Cover Photo: Courtesy of Catherine Menon

Catherine Menon talks about her highly-anticipated debut novel, Fragile Monsters

A few years ago, I was enjoying a steaming bowl of pan mee with my grandfather, both of us huddled under the tin roof of the stall in his old neighbourhood. As he sipped on his anchovy broth, his eyes would peer out into the distance and glaze over. "When I was a young boy," he said, pausing for dramatic effect before continuing, "I would walk to school and these streets would be littered with bodies." 

In that moment, it hit me that my kong kong lived through the most traumatic events of Malaysian history, from the times of Japanese occupation through to the May 13 violence. And it was this gut-wrenching feeling of confusion and fascination that I kept coming back to as I read Catherine Menon's spellbinding debut novel, Fragile Monsters.

The book opens with Durga Panikkar, a mathematics professor who is returning home after a decade abroad to Kuala Lipis, Pahang, to celebrate Diwali with her grandmother, Mary. When disaster strikes, both women are stuck together in the rising heat and forced to reconcile their different versions of the truth on what happened to Durga's mother during the traumatic events of Malayan Emergency after WWII. 

The Australian-British Menon shares how her own personal experiences and family inspired her thrilling first novel.

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What was the inspiration behind Fragile Monsters?

When I was small, my father would bring me on trips to Kuala Lipis. I grew up listening to stories of his childhood there. It was only as an adult when I realised the significance of Kuala Lipis in that traumatic time period. It was the headquarters of the Japanese army in Pahang, following the invasion of Malaya. I began researching in the British Library, reading memoirs and interviews with people who’d lived through the war.

It struck me that these people weren't talking about movements or ideology. They were talking about their families, their houses, how their children would go to school... They didn't live history, they were just living their lives. 

It was also intriguing how these people rewrote their own pasts that were so filled with trauma, as if they were choosing their own truths. We all do it—I've been astounded by my own memory. My brother and I have completely different recollections of this one big fight from when we were younger. Maybe, we both rewrote the past to make sense of it and put ourselves in the right!

These were the elements I wanted to capture in Fragile Monsters.

What did you learn when doing the research? 

That a lot of the history we learned in school is very Eurocentric. Textbooks prioritise the wars in Europe and the west. They subsume the Malaysian perspective into a global perspective. It's rather reductive, in the way they portray 'goodies' and 'baddies'—a real missed opportunity, because we lose a lot of the complexity of those events and the people who lived in that time. We are unable to interrogate our own relationship with history.

Many aspects of Durga's life seem to mirror yours. She is a mathematics professor, who has spent a lot of time away from Kuala Lipis and Malaysia, and you are a computer science lecturer living in London, born and raised in Australia. How much of Fragile Monsters is based on your life and experiences?

All the events in this novel are fictional. Nothing as dramatic has happened in my family but I will say that Durga definitely represents one aspect of me. Like me, she wants to find out where she fits in the story—something that most immigrant children feel. She is struggling to reconnect to her roots, trying to take hold of the threads of her past and pull them together to find out how she ended up where she did.

And Durga's frustration of not being able to explain something away with a simple, neat narrative is something that really resonated with me. 

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Why did you decide to write a book?

You know, until very recently, I felt like I didn't have the right to write. As a child, I was a huge bookworm—always scribbling stories in my little exercise books but writing was always regarded as a hobby. There was definitely a pressure to move towards more 'accepted' careers: medicine, finance, law, engineering. Both my parents are doctors and my brother is a lawyer and an engineer.

When I moved to England and started a writing course, I realised (and I hope I don't sound too pretentious) that writing fiction comes from the same well of creativity as writing mathematical proofs. It doesn't have to be one or the other.

Who is an author that inspires you? 

Jhumpa Lahiri. She does something in her short stories that I never realised could be done. She never just looks at one moment or one person. In The Third and Final Continent, you really get the sense of the narrator’s life beyond the page. From his wife and mother to his elderly landlady, all the characters had rich inner lives. 

Actually, this is one of the ways I write when I get stuck. I find a scene where a character has just walked in and I flesh out what they were doing before that exact moment. It never makes it into the novel but it helps me figure out the characters. I have pages and pages of these scenes, all handwritten! 

What advice do you have for aspiring writers? 

Find a form of writing that suits you. Short stories are not something you write before novels—they are perfectly valid forms of writing on their own.

And read. It's not a waste of time and there is nothing more productive you can do. It's difficult to write about something you've never come across. You can learn so much from reading: how to structure a novel, different writing styles...

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