Friday, April 14, 2006

The Birth of Neohikayat

Ruhayat X (captured left at the La Bodega gig) sends out some of his short pieces by email to friends which are always a delight to receive. Yesterday he wrote about the birth of the publishing venture he set up and I asked for his permission to paste it here - because I think it gives an important insight into the local publishing scene where small scale enterprise provides an outlet for fiction and poetry. (Note: I've added the links to fill in a little background.)

As Ruhayat explains, he sank his own money into the scheme, and although the book has been selling well, he still has present stock to clear before he can publish his next collection. If you don't yet have a copy of Willayah Kutu, hasten to the Neohikayat blog or Silverfish to buy one. (They make great gifts for friends, so buy several.)
This month marks the first anniversary of Neohikayat, that publishing entity I started up with the intention of doing something about the Malay literary world, which I felt had stagnated since the early 70's. And, by extension, the Malay mind.

I've always believed that you don't need to join a political party if you're really honest about wanting to effect change in the world around you; not when you can hijack the arts to do a far better job. There are many ways to work smart.

I can't remember when exactly the entity was formed, since the company has yet to be incorporated, but it was between February and April 2005, after several long sessions at Devi's Corner or Lotus in Bangsar.

In fact, the Neohikayat story began in November 2003, while I was still working with the KLSE.

Well, no, actually it began in 2001, when Raman of Silverfishbooks roped in Irman, Amir Muhammad and I to work on a book of short stories in English. It seems amazing, thinking about it now, that no one had attempted to do something like that before.

Yes, there were Rhino Press and Hikayat Press, of course. But those companies had different aspirations and approaches. While the earlier efforts were targeted at publishing original works of already known names, the Silverfish New Writing project wanted to create something out of nothing.

Round about that time, the local film world was also about to experience a similar democratic movement of sorts. That was when Amir and James Lee just decided, one bright morning, to make their own film. Lips to Lips was the result. As far as I am concerned, that was ground zero for the current swell of DIY film-making in this country.

The DIY spirit ran thick in the SNW project, too.

Irman and I did the cover design and page layouts, which isn't very good in hindsight, but then it was done virtually overnight and for free.

I can't remember how many hours the four of us would sit in Silverfishbooks in Bangsar, poring through the submissions and selecting our favourites. The final selection was made by Amir. And then we'd spend another few weeks editing the shortlist.

Or at least, we tried to edit them as best we could.

It's become almost second nature by now, but back then we had to come up with everything from scratch. None of us had published anything before, although Amir and I had journalistic experience. Book publishing was a long, dark corridor and basically we just felt our way around.

At the time I was still gainfully - albeit rather bored-out-of-my-skull-ly - employed in a corporate company. MESDAQ had been forced to merge with the KLSE in 2000, and by February 2001 I was staring out of my lonely little office at the brass band practising on the grounds of St John's Institution every morning.

Previously I had a great vista of the sumptuous bungalows hugging the Damansara Heights hills, where the MESDAQ office was located.

They didn't know yet what to do with the MESDAQ board at the time. Rumours were going around that it was to be scrapped or absorbed into the Second Board.

The MESDAQ vets didn't like it, of course. MESDAQ was basically a startup when I first joined it, albeit one with substantial Government funding. We'd worked our arses off to make it into something resembling the steamrolling NASDAQ in the US, the tech board that humbled all other boards in the world at the time. We weren't very successful.

But it was a new environment, with new rules. More importantly, it was a post-dotcom world, and MESDAQ was being viewed as a failure. In this new place we had not much power. And so the previously upper middle management of MESDAQ - our top managers all decided not to continue - was basically left fiddling our thumbs most days.

It was a depressing time for me, professionally, coming from the frantic atmosphere first at Intel and then MESDAQ, both startup-type environments. I spent most days at the KLSE just staring out of the window, trying to read a book but not really seeing the words.

If you think having too much work is stressful, you should try not having any work to do at all. No wonder when companies want to get rid of someone, they'd strip the guy of all power and tasks, and let him sit in a windowless office all day. That was my life for about a year.

Thank God for Raman and his crazy scheme, then. I was just thankful to have an outlet to focus my mind on, so even though we weren't being paid a single cent for our time, I just piled in and made that my priority.

