Friday, December 31, 2004


The nicest way to close the year. With friends.

The first a new friend. Susan Abraham. We'd had an angry rant at each other in the e-groups. But when we stopped to draw breath, realised that we needed to heal hurts, apologise and move on. Frankly, I was surprised by Susan's magnanimity ... I'd have been angry with Sharon for far longer than she was! We also realised that as people who care about books and writing, we had plenty in common, even if there were things we didn't necessarily see eye to eye about.

So we met up in Starbucks, Bangsar Village and had a long chat which still felt too short over coffee and cake.

Thanks again Susan for the literary magazines which you went to great lengths to collect for me from the UK and Australia, and for the Artists and Writers Year Book. Especially thanks for the inspiration they provide and the reminder of all the possible markets and competitions out there.

Then bumped into other writing buddies. First of all Chet. Then had lunch at Delicious with Mercy, Soo Choon and Saras. Not planned but really what I needed, as I'm in a pretty low state at the moment.

Last day of the year. Wrap it in tissue paper, put it away.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Another Christmas In Batu Ferringhi

Heat of early afternoon. Sunlight dazzles. Sky is china blue muddied by the brown of my sunshades. The sea is a bowl of light.

A catamaran tacks out to sea. Jet skis roar.

A body hangs limp from the orange yellow green parasail as it circles the bay behind a motorboat. A thin Indian, black as dark chocolate, tries to persuade some Singaporeans to have a go.

A Malay girl with hair to her waist wades in the waves, her baju plastered to her skin . She could be a mermaid.

Families picnic on mengkuang mats under the casuarinas, opening packages of brown paper.

A thin man reeking of desperation tries to sell Buddha statues. Very lucky.

Waiters pack away the remains of the al fresco Christmas buffet lunch.

An African woman holds bread to her mouth in the tips of her long fingers. When she stands she is a Giacommeti statue, tall and slender. She runs across the lawn to her baby.

Two Europeans, paunchy and sun burnt, skim a Frisbee.

Koko the clown (mop of fluorescent orange hair, white face, hooped baggy costume to make him wobble as he walks, and huge false feet) terrifies a baby in a highchair. Pulls out a handful of sweets from his pocket.

Crows perched hopefully on the backs of white chairs, and a flutter of sparrows search for crumbs around the tables.

A lizard, (skin of beaten copper and silver, black holes for ears) stops and tastes the air with the flick of a tongue.

Batik sarongs displayed for sale on a washing line like a line of flags. A monstera plant twines around the rain tree.

On the Events board of the Rasa Sayang: Kampong Experience. A photograph of a large European learning to tie a sarong. Others sit cross-legged, uncomfortable, on a tikar, wearing socks, and awkwardly eating rice, fried chicken and acar with their fingers.

Fifty years ago my father came here on Christmas leave. Took funny photos with his mates (that my mother later threw away).


Monday morning checked my e-mail as soon as I was awake.

My sister asking me to get in touch at once. Was I okay? The earthquake sounded horrific.

What earthquake? I typed.

We don’t have earthquakes here.


And then I saw the headlines. Thousands killed by a huge tsunami in Thailand, Sumatra, Sri Lanka, India, the Maldives and elsewhere. 38 people killed in Malaysia. Most of them in Penang. Reality struck home. Though not at first the scale of the disaster.

We hadn't heard about it because we hadn't switched on TV and or gone out the day before. It was Boxing Day for heaven's sake - things are not supposed to happen on Boxing Day.

Since then the TV has been on most of the day. BBC news and then CNN and then bck to the BBC again. The same reports ... the same images ... over and over. And at night when I try to sleep, they replay behind my eyes - the surging waves smashing everything; the folks trying to cling to a bridge support before being washed away; the waves rising to become a torrent in a second storey hotel room; the bodies of children lain side by side looking as if still sleeping, while their mothers touch their faces for a final time; the bloated corpses scattered on a Thai beach; wailing Indian women at the funeral pyres, the empty streets of Bandar Acheh.

Feel the weight of grief for the victims, their grieving families, for economies smashed and livelihoods lost.

But what hits home most is the footage of Batu Ferringhi where I've spent happy Christmases in the past. Most of the victims were families taking a Sunday stroll or having a picnic by the sea. Some saw the waves approaching and stayed on the beach to watch them. One man lost five of his children when they became curious about all the dead fish killed by the first smaller wave, and then the second wave, as high as a coconut tree rolled in ...

If we’d had the money to go away for a break over Christmas, if poor Abu hadn't had to work so hard … there’s a good chance that we would have been on Batu Ferringhi beach when the waves struck. Abu said, knowing you, you would have been out there on the beach wanting to get a closer look when the waves came in.

