Friday, 28 August 2009

I have a chapter in this very serious-looking book.

And I am in the same section as Dr. Mahathir, Musa Hitam, I-Lann's father, Shamsul AB, Nicol David, Huzir Sulaiman and Shanon Shah ;-)

Published by Khazanah Nasional, it was just launched a few hours ago and will be in bookshops next month. It's so new that the price has not been determined yet.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

From screen to page

[From the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2009 issue of Quill magazine]

FROM 2000 to 2009, I made eight movies. Two of these were fiction while the rest were documentaries, hybrids of documentary/fiction, experimental, or however you want to describe things that are not multiplex-friendly. Also, I must have travelled to a few dozen film festivals by now.

In early 2009, I announced, to not much fanfare, that I would be taking a long break from filmmaking. I had a target of publishing 50 books first.

From September 2007 to September 2009, I published 10 books under my modest imprint, Matahari Books. Seven are nonfiction, two are tie-in screenplay books for films made by friends of mine, and one is an anthology that contains more fiction than nonfiction. The Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2009 is the first writers’ festival I have ever attended.

Those observant enough to notice the numbers above would see that although I could make less than an average of one movie per year, I could average five books a year (as publisher, not always as writer or editor). Movies take up much more time.

The publicity mill tends to be similar, but on different scales. Film directors and actors are interviewed, as are publishers and writers. The crucial difference is that the people doing the interviews would have either seen the films, or can convincingly say that they want to see the films. People doing the interviews for books invariably would not have had the time to read the whole book. (Journalists have to do many other things, you know, such as watch films.) Even worse, journalists, when interviewing those in the book trade, put on the type of commiserating face they use when interviewing plucky folks with debilitating illnesses, or those soliciting funds on their behalf: 
“You wrote this book? Really? How … brave of you! Please don’t give up the fight! I haven’t had time to read it yet but … I’m cheering you on!”

Speaking of which, movie people actually relish publicity. Aside from the odd Stanley Kubrick or Chris Marker, filmmakers never saw a TV camera they didn’t like. There are many more examples of ‘reclusive’ writers, and even publishers who don’t get interviewed. People who go into filmmaking are invariably more social because:

Movies involve many more people whose functions sometimes overlap to an alarming degree. I once had a ‘financial controller’ tell me that an actress I had just cast was “too short.” This is because everyone needs to look busy to justify their salaries. Writers and publishers are more likely to own only one handphone per person and be seen lunching alone. This isn’t to say that one group of people is more ‘normal’ than another; they each have their own annoying quirks.

Films are pirated. Books aren’t. This means that books are so unpopular that no one wants to steal them! A blockbuster Malaysian film will sell 800,000 tickets in the first month. A blockbuster local novel (usually a Malay romance) will sell 100,000 in the first three years.

Movies need to be seen by many people in the first two weeks or it would be branded a flop. Even the tiny industry of Malaysia has caught on to the Hollywood mania of measuring first-day ticket sales, which can spark off either envy or 
Schadenfreude in time for next day’s breakfast. Books are allowed a bit more time to ‘build’ an audience, because book people aren’t that much into instant gratification, or are just slow to respond.

When filmmakers get together they tend to ask, “What camera are you shooting on?” rather than any deep, philosophical questions. When book people get together, they tend to ask, “What paper are you printing on?” rather than any deep, philosophical questions.

Movies tend to shift formats. We tend to take it for granted that if we miss it in the cinema, we can catch it on TV or buy the (usually pirated) DVD later. Books tend to stay in the same format, aside from minimal cosmetic changes (hardcover to paperback, different editions, new covers). Audiobooks never really caught on, at least in this part of the world. Perhaps the biggest ontological shift will come from those e-readers, when we can afford them. Perhaps the only big format shift associated with books is the alchemical process whereby they are transformed into … movies. The Bible is probably the most adapted book by now; the author must be rolling in royalties!

Among the more conservative families, marriage to someone “in the film industry” is not encouraged, as film people are supposed to be lacking in morals. Among the more commercial families, marriage to someone “in the book industry” is not encouraged, as book people are supposed to be lacking in money.

Movies have to undergo a regimented form of censorship. You even need a permit to start shooting. You don’t need permission from anybody to publish a book in Malaysia. You don’t even need to set up a company; you can do it as an individual. When a documentary of mine (
The Last Communist) got banned, someone asked a Cabinet Minister why the book that I got the facts from (Chin Peng’s My Side of History) was not banned. His reply: “Not many people read books in Malaysia.” Since this is a guy who has written several books himself, I assume he was speaking from bitter experience. This isn’t, of course, to say that books never get banned, just that they are easier to produce and sell, at least initially. This is actually an exciting creative opportunity, but many publishers still choose to self-censor themselves to an absurd degree.

