Friday, August 19, 2005

Recognising Local Writers

Nisah Haron very kindly sent me a copy of this month's Dewan Sastera in which she has an article called Dilemma Penulis Fiksyen Inggeris Tempatan (The Dilemma of Local Writers of Fiction in English.)
It's a scholarly article which outlines some of the dilemmas faced by local fiction writers. And okay yes, I'm struggling to faham paragraph by paragraph am getting the gist of it. Be patient if I get things wrong!

Nisah interviewed a number of people by e-mail including yours truly (and honestly I was flattered to be asked):
Sharon Bakar, seorang editor bebas dan juga warganegara British yang telah meetap di Malaysia lebih daripada 20 tahun, menyebut tentang jumplah pembaca fisksyen Inggeris tempatan masih lagi secara relatifnya kecil. Ini ditambah pula dengan masalah menerbitkan karya fiksyen Ingerris di Malaysia. Kekurangan sokongan terhadap penulis dalam bentuk kursus penulisan, kemudahan, bengkel dan acara turut menyumbang kepada kurangnya jumlah penulis fiksyen Inggeris tempatan.

Might as well ask for the things you need! Support for writers, facilities, courses, workshops.

Dina Zaman says that there are few local publishers willing to publish fiction in English, so we need to add that to the wishlist.

Nisah goes on to talk about the local writers who have made a name for themselves overseas: Tash Aw and Rani Manicka in the U.K. and Shirley Lim and K.S. Maniam in the U.S..

The crux of the article is recognition. Writes Nisah:
Apakah senario ini seolah-olah mencadangkan kepada penulis tempatan supaya berhijrah untuk membolehkan karya mereka lebih mudah diterbitkan dan seterusnya mudah di pasarkan. Bukan sedikit pengiktirafan yang diperoleh penulis-penulis ini peringkat antarabangsa. Namun, mereka tidak mendapat pengiktirafan yang setaraf di peringkat kebangsaan.

Am I right in thinking that the last couple of lines says that winning international recognition doesn't mean that you will win recognition at home?

Our Mr.Raman says:
... penulis yang ingin diiktifa di peringkat antarabangsa harus menulis tentang pengalaman di Malaysia. Pengalaman unik inilah dicari-cari oleh masyarakat pembaca antarabangsa.

In other words if you want to sell big in the West, you need to write about Malaysia because that's what readers there want. Can we argue with that?

Nishah also points out the nice irony of the English novel competition sponsored by Utusan Publications only being announced in a Malay language newspaper (Mingguan Malaysia). But hey, you read about it here too, right?

Anyway, Nisah's article is well worth reading for anyone interested in the local lit scene. It certainly raises the sorts of questions that need to be discussed.

28 comments:

Anonymous said...
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bibliobibuli said...

I've got spammed so badly and so suddenly ... I've had to introduce a verfication system that I hope the spammers can't get past. It's a pain.

I also have lost (suddenly0 the ability to delete posts! What's happening?

bibliobibuli said...

Ahah ... my little bins are back ... and the spam will be deleted forthwith.

BawangMerah said...

Ai, spam. I've been seeing that a lot lately, though so far not in my blog *touch wood*

The last I read Dewan Sastera was when I was still in secondary school :P Better go hunt for it today. You know what's funny. We don't have an english equivalent to Dewan Sastera in this country. I guess that speaks volume about how hard it is to get published.

bibliobibuli said...

hi bawangmerah - congrats on being my first non-spam poster today. ;-D

Yes, we don't have a literary magazine in English and we could do with one. I think Off the Edge is the closest we have - but it covers the arts in general.

Raman has an online literary magazine at the Silverfish website, but mostly news from outside Malaysia and no forum to discuss issues.

How many copies would a literary magazine sell anyway??

Kak Teh said...

This is an interesting read. and I just wonder why is it that international recognition does not equal national recognition. is is for the lack of reading?
and sharon, your translation, not bad lah!

bibliobibuli said...

Thanks Kak Teh - I am also confuffled as as to why international recognition does not equal local recognition ... We should be out in the streets celebrating when anyone amkes it big!

I also think that folks here are not generally v. clued up about what is happening on the lit scene overseas ... I feel the media and the bookshops have to lead the way.

Anonymous said...

Sharon

Thanks for posting this. Will go get a copy.

Why is it that Malay romance novels are doing so well in the market, with 100,000 copies sales per title? Can't the same scenario be repeated with local English novels?

rgds
Lydia

Chet said...

"Why is it that Malay romance novels are doing so well in the market, with 100,000 copies sales per title?"

Probably for the same reason that Mills & Boon sold so well in their time. Are those still around?

I think the word for it is "escapism". And also the language - probably the bulk of the Malay romance novels' market is more fluent in Malay than English.