Well, there but for the grace of God …

Soo Choon was in Penang and planning to go for a picnic with her family near Boon Siew's villa on Batu Ferringhi - one of the areas of the beach which was hardest hit. At 12.15, on her way there, she was involved in a minor accident with a motorcyclist which held her up for a couple of hours. Had she been on the beach with picnic cloth and food spread out on the sands, would she and her family have managed their escape?

There's a howling sense of disbelief in me and impotent rage against an indifferent universe in which the lives of tens of thousands are lost within a few tragic moments.

The ground shifts beneath my feet. A sense of safety lost.

And I will never trust the sea again.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

This was my Christmas Day.

One tatty old fir tree, rescued from the garden and pressed into service at the last moment looked not too bad when covered in lights and tinsel.

One piece of music on the stereo played over and over as I sing along - Benjamin Britten's Ceremony of Carols which brings back memories of school carol concerts I sang - which to me were the essence of Christmas when I was growing up.

This little babe just few days old is come to rifle satan's hold ...

(A special Christmas memory from a few years ago - stuck in a horrendous traffic jam along Jalan Damansara - found that my friend and colleague Becky had also sung in choirs and knew several of the same pieces. We gave an inpromtu concert performance of Ceremony of Carols and excerts from Britten's St. Nicholas Canata as we inched slowly forward. Other passengers a little bemused to say the least.)

One present under the tree - mine to him. A couple of CDs -soundtrack to City of Ghosts and another by Cambodian/American band Dengue Fever. "Thanks very much," he says, "but I suppose you bought it with MY money anyway".

One gift for me from my sister. She knows I'm a sucker for earrings.

Several SMS messages on my phone wishing me Happy Christmas. One I don't want to delete ... "To my dear friend."

One visitor. "It's a good thing we have open houses in Malaysia" he said as he bounded up the steps. "Not like in Britain," he added implying that we are a tight, cold lot who haven't a clue about hospitality and interpersonal relationships. I'd said to him on the phone "Sure, drop by for some mince pies. Anytime." He stayed for seven hours, laughing and joking with the Old Man on the verandah as I provided a stream of food and booze. But I like to hear the two of them teasing and being pretty damn rude to each other across the stupid racial divide that keeps so many folks here apart.

One visitor who didn't turn up at the very last moment. Too tired, she said. Too sad, I know. Could weep for her.

One over-ambitious Christmas Meal which took hours to prepare. Mango prawn salad. Roast beef (not as nice as it should have been because my oven is playing up and I couldn't get the temperature right), roast and mash potatoes, brussels sprouts in an orange honey sauce, carrots with garlic and lemon, gravy. Christmas pud (bought, I confess - wish I'd made my own.)

One hour late - our dinner guests arrived. Two people soon to be three. My much loved nephew and heavily pregnant niece-in-law. "Next year our daughter is going to be fascinated by your tree ... ."

A not-too-bad-in-the-end Christmas. Which is much better than I'd expected.

Friday, December 24, 2004

How Do I Love Thee ...

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”
Do all young men wax so lyrical?
I don’t remember.
Love’s a luxury, frankly, I can do without.
Thee” and “thou”! My, the poetry he spouts.
Let him, I say. I’ll keep my counsel.
Me, I’ll
Count my blessings and embrace
The solitary life. I’ve
Ways of forgetting love.

©Sharon Bakar September 2004

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Censorship and Creativity

Just read the following article in The Malay Mail which made me feel incredibly sad and angry.

Haven't seen Yasmin Ahmad's films yet - but having read the article would very much like to.

But the issue of censorship destroying the creativity of artists here is a perennial one. And I can't see it going away any time soon.

Malaysian art must reflect real Malaysian life (and not be some idealised mirror of how the powers that be would like life to look for their own political purposes). Else honestly, what's the point? Malaysia needs artists with integrity - whether they be writers, playwrights, film makers, visual artists or whatever - who will tell their own truth about love, relationships, race, religion and all those other human issues that affect us all here. (Mat Salleh that I am i consider myself an 'us' not a 'them').

The alternative is that the people with real talent and the power to tell us something about ourselves shut themselves away where they will not get hurt. Or they cross the oceans to other parts of the world where they feel they can have a voice (but hey, will that voice be heard so loudly when there are so many other people whose voices are being heard at the same time?)

MOVIES: Killing ’em softly with their cuts
Meor Shariman

Dec 23:

IT looks like the National Censorship Board has dampened the spirit of another creative and visionary young local film-maker, Yasmin Ahmad.
She's one of many fresh and exciting young directors, whose passion to take local films to new heights has been tamed by our ‘moral police,' who still decide what local moviegoers should and shouldn't watch.

But we will continue supporting these bold directors, who go that extra mile in the name of art.

We hope they won't stop trying to be different and daring, despite being hampered by the Censorship Board who seem to be practising double standards – they butcher the kind of scenes in local movies that are often left untouched in foreign films. Now back to Yasmin. She tried to be as honest as she could in depicting the reality of Malaysian society in two recent films, Rabun and Sepet.

