Beth Yahp was born in Malaysia and came to Australia in 1984 and currently lectures in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Sydney. She presented ‘Elsewhere’, a radio program for travellers on ABC Radio National (2010-11) and initiated the popular Memoir Club at the Randwick Literary Institute in Sydney. Her memoir Eat First, Talk Later was published by Penguin Random House in 2015 and her collection of short fiction, The Red Pearl and Other Stories, is forthcoming from Vagabond Press in 2016, along with a new release of her novel, The Crocodile Fury.
What inspired you to write your memoir Eat First, Talk Later?
I wanted to tell the story of my family, particularly of my parents and their love story, but also the more hidden histories of the country I grew up in, Malaysia, where one version – the ruling elite’s – still dominates. My parents, now in their 80s, lived through some of the major events of the 20th century: the Japanese Occupation of WW2, the return of the British, Independence, the Communist Emergency, the hippy 70s which also saw growing Islamisation of the country, and Anwar Ibrahim’s ongoing Reformasi Movement. Malaysians love to eat and ‘eat first, talk later’ was a saying I remember from my childhood, where eating was a way of coming together for people of different races, cultures and religions. In this book, I wanted the eating and talking to come together – not just easy chitchat and jokes, which Malaysians also love, but the deeper stories.
Do you agree with JM Coetzee that ‘all autobiography is storytelling; all writing is autobiography’?
I think it’s a very interesting and useful way of thinking about writing memoir or autobiography – and a strategy for freeing oneself up from what is, in a sense, a false dichotomy between ‘what really happened’ and the remembering and writing of it. We’ll be delving into and unpacking these ideas and strategies over the six weeks of my upcoming memoir course.
What’s one key tip for writers embarking on a memoir project?
Give yourself permission. That’s usually the first and sometimes insurmountable block. Give yourself permission to remember, and to capture what you remember on the page, whether others remember it differently or not. You might just have to trick yourself into believing there’s no one looking over your shoulder.