Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Five Years On ... What Progress?

It's five years to the day since Amir Muhammad wrote this overview of the Malaysian writing scene for Kakiseni.com.

How far have we moved on?


The Angry Medic said...

Interesting question, Sharon. I used to ask the same questions back when I was in my writing phase, before I became a sad cranky medic. I think the political climate (post-Lalang) is slightly more conducive to English writing today. However, Amir still has it spot on when he says:

Up until the mid-90s, short stories in English benefited from the fact that both the NST and The Star ran competitions that have since been discontinued.

There just aren't enough outlets anymore. I appreciate the work that The Star and MPH-Perdana have done, but for all the writers they have dug out there must surely be many more hidden in the woodwork. Some (including my ex, whose book was actually plugged on the front page of The Star thanks mostly to her bigshot publisher dad) have resorted to self-publication, but the ones who make it big do so through the auspices of Silverfish. The work that you do, though, along with Lydia Teh, Xeus, and the burgeoning performing arts community is making English writing sexy again. I'm usually cynical, but I see the future only growing brighter.

Still, like I told Thor Kah Hoong at about the time the article was written, it may take a while before we reach the point where we actually have literary superstars like Ms Rowling over here, whom I recently had the pleasure of shaking hands with.

I'm never washing this hand again. *girly giggle*

bibliobibuli said...

i think things are much healthier than they were 5 years ago - certainly i think the strangeness of writing in english has dissipated - but there still aren't enough outlets for writing or enough encouragment for new voices

silverfish is going strong (and tonight is the launch of 6 which i will blog). ruhayat x did a great job with 'willayah kutu' and his new magazine Elarti will be launched next month (more about that later)

spoken word events and live readings are flourishing now ... and are pretty well attended which is encouraging

we do have a superstar - tash got long listed for the booker and listed for other awards, so i guess that qualifies him. malaysians are getting published overseas, and there's hope that agents and publishers will be apying more attention to this part of the world in future

Subashini said...

i'm having a hard time finding rehman rashid's the malaysian journey but maybe i haven't been looking hard enough. does anyone know if it's out-of-print, or god forbid, banned or restricted in some way?

thanks for linking that article, sharon, i always enjoy reading amir muhammad's pieces. meeting him would be like meeting a rock star... tee heee. i remember reading his "crazy horse" column way back when - it used to be the highlight of my week back in the day... i hope it was called crazy horse. then there was "perforated sheets" or something like that, right? does he have a collection of his essays published, or did i imagine reading about this awhile back...

Lydia Teh said...

Sharon, I agree that things are looking up for us. There are many more locally published English books now than then. And look at the proliferation of English magazines on the scene. In yester years, we can prob count English mags on one hand, now ten fingers aren't enough.

Don't forget the MPH Writer's Circle (thanks to Oon Yeoh and you for kicking it off) and MPH's annual support-local-authors function.

The Internet is a great friend to writers and has resulted in little networks of writers who encourage each other in their craft.

So, yes, we've come some way since 5 years ago but we've still got a long way to go yet as Amir pointed out in his essay.

bibliobibuli said...

subashini - rehman's book is probably out of print - he published it himself and i don't know if he has plans to reissue - will try to find out

you can buy a secon-dhand copy on abebooks but expensive. you can borrow my copy (if you are a good book borrower and return it before my heart starts to bleed for the separation)

amir doesn't have a book out but i would love it if he did

lydia - exactly right - mph is doing a lot to encourage local writing

Eliza said...

"the average Malaysian reads the equivalent of two newspaper pages a year"

We've progressed to two books a year havent' we?


ON the writing scene, five years ago, there were no creative writing classes, and now there's yours (and Silverfish's) and 95%.

While quantity and quality both need improvements, there's more courage these days of beginning and continuing a writing career (Ms D is a shining example of tenacity!). For a lot of Malaysians still, the issue of - can writing bring in money? - arises, and passion dissipates somewhat when you find that being a "writer" in this country is not as hot or lucrative a career as being a corporate banker, finance exec, etc.