But that, as expected, didn't go down well with the Censorship Board committee.

Her first film, Rabun, shown over TV3, had a scene where an old loving couple take a bath together. That was deemed indecent and was chopped.

There was nothing revealing or obscene about that scene – it's quite common for married, couples, young and old, to bathe together.

The scene was meant to be inspiring as it shows how loving the old couple still are to each other despite being married for so long. After all, Rabun is a tale of undying love between the old couple.

The film was well received by both critics and viewers.

Now, Yasmin's latest film, Sepet – which was shown for a month without any cuts in Singapore – has incurred the wrath of the Censorship Board.

Sepet was first scheduled for a February release with nine cuts. Now, it has been banned.

Yasmin recently met with the committee to discuss the censored scenes. But she came out of that announcing she would quit film-making. (Yasmin made the announcement and shared her experience in a website, THE NIGHTMARE When Sepet was shown to the Board, it was lambasted by most of the 12-member committee with a few appreciating it. One member said, almost in tears, that Sepet was the most enjoyable movie she ever saw and congratulated Yasmin. Another proudly said that Sepet was a Malaysian movie.

Unfortunately, the rest didn't feel that way. Many even made some ridiculous comments which showed how ignorant they are.

Sepet is a love story between a Malay girl and a Chinese boy – which is not unthinkable in our multi-racial society.

But one committee member's contention was that Yasmin didn't raise the issue of religion; he also asked why the Malay girl didn't try to convert her Chinese boyfriend. He said it would please the Malay audience if the Chinese boy becomes a Muslim at the end of the story.

Another member picked on the scene where Adibah Nor, Ida Nerina and Syarifah Amani lovingly combed each other's hair by the staircase.

His complaint – that scene would encourage Malay women to go back to their bad old habit of picking each other's lice! And if all that weren't discouraging enough, another member brought up the scene where a Malay character was seen in a non-halal Chinese restaurant. That set the stage for the bombshell – the committee decided to ban Sepet! It claimed it represented the rakyat (the people) and ‘had shown the film to some members of the rakyat and the rakyat wanted the movie to be banned'.

With that, Sepet – a film winning rave reviews outside the country – won't be having a cinema audience here.

THE DOUBLE STANDARDS GOING by Yasmin's nightmarish experience, the censorship board committee seems to be confused or is suffering from short memory.

Don't they remember approving films with a similar plot to Sepet in the past? Inter-racial romance is also the theme of Skop Productions' Sembilu 2005, the most-anticipated love story next year.

In Sembilu 2005, a Malay girl falls for a Chinese boy and the latter doesn't convert in the end.

The film has already been approved by the Censorship Board and will be screened in March.

As for the scene in Sepet where a Malay is seen in a Chinese restaurant, there was a similar sequence in Metrowealth Movies Production's Hingga Hujung Nyawa.

That was screened last July, and in that particular scene, a man even bought food from the Chinese restaurant for his dying wife! What was most absurd must be one committee member's complaint about the hair-combing scene in Sepet. It sounds like he's worried that female employees in Government departments will start picking each other's lice during office breaks after watching Sepet! With such a mentality, do we want such a censorship board committee to represent the viewers' choice on what films we should watch? No wonder why our film industry is lagging behind our neighbours like Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia.

Drop by Yasmin's blog
for the whole story.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Found Literature

(From my notebook. Names changed!)

Now this intrigues me. One day a couple of months ago when I was walking my usual circuit of the area where I live, I saw a piece of paper by the side of the road. Nosey cow that I am, I picked it up and read it. This is what it said:

"Kuala Lumpur Japanese teacher Mr. Nerome makes the illicit Ms. Jouji now the rise and fall.
Why it is called that this thing was understood.
Consultation from the man's wife was a start.
It was from last years September when two people are familiar.
It was worried about the compatible thing of the class of her class management and the ungoing to school student of the class of her.
When the man who had an eye there gives counsel and having a meal, it comes to make after school in the more familiar relation a back that finished becoming.
He comes to soon go in and out of her house.
Two people become related to flesh. The type of car that he is riding is SERENA.
Plate number WEL 4254.
He has come recently to the condominium (Riana Green) in which she lives everyday."

I like the rough poetry of the broken English, written I'm sure by a Japanese speaker. It tells a story than transcends cultural boundaries. But what did the writer want to achieve by throwing this by the roadside?

And today, I found the same story again, on a sodden piece of paper. And in exactly the same spot! Someone had actually retyped it too! What is happening?

(Another way to get published?)

