A photo of author Catherine Menon on a red background, next to her book Fragile Monsters.

Lightbulb moments: Catherine Menon on writing Fragile Monsters

The author of Fragile Monsters on the real-life history that informed her celebrated debut novel about trauma, the nature of storytelling and the things we leave unsaid.

The thread that runs through author Catherine Menon’s debut novel is strong, but it’s also invisible: Fragile Monsters is about what we omit from the stories we tell, as much as what we include; that which, for whichever reason, goes unsaid.

When protagonist Durga visits her grandmother, Mary, in Malaysia, what begins as icy silence slowly melts in the oppressive heat of the countryside, and their family secrets – what Durga’s mother endured after birth, what happened during the Japanese occupation of Malaysia (then Malaya) during the Second World War, and the childhood trauma that still lingers over her – rise to the surface for the first time. As their relationship deepens, Durga and Mary confront and make sense of a tumultuous, generation-spanning family history, mining redemption and meaning from tragedy.

In a way, the inspiration for the novel has, itself, been a lifetime in the making. Below, Menon writes about the childhood stories, her study of maths, and the very nature of language that led to Fragile Monsters.

Constructing a narrative

The initial inspiration for Fragile Monsters came from the bedtime stories my father used to tell me about his own childhood in Pahang, in Malaysia. It was only as an adult that I began to understand the context of these stories; Kuala Lipis, where he grew up, was the headquarters of the army in Pahang during the Japanese occupation of Malaysia (then Malaya).

In my late teens I began to read memoirs and interviews with other Malaysians who’d lived through that time, and I was struck by the different ways in which each of the speakers described the same events. Of course, not everybody experienced the Occupation in the same way – different ethnic groups had very different experiences to each other, as did people who lived in towns versus rurally – but these comparisons went deeper than that. There was a very significant and personal context underlying each of these recollections: these people were, quite simply, describing the emotional truth of what had happened to them.

Each speaker was telling their own truths, constructing a narrative that would allow them to make sense of the trauma that had happened to them. I began to be fascinated by the omissions, by what hadn’t been said because it wasn’t important enough, or perhaps because it was too important and therefore impossible to shape the rest of their lives around. It seemed to me that there was an entirely new story floating underneath the words, surfacing only in the deliberate gaps they’d left.

A photo of author Catherine Menon in black and white.
Stuart Simpson / Penguin Books

Maths and the significance of omission

By this stage of my life, however, I was at university and very much immersed in mathematics as opposed to fiction. I’d always been a keen reader – and scribbled my own stories in a homework diary – but it had never occurred to me that writing could be a career. And by then, too, I’d fallen in love with mathematics.

Pure maths – particularly category theory, which I studied for my PhD – is very abstract. It’s a language of ideas, not numbers, and often the value of a proof lies in how elegant it is. Occasionally a step in a proof will be omitted, or “left as an exercise to the reader”. Sometimes these are the tedious, longer steps, but just occasionally, these omitted steps are where the real interest in the proof lies. As with stories, there is a lot going on under the surface of mathematics.

From two directions in my life, then, I’d started to become interested in what isn’t said, and in the slippery play between truth and stories. This was a hugely important aspect in the writing of Fragile Monsters, because I very much wanted to explore the tension between characters at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to facts versus feelings. However, there was one more thread in my life that went into the weaving of this novel: my own experience of starting to learn Bahasa Malaysia.

Learning a new language

Bahasa Malaysia (“Malaysian Language”) is the official language of Malaysia, although of course many others are spoken or used in educational contexts. Historically, though, not every Malaysian has been fluent in Bahasa Malaysia; it is only relatively recently that it has been taught in some schools, for example.

My family speaks it, but growing up in Australia in the 1980s, my command of it was much shakier. I understood it more easily when I wasn’t trying: when I was concentrating on doing my maths homework, or scribbling one of those stories in my diary. When I first began to study the language, I went through a time of reflection, a kind of adjustment period where I thought a lot about identity and culture. It seemed to me that without that language fluency I would be appropriating stories from people – including my own family – who already possessed what I didn’t: the language to tell them. As I continued to study, though, I noticed that I had begun to recognise words and phrases that I hadn’t even realised I knew. It seemed as though for me there had been a shadow-self of Bahasa Malaysia existing all along, underneath the English words.

Writing Fragile Monsters relied on all these strands coming together at once: stories from my family’s history, my own mathematics study, and the slow exploration of language. One of the book’s themes is an exploration of how the voiceless can speak, either literally or metaphorically. Writing the novel was an exercise in looking for the unvoiced parts of stories: the parts which are too big to be told, or for which there aren’t any words heavy enough to describe them. The parts which are left as an exercise to the reader.

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