The Storm We Made

Interview w/Author Vanessa Chan

Written by:
Paula Farmer
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1945 In British-colonized Malaysia, Cecily is a mother of four and the dutiful wife to her husband who is a low level government bureaucrat. During this pivotal year of WWII, Cecily’s family is in danger in disparate ways and for varied reasons. As far as she is concerned, she is responsible for all the havoc, she must rectify the situation, and her family must never know the truth. Ten years prior, as a bored housewife, Cecily craved for more in her life had been desperate to be more than a housewife and a chance meeting with a charismatic General lured her into a life of espionage, pursuing dreams of an “Asia for Asians.” Instead, Cecily helped usher in an even more brutal occupation by the Japanese. Fast forward several years as the war is drawing to an end, the consequences of what she thought was a noble role have taken hold of her and her family in disastrous ways.

Spanning years of pain and triumph, and told from the perspectives of four unforgettable characters- fifteen-year-old Abel who has disappeared, as too do so many boys his age in their village; Jasmin, is confined in a basement to prevent being pressed into service; the oldest sibling, Jujube, works at a tea house frequented by drunk Japanese soldiers, is overcome with resentment. “The Storm We Made” is a unique examination of a little-known aspect of WWII. From the first character and situation, one is drawn in and fully committed. In the novel, the reader is given insights into the horrors of war; the complex relationships between those that are colonized and the colonized; the oppressed and the oppressors. But mostly the novel’s points of view give credence to the ambiguity of right and wrong.

“The Storm We Made” shines a light on the brutality of war, the pain of occupation and the resilience of survivors. Chan delivers a fresh and necessary voice on the literary landscape.”

Author, Vanessa Chan was born and raised in Malaysia. Her short stories have been published in Electric Lit, Kenyon Review, Ecotone, and more. She was the 2021 Stanley Elkin scholar at the Sewanee Writers Conference and has also received scholar awards to attend the Bread Loaf and Tin House writers’ conferences. The Storm We Made is her first novel. Paula Farmer is a book reviewer and author event host/coordinator for Book Passage in San Francisco, California. Below is Farmer’s brief review of the novel and her interview with Chan about the family stories the author felt compelled to preserve in writing. 

Paula Farmer: What was the inspiration for and driving force behind the story development — the historical events or the characters?

Vanessa Chan: The stories in The Storm We Made definitely have their foundations in some of the stories that my grandmother and family have told me. But some stories are also drawn and dramatized from history, while other parts are built from the imagination, as novels do. As the eldest grandchild on my father’s side, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, and over the years, I would glean fascinating and often horrible anecdotes from my grandmother, delivered in a matter-of-fact way. One such anecdote — when she was thirteen years old, as she was cycling home, she missed by thirty seconds, a bomb from an air raid that fell right behind her bicycle. She told me with an almost childish glee, how her siblings who had not realized she’d made it home, dug in the rubble for hours looking for her bits of her, thinking she had died.

When I finally started writing this book, during the earliest days of 2020 (the part of the pandemic when things were at their worst), no libraries and archives were open. Instead, I relied on my memory, and the stories I had heard before from my family, that I had internalized but never really put to paper. In doing so, I realized I knew more than I thought I did. My uncle mailed me a book of old photographs of Malaysia. Eventually, when I was finally able to return home, I was able to check a lot of things with my grandmother before she passed. My father, a history buff, fact-checked many details such as the kind of dishware and shoes that were used in the 1930s and ’40s. I suppose, true to form, my novel became a family affair.

Funnily enough, because my novel features a woman spy at the center of it, people tend to ask me now if my grandmother was a spy. There weren’t any spies in my family…as far as I know.

PF: Historical fiction seems to have the additional element of a lot more research than other genres. Given that, what prompted you to take on that ambition for your debut? What did you find yourself more attracted to in the writing process — the research or the writing?

VC: I’m one of those people who believe that stories call out to the writer. I felt called, in fact compelled, to write these stories. The research was what helped keep the stories honest and true to their time. It felt imperative to me that I write these stories down, to preserve them and make a record of lives and histories lived. But it was equally important to me that the stories be honest, and that they also made a great read. Books exist for noble purposes to inform and illuminate, but in the end, they also need to entertain!

PF: You present a widely known piece of history (WWII), but from a very unique perspective. Why was it important to you to present an aspect of this history from the POV of [those] marginalized?

VC: I am a descendent of a colonized people who have survived occupation. Colonization quite literally lives in us. But Malaysian grandparents and ancestors are reluctant to dwell on these traumatic and challenging times, which means that their stories could get lost with time. It is important to me that their stories make their way into the historical record — stories only become history when they’re written down, so I did.

PF: This novel is rich with several interesting characters from multiple points of view. Why did you write it this way?

VC: “The Storm We Made” is written in alternating viewpoints of four characters — Cecily, a mother and spy, and her three children, Jujube, Abel, and Jasmin, each of whom encounters a different fate. I come from a noisy, dramatic family where everyone is always talking at the same time. For that reason, I think I’ve always enjoyed stories with multiple points of view — ones that seem often disparate but come together in the end. That’s how I wrote my novel. I had too many stories to tell, and a single point of view felt limiting to reflect the breadth of the story, the amount of time I had to traverse to tell the story, and the multiple geographic locations my characters exist in at the time. I also used the multiple points of view to reflect the different ways that my characters encountered a member of the colonizing Japanese population, and how these different relationships change my characters.

PF: Who are the authors and/or books that inspire you in general and this writing project specifically?

VC: I enjoy reading and writing fiction that is a bit wild — stories that are shocking, feral, or make me uncertain who the hero is. I love a book where there’s some uncertainty about who or what is good and bad, because that feels more human; as humans we exist in uncertain, gray areas and I believe that morality is entirely dependent on circumstances. A few of my favorite ambiguous literary protagonists are the room salon women in Frances Cha’s “If I Had Your Face,” the twins in Brit Bennett’s “The Vanishing Half,” and the bumbling windshield wiper entrepreneur in Kirstin Valdez Quade’s “The Five Wounds.” With “The Storm We Made,” in addition to these books, I also drew inspiration from novels like “Homegoing” and “Pachinko” — books that illuminated lesser-known histories, but without sacrificing the story — which is why we come to fiction in the first place.

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