The situation is brighter for political commentors like Karim Raslan / Farish Noor than for fiction writers.

But with the continuing effort by you, MPH, and the internet feeding the writing passion via instant connections (blogs really are a great tool to encourage writing), I agree with angry medic and lydia, that the future can only get brighter.

The Eternal Wanderer said...

We've still got lots to do before we could ever hope to rise to the ranks of Rowling and King here in Malaysia. Things are looking bright and hopeful in recent years though...we do have people like Xeus, Lydia, John Ling and Tash now and Adibah Amin is still writing! So yay!

However, to give birth to writers of excellent pedigree, it must start from school! How can we expect good writers in English when our teachers are teaching sub-standard English to our kids? It defeats the purpose don't you think? Many teachers are still simply not good enough in English to teach the language, heck, even I feel my language is not that good. I doubt Malaysia would let native speakers of English to work in national school to remedy the inefficiencies, but that's the only way I could think of to raise our standard in English.

Also, it's safe to say that most writers are first and foremost readers of books. With more and more TV programmes and computer games taking our kids time from the good old book, many people grew up without loving the written word. This definitely causes a decline in writers in the English language.

That said, I do hope to one day count myself as a writer in the same company of Mr Kee, Lydia and Xeus. I love writing and I don't think I'll be doing much of anything else anytime soon.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the English we have in schools is sub-standard; and there is no way of improving it if our teachers are not up to the mark.So, the first thing to do is to go back to basics in English language learning and teaching. You have to go back to simple sentence construction. If you cannot even write a simple, grammatically- correct sentence, how are we going to produce WRITERS ? So, before we even dream of being writers and encourage writing short stories and later longer stories, we must get our grammar right.
To start with, we should encourage pupils in Primary and Secondary schools to write SIMPLE sentences; and SHORT sentences. Once the pupils have mastered simple sentence construction, they could move on to writing compound and complex sentences.
I remember our English langauge teacher who insisted that we wrote sentences of TEN words or fewer! Of course, he was fed up and tired of reading and correcting long , unwieldy sentences ! And he had a tough time marking the compositions ( essays ) we wrote!

Another to note is that English Literature is seldom taught in most schools. Most of the students have missed out the joys of reading Shakespeare's Plays like Macbeth, Julius Caesar, The Merchant of Venice, As you Like It. They also miss out the poems of Lord Tennyson, William Wordsworth,etc. They also miss out on the novels of Charles Dickens,Robert Louis Stevenson, Jane Austen All these are part of English Literature reading.

Writers , I believe, should have some inkling of the Plays, Poems and Novels written by great writers of old. Oldies are goodies. modern writers, in the main, do not write with so much passion and insight. Probably, some may disagree with me on this point.

So, The Education Ministry must go back to simple English language writing and also introduce English Litertaure, if Malaysia is to produce writers of note.

S.H. Huang

bibliobibuli said...

eliza - teacher ... add beth yahp to the list (when she's back). and for sure we need more workshops. money? i don't think writers can really think about it. you have to do it for the love and usually fit it in around the paying job.

eternal wanderer - yes, you're right to talk about education, because everything starts from there.

love that passion!

huang - nice to meet you - and glad you underline the importance of good grammar and the teaching of literature. literature has become part of the seconday school syllabus but the choice of texts at the moment isn't much fun and where's the joy in a subject that must be examined. i'd like to see english teachers using more texts in the classroom as part of their english teaching and having fun with them and exposing the kids to good writing. trouble is, how many teachers read? and how many of the teacher trainers who taught them read? it's necessary to work on the cycle at all stages.

and we shouldn't only be talking about english writing but writing in malay and other languages too

Argus Lou said...

First, it's hard to imagine Angry Medic eliciting a "girlish giggle".

