Reviewed by Hilary McPhee
This beautifully crafted memoir by Beth Yahp of her ancestors, parents and
herself is shaped around journeys which criss-cross the Malaysian Peninsula
where her Siamese-speaking Eurasian mother and her Hakka Chinese father
met and married in 1961.
A photograph seems to have triggered the task – perhaps the lovely sepia
cover shot of her parents on their honeymoon, sitting on a wall somewhere in
Malaya before Independence. Yahp persuades her aging parents to return
home to Kuala Lumpur from Honolulu for a road trip around their country so
she can begin to decode their lives and, along the way, get her own into
focus. She illuminates a world where Malaysian politics are increasingly
corrupt, where censorship is rife, activism dangerous and most people keep
their heads down – much as they are doing back home in Yahp’s Sydney
where both sides of politics are ruthlessly turning back boats and controlling
Eat First, Talk Later ranges widely across Malaysia’s gloriously multifaceted
culture, its long and troubled history and politics, each segment packed with
information about a region where the tourists usually skim over the surface,
rave about the food, complain about the traffic and depart.
Yahp’s family’s mantra, Eat First, Talk Later, acts as a kind of buffer for a
more conservative generation which prefers privacy and security to the unfamiliar
literary excavations and exposés of contemporary memoir-making. Her mother, Mara,
glares when her daughter keeps prodding her to tell her stories.
Write it down, I say to her, if you don’t want to say it, write it down. In that
notebook I gave you, where you promised to write your recipes. Why don’t
you write your own story? What you really think. Write it all out.
‘Why should I?’ Mara says. ’Why should I say anything? You know what I
think. You are my children. No need to say anything.’
But there is a need and Yahp feels it acutely as she moves between her life in
Sydney, Paris and KL. How to gather the stories she wants from her rich and
reticent multiracial heritage before it changes forever. How to reveal the past
when its traces are contained in cooking utensils for food without recipes, in
cracks papered over or in objects abandoned for reasons now lost.
This is very much a book about writing a book. We watch her nutting out her
drafts, jotting down scraps of talk, testing her version of her parents’ lives,
driving through the traffic of the Peninsula, managing her turbulent love life
and episodes of activism in Sydney and Kuala Lumpur over meals and good
talk – concocting what her publisher’s media release calls ‘a non-stop literary
feast’ – all skilfully weighted like a brilliant patchwork. Each narrative thread, I
would guess, leading Yahp to others, and each impossible to let go of in case
the whole should unravel.
Her frankness is disarming. She is willing to share the torments of memoir-
writing. At the half way mark she confesses.
I’ve caved under the weight of this story I’m trying to tell – there are
too many memories, too many smaller stories, too much history, too much
life to be captured, and never enough to be true. I haven’t yet found my
voice – the one to carry this story. I haven’t found Mara’s voice, or Peter’s,
or Jing’s or anyone else who matters – a voice that is theirs as well as
I read Yahp’s debut novel, The Crocodile Fury, with pleasure when it first
appeared, a fantasia filled with demons and wonders and ghosts, plus a
crocodile stalking the ever-encroaching jungle. The voice then, very much her
own, was mediated through a grandmother with an extra eye. But fiction lets
you invent and lie and riff on the supernatural – which gets you off the hook in
a way memoir doesn’t. Yahp’s memoir rings true because she brings her
difficulties into the narrative, treading gently around family and friends at her
shoulder offering different perceptions.
This is part of the writing process, I tell my students. You can’t be sure the
something will ever arrive in its fullness… So you try to remember that what
you feel, and where the feeling comes from, matters. No matter what your
‘inner critic’ or anyone around you says. No matter who’s angry, affronted or
afraid – even you.
But the writing process is also about letting go, cutting back, juggling a large
cast of characters, past and present, keeping the reader engrossed, wanting
to enter into the frightening, funny multiracial world that has made her.
Hearing about food is not the same as eating it and I wished for more about
her lovers, Jing in KL and Matt in Sydney, who remain shadowy figures.
This is a book that has been a long time in the making. It eventually morphed
into a doctoral thesis in Creative Arts and has been published bearing some
of the signs. All very fine to have a glossary, a bibliography, a long list of
references, and a multitude of acknowledgments – but an index is needed
Travellers through the Malaysian Peninsula will welcome this portrait of a
country which is so much more than an exotic hub, and those aspiring
memoir-writers fortunate to be in Yahp’s writing classes will find solace and
much to emulate.