The internet has altered the way both industries operate. People watch trailers online and get so excited that they rush to the cinema. (Most of us don’t have connections that are speedy or reliable enough to download entire films.) By contrast, people spend so much time reading their many friends’ Status Updates online that they can’t be bothered to then read books.

Cinema staff tend to know about the films playing. They can even make recommendations. One hilarious example was when an usher tried to dissuade a bunch of us from watching a local action flick even after we’d bought tickets. The staff at chain bookshops, alas, can’t say much about their wares. And we really don’t have enough non-chain bookshops. People who staff independent bookshops are more informed about books, but are somehow grumpier!

The final word must go to festivals. People who go to film festivals are there to watch films. You can watch up to five films a day. As a bonus, you may get to meet the filmmakers and cast. Whereas people who go to writers’ festivals are there to watch writers. It would be a bonus to the writer if his or her book had also been read. But this is difficult, because it might take five days to read. So, in an odd way, book people are here more ‘social’ than film people, after all.

Which is another way of saying: perhaps these differences between two media are all contingent and temporary. It’s the stories that are told that will be remembered long after celluloid and pages have turned to similar-looking dust.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Our 15Malaysia short: THE TREE

When Pete Teo approached me to do one of the 15Malaysia shorts, the first thought I had in mind was to shoot something in Kelantan. It has always seemed like a special state, even though I hadn't spent much time there. And, although I am not a PAS member, Tok Guru Nik Aziz immediately became the first candidate for interview.

(My review of a book related to him is here. With a further addendum here, since it's dangerous to think that any politician is perfect!)

After just a bit of emailing with his staff, we were granted a casual interview in his office. I had told him to explicate a hadith on the economy, and he chose this one.

The visual backdrop for most of it is Kota Bahru's Pasar Siti Khatijah, a market run primarily by women, an interesting contrast to the more patriarchal image of Islam.

It's really something short and simple. It's probably the least ironic thing I have made -- except for my cameo perhaps. It occurred to me that a hadith is actually like a short film; it can be seen as merely an anecdote, but can be teased out and expanded more if your heart is open to it. Or you can just say: "I don't understand" and get on with your life; that's cool, too.

This modest short was also my chance to work with some of my favourite people, all of whom had shot with me before: Hardesh Singh (The Big Durian, Lelaki Komunis Terakhir, Tokyo Magic Hour, Susuk, Apa Khabar Orang Kampung) on sound; Shan (Malaysian Gods) on camera, Danny Lim (The Big Durian, Apa Khabar Orang Kampung) on still camera, and Azharr Rudin (The Year of Living Vicariously, Lelaki Komunis Terakhir) as editor.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

The 10 Malaysian shops that stock it

Body 2 Body is in limited release. More than 100 Malaysian shops that normally stock Matahari Books titles will NOT be carrying it. Because this is a special book that, erm, deserves special treatment :-)

Let's support the 10 shops that have it:

Kinokuniya KLCC, in the Social Science section (Tel: 03 2164 8133)

2. Times Pavilion (Tel: 03 2148 8813 )
Times Bangsar Shopping Centre ( Tel: 03 2095 3509 )
Silverfish Bangsar ( Tel: 03 2284 4837 )
5. Borders The Curve (Tel: 03 7725 9303)
6. Borders Berjaya Times Square ( Tel: 03 2141 0288 )
7. Borders The Gardens (Tel: 03 2287 4530)
8. Borders Tropicana ( Tel: 03 7727 9203 )
9. Borders Queensbay Mall, Penang (Tel: 04 646 8758 )
10. Bookzone Penang ( Tel: 04 226 5585 )

Update (2010):

Please call ahead to make sure it's in stock, and reserve if you wish. You can cite the title or the ISBN: 978-983-43596-9-0 .

If you want to be absolutely certain of getting it, you can order online from
Kinibooks. Kinibooks is run by Malaysiakini, an organisation whose take on expressive freedom I find more agreeable than the stance taken by, erm, some actual bookshops.

By contrast, it will be more widely available in Singapore from next week. It's primarily the Singapore orders that have ensured that the book goes into its 2nd print next week.

For those outside the region, there's

Thank you for your support lah :-)

By the way the launch was great; we got rid of 256 books, a new Matahari Books record.(The previous record was 188 for Vol 1 of Malaysian Politicians Say the Darndest Things). Perhaps the people who came never realised that the book will be a wee bit tricky to obtain in Malaysia afterwards.