Monday, December 20, 2004


Friday had my writing buddies round. Once a month we meet for a critiquing session where a couple of us submit a piece of writing for fine-tooth comb scrutiny. A scarey process, but necessary for growth. This is the third time Asiah has joined us - she has had I think three stories published - lovely ironic slices of life and a real sense of mischief. Leah joined us for critiquing for the first time. She has been in critiquing groups for years and has more experience in that sense than the rest of us put together (we're so new to it, feeling the way.) We looked at a couple of stories of Mercy's - one of them an excellent short short - almost there but the language in need of tightening to make it a little more pacey. Then we looked at some short pieces of memoir/essays I had written and was not sure what to do with ... and ended up with some pretty good suggestions (This one should be used for a poem. ... This one feels just like raw material from your notebook maybe you could use it as part of a story but you need to add more to it.... This one is good, I wanted to know more ... ). It's so helpful to know how what you've written strikes other people - and you're always surprised by responses.

Leah was so positive about our little group - said we were communicative, articulate and honest without being hurtful - and the groups she's been in before haven't always been like this. (Feel dead chuffed that we're suceeding!)

We also had a good laugh together - wicked women's laughter over spaghetti puttanesca (which translates as "lady of the night" spaghetti!)and beaujolais noveau. Delicious.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Legend of the Vanishing Body

She looked down but couldn’t see her feet. They’d both been swallowed up. She tried to move her toes but there were no toes there to answer anymore.

She was a little sad: she’d been fond of her feet, and people had admired them. Slim, graceful feet with high arches and long toes, whose nails she loved to paint in startling crimsons and vibrant pinks. Her ankles, and with them her gold ankle chain vanished too.

Her calves went next, and then little by little her kneecaps. She’d never really liked them. Alien, knobbly things, strangely at variance with the feminine curves of her legs. Still, she supposed that they had been necessary.

Her thighs began to vanish, but she felt no pain at all - or perhaps just a very slight tickle. And then the part of herself that she’d once thought the most precious and important. The part that she had confused with her heart, and blamed for all the troubles it led her into. Perhaps it was better that it was gone.

Her stomach, recalcitrantly rounded despite the odd attempt to bully it into shape with punishing sit-ups, went too. She wouldn‘t miss it.

But as her body slipped from her, she felt a pang of sadness for her breasts. Although they wouldn’t pass the pencil test now, she loved their warmth and softness, the shy pink nipples and the rosy circles around them. She cupped them for one last time feeling their weight like ripened fruit in the market, before they too slipped away from her. It didn’t do to become too attached to body parts.

Her fingers vanished too, the ink stains and the two rings from her husband with them and the length of her freckled arms. The shoulders too were finally gone.

And then the nothingness rose towards her head. Her neck was swallowed up and with it all the tension that it held.

But whatever force had made her disappear in the first place had spent itself by now. Her head refused to follow the rest, and floated stubbornly above the ground where her body would have supported it.

She closed her eyes, and there behind her lids, she saw a complete world. Mountains, rivers, meadows and trees. There was bright sun, but no shadows where a fear could hide. And when she looked really closely, there was her headless body bathing in a clear mountain stream. Her hand waved to her as if to say, come on in, it’s fine. Then it lifted a rock to show her all the tiny stories hiding beneath. They shone with all the colours of the rainbow as the sun caught them. Some darted away in the water. Others floated up into the air. Another lay quietly curled in the palm of her hand.

She breathed deeply, and as the air flowed into her nostrils, she followed it inside, realising at last that the way into your deepest soul is a trick of turning yourself inside out.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Tom Wolfe Gets Bad Sex Award

The Bad Sex Award is given each year by the Literary Review for the funniest, most embarrasing sex scene in a novel.


Poor Tom Wolfe, I thought until I read the scene from I Am Charlotte ... and then I was in stitches:

"Slither slither slither slither went the tongue. But the hand that was what she tried to concentrate on, the hand, since it has the entire terrain of her torso to explore and not just the otorhinolaryngological caverns - oh God, it was not just at the border where the flesh of the breast joins the pectoral sheath of the chest - no, the hand was cupping her entire right - Now!"

Was an award ever so well-deserved?

André Brink (a runner-up) doesn't even come near: "[Her vulva was] like a large exotic mushroom in the fork of a tree, a little pleasure dome if ever I've seen one, where Alph the sacred river ran down to a tideless sea. No, not tideless. Her tides were convulsive, an ebb and flow that could take you very far, far back, before hurling you out, wildly and triumphantly, on a ribbed and windswept beach without end."

I'm off now to see if I can slip "otorhinolaryngological" into a conversation with someone.

(Later ...)

Have to spend some time practising it first. It's damned hard to get your tongue round. Which of course is a pun. Perhaps Wolfe was being tongue in cheek when he used the word? (Or tongue up nose, tongue down throat ...)

Keeping It Locked Inside

Ah the power of words to haunt over time ...