Rem said...

My blog is also currently under attack. No less than 10 spams per-day (all over the places - including the entries posted months ago!). Sadly, blogdrive users (ordinary members!) don't have the luxury to apply any sort of verification system.

Yes, a very good article by Nisah. Very perceptive and insightful. And the article was 'brutally' attacked by Faisal Tehrani (Sasteramalaysia Yahoo Forum). The funny thing is, Faisal actually failed to understand the real sentiment and spirit in the article. So, basically he attacked Nisah not for what Nisah had written, but for what he himself thought Nisah meant to say.

(Apparently) I was tempted to garnish the polemic with my 5-cents-worth opinion. Those who are interested, it was here (written in BM):

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/KEMSAS/message/6179

(the link also includes the so-called "sanggah untuk Nisah" by Faisal tehrani).

bibliobibuli said...

Chet - think you're right - interesting phonomena though ... wonder if anyone has done any research on it

Rem - thanks so much for the link - I have printed off the post and am going to read and digest them at leisure (dictionary in hand!) ...

Eric Forbes said...

It’s all about econonomics, really. How many copies of a local novel can you sell? Local authors must write for a global audience – not just for the local market. The Malaysian market for local novels in English is very limited. Take a look at India itself: while growing fast population-wise, the market for books is still merely a tiny fragment. In India, most writings in English sell less than a thousand copies, though India has a population of over a billion people. Not exactly a very viable proposition. Malaysian writers, I believe, must penetrate the British and American markets to enjoy better sales, distribution, promotions, etc.

bibliobibuli said...

"In India, most writings in English sell less than a thousand copies, though India has a population of over a billion people."

This statistic really surprises me, Eric.

You're certainly right on the issue of economics. But don't you think there is a need for locally-grown literature published here? It's terribly hard to be published in Britain and the US. At the moment novels from S.E.Asia are in fashion, but for how much longer? Being published there doesn't necessarily mean that you are going to be read here. Can a local writer publishing in the West create literature that really addresses Malaysian issues ?? (Does literature have a social duty?)

I merely throw out the questions. I'm happy for the debate ....

Eric Forbes said...

It’s all about economics, really. How many copies of a local novel in English can you sell? Local authors must write for a global audience – not just for the local market. The Malaysian market for local novels in English is very limited. It is not surprising if you study the statistics. Take a look at India itself: while growing fast population-wise, the market for books is still merely a tiny fragment. In India, most writings in English sell less than a thousand copies each, though India has a population of over a billion people! Not exactly a very viable proposition. Malaysian writers, I believe, must penetrate the British and American markets to enjoy better sales, distribution, promotions, etc.

Eric Forbes said...

Sharon, there certainly is a need for home-grown literature published in Malaysia. It is always good to encourage good local writing. Yes, it is indeed difficult to get published in the U.K. and the U.S. Even writers in these countries find difficulty geeting their works published in their home countries due to one reason or another! There is also the worry that there will come a time when good novels get published overseas while the not-so-good ones are published locally. Sadly, most local publishers do not see developing home-grown writing as a viable business option; most publishers prefer nonfiction and textbooks.

Like any other business, book publishing is indeed subject to changing trends, tastes, etc. Yes, Southeast Asian writing is doing okay at the moment but it is merely a passing fad. Books published in Malaysia do not reach a wider world audience due to many reasons. Whether a local writer publishing in the West can create literature that really addresses Malaysian issues will really depend on the writer’s skills and maturity, I believe. Though I cannot dispute the fact that literature has an important role to play in addressing social issues and educating us on a wide variety of topics, I also believe that it must also entertain us; so much better if literature can do both simultaneously.

The Great Swifty said...

Well... we don't really have much of a reading culture here. I can still remember this survey that said that a Malaysian reads an average of only a novel a year.

Besides, the market's dominated by foreign books. It's the same thing happening to music and films. People are more into the foreign stuff and the local ones. (thus indie filmmakers like me gotta suffer, hah!)

The Visitor said...

there was a time when a local music artiste released an album, it would not sell simply becos Malaysians don't appreciate home-grown talents. if it's not on MTV or on the American and UK charts, then it can't be good, so they thought.

but now, things are changing. local music talents are able to make a living, not tremendously but at least they are doing well. now we have MTV Asia (i do think MTV is evil!) and we have regional awards shows. our artistes are holding concerts in Japan and elsewhere. and that's a big step forward.

so why not books? yes, Malaysians don't appreciate local authors enough right now, and we still look up to the overseas bestsellers. but that's the same situation as what the music scene was like before.

i think we need to look at the music model and see what it was that gave the scene that boost. mebe we can apply the same to the writing scene?

