Wednesday 31 December 2008

Karma chameleons

RIPPLES AND OTHER STORIES by Shih-Li Kow (Silverfish, 2008, 186 pages)

What a nice way to end the year! (Well, I will actually be ending it in the company of several inebriated barely-dressed folks of indeterminate gender, but that’s not the topic for today).

The last local book that I read in 2008 is also one of the best short story collections I’ve ever come across. Shih-Li Kow’s stories first appeared, as far as I know, in the three-writer anthology News From Home (Silverfish, 2007) so it’s great that she now has her own solo book.

It comes with a redundant cover image, no synopsis, and no Introduction; and so we plunge straight into the first of the 25 stories. The first paragraph posits the hypothetical question: Who needs fiction nowadays? Our news, both from home and abroad, has enough elements of farce and tragedy.

It’s a cheeky and audacious way to introduce a new work of fiction. Luckily for us, the ensuing pages skillfully answer the question. If you were getting tired of fiction, this is the place to have your faith renewed in the beauty and terror of the imaginary.

I recommend that you read the stories in order of appearance. Unexpected delights will emerge: characters, locations and events from earlier stories will pop up in subsequent ones, adding shade and dimension to the earlier appearances. Things connect – not in a mystery-solving way, but because even seemingly random occurrences have a history behind them. And since these connections occur in a social environment like Malaysia, they get complicated further by our famously fraught cultural and historical matrices.

The ‘busiest’ story, “A Gift of Flowers,” follows the eponymous bouquet as it goes from one owner to another. Flowers, so emblematically romantic, form an ironic counterpoint to the other elements of the story: suicide, theft, familial tensions. The structure of le ronde brings home the theme of karma.

Flowers pop up in several other stories, most notably “Seeking Frangipani.” A man who has it all decides the glittering surfaces around him are not enough. He seeks an exotic plant as a solution to his ennui, and goes to rather unusual lengths to get one. This story is imbued with a mysterious tension that makes it more than satire or even allegory.

A straight-forward satirical portrait would be “Deep Fried Devils”, a rambunctious sketch of ethnic paranoia and class discrimination. The follow-up story, “Hungry in Guangzhou”, strips away the slapstick to concentrate on the core elements of food and cultural belonging, and has an ending that is quietly devastating.

You marvel at Kow’s ability to switch gears, and her first-person narrations that effortlessly get under the skin of very different people: a Malay girl whose brother just won the lottery, much to their father’s fury; a harried urbanite being insidiously charmed by an old-world shop that is not what it seems; a factory worker who seeks ways to express his resentment.

Subsequent readings might identify dominant themes but for now, I was pleasantly content for each story to take me completely by surprise. One of the briefest stories, “Distraction” is one where seemingly nothing of consequence happens, so how does it end up being so scary? And although the narrator of “Precious Things” was hoodwinked, why do we feel that it’s still a happy ending?

There are tales of ordinary cruelties: indifference that brings forth unexpected results, or subtle prejudices that stop us from seeing. Kow’s prose is often steely and precise; any warmth that emerges is earned. Her small scenarios are so pregnant with detail, and so pliable for extrapolation, that the one story that explicitly evokes a national event (the 1969 riots) ends up being something of an anti-climax.

Ghosts and mysterious beings make appearances, but this is not exotica. (The trip to the very bureaucratic-seeming afterlife in “Waiting for Gurjit” is a dead giveaway). The viewpoint is thoroughly 21st century. But it’s not for nothing that the collection is bookended by tales of garrulous old women (one of whom talks after death). Age and experience will continue to haunt us and suck us in, whether we like it or not. But in the meantime, we have stories.

(Malay Mail, 31 December)

Saturday 27 December 2008

Get the special edition!

Above: A mysterious reader is the first to get his hands on the special edition of The Malaysian Book of The Undead. It has an entirely different cover, layout and even paper.

Only 500 copies were printed for an installation thingy I am doing at the 38th International Film Festival Rotterdam. So the text has been slightly expanded, e.g. you will be told what Jinjang means, as it's for a foreign readership and all that.

Yup, I will be attending the fest next month, not just to represent Susuk but to do the 'reading room' of an Asian haunted house exhibit.

In the spirit of festive cheer, I will be giving away three free copies of this special edition to members of the Matahari Books Facebook group, sometime in the early hours of 2009, regardless of your geographical location!

Wednesday 24 December 2008

Towards a Malaysian language

PUISI-PUISI PILIHAN by Usman Awang (Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1987, 192 pages)

Language is not just a matter of saying prinsip Bernoulli or segitiga Pascal instead of the Bernoulli principle or Pascal’s triangle. It’s about having a common vocabulary that is drawn from images, ideas and experiences that we share.

We don’t have a Malaysian language. Sure, we have the officially enforced words on street-signs and text-books, but this has become a discourse of division and mutual grand-standing. The ‘liberals’ can be just as chauvinistic, because each imagined community wants to draw boundaries in order to feel so much more secure in its self-righteousness.

Do we have a writer who is referenced by every Malaysian? Sure, we have a few men who have been crowned Sasterawan Negara (National Laureates), but, honestly, when was the last time we cared about what the literary bureaucrats think? Who is the writer who can come close to the pan-national appeal of Lat or Alleycats? (Notice that both those examples have been used for at least three decades.)

I read Neruda’s memoirs recently. There’s a bit where he talks about how hard it was for him to maintain anonymity during a period of political persecution; he had to literally remain silent because, apparently, even the rocks in Chile recognised the sound of his poetry! He was bragging, of course, but we roughly know what he meant.

Do our own natural formations recognise the prose of S. Othman Kelantan or Abdullah Hussein? Don’t answer all at once! Every swooning boy and girl recognises the Angkasawan, but there’s no mass love for the Sasterawan.

The most popular Laureate might just be Usman Awang. I bought this students’ edition of his collected poems when I was indeed still a student, and it is thus yellowed with age. But the fact that I didn’t chuck it away the way I did most of my other school books must mean something.

Like Lat and Adibah Amin, the late Tongkat Warrant (what a macho pen-name he had!) was so secure in his own identity that he did not feel threatened by others. The fact that he could celebrate a left-wing leader (Ahmad Boestamam) in one of the poems in this approved national text-book already speaks a lot about how he could make people cast aside petty divisions, if only temporarily, to listen to his humanistic melodies.

His works could be described as anti-feudalist (the play Matinya Seorang Pahlawan) or socialistic (the play Uda dan Dara) but the best of them just sing, whether in compassionate celebrations of life or in sharp denunciations of cruelty. He could be awfully sentimental and even purple at times, but the steely tenderness at his core shone through often enough. It’s like finding rubies in flour.

Like most of our Laureates, he is held up as a kind of wise elder. But he had a sense of mischief that is too often missing from the more self-consciously solemn scribes. In this book, mischief is particularly evident in the satirical poems of the 1980s such as Bagaimana Kalau (which imagines a few mock-outrageous scenarios that could puncture aggressively pursued national ambitions) and Beli Buatan Malaysia (which casts an amused glance at the gap between what the elites say and do).

His Anak Jiran Tionghua and Sahabatku remain quite rare in their celebrations of common values, and desire for ethnic equality. He remained, however, a staunch stalwart of the Malay language: his 1967 poem Keranda 152 (although presented without any explanatory foot-notes) is a veritable call to arms for people to defend Malay against being tramped upon.