He wrote these lyrics for me he said. It was the one song on the album that Kevin, the lead singer had not been able to produce words for. So Geoff stepped in. Can still see the words on the notebook page he wrote them on.

It's about you, he said, the way that you always lack the courage to do the things in life you want. The way you're always afraid to try. The way you always play safe and hide yourself in books.

(What did I want? I was so tired trying to cope with my first teaching job in one of the city's roughest schools that I doubt I could have told you. And my boring job kept us in rent, food and him in dope.)

The album (Searching for the Young Soul Rebels) is now considered one of the classics of all time (at least in Britain).

And the song always haunts me. Am I still someone who lacks the essential courage to get out and follow-up on dreams? I have had a successful teaching career, I've travelled widely, I coped with two years in a remote part of the African bush, I've got some work published, I've managed to stay married for fourteen years. But the fear is still there that ... just maybe he was right about me.

Damn internal critic, thorn in my side.

He sticks out his tongue at me from distance of almost a quarter of a century (am I so old?) and says "Playing it safe! Playing it safe! See I told you so."

Why won't he ever be gone from my head? (Not to mention heart.)

Keep it
Dexy's Midnight Runners

The world lives in your front room
You're sitting happy in gloom
Fate worries you, you will not give her room
You give credit for might, inspiration and sight,
But you miss the point, you won't join in the fight
You think to use is to lose
So you're clinging, pulling, pleading

Try to keep it safe
Keep it cosy but it feels so out of place
You're feeling a loss but you're not fit to make it

You're offered so much but you're frightened to take it.

It never was really proved, never was understood,
But there really is no virtue in the good
They're shouting so loud that they'd do better to mine
You're deafened and you cannot hear the rhyme
But secrets in whispers pull you, try to tempt you

Try and keep it safe
Keep it cosy but it feels so out of place
You're feeling a loss but you're not fit to make it
You're offered so much but you're not going to take it.

You beg for help and advice, how to handle your life,
But you dare not move, you cannot pay the price
Chances slip, you just shatter, flatter, forget what matters

Spout your lines, read all your books
You hear the sounds, miss all the hooks
Your best is what you least understand
You hate the graft, won't join the race,
You're scared to scar your pretty face
State now cos your head's in the sand.

A New Forum (Blogging) Inspires the Old (Books)

If you want your writing to be noticed - write a blog! Interesting article about how bloggers such as Salam Pax commenting on the invasion of Iraq and Belle de Jour writing about the life of a callgirl in London (both blogs I have read and enjoyed greatly) landed publishing deals based on their blogs.

The New York Times > Books > A New Forum (Blogging) Inspires the Old (Books)

I enjoy reading blogs very much - have a whole list of them bookmarked and dip in and out of the soap opera of other people's lives. I especially love the voices that come through - the way that character and personality, gender and personality are revealed through the words people use and sometimes hide behind. It would be an interesting writing exercise (not one I've tried myself yet though) to read a blog for a while and then see if you could construct an imaginary entry keeping the voice consistent.

Where else but the pages of a novel or in a film can you enter the head of someone so very different from yourself and whose life experiences are as far removed from your own as it is possible to get?

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

My Artist Dreams

Sometimes in my dreams I meet him. The artist. My soul mate. My muse. The other part who completes me.

I went trawling through the notebooks I've kept over the past few years to copy out and put these very special dreams side by side. I found seven written down, but know there are even more I didn't record.

They are lucid dreams and I'm always aware at the time of dreaming of their significance. Colours are bright, and every small detail stands out. The characters, the he and she (who feels like me), are different each time. But so real that I could describe their physical appearance. Sometimes I can tell you their names. Sometimes I can remember whole conversations I've had with them.

There's always a deep, passionate love involved, stronger than almost anything I've ever felt for anyone who is really part of my world. (With those one or two exceptional moments of blinding gloriousness that burned themselves out as quickly as they happened..) Always there's a feeling of merging of souls, of completion.

In one dream, I see bright abstract paintings in a small gallery. The shapes are so bold, colours arrest the eye. I have a poster of his art at home. The artist is a young man with wild hair. He's amazed that someone can understand his art so completely. The love I feel for him is overpowering and immediate.

In another, he's a maker of sculptures which are at the same time soft toys. I stumble across his gallery by accident in the middle of nowhere. I do not meet him in the dream, but recognise him from his work.

In another, he makes red paper lanterns. I recognise the love I have for him but do not act on it. The important thing is that I can help him with his work.

In yet another, he’s an animator. He works with black and white stick figures. I’m an artist too and add colour to his work. Strong colours – vivid red, angry slashes. The combination of his work and mine together, overlapping, superimposed, is brilliant. In work, we energise, complete each other. But I come to wonder how it is that on a personal level we never get together, he makes no move. He isn’t a handsome man but he’s attractive and I know I’d welcome his advances. When I confront him, he says he was frightened of rejection, scared we wouldn’t be able to work together if something went wrong between us. His hesitation and humility make me want him even more.