By the time SNW3 appeared, the zest had disappeared.

By then the series was becoming a business venture to my mind, not an ideal. It just so happened that round about that time the MESDAQ market suddenly began outperforming the Second Board. People were excited about it once again, and suddenly I had lots of strategy papers and reports to do, pre-submissions to review and meetings to attend. So I focused my energies back to my proper work.

Still, during this time we had an active teh tarik crew in Bangsar. We'd meet informally almost every other night and talk about everything under the sun. We must have bored the odd semi-regulars to death, because we'd never see any of them again.

There we were, being boring about clever things while just a few blocks away people in hip clothes were gyrating to pumping music. Those were the days.

During these sessions the topic of publishing an SNW-like compilation in Malay would crop up from time to time. As usual, the idea just languished by the wayside after everyone went home. We were still looking to Silverfish to do it, but Raman at the time was adamant about focusing on the English-speaking market.

It went on like that for about a year. And then, in November 2003, I thought why not just do it ourselves. There was no profound reason underlying the decision at all. It's just one of those days when I'd wake up in the morning and think it would be a terribly great idea to produce my own book.

The regulars at the sessions during that time were Irman, Amir, Dhojee and me. But still it took a year of preambling to get to a point where we were relatively sure of what we wanted to do. That's what happens when you leave things up to a bunch of Malays, I guess.

The real work began in November 2004. The project didn't have a name yet at the time. It was still dilly-dallying here and there, sometimes being this and other times being that. That's usually because Dhojee would always turn up for each session with a new idea.

He was excited about it, yes, what with his constant text messages and e-mails. But if it had gone on like that we'd never get anywhere. I felt at the time that the most important thing was just to get the damn thing out the door and deal with the consequences or improve it later.

Someone had to take charge and since no one appeared willing to shoulder the burden, I said fine, I'll do it. To maintain a semblance of control, I said I'd pay for it out of my own pocket. Then no one can say much.

In this way I bought myself the freedom to name the little project.

We began sounding out potential writers in November and December that year. By January 2005 we'd had our roster of contributors. They were all male, but not by design I can assure you. None except for Saifulizan Tahir had been published in Malay before.

Just to spice things up I thought we should make it multi-racial, so I invited Jerome, Danny Lim and Pang to join in. Jerome and Danny managed to keep to the deadline, and I'm glad we got them in, as their presence added to the book's coolness factor.

The book went into production in March 2005, and was finally finished in May. It was formally launched in June with a reading session at Silverfish. I was supervising an event in Kuantan that weekend, and I had to drive all the way to KL to attend it (because Dhojee at first said he couldn't make it), and then drove back again the same night. It made me fall in love with my dinky little Kelisa even more.

The cover, which some people had enthused about, was actually a misprint. I had orginally designed it so that the title and names of writers would be glossy (they call it Spot UV), whereas the rest of the picture would be in matte. The spot UV folks somehow reversed the design, and that's how we ended up with a glossy cover with a title that looked as though it was reverse-embossed.

Pijat, my friend who did the printing, showed some samples that they had chruned out before they'd realised the mistake. It was this one night and we parked our cars in the side road along Bangsar Shopping Complex. I thought the effect was interesting so I told Pijat to just go ahead with the print run. The rest, as they say, is history.

We had a pre-launch reading at the Darling Muse Gallery in May, courtesy of Bernice Chauly. The session was a minor hit, and that was when I remember thinking, cool, this thing might just work after all.

Of course, we haven't been able to produce 4 books a year (one every quarter) as per the original plan. Much of the blame for that rests entirely on me.

The original strategy I had devised called for pricing the first book so that it would be affordable, yet at the same time make enough to cover the production cost of the next book. Which meant that all I had to do was fork out for the first book, and after that the funding would self-generate.

I thought that was a brilliant idea, if I do say so myself. Except that I never factored in distribution difficulties into the equation. That was an oversight that I'm still saddled with now: we still have another 450 unsold copies sitting in the store-room of our supposed distributor.

Amazingly, we'd sold 400 copies entirely by word of mouth. About 150 of those were sold through Silverfishbooks (the only bookstore where you can buy the damned thing - the distributor had told us that they'd approached Times, MPH and Kino but they'd all declined to stock the title. Personally, I think that's just bollocks). The rest were sold by either Nizam Zakaria, Irman or myself through our respective blogs.