One of his most celebrated poems is, quite rightly, Kekasih. This sensuous, even erotic (if you read it closely enough, that is) tribute to romantic love, with its seamless references to the natural world, remains one of the finest achievements of national literature. It certainly ranks up there with Neruda, for example.

(Speaking of erotic, his short story Betisnya Bunting Padi, while not widely known, must count as one of the few blatantly homoerotic local fictions of the 20th century. But I digress).

Since I am practicing to be an old fogey, I don’t know how many of Usman’s works are still in the school syllabus. I hope he’s still there, alongside lessons on the Pythagoras theorem (back in my day, we called it teorem Pythagoras – what a stretch!) because his words stay with you long after most things fade.

(Malay Mail, 24 December)

Wednesday 17 December 2008

Notes of a khalwat offender

AS I PLEASE by Salleh Ben Joned (Skoob, 1994, 183 pages)

For a moment there, it looked like this week’s column would not appear. The Screamyx [sic] connection in my area being the way it is, I despaired at sending it on time.

This temporary anxiety turned out to be apposite in relation to our book for today. Salleh Ben Joned’s As I Please column ran for a few years in the 1990s in the Literary Page of The New Straits Times. It started out as a weekly but soon became quite erratic. The columnist would explain these absences by saying he was in a state of khalwat.

Gosh, was he really confessing to being holed up in hotel rooms with women to whom he was not married? Well, the original Arabic meaning of khalwat means ‘spiritual retreat.’ He thinks that its corruption in modern Malay-Muslim discourse to refer to a sexual offence is a perfect symptom of our debased values.

Salleh’s column was popular because it did not talk about mere (!) literature but invariably commented on several other cultural anxieties of the day. He was particularly concerned about the creeping institutionalisation of race and religion, those twin blights that have kept Malaysia from its true potential. He didn’t express these concerns in po-faced terms, as he was no bureaucrat. (No bureaucrat would have been allowed to skip work so often, for one.)

As an eager student of world literature, he can reference from the East and West, Down Under and up above, with equal ease. The title of his column came from George Orwell, but when translated into Malay it can also sound provocative: “Ikut suka aku!”

In the last of those pre-Internet days, when newspapers comprised our main source of written updates, Salleh’s column was indeed considered provocative. His Introduction states that the piece that got the most heated response was one in which he defended Salman Rushdie against the death fatwa called by the Iranians. Credit must be given to the newspaper editors at that time for not sacking him.

But, unfortunately, it was that very same paper that became the most reactionary of forces during the reformasi era. Reading this book now, you are left a little nostalgic for a time when genuine, lively debate seemed about to bloom in such a public arena. There have been sporadic shoots since then, of course, but most are too quickly smothered by our fears, our jealousies and our inherited, easily exploited paranoia.

There are heroes and villains here. The writers who celebrate truth and beauty in various forms are contrasted against the petty-minded sectarian types. The Lord Voldemort of his column (although that would be giving the Tan Sri too much credit) would be the head of a literary body that was very much concerned with keeping away ‘non-Malay’ influences from the sanctified realm of National Literature.

Some of the more thin-skinned of the literary establishment reacted by calling him all sorts of names. Even the late Rustam Sani was at his least sensible when he accused Salleh and his ‘colleagues’ of having a thing against Malay literature.

This is nonsense: As I Please helped me to appreciate many local writers, like Noordin Hassan and Latiff Mohidin, I would not have otherwise read at that stage. And anyone who reads his brilliant two-part column on erotic pantun (and of course it needs to be in two parts, to imitate the structure of this verse form) can tell that Salleh is only ‘against’ those who would smother life and literature in pompous sloganeering and pseudo-pious parochialism.

Be that as it may, it’s a shame this column was in English as it could have been seen as playing to the gallery, or even preaching to the converted. A Malay-language column would have hit right at the heartland, as it were, but a short-lived attempt in Berita Harian fizzled out. Ah, that dreaded khalwat strikes again!

Although Salleh has not been well, I await his next incarnation. He would be an ideal interview subject for short podcasts, methinks. (Some of what he says would be too scandalous for regular TV, after all.)

This 1994 edition, with its hilariously rojak cover (which I assume is a spoof of our Tourism Malaysa ads) marks the first time his columns were collected in book form. It’s now out of print, but there have been subsequent editions by other publishers. Silverfish has an extended remix, Nothing Is Sacred (Maya Press, 2003).

(Malay Mail, 17 December)

Sunday 14 December 2008

Indie Shack 20-21 December

In conjunction with The Annexe's ART FOR GRABS XMAS SPECIAL, new independent movies from Malaysia, Indonesia & Singapore will be screened & discussed!

There will also be booths for DVDs and books by the likes of Da Huang Pictures, Gerakbudaya & Matahari Books. Enough to make you jolly indeed.

Admission: RM5 for each movie or RM10 per day. Let's shack up!

Sat 20 Dec

12pm – LUCKY 7 (Various directors/Singapore)
Seven directors, one actor, an experimental compendium. Mature content. Viewer discretion advised. Website here.

2pm – MALAYSIAN GODS – all new version (Amir Muhammad/Malaysia)
A ‘tour’ of Kuala Lumpur, to mark the 10th anniversary of Malaysia’s Reformasi movement. In Tamil (with subtitles).

4pm – FILMMAKERS ANONYMOUS TIKAM-TIKAM (Various directors/Malaysia)
Random short films from previous FA now curated… by chance! (ADMISSION FREE)

6pm – 9808 (Various directors/Indonesia)
A compilation of 10 short films by 10 directors to mark the 10th anniversary of Indonesia’s Reformasi movement. Website here.

Sun 21 Dec

12pm – THE ELEPHANT & THE SEA (Woo Ming Jin/Malaysia)
Award-winning feature about a coastal town after a mysterious epidemic. Website here.

2pm – ALL MY FAILED ATTEMPTS (Tan Chui Mui/Malaysia)
Shorts made by the award-winning filmmaker during the past year. Shown together for the first time.

4pm – FILMMAKERS ANONYMOUS 8 (Various directors/Malaysia)
The latest short films by local filmmakers – all proudly uncurated! (ADMISSION FREE)

6pm – BABI BUTA YANG INGIN TERBANG (Edwin/Indonesia)
Oblique tale of the Chinese in Indonesia. Mature content. Viewer discretion advised. Official website here.

You can confirm your attendance on the Facebook event page.

Friday 12 December 2008

Wednesday 10 December 2008

The shock and the syok

Poems Sacred and Profane by Salleh Ben Joned (Silverfish, 2008, 192 pages)

A mat salleh named Robert Frost said that poetry is what gets lost in translation. We all know what he meant, but my case is rather more unfortunate: Poetry tends to get lost.

I have the first two editions (1987 and 2002) of Salleh Ben Joned’s first book of poetry. But they were both lent to people who subsequently misplaced them. So I am right chuffed that Silverfish has reprinted it.

You should be chuffing along, too. Sajak Sajak Saleh (which was the original title) is a bilingual collection that should be bought by every Malaysian, whether for reading or for burning.

Salleh was born in a Melaka village, educated in Australia (where he got up to all kinds of mischief) and was a part of the KL bomehian hub of the 1970s and ‘80s. (He even has a cameo appearance in Lat’s Mat Som, so there). He has held down several jobs but has never let anything as petty as fixed employment get in the way of life.