* Launch photo nicked from Jun Kit on Facebook.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Read the first story from BODY 2 BODY ...

... right here ;-)

I've written previously about Brian, of course. I am so chuffed that the authors of the two local books I most admired last year (his and Shih-Li's) are in!

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

My favourite Spielberg memory

Reading Tom Shone's latest post on his favourite Spielberg shot got me hurtling down memory lane, a process that always involves a few bumps and bruises. 

My favourite Spielberg memory was when Steve (good old Steve!) turned to me at the Polo Lounge and opened his mouth and said, "Excuse me, this seat is taken. Could you bugger off?"

No, I kid.

My favourite Spielberg memory was watching the midnight Jurassic Park at the Rex cinema in KL, which has since been turned into a backpacker lodge. It was indeed the scene where a rampaging dino (of some kind or other) is chasing people who were in the vehicle with a rear-view mirror. The shots kept alternating between the people and the creature. So when we saw the panicky people, nobody make a sound. (Why should we?) But when we saw the creature, the whole hall screamed. It got to a point when there was a sudden cut to ... something not very scary, but a lone person in the hall screamed anyway. And then a selamba voice nearby was heard: "Aiyoh, lambat pick-up la." And then the whole hall laughed and the rest of the film turned into something comedic, which is something ol' Steve (good old Steve!) would surely have not disapproved of. 

Erm, OK. End of flashback. Carry on with your lives.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Publishing BODY 2 BODY

After some research, I can reasonably confirm that ‘body 2 body’ is a slippery form of massage which refreshes the parts that conventional physical therapy cannot reach. But although the ninth title from my modest publishing house Matahari Books is called Body 2 Body, it is by no means a how-to guide. The big clue comes from its subtitle: A Malaysian Queer Anthology.

The germ of this idea actually began in 2003 when two friends of mine, Jerome Kugan and Pang Khee Teik, started an Internet mailing-list (yes, kids, this was before Facebook groups!) devoted to the idea of publishing a local gay anthology. There was a lot of discussion on the group but not many people discussed the actual anthology! When it came to submissions, the book (which didn’t have a confirmed title) received 15 but the editors decided that most were too lame. The anthology never happened.

Fast forward five years, and the country had changed. Well, the three of us had changed, at any rate. In 2003 I was making little documentaries; Jerome and Pang shared the same Brickfields flat (with two other free spirits). In 2008, I was now publishing books; although Jerome and Pang no longer lived in the same place, they now worked together, thus providing the opportunity for even more mischief.

I floated the idea of resurrecting such an anthology by sending out a fresh Call for Entries. Jerome was quite skeptical at first, saying we won’t get many entries, and that most of them would be lame. But I said we should give it a shot and see if we had a book on our hands.

So in November 2008, we sent out a Call for Entries. It appeared only online, through blogs such as mine and Sharon Bakar’s, and of course on Facebook. The only print publication to give it publicity was KLue. I decided to stick to the deadline and not give extensions. We were pleasantly surprised that we received 59 entries. Since I wanted each of the editors to have a story in there (because they write so well!), we can say it’s 61 entries.

What were we looking for? Our Call for Entries included these lines:

Writings should depict queer or alternative sexuality in Malaysia, or of Malaysian queers' experience in the world.

Possible Genre: fiction, true-life accounts, essays, memoir, excerpts from novel or play. We do not accept verse.

Queer includes gay, lesbian, bisexual, transvestite, transgendered, intersexed.

Writers can be Malaysian or non-Malaysians. Writers can be queer or straight.

Writers should use their actual names. A pen name is allowed when the writer has been publicly associated with that name.

The word ‘queer’ was chosen because it’s catchier than the politically correct GLBTQ, which stands for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transsexual and Queer. We figured that most Malaysians probably didn’t even know what LRT stood for, so we couldn’t expect them to recognise GLBTQ.

Someone complained about the word ‘queer’ in her blog, saying that the book will then perpetuate the idea of ‘weirdness’. We encouraged her to write an essay about this for the book itself, and she agreed but never submitted. But this is an expected hazard for any anthology.

The whole process of getting entries involved a bit of drama that, when looking back now, had the tinge of slapstick. Three of the writers in particular kept bugging me online, literally on a daily basis, to find out two things: when the selection would be made, and whether the book was going to be banned. For the first question, I kept giving the same date; and for the second, I said that I lacked a crystal ball. Despite their eagerness, these were the three men who kept expressing reservations about appearing in such a book, and kept threatening to withdraw, and then changing their minds. Talk about drama queens!

Luckily for my mental health, the editors (from whom the identities of the writers were kept a secret) decided that the entries sent by these three were too lame for inclusion. There’s a moral in there somewhere, I guess.

Here’s something: by insisting on no pseudonyms, this anthology actually received a much better response than the earlier, aborted 2003 one, which had indeed allowed anonymity. Perhaps the 2008 political tsunami had made Malaysians braver? Or perhaps the era of Pak Lah did herald a new openness? Or maybe it’s just a happy coincidence.

Insisting on real (or at least identifiable) names helped to separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were. When we floated the Call for Entries in a gay personals site, the thread had hundreds of comments. Many of them were by people who wanted to submit, but under a fake name. We told them that we would make an exception only if the entry was particularly strong. Guess what? Not a single entry was sent.

But then again, we weren’t seeking a book BY gay writers. (“Don’t worry,” I told a blogger friend, “we won’t check your credentials.”) The pieces could be written by anybody, as long as they related to queers and queer issues.

I was disappointed that we didn’t get many essays. The few that we received were in the ‘coming out of the closet’ subgenre but in whiny, corny form; we felt like shoving the writers back in the closet, where they could do some reading to improve their prose.

A minor but thematically significant point: we decided, while editing, not to italicise non-English words. So you can read about pondan and pengkid, for example, without having their ‘foreignness’ shoved in your face. I think it’s important because this isn’t merely an English book but a Malaysian English one. And also to show that it’s about time we accepted that we have difference (or to use the Tourism Malaysia word, ‘diversity’) in our midst, whether sexual or linguistic!

This is the first anthology of its kind in Malaysia. Homosexual sex is, according to the Penal Code, illegal. And although transvestites and transsexuals are very much part of the Malaysian fabric, discussions on them are deemed taboo, thus allowing discrimination to fester.

This collection of 23 pieces (19 fiction, 3 essays, and one really strange mock-essay) perhaps isn’t going to change any laws or even many perceptions. At the time of writing this, it wouldn’t even have been launched, so I have no idea how people will take to it. But it’s a worthwhile idea whose time had come, and what better way to find out than by doing it?

Any anthology is a mixed bag: so you get the raw and the cooked, the rough and the smooth, the cat and the canary. But we think it’s a fun package. There’s merriment, murder, mutton curry and even massage – but not actually of the ‘body 2 body’ type. Perhaps some things should be kept off the printed page, after all.

PS. The launch is in exactly a week ;-)

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Top 10 Malaysian books on ;-)

Product Details
Singaporean, Malaysian & Indonesian Cuisine by Christina Sjahir Hwang and Wei-Chuan Publishing(Paperback - Sep 2002)
Buy new$15.95 $10.85
30 Used & new from $9.59
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5.0 out of 5 stars (6)

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Authentic Recipes from Malaysia (Authentic Recipes Series) by Wendy Hutton and Luca Invernizzi Tettoni(Hardcover - Aug 15, 2005)
Buy new$12.95 $10.36
32 Used & new from $0.80
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5.0 out of 5 stars (1)

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The Book of Malaysian Cooking (Book of...) by Hilaire Walden (Paperback - Aug 1, 1998)
18 Used & new from $1.94
4.7 out of 5 stars (3)
Other Editions: Hardcover

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Health & Beauty From the Rainforest: Malaysian Traditions of Ramuan by Gerard Bodeker (Hardcover - April 25, 2009)
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5.0 out of 5 stars (3)

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The New Malaysian House by Robert Powell and Albert Lim KS (Hardcover - May 15, 2008)
Buy new$49.95 $32.97
23 Used & new from $17.15
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Other Editions: Hardcover

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Buy new$29.95 $22.76
32 Used & new from $4.65
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Eligible for FREE Super Saver Shipping.
5.0 out of 5 stars (1)

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Body 2 Body: A Malaysian Queer Anthology by Jerome Kugan and Pang Khee Teik (Paperback - Aug 15, 2009)
Buy new$20.00
Available for Pre-order
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Histories, Cultures, Identities: Studies In Malaysian Chinese Worlds by Sharon A. Carstens (Paperback - May 30, 2005)
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Buy new$21.95
43 Used & new from $0.71
Get it by Tuesday, Aug 4 if you order in the next 34 hours and choose one-day shipping.
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5.0 out of 5 stars (1)

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Malaysian Stopover: A Classroom Resource in Music, Art, English And Social Studies (Stopover Series)by Henry Johnson, Errol Moore, and Rosemarie Patterson (Paperback - Jun 2006)
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