Sunday, July 31, 2005

Winning Wimmin!

Great to see so many friends turn up to support the readings at 67, Jalan Tempinis 1 yesterday. Seksen's place looked a little different with some very interesting installation art including a mobile of glass bottles stuffed with various colourful objects.

It was an afternoon of "wimmin" writers, readdressing the gender balance after the past few months when male writers tended to feature rather more. (Too many Kutus!)

In the end there were five of us reading. Sharanya Manivannan went first reading a beautiful poem about her relationship with her mother tongue, and a longer excerpt from "a novel in progress". Her writing is so sensual and languid and I'm glad that she's chosen for herself the larger framework of the novel. Have to pinch myself to remind myself how young she still is. (Yesterday was her 20th birthday!).

I read next. In the end I chose a piece I'd begun as a short story but plan to work into my own "novel-in-progress". Reading it aloud was an extremely useful experience - could hear how the audience collectively reacted to the words. And I was so pleased that they laughed in the parts where I had laughed when writing it.

Bernice then read a piece about a woman being physically assaulted by her lover. She used repetition and short sentences to skilfully control the emotional impact. Hope it grows into a longer piece.

It was Eileen Lui's first reading. (Bar of course for the launch of my anthology Collateral Damage.) As I've said before, I think she is a very good short story writer. Her two published stories are set in Vietnam, where she was working for some time. At The Gates, the story she read out, has a local setting and features two very elderly Chinese men reflecting on their pasts and worrying about their children. As with her earlier stories, characters emerge sharply from the dialogue, and background detail is worked in very carefully.

The final reader of the afternoon was Jac SM Kee who has recently completed Beth Yahp's creative writing course. She read several short pieces and an extract from a very quirky children's story Sammy and Me.

The only think that might have made me a little happier yesterday was some ice to put in my coca-cola ... it was a really hot afternoon with some serious sweating going on!

Comic Relief in War Time

My review in today's Star of Chong Seck Chim's Once Upon a Time in Malaya, an entertainment set mainly in KL's Chinatown around the time of the Japanese occupation.

The book provides many fine comic moments, has an excellent cast of minor characters and records an important part of Malaysia's social history and I did overall enjoy it. But I found it frustrating too ... if only Chong had gone that bit further and developed his main characters rather more, the book could have been excellent.

I met Chong at his booksigning at MPH Midvalley on the same afternoon as Tash Aw appeared there. I wonder if he is the oldest first-time author ever to be published - anywhere? He is 81, a retired diplomat and a reviewer for the New Straits Times. And I found him totally charming as I chatted to him while he signed my book. He says that this is the only novel he will ever write: he's now going to learn to cook and spend time in meditation.

Postscript (8/11/06):

Since the original is now behind subscription I'm posting it here:

The action in Chong Seck Chin’s Once Upon a Time in Malaya takes place around the time of the Japanese occupation, a time of great turbulence and change in the Malay Peninsula. Surprisingly then, the novel sets out to be “a tale of light relief ” (as Chong explains in an epigram): a comedy rather than a war story.

The story follows the fortunes of a young lad called Ah Kiew and those around him, during the war years. He lodges with his brother, Ah Sing, and his father (a traditional Chinese physician specializing in the treatment of piles) in the house of the twice-widowed Madam Tuck and her daughter Mei Li, in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown. Ah Kiew is about to sit for his Senior Cambridge and faces tough choices both about his future career path (he wonders whether to become a pastor or a clerk) and his love life. (Should he choose the more accommodating Mei Li or hold out for the haughty Shirley Howe of the ‘Scarlet O’Hara’ ringlets?).

But the Japanese invade, and decisions are very much taken out of his hands. After a brief spell hiding out in the tin mines of Ampang (during which time Ah Sing throws in his lot with the communists), Ah Kiew goes to work for Captain Tanaka in a Japanese army depot and begins to discover latent entrepreneurial skills which will determine his subsequent direction in life.

Chong writes very well and the novel cracks along at a fair old pace. He has an excellent vocabulary which borders on the bombastic at times, but his delightfully wry sense of humour tempers his excesses. Indeed, his turn of phrase often delights: Howe’s wife “bristled like a disturbed mimosa”. And when the cunning Mei Lin invites Ah Kiew to give her some help with her algebra (a request that does not fool him for a moment), Chong writes “Algebra had become abracadabra – or as a classic Chinese hack would have put it, prudishly, ‘A conjuncture of turbulent cloud and rain ensued.’”

The author is clearly most at home with those characters he can get greatest comic mileage from and pokes gentle fun at human vanity. Some of the funniest moments in the novel are between the avaricious Madam Tuck and the naïve sinseh Lim whom she sets about manipulating to her own ends both as a marriage and business partner.

Some of the minor characters are drawn with a deftness and economy that many more established writers would envy. Particularly amusing are Howe senior, an anglophile clerk of Baba extraction, with a love of “orotund legal phrases” and bowties; and Terry White, a spinster of Eurasian extraction, “one of those women whom looked better from the behind than from the front, and not many of her rearview admirers had survived the frontal deception”. The chapter in which Terry tries to ensnare her cousin Freddie with a love potion is hilarious and could stand by itself as a satisfying piece of short fiction!

Sadly, Ah Kiew emerges as a rather insipid character by comparison with these larger-than-life figures, and even the author seems to tire of him, allowing him less and less time on the page as the book goes on. And whereas we expect a stirring love story to develop when Ah Kiew and Shirley when they are thrown together during the war, (particularly as he spends so much time mooning over for her in the early chapters) the romance, such as it is, simply peters out without causing the reader to care very much either way.

While Chong writes comedy very well, he finds it much harder to create moments of real drama. The darker side of the Japanese invasion is almost completely ignored. Indeed, the reader is left with the impression that the war was a minor inconvenience to the inhabitants of Chinatown, who quickly learn to capitalize on the commercial opportunities it brought.

It also seems strange that while Chong can spend time lovingly sketching in background detail of, for example, the pharmacist’s shop or a group of Nonya ladies playing chiki, he fails to capitalize on some of the novel’s pivotal scenes. Ah Sing takes upon himself the task of murdering collaborator Ivan Ho, but in the chapter where his assassination attempt on is thwarted, Chong gives barely a paragraph to the shooting which leaves the lad seriously wounded. Similarly, much more suspense could have been worked into the scenes where Shirley and Ah Kiew decide to increase their fortunes in the gambling dens.

In the end, the novel largely succeeds at what it sets out to do: it does entertain and is a valuable social document, giving an intriguing insight into this particular period of history. However, it could have been so much more satisfying if both plot and main characters had been more fully developed. The reader comes away from the book feeling that the author ran out of steam before he ran out of things to say.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

The Book Project

It's great to hear about anyone providing encouragment for new writers locally. But isn't the whole point about publication that it performs a "gatekeeping" function, preventing the market being flooded by mediocre fiction?

Iolanda forwarded this article to me which she found in today's Sun newspaper about a woman who believes it is everyone's right to write and be published.

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IT SEEMED - at least on the face of it - an impossible task. An unassuming former flight stewardess-turned-restauranteur, with no background in publishing, decides to source, edit and publish a collection of short stories, with the promise never to reject a single manuscript that comes her way.

A woolly fantasy? Tell that to Karen Ann Theseira, who has put her time and energy in getting her idea to bear fruit with the publication of her maiden effort, called The Book Project 1.

The idea for the project came to her two years ago, when Karen Ann, a self-confessed book lover who firmly believes everyone has a story to tell, wanted to find a way to encourage ordinary people to write.

The result is The Book Project 1 (published by Various Channel Marketing Sdn Bhd) which offers 23 original short stories from 21 writers in one collection.

Karen Ann herself contributed two short stories, Women (under the pen name Ira) and Dating Game in this compilation. The lanky lady, who is married to an engineer and currently resides in Johor Baru, has began working on the second volume, The Book Project 2.

Here's a link to the rest of the article by Bissme S. and his interview with Karen.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Toyols Steal the Reading Public

Interesting article in yesterdays New Straits Times about Malay reading habits. (Thanks again, Dina, for forwarding the link!)

Apparently Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said during his adjournment speech at the Umno general assembly last week that the Malays are religious but tend to resign themselves to fate and can be very superstitious.

Syed Nadzri takes up the theme and relates it to the kinds of books and magazines favoured by the Malay Community:

... it is quite disconcerting to note that the cerita hantu or cerita toyol (creepy gothic stories) are among the most popular among Malay readers.

