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.