Second, I giggled at Amir's mention of "A Malaysian Journey" having splotches of purple - yes, while I enjoyed Encik Rehman's insight and singular kneading of the English language, I thought some of the writing was a tad self-conscious.

In the 1980s (90s too?), there was also the Esso-Gapena short story writing competitions announced in the NST.

Anyone remembers the Great Malaysian Novel lark organised by The Star and one pen maker (around 1990)? That was a lot of trashy fun, and a couple of Star editors (Davin Arul and June Wong) splurged a lot of time and effort editing and publishing the meandering tale of Big Boss Chen, his family and cohorts.

Yes, things are indeed looking up - as long as the government keeps a hands-off approach regarding book publishing and fiction writing. I hope efforts such as Xeus's call for paid published twisty short stories will unearth another batch of promising writers.

And now, I make a wish for and a toast to better-designed Malaysian book covers!

animah said...

It is fine to demand that the education system needs to buck up in terms of teaching the English Language, but please open your eyes and ears - there are many in power (now we have the UMNO General Assembly) that are insisting that Maths and Science no longer be taught in English.

So let's take an active step just for those around us. Have you read aloud to your child, or your siblings, or your neighbour's children today? Have you given a book as a present to someone? If you have children, I challenge you to go to the children's corner of a bookshop and read aloud to your child - borrow one if you don't have one. You'd be amazed at the number of children that suddenly appear, shy and longing to glance at the magical book you are holding.

It's the seemingly simple steps that go along way.

Sufian said...

Maths and science should no longer be taught in English. It's ridiculous that both are.

bibliobibuli said...

something has to be entirely in english sufian. too much ground has been lost since the entire syllabus was taught in the national language and the govt. realised it way too late. english lessons alone haven't taken the kids far enough.

the workforce has to be confidently bilingual (and it's useful to be able to add other languages to your store - esp. mandarin). sadly english communication skills even among new graduates are so poor they are virtually unemployable. (speak to university profs. and employers and you'll find this said over and over).

maths and science make sense because they are subjects all the kids have to pass and thus the motivation is there

and technology is one of the most important areas where malysians need to talk to the rest of the world or be left behind. how many science textbooks at university level are translated into malay, huh?

but all this takes us on a several mile detour from the question we were discussing!

animah your ideas are very good indeed

Subashini said...

i agree - i don't quite see why teaching math and science in english is "ridiculous." unless we have plans to build a really hardy and tsunami-proof tempurung to sit under for the rest of the future, i don't see how we can avoid the evil and soul-killing english language. we object to english because it's the evil imperial language, it's the language of our colonizers... because we use it every single day and benefit from it anyway? what? i don't get it.

it is not to be taught at the expense of other languages, of course, but that's a problem inherent within the education system itself - there should be a compulsory extra language component where students in national schools HAVE to study either mandarin, tamil, cantonese, etc. our education system emphasizes only BM and english at the expense of ALL other languages - but that's not something we want to get into, right? let's just keep talking about BM and english for all of eternity, because people in this country obviously speak nothing else...

unless you think it's ridiculous because of the way it's been implemented - i'm not aware if this applies to primary schools as well as secondary schools, or if they teach every single in BM in primary school and then switch to english at the secondary level. i've been out of school for awhile now, and out of touch with the malaysian education system for a few years.

bibliobibuli said...

tsunami-proof tempurung

i will borrow that phrase.

there are enormous problems with the switch back to english for these subjects, subahini, i know because many of my friends are training the trainers ... biggest of course the lang. proficiency of the teahers they are dealing with ... but the move is the right one, for the kids and for the country. of this i am convinced and entertian no argument the other way.

Rehman said...

Dear Sharon,

I have seethed for months – nay! on this matter, years, decades – on criticism of what some term my “lexical choices” (and they call me pompous), and now I expostulate.

