Yang May-Ooi: The story guru

KUALA LUMPUR, March 21 — Hers is an electrifying and empowering voice. Described as having given “one of the best and most moving talks at a TEDx event”, London-based Malaysian author Yang-May Ooi wears many hats: lawyer, social media advocate, writer and now story performer.

We catch up with this multi-hyphenate talent and discuss her exploration of the power of personal narrative to inspire and to transform.

Tell us about your early years.

My memories of my childhood in Malaysia are of playing outside in the garden of my parents’ house in KL, cycling in Taiping whenever we visited my grandparents, and of course, there’s the food -- laksa, curry kapitan, beef rendang and Hokkien mee. I love eating these at the old kopi shops and open air stalls under a big tree. It was a shock going to school in England and having to eat baked beans on toast!

Yang-May Ooi believes in the power of personal narrative to inspire people and transform their lives. – Pictures courtesy of Yang-May Ooi
Yang-May Ooi believes in the power of personal narrative to inspire people and transform their lives. – Pictures courtesy of Yang-May Ooi

As a child, I would write stories in an old exercise book, sitting at my desk by the window where I would see the flame tree that my mum planted. I always dreamed of becoming a writer and having a book published by the time I was 30. But like a good Asian daughter, I got a high powered job as a lawyer instead. I settled in London where I worked for some of the top law firms in the UK.

I enjoyed the cut and thrust of the law, being a tough negotiator and sometimes the only woman and only Asian in a room full of Western men. But part of me felt unfulfilled and restless. The thought that this might be the rest of my life, without end, without change, made me depressed.

Why did you decide to give up your law career to become a writer?

When I turned 31, I realised that I had not achieved my childhood dream and I wasn’t prepared to give that dream up. So I spent six months saving up and making plans for my escape from the law.

It was terrifying and liberating the day that I resigned. I had not written a single word of any book, I had no contract with a publisher, I had no agent. I didn’t tell my parents till after I had resigned as I didn’t want them to freak out and try to stop me! It was a huge risk but one I felt that I had to take for the sake of my personal fulfilment and happiness.

I went back to KL to stay with my parents for a couple of months and while I was there, the flame tree was suddenly laden with red blossoms. My mum told me that a flame tree takes 25 years to come into its full beauty. It’s like watching your child grow up: you need faith in the future and trust that you will see the flowering of all your hard work.

Ooi’s first novel The Flame Tree is a murder thriller set in London and Malaysia
Ooi’s first novel The Flame Tree is a murder thriller set in London and Malaysia

At the same time, I was reading The Firm by John Grisham and wondering why there were no legal thrillers set in Asia with an Asian female lawyer as the lead. So I wrote The Flame Tree, which has as its central motif a beautiful flame tree that takes time to blossom, like the heroine Jasmine Lian from Taiping. The novel was snapped up by Hodder & Stoughton in the UK as part of a two book deal. The Flame Tree became a bestseller and ranked above Ken Follet in the Malaysian bestseller list.

What inspired you to talk about “how small acts of rebellion can create powerful change” at TEDxCoventGardenWomen London?

TEDx talks require speakers to give “the talk of their life” in 18 minutes or less. I thought long and hard about what would capture in a single talk everything that brought meaning and purpose to my life.

I realised that what matters most to me is being true to ourselves. We are pushed and pulled by society, culture, family, tradition, marketing and peer pressure to fit in. If we try to fit in to the extent that we are living by other people’s values and standards, we can become depressed, unhappy, suffer ill health and have problems connecting with others.

My TEDx talk is about rebelling against our own internalised limitations that prevent us from being our most creative and most powerful selves. When I could be true to myself, I could step into my creative power as a writer and storyteller, connect more authentically with my family and friends and allow myself to love and be loved.

Were you surprised by the overwhelming positive response?

I was amazed and touched by the response, especially from the “live” audience of more than 250 people in the auditorium. I could see people wiping tears from their eyes. When they cheered and clapped at the climax of the story, it was an incredibly powerful moment.

One person who watched the YouTube video wrote online that she was standing up and cheering at her computer at that moment! It meant a lot to me that my personal message was able to speak to so many people. It shows that many people long to live their lives in a way that is authentic and joyful.