That is why some tabloids and magazines are cashing in on this craze by sensationalising with headlines such items as Kubur berasap (Smoke on the grave) or Mayat bertukar menjadi babi (Dead turns into pig).

They are certainly worse than the News of the World-type of stories about UFO sightings, Elvis alive and women giving birth to crocodiles.

Among the best-selling Malay storybooks not too long ago was the Bercakap Dengan Jin series (conversations with the spirits) by an author called Tamar Jalis.

His books were all about grisly tales and they were told in a not-so-tasteful language.

The books also have garish covers. Yet these were so popular that most were sold out the moment they hit the shelves.

I know an avid reader of the series. He would spend nights on end reading the books to the point that he always overslept and was often late for work.

One of the books he read was about a snake god and the snake man.

He must have liked this book because he read it over and over until one day when he came to me with a horrified look.

I asked him what was wrong and he said: "Please help me, please, please. I am going to turn into a snake tonight. I can feel it in my skin. And they are calling me."

When I asked who "they" were, he said: "My snake family."

To my horror, he was indeed writhing and squirming on the floor when night came, although he looked as human as ever. Things were never the same for the poor chap ever since.

This could be dismissed as a remote case of a good mind gone wrong.

Some magazines and tabloids even stretch the reader’s imagination by suggesting a twist to sicknesses suffered by somebody — as in "Artis dijangkiti penyakit misteri" (Singer down with mysterious illness) when there must be a medical explanation for the ailment.

It is no surprise, therefore, that the best-selling Malay reading materials are those featuring either these kinds of bizarre fare or those with sexy and gossipy elements.

All well and good. Everyone to his or her own taste. But what is really worrying is what Syed Nazri says at the end of the article:

Journals on current affairs, literary magazines or special interest periodicals in Bahasa Malaysia hardly sell. Massa, a political and current affairs news magazine, had to cease publication not too long ago, while Dewan Bahasa’s Dewan Masyarakat and Dewan Sastera are struggling.

Would be interested to hear your views.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Readings from an Author in Progress

Bernice called me up the other day and asked me if I'd like to do a reading this Saturday p.m. at 67, Jalan Tempinis 1. Of course lah, quoth I. Didn't broadcast the news because I was waiting for her "official" e-mail before I blogged it.

I can now pass it on:-

this month we present an afternoon of wimmin writers

eileen lui
sharon bakar
sharanya manivannan
bernice chauly
jac sm kee
and more

place: 67 tempinis satu, lucky garden, bangsar
time: 3.30 pm
date: 30 july

come one and come all

readings is organized by bernice chauly and is proudly
supported by la bodega and 67tempinis satu.

see you there!!


Well, I shall read some little snippets from my "novel-in-progress" which also feature "wimmin": Orchid stalking her rival in the gym; Iris hopelessly lost on the roads of Kay Hell; and Peramjit facing her class last lesson on a Friday afternoon.

Glad Eileen Lui is going to read. Her stories are very powerful, and her Chewing Gum Boy was in the anthology I edited. Sharanya's too. And hope "others" includes Muslin Abd. Hamid ...

If you're free, do drop in and join us.

Biar Papa Asal Bergaya

Talking as we were yesterday (thanks Animah!) about the outrageous price of books here in Malaysia, I thought this little quote from RuhayatX's article Well Stuff That which appears in the current edition of Rentakini was particularly appropriate.

Ruhayat applauds the Indonesian democratic spirit, and recounts a conversation with an Indonesian journalist in which:
She remarked on how food and books are dirt cheap in Indonesia but shopping is not, whereas here it's the other way around: food and books are expensive while shopping is cheap.

I thought that was good to know. At the very least, it means even our poor will still look stylish as they lie starving and ignorant in their huts.

South of the Border, West of the Lit World

How strange it is that Malaysia and Singapore are neighbours, share so much in common culturally and yet we often don't know what is going on down there. Thanks, Dina for passing on information about the Singapore Writers Festival 2005 which runs from 26th August-4th September 2005. Here's the blurb about it from the website:
The Singapore Writers Festival celebrates the power of the written word! Aimed at inspiring great writing and nurturing a greater understanding and appreciation of the literary arts, the Festival is set to carve out a bold new trail on the literary stage with its exciting programme line-up. In the spirit of great literature, the Festival offers over 80 events by 63 writers. The events range from talks, readings, panel discussions, workshops, master classes, performances, film screenings to book launches and author signings. Broadening its scope this year to include popular genres such as Crime, Science Fiction and Fantasy as well as Graphic Novels, the Festival has something for everyone to enjoy.

Singapore Writers Festival 2005 has attracted a galaxy of writing stars. Some of our stellar names from the literary world include Manju Kapur from India, Peter Goldsworthy and Doris Pilkington from Australia, Nuri Vittachi from Hong Kong, Goenawan Mohamed from Indonesia, Yu Hua from China. Our award-winning authors from the genre of Science Fiction and Fantasy include Bruce Sterling, Robert J. Sawyer, Norman Spinrad, Cory Doctorow, Juliet Marillier, Jennifer Fallon. The Festival also presents rising stars from the Asia-Pacific literary scene such as Ouyang Yu and Kathryn Fox from Australia, Wei Hui from China, Ayu Utami from Indonesia, Tarun Tejpal from India, Rattawut Lapcharoensap from Thailand, Cyril Wong, Tan Hwee Hwee and Gerrie Lim from Singapore and Amir Muhamad from Malaysia.

Interesting line up. A couple of names jump out at me. Wei Hui is the infamous author of Shanghai Baby,

and Thai/American writer Rattawut Lapcharoensap's collection of short stories Sightseeing has won a great deal of critical acclaim.
And it's nice to see Ayu Utami in the line up. She was one of the most interesting speakers at our own Litfest last year.

I also like the way that the festival doesn't only cater just for the lovers of literary fiction: there are science fiction and fantasy writers, as well as sessions about writing cookbooks, graphic novels and blogging.

The programme is not up yet but I will be checking back frequently. And yes, I think I'm going to be going down to catch as much of it as I can.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Harry Potter and Quickbuck Pirates

I told you we'd soon be seeing pirated Potters. This from today's Malay Mail. It will be interesting to see if Bloomsbury take action against the pirates. Or is there someone much bigger behind this scam?
Pirated copies of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, have found their way here and are selling like magic at a fraction of the original cost.

The genuine hardcover books retail for RM99.90 each while the bootleg paperback versions are sold at RM48; slightly less than half the price of the original.

The pirated versions, at a glance, appear similar to the originals except that they are paperback versions. The originals are only available in hardcover.

The laminated cover features the same illustrations as the original.

Following a tip-off, The Malay Mail visited a bookstore on the ground floor of Tesco hypermarket in Puchong yesterday, and purchased a copy.

The store, selling mostly Chinese magazines and books, had a bookcase near the entrance, where several pirated copies were displayed.

The lone cashier claimed ignorance when asked why the books were in paperback and sold at half the price of the originals.

She declined to reveal where the books were obtained from and the number sold so far.

The shop has been in operation for more than a year.

Meanwhile, an industry source said the pirates are reaping a huge profit.

According to the source, the average cost of printing a 607- page paperback of that size would cost around S$5 (RM11.25) at the most.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Pansing Distributors, the sole distributor of Harry Potter books in Malaysia and Singapore, said they were unable to comment on the matter as they were awaiting approval from Bloomsbury, the publisher.

In the first 24 hours of its release on July 16, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince sold 6.9 million copies in the US and more than two million in Britain, smashing all previous sales records of Harry Potter books.

The book has already become a victim of piracy in India, where pirated copies flooded the streets of Mumbai two days after the book’s launch.

A race has also begun in China, where the People’s Literature Publishing House is frantically attempting to release the Chinese version of the book before the pirates do.

Books to Order

Have taken on what must be one of the nicest jobs in the world - buying books for the British Council library. At the moment the work involves surfing the net, reading reviews, thinking about what books I'd like to buy. The sort of thing I do all the time, but this time I'm actually being paid to do it!

The perameters I've been given are that the writers must be British, or have won a major British award, or be resident in the UK and writing on British themes. And I've started with the fiction since this is by far the biggest secion in the library. (Not to mention the one closest to my heart!)

My "work" has been made so much easier by The Book Award Annals website which lists all the winners of major awards with pictures of the book covers and synopses.

If you love lists of books or are stumped as to what to read next, you will find this one of the best resources on the net.