The irritation of being criticised for my – what’s the word? – “bombastic” choice of words is that it is too often the criticism of those with limited vocabularies. It’s like a sprinter being criticised for running too fast. Now of course, the way of the world is such that the lesser always outnumber the greater, and find solace in solidarity among themselves. And so every two-bit blogging moron who wants to score a point against me deplores my use of big words. All they do is demonstrate what they don’t know and are too lazy to learn. Theirs is a conceit, I submit, far greater than mine.

Among our generation when we were kids, as I expect you’ll agree, there remained those who enjoyed stumbling on new words in their reading: the more exotic and obscure the better! With their meanings tantalisingly hinted at in their contexts, it meant a dive for the dictionary and the instant gratification of knowledge, understanding, and pronunciation.

Once confirmed in the dictionary and successfully used in a sentence, these words became companions for life; faithful servants and soldiers ready to be summoned forth to name the objects of the universe and perform in the service of our own thoughts and ideations. Even in our generation, however, this particularly expansive, educational and empowering aspect of the joy of reading was dying out. Today, there’s virtually none left 4 ne1 2 c.

Criticising a writer for not sticking to simple words and short sentences is a bit like criticising a painter for not sticking to primary colours. Certainly, there is brilliance in simple words and primary colours. But does it all have to be Hemingway, Mondrian or Pollock? What about Caravaggio, Herman Melville or Edgar Allan Poe? The artist chooses what conduces to the effect sought. The use of obscure words is not necessarily obscurantist.

So I do not listen to and would rather not hear imprecations against my “lexical choices”. Dismissals of my language as impenetrable or opaque have always led me to dismiss the dismissers as sub-literate. I will always prefer one obscure or difficult word that precisely catches my meaning to a string of muffled muttering monosyllabic munchkins beating about the bush. If I have an equal choice between words familiar and obscure, I would choose the one that best fits the sentence, not the vocabulary of whoever might be attempting to read it.

For I love and respect words. I love their precision and subtlety. And I love the sound of them; the way they form in the mind to trip off the fingertips or tongue; their rhythm, cadence and melody. I would be lost without them to flow across the contours of my formless feelings and emotions, giving them shape, dimension and meaning, rendering them recognisable, palpable, and sometimes manageable. I am grateful for the companionship they provide and the understanding they allow of the world and myself.

It’s just the way I am, I guess. After all, the one obvious truth about anyone who doesn’t know my words is that they wouldn’t know what I’m on about. In which case, what possible relevance could their intellectually challenged opinions have to me? All they do is make of me a grumpy, embittered, irascible ogre, which I deeply regret and for which I humbly apologise.


bibliobibuli said...

hi rehman - i'm happy to see you here. now me i have no quarrel at all with the way you write and just look to read more of it. my copy of 'a malaysian journey' is one of my favourite malaysian books and i've got quite a few clippings of things you've written about writing hoarded in my files. what i would love to know is whether you still have copies of your book for sale and if not might you consider reprinting? the question came up in an earlier post about which books represent the most important lit from this part of the world

oh ... and while you're here ... what's your take on the question - do you think much has moved on the writing scene in the last five years?

Argus Lou said...

Dear irascible Encik Rehman, you had me at munchkins.

(I did wonder if this thread would lure you out to the bloggy battle front.)


rehman said...

Hello Sharon! Thanks for asking. A Malaysian Journey is getting back into print in a final hardcover edition with a new preface blah blah, with a bit of luck by Christmas, without in the new year.

In the meantime, I'm working on compiling my 25 years' making a living as a writer into a book. I've always been disdainful of such pseudo-books - collections of previously published material that allow frauds to have their names on spines. But I'm doing it myself now because I want to wrap this up and get it out of the way. In collating the material, I'm heartened by the need to contextualise them. Perhaps the collection will amount to a pop history anyway, with some value beyond just a money-grubbing scrapbook for my pension plan.

This should keep me occupied for the next few months. (I left the NST last June, btw, to join Al Jazeera International as a TV talk-show host. That union lasted just four months, ending for various perfectly understandable reasons. I have come to accept that my "corporate fit" is not as good as the ones I throw.)

