Wong Soak Koon reviews a new book, a collection of stories from 13 women who were encouraged to write about the pain inside their hearts – with surprising results.
This riveting collection of stories from 13 women is the product of 18 months of intensive, caring facilitating by a dedicated support team who nurture and encourage the writers (first-time authors) to articulate suppressed and therefore, unexplored pain and trauma.
It is a unique project, arguably the first of its kind in Malaysia, in that it gives birth to a new sense of self for the women. Speaking out and breaking silence heals and empowers.
I am honoured that Lean and Molly invited me to review this book. It has helped me to recognise hidden trauma in my own life.
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The American writer, Sue Monk Kidd, rightly reminds us that, “Stories have to be told or they die and when they do, we can’t remember who we are or why we are here”. Speaking, writing and, not least, listening both to others and to our own heart, are acts which sustain identity.
More than this, telling and reflecting engenders the possibility of change as the past can be viewed in a less oppressive and depressing way. The feminist writer, Gloria Steinem, poignantly speaks of how in retelling her own childhood experiences, the adult story-teller is able to nourish “the child” in her who had not received love in the past.
In this kind of telling which is a “reliving” of past pain, we need the support of loving, non-judgmental and trusted listeners. The Women’s Stories Project (WSP) succeeds admirably in creating a rare cocoon for safe growth.
The 13 stories recall painful moments of childhood abuse, dysfunctional families, financial and mental deprivation, marital conflict, divorce, even violence. The writers bravely and honestly put down on paper events, feelings and thoughts which many of us may know but have covered up. We see the hidden two thirds of the ice-berg as the mask of the social self is taken off and the wounded self emerges from the dark corners of memory.
However, it is important to note that this book is optimistic because the main thrust is healing, empowerment and growth. The project aims to expose wounds that have long festered, because they were untended, to healing sunlight.
Each reader may digest these poignant stories for herself but I shall take us through some of the themes. Structurally, the stories reveal two parts that flow into each other, beginning with recalling past trauma, in many cases beginning with childhood. Then there is a positive cognisance of a new, growing self which emerges from the pain as the writing both reveals wounds and offers the balm that comes with the articulation of buried pain.
For most of the women, childhood was a traumatic, even tortuous time. Many had to take on adult household chores before and after school; some had to work to supplement meagre family incomes. While other more fortunate children enjoyed school holidays, they had to take on odd jobs. Thus, childhood was lost in the enforced and unnatural need to be mature and strong too soon.
As one writer, Rainy Day, puts it, “I really want to tell other people that I actually am not capable, but the environment I grew up in forced me to learn to solve problems” (page 58). This kind of ‘strength’ is fragile because it is enforced. Many of the stories tell of childhood loneliness, of love not found and so, it is hardly surprising that quite a few of the women speak of a desperate search for love which resulted in quick marriages and more abuse.
“We think back to our mothers if we are women,” says Virginia Woolf. All of the stories in this collection speak of mother-child bonds.
Mothers can figure as tormenters as when a mother in one story calls her child useless, a bringer of bad luck whom she should have aborted. The long suppressed anguish and anger of the wounded child is expressed at last by the adult writer, “I blurted out and shouted, “I hate her! I hate her! I really hate her! Fortunately, the teacher and other participants of the workshop hugged me tightly…Their loving energy not only helped me to put down my resentment of my mother…It also helped me recall the goodness and love of my mother” (Goldfish, page 42).
One of the key objectives of the workshops is to help the hurt, wounded, fragmented self reconstitute and reintegrate its identity. This is one of many examples of how speaking and writing allows the hurt mind to see the good even in people who have wounded it.
Remembering and articulating hurt helps us to see that those who wound us have themselves felt the “blows and buffets of the world”. We can then begin to forgive them. This is not naivety. It is wisdom learnt in the hardest way; it is the discernment that comes from pain and it can spur growth.
