Mahita Vas speaks about 'Rain Tree'
What prompted you to write Rain Tree?
I read that there were a million migrant workers in Singapore. This was in 2013 when it seemed like there were a lot of negative sentiment surrounding migrant workers. It made me very upset. I looked at my helper and felt that I couldn’t have achieved what I have today if it wasn't for her – I know that’s true for many of my friends too. I wanted to tell their stories.
I started with my Indonesian helper. She had an interesting story but it wasn’t enough to sustain a novel. It was when I decided to write about the original migrant workers of Singapore – for the vast majority of Singaporeans, they are actually our ancestors. Our grandparents, great grandparents and so on… Some came as coolies, some as teachers but they all arrived in search of a better life. They had the option to stay yet today’s migrant workers don’t. On the other hand, the foreigners who come on a much higher level of employment and salary have the option to become PR and citizens. I understand our need for highly skilled and educated population and can see how far ahead we have moved in our policies but I can't help feeling how unfair this is, especially how easy it is to repatriate foreign workers at the lower end of the scale.
I wanted to write about the Singapore I knew. I started writing about a servant and as I went on it became more than just a migrant worker story. It turned into a story about relationships, love, and loyalty. More characters were introduced, including the wealthy migrants.
Were there any figments of reality in the story?
Yes! Not necessarily my experience but the process of imagining how other people’s could have been. For example, servants working for colonial homes. Personally, I did not know anyone who was in that situation but I would imagine it to be a certain way.
The relationship between the Indian servant and the Chinese servants mirrors my relationship with my Cantonese Ah Ma – she was my nanny but we called her Ah Ma as a form of respect. She inspired the character Ah Moi.
It didn’t actually start off that way but I created a Chinese character because I thought that was more realistic and representative of a colonial home in those days. It was only later that I realised I had built Ah Moi upon Ah Ma. As I went on I started wondering, what would Ah Ma say? What would she feel about this? How would she respond?
How long did it take to complete the book, and what was the process like?
The book itself didn’t take that long to write – I think I finished it in about four months. The editing took three years. There were situations in the book I wasn’t happy with initially, so I kept editing it before my editor (who also helped me to strengthen the plot structure) and I thought it was ready to be published.
Have you read the book in its entirety after it was printed?
How would you describe your main character, Ani?
Feisty and spirited – even when things were bad, she believed that something good is going to come out of it.
She is not based on anyone – I can’t think of anyone I know who’s like her. But I would say she’s very real because I would imagine if you were desperate enough to change your life, you would pay whatever price to get there.For her, if it meant being systemically raped meant that was the price she would pay to go to night school, that was what she would do. I don’t think that was what I would do – I’m fortunate enough not to be put in that situation ever but I’ve read things about why people stay in bad marriages, and abusive relationships, it’s usually because they have something else in mind. People like Ani do exist in the real world.
Besides Ani, which character do you feel for the most and why?
I love Ah Moi. I like Ani but I love Ah Moi, and Mr Mistry who was inspired by people I know.
The food and places in Rain Tree are elegantly described. Was that the intended tone for the story?
The way I write is the way I think about all these foods. I think our culture is so rich, but it’s undervalued and underplayed too often by us. I do feel that our culture is that valuable and special.
A good plate of char kway teow or har cheong kai, when it’s well done, can be exquisite. All I wanted to do was describe it the way I perceive all the food I mentioned. That’s how I remember them.
In the modern day, women are given platforms to raise their opinions through rallies, speeches and writing. How would you describe your role as a writer?
That’s a good question but I see myself more as a storyteller. If there’s an opinion I feel strongly about, I’ll put it in the story. For example, the part where Ah Moi tells Ani, ‘what do you know about love?’ – I do feel that way in real life. I see the practicality of it. I love my husband, yes, but I also married him for security on top of love (which always comes first).
In the story, Ani also fought for an education. Perhaps it’s because I never went to university but education is such a valuable thing to me and so I wanted my character to be desperate about getting it.
Perhaps yes, I subconsciously put in notions I have into my stories. But my focus is always to tell a story, first and foremost.
Are you ever surprised by what you write?
You know what, now that you’ve mentioned it, yes! When I write, I do so from my heart. It’s only when I'm reading it again that I process the information in my head and realise what my beliefs are, sometimes.
In school, I had a vivid imagination and my teacher told me that it was 'too wild' – how is that possible? There shouldn’t be any limits to the vastness of one’s imagination. Sometimes it comes to me when I’m writing or on the bus.
What’s a good story to you?
Something that keeps me turning the pages and leaves me wanting to know what happens next. There are just so many books and authors I love who inspire me to do the same. It’s easy to go on Google, search for bestseller lists and come up with a recommended reading list. But since I started writing for the Singaporean audience four years ago, I’d always try to recommend a Singaporean title just because no one tells our story better than ourselves. Our writers speak with a Singaporean voice and soul.
Balli Kaur Jaswal, for example, has the ability to tell such a good story with Sugarbread and Inheritance. I love how she writes – and hey, guess what, I aspire to be like a fellow Singaporean writer!
What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learnt in writing?
Discipline. The more you stay away from writing, the more difficult it is to get back into it.
What’s the strangest thing about being a writer?
Being a writer. Identifying as a writer feels strange.
Will you ever stop writing, and why?
I see so much pleasure in writing that I don’t think I would ever stop, regardless of whether I’m going to get published again.