On how much the local writing scene has moved in the last five years: I don't know. I haven't read much of it, I'm sorry to say. Four years fixing the language of the reporters, writers and editors of the New Straits Times severely eroded my conviction that it even matters anymore. I am using this reversion to unemployment to attempt to repair some of that personal damage.

But I perceive a Malaysia growing ever more fragmented and polarised, of narrowed minds and limited capacities. My beef with local writing, especially in English, was always that it was intensely communal in concern. It had to be, I suppose, given the axiom that people write best what they know best. But it sure played to limited galleries.

Now how? Things are worse. I don't know. I don't read enough.

Dear Argus Lou: Not a chance! There are too many seriously disturbed people out there.


Eric Forbes said...

Hello Rehman - It has been sometime since we talked. How the years fly! Would be happy to hear from you again. I am glad that you will be reissuing A Malaysian Journey for a contemporary readership!

Eric Forbes

rehman said...

Eric, hi! I knew you were out there. Folks, Eric was the guy who edited my manuscript and helped me get the thing into print all those years ago. (I undid much of his work, though. He'd edited my opening line, "during the years of exile, my thoughts of Malaysia were memories of night" to "...my thoughts and memories of Malaysia were of night". I'd intended "thoughts" and "memories" to bear different connotations; conjoining them, he created a redundancy. But I let him prevail on, with regard to Musa Hitam, "he was no Razaleigh" in place of my puckish "no Razaleigh he". Now, had he been a better editor, he'd have excised "ineffably discomfited" from p1 and spared me a lifetime's cringing.)

But it wouldn't have happened without you, Eric. Thanks forever. (See preface to final edition, hee, all this nice advance publicity! But seriously, don't encourage me; I do go on.)

Eric Forbes said...

Sharon/Rehman - That's one of the many occupational hazards of being an editor; the past really does haunt you! I cringe when I look back at some of the books I have edited. I hope I've become a better editor since then. On a serious note, A Malaysian Journey is still one of my favourite books and I look forward to rereading the final edition.

bibliobibuli said...

the most exciting things in this blog happen in the comments!

am thrilled to bits about the reissue and the new book, rehman. will "blogvertise" them when they are launched.

(still miss those scorpion tales)

didn't know eric had edited you! that's so nice ...

rehman said...

Thank you! There'll be a selection of my old "Scorpion's Tales" in the compilation, of course. That NST column, which ran weekly for four years, had begun to haunt me even then. It was the downside of "branding", which commodifies the product and consequently restricts the content. I stayed a columnist but changed the name of my column to break the mould, but it did no good. People didn't want me, necessarily, they wanted "Scorpion's Tales"! Reviewing that stuff from two decades or more ago, I envy that irreverent young man with the insouciant style, who needed editing (yes, Eric, that was when the real damage was done!). I'm almost sorry he grew up, old and crabby. (Partly because, perhaps, in this country too few editors appreciate the difference between "editing" and "censorship". Which are, of course, polar opposites: editing seeks to reveal; censorship to conceal.)

And - isn't "irascible" a great word? Once, a couple of years ago, someone at the NST again lamented the loss of "Scorpion's Tales" after I'd spent the usual two days and three nights carving out a "Midweek" column. I asked him if he had a photo of himself from 1983, take a look at it and ask himself which one of him was speaking. I couldn't write like that today, I think, any more than I could be 25 again.

bibliobibuli said...

i guess it's just that i associate "scorpions tales" with that partic. phase in my life ... the mckk years ... remember they were the highlight of my friday mornings (sad life!)

what you say about not being able to write the same is very true

Anonymous said...

Well, they've gone from not buying books to buying thousands of books they don't read :) heh, you can encourage book-buying by implementing a tax-relief system, but you can't make them read the books they bought. Many people now probably have large libraries full of books they've bought but never read :)