Again, that made me think, yeah, this thing could actually work. But it is still a lot of hard work. And now that it's become more like a hobby rather than a main concern, since I'm more focused on getting this graphics design studio stable since July last year, it's harder work still.

Actually, if I were to just put my mind to it I'm sure I can tie up all the loose ends in two weeks, and Aweks KL - the second title - as well as Elarti - the Malay language literary magazine - would be out by May and June respectively. I just need to create clones of me, that's all.

Money to burn and time are the two things I don't exactly have in abundance these days. Yeah, I got a handsome VSS pay-out, but foolishly I'd lent about half of it out to people, and I'm still waiting for half of them to pay me back.

Happily, ever since the Troubagangers event I'd been in contact with the British Council and just being in the loop again is exciting.

It's not like Neohikayat has been dormant in the meantime. We have a semi-active blog ( We've sparked a mini revolution of sorts, what with bunches of people now coming out with their own compilations of works in Malay.

Competition? Maybe. But this is all good, because that was one of my stated goals right from the beginning.

Amir, James and Yasmin might not want to make movies with messages, but Neohikayat was always intended as a democratic experiment.

It was never meant to be a money-making business. I wanted to prove that people don't have to depend on the Government for anything in this country, and if there was something wrong that we think ought to be improved, then we should just go ahead and do something about it instead of calling the Malay Mail headline, so to speak.

In this respect, Silverfish New Writing and the DIY film-makers influenced my thinking. But the spiritual godfather of Neohikayat was always the myriad enthusiast communities in the UK who'd produce their own publications from their bedrooms and basements.

They did it simply because they believed in something, and they believed that it was just too important not to do something about it.

I'm glad to see the same spirit beginning to rise up in the limited circle that I call my world. Right now I'm helping a bunch of young people in their early 20's to produce a compilation of their writings. They're a bunch of young punks (literally), which amuses me because you'd never think such a grouping would be interested in something so mundane as literature.

It's great to have such enthusiasm in the young. They need something to latch on to, somewhere to expend the creative energies that build up within them. I've always thought that if we were to allow them more space to express themselves, then what a healthier country we might find ourselves in.

So maybe it's been a year and just one measly book. The more significant achievement, I think, is that this little experiment shows that you can indeed change the world, one person at a time. Yes, even in Malaysia.

No amount of money can buy that kind of satisfaction, I can tell you that.


XMOCHA! said...

hugs Sharon, you always pick up the right stuff.. CONGRATS AMRI!

Cheers, SM

dreamer idiot said...

What an inspiration... a pioneer and trailblazer with a 'brash' take-no-prisoner attitude. The same goes for our theatre , dance and film pp...all heroes who might not be accorded with the recognition they truly deserve, nonetheless what they do and contribute, intangible as it seems, is priceless...

PS. Sharon, since u know him personally, could you ask if Ruhaiyat wants to join us, adding the malay pusi component? If he is, you can send him the invitation. :)

Ruhayat X said...

Thanks, Sharon, for the space. And the words of support. People like you folks make the hardest work seem worthwhile.

bibliobibuli said...

xmocha - many thanks and hugs right back

dreamer idiot - i'll twist his arm

ruhayat - most welcome, thanks for letting me put this up - i think it is very important - and i hadn't realised that you had financed the whole thing yourself out of your severance pay - that, my dear, is heroism ...also did not realise you had done so much work for snw1

Sufian said...

And Snw2, Snw3, Nineteen, 8 Plays.

8 plays is a bitch. But that's the one with least mistakes.

So an advice - if you want your book to be perfect (almost) do a Huzir.

bibliobibuli said...

sufian - again, didn't know you guys had put in so much work

the proofreaders are always the unsung heroes and it all went to pot with after that (in snw4 and firefly, the typos are legion), though i had a friend help me with collateral damage ...

how does one "do a huzir"?

Anonymous said...

It's easier to change this country that it is one of the more established countries. Yeah, after they become succcessful, quality goes to pot. Then stuff happens. There's a theory that everything everyone does changes the world (see "Butterfly Effect" on wikipedia, was also a movie I think.)