Sunday, May 15, 2011

Response to Alan Wong's Piece in Quill Magazine

This is my letter to the editor in response to Alan Wong's piece in the current issue of MPH's Quill magazine. It is addressed to the editor of Quill, Vimala Seneviratne.

Dear Vimala

I am writing to express my hurt over an article in Quill magazine by Alan Wong.

It isn’t that I mind fair criticism of what I do, and I accept his review of my book in good spirit, but I feel that he has been very unfair in what he has said about the events I organise each month and about my book launch, and I am really troubled that this is the impression that is being communicated to the general public who read your magazine.

He criticizes my choices of venues. I have to point out that Seksan Gallery in Lucky Garden is easily accessible. Every month on my advertising on my blog and Facebook, I link to a map of the place. It is walking distance of Bangsar Village and Bangsar LRT station. It is a beautiful venue, filled with art, yet at the same time relaxed and informal. And thanks to the ongoing generosity of Seksan, we are able to keep the event completely free!

We chose the venue MAP@PUBLIKA for the launch as I was invited to take part in a charity event, raising funds as part of Lifest for Yayasan Orang Kurang Upaya Kelantan (YOKUK) or the Kelantan Foundation For The Disabled which I felt was a very worthy cause, and yet this fact is not mentioned in the piece. Yes, it was a little out of the way in Solaris Dutamas, (just off Jalan Duta) but the theatre was beautiful, and the music, food and readings I hope more than made up for the inconvenience. I spent a great deal of money to make a the launch a success, and once again the event was free for my audience. It is worth noting that although many people are encountering this venue for the first time, it will most probably become KL’s major arts hub.

Wong does not mention at all our other venues, No Black Tie in Jalan Mesui, or Alexis in Bangsar – easily accessible, up-market nightspots which cater to a different audience. (We also actually pay the writers who appear at No Black Tie – how many events are prepared to do that?)

Not having the courage of his own convictions, Wong hides behind an anonymous “friend” who he quotes as saying :

"Whatever they may aspire to be, the plain fact is Readings invariably attracts the same old names. It's a literati's Ivy League. How do you encourage growth and participation when newcomers feel judged not long after they step through the door? That can’t be healthy."

This is surely a contradiction to his earlier statement that over 6 years, the event has given space to more than 400 writers!

I try to give priority at Seksan's to recently published authors who have a book to promote – including those from MPH. As you will know, MPH has often responded by sending sales staff and offering a generous discount on books. Eric Forbes will tell you that a few days ago I asked him for the list of writers in the Sini Sana travel collection you are putting out, and I have written to every last one of them (mostly people I have not heard of before) to invite them to read.

I am constantly on the lookout for writers whom we may not have heard of before, and I try also to include overseas authors passing through Malaysia, because I feel that all this enriches the local writing community.

If there is an impression that there is “an ivy league” it may be because it is necessary, from time to time, to feature the best local writers who really set standards.

I wonder, in what sense do “newcomers feel judged not long after they step through the door”? We do our best to look out for and to welcome newcomers, whether they are reading their work or audience. I do apologise if anyone has gone away with the impression that there is any elitism in the event, but this is an impression that I work very hard to dispel because snobbishness is something I simply can’t abide.

To say that I don’t encourage newcomers is crazy. I teach creative writing (as you know, because when I began, MPH gave my course its first home). Some of my course participants have read at the event. Four of them are featured in my collection, Readings From Readings – the first time any of them have been published. Furthermore, I include unpublished but hardworking writers in my line-up wherever there is space. Last month three new writers got to read. This month, another two. The feedback I have had from them is that this is a positive experience that has built their confidence.

And for the record, I have a policy of not inviting a writer back to read more than once in a year. Over the six years we have been going, some writers have read three or four times over that time, which is hardly excessive.

The problem with the article is that it is undoing a great deal of the good that I am trying my best to do in building an event that will encourage new writing and showcasing our best!

And maybe this piece hurts more, because it comes from someone who has seemed over the month to be supportive of what I do at Seksan’s and I can’t help but feel personally betrayed.

I hope that you will give space to this letter in the next edition of Quill to redress the balance.

Yours sincerely,

Sharon Bakar
Bernice Chauly

1 comment:

Chaizani said...

Literati's Ivy League? Oh my, I feel quite honoured... You invited me to Seksan to read my first and only book so far, and now I'm evidently in literati's Ivy League... that's rather excessive, I must say. Please don't let negative comments get you down, Sharon. You're doing incredible work and helping a lot of budding writers in this country... including me!