Now I'm okay with the literary fiction, this being "my thing", but would love to hear from any aficionados out there who would like to recommend books in other genres, such as sci-fi, fantasy, humour, murder-mystery, "chick-lit". Remember there has to be a strong British connection and the novels should preferably be "contemporary".

I just hope that this job doesn't lead me into greater book-buying danger as far as my home-library is concerned. I might get so envious of BC having great books on its shelf that I don't have my own copy of. (And I hate to borrow books! I need to have them!) I can see it happening and anything I earn from this job being wiped out to support my habit. *Sigh*

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

ChangeYourLife! Sdn. Bhd.

Linda’s* summons was pretty odd, garbled into the telephone on Sunday morning. She asked me to be there when she “graduated” from her course. (I had no idea that she was even on a course, but then that’s Linda – always looking for ways to improve herself.) She said that she was supposed to find someone who had made a big difference in her life – that was her final “homework”. I decided to go along because she sounded like she needed a friend – even if I didn’t get what she was on about, and yes – I suppose I was flattered at being the person she’d chosen as being particularly influential in her life. (Though I just try to teach her how to loosen up, to be bit badder, to tell the folks who make her life a misery – as they do, because she won’t assert herself - to eff off.)

So I drive out to Jingbang Jaya, find the building after getting lost and found again. The ChangeYourLife! office looks like any other corporate building. In the lobby and outside the glass doors some folks are milling round: presumably these were others who have been invited for the graduation. Though wasn’t “graduation” too grand a term for it? Linda said on the phone that she’s been on this course for just five days: three evenings and now this weekend.

More and more people, and I see that everyone is buying gifts: flowers, cards, stupid stuffed toys, mugs with motivational messages on them. Isn’t this a little … overblown, I think. Still, I toy with the idea of buying Linda a rose, because every woman deserves flowers … until I discover that I’m supposed to shell out RM10 (US$5) for it. It's better perhaps to nick a few red flowers off the ixora hedge that borders the road.

I pick up a newsletter to find out what kind of training this company runs. I read about “Meaningful Moments”; a day of charity events; an article by a couple of previous graduates (pictured in their Malay wedding finery) about how the course helped them to find their soul mate and realise their full potential; an article about how saying sorry is really a cop-out; another article on leadership. Nothing about what the courses contain. A course schedule on the back is written in a code that obviously isn’t intended to be deciphered by the uninitiated.

The crowd gathers. I meet up with an ex-student of mine, and her whole family. Her brother is “graduating”.

Finally, the door of the auditorium open and the crowd is ushered inside bearing their bouquets and teddy bears: the scene reminds me of hospital visiting time. We’re told to be silent as we file in. Shhhhhh, young men in turquoise t-shirts hiss at us. This makes me want to talk even more. But hey, this is for my friend so I’d better play the game. Whatever the game is.

The room is in semi-darkness. There’s soothing music being played in the background. All the course participants – all 170 of them as I learn later, are lined up along the walls and down the centre of the room, hands linked to the person next to them in a huge chain, eyes firmly closed. We are apparently supposed to locate our person and then stand silently in front of them. The crowd shuffles around the room and I follow in their wake, feeling incredibly claustrophobic.

Eventually I find Linda and stand in front of her as I’m supposed to do. There’s a man talking very softly into a microphone in the corner of the room over the strains of I Am the Wind Beneath Your Wings. (Oh god, I think I’m going to collapse with the corniness of it all.) The speaker is from Ohio, specially flown in to conduct the course. He’s reminding the participants of some of the things they covered on the course, a final reminder before they are launched back into the world.

Then they are allowed to open their eyes. And suddenly all the participants are bursting into tears and hugging each other and their loved ones. Linda hugs me very tightly. It’s as if we haven’t seen each other for years. She hands me a thank you card telling me that she’s so grateful for my friendship over the years. Then she bounces off to hug a whole lot more people, her course mates apparently, and I lose her for a minute. She hugs a Sikh guy. What is this? I’ve never seen Linda hug anyone before. She’s normally so scared of men (forty-something virgin). She’s weeping and this is the first time I've seen her in tears.

Everyone it seems is weeping and hugging and hugging and weeping, what is this?

We leave the hall. It takes a long time with even more hugging on the way out. She introduces me to Pastor Pete, and gives him a hug too. He introduced her to the course. She invites him along to go to dinner at Restoran Four Season with us.

Soon the pair of them are preaching the gospel of the ChangeyourLife! course. Over a meal of very indifferent Chinese food, I try to get out of Linda what she learned on her course. But it seems she isn’t allowed to tell me. All participants are sworn to total secrecy about the contents of the course and the training methods. I can tell Linda and Pastor Pete are dying to compare notes, but I’m there so all they can do is make cryptic references.

Which bit of the course did you find most powerful? he asks Linda. I remember I cried my eyes out during the Sunday morning session. Did that move you too?

Linda looks a little lost. She can’t remember what they did this morning. She doesn’t remember crying this morning, but she did cry on Thursday night, she says. It’s his turn to wrinkle his brow. He can’t recall what exercise they did on Thursday night when he did the course.

They talk about the exhaustion. How little sleep you get on the course. How it’s so emotionally draining because you are sharing your innermost thoughts and secrets the whole time. Then he and Linda are waxing lyrical about how the course can make such a profound difference to their lives.

Just imagine, Linda says, there were such young people on the course, some of them still at university, some of them sponsored by their companies. They are getting the benefit of this training so early on in life and haven’t had to wait half their life before they discover it, she says enviously.

The Pastor is a slight, skinny guy, who looks as if a slight breeze might blow him over. A propos of nothing it seems, he talks about his life. He tells us how his parents drummed into him that he’d be a failure in life, about how he ran away from home and made an attempt on his life, how his friends laughed at him and said he wasn’t even able to kill himself properly. He always suffered from poor self esteem before he went on the course, he says. (Hey, I thought it was supposed to be Jesus who saved, and all that? But Jesus doesn’t get a look in apart from a quick grace over the very dry lemon chicken in a gloopy catering pack sauce before we lift our chopsticks.)

The Linda takes up the chorus and reveals all the secrets of her unhappy life (over the prawns in sticky black sauce). Stuff it’s taken me years to prise out of her offered over the dinner table with the mixed vegetables.

Pastor Pete has completed his Elementary Training and his Further Training and is now going on to attend the Leadership Programme. He tells Linda how incredible the Further course is. She has to wait before the school holiday now before she can take it. They talk about the course fees and suddenly I’m doing my sums and realise that whoever is responsible for these course, which run more or less back-to-back is raking in hundreds of thousands of ringgit every week, and millions each year. Subtract costs and overheads. But there’s need for advertising – it become clear to me why I’ve been invited today – the “graduates” are supposed to pull in their friends and family to do the course. It’s like pyramid selling!

Pastor Pete was sponsored by ChangeYourLife! he tells me, as he ladles more of the taufu in curry sauce onto my plate. He says this is one of the ways they give to charity. Never mind that through him the organisation have access to all his parishioners.

It’s wonderful you’ll see, Linda tells me over the desert of sweet taufu soup with gingko nuts. I’m going to bring you along on Thursday night, she says, so you can see what it’s all about. It’s a special guest night. I hope you’ll sign up. This will change your life.

The warning bells begin to ring in my ears. Is Linda on a hard sell? This is something else I’ve never seen her do before.

When I get home I consult the all-wise oracle, in the corner of my back bedroom. I type ChangeYourLife! into Woogle. There’s plenty to read. I’m taken to websites calling it a cult, warning of its dangers.

The courses ChangeYourLife! runs are apparently examples of Large Group Awareness Training, something that used to be quite a phenomenon in the United States, and this organisation, after a spate of lawsuits against it has now shifted its operations to Asia.

Let me quote from one of the articles:
All these LGAT programs apparently fit the same pattern. They tear people down within a controlled confrontational seminar setting, and then build them up, according to their programme model. Their methods have been compared to a type of “brainwashing.”

First, groups like ChangeYour Life! gain virtually total control of a participant’s environment. Then they may use various methods to induce a kind of Trance State, which may achieved through long periods of staring into your assigned “buddy’s” eyes or some other practice. Then they hammer away in confrontational exercises until you eventually “get it”. Whatever that is.”

All this sounds pretty sinister, and it leaves me with a dilemma. Do I warn Linda about all this and play the killjoy? Do I let her continue to waste her money and find her self inducted further and further into what looks like some kind of cult? Do I go along with her on Thursday to keep her happy and to satisfy my curiosity a bit further? One part of me also thinks, is it so bad if she goes around hugging strange men? She might even find a soul mate. If she finds a little joy in her life, should I be the one to burst her bubble?