In its original incarnation, this book appeared to “traumatise” a literary scholar. Salleh is so rightly proud of this that he uses the quote on the front cover of the third edition.

Adibah Amin’s 1987 review is reprinted here, and she says that Salleh’s audacious, polymorphous celebrations of the flesh and the Word, coupled with his placing of the icons of various religions in situations of khalwat (a word we now translate as ‘close proximity’) might very well scandalise society “at this time.”

She was writing in August 1987. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose… (which may or may not mean ‘Add up the change, just like your Mama told you’).

I relished the chance to experience anew Salleh’s sensuous energy and rude wit. (Rude in the sense of ‘healthy’, too). He not only embraces life, he does several other physical things with it too, and many of these actions are enthusiastically described here. This will most likely be a shock to the coy, but as he shows in his translation of Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress (one of the greatest, horniest pick-up lines in English lit), coyness is fine if we have all the time in the world. As the sands of time are running out, we might as well get it on.

Salleh’s poetry delights in wordplay and frisky allusions. As he states in his Afterword, the lines between ‘the sacred’ and ‘the profane’ can be rendered invisible if you approach his vision with an open heart. And it is his openness to not only joy but pain (many of the poems are about a daughter who died young) that gives his poems its vital music. The pseudo-pious and the people who wear bush-jackets not only on their bodies but around their hearts will not see this, of course. Then again, a heaven filled with people like those would seem hellish indeed.

There have been several changes made to the original poems. (Like I said earlier, I don’t have the originals with me, but I am pretty sure I remember some). His “Haram Scarum” , which deals with the biggest taboo of the bumigeois (a contraction of ‘bumiputera bourgeois,’ his most inspired neologism) used to end with:

So long as we hate pigs and pray
We’ll remain Moslem and Malay.

But in this book, ‘pigs’ is changed to ‘pork.’ What gives? Surely it’s the brute, squealing corporality of the beast that causes much offence to those people, not just the mere food.

Another one is his parody of Chairil Anwar’s rebel-yell “Aku”. In Salleh’s version, the narrator is a proud member of the bumigeois and can’t rebel his way out of a wet shopping-bag. Salleh’s original was called “Aku” as well, but the current version is called “I.” Yes, it’s a more accurate reflection of how a pampered middle-class Malay would talk, but the change is like giving away the punchline.

Yet another poem used to end with Purajaya – a non-existent town, but the very name is meant to evoke ridiculous pretense. Now the poem ends with Cyberjaya – a ridiculous name, we all know, but much less of a punchline.

I don’t know why Salleh made these changes, but these are relatively minor false notes when we consider the bawdy, raucous performance as a whole. Carpe diem!

(Malay Mail, 10 December 2008)

Sunday 7 December 2008

Pasca pelancaran

Above: a mysterious member of the audience wrapped in bliss while listening to one of the readers at the launch on Friday.

This was also the last-ever event at the Bau Bau Cafe (which is run by Hishamuddin Rais) as the landlord has not renewed its lease. There is a possibility that it will be relocated somewhere else, though.

Thanks to Danny Lim, Fahmi Fadzil, Mislina Mustaffa, Shahril Nizam, Ted Mahsun, Ahmad Kamal Abu Bakar, Amerul Affendi, Azwan Ismail, Sharon Bakar & Cecil Rajendra for reading!

Thanks also to Azwan for the birthday doughnuts and Paul Wong for the birthday cupcakes. It was a pleasant occasion (and one of the readers certainly created an inadvertent stir -- I wonder if that moment will pop up on Youtube and scandalise us further?)

The book will be in stores in about two weeks :-)

* photo by KK. More pix by Azwan (including the cupcakes) here.

Thursday 4 December 2008

# 6

MPH Local Non-Fiction Bestsellers for the Week Ending 30 November

1. Mahathir Mohamad: An Illustrated Biography
Author : E. Yu

2. Blog Merentasi Halangan (Dwi Bahasa)
Author : Dr Mathathir Mohamad

3. March 8 the Day Malaysia Woke Up
Author : Kee Thuan Chye

4. Resipi Bonda: Koleksi Masakan Tradisional Melayu
Author : Hajjah Teh Mohd Hassan

5. The Malay Dilemma (With a New Preface)
Author : Mahathir bin Mohamad

6. The Malaysian Book of The Undead
Author : Danny Lim

7. Nation Before Self and Values that Do Not Die
Author : Yuen Yuet Leng

8. Sengkek: Langkah-Langkah Mengatasinya
Author : An-Nawi

9. Ahmad Sarji : Attaining Eminence
Author : Lim Chang Moh

10. Secrets of Millionaire Students
Author : Stuart Tan

Wednesday 3 December 2008

In God we trust

THINGS IN COMMON by Syed Akbar Ali (Syed Akbar Ali, 2008, 442 pages)

It was not a surprise to find, somewhere in the middle of this book, that Syed Akbar Ali is a fan of teh tarik. Reading this book is like sharing a long chat session (of the non-virtual kind) over many glasses of the frothy stuff.

The title doesn’t give much away, although the pictures of non-Muslims (in real and doctored photos) dressed in garb that we commonly associate as ‘Islamic’ immediately intrigues. The back cover is similarly non-committal, as it consists solely of the 43 chapter headings. The chapters have names like “Dogs & Lizards” and “Guidance from Village Intellects,” so you would not be wrong in thinking: Well, well, what have we here!

Initially, this book sets out to do something quite specific. The author would take examples of practices that are nowadays, especially in Malaysia, considered to be the epitome of Islamic conduct. Then he would show how this practice has no basis in the Quran.

It was quite a bracing read, and lends credence to his idea that the Quran is probably the ‘most chanted’ but ‘least read’ book in the world. Most Muslims would place the Quran in a high place but not refer to specific verses in their everyday lives. We have seemingly allowed intermediaries, some of whom have vested and even material interests, to interpret the book on our behalf. The results, as Syed Akbar wants to show, is a community that is much more backward, superstitious and plain wrong than it should be.

A specific example would be dogs. Most Malaysian Muslims consider them to be unclean beasts. But the Quran says no such thing. Dogs are mentioned only a few times in the holy book, but always positively. Syed Akbar then hilariously counterpoints the many good canine qualities against those of the relatively useless cats.

There are many more examples where this came from, since the book does have 43 chapters. Before reading this book, I did not know that the longest verse in the Quran deals with the importance of written contracts. Imagine that! The need to be honest and circumspect in business dealings has the honour of getting so much continuous space, while our own religious authorities seem rather more concerned about other matters such as women’s dressing and the type of physical activity that people (whether dressed or otherwise) choose to take part in.

His style is entertaining – especially when he is exasperated about something, which is often – and even eccentric, as seen in the rant about the service at Pizza Hut. Further proof of eccentricity is his decision to provide footnote definitions of certain words, although I interpret this as his sarcastic response to Malaysians’ reportedly declining standards of England, I mean English.

The later chapters lose some of the tight point-counterpoint strategy of the earlier ones, in favour of broader harangues about how Muslms have allowed themselves to become so uncompetitive. I particularly liked the way the NEP is characterised, by age and also demeanour, as the Middle-Aged Economic Policy.

Syed Akbar is a ‘fundamentalist’ in the sense that he wants people to return to the fundamentals. In this, he shares Dr. Mahathir’s ideals that Islam is not only compatible with progress, but that to be a true Muslim is to progress in all fields.

