Lee Kok Hoong muses about the crossover between the legal profession and fiction.
I was in Secondary Two when I first read Lloyd Fernando’s anthology, 22 Malaysian Short Stories. Among the contributors to that anthology was a Lee Kok Liang. I remember that name because of the similarity with mine. I enjoyed Lee’s writings, and went on to read “Mutes in the Sun”, “Flower in the Sky”, etc. Years later, I learnt that Lee was first, a Penang-based lawyer, and secondly, a writer! That was when I started nurturing an ambition to become a lawyer.
My late father, of around the same age as Lee, strongly objected to my ambition. A driver throughout his entire working life, he was also a young activist of some Malayan bus workers’ union in the 1950s. Having become a more mature and family man by the 1970s, Father was saddened to read the news about the previous legal advisor to his old trade union — the legal advisor had eliminated his leftwing comrades after becoming Prime Minister of a neighbouring country. Father contended that lawyers are generally unscrupulous and conscienceless. For financial gain, many would argue, twist facts and instill doubts into an otherwise prima facie case, in order to have the court set free murderers and rapists.
My young law ambition wavered and died. I was not destined for a career in law anyway. Years later, I failed my history paper during my A Levels examinations; a good grade for that paper was then a prerequisite for admission into University Malaya’s law program. To this day, I fail to see the relevance of history to law. Maybe, just maybe, the Powers That Be think that someone without a flair for dates and events may not survive the challenge of remembering cases like Shylock vs Antonio and the year it happened.
Many years later, I chanced upon The Pelican Brief, read it, enjoyed it, and went on to read almost all of John Grisham’s books written before and after that. That stopped when I started to suspect that some ghost writer was probably helping him along with the later titles — the writing style seemed different. Nevertheless, legal fiction, whether in print or celluloid, must be good money spinners. Television series from the old days of Paper Chase to L.A. Law to Ally McBeal and what-have-you (I stopped watching after a while like I stopped reading John Grisham’s works) must have earned the TV stations a lot of dough. I believe those screenplay writers must have had some experience as lawyers.
More recently, local writer Tash Aw, a law graduate, appeared out of nowhere with his The Harmony Silk Factory which won him recognition in the Booker Prize award. Since then he has put legal practice behind him and gone on to earn his living by writing fiction, and book reviews. Then, there is also award-winning Tan Twan Eng, an advocate and solicitor who turned to writing novel after novel. Unlike Grisham, Aw and Tan’s novels are not legal fiction; both their first novels were historical fiction. Is that why a good grade in history is a pre-requisite for admission into a law program?
It appears to me that the crossover from lawyer to writer is a logical move for many, especially for those with a different calling. Law school teaches one, among other things, to analyse issues, challenge one’s belief system and manage one’s tolerance for uncertainty of an outcome. Critical reading, structured thinking and concise writing are skills that complete the picture. These are transferable skills. So, if a law graduate dislikes practising as a lawyer or offering legal advice, he/she can move to writing fiction. Of course, lawyers may not spin as good a yarn as our local politicians. If a lawyer lacks the confidence to spin a good tale, they may consult a politician or try journalism. Or they may move to editorial work. For the record, upon retirement as an English professor for the University of Malaya in his 50s, Lloyd Fernando went on study and practise law for the next two decades.
In real life, do all lawyers write well? Or judges, for that matter?
Over lunch with my friend Bonnie the other day, I mentioned the late Tan Sri Eusoffe Abdoolcader. Why would a senior member of the judiciary, supposedly of sound mind, put a bullet into his own head? He was profoundly depressed after his wife’s passing; he pined for her, perhaps too much, Bonnie said. Yes, he took out full page advertisements on the anniversary of her demise to pen her poems in Latin professing his love for her. I don’t read Latin, but English translations of the verses were romantic. Bonnie said it’s a pity that he loved his wife more than he loved life, and commented that gone are the days when judges wrote sound and meaningful court judgments like those by Eusoff Abdoolcader.
As if a testimony of what Bonnie had said, just hours after our lunch, we read the judgment of the Court of Appeal over the Herald/Allah issue. The grounds of judgment by the three judges took the country and the whole world by storm, and all for the wrong reasons. The written judgment left many people still arguing over its interpretation long after the emotions subsided. Did Bonnie saw all that coming when speaking highly of Eusoff Abdoolcader’s writings. I must ask Bonnie when we next meet.