Then he’s a Sitar player, called Anand. A sensual man to whom I make love with real passion.

Then he’s a film director to my actress. He’s Jewish - solid and big as a bear and older than her. They walk along a beach, she in a filmy turquoise dress – the colour I always said my muse would wear. They’ve been missing each other by miles. She’s always rejected him because she’s been hurt by her painful childhood and her insecurity. But in the end they make love and are good together.

And then he is a favourite writer, whose novel has touched my heart. I attend a party at his house. His hand is disfigured with thalidomide. (He himself says he was “born a historical artifact” and laughs it off). He’s slim, wiry, part Indian I think. Not good looking in a conventional sense. (The me in this dream, is stocky with long brown hair and a singer!) I’m shy of him, afraid to talk to him because I’ll make a fool of myself. I also feel ashamed that I have not yet read his autobiography unlike the clever chattering people at his party. He’s public property and they know more about him than I do. The only way to fill those gaps is to get him to tell me those stories. When the party is over I stay back to help him. While we wipe the glasses I begin talking about what I liked in his book. “Don’t worry. I didn’t ask you to stay to tell me how good I am – or to wash dishes.”

Hmmm …

So where do these dreams come from? Encouragement and affirmation to the creative part of me? (Every person in a dream is an aspect of yourself.) This is how I’ve always read them.

I wonder if anything approaching this kind of love and affirmation is possible in “real life”.

Are there really soul-mates?

How many people find theirs and have a happy ending?

My heart is hungrier for this kind of connection than it has ever been in my life.

Miss Manner’s Guide to Reading and Eating

Reading when you eat, and eating when you read is one of life’s true pleasures. Besides, might as well make productive use of our brains while we go about the fairly mindless munching of our food, and so should consider reading at the same time a perfect example of “multitasking”, as it is known in business circles. Eating while reading also serves to quiet the guilt which speaks with your mother’s most irate voice “Don’t you have anything better to do?” whenever you pick up a book.

If carried out correctly, reading while is eating is an inherently unsociable activity. The most unwelcome words you can hear when reading in a public place is “May I join you?” Sadly others don’t take it too kindly if you bare your teeth at them and say, “I was just getting to a good bit,”; but this may be your only option unless you feel like telling them that you have a communicable disease and they’d be safer sat at another table.

It does of course help if you marry a partner who spends half their life buried behind a newspaper, so they won’t be able to claim the higher moral ground when you don’t talk to them during mealtimes at home because you have your nose in a book. Indeed, if both of you read at mealtimes, marital conflict may be avoided altogether. Unless of course your partner insists on reading out loud articles they feel you ought to know about, such as the latest news on the economy or rugby statistics.

Be warned that the calories consumed by reading are not offset by the effort involved in turning the pages (or the occasional round of bookhurling at the partner who insists on reading to you from the paper or soaking your book with the garden hose.) Reading can contribute to obesity if not undertaken in moderation.

Certain foods lend themselves to being consumed by fervent readers. Sandwiches are the most obvious, of course. They were deliberately designed for one-handed eating by the Earl of Sandwich when he did not wish to forsake his card games at mealtimes. However, I must confess that I find lamentable the present day trend for doorstep-sized sandwiches with foliage and mayonnaise spilling out in all directions, by those with scant regard for British tradition. The genuine British sandwich is a dried up slice of cheddar cheese or Spam slapped between two slices of stale white bread, its lack of taste more than outweighed by it’s inherent convenience. Because surely, if you have to eat it with a knife and fork, it defeats the object of ordering a sandwich in the first place?

Noodles are a good choice for readers, provided that you are adept at using chopsticks and don’t baulk at the thought of a few grease spots on your shirt when the noodles splash back into the sauce. HINT: Avoid wearing white if you are planning a prolonged reading session over noodles, or choose the drier noodles dishes: you really can’t do much harm with a plate of Singapore mee hoon. With sufficient practice you should be able to consume an entire plate of noodles without taking your eyes of the page even once. Spaghetti may be consumed in a similar fashion: Marco Polo did steal the idea of pasta from the Chinese after all.

Malay food and Indian banana leaf curries are another possibility. These are eaten with the fingers of your right hand only, leaving your left hand free to hold your book. However, unless you wish to decorate the pages with garlands of chili or pickle, the skill of turning pages with your nose should be acquired with alacrity.

It is also possible to read while eating western food with one hand provided that you abandon your British table manners and cut your food up into bite-sized pieces first, as the Americans do, so that you will not need to look up while reading. (Don’t worry too much about letting your standards drop in this instance: reading is much more important.)