Unlike a politician, even a vocal one, he can be more forthright in pointing out where nations go wrong. The royal mess that Arab states have made of their rich resources, by keeping their populations poor and ignorant, is scary and sobering. Syed Akbar seems to have devoted more to this theme in his previous book Malaysia and the Club of Doom – The Collapse of the Islamic Countries. I have not read that but it’s somewhere near the top of my to-buy list now.

It may not be kosher as a scholarly text (there are far too many Wikipedia citations for that), but his anecdotal style is more valuable in waking people up. And this is by no means a book solely about Islam for Muslims. Its many examples and exhortations are instructive for anyone who wants to see how a community – any community – can allow itself to be dumbed down through the ages. Beware – but don’t abandon hope!

(Malay Mail, 3 December)

Tuesday 2 December 2008

Syed Alwi

I can't claim to have been a buddy. Our paths only crossed when he sent me an irate letter, complaining about something I'd written about a play of his. But still, he deserved better than this. I am not just referring to the manner of death, but the fact that the NST saw fit to describe Alang Rentak Seribu as a 'novel.' It's not a novel, my dears. It's a play. RIP!

I am one of those interviewed for this tribute here.

Saturday 29 November 2008

Sertailah peraduan untuk memenangi buku percuma!

Those gossipy folks at are giving away 10 free copies of Kitab Pengetahuan Hantu Malaysia.

To enter, you need to register at the site (it's free) and click on one of these banner-type things:

The winning entries will be read out at the launch on Friday.

Friday 28 November 2008

L for Lucky

The sixth video column of mine is here!

Starting next month, it will be monthly rather than fortnightly. Harap maklum.

Wednesday 26 November 2008

What a girl wants

TEN By Shamini Flint (Sunbear, 2008, 146 pages)

Two weeks ago we spoke of Shamini Flint’s crime novels. Her latest book is about a 10-year old girl who wants to play football – and as this sort of behaviour does not yet have a law, or even fatwa, against it, Ten does not qualify as a crime novel.

Yes, it’s a children’s book! Although it has understandably been a long time since I last touched base with the genre (what do you take me for, some kind of pervert?) this book took me back.

Part of the reason the book took me back is that it is, quite simply, set in the past. I am not a football fan – those games do go on forever, don’t they? – so couldn’t figure out the exact year, but since there were references to Maradona’s skills rather than weight I figured we were talking about the pre-Internet era here. It’s only on the last page that the year is spelled out: 1986.

So, Maya David wants to play football. Trouble is, she’s in a girl’s school – in Kuantan, to boot – which does not have a football team. The very idea seems freaky. Add to this the fact that she’s never kicked a real ball in her life; she’s only had vivid Technicolor fantasies of being on the Brazil team. But she, in the tradition of plucky heroes and heroines everywhere, won’t let these little details get in the way of true glory.

Like all bright people, Maya seems to keep a running commentary in her head. Her wry observations of the way her family and school operate (or don’t operate) keep things bubbly even though there are some darker undercurrents. Bend It Like Beckham got there first and so steals some of its ‘high concept’, but Ten still succeeds as an admirably grounded fantasy.

Maya reads many books, including the Famous Five ones. But the world of children has become more complicated since those Enid Blyton days, and so Ten is not ‘just’ about a girl with a seemingly impossible dream, but about the social forces that swirl around said girl.

For starters, she’s of English and Indian parentage. And since race always matters here, this places her as a minority within a minority. (That’s where all the more interesting contemporary protagonists should come from, anyway.)

Life in school is not made out to seem too brutal; perhaps Shamini did not want to traumatise the intended readers. (Then again, my expectations could be skewed by the fact that, although I don’t read children’s books, I still enjoy women-in-prison movies and have seen dozens. Ah yes, that’s a fine genre that I should write about more someday. Now, where was I? Oh yes…)

Race matters, but Maya – or perhaps, more accurately, the author – is wise enough to see that class plays a bigger role. When a classmate turns up late for school, she notices it’s because the poor girl had to stay up late to help with the family business. These seemingly throwaway observations actually form the heart of the novel’s empathy.

Even though her parents bicker nightly and are seemingly headed for a breakup, football isn’t solely a distraction from family dysfunction. Maya really likes it, as evident from the many football-related similes that pop up in the oddest places. These similes provide much of the humour; another source would be Maya’s gift for noticing exactly how a person, most often an adult, is cringe-worthy.

If we wanted to be political (and since we’re here, why don’t we do just that?) we can say that football, when played well, actually represents a metaphor for how life can be: People are placed where they are because of skill. If the perceptive reader wants to figure out why Malaysia never qualifies for the World Cup, he or she could do worse than study the subtly drawn social divisions that are already at work in our primary school life, as shown in Ten.

There’s a nicely improbable scene near the end in a faraway land, but Maya ends squarely in the place she began. She’s a much better football player by now, of course. And although not everything turned out the way she wanted, you get the feeling she’ll enjoy the rest of the game, even with the occasional yellow card or injury. Ten will be in Malaysian bookstores in a few weeks’ time, so book your seats!

(Malay Mail, 26 November)

Call for Entries: Body 2 Body

Writings on Alternative Sexuality in Malaysia
Edited by Jerome Kugan and Pang Khee Teik
Published by Matahari Books



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

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

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

4. Possible topics: coming out, forced out, going back in, love found, love lost, love squandered, encounters with homophobia, trying to go straight, married life, being friends with a queer person, being seduced by a queer friend, self-loathing, religion, family, work, studies, activism, etc.

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

6. All writing must be in English, or translated into English. The writers are responsible for getting their own translations done. Minimal use of other languages is acceptable with explanatory notes.

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

8. You're advised to submit no more than 3,000 words. However, the maximum is 4,000.

9. Deadline: Sat 28 Feb, 2009

10. The editors plan to select up to 20 pieces of writings.

11. Book will be launched at Seksualiti Merdeka 2009 at The Annexe Gallery in August 2009.

12. Please email entries to with the heading "Body2Body"

13. Writers who are selected will share 10% of the royalties from the sales. Conversely, they can choose to receive 4 books in lieu of royalties.



Pang Khee Teik is the Arts Programme Director for The Annexe Gallery, Central Market Annexe, Kuala Lumpur. He was formerly the editor of Pang has also been involved in theatre, independent films, writing and even a spot of experimental dancing.

Jerome Kugan is a writer and musician who has been living and working in Kuala Lumpur since 2000. Besides being the Media Manager at The Annexe Gallery, he is the creator of Poetika and one of the organisers for KL Sing Song.

In Aug 2008, Pang and Jerome organised Seksualiti Merdeka, Malaysia's first sexuality rights fest at The Annexe Gallery.


Matahari Books is a publishing company, set up by the writer and occasional movie-maker Amir Muhammad, that specialises in non-fiction books about Malaysia. Its first book in 2007 was Volume 1 of Malaysian Politicians Say the Darndest Things, which was an immediate best-seller. It published five books in 2008, including a tie-in screenplay book for the hit film Kami. All its books are sold in major Malaysian bookstores as well as

* If you have comments on this, do post them on the Matahari Books Facebook group :-)

Tuesday 25 November 2008

Debuts at #2 !