I have sleepless nights, believe me. But tell her I do, presenting her with the sheaf of papers I've printed out. She takes it all surprisingly calmly.

She tells me that she went for a follow-up interview that day and to submit her final written assignment which was an account of how she'd benefitted from the course.

The man who interviewed me, she said, read my work and then he just screwed up the piece of paper and threw it in the bin. He told me that I was a total loser in life and would continue to be a total loser unless I took the Further course.

She smiles bravely. I wasn't prepared to be humiliated like that, she says, and I just walked away. I'm glad that you told me all this because now I don't have any regrets at all.

*Names and a few other details have been changed.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Finding Lloyd

Have a huge pile of notebooks, the accumulated junk of years of scribbling. I'm slowly ploughing through them, rereading, indexing the entries. There are whole captured moments. I walk in my own shoes at that point in the past. There are patterns which repeat themselves without my realising. I must think about them more. And there's so much I had forgotten and it's good to be reminded about.

Had completely forgotten this encounter:

Met a writer. Was asked to judge a choral speaking contest at Bukit Bintang Girl's School. Chief judge was Lloyd Fernando ("Scorpion Orchid"). He gave me a lift home in his old Volvo. I remembered reading in in Abu's Law association report that he had become a lawyer. But he says he wants to make more time now to get back to writing.

Now this is the bit I find most interesting looking back:

He told me that he was sad that no writer seemed to be chronicalling the changes in Malaysian society, addressing issues. There needs to be a Malaysian Dickens, a Malaysian Vikram Seth.

My thoughts: 1) he was (still is) totally right 2) we're still waiting.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Ibsen in the Afternoon

Went along to the reading of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler at Actor's Studio yesterday afternoon. Thoroughly enjoyed it, even without costumes or sets, and even though the cast walked it through with scripts in hands.

Ibsen is one of my favourite playwrights. I know A Doll's House pretty well and I've seen Ghosts twice and both times come away from the performance a nervous wreck. But I'd neither read nor seen Hedda Gabbler before and was so pleased to have an opportunity to encounter it in this way.

The cast (Anne James, Chacko Vadaketh, Kee Thuan Chye, Kiew Suet Kim, Sarah Shahrum, Shirley Chang and Zahim Albakri) were excellent. This was only their third rehearsal, for heaven's sake! (Zahim's second.)

It is an excellent play ("a dark psychological drama" the publicity material said) and I liked this modern translation which made it feel contemporary. There are plenty of twists and turns and drama and revelations. Good direction is crucial so that the play stops just short of melodrama, and Soefira Jane managed that. But the greatest delight is the characters. Anne James captured Hedda's cold cruelty and cunning very well, and it isn't at all an easy role. Most of all though, I loved Sarah Shahrum's bimboesque portrayal of Mrs. Elvsted.

There was an audience discussion with the cast and director afterwards. Would we like to see the play staged? We would. What had we liked, not liked about it? I hadn't liked the "Malaysianisation" of Aunt Juliana and the maid and said so. But on the whole there was much much more to praise than criticise. And I really hope there are more play readings to come, especially of Lorca, another of my favourites.

Now much of the drama of the play centred around a lost manuscript of a totally brilliant book, which leads to a suicide and the undoing of Hedda herself.

The moral of the story is clearly: Always Make Back-up Copies of Your Work.

Got a sad e-mail from a fellow writer last night - I'd asked him whether he'd ever sent out a short story that I'd thought was very good. He replied that his hard disk had crashed and he had lost everything he'd written since he was 9! My goodness. I've had hard disks crash on me too and save not only on floppy disk (do they still call 'em that? The technology keeps moving on while I'm stuck in a stoneage rut!) but also online - that's what I use my Google account for, with all its megamightymultigigabites of space.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Where Do Little Stories Come From, Mummy?

Where do stories come from? Could it be possible that they were there all along and all we had to do was open our eyes and ears to them? In Paula Isabel Allende writes:

"... it is possible that stories are creatures with their own lives and that they exist in the shadows of some mysterious dimesnsion; in that case it will be either a question of opening so they may enter, sink into me, and grow until they are ready to emerge transfored into language."

Short story writer James Salter, interviewed by says:

Short stories, sometimes you tear them out of the beak of life, so to speak. And sometimes they simply are lying there on the ground to pick up. You may have a certain idea for a story you have to tell, but the story didn't exist before because it wasn't lived by somebody else -- you constructed it yourself. Some stories come completely assembled and ready to go. Otherwise it may be like one of those nightmare Christmas toys where they say "everything is included but the battery and assembly required." You may spend hours and hours feverishly trying to make something of it.

And he talks about one magical occasion when he just sat down to write and a complete short story simply poured out onto his page:

There is one such story in this present book that was written in the morning. And that is "Bangkok." I had a start. I had two lines that someone had told me over the telephone -- "Weren't you going to call me back?" "Of course not." I began with those two lines and just knew the rest of it. I knew the people. I was able to write the story.

You don't have to "think up" anything. The stories are there waiting for you.

And if you feel inspired to write this weekend, why not pick up those two lines of Salter's and run with them?

Thursday, July 21, 2005

So Am I A Litblog?

Am I a "litblog"?

I didn't really set out to become one, just to write (for a primary audience of me, myself and I) about the things that are important to me. Books and writing are my first loves and I find myself writing about them because I can't help myself.

Then I got linked by Literary Saloon as a source of information about the Malaysian literary scene. Decided I'd better take my feet off the table, sit up straight and take my new designation as a "litblog" seriously.

About the same time I realised that I have an interesting overview of the things that are going on locally. Organising the Litfest last year helped greatly - I got to know local writers and made friends with the folks in the various foreign missions. And since then I've kept my ear to the ground and gone to as many events as I can. There is for sure a lack of information about events for readers and writers in this city, and if my blog can serve as a news hub, then I'm happy. It seems to be working that way, with different people asking me if I could publicise this or that event here. (Which I'm happy to do.)

So am I a "litblog"? Sort of yes, sort of no. I enjoy writing my other short pieces and will post them up unrepentedly, even though they have nothing to do with books and writing. I could split the two kinds of entry into two different blogs ... but I really don't want to. Book news alone could get a bit dense ...

But on the subject of litblogs, do go read Scott Esposito's article on litblogging. Love the way he calls litblogging "the for the lover of literature" and I really hadn't realised what a recent phonomena the litblog is, and how it's changing the publishing scene. And there are some excellent links from this article to some of the very best literary blogs. (Could spend all day. *sigh*).

I actually think that Eric Forbes is an excellent local litblogger. Lots of news on his site about book awards and new books.

You Are What You Read

The world may be full of fourth-rate writers, but it's also full of fourth-rate readers. — Stan Barstow

You say that you want to write? Good, I'm glad to hear it. Welcome to the club.

But before you start to send out work thinking it is the best in the world and going to sell a zillion copies and going to net you a fortune as big as that Rowling woman, there's one thing you must do.

You must read.

You must read.

Not just the occasional book, but as many books and as hungrily as you can.

Good books. Bad books.

Books in any genre. But most especially books in the genre you want to write.

"Go away and read a thousand books," Raman tells wanna-be writer who wander into his shop to seek advice.

And I'd say, yes, more or less, that's exactly it.

Because if you don't read, how will you enrich your store of words?

Because if you don't read, how will you know what's possible?

Because if you don't read, how do you develop that inner critical voice that tells you whether your work is any good or not?

The answer is, quite simply, that you won't.

And I don't think you will will be able to write anything that will interest me.

If your time-impoverished-pragmatic-self baulks at the idea of carving out some reading time in a busy day, and you feel guilty because you see reading as an indulgence, remember: reading time is really writing time, and it is the most effective, least painful way to improve your craft.


If I haven't made my case persuasively enough, please go and read this essay by writer Patricia Ann Jones.

...give me a man or woman who has read a thousand books and you give me an interesting companion. Give me a man or woman who has read perhaps three and you give me a dangerous enemy indeed. -Anne Rice

Good writing comes from good reading. You have to do as much as possible and read as widely as possible. Only by reading can you understand your own work. - Tash Aw

A good style simply doesn't form unless you absorb a dozen topflight authors every year. - F. Scott Fitzgerald

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The Urge to Glurge and Other Online Misdeamenours

Received a story from a friend in my e-mail. It's called The Birdies. Go take a peep.

