mind boggling to remember which editor was having an affair with which writer, and everyone had to take care not to ‘blow their cover’. Ah! Rushdie has story upon story about literary agents who worked together, then didn’t; writers who subsequently betrayed him; and, quite simply, some awful human beings.
Reading Joseph Anton changed my writing life. It made me accept that I am deeply in love with the art of writing and my novel, The Age of Smiling Secrets. Laugh if you must, but the closest I can come to explaining this feeling is to give you the analogy of being in love with your partner. You’re both aware of the other’s faults. An objective observer may be able to change either of you for the better or even say that both parties can do better. In spite of all this, you belong to each other and, together, you create an empowering and enduring beauty that comes from within.
I will live knowing that my writing is relevant and be eternally grateful to Rushdie for having the courage and fortitude to publish this beautiful memoir, Joseph Anton.
The Age of Smiling Secrets is the latest novel by Aneeta Sundararaj. Set in contemporary Malaysia, it is about a family torn apart when a man converts to Islam and, without the consent or knowledge of his wife, converts their child as well. One of the chapters from this novel, The Legend of Nagakanna, was accepted in an anthology called, We Mark Your Memory published by the School of Advanced Studies, University of London in 2018. Aneeta trained and practised as a lawyer before she decided to pursue her dream of writing. Read more stories like this on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’. (http://www.howtotellagreatstory.com).