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In 'The Storm We Made', the horrors of war are the main character


In her new book, "The Storm We Made," author Vanessa Chan weaves the complicated and intriguing tale of a family navigating colonial Malaya, now known as Malaysia. A mother trying to find meaning becomes a spy for Japanese occupiers. Her eldest daughter tries to keep her youngest out of the so-called comfort homes and a son who disappears suddenly into the Japanese labor camps. The horror of wars may be a main character in the book, but it's also the story of what people do to try and survive these horrors. Vanessa Chan joins us now. Welcome to the show.

VANESSA CHAN: Thank you. It's wonderful to be here, Rob.

SCHMITZ: So Cecily Alcantara and her family are front and center in this book. Introduce us to them.

CHAN: Yes. Cecily is, you know, a bored, dissatisfied housewife in 1930s British Malaya, which is what Malaysia used to be called. And she, you know, in her quest for fulfillment or just to find a bigger life, becomes seduced by, you know, a man and an ideology and becomes a spy who ushers in the worst, most violent occupation in her country has ever seen during the Second World War. And her children, who are aged between 7 and 17, are living with the consequences of their mother's actions during the Second World War. But they don't know her devastating secret.

SCHMITZ: And you tell this story from four points of views, one from each member of the Alcantara family. Why did you choose to go this route?

CHAN: I think it was important to me to be able to showcase each character in their setting very accurately. Otherwise, it would be, you know, I think, more challenging because they're all in different places...


CHAN: ...Both mentally and physically at the time in the book. Also, Rob, I think that's the way I process information. This book was always in multiple points of view because I come from a very large extended family. And everyone in my family always talks at the same time, so I like to process information as it comes in multiple threads, figure out what's happening and then, you know, bring it all together. And I think that's how storytelling ended up working for me.

SCHMITZ: And it's a great way to tell the story. I mean, when we talk about World War II, we often focus on Nazi Germany and the European theater or, in the Asian theater, the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But Southeast Asia is often left out of history books. What don't most people know about that part of the war that you wanted to tell?

CHAN: Everything. I think the Pacific Theater is, you know, widely unwritten by historians, by fiction writers, nonfiction writers. And that's, you know, for a number of reasons, you know, one being perhaps the more Eurocentric view of the world that historians tend to have but also just because people in Asia and Southeast Asia who survived those times are quite reluctant to talk about their experiences. And so it was important to me to lay down some of these stories that I'd heard on paper because stories - you know, they're just stories until you write them down. That's the only time they become history. And so I decided it was time for this history to exist. And I wrote down the stories that I heard.

SCHMITZ: Tell me about the stories because I'm curious. You know, you talked about your big family. I know that your grandmother was an inspiration for this book. Tell us about her and what her experience was during that time.

CHAN: My grandmother was, I think, aged between sort of 12 and 15 during the years of the Second World War and the Japanese occupation - so a very formative time during her life. And, you know, she lived through a lot. She would tell me these stories while I was growing up, both, you know, stories of struggle, how they used to have to mix and tapioca and sometimes even paper into their rice rations to survive, about a time where, you know, she was cycling home one day and she felt the earth shake. And she just kept going, but it turned out there was an enormous bomb from an air strike, an unscheduled air strike that dropped just behind her. So she just made it home.

But there were also stories of the hope and joy that people find a way to find during these times. She told us about how she and her siblings cut a hole in the fence so that they could sneak over to the neighbor's house during - after curfew so they could take tango lessons. And my grandma, as it turns out, is a very good dancer, and she credits her dancing shoes to those lessons she had during the war.

SCHMITZ: And I wanted to ask about one of your characters who is sort of a side character but, in some ways, is an incredibly important character, Fujiwara, who recruits Cecily as a spy. He's sort of this kind of chameleon-like character, becoming who people want him to be. What was the inspiration for this character?

CHAN: So in reality, he is based on a person in history which people call the Tiger of Malaya, a general called Tomoyuki Yamashita who led the invasion of Malaya and Singapore during the time. You know, he was a known figure in history. But as with a lot of historical figures, there are gaps. We don't know, you know, whether he was a reluctant soldier or, you know, a strong believer. And so I chose to color between the lines and write about this charismatic general who believes in - you know, in Asia for Asians and a whole new world. And he's very idealistic but also quite resourceful and recruits Cecily to try and build this new world together.

SCHMITZ: You know, one theme that comes up often in this book is Cecily's idea that, inside of all of us, there's a duality of both good and bad, and we see this play out in many of the characters that you portray. Why did you want to dig into that?

CHAN: I think I believe in that duality. I am drawn to characters, both in fiction and in life, who are not necessarily good and bad. I think that morality is a function of one's circumstances, and you never really, truly know what you are going to do, how you're going to act and what sort of principles you have or when your principles evolve when you are, you know, faced with the need to survive. And so it was important to me to show that even when someone has the best intentions or intends to be heroic, faced with dire circumstances, they may make different choices than we would want them to make.

SCHMITZ: You worked for Facebook for six years in public relations. What inspired you to leave that job and to start writing?

CHAN: Gosh, so many things. I think the biggest of all is I am a citizen of Malaysia, and when I moved to the U.S. for college and then started work, I always needed a work visa. And it took me many, many years to be able to get residency in the U.S. and not be tied to an employer. And when I finally got that residency and realized that I could pursue whatever it was I wanted, which was a freedom I had never been able to conceive in my life, it took me another three years to figure out what to do with that freedom. And I finally decided to give writing a shot. I'd always love to write. I used to write bad poetry to my parents on their birthdays. And I finally decided to apply to Masters of Fine Arts programs, and I moved to New York City just to give the writing thing a shot for two years. It's been four years, so I think we're doing all right.

SCHMITZ: Yeah, I think you're doing OK. That's Vanessa Chan. Her new book is "The Storm We Made." Thanks, Vanessa.

CHAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SURPRISE CHEF'S "WASHING DAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.