How Much is Real?
It is always difficult to say where fact stops and fiction begins. Stella would like to make it known that the character “Emily”, while inspired by memories of her maternal grandmother, does not reflect the facts of her grandmother’s life. Neither do Richard, Kheong, Doris and the rest represent actual people.
“My grandmother was married quite young – but not at fourteen. She wasn’t a penniless orphan, her husband didn’t go off to live in a mistress’ house, and her son didn’t commit suicide!” Yet events like these happen in every family – hushed up, whispered about, heard surreptitiously by the child listening in the corner. “You take these things that you hear about and you alter them a bit… someone was married at sixteen, you make it fourteen, and so on…” Through this myth-making process, Stella has created the story of Emily’s life, which strikes us with a haunting sense of familiarity, as it mirrors the legends of our own familial past.
“Emily is based on my reflections on my grandmother. She was educated – she studied at Raffles Girls School—and had lived in Australia and Britain. She wore either cheongsam or sarong-kebaya alternately; she spoke English well, and Malay, and three or four Chinese dialects. She was a many faceted woman, a society lady who could entertain, and cook up a storm, and spend hours at the mahjong table. And she could charm people! To this day, people say to me admiringly – ‘I remember your grandmother—a wonderful woman!’
She managed the whole household. Young people today laugh when they hear Emily ordering the servants around, they think she’d so spoiled and idle, they don’t realise the management skills it takes to run a big household. Even after her daughters moved away from Oberon, she was still doing everything for them. I asked myself – why did she do it? What motivated her? What made her like that? The story of Emily is not the true story of my grandmother’s life – and yet it is in a way the story of every woman of her generation, who could only find power and fulfilment in the role of wife and mother.”
Stella Kon, 1999