TEDx talks can be very daunting for some speakers. How did you prepare for it?

As a novelist, I am more comfortable sitting at my computer in the privacy of my own room telling made-up stories. So getting up in front of a “live” audience and telling a true story from my life without notes was scary! But I felt that the message was an important one that would be of service to many others beyond me, and that sense of serving others overrode my anxiety.

I set aside a whole month to write and learn my talk, and also to practise it. The key was speaking from the heart. I took care with each moment in the talk, as if each sentence was like the line of a song – to be present to the emotion, nuance and music in it. It meant I had to be fully vulnerable on stage and reveal my true self. And that, I think, was what allowed the audience to open their own hearts.

How did that experience change you?

The experience of giving the TEDx talk has opened up a whole new world of creativity for me. I’m no longer daunted by telling a story “live” on stage! Writing and reading books are private acts, done alone, and they have their place. For me, at this time, I am very excited about exploring the possibilities of “live” performance for creating narrative.

This photograph of a bound feet lady, Ooi’s great-grandmother, was the catalyst for her Bound Feet Blues performance (left). Ooi’s grandfather Tan Sri Dr Lim Swee Aun carrying her when she was a few months old (right)
This photograph of a bound feet lady, Ooi’s great-grandmother, was the catalyst for her Bound Feet Blues performance (left). Ooi’s grandfather Tan Sri Dr Lim Swee Aun carrying her when she was a few months old (right)

In some ways, “live” storytelling is the new rock ‘n’ roll. We all love our electronic gadgets and high impact multi-media but even while we are digitally connected most of the time, we can end up feeling isolated and disconnected from others. That’s why I think there’s a growing rediscovery of traditional media – like the return of vinyl for music fans, the rise in music, literary and other creative events and festivals. “Live” storytelling is the new “cool” for people who love books and stories, and “live” storytelling clubs and events are growing in the UK and US.

There’s something tribal and raw about gathered together in the real world in real time to listen to stories. There’s also a real connection and energy when you are in the presence of someone telling a true story without notes – the whole range of human emotions can be present in the room and you are there experiencing it in the moment with others.

It’s more engaging than a book reading event – when an author reads from a book they’ve written – because without notes, the audience knows there’s a risk that it can all go wrong and also without notes, the storyteller has the freedom to go off script and respond in the moment to what’s going on in the audience. It’s thrilling and powerful in its simplicity.

How did your Bound Feet Blues story performance come about?

I’ve had the idea for Bound Feet Blues for about 10 years. I tried to write it as a memoir but it was not working. I realised that it needed to be told out loud as a story in the same way that my mother and grandmother used to tell us family stories in Malaysia, sitting on the verandah after dinner or on hot lazy afternoons.

In a “live” story performance, I can switch between my Malaysian accent and my English voice. I can use my body and voice to convey emotions and tone. I can “become” my mother or great-grandmother or channel my tomboy self when I was a kid and bring the stories alive for the audience.

Why am I interested in bound feet? Foot-binding in China was a way to make a woman’s foot look small and dainty. It was tied up with ideas of feminine beauty and was also a way to control women by controlling their ability to move freely.

At the same time, bound feet gave women sexual and social power as bound feet women were more desirable as wives and lovers. Women born into that 1,000-year-old tradition internalised this ideal of feminine power and beauty – it was mothers who bound the feet of their daughters, perpetuating the cycle of violence.

What are you trying to convey through your stories?

This “passing on of wisdom” through stories is an important theme and I incorporate stories that my mother used to tell us and also stories told within the family. So in some ways, I am passing on wisdom to the audience listening to the story of Bound Feet Blues – modern wisdom from a modern woman infused with ancient wisdom going back several generations and from Chinese history.

Visit www.YangMayOoi.co.uk for updates on Yang-May Ooi’s performances, books and other events. Ooi will be performing the first 30 minutes of Bound Feet Blues at “Going Solo” at Conway Hall, London on March 26, 2014. Her novel The Flame Tree will be reissued by Monsoon Books this year.

This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on March 20, 2014.

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