The Visitor said...

i don't like this "we don't have a reading culture here" thingie. it disturbs the hell out of me, as if there is a conspiracy to quell Malaysians desire for good books. as if we are not worth batting an eyelid at in the bigger scheme of things. it's like the whole "Americans don't like reading subtitles" marketing myth. i'd like to think that myth was perpetrated to safeguard their local films. Crouching Tiger certainly dispelled that myth pretty quickly.

so where did this "Malaysians don't read" crap come from? i see bookshops filled with browsers and customers. i see ppl reading on trains and buses. so where did this come from?

so you wana live your life according to surveys and what the marketing ppl tell you?

bibliobibuli said...

It makes me so happy to get such thoughtful responses!

Eric -

"There is also the worry that there will come a time when good novels get published overseas while the not-so-good ones are published locally."

This is what is happening already.

"Sadly, most local publishers do not see developing home-grown writing as a viable business option; most publishers prefer nonfiction and textbooks."

There is certainly money available to publish fiction locally - I know of several folks with money chasing manuscripts ... and new technologies mean that small print-runs need not cost the earth. (So the economics isn't so much of a problem.)

But I think that there is a real lack of editing expertise here.

Editors act as gate-keepers, making sure that second-rate writing does not flood the market. Editors must reject the second-rate, encourage and support first-rate writers. All of this takes time and effort and commitment.

"Whether a local writer publishing in the West can create literature that really addresses Malaysian issues will really depend on the writer’s skills and maturity, I believe."

Yes, this is the acid test ...

"I also believe that it must also entertain us; so much better if literature can do both simultaneously."

Agree. No-one tells Edward Carey for example that because he is writing fantasy stories he is neglecting his social responsibility!

Thanks so much Eric for writing at such length. A forum like this doesn't do justice to the topic and hope to have a chance for a real chat with you one day soon.

bibliobibuli said...

Visitor - thanks too.

I think you make some very interesting comparisons. I actually think the local film industry provides the most interesting parallels ... so much has happened in the past year. New technologies have opened up the field to new talent. Malaysians have won international awards.

" i don't like this "we don't have a reading culture here" thingie. it disturbs the hell out of me"

It IS deafeatist. I belive that Malaysians are becoming bigger readers and that readership will grow. When books are easily available, book addiction sets in. We have excellent bookshops now and even those who can't afford to buy new copies can find books for next to nothing by the supermarket check-out, from Payless Books or from books rental stores. (There is also a trickle-down efffect with books ... I guess that many books bought new will end up being passed down the line sooner or later as owners make way for a fresh stock on their shelves - such is book-addiction.)

The last survey into Malaysian reading habits was carried out eight years ago and found that Malaysians read an average of 2 books a year. Eight years is a long time. Malaysians must already be reading a lot more or how would the bookshops stay in business? I see more people reading too and enthusiastic to share thoughts about books.

There's catching up to do, for sure, and local fiction writers will never make a fortune locally ... but hey, I'm really optimistic!

Archive Of Learning said...

Hi,
So happened to surf by and am attracted to the posting by Rem about writing in any other languages (with particular ref to English) vs writing in Malay.

As far as I know, language has been a touchy and sensitive issue since Independence, and many nationalist (including young uns) still believe that writing in any language other than Malay would mean that you have not integrated into the culture. While I strongly disagree with that, I can see where they are coming from. I have met many Malaysians, who despite having had 11 years of schooling in the Malay language, would declare to me that they have lost all form of interest nor tie to the language upon leaving school. Now, the question is, why is that happening? Maybe someone need to do research into that, unlesss someone already does. Why is there no real sense of pride in the national language when so much have been done to make sure sure that it becomes bahasa "ulung" (I can't think of a direct translation but I think it means greatness). No doubt, there are many non-Malays writing in Malay, as they are writing in other languages as well. But I think the real problem with Malay writing is not so much of the writing itself, but the cultural hegemony promulgated by the body of literature in that language in existence in this country. It is a feeling that the "other" (meaning one that has not been identified as "Malay") have to adapt to THEM, instead of the language being more embracing of the various differences in existence. This is particularly true in many writings in the vernacular languages in Malaysia.

I have to disagree with Faisal because his points point to his lack of understanding of the lived realities of the nation, not because he argues for the ascendancy of the Malay language. His rhetoric has been repeated in various forms for a few decades. Has anything change for the better? No.
It is easy for us to use examples from other countries, but this is done by consciously eradicating a different dynamic at play, and even with ignorance of what actually transpires. We can always cut and paste examples, take them out of context, but, this will go on and on forever and 50 years later, the same tired debate will continue.

But perhaps we should blame ourselves for the cavalier attitude towards the language? Or should we blame the institution that has been given the responsibility of promoting the use of the language?