Thinking through and feeling in a new way about mothers helps to break the vicious cycle of violence. The writing process assists the women to see that they mirror their mothers’ cruel methods with their own children or subject their children to their own emotional coldness. It brings to consciousness their often unconscious inheriting of their mothers’ methods of child-rearing.
A new language of love is learnt as the oppressed no longer oppresses others. The healing self now begins to take responsibility for past behaviour and mistakes.
Through their stories, the women learn the difficult lesson of seeing other people’s viewpoints and this goes for their husbands’ perspectives too, men from whom they have been divorced or separated.
Articulating bitter, dark thoughts in the workshops and assisted by loving teachers, these writers help themselves to get out from the quicksand of extreme emotions. They learn new ways of dealing with traditionally and culturally ingrained roles for women, for example, “yan” or silent forbearance. There must be limits to this kind of wifely tolerance and silent acceptance of abusive treatment. Culture is not jettisoned; it is reflected upon and thus evaluated for its usefulness to the newly reconstituted self.
A stronger self emerges from the cocoon of safe growth. The butterfly flaps its wings, sees its own beauty and potentialities. Self-love, self-confidence begins to replace an inferiority complex and self-loathing. Depressing and suicidal thoughts are replaced by a positive sense of future possibilities as the butterfly steadies itself to take flight, ready to try new potentialities for growth.
Let me quote what some of the writers of this collection of stories say:
“I finally understood that before I love anybody I need to love myself and make myself happy first” (Hui Ming, page 6). The opposite of self-centred love, this is love that births compassion for others. “I also see that it is not easy to change others. In fact the only thing which can be changed is myself” (Hui Ming, page 10).
“I hope that my writing can help other women understand that when something happens, both parties are responsible and should not blame each other. At the same time, we should not involve the children in any marital disputes” (Da Xing, page 31).
No longer dependent on their husbands for self-validation, the women move on mentally, emotionally and, not least, spiritually. All speak of the solace found in individual spiritual beliefs as in one case, where spiritual thirst leads to physical action when she volunteers to serve with the charitable Tzu Chi Buddhist organisation. Some of the women also began to take on volunteer work with the Women’s Centre for Change (WCC) and Pusat Perkhidmatan Awam (PPW).
With new-found confidence many began to seek out possibilities to better their finances even as they learn budgeting. With rising confidence they also took part in various public events to raise awareness about women’s needs.
One of the most significant contributions of this book, besides the stories told, is the full description of the way the workshops were run. Using various methods and modalities, the caring facilitators help to birth the writing process. Before putting pen to paper, drawing, clay-modeling and other activities motivate the women to express themselves and thus create in concrete ways symbols of their own wounded selves. These creative efforts, for example, drawings of the women’s self portraits, photos of butterflies crafted grace the book beautifully. Space cannot allow me to go fully into this section of the book which is well worth reading.
The Women’s Stories Project is clearly conceived and carried out by a group of teachers*/facilitators who have a passionate desire to support and empower other women. The 18 months of intensive, caring contact via workshops, small group sessions, individual consultations and a Facebook group testify to their love for and dedication to this group of women writers. There were no dropouts.
I end using the words of Cheng who tells us, “To write about the pain inside my heart was a great challenge to me… After crying for three days and three nights, I took courage to face the truth and convinced myself that the past was not shameful. There is still a long road ahead and I have to walk forward bravely” (page 13).
Perhaps we too need her courage to reflect positively on the past. I wish all 13 women well as they not only flap their butterfly wings but take flight into new, life-enhancing experiences.
*writers often address the facilitator as teachers to express their deep respect as practised in Chinese culture.
Soak Koon taught English Literature in a university for well over three decades before her retirement in 2003. Women novelists, East or West, who explore their lives via personal narratives, have always fascinated her. She herself, after a rather tongue-tied childhood, seems to be making up for lost time by loving to speak out. This book, ‘Hear Our Stories: When the Butterfly Flaps its Wings’ has taught her the importance of listening too. She is now working on a piece about the African-American women writer, Maya Angelou.