The passed-on-passed-on e-mail ended with the words:
Now I don't know about you, but these sentimental e-mails, rather than filling me with love, and peace and benovolence to my fellow man ... just make me see red! Most of the time they aren't true and I hate to be lied to. And it's emotional manipulation of the cheapest sort. The "pass-it-on-to-at-least" instruction is the final straw. I feel like rounding on the person who sent it and shouting "You gullible idiot! What do you take me for!"

The folks at came up with a great word for these stories. Glurge.
What is glurge? Think of it as chicken soup with several cups of sugar mixed in: It's supposed to be a method of delivering a remedy for what ails you by adding sweetening to make the cure more appealing, but the result is more often a sickly-sweet concoction that induces hyperglycemic fits.

In ordinary language, glurge is the sending of inspirational (often supposedly "true") tales that conceal much darker meanings than the uplifting moral lessons they purport to offer, and that undermine their messages by fabricating and distorting historical fact in the guise of offering a "true story."
Does it matter if these stories are not true? Some friends are taken by surprise by my reaction and say; "It's a nice story anyway." Yeah, stick-your-fingers-down-your- throat-and-hack-up-a-hairball sort of nice. (And doesn't the word "glurge" sound so pleasantly like vomiting?) Am I alone in feeling like this?

Urban legends are much worse though and I've had plenty of those sliming their way into my inbox.

There was one about Bill Gates sharing his fortune. The subject line screamed:
And it went on:
For a two weeks time period. For every person that you forward this e-mail to, Microsoft will pay you $245.00 For every person that you sent it to that forwards it on, Microsoft will pay you $243.00 and for every third person that receives it, You will be paid $241.00. Within two weeks,Microsoft will contact you for your address and then send you a check.
Gates himself stepped forward to squash the rumour and lambast the senders-on-senders-on for wasting everyone's valuable time.

We've also had out localised variations of urban legends which have done their rounds in America and other parts of the world before reaching these shores. (We always seem to be that bit behind!)

Remember the story about snakes in the kiddies ball pit in IKEA or man in Midvalley Megamall's carpark who pretended that he wanted to borrow a carjack but was really out to kidnap a poor defenceless woman at knifepoint?

Surely, there are enough things to be afraid of this world without someone adding to them?

And the irony is that all these stories seem to be passed on to me by friends in academia! The very same people who come down like a ton of bricks on their students if they haven't taken the trouble to check their sources.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Twelve steps to Salvation

There is as yet no twelve-step plan for bookaholics. Maybe it's high-time to devise one?

Poor old Leon certainly could do with some help before he starves to death.

Monday, July 18, 2005

The 'World's Biggest Readers'?

There's a nice little table in the Silverfish litmag about which nation reads the most. The source was the NOP website. Which country do you think came top of the list? Go look.

The answer may surprise you. As it did me.

And I'm not alone. According to the BBC website:
Indian writer and editor, Tarun Tejpal, said the survey only made sense if it excluded the high numbers of illiterate Indians.

The National Readership Survey shows more than one-third of rural Indians and about 15% of the urban population is still illiterate.

"A lot of [book reading] is aspirational, getting ahead in the rat race, getting admission into schools and colleges etc. It has less to do with reading, more to do with rote," Mr Tejpal said.

Leading columnist, Venkateshwar Rao, told Britain's Sunday Times newspaper he could not see Indians flocking to book stores.

As always, you wonder how the survey was carried out. (Sadly, no information is given on the website.)

Just as I always wonder how Frank Small and Associates arrived at estimate of two books a year for how much the average Malaysian reads when they carried out their 1996 survey for the National Library. Maybe I should go buy the book?

Now Malaysia doesn't feature at all in the NOP survey, but I'd love to know where it comes now. Is it possible that the Thais can read so much more?

Sunday, July 17, 2005

In Case of Litfest Break Glass

Now everytime there's an article about a literary festival, I have to read it and take notes ... just in case .... just in case ... just ... (I really wouldn't be that rash ever again, would I? *Slaps hand across mouth in horror*)

But if I did I hope the event wouldn't be as straightlaced and sensible and let's face it ... predicitable ... as last time.

Wouldn't it be fun if it were more like the Port Eliot Literary Festival?:
Kunzru is a keen supporter of Port Eliot's philosophy of letting writers do something 'other than their ordinary shtick. It's not like Hay - you're unlikely to get anyone reading from their book; instead you'll get an author demonstrating how to make a martini-based cocktail. It's a great deal of fun,' he concludes.


Hmmm ... what can our local writers apart from read? Kutu guys, what are your hidden talents?

Jeanette Winterson in The Times also talks about literary festivals, though of the slightly more conventional kind.

t is a little bit strange that reading, which is the most solitary and private of acts, should translate into the gospel tent euphoria of the festival. This has happened because people love to be read to, as they did when they were kids; because they are curious to meet the writers who interest them; and most of all, because they are curious to meet each other. Reader’s groups and dedicated websites are about securing the connections that books suggest. All art is about connection, and in a world that often comes to us in bewildering fragments, the connections that art offers are increasingly necessary.

She also talks about how setting up such a festival does not need huge infusions of cash and need not be a "developed country" phonomena.

I have been told, by the cynics, that literary festivals can operate only in rich countries with time and money to spare, so that the thing becomes a kind of cultural health farm, where you go to shed an overdose of soap operas and tone some intellectual muscle.

I thought it would be interesting to put this to the test by accepting an invitation to Brazil for the Festa Literária Internacional de Parati, a festival just three years old, in a tiny town halfway between Rio and São Paulo.

Liz Calder, the Bloomsbury supremo who discovered Salman Rushdie and J. K. Rowling, has a house outside Parati, and decided to start a literary festival there because she thought “it would be good for everything”.

She had no money, she had no backers, but she knew that Brazilians love ideas and that they are open-minded. She launched the festival, and in the first year had 800 visitors, in the second year, 12,000, yes, that nought is 12,000, and now has so many people who want to come along, that they have big-screen monitors and overflow tents.

Enthusiasm makes all the difference. Here in Malaysia the cash can certainly be found with a little looking. But do we have an equal enthusiasm for intellectual engagement?

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Drifting Characters in Search of a Plot

Got sidetracked writing about Harry Potter when I really meant to write about MPH's Writer's Circle.

Today there were just sixteen of us. A drastic drop in numbers after last month's exciting encounter with Tash Aw, which in itself speaks volumes ... if this group is to survive there needs to be a clear focus to each session, interesting guest speakers and plenty of advance publicity.

Oon Yeoh was back, though still needing a crutch to hobble around after his knee operation and subsequent infection. The group consisted of several wanna-be fictionators (including Li Ying, Emily, Christina, Hezrine); Chris, a published writer/illustrator with a book of ghost stories to his credit; our print-on-demand friends Gary Gan and Shirley; Malkeet and Avtaran of Micechannel (Malkeet took part in my creative writing course and jumped into writing fiction with enthusiasm after years of writing about golf!); Jennifer, a speech and language pathologist, writing about her work; her father who edits The Planter and her mother who writes occasional articles for it; Sulaiman, a motivational speaker for whom a book project is as yet a twinkle in the eye at present; Joyce, an ex-trainer interested in design and layour; another Shirley, "passionate about publishing"; and Lim a management trainer in sales negotiation.


And here you see the size of the problem ... so many divergent interests and no-one quite sure of what our direction should be.

Over the previous months there has been valuable discussion about how to publish your own work and market it locally. But those wanting to write fiction have been largely ignored.

I told Oon that maybe we should alternate, one month the focus should be on fiction, the next non-fiction ... and we should try to bring in interesting speakers whenever possible. I've volunteered a session on writing and editing short fiction which I have a bit of insight into after editing a collection, and keeping my ear to the ground to hear what other editors have to say. Shall try to rope in one or two other friends to talk too. (You know who you are! Be warned!)

In many ways though, this diversity within the group has been a strength in that it encourages networking: I've certainly benefitted through the contacts and friends I've made. But I think the next few months will be make or break time for the Writer's Circle.

(Read Oon Yeoh's account of the meeting on his blog.)

That Old Potter Magic

Bumped into Voldemort today.

He seemed a little alarmed at my scream of terror and whisked off his mask to reveal a perfectly sweet smile, a young Chinese guy on his first work assignment after graduating, which was, he told me, to spook the kids who came to buy the book. Nice work if you can get it, I say.

At a counter near the door cauldrons smoked and evil green liquid bubbled in a test tube. Giant spiders and green snakes lurked, while witchily-clad sales assistants handed out forms for the treasure hunt to locate the half-blood prince somewhere in the store.

