In some respects, A.M. Muffaz’s novel Finches (paperback, Kindle) is a ghost story. But as they explain in the following email interview, there’s a lot more to this story, socially and politically, that makes it even scarier.
To begin, what is Finches about, and when and where does it take place?
Finches is about a family haunted by evolution. It’s told through the lens of a ghost story and is set in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in the early 2000s. The evolution here is meant in the Darwinian sense as well as metaphorical change. Malaysia is a conservative country where evangelical Islam has really taken hold. So through this family I explore social issues like the changing role of women, especially Muslim women, polygamy, and gay rights.
Where did you get the idea for Finches?
I first started writing Finches in the early 2000s. At the time, I wanted to write a short story about a conservative Muslim man — the kind that I think represents everything hurting my country’s cultural fabric — being haunted by Darwinian evolution. Evolution is a controversial topic where I grew up. You can learn about it in college Biology, but it’s not really something you talk about aloud, like pretty much else everything I wrote about. Whether or not you believe in science is a matter of faith, and faith tends to win there. Anyway, the first short story led to a second, with the man’s son as the lead character, then a third with his first wife…
And this seems like a somewhat silly question, given what the novel is about, but is there a reason why it’s set in Malaysia as opposed to Indonesia or Barbados or West Orange, New Jersey?
Well, the issues I wanted to talk about are the ones that specifically affect my country. The other big topic I talk about in Finches is the intergenerational trauma caused by polygamy. While many Muslim countries do legalize polygamy, the context I was most familiar with was the way it was practiced in Malaysia. It’s again one of those things “we don’t talk about.” Whenever people — particularly women — do, it’s treated like an attack on Islam in general. The actual harm it does to real people is airbrushed from the conversation. Having seen this trauma happen to families around me first hand, I do think it’s something I’d like to talk about.
Finches, as you said, is a story about ghosts. But is it a ghost story, or is it something else? Or a combination of things? And how scary is it?
I don’t think Finches is scary, honestly. You might want to not look at pickle jars late at night for a bit after reading it. People in Malaysia believe animals can see ghosts. As a coward at heart, I believe if you have a dog, cat, hamster, or whatever it is close by at night, there’s no way you’ll be surprised by ghosts. (It won’t stop them from coming though.)
Well, as someone who has neither pickles nor pets, I think I’ll be safe. Anyway, Finches is your first novel, but you’ve written a number of short stories. Are there any writers, or maybe specific stories, that had a big influence on Finches but not on anything else you’ve written?
Shirley Jackson. We Have Always Lived In The Castle definitely influenced how I wanted to set the tone for the later chapters. The only difference is that Finches does not have a cat “that sang and sang.”
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games?
There’s an anime called Mushishi out there about a guy who sees spirits, not necessarily ghosts, but spirits that exist either naturally or are created from the emotions around someone’s actions. No one else ever questions that these spirits he talks about exist. It’s very similar to how Malaysians think about ghosts and spirits. Most Malaysians take at face value unseen things exist. You’ll notice in Finches that while the characters differ on how to deal with ghosts, no one is actually surprised there are ghosts. When I saw Mushishi, I knew that was a mood I wanted to imitate albeit with ghosts. Disturbing and a little dark but also thoughtful, where the question isn’t “Are there ghosts?” but “How do these ghosts reflect the living?” Because Mushishi is like that. The spirits are frequently in conflict with their surroundings, but it tends to reflect the people around them stirring the conflict more than the spirits’ own fault.
And how about your “way too kind husband” and your “food inspector cat who speaks in pirate,” as you refer to them on your website. What influence did they each have on Finches?
My husband is the first person who published one of my short stories professionally back in the day. He helped me think, “Wow, I can do this.” We’ve been friends for two decades, double the time we’ve been married. I started writing Finches a couple years before we began dating. I finished it because he gave me the confidence and the support I needed to write it.
A picture of Dorian cat.
As for Dorian, our cat, he came into our lives two years after we were married. He keeps me sane, especially since for so many years I thought I’d never get a book published and was often pretty glum about that. He adds so much humor into our lives because he’s such an opinionated cat. He’s also smarter than the average bear, so the fact he likes people food — that’s the food inspector part — is kind of like watching Baby Yoda steal eggs while he thinks no one is looking. You want him to stop but you’re also really charmed.
Hollywood loves a good ghost story. Do you think Finches could work as a movie?
I don’t really think Finches would work as the basis for a script. There’s too much internalization. David Lynch’s Dune swore me off the whole idea of people looking stoic while reading their thoughts aloud.
There’s also the problem of why I had to set it in Malaysia we talked about earlier. It’s an extremely localized setting and set of issues. Heresy — whatever the people in power think that is at the time — is a jailable offence in my country. So is gay sex, which is frequently conflated with being non-binary in general. Not only would you have trouble casting and setting the story in its place, the concepts alone would make it a non-starter.
Finally, if someone enjoys Finches, what ghostly story of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?
I mentioned Shirley Jackson and We Have Always Lived In The Castle already. But there’s also the short story collections of M.R. James. Really, any of them, just make sure the story “Lost Hearts” is in there. There’s this great description of a haunted, abandoned bathroom that’s really brief. But I first read that story when I was thirteen and have since developed a lifelong fear of visiting dark bathrooms in empty houses late at night.