Fries and salad garnishes should always be treated as finger food. Provided you maintain a facial expression of snooty indifference, the locals will accept this as a perfectly acceptable way to eat and you may even find that they emulate you.

It is a foregone conclusion though, that you will not manage to avoid food stains on your book entirely and that the pages with be besmirched, spotted, dotted, splashed, smeared, glued together and otherwise sullied by a variety of edible substances. Fortunately, this enhances rather than detracts from the personal value of the book, particularly if you make a note in the margin of what you were eating and where, alongside each stain. Just imagine the nostalgia you will evoke when you reread your books at a later date.

I like to imagine that after my death, my biographer will scour the books in my private collection (which I will bequeath to some university department or other) to gather clues about my life. DNA tests on all those stains will provide a pretty complete picture of what I ate and, (with a little carbon dating), when.

(Copied from my notebook)

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Writer's Block

Came across this poem some time back - don't remember where I found it - and stuck it in the front of one of my journals:

Writer's Block

The simplest art is dreaming.
Mice come from the underground to nibble at a fallow notepad.
It helps to be afraid of them,
to stand helpless
as they have their way.
They cannot be stopped, and having stripped
the kitchen they eat the hearts
from books. They arrive
in hundreds, seeming to multiply
as the night grows long,
until they are sated and leave.
It helps to imagine them as being larger
than they are, to think of them
as being armed, and to forgive
them for being hungry and for taking
the perfection from paper. The rest
is instinct. Begin with any word. Nothing
worse can happen now.

David Chorlton

Monday, December 13, 2004

Julia Copus

Came across this poem by Julia Copus and just love it. Must look for her book.

In Defence of Adultery

We don't fall in love: it rises through us
the way that certain music does -
whether a symphony or ballad -
and it is sepia-coloured,
like spilt tea that inches up
the tiny tube-like gaps inside
a cube of sugar lying by a cup.
Yes, love's like that: just when we least
needed or expected it
a part of us dips into it
by chance or mishap and it seeps
through our capillaries, it clings
inside the chambers of the heart.
We're victims, we say: mere vessels,
drinking the vanilla scent
of this one's skin, the lustre
of another's eyes so skilfully
darkened with bistre. And whatever
damage might result we're not
to blame for it: love is an autocrat
and won't be disobeyed.
Sometimes we manage
to convince ourselves of that."

Home on the Range

Guardian Unlimited Books | Review | Profile: Annie Proulx

" ... she had also established an obsessively researched method of working: Every phrase is earned, double-earned, triple-earned. She conducts multiple interviews, about knife-grinding, for example, that may result in only a sentence; she keeps lists of names, from phone books, help-wanted ads (displaying a distinct taste for the unusual); she goes to every place she describes, painting watercolours of landscapes in order to fix them in her mind; collects impressions always, in case they are someday useful: "I have scores of different skies to draw on - I go to sky descriptions that have been written from the real skies that I see and pick out the one that works for me." She writes in longhand, because she believes writing on a computer produces facile prose."

"... Perhaps it is this intensity that brings many to the conclusion that the short story is really her medium; in Close Range, the Wyoming-themed collection that followed Accordion Crimes , she is appreciably more at home. "I think she writes some of the bravest short fiction I know," says Goldman. "She has made the American short story new." Proulx's attempt to explain the attraction is revealing: in the brevity of the short story, she says, "lies the scope, or the possibility of allowing something to be truthful or brutal. There are some wonderful short novels though, that manage to have a strange and excellent harshness." "

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Necessary Journeys

Caryl Phillips talks about his own journey for identity.

Guardian Unlimited Books | Review | Necessary journeys

"The most dangerous thing that we can do to ourselves is to carelessly accept a label that is offered to us by a not always generous society that seeks to reduce us to little more than one single component of our rich and complex selves."

Saturday, December 11, 2004

A Touch of Fantasy

Last night was invited to a reading at a private art gallery. (Wonderful art - wish i had money and walls enough!) I'd known Glenda for a number of years (as a birdwatcher and environmentalist.) Only learned that she wrote some months ago when I was on the phone to her about quite a different matter. I was sad I hadn't known, as I could have invited her to the Litfest. "I didn't think you were interested in fantasy writers," she said. Actually I'd have loved to welcome in writers from a whole range of genres ...

About Glenda

Turns out that she's published several titles (including The Tainted, Gilfeather and The Aware) in Australia, Britain (even making the best sellers list!) and now also in the US. And she's being translated into other languages.

She read from her trilogy - well-turned prose, and I'm curious to read more - and then talked about her experiences of being published (painful) and her life as a writer (3,000 words a day!). Realise that fantasy is a genre I've more or less neglected (last one I read was Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy).

Also interesting is the idea, and this is why I have to read them, that although she is writing about a fantasy world, there is a great deal in them about the state of things in Malaysia. Things that you wouldn't be able to say out loud in a more direct way.