MPH Local Non-Fiction Bestsellers for the week ending November 23:

1. Mahathir Mohamad: An Illustrated Biography by E. Yu
2. The Malaysian Book of The Undead by Danny Lim
3. Blog Merentasi Halangan (Dwi Bahasa) by Mahathir Mohamad
4. The Malay Dilemma by Mahathir Mohamad
5. Things In Common by Syed Akbar Ali
6. Nation Before Self and Values that Do Not Die by Yuen Yuet Leng
7. Ahmad Sarji : Attaining Eminence by Lim Chang Moh
8. March 8 the Day Malaysia Woke Up by Kee Thuan Chye
9. Resipi Bonda: Koleksi Masakan Tradisional Melayu by Hajjah Teh Mohd Hassan
10. Secrets Of Millionaire Students by Stuart Tan

Monday 24 November 2008

Friday 21 November 2008

I never knew I was an "outstanding Chinese figure"

... until I read JakPos (yes, that IS what we used to call it, back when I was a proud resident of Kemang Jaya).

Ceylonese, yes lah.

Jemputan ke pelancaran buku

Bapak-bapak, ibu-ibu, jambu-jambu dan awek-awek hadhari dijemput ke acara yang santai lagi gerek: Pelancaran buku KITAB PENGETAHUAN HANTU MALAYSIA.

Buku sususan Danny Lim THE MALAYSIAN BOOK OF THE UNDEAD ini telah diterjemahkan secara sahih oleh Ahmad Kamal Abu Bakar.

Ketahuilah asal-usul, sifat serta tumit-tumit Achilles puluhan hantu dan roh yang menjadi khazanah budaya masyarakat sipilis (sekular, pluralis dan liberalis) kita.

Tempat: Bau Bau Cafe, The Annexe, Central Market.
Tarikh: 5 Disember (Jumaat)
Masa: 8:30pm hingga LRT senyap.

Terdapat hiburan oleh beberapa kumpulan gitar rancak yang akan diumumkan kelak. Juga pembacaan mengejut oleh:
Ahmad Kamal Abu Bakar
Amir Muhammad
Danny Lim
Fahmi Fadzil
Shahril Nizam
Sharon Bakar
Ted Mahsun
dan beberapa lagi artis yang tak sempat masuk Bi-pop hari minggu lepas.

Buku akan berada di toko-toko hanya 2 minggu setelah tarikh pelancaran, jadi dapatkanlah di sini agar anda tidak frust menonggeng.

Harga buku: RM20. Tebal: 115 mukasurat.

Bisa konfirm di Facebook.

Thursday 20 November 2008

Music video for HISTERIA

The film opens in Malaysia 18 December. My most anticipated local flick for the rest o' the year.

Wednesday 19 November 2008

Lock, stock and two Ministers

DEVIL’S PLACE by Brian Gomez (Idle Minds, 2008, 349 pages)

This debut novel made me nostalgic for the time I was young and saw Pulp Fiction on its opening day. The day after that, I went back and saw it again -- twice.

Why did that film excite? It did not contain anything new, but it had the snap and crackle of pure pop. By shoving the ingredients of the crime caper into a post-modern blender, Tarantino invigorated the form. There came the expected rash of imitations, of course, but most of them faded away as quickly as a too-clever smirk.

Devil’s Place (you have to wait until the last line to appreciate the title) is a more linear tale but gives a similar kind of sugar rush. The back-cover synopsis runs for seven paragraphs and will introduce you to all the main characters: a struggling musician on the verge of an unwise marriage, a Thai hooker who bit off more than she could chew, a pimp named Fellatio Lim, a tabloid hack, a JI terrorist, a CIA agent, a corrupt cop, a local version of Mel Gibson’s Conspiracy Theory taxi-driver, guns galore, and a bag stuffed with US$18 million. Save for a brief epilogue section, most of it takes place in much less than a week.

And what a high-octane sequence of days it is. There are murders, jail breaks, shootouts in bars, and even (steel yourself) incompetent renditions of I Will Survive and Smoke on the Water.

Many of the fight or chase scenes have very short paragraphs that breathlessly switch perspectives. It’s like you’re watching a rapidly edited film.

As if the name Fellatio Lim isn’t a giveaway, it’s also a comedy. Some of the humour in the beginning seems a bit forced, but when the body count escalates, the levity and the danger achieve a fine balance. At times, I am reminded of Elmore Leonard.

Devil’s Place soars because of the author’s superb sense of pace, and also a certain sweetness that keeps away any humourless macho swagger. It’s not like the more self-serious door-stopping thrillers that are invariably called The Something Something and made into summer blockbusters with frowning male leads.

I have been reading Brian Gomez’s very funny Internet postings for years without knowing who he was. So it’s nice to know than even though he was not a full-time writer, he’s gone ahead and published a novel. Contrast that to the many journalists who are content to merely put out regurgitated opinion columns, and expect us to pay for the damn things!

I shall not give away too much of the plot, but suffice to say that two fictitious Cabinet Ministers (one seen, the other only referred to) are part of the proceedings. And one of them is a really bad guy.

This novel is plainly written by someone who has lived here and observed much; he has been outraged by many things but knows how to laugh. It’s the little touches of comic authenticity that give a thrill: our TV reporters’ way of emphasising the oddest words, the racial composition of Irish bars and (my favourite) the cranky Chinese women who answer the phone when you’re calling for a cab.

There is a healthy, frisky irreverence, but it has an undertow of real smarts. There’s much more profanity than a local novel would normally dare, and certain of our most battered institutions, like the police and the executive, take a further battering. (Not that the CIA or the Arabs would be so thrilled, either.) It’s about time our books stopped being as tame and self-censoring as our movies.

Like last week’s book, Shamini Flint’s Criminal Minds, this is a pacy genre novel that has a lot to say about the society we have become. Who would have thought that our hypocrisy, corruption and enforced social divisions could create such entertaining backdrops? Devil’s Place is the more funny-ha-ha, but it also has the more sobering denouement – no mean feat, this.

Reading these two novels so close together, one of the conclusions I can draw is this: If you want to escape the peninsular without a valid passport, the Thai border is a safer bet than the Singaporean one. You probably knew that already, but you’ll never be told so in such a fun way.

Devil’s Place will be in bookstores at the end of this month. Brian Gomez blogs at The Floating Turd.

(Malay Mail, 19 November)

Thursday 13 November 2008

Now on

I am right chuffed to announce that all the titles by Matahari Books can now be purchased on

If you live outside Malaysia, be the first to order:

Malaysian Politicians Say the Darndest Things (Vol 1)

Malaysian Politicians Say the Darndest Things (Vol 2)

New Malaysian Essays 1

The Malaysian Book of the Undead

Kitab Pengetahuan Hantu Malaysia

Buku Untuk Filem: KAMI

(If you live in Malaysia, erm, it's much cheaper to just go to a bookshop).

The books are listed for the first time today, hence the "Temporarily Out of Stock" message. Rest assured that once the first orders are made, the more accurate shipping-time-notice thingy will be up.

Wednesday 12 November 2008

Murder, she wrote

Criminal Minds by Shamini Flint (Heliconia Press, 2008, 246 pages)

I seem to have gone off Serious Literature. One of the last literary novels I read was set in Malaya but had people crowding around a TV set to watch the live proclamation of Merdeka. Something didn’t seem right: sure enough, our country didn’t even have TV in 1957! And that book was published by an international firm that could afford fact-checkers.

