Bernice Chauly, Once We Were There, Epigram, 2017. 368 pgs.
Bernice Chauly’s Once We Were There is a story of many faces. Set against the tumultuous backdrop of Kuala Lumpur in the late 90s, the story moves through a vast political and cultural landscape, seen through the lens of its primary narrator, a journalist called Delonix Regia. Delonix, or ‘Del’, goes on a journey which unravels the roots of her character—from the unspoken cruelties of her childhood to the refractive messiness of adolescence and the fierce confliction of adulthood, and finally, to the immense transformation and grief of motherhood. Del’s narrative is central to the novel, but in the shadows of her story are the narratives of Omar Malik and Marina, the former her lover and husband, the latter her close friend and confidante.
In the novel, Del, Omar, and Marina act as doorways through which one can view the various struggles within Malaysian society. Omar’s cis-het, upper-class, educated and foreign perspective in contrast with Del’s cis-het, middle-class, educated and local perspective in contrast with Marina’s transgender, lower-class, uneducated and local perspective all serve to expose the ways our class, sexuality and social status feed into the injustices we face daily.
Once We Were There doesn’t shirk away from its horrors. Chauly confidently navigates topics that seem all the more taboo and heavy in an Asian society unused to speaking of the exploitation and corruption perpetuated in its culture and power structures. Sexual exploitation is stitched into the lining of the text. It is a theme that leaves its traces in the story much like fingerprints, which cover the text as Del’s narrative expands.
But in spite of all her tragedies, Marina still smiled, opened her mouth, and spread her cheeks to allow men to penetrate her in all manner of ways, to ram their sorrows into her body. (p. 87)
This image lingers, becoming more and more reflective of, firstly, the society Chauly speaks of, and secondly, the characters she has built to inhabit, challenge and unveil that society. The characters move through disturbing and jarring experiences with a casual façade that at once horrifies and intrigues. Chauly doesn’t stint on the horror, but neither does she necessarily dissect its origins within society with extensive clarity. Her exposition of sexual exploitation and political struggle in Malaysia often appears like a reflection upon a pond; crystallised and accurate from afar but rippling and dissipating when you try and examine its cradle.
Still, there is much more to commend than criticise in the novel, and the way Chauly captures Kuala Lumpur is a feat of versatility. The task of compacting a time period, which to this day remains so contentious and disjointed in the media, through characters who each account for very narrow demographics contains the obvious pitfall of being subject to presuming stances and shallow stereotypes. Chauly takes on this challenge to great success. Her writing manages to deal with the ubiquitous through the lens of the individual. It oscillates between broad, systemic issues and personal, complex dilemmas without seeming incomplete or fragmented. This balancing act manages to move the story beyond being simply one of a journalist called Delonix Regia to one that encompasses many facets, familiar to Kuala Lumpur but often neglected in the stories surrounding its culture.
Every day millions of ringgit exchange hands: from exhausted Bangladeshi construction workers who fuck thin Indonesian prostitutes, to millionaires who have cocaine-fuelled orgies with Russian and East European models, to drug pushers and transsexuals who loiter in dark alleys, to fat, rich housewives who buy endless handbags, clothes two sizes smaller and pearls with their platinum cards, to nubile teenagers who score everything from cocaine to E to marijuana, to bankers who sign blank cheques, to politicians who deposit those cheques. Everybody comes into some kind of slaughter, people leave bits of themselves on the streets, and try to pick up the pieces the next time they return. (p. 295)
The breadth of the story’s setting is evidently daunting, but the experiences Chauly puts a spotlight on tie these individuals together.
Everybody comes into some kind of slaughter, people leave bits of themselves on the streets, and try to pick up the pieces the next time they return. (p. 295)
Indeed, these are as recognisable to the human experience as they are visceral. Between scenes of humiliation, love, degradation, growth, abandonment, sublimity, grief and acceptance lies the awareness that we too occupy the spaces and emotions that Chauly draws upon. The novel reflects on Malaysian society but in its reflections of the characters and people in it, it demands an awareness from the reader of the horrors within which its plot culminates. The kidnapping of Alba, Del and Omar’s first daughter, is made more harrowing by the awareness that such dangers were present in the background of the story and spoken of from the very beginning.
Just like Del and Omar, the reader starts out a certain security that the story is focused on characters with privilege and education and are, as such, untouchable in a way characters like Marina are very much not. But Alba’s kidnapping serves as a bleak but necessary reminder that no one remains untouchable in a society where such devastations have permeated into the bedrock of its progression.
The section following Alba’s kidnapping is one of deterioration for Del and also for the reader. While Marina was a painful character through whom we witnessed the brutality of society, she remained a side character and one could observe her experiences while knowing the story would soon return to rebellion, drugs and glamour. When Alba is taken, Del can no longer write of the brutality she witnessed; she becomes the very tragedy that she might have once investigated and observed. And with her, the reader loses the privilege of distance they held with Marina, and is instead forced to witness what such horrors entail.
Once We Were There is a novel that moves like a whirlwind through scenes which captivate, enrage and depress all in one breath. The epilogue is where the story finally comes to settle, beginning with a scene of clarity, as expressed by the weather.
I can see the sky. Vermillion. Then a slow blue. (p. 349)
But the epilogue is the most confusing part of the story Chauly tells. The characters are all happy, grown, finally still. In reading it for the first time, it feels almost like mockery for Chauly to sing of the tragedies and realities that lurk within our earshot but remain unheard, and then turn the page to a painting of idyllic resolution. But after finishing the novel and returning to the cover which boldly proclaims “ONCE WE WERE THERE”, it becomes clearer that Chauly writes Del’s story not to leave the reader unmoored in grief and madness but to propose that light carries on and compels those who still remain to make their lives a defiance within a system that seeks to crush their courage.
How to cite: Haider, Maheen. “A Story of Many Faces: Bernice Chauly’s Once We Were There.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 26 Aug 2020, chajournal.blog/2020/08/26/once-there/.
Maheen Haider was born in Hong Kong and is currently studying social sciences at an undergraduate level. When not attending a lecture, she can be found either on the cricket pitch or in the library stacks. She enjoys discovering quiet spots in Hong Kong, talking about Persian rugs and reading both good and bad fiction.