The dynamics is such that if you want to write books that sell to a big population. So what language do you write in? There are many other language writers in India and Africa, but most would never be known until someone translates them. But even in translation, there are politics fo them. Yes, many French writers write in French, but they get translated in and out.

So the perennial question remainds unanswered. Each has his or her own ideas pertinent to it. I want to write in one language that is spoken by only 7 million people with only a reading population of less than 10%. How should I do it that it would later get translated to other languages and hence widen the audience? Or should I wait be bated breath and cross my fingers?

I personally believe that writings in English and Malay (I hope someone who reads in Chinese or Tamil can add to this) lack innovation to capture a wider audience at this point. We are in danger of becoming syok sendiri, unfortunately. But that does not mean that there is no hope. But that would depend on the will-power and determination of the writer, and the ability to move out of one's comfort zone (metaphorically)

Oh yeah, for anyone interested in the National Cultural Policy Congress of 1971, the papers from th ere are still in existence, though badly kept and not highly accessible. Not sure how copyright works in this country but I hope to actually put up some of them online on my site so that there will be more copies of them even when the hardcopy (which is in bad shape) is destroyed. Might have to trace back the person in charge of compiling them.

At the end of the day, I still believe that one should write in a language that one feels most comfortable in, though that does not mean that one is not free to explore writing in other languages should one feels able to. If you cannot understand what you say, how can you expect others to?

Cheers!

porty said...

It's not that I don't read Malaysian fiction, it's that I don't read current fiction. Most of it is boring, long-winded and totally devoid of imagination.

It's easier to succeed in some other countries because the PR machines there can re-shape reality. Books with gaping plot holes, silly mistakes and coincidences bordering on the ridiculous can be bestsellers. Even if it IS fiction, things should at least be plausible.

The Malay novels succeed because people identify with them, the culture of it. I think if you're a teenager, you want books that you can identify with, sort of teenage romance/comedy thing (comedy in the Shakespearean sense.) It also succeeds because there's nowhere else in the world you can get a novel with teenage malay characters in it :)

The Great Swifty said...

The whole 'we don't have a reading culture' thing obviously derives from the fact that many people just aren't THAT into reading. Yeah, so there are lots of books in bookshops, and yeah, so there are lots of people browsing for books in bookshops?

So?

How many of them do NOT go into bookshops? How many of them do NOT read? Am I going to base this purely on the people who are in there, and totally forget that there are MORE people who are NOT in there?

I don't know about you all. But from the primary school and secondary school I went through, only 10% of the people were really into reading, and these were regarded as the nerds and geeks. The rest? Hell, I can name you more people who don't read than those who really do.

Back when I was in college, I received weird looks from people when I had a novel in my hand, and I was reading. I had to go through rubbish like: 'WAAH! Edmund, reading ar? Words so small leh! Boring lar, read for wat lar! Read textbook enuf already lor!'

So, I'm supposed to disregard all these? And pretend that every Tom Dick and Harry here are VERY into reading? That the whole 'people just aren't THAT into reading' is some myth weaved by my overimaginative and ridiculously huge mind?

Oh yeah, so people are starting to read more now, thanks to the likes of Harry Potter and Dan Brown, and the Lord of the Rings bandwagon. But like movies, and music, people are just drawn more towards the mainstream stuff. Almost every single aspiring writer from Malaysia I met over here in Australia told me that their greatest influences are Tolkien, Rowling and the wondrous Dan Brown.

My statement Msia not having much of a reading culture is similar to what I said about the lack of film viewing culture. People are only into the mainstream stuff, with the indie, underground, non-mainstream stuff almost TOTALLY ignored. Unless, all these while, I was just hallucinating, and those people I had to deal with throughout the years were supposed to be the minority in our country, and that people are in fact VERY into the alternative stuff, just that I didn't know.

bibliobibuli said...

Porty - you make a very good point there about teenage Malay girls being able to identify with the local novels ...

eliar swiftfire - welcome! Yep, what you say is true. But I don't think one throws up hands in despair. Things are changing, if slowly.

I think many readers go for mainstream stuff because they don't know what else they might enjoy. There needs to be some consumer education ... and I think that bookshops need to play a part in this.

Teachers also must do much more to encourage readers - principally by setting an example. (This is a hobby-horse topic so I'll stop here for now and blog about it later.)

The Great Swifty said...

The saddest part is, my high school used to ban anyone from bringing novels there to read. I remembered I was sitting quietly by myself, reading some crap fantasy book (from the Dragonlance series), minding my own business, and some retarded PREFECT snatched it away from me, the look on his face made it seemed as if I was smoking pot in front of him or something.

bibliobibuli said...

eliar swiftfire - for sure that shouldn't happen!