The Punkhawala and the Prostitute by Wesley Leon Aroozoo || Author Q&A

Hi guys! Still remember me? I’m back, like finally. I must admit that blogging is not really my thing these days but I need to make a comeback for this one special author. If you guys go to my directory for Author Q&A posts , you would notice Wesley Leon Aroozoo was the very first author I interviewed when I started this series. He came up with a second book last year and because of work and life, I read it late, hence causing the delay for this interview as well. If you don’t know yet, I enjoyed The Punkhawala and the Prostitute a lot and I’m really happy for Wesley that many enjoyed this book too and it has become a hit among the readers. So, without further ado, let’s get into the Q&A!

Q: Why do you choose to focus on these 2 characters, the Punkhawala and the prostitute, in your book?

A: Growing up, the stories in my history textbooks in school mainly covered one side of early Singapore history, in particular, stories about British Masters and philanthropists, their worldview and the success stories of Singapore. As the saying goes, “History is written by the victors” and with that I realise that the stories and documentations of the lesser regarded in history are usually limited or unknown. As a storyteller, I feel strongly in sharing the voices of those who are or were unable to. With this, I decided to write a novel about the Karayuki-sans (Japanese prostitutes) and Indian convict laborer’s from early Singapore history as they too played an important part in shaping the history in 1800’s Singapore. I felt that their stories should be celebrated and told if not they might eventually be forgotten over time.

Q: What or who is your biggest inspiration in writing this story?

A: My biggest inspiration was the resilience and bravery of the Karayuki’s. Many were shipped to Singapore against their wish or knowledge to become a karayuki. Shipped far away from home, they now in a foreign land with a job no one wanted to do.

But, yet they pushed on and tried their best. The Karayuki’s depended on one another and even found themselves in a bustling Japanese community along Middle Road in Singapore.

Sadly, for many of the karayukis, they could never return home. They would be buried in unmarked graves in the Japanese Cemetery in Singapore that still exists until today. Spending time in the Japanese Cemetery, I felt inspired to continue share the story of their bravery and pain as there are many lessons to learn from their plight.

Q: What was the process like coming up with The Punkhawala and the Prostitute?

A: The whole novel took 3 years to complete. I did not know how to go about writing a novel as my previous two books were novellas, so I approached it the same way I would approach making a film which is something I am familiar with as I am trained in filmmaking and not creative writing. With having lesser time to write due to me holding a full-time job, my whole process took slower. I spent a year researching – journal articles, old photographs, history books, documentaries, movies and even old audio clips on topics ranging from Singapore trades, landmarks, tiger-hunting, Hindu beliefs, Indian flora and fauna to Japanese folklores, customs and more! As the stories of Karayuki-sans and Indian labour convicts in Singapore were not extensive, I had to grab onto anything I could get a hold of. I also reached out to friends in Japan who directed me to important research materials about the Karayuki-sans.

I then spent another year structuring the whole story of the book. Even while on holidays, I would think about the structure and content for the book – in fact a big part of the book was conceptualized while I was sitting at the pool at a chalet in Bali while on holiday. Lastly, this is followed by a year of actually writing the book.

Q: I remember reading and reviewing I Want To Go Home and notice that these 2 books are very different in terms of the genre and even the narrative. What factor/s influence the change of style in your writing this time around?

A: With each work I do, I make it a conscious effort to always do something different. It could be different in content and style or even different in mediums. Sometimes I might do a film or a theatre piece or write for television or more recently in 2022 I decided to try performance with my performance of The Overhead at The Arts House.

The reason why I always try something new is because it then becomes more challenging and with that, I am able to learn more. With trying something new, it always requires me to learn how to actually do it and I love the idea of learning! Also there’s the chance of failing which motivates me. I hope to try something new in the later half of 2022!

Q: Do you mind describing a little bit about the ending of this novel without spoiling it, in case there are readers like myself who have lots of questions after finishing reading it.

A: I intended for the ending to be a little vague to allow the readers to have their own feelings about the ending. In particular – deciding what they think the main character Gobind might do or have done.

I was a little nervous with this ending – but hope the readers enjoyed it even though I do understand that the ending I wrote is not for everyone.

Q: Why is it important for people to read The Punkhawala and the Prostitute?

A: I hope readers are not only entertained with the novel but learn an important piece of Singapore’s early history. Contrary to our history textbooks in school, we are not just about successful immigrant stories. On one hand, the immigrant success stories of better lives through resilience is inspiring and hopeful, but there can be more diversity and empathy for those like the Karayuki-sans and Punkhawala’s who either met with sadder circumstances or could not extricate themselves from their past. Hence, I actually wish to bridge this gap in knowledge, shine some light on their history and acknowledge that there are people exploited, with dark stories that are part of our history. We have much to learn from these stories – both the good and the bad.

Also – support Sing Lit! 🙂

Q: Lastly, do you have anything to say to the authors who aspire to write about their country’s history?

A: Go for it! Singapore has so much untapped history that we can learn from. So many amazing untold stories!

I’d say that’s a really great interview. I’ve learnt so much through this Q&A. I want to say thank you so much to the author for his willingness to spend time to type out his answers with so much passion and information. If you want to get the book, I think it’s widely available online now, should be easy for you to grab a copy. Go read it peeps!

The front cover of The Punkhawala and the Prostitute
The synopsis of The Punkhawala and the Prostitute

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