Sunday, April 20, 2008

Opium, Marauding Islamic Gangs, and a Squished Cat

The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft aglee, as dear old Robbie Burns once said.

Yesterday's Readings@Seksan was the one that has given me the most headache, despite the fact that I had thought I had everything pretty well arranged. Two writers had to drop out last minute due to personal circumstances, a third just didn't answer the SMSes and phone calls and was a no show. Three readers down - I felt completely jinxed.

However, the writers who did turn up more than made up for all the difficulties and made the afternoon very worthwhile.

Teoh Choon Ean (who also goes by the pen-name Cean when she writes short fiction) is one of the best-selling local authors nominated for the The Star-Popular Readers Choice Awards for her first novel , which won third prize in the Utusan Group Literary Prize 2005. You may remember she wrote Nine Lives in just six days! Despite the speed with which the book came together, I'd say (after the extract we heard) that the writing certainly did not suffer and I can see this appealing to teenagers looking for a not too difficult and unstuffy read.

Narrated by 15 year old Bee Lian, an orphan living with grandparents, who shares her secrets with the mangy yellow cat which lives next door. Cean read from the beginning and end of the story.

The poor cat got squished on the road. I was so upset ... and am seriously thinking of starting a society for the prevention of cruelty of literary animals. (Will make Peter Carey honorary president!)

It was very special to have Kunal Basu read for us at Seksan's. He asked the crowd what they wanted him to read about opium, art, race or love. They answered in chorus Opium (which makes you wonder a bit!). In my introduction I had talked about how Kunal chooses to write about places he hasn't visited and so he read us part of The Opium Clerk which was set in Kucing. He followed that with the same extract from The Japanese Wife that he had read in the morning - perfect because so self-contained, and yet giving the essence of the whole story.

During the interval there was some lively book selling going on which I am very much encouraging. Sufian Abas was selling copies of the newly released and limited edition anthology Aweks KL which is being snapped up like hotcakes. The guys from MPH brought along piles of Kunal's books and offered a generous 20% discount.

Meanwhile I was asking around - did anyone have a poem concealed about their person that they would like to read, since there was time, and it so happened that some of the good folks from Poetry Underground (a performance poetry group based at Dram Projects) had come straight from a practice! My luck was turning.

I roped them in to do a quick set to start off the second half, Sheena Baharuddin, Reza Rosli, Catalina Rebuyan, George Wilgus, and new recruit Hazlan Zakaria took the floor to deliver just one poem each in rapid succession and they got some hearty applause.

After I'd introduced Peter Brown by telling the audience that he was originally from Essex, Peter began with a very very bad Essex girl joke ("How does an Essex girl turn the light on after sex? She kicks the car door open." Ouch.)

I had called on Peter to read at the 11th hour, and was so grateful he let himself be persuaded because his short story The Last Deejay is one of my favourites in Silverfish New Writing 7 (about which more another day), a story of friendship and loyalty set against the chilling background to a dystopian Malaysia in 2027.

I'm very glad Saradha Narayanan (looking very pretty in pink!) came back to read from The Freedom of Choice and selected passages which she felt gave us an overview of the book. The most affecting part for me was the description of the adoption of the baby.

Kunal rounded off our afternoon beautifully with an extract from his second novel, The Miniaturist, about an artist prodigy in the court of Mughal emperor Akbar.

Thanks a lot to Seksan for the wonderful space, to all those who came, to those who read, to those who helped me set up and clear up, to Shahril Nizam for the blog poster.

I plan the next event for May 24th.


CatR. said...

It was certainly a pleasure "crashing" at Readings! ;). And Hazlan, who was also there for the very first time, enjoyed himself very much.

I really liked Kunal Basu's reading of The Opium Clerk, being a Kuchingite myself (despite residing in KL for six years and counting). I was watching out for moments when he would get things wrong, but as he himself admitted, 19th Century Kuching is so different from its present-day state, and I couldn't really verify matters either. If he didn't tell me that he had never been to Kuching before, I probably wouldn't have noticed.

James Abela said...

That's pretty impressive...Just goes to show that imagination is the most powerful tool of a writer ;-)