Bernice Chauly

Portrait Bernice Chauly
© Ali Ghandtschi

Bernice Chauly was born in 1968 in George Town, the capital of the Malaysian island of Penang. She studied English Literature and Education at the University of Winnipeg in Canada as a government scholar.

She made her poetry début with the volume »going there and coming back« (1997), which combines her early poetic experiments with style, in her search for identity in the unfamiliar. »The Book of Sins« (2008) is composed of rich fragments of verse and prose that explore spirituality and individual traumas. The short story collection »Lost in KL« (2008) is a collage of 13 urban moments in the tropical metropolis of Kuala Lumpur. Chauly spent 23 years writing her award-winning memoir »Growing Up With Ghosts« (2011), a semi-fictional memorial to five generations of Chinese-Punjabi ancestors that uses many voices to describe their fates within the diaspora. Her most recent poems, published under the title »Onkalo« (2013) – a symbolic allusion to the Finnish nuclear waste disposal site – addresses that which is hidden and banned in concise free verse. Chauly answers inhuman half-lives with intimate reflections and political-ecological denouncements. The balancing act that is necessary to embed romantic memories into a global quest for meaning has earned her praise from J. M. Coetzee, among others. Her critically acclaimed début novel »Once We Were There« (2017) is set during Malaysia’s Reformasi movement of 1998, and describes the volatility and transformative phases of political upheaval from the perspective of a journalist whose daughter is kidnapped by human traffickers. It won the inaugural Penang Monthly Book Prize 2017, and the Readers’ Choice Awards 2018 in fiction.

In pursuing her interest in social realities, Chauly has often sought out exchanges with marginalized groups such as sex workers, refugees, and indigenous minorities. She has documented their situations in her versatile work as a playwright, actress, photographer, and filmmaker. On top of that, she has paved the way for several literary initiatives in her hometown. She co-founded the independent publishing house Rhino Press, as well as the literary platform »Readings«, now in its 13th year. Since 2011, she has directed the George Town Literary Festival (GTLF), which won the Literary Festival award at the London Book Fair’s International Excellence Awards 2018. She is also an Honorary Fellow in Writing at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program 2014. She is the founder and director of the KL Writers Workshop and teaches creative writing at University of Nottingham Malaysia. She has been awarded numerous prizes for her artistic work, including the Neu Woman Achievers Award (2005), the Samsung Ultra Honour Award (2006) and Most Successful Women Award (2012). Chauly lives in Kuala Lumpur.