So call me a philistine, but I’ve been finding it difficult to finish any novel that does not happen to be a juicy murder mystery. Unlike other types of novels, there’s always a reason to turn the page: to find out whodunit, of course.

This brings us to Criminal Minds. I was aware of it for some time but had resisted because I didn’t like the title and cover. (There: My shallowness is now complete). I particularly didn’t like the label “Asian Crime Fiction.” This was a novel set in Malaysia and written by a Malaysian-born, Singaporean author. Was the word Asian (written in the same type that you’d find, in neon, for a Chinese restaurant) a transparently desperate attempt to downplay these relatively unglamorous countries?

True, my curiosity was piqued when I found out that Shamini Flint had since sold the rights to her crime novels to the UK publisher Little, Brown. Truly a case of Malaysia, or Singapore, boleh! But then I remembered that Merdeka TV set, and I decided that I didn’t have enough confidence in UK publishers to give this book a go.

This changed when I saw the author introduce herself at a reading session at No Black Tie. Most writers simply cannot read their books in public; they have this mumbling, aw-shucks personas that make you want to end their miseries by whacking them with their deservedly unpopular tomes, But her brilliant, hilarious, topical introduction made me aware that I was in the presence of a major talent. (I have uploaded the moment on Youtube, so you can check for yourself).

So I bought Criminal Minds, and finished it in 48 hours. I scooted out to a bookstore and bought her earlier book, Partners in Crime, and finished that in 24.

Partners in Crime (another lame title) takes place in Singapore. But Criminal Minds takes the same investigator, Inspector Singh, to Kuala Lumpur. He is the only character that the two books have in common, although he is far from a conventional sleuth.

Inspector Singh is fat, coarse, sweaty and drinks on the job. In Criminal Minds, he is assisted by Sergeant Shukor, who is younger and hunkier. I picture this double-act to be like Wexford and Burden in Ruth Rendell’s mysteries.

The novel does many things very well. As a mystery, it succeeded in keeping my eyes (to use that particularly disagreeable cliché) glued to the page. I never suspected the eventual murderer, so adept is Flint at tossing red herrings. And here’s the catch: when you do find out the killer, it’s not through Inspector Singh’s doing. The same was true of the earlier novel, too.

Inspector Singh is an anti-detective, or maybe even an existential detective. He keeps things moving but is not the moral, emotional or even narrative centre. The complacent notion of the detective as omniscient deity has been splendidly debunked.

Since the Inspector is Malaysian-born but working in Singapore, he becomes our conduit for many tartly humorous observations about the commonalities and differences between us. I won’t spoil them for you, as Flint is a much better guide.

Criminal Minds isn’t ‘just’ about the murder of the amoral millionaire Alan Lee. (Was it his beautiful, long-suffering wife? His bitter son? One of his two brothers? Stay tuned!)

The fact that the deceased was a timber tycoon opens up opportunities to speak of our ‘close one eye’ culture, as well as the continuing plight of our indigenous people. (One of the characters is a Bruno Manser-type). And that’s not all: Alan’s sudden conversion to Islam, in the midst of a custody battle, also brings the hot-button topic of religious bullying into the mix.

The UK publisher, bless them, has re-titled this book Inspector Singh Investigates – A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder, and it will be re-released next year. I look forward to reading it again, with the inevitably nicer cover.

(Malay Mail, 12 November)

Tuesday 11 November 2008

Flea market time!

We will be spending this Sunday at the Amcorp Mall flea-market, peddling our books :-)

'We' means Danny Lim (The Malaysian Book of The Undead), Ruhayat X (Kayangan), Sufian Abas (Pasca Manusia) and perhaps a few others. The last four autographed copies of Buku Untuk Filem: KAMI will also be there.

So do join us! 10am-5pm. It is very close to the Taman Jaya LRT. This link explains a bit more about the mall (and "the best flea market in Malaysia") -- although I am not sure that Amcorp Mall actually exudes much "exotic, decadent elegance"; methinks the copywriter must have been smoking something, erm, exotic at the time.

I must thank Lennard Gui for suggesting the idea to me sometime last year, when we were pushing the first book. I have, since then, taken part several times and met some interesting folks along the way, including loquacious priests, long-lost classmates and Special Branch officers on their day off.

Thursday 6 November 2008

Danny on The Fairly Current Show

A write-up also appears in KLue, and I am glad that the book has proven its worth as a social ice-breaker (and maybe future pick-up line).

The bad news is that there has been a slight delay in getting the book to the shops. The distributor has been "upgraded the invoicing mechanism" or somesuch, but I am assured that most Klang Valley stores will get the title on Monday, and the rest of the country by next weekend. But if you are gagging to get it now, you can head on to Silverfish in person, or online at Kinibooks.

Wednesday 5 November 2008

Hail the conquering hero

Winning strategies of Anwar Ibrahim by Mutharasan (Focus Media, 2008, 231 pages)

As far as books go, Malaysians love politics and we also love being motivated. Winning Strategies of Anwar Ibrahim puts both ingredients in a pan and stirs gently. The author proudly displays not only his legal but business academic qualifications on the front cover, so we should all feel reassured.

You have read much about what Lim Kit Siang termed the ‘political tsunami’ by now. What this book offers is a very clear hero. Mutharasan attributes the elections results almost exclusively to one man, since Anwar Ibrahim is credited for not only using his strengths but equally shrewdly capitalisng on the weaknesses of his opponents.

Although written and published rather quickly, this is a cut above a sponsored hatchet-job or hagiography. It is not a nudge-wink conspiracy theory, either. In fact, he is so careful about libel that although Altantuya is mentioned, no politician is named as being smeared by her murder. He keeps it civil.

Although he has never met the book’s protagonist and did not conduct any interviews with him, Mutharasan has attended many of his ceramah. Which accounts for the many, many references to Anwar’s dazzling oratorical skills, charisma and, to quote a possible redundancy, “well-known popularity.”

We can readily agree that the very dates of the Elections were most likely set by the government to occur just before Anwar was eligible to stand as candidate. So from the start, the ruling establishment was acting on the defensive. But it seems that in other areas, the author seems to give this charming man a bit too much credit. For starters: a ‘Visiting Professor’ does not actually teach.

Another example: PKR’s decision to field Nurul Izzah as a candidate is hailed as a brilliant strategy to make people see that there is a new generation who will take over the helm. And yet, dynasties in the BN are proof of nepotism. And even after that, when Wan Azizah vacated her seat, this became yet another marvelous tactic to ensure the family does not seem too greedy by hogging three, instead of two, seats.

What is heart-warming, however, is the way in which the Opposition this time worked together much more effectively than in the past. The decision to not come together under a clearly-defined name (unlike in 1999) helped stave off some predictable suspicions that would arise from a Pas-DAP alliance.

The multi-racial character of PKR is also to be credited for firing up the imagination of the young, in ways that the old parties no longer do. (Although this was the first time I came across Goh Cheng Teik’s line: “For a multi-racial party to truly succeed in Malaysia, it must be headed by a Malay!”)

How much of this new-found wisdom can be attributed to Anwar personally? Mutharasan says that Anwar’s 16 years in Barisan Nasional taught him everything he needed to know about how the BN eliminates its foes. And so Anwar is uniquely placed to use this insider info against his former party.

What Mutharasan gets right is that Anwar is probably the first opposition leader we’ve ever had who is serious about taking over the government. This does not mean that a ‘PM in waiting’ should be given a blank cheque, just as an actual PM should not.