Today of course was Harry Potter day and around the world the same joyous lunacy prevailed. MPH opened at 7a.m. for the fans. At this one branch alone there were 1,000 pre-orders for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Just multiply that by bookshops across the city, by the bookshops of the world!

I love you, J.K. Rowling, Patron Saint of Getting Kids to Read!

How many kids will are holed up in their rooms in complete and eerie silence right now? How many will be forgetting to eat and going without sleep the whole night?

And along the way learning the best lesson of all ... with books comes pleasure and there are books you just want to devour whole.

(The cynical Mr. Raman says the problem is that kids just don't make the move from Potter to other writers. The trouble with Mr. Raman is that he is a mere muggle.)

Here I must confess I've read only Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone. But loved it and am saving the rest for a time when I need to feel a kid again.

For adult readers who something more substantial than Potter, let me direct you to a novel I truly love and must read again pretty soon: Haruki Murakami's Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

It has a hero who goes through the back of a cupboard to discover a strange underground world. (Wherever did he dream up that idea?) It has horrible monsters called Inklings ... and a wood with unicorns in it, a passing nod to Harry Potter.

Rowling hasn't cornered the market in magic, thank goodness.


Was I over-hasty extolling the virtues of Potterdom? I laughed at this review from Kitabkhana.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

My Home at the End of the World

We are given a house on the school compound, Gulshan and I. It is rectangular concrete box, one of three on this side of the school compound.

Inside the walls are painted dark blue, and the windows are high up on the walls, so that you cannot see out of them unless you stand on a chair. The lounge has sliding glass doors, which lead out onto the porch.

There is little furniture in the lounge. The dining table had been taken from the students’ dining hall. The dining chairs have been borrowed from the staff room. There is a lounge set, though some of the rubber strips that hold the foam cushions in place are missing, and so you must balance yourself carefully, so as not to fall through. There is a cupboard without doors, which is where I keep the few possessions I have brought with me, my camera, my recorder, a radio-cassette with the tapes I hastily recorded before I left and a few I bought on the street in Jos, and some items of makeup. I’ve also acquired an object that looks like a clay jug without a spout: it is in fact a drum, which you slap with the palms. The concrete floor is bare but for a straw mat I bought in the market. I don’t mop it often, I haven’t the energy, and it feels gritty. When the Harmattan comes howling round the houses, it doesn’t matter how often you sweep and wipe the furniture: there is always a layer of red dust on everything.

The kitchen has a stove and a refrigerator. The electricity only comes on for a few hours at night when the school generator comes on and so the refrigerator is useless for keeping more than bottles of water cold. I have a wonderful clay pot, which is so much more effective than the refrigerator. I keep it outside my backdoor, buried up to the lip in sand. The water is ice cold, even at the hottest part of the day.

Water is the great problem here. Outside the back door, there is a large zinc tank, which is filled once a week when the school tanker drives to Lafia, 60 km away. Sometimes, if I have water delivered to my tank, the girls come at night with their buckets and steal it.

But often the school tanker breaks down and we have to ask the students to bring us water. They carry it on their heads three kilometers from the river. I boil the water assiduously for ten minutes to kill all the bacteria, as we were told to do on our VSO training course, and pour it into the stainless steel water filter. The water trickles through the central core of limestone leaving the sediment behind.

The storeroom is almost empty. A few yam tubers that I shall later cut up and fry, and eat with sardines and onions. Rice, which we shall have to pick through to remove the stones. Dried beans and macaroni already infested with weevils, though this no longer bothers us. Perhaps a few cans of mackerel for the cat, and a couple of tins of baked beans, which we are saving up for a special treat for ourselves. We have to keep our papaya shut away in the store too; the cat is crazy for it. Perhaps that was one food that was easily available to him in the bush when he was a kitten?

We each have a bedroom. I sleep under a mosquito net, which always smells of dust. I spray insecticide under it, but still sometimes a mosquito gets trapped inside it and buzzes and bites the whole night long.

It is unbearably hot at night, without a fan even to keep us cool. I usually wake up in the small hours of the morning, bathed in sweat and go to the bathroom to throw cold water over myself so I can get back to sleep.

I have a big Hausa wedding basket in the corner of the room where for now I keep my dirty washing, but I shall take it home with me when the time comes. There are also a few novels by the side of my bed: some books in the Heinemann African Writers series that I managed to find in the bookshop in Jos, and then there are thrillers that I’ve borrowed in desperation from my Zairian neighbour, Kayembe, who is in love with Gulshan.

Gulshan’s room is next to mine. Her bed is covered in a brightly patterned Indian sheet, which came from her mother’s shop in Hastings. Why does the cat prefer to sleep, stretched out on her bed, when it’s me that feeds him?

The bathroom has a shower that cannot be used. The water tanker, even if it has water, cannot pump it up to the top tank that would provide each of the houses with piped water.

Instead, we carry all our water for bathing in buckets. I have a huge enamel basin, big enough to sit in, so that sometimes I can warm a pan of water on the stove and luxuriate in the nearest thing to a proper bath I can find.

We have a western style toilet. Because we do not have piped water, each time we want to flush it, we must pour water into the cistern. We use the water from washing clothes and washing ourselves, and sometimes I have to ask my students to let me have their dirty water from bathing.

The house faces the hostel, and the movements of the students set the pace for our days. In the morning the clank of buckets wakes us, as they make their way to the zinc sheds that serve as bathrooms. We know when to leave the house in the morning, when we see them parading off to school in their blue uniforms. In the long, hot afternoons the girls sit on upturned buckets for hours plaiting and binding each other’s hair into elaborate styles and gossiping. The vultures hop around them, ungainly and ridiculous on the ground.

Later, the girls go for sports practice, or clear the weeds and grass from the compound to keep away the snakes. Sometimes the girls come and sit on the porch with me and ask about England or trade songs with me.

There is a smoke-blacked hole in the asbestos board on the underside of the zinc roof. There was hive of bees inside my roof. I liked them because I could close my eyes and imagine myself back in an English country garden. But everyone said that they were dangerous and had to be got rid of. The Bible Studies master, the same man who had helped me to buy my water pot, offered to smoke them out. Gulshie and I acquiesced sadly, and went off to the school to supervise night prep when he came round to do the deed. When we came home, we learned that he had indeed smoked the bees, but had also taken the honey to sell in the town. We had been left with the hole in the roof, and all the bees, which had swarmed into our lounge. Now the space under the roof has become the home of a barn own, whose talons I hear scratching the ceiling of my bedroom.

I watch the comings and going to the matron’s house next door. She has a small shop where she sells soft drinks in bottles, sweets and biscuits. Sometimes she is prepared to sell one of her chickens: a particularly noisy rooster that crowed under my window at four a.m. tastes especially sweet. The matron also seems to act a marriage broker, and young men come up from the town to ask her to mediate between themselves and the schoolgirl they’ve chosen. Our principal doesn’t know this.

Beyond the wire mesh fence where our clothes are drying, you can see the bush for miles around. Fulani herdsmen graze their white zebu cattle on the dry savannah and white egrets settle on the cows like a flight of stars.

My home at the end of the world: a good place to heal myself.

With Kunga - official clown to the town ruler

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The Last Great Makyong Performer

I'm slow, I know, blogging this. It appeared on the Kakiseni website a couple of weeks ago.

Bernice mentioned the passing away of Pak Su Mat the last time we had readings at Seksen's place. But I didn't know anything more about him till I came across her article just now.

It is a tragedy that this country does not accord its traditional performers the recognition that they so deserve. Remember what novelist Edward Carey said about the wayang kulit Tok Dalang Pak Dollah in my interview with him a few weeks ago?:
In many countries, Pak Dollah would be seen as a national treasure and it’s a great shame that he isn’t. ... It’s awful what’s happening to the culture. Traditional performance should be cherished.
These words about Pak Su Mat from Bernice's article really touched me:
... he was also perhaps one of the last great practitioners of the Malay dance-theatre form of Makyong. He died unceremoniously, destitute, with only a few friends and family by his side, the way that most kampung-folk do, with little pomp and circumstance.

I tried to raise funds for this final performance. I approached institutions and banks but was turned down due to the fact that Makyong was deemed “Un-Islamic” and was therefore a form that could not even be considered.

A tragedy, as I said before. Not just for Pak Su Mat, but for all of us.

Rejected Not Dejected

Fairy godmother was playing hard to get just now.

