The setting for Saltwater Spirits, while inspired by midcentury Nusantara, is ambiguous. This means I do not clearly situate a specific time or place for the story. In this blog post, I will reflect on why I intentionally wrote it that way.
First, let’s look at the inspiration from midcentury Nusantara.
The different neighborhoods in the story of Saltwater Spirits – the village of Kampung Rhu, the town of Bandar Rhu, the upper-class neighborhood of Bukit Berlian and even Correr Square — were inspired by places in old Singapore. People who are familiar with the geography of old Singapore might recognize some things about these fictional places I created.
For example, the village of Kampung Rhu in Saltwater Spirits was inspired by a real place in old Singapore called Tanjung Rhu, which in modern-day Singapore is a subzone of Kallang.
My maternal grandfather grew up in Tanjung Rhu. I remember listening as he told stories about the giant rhu trees in his childhood home.
As I wrote and began situating my characters in homes and neighborhoods, it made sense to imagine a fictional kampung. Much like the name I gave my protagonist, I designated a placeholder name of ‘Kampung Rhu’ to the village, and it stuck.
Both the real Tanjung Rhu and the fictional Kampung Rhu get their name from the Rhu trees, an evergreen tree that looks like a wispy conifer and grows by the seashore. Rhu trees are also a food source for moth larvae and moths burrow into the trunk. In the story, Norma encounters a butterfly while she relaxes on the beach — my homage to this relationship between animal and plant.
Since the setting of Kampung Rhu is fictional, I had the liberty of pulling from various sources about traditional village life. The research was ongoing as I wrote and had to answer questions like: What did Norma eat? How did Norma’s stepmother, Sofia, cook? How did anyone see anything without electric lighting? What shoes did Norma wear? And how did she structure her day?
It took a long time to get the answers, and when I did, I took liberties about specific things to paint a general picture of what life looked like in fictional Kampung Rhu.
Why An Ambiguous Setting?
I had a reader tell me that they went online after reading the book to Google the areas I wrote about in the book, only for me to say to them that the places in the book were purely a figment of my imagination! Similarly, my editor wondered when the book was set, venturing a guess for 1980s Singapore. On both occasions, I told them that while the setting was loosely inspired by 1950s and 1960s Malaya (modern day Singapore and Malaysia) in Nusantara (maritime South East Asia), the story and its characters, setting and plot are entirely fictional.
The story could take place anywhere within the region at any point in time.
Walking Between Worlds
Aside from the shared histories, traditions, languages, and cultures of the communities within Nusantara, setting Saltwater Spirits in an ambiguous time and place also serves to play with the binary between fact and fiction.
And honestly, this is what the story is about. Walking between worlds – past and present, marked and unmarked borders, fact, and fiction.
At many points within the story, the protagonist, Norma, questions if things are actually as they seem. Are people she knows who they say they are? Are the hauntings in the village real?
I love the idea of walking between worlds. It is powerful to occupy the third space. In many ways, this book transgresses many of the traditional literary boundaries from its publishing method to its genre and setting.
The ambiguous setting helps readers get curious and engage with the story.
Midcentury Nusantara is a historical time period and region that is unfamiliar in the current Western literary landscape. As the only Malay-Singaporean author in the diaspora, it was essential I wrote a story that could engage all types of readers.
Someone familiar with P. Ramlee movies, the Malay language, common Muslim sayings, and interpersonal interactions within tight-knit communities, might pick up on many of the things I write about. Readers who are unfamiliar with any or all of this are invited to witness the story as a curious and respectful observer. My intention was to create a sense of belonging…or not, and its accompanying emotional effects, depending on the reader’s social location and experience.
Finally, I wanted to draw attention to the universal and timeless theme of displacement in the story.
This story explores land loss, more specifically, Indigenous Malay land loss. My hope is not only to reflect on the effects of that on the characters in the story but also as a way for me to meditate on those effects on myself and for my own communities.
This story is based on the historical displacement of the Malay communities in Singapore. Its effects are long-term and far-reaching, something I only began to understand when I started writing this work of fiction.
I hope that readers can engage with how this is affecting the protagonist and the other characters in the story, and also reflect on their own relationship to the land they currently live on.
As an Indigenous Malay settler on the unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples, I am always and often painfully aware of the ongoing battle of decolonization within myself and the communities I belong to.
In many other ways, we also see displacement taking place for non-Indigenous folks. From country or farmland to city and even within cities. Displacement and its slightly better-looking cousin, gentrification, are both pressing issues in many of the global cities we live in today.
I hope this book can contribute in its own small way to this discussion on displacement by encouraging people to press pause, even if for a moment, to reflect. Where do we come from? Where we are now? Where are we going?
A Prayer to End
To me, Saltwater Spirits is an homage to many of the things I love. P. Ramlee movies, folktales, fairytales, stories about the supernatural, murder mysteries. My grandfather’s stories of his childhood. Reflection, writing.
I hope the story will bring you your own sense of curiosity, wonder, and reflection.