This book seems to have been written just before 16 September proved to be a non-event. But the post-election noises about crossovers alarmed even some people who are oppositionists. Such gimmicks surely eroded some of the goodwill that the election results generated. (Mutharasaan never considers that the results were a surprise to the pembangkang).

Above all, aside from his great networking skills (which he started to cultivate as a student), Anwar seems to embody that well-worn motto: If life gives you limau, then make teh O limau ais – as soon as you get hold of the tea and ice, that is.

In this high-stakes game of chess, he has so far emerged victorious. He has anticipated and responded to the opponent’s moves with gusto. But after all this hard work, perhaps it’s time he settled down to being a good Opposition leader for the next few years, and to make sure election pledges are fulfilled. (Local council elections and transparent tenders, anyone?) Heaven and Putrajaya can wait.

(Malay Mail, 5 November)

Up to #3

MPH Local Non-Fiction Bestsellers for the Week Ending 26 October

1. Mahathir Mohamad: An Illustrated Biography
by E. Yu

2. Blog Merentasi Halangan (bilungual)
by Dr. Mahathir Mohamad

3. Buku Untuk Filem: KAMI
by Fariza Azlina Isahak

4. March 8 The Day Malaysia Woke Up
by Kee Thuan Chye

5. Resipi Bonda
by Hajjah Teh Mohd Hassan

6. The Kampung Boy
by Lat

7. The Millionaire Formula
By Jeffrey Chiew & Tan Thiam Hock

8. Sendiri Mau Ingat
by Dr HM Tuah Iskandar

9. Tipping Points
by Oon Yeoh

10. Rahsia Buat Duit Dengan Internet
by Wan Mohd.Syazwan Wan Sukri

Monday 3 November 2008

Danny reads from the book!

This happened on Sunday night at a venue called No Black Tie.

The event, called Readings, has been organised by Bernice Chauly for the past 7 years!

You can also hear my voice somewhere...

By the way, a review of the book is already available at Gundu.

Wednesday 29 October 2008

Fun for the weekend

On Friday night I will be at our book launch, of course. Jom!

On Saturday night I will attend this:

It's a free screening of local short movies by a bunch of bright young things. Jom!

On Sunday morning I will take part in this:

This will be my first Terry Fox run and I hope not the last. Entrance is with the purchase of a RM25 t-shirt. Jom!

And I have tickets for the Sunday night show of this:

Erm, jom!

Everything he does is magic

Mahathir Mohamad: An Illustrated Biography by E. Yu (MPH, 2008, 123 pages)

The first factual error in this book occurs in the very first panel, in which the birthday of our erstwhile Prime Minister (and current leading blogger) is stated as December 20. This is actually his “official” birthday but I always found it hard to believe because he did not seem to have much in common with laidback and fun-loving Sagittarians like myself.

True enough, his actual birthday is July 10. (It was not uncommon for folks born in the pre-war era to have registered birthdays that are different from the actual ones). So that’s all right then.

To say this book is a hagiography would be like saying a porcupine is a bit on the prickly side. But it is a riveting read because what is left out is just as interesting, if not more, than what has been put in.

You find out that, when he was a doctor and budding entrepreneur, he changed cars several times. But you never find out that, when he was PM, he also changed deputies several times.

Here are just four names that are conspicuous by their complete absence: Lee Kwan Yew, Musa Hitam. Tengku Razaleigh, and Anwar Ibrahim. Surely they could have added more spice.

Comics don’t have to be cuddly. You need only check out Persepolis or, closer to home, Where Monsoons Meet, to know that. But in its attempt to repackage or rehabilitate a famously prickly personality as a faultless hero, Mahathir Mohamad: An Illustrated Biography takes away some of the edges that surely make him such a fascinating subject to begin with.

True, we already have an anti-Mahathir comic book in the form of Zunar’s Cartoons of Tun and Others. But this new book is more ambitious because it aspires to the sweep and scope of biography. We learn how he was a diligent student (but shy around the girls), a caring doctor, a quick businessman, devoted husband and father, and then visionary politician and honoured statesman.

Although it is a feel-good book, there are certain hints that can invite different readings if you are of a suspicious disposition. For example, a montage of his political rise shows him addressing the hungry masses. But what he is quoted as saying is merely “Pot…pet…pot…pet…”

What gives? If the author didn’t want us to get distracted by small details, the speech bubbles could have been omitted; we need only see the aspiring leader’s fervent gestures and the crowd’s enthusiastic response. “Pot…pet” is normally shorthand for trivial banter, if not outright nonsense.

Another is a drawing of the protagonist praying, where the speech or thought bubble is left to contain only a string of dots. Does this mean he is mumbling or thinking nothing? Enquiring minds want to know!

A final example illustrates the leader’s fondness for horse-racing. There is another horse that seems to be catching up, but that rider is straining to make sure he doesn’t overtake the Prime Minister. Is this a veiled critique of the way he held back the careers of others, or more generally a sign of the feudalist nature of Malay(sian) politics that brooks no opposition?

Feudalism is the key to Dr. Mahathir’s controversial legacy. As the first national leader to not emerge from an aristocratic family, he represented the rude but necessary jolt of triumphant egalitarianism. His style is akin to the brashness of America rather than the ossified traditions of olde England. But when elements of feudalism started to creep in during his long leadership tenure, it was finally up to the people to decide that enough is enough.

Rather curiously for a comic by an ethnic Chinese, this book swallows The Malay Dilemma’s racial essentialism with nary a whimper. The greedy villains in the first part of the book are invariably Chinese and we are not invited to read the causes of the economic backwardness of the Malays in any other way. In fact, this divisive discourse is celebrated in the final page as then responsible for the harmony of today!

Despite everything, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I got to see things I never thought I’d see, such as the leader in the shower (does he really keep his glasses on?). I look forward to many other comic books about famous Malaysians who are heroes, villains, or – as is most often the case – somewhere tantalisingly in between.

(Malay Mail, 29 October 2008).

Tuesday 28 October 2008

SUSUK dvd ('snippets')

1. I am told it has been released nationwide.

2. True to form, it has also been pirated, including online.

3. I don't get any royalties from the pirated editions.

4. But wait a minute! I don't get any royalties from the legitimate edition either.

5. Caveat emptor ;-)

Friday 24 October 2008

#5 for the second week

MPH Local Non-Fiction Bestsellers for the Week Ending 19 October

1. Mahathir Mohamad: An Illustrated Biography
Author : E. Yu

2. March 8 the Day Malaysia Woke Up
Author : Kee Thuan Chye

3. Resipi Bonda: Koleksi Masakan Tradisional Melayu
Author : Hajjah Teh Mohd Hassan

4. Life is an Open Secret: You, Me and We (18 Inspirational Stories from Ordinary Life Experiences)
Author : Zabrina A. Bakar

5. Buku Untuk Filem: KAMI
Author : Fariza Azlina Isahak

6. Joey Yap's Pure Feng Shui
Author : Joey Yap

7. Buat Duit Dengan Rumah
Author : Shamsudin Abd Kadir

8. The Malays: Their Problems and Future
Author : Syed Husin Ali

9. The Malaysian Indians: History, Problems and Future
Author : Tate, Desmond

10. Duit Banyak Bertambah Banyak
Author : Hazeline Ayoup, Norfaiezah Sawandi, et al

Wednesday 22 October 2008

Steal this book!