Poems I'd sent out ... all rejected. *sigh*

One of them interested the editor, but she said that "a greater degree of
restraint might have made it a better poem"

She goes on:"With a strong submission list this time round, I regret to say we're not able to offer publication."

Rewriting needed then. No problem.

Pick myself up. Dust myself down. Send out poems for the next edition.

I feel on much safe ground with fiction. Both writing it and critiquing it.

But poetry is so much harder to shape.

It's easy, I mean, to arrange words on paper and call it a poem. And call yourself a poet.

But it's so much harder to create the good stuff. For which there is honestly only one true measure of quality:

Does it give you goosebumps?

Because you feel good poetry in your body.

And then your head won't let go of it. You have to internalise it, because it says something that your recognise right there in your soul, and you haven't heard it expressed in any other way.

There are poems I carry in my head, because I need them. Because they've changed the way I see the world.

That's the kind of poetry I want to write.

Monday, July 11, 2005

A Portfolio Career?

A friend came up with a term I liked the other day.

"You're developing a portfolio career," she said.

We were sitting contemplating the long list I'd typed out of all the work and projects I've taken on. I carry it round with me all the time to remind myself that, difficult as I find it, I can't say yes to everything.

But something has happened in these months since I decided to work freelance. To express it in a really cheesy way ... it's as if my fairy godmother paid a visit chucked a little fairy dust my way.

I had my company set up years ago. But never had the courage to operate it. I was afraid to take that first step. Afraid of falling flat on my face. Afraid, most of all, of the paperwork and of managing finances. (Show me figures and I start to hyperventilate!)

It's hard to make the jump to working for yourself after you've spent years working for other people. I was very comfortable working for years in teacher-training. Too comfortable to kiss my great colleagues and my lovely students ... and my all-too-nice-paid-in-UK salary, goodbye.

But then the project ended. Other countries, other universities, were going to be training the B.Ed students, the Ministry of Ed. decided in their wisom. (A great pity, since our programme was working very well indeed.) So then I was unemployed for the first time in over 20 years.

Several people came up with job offers of the run-my-language-school-kind. But I realised with something of a shock that I'd had it up to here with English language teaching. I needed a change, but what?

While I was deciding, Raman came to my aid by roping me in as editor for one of his Silverfish collections, and by pushing other editing work my way.

Then I got dragged (kicking and screaming) into organising the Litfest.

Four months of running round like a headless chicken organising writers and programme and rooms and writing press releases, followed by three days of total panic during which I didn't even manage to sleep. It was for sure the most exciting project I've ever been involved with, but also the most exhausting.

And afterwards I felt like a well-wrung out dishcloth. Life post-Litfest was a big anti-climax. No more adrenalin buzz, no more writer-groupie highs. I slumped into depression. Looking back now I realise how ill I became.

Thank goodness for friends who care whether you slip through the cracks in the pavement or not. Who pick you up and cheer you on. Who have faith that you can do it.

It was time to follow my heart and to find work I loved. Time to take my courage in both hands and begin to work for myself.

MPH gave my creative writing course a home. That was my first big stroke of luck. I'm now into my fourth run of it, with a fifth starting before the end of the month. I have plans for other short courses. (Just need time to sit down and develop them!) And now there's the possibility of teaching the course in-house for a client company which wants to boost the creativity of its writing teams.

And things have just taken off from there.

I'm writing on writing and books and authors for various publications. (And a future career as a columnist! More about that later!) So I still get to be author-groupie and shoot my big mouth off.

I'm going to be working part-time with the British Council to revamp the library (and being paid to buy books!!!) and work for them on writing-reading related projects.

I'm doing some editing work.

I've got writing projects of my own well underway and am doing the research for my novel.

And everything I do seems to fit together so well and feed into everything else, hence "portfolio career" ... .

My main worry these days is how to juggle my time and say no to projects that I wouldn't be able to do my best for. There are other projects I'd like to try and find room for (especially the whole writing-as-therapy thing).

The money isn't exactly flowing in yet, and I still have a way to go to in becoming as organised and efficient as I'd like to be. My eyes still glaze over when I see columns of figures ... but I am improving. But I love the feeling of independence I've gained and the sense of ownership over what I do.

Perhaps in life we make our own luck. But maybe too it's true about the fairy godmother.

Anyone want to borrow her before I turn back into a pumpkin?

McGough Mixture

Something light for Monday morning! Thought I'd post up one or two of the poems in the little Penguin book by Roger McGough. These are all about writing and made me smile:

New Poem

So far, so good

Sound Advice

Once you write a poem
you must write another

To prevent the first
from falling over.

Writer's Block

The excitement I felt
as I started the poem
Disappeared on reaching
the end of the fourth line.

Children's Writer

John in the garden
Playing goodies and baddies

Janet in the bedroom
Playing mummies and daddies

Mummies in the kitchen
Washing and wiping

Daddy in the study

This last one is my favourite. Ten years or so ago Roger Mc Gough gave a reading at the then British Council Director's house in Kuala Lumpur. I remembered all the words to this poem after just hearing it once!

No wonder Carol Ann Duffy calls Mc Gough 'the patron saint of poetry'. He makes it just so accessible.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Will The Book Bomb?

Talk about bad timing for a book launch!

According to The Guardian:

The bookselling giant Waterstone's yesterday pulled advertising for a new novel about suicide bombers creating mayhem in London.

The book, called Incendiary, was published on Thursday, the day all-too real bombs hit London.

The premise of the novel, set a few years in the future, is a suicide bomber attack on Arsenal's new stadium, a couple of miles from King's Cross.

Pictures promoting the novel show plumes of smoke curling above London's skyline. The wording reads "a massive terrorist attack ... launches this unique, twisted powerhouse of a novel".

First time author, Chris Cleave, must have though that fate had played a particularly nasty trick on him! Or will the coincidence boost sales?


The author shares his views on the timing of the book here. "... something yesterday taught me was the difference between imagination and experience" he says.

Save The Short Story Campaign

Does the short story need saving? The whale, the rainforest, heritage buildings, yes. But you'd have thought the short story robust enough not to need saving, wouldn't you?

Well in Britain at least, it seems the form needs all the help it can get. There's even an entire website supported by the Arts Council of England devoted to the campaign! (Do check out the site to download some excellent short stories.)

The Save Our Short Story Campaign aims to:

- Increase the number and visibility of high quality outlets for short fiction
- Give the short story form more prestige and a higher profile
- Enable writers to specialise in the short story form
- Encourage and promote exciting short fiction

Such intervention is timely. Market research carried out by Book Marketing Limited shows that short story writers now have to turn to independents to get published as the number of collections published by mainstream publishers has fallen significantly.

It seems that although more people than ever in Britain are writing short stories and more short stories are written than any other literary form, only seven British collections of stories are published each year.


(By comparison the situation in Malaysia doesn't look all that bad!)

And British writers have to look to North America for the most innovative short fiction writing; writers like Anne Beattie, Junot Diaz, Richard Ford, Ellen Gilchrist, Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates and Tobias Woolf. These voices have been nurtured by high profile, high prestige short story publications such as The New Yorker for which there is just no British equivalent.

Here Mslexia's Editor Debbie Taylor accounts for this disturbing trend in British publishing. (It seems though that the situation is particularly dire in Britain - the short story does very much better in other parts of the world. In Malaysia sales of short fiction are comparitively good, I understand. For many less convinced or very busy readers, a collection of stories might seem less daunting than a full-length novel, perhaps?)

Philip Gwyn Jones of Harper Collins is one of the short story's greatest champions and brings out five collections of stories each year in the Flamingo imprint.

His solution to the problem? "We need investment in a well-designed, well-produced, well-marketed mainstream magazine that people feel they have to buy."

In Malaysia at the moment, the nearest thing to such a literary magazine is undoubtedly Off The Edge.

But as I understand it by far the biggest problem for the editors of this publication is a total lack of quality local fiction to print! So here we have a very different problem in getting short fiction off the ground ... You can't really save something you don't have in the first place!

Update (21/12/06):

This link is now down and the site has since been revamped and renamed with even more useful stuff.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Modems and Mao

I disappeared for a while there ...

My internet connection went down and I was at the mercy of the-guy-who-sorts-me-out- when-disaster-strikes. My modem had kaputted on me, so now I have a new one and am back in business. I grovel in gratitude to David.

Mind you, a respite from the online world was nice for a while because I have some serious reading to do.

"Can you interview Jung Chang on Monday?" said my friend from The Star "And, oh yes, we're sending over her biography of Mao for you to read over the weekend."