Met some of my friends there. Keep hearing from folks who were involved in the Litfest last year "When's the next one going to be? We want to take part ... ." For which I have no easy answer. I want to help organise it, but ... let's politely say I'd like things to be managed differently.

Also met members of a book group I hadn't known previously existed. "We keep ourselves very quiet. We have eight members and we want to keep it that." So how long have they been going? "Oh ... about 35 years ...".

Felt a little ... jealous .. can't help it ... to see Glenda's husband Ramli taking photos, being so proud and supportive of her ...

Friday, December 10, 2004

Do the Write Thing

Enjoyed this article and would have loved to have been present at this workshop.


Loved this line by Alan Jenkins from the article: "If you see a book as a success because it sells a lot of copies, you might as well give up criticism."

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Ruth Rendell

Article from about Ruth Rendell.

Have never been hooked on crime fiction but have enjoyed some of her books. Best of all though, are her short stories I think. In fact she wrote one short story which would be in my anthology of best-ever short stories. I don't have my copy of the collected short stories any more having lent it to a friend (who apparently misunderstand the word "lent" for "gave" as friends unfortuantely tend to do). But it was a murder story in four pages or so - in the form of a dialogue between a husband and wife about mosquito bites and nicotine patches. In that conversation you could work out exactly how the wife was murdering the husband and that the husband didn't have a clue about the fact that she was doing so! My jaw dropped in awe and I had to read it several times.

Ian McEwan Hints at a Coming Novel

Article about Ian McEwan from The New York Times. Have read most of his books - enjoy his darkness, the sense of terror just under the surface of everyday life. My favourites are "A Child in Time" (the ultimate horror - a child disappears in a supermarket and is not found again) and his early work "The Cement Garden". "Enduring Love" has one of the most dramatic and terrifying openings of any novel - I had to reread it several times before I could move on to the rest of the story, but the rest of the book doesn't match its intensity at all - and from the reviews I've read, this could also be a problem with the film. I'm looking forward to seeing it.

The New York Times > Books > Ian McEwan Hints at a Coming Novel

Intersted in this piece on the whole question of factual accuracy which McEwan mentions:

Asked about his job, he said he was a novelist. "What kind of novels do you write, fact or fiction?" his questioner inquired.

The point was not just to poke fun at his interrogator. Rather, it led to a lengthy explanation of his belief in factual accuracy to underpin and nourish the novelist's imagination. Indeed, he said, as a schoolboy of 13 he had discovered that a description of a Punch magazine cover in L. P. Hartley's 1953 novel "The Go-Between" was in fact completely accurate. "If there was a moment when I decided to become a writer, that was it," he said.

I believe that writers should go to such lengths or credibility is destroyed. I remember one online writing buddy telling me that she was unable to go on reading a book by John Grisham after she read that the main character went into a bakery she knows well (the place was named) and bought a bagel. "It doesn't sell bagels!" she said, annoyed that the writer had failed to check out an easily verifiable fact.

Margaret Atwood went so far as to take a tape measurement to the bridge mentioned at the beginning of "The Blind Assassin" so that she could work out exactly how many times the car rolled when it fell from the bridge ...

Saturday, December 04, 2004

According to Beryl

Amazed sometimes how fortunate I am.

Yesterday had the opportunity to talk to author Beryl Bainbridge via video link up as I was chairing the discussion for The British Council who are doing their best to promote British writers .

Second time I’ve done this. First video link-up was a few months ago with David Lodge. Then of course we had the real life (larger than life!) Paul Bailey at the Litfest. It’s a little nerve-wracking – you wonder whether you will just appear foolish with your questions. There’s always a mad rush to prepare by reading enough of the books and reading widely enough on the internet so that you don’t make a fool of yourself. I’ve learned now that the best questions are general, so that even if the audience haven’t read the author (and most of them haven’t) they won’t feel too out of their depth.

We only heard that we were linking up with Ms. Bainbridge a couple of weeks ago. The other accomplice in “we” is The Edge’s Sheila Singham who conducts an exclusive interview for an hour before the public session begins. We had our usual panic around for copies (luckily I had three of her novels on my bookshelves to lend Sheila and managed to find others in MPH) and spent half an hour or so in the little cafĂ© outside the British Council comparing notes and questions. I hadn’t read as much as I wanted to before hand – doing the Nanowrimo made it virtually impossible to have anyone else’s words in my head for that month. But I loved “According to Queeney” and had read it only a few months previously. I had also read “The Bottle Factory Outing” but so long ago I couldn’t remember it at all, and “Master Georgie” – which I wasn’t sure I liked. I had managed to read at least the first few chapters of several more at least to get a taste.

I was, of course, in awe of Bainbridge – 5 times nominated for the Booker, winner of many others including The Whitbread, made a dame