Note: I wrote this last year
The story idea for Of Oysters, Pearls And Magic came in the middle of the night like a gentle insistent voice. A whisper in my ear for me to write.
Now at the moment of writing, I am heavily pregnant and will be giving birth in about three or four weeks’ time. So imagine my chagrin when I started receiving voices, images and scenarios. I was going “No, not now” but the prompting voice was nothing but persistent. And I began to write.
And what an interesting and thought-provoking journey it has turned out to be. Even though I have stopped writing at about 18, 000 words, the story wants to be continued further, the characters rich and pregnant with their own particular tales, particular histories.
But why oyster-divers and pearl-gatherers?
At first – and at a superficial level – it was simple a title, an evocative plot device. I was inspired and intrigued by the women oyster-divers from Japan. As the story progressed, other aspects were woven in. Aspects that seemed to come from deep inside me: my heritage, my past.
How I envisioned Mirra’s matriarchal/matrilineal society was just my envisioning of a possible societal cultural model set in a possible future. I thought if matriarchal/matrilineal societies could exist on present-day Terra/Earth, why not on a planet far far away? Descendants from colonists, building their own worlds, own societies and prospering from merging and merged cultures and traditions. It was a familiar trope used by many writers.
Cultural norms in Mirra’s world were – at best – my envisioning of how a world could and would work. Many of us grew up with heterosexual monogamy and the literature/socio-cultural norms surrounding it. Could this socio-cultural norm persist in the future? If we are talking about the future, why not? Could we accept and welcome other alternate cultural norms such as polyandry, polygamy or polyamory? How would we view singlehood in the future? Mirra’s world accepts polyandry, polyamory and singlehood as valid lifestyle/path choices. If a remote village in China could work without the established ideas and ideals of conventional marriage, why not imagine a world with similar cultural notions?
Likewise, traditions and cultures were strong in Mirra’s world, continued by the colonialists’ descendants. I wove in aspects of my heritage, albeit unconsciously. The ‘Aha’ moments came, later, when I started to really examine the motifs and imagery used in the story. The traditional costumes of Mirra’s people were modeled after the traditional costumes of the Hui An people in China. The Hui An women wear colorful floral kerchiefs around their heads, topped with large conical straw hats, and dark pants. I changed the floral kerchiefs to scarves. Likewise, the Hui An people are coastal folk and sustain their lives with fishing and harvesting seafood. Now, this is where my heritage comes in. My paternal grandmothers came from Hui An. They were technically Hokkien (Fujian), but the Hui An are actually a minority group, evidenced in their distinctive traditional costumes. They now consider themselves part of the dominant Han culture and celebrate its festivals.
A week ago, before this commentary came into being, my father told me that the Hui An culture was dying out, as the land the Hui An people lived on had gone through radical changes, thanks to China’s drive for economic and industrial success. It is a grim and ultimately saddening wake-up call. Much of what’s left in Hui An is now heavily industrial, fixated on mining and tourism; it is also subsumed under a larger region. Yet there are still people who follow the traditions, something I feel should be continued for future generations.
It was either coincidence or cosmic synchronicity when I found out that Hui An also had oysters and they were apparently part of the coastal/fishing/seafood landscape. The oysters were apparently large and plump, as big as my palm.
So, in a way, Mirra’s village was an echo of what I envisioned a future Hui An to be.
In the later chapters/waves, the reader might notice a common thread/motif based on food and communal eating. Food is culture. It is part of culture. Eating with loved ones denotes community, trust and intimacy. Sharing food is a sign of closeness. A lot of cultures, like the Chinese for example, are food-based (and food-crazy too!). Mirra shares food with her lovers. Sharing recipes are part of this culture. Sharing food with family reinforces community and continuity. It also helps when the author herself likes food and is more or less a foodie. The recipe for the oyster fritters is actually based on the recipe for the Fuzhou oyster cake, a tasty cake/fritter greatly enjoyed by my father (and later by myself). Fuzhou is also part of Fujian province.
Furthermore, motifs such as the sea and the colors green-gold link and gel the story together. I like motifs and use them as literary devices in stories. The sea is Mirra’s world, so to speak. She sees herself as a daughter of the sea. A lot of her own self-image and identity is derived from the sea. The sea is part of her landscape and forms part of what makes Mirra Mirra. Readers who are interested in the history of words might also see links with Mirra and the sea – Mari, Mary, Mira, Miriam. Interestingly enough, Mira/Mirra/Miriam also mean “bitterness” and serves as a surprisingly good insight into Mirra’s life…