Eight hundred pages. Gulp.

Just when I thought I was going to chill out with the little Penguins and a copy of Good Housekeeping.

One Day After ...

One day after London celebrated the winning of the Olympics, the anticipated terrorist attack. On the cards since 9/11. All the hallmarks of an Al-Queda attack. No surprises. The only question was when was this going to happen.

I watch the news. The emergency services have been ready for this, and the response falls into place seamlessly. Londoners are calm, stoic. We’re hardened to terrorism. Older Londoners remember the blitz. Then all those years of IRA bombings. You don’t let them win. You don’t live your life in fear, which is what they want. They. They. The faceless ones. The cowards. The morally bankrupt.

I cry at footage of the first victims arriving at hospital. A man with his head heavily bandaged, his clothes shredded by the blast. (Which blast? So many blasts!) Paramedics trying to resuscitate another. Ordinary folks just going about their daily business. On another day it could have been me. Could have been you.

I call my sister to find out that her family is safe.

She's not at home and it's nearly midnight before she picks up the phone.

They're all fine. None of them was anywhere near central London. My brother-in-law Michael would have been on the tube to work, but today he's at home with 'flu.

My niece was due to travel into London by tube on a school-trip the day after.

My other London family in Islington are also okay. But my little niece Saphiah was stranded for hours at her school in the city centre, and her father (Abu's brother) had to walk miles from Islington to fetch her.

The bus Saphiah takes every morning has the same number as the one that got blown up in Tavistock Place ...

I can breathe a sigh of relief for now.

And I'd like to thank all the friends who e-mailed me or phoned me up to ask.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Happy Birthday Penguin

There should be a law against it, putting this kind of temptation in people's way. Shouldn't MPH know better?

A rack of dinky mini-books. Seventy of them. One for each year that Penguin has been in business. Cover designs that just make you want to pick the books up. Bite sized nibbles of longer, succulent feasts.

This is how Penguin books began:

"Returning to London from a weekend at the Devon home of the crime writer Agatha Christie in 1934, the publisher Allen Lane scoured Exeter Station for something to read. All he could find were reprints of 19th century novels and Lane decided to found a publishing house to produce good quality paperbacks sold at sixpence each, the same price as a packet of cigarettes."

Penguin probably did more to encourage the ordinary man in the street to read than any other publisher by making great books cheaply and widely available.

Anyway, this morning, I tried (initially) to resist the pull.

Gave way. Bought not just for me, but for a friend's birthday.

Got too a free t-shirt to add to my literary wardrobe.

And here are the books I bought (though still aching for the ones left behind - tie me up least I heed the siren call another day!).

First, the expand-your-mind-books: Forgetting Things by Sigmund Freud (because I'd forget my own head if it wasn't nailed on), Hotheads by Steven Pinker (because I still feel guilty that I haven't read How the Mind Works), Eric Schlosser's Cogs in the Great Machine (because I wish I'd read Fast Food Nation).

(I remember how I fell in love with one of my favourite writers, Steven J. Gould, after buying a Penguin mini-book several years ago.)

Then the fiction. P.D. James Innocent House (shock horror - I haven't read her yet!). James Kellman Where Was I?; Anton Chekhov The Kiss; Noise by Hari Kunzru; Ali Smith's Supersonic 70's (all short fiction, all must-haves).

And Dave Eggers Short Short Stories because I love short shorts and have read Egger's stuff on The Guardian website.

Also In Defence of English Cooking by George Orwell (not only because someone needs to defend English cooking - but also because Orwell is one of my favourite writers and I want to read his essays)

Finally, The State of Poetry by Roger McGough (a total total delight. Give this to anyone who says they don't like poetry. Instant conversion!)

If you want to find out more, do go visit the Penguin website because it's great fun. There's even a literary quiz. (I scored 8/10, but you will not doubt get full marks.)

Thanks Penguin, for letting us all celebrate your 70th birthday with you.

Licence to Spin?

Thor Kah Hong's column in yesterday's Star interested me. It's about time someone wrote about Peter Ho Davies in the local papers! He's a superb short story writer for a start. He was acknowledged by Granta magazine as one of the best young British novelists in 2003. His work appeared in the 1995, 1996 and 2001 editions of Best American Short Stories and the 1998 O. Henry Awards. And he has a strong Malaysian connection - his mother is Malaysian-Chinese, and apparently Ho Davies also worked here.

I bought his collection of The Ugliest House in the World (which won PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen and the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize) when it first hit the bookshops. There was the immediate rush of pleasure at discovering it contained a couple of stories set in Malaysia. And I enjoyed the whole collection very much indeed. In the beautifully surreal Buoyancy, a boy remembers his grandfather who drowned himself in the water jar in the back garden. And then there's the last story in the collection The Silver Screen, set in Brickfields during The Emergency.

This is what Thor had to say about it:

"The last story, The Silver Screen, (first published in Harvard Review and The Best American Short Stories 1996) was the one that gave me a few problems in the reading.

It raised all kinds of thoughts and questions about the imagination and creative licence. In the preceding page of “Acknowledgments”, Ho Davies credits Noel Barber’s The War of the Running Dogs as a particularly valuable source of historical information and notes: “Any inaccuracies are my responsibility, as, of course, are the occasional historical liberties I’ve taken.”

Log on to the website set up by The British Council, and in the essay/comment on Peter Ho Davies, one is told that here is a writer who is “completely convincing” with “an exhilarating and vivid attention to detail”.

Therein lies my problem. In The Silver Screen he is not “convincing” because the “historical liberties” were more than “occasional”. I couldn’t have a smooth read because I kept stopping in irritation every time I came across inaccurate or risible details of a country, a neighbourhood, a time I lived through/in.

Starting with the first paragraph:

“From the end of the Second World War until the outbreak of the insurgency in 1948, the fourteenth Kuala Lumpur branch of the Malayan Communist party held its meetings at the Savoy Cinema on Brickfields Street.”

(I’d better establish my credentials. The first 23 years of my life were spent in Brickfields, 1950-1973. I have written, had published, and have performed on various stages several pieces entitled Brickfields Now and Then about growing up in Malaya in the 1950s.)

Brickfields Road instead of Street, the Lido cinema instead of the Savoy. Just names. I had no problem with that. And fiction can accommodate “the fourteenth KL branch of the Communist Party”.

My uneasiness first surfaced when I read that the “Savoy was an open-air cinema – four high walls with no roof and a huge canvas screen stretched out against the night sky.” Such alfresco entertainment was available in many parts of the country during that time, but the Lido had a roof and “first-class” seats upstairs. Inadequate research or someone patronising quaint primitives for foreign readers?

I’ll resist listing all the nits I picked out, just a couple of the more obvious howlers that stood out. In a propaganda leaflet dropped into the jungle to tempt the starving commies to surrender there is a photograph showing “dishes of chicken’s feet, fish-head curry, clay-pot bean-curd, prawns with asparagus, char-siu pork, and lemon chicken”.

Ho Davies may have tucked into this feast in some Chinese restaurant in Britain or when he was working in Malaysia and Singapore, but in Malaya in the 1950s? Asparagus? Ha! Chicken’s feet? Yeah, everybody knows the Chinese will eat anything. Fish-head curry and lemon chicken?

And it must have seemed reasonable for Ho Davies to have two of his characters, with practically no food and no equipment other than a rifle, wander in the jungle for almost two weeks and find themselves 200 miles from where they started.

Anyone who has ventured into the Malaysian jungle will know what an awesome feat that is. Excuse me, Mr Ho Davies, this is not Sherwood Forest.

Am I being unfair? Not seeing the forest for the trees? What about the story? The colourful characters? The prizes and the glowing endorsement by writers such as Gish Jen and Lee Chang-rae (whose works I enjoy reading)?

This is one time I feel the owning up to creative liberties and the possibility of inaccuracies does not absolve the writer of the charge of mining a vein of exotic sensations."

I hadn't noticed the factual errors in this story myself, but bow to Thor's knowledge of Brickfields and the '50's.

But I think the point that Thor is making here is an extremely important one. No matter how good the writing, the credibility of a story is destroyed whenever readers spot errors of fact.

Fiction is fiction is fiction, and writers will invent characters and places and events. That's fine. Every reader will respect that.

BUT, once you begin to draw on the "real world" a writer owes it his readers to get the details (historical, sociological, geographical, numismatic, ornithological - whatever!) right. (I've discussed this issue before, still feel strongly about it.)

I think it's laziness not to do so!