Utopia Trauma by Rahmat Haron (SuaraSuara, 2006, 54 pages)

When watching the film Kami on the first day of Hari Raya, I was pleasantly surprised to see a book of poetry being repeatedly plugged. We see it being stolen by one of the lead characters, it is quoted a few times, and it even features in the final scene, which is one of quiet grief.

Well, here is that book! It was published two years ago but is enjoying a new lease of life thanks to its cinematic exposure. If you are as anarchic as the movie character (who comes to a bad end, by the way!) you too will sneakily ‘liberate’ this book from a nearby shop. If you are bourgeois like the rest of respectably society, you will pay for it.

And if you are really smart, you will notice that the title of this article is the title of Abbie Hoffman’s hippie classic. (Perhaps Rahmat Haron is a kind of hippie, too).

The cast of Kami is quite pretty but this book is not pretty. Which is not to say it’s ugly. It is more like a howl, a drowned scream, a lurid cry. The words sit restlessly upon the page; they leap out at you, like maggots will leap out from the pan of a canine corpse that is being fried. (Omigosh, where did that image come from?)

Utopia Trauma distills the pain of being alive and sensitive in world where no one really cares. This existential torment is sometimes obscured by marijuana smoke or the distraction of a former stranger’s body, but it never goes away.

Where, then, do we place Rahmat Haron? His poetry is political but sneers at sentimental slogans. Instead it revels, in sadomasochistic fashion, in the pain of others, which also becomes the poet’s own pain. And be warned: There will be blood. And also pus, sperm and crap – all quite literally.

Images of death and martyrdom, from actual wars around us, dominate, but it’s also acknowledged that the ashes of these mostly unnamed martyrs will help a better world to blossom. Meanwhile, there is also the walking wounded of the contemporary undead: people who just refuse to experience anything. We are made to see that people in the first group, unheralded as they were, are of greater value.

Utopia Trauma demands to be read aloud, in as disruptive a way as possible. Much of the poetry has an incantatory style. This isn’t usually the soothing chant of a medicine-man but the vengeful shriek of a ghost, such as the narrator of the poem about Bakun.

You would think there is not much room for humour in the midst of all this misery. True, there is a dearth of dirty limericks that can be scrawled on lavatory walls later. But Rahmat’s mocking echoes of gentle and pop platitudes do bring out some laughter in the dark. I could have sworn that a KRU lyric is also defiled (on page 13, no less).

There are also drawings – intricate, vulnerable and confrontational, sometimes all at once, they become a miasma of staring eyes, spilled fluids (if the book were in colour, you will see red), and spiral whorls.

Sociologists might see Rahmat as a symbol of subterranean angst; here is a Malay who is disenfranchised and not in the least bit privileged. But, as the book’s publisher Raja Ahmad says in his Introduction, Rahmat is primarily a poet rather than a symptom. As such, he represents his own voice. Among local poets working today, it’s hard to find an equivalent, because Rahmat’s worldview is fixedly against not only capitalist excess but religious sentimentality.

His use of Indonesianisms evoke similar rebel-poets from across the pond, principally Chairil Anwar and Wiji Thikul. Chairil died at the age of only 27 (of, among other causes, syphilis) but his poems, especially Aku, were strident and unsentimental calls to arms. Wiji is the poet who mysterious disappeared during the Indonesian reformasi protests but left behind a stirring line: “Hanya ada satu kata – lawan!” (there is only one word, resist!).

So yes, we do have Rahmat to do our resisting. Or is it too presumptuous to say he’s speaking on our behalf? His challenge is for us to also feel and to break out of our own cocoons. Although there is much pain in the world, those of us who do not want to feel will forever be shut out from the rahmat (blessings) that this same filthy and profane reality can occasionally offer us.

(Malay Mail, 22 October 2008)

Saturday 18 October 2008

#5 on the non-fiction (?) best-seller list

MPH Non-Fiction Bestseller List for the Week Ending 12 October

1. Mahathir Mohamad: An Illustrated Biography
Author : E. Yu

2. Blog Merentasi Halangan (Dwi Bahasa)
Author : Dr Mathathir Mohamad

3. March 8 the Day Malaysia Woke Up
Author : Kee Thuan Chye

4. Resipi Bonda: Koleksi Masakan Tradisional Melayu
Author : Hajjah Teh Mohd Hassan

5. KAMI: Buku Untuk Filem
Author : Fariza Azlina Isahak

6. The Malays: Their Problems and Future
Author : Syed Husin Ali

7. Dilema Melayu
Author : Mahathir Bin Mohamad

8. Lim Guan Eng: Dari Penjara Ke Tampuk Kuasa
Author : Wan Hamidi Hamid

9. Keganasan, Penipuan & Internet: Hegemoni Media Daulah Pecah
Author : Hishamuddin Rais

10. Rahsia Buat Duit dengan Internet: 10 Langkah Mudah Menjadi Usahawan Dot.Com
Author : Wan Mohd.Syazwan Wan Sukri; et al

Friday 17 October 2008

Ghosts, Threesomes & Taxis

There will be a Halloween multi-book launch of:

The Malaysian Book of The Undead by Danny Lim (Matahari Books)
Taxi by Khaled al-Khamissi (ZI Publications)

together with three mini-books (collectively known as Tiga) published by Oxygen:

Lost in KL by Bernice Chauly
Kayangan by Ruhayat X
Pasca Manusia by Sufian Abas

Venue: Rahsia Restaurant (click for a map to the location).

31 October, 8-10pm.

Dress: Ghosts or Egyptians. Or come as you are lah.

There will be food and entertainment.

To confirm your attendance and for further enquiries, do contact . Space is limited, so priority will be given to those who RSVP :-)

Poster by Ruhayat X.

H for Hair


Thursday 16 October 2008


Magandang araw!

I had to cancel my Bali trip.

But I should, however, make my third trip to Manila next week, for this:

Wednesday 15 October 2008

Oh, Anna!

A personal highlight of the Pusan International Film Festival earlier this month was meeting iconic actress Anna Karina (ask these handsome guys to tell you who she is) and finding her so chatty! Blast from the past indeed:

Photo by Abe Ferrer of LA.

It's a wrap!

At 11:30pm, at a Ramly burger stall in Kampung Baru, we wrapped the six-day shoot for the revised version of Malaysian Gods.

It will not use any images from the first version (which screened for one day, and has now been deleted) but it will have about three sentences in common. Other than that, it is much wordier, set in many more locations, covers a year of protests rather than just one day, has a rock score and, oh yes, features interviews that are entirely in Tamil. As such, it is my first Tamil movie.

The Big Durian (2003) had 19 hours of rushes. The Year of Living Vicariously (2005) had 55 -- but to be honest, most of that was because I didn't want to look like the only one on the Gie set who was not running around and working. Lelaki Komunis Terakhir (2006) went overboard with 83 hours and I don't regret a single minute. Apa Khabar Orang Kampung (2007) slimmed down considerably to 20 because we stayed in only one location.

Malaysian Gods (from now this will refer to only this definitive version) is the leanest: we shot only 12 hours. I'm much more precise about what I want now. Perhaps the experience of working on the 35mm Susuk helped. (Even though that film did break the Grand Brilliance record for the most cans of film: 239).

I look forward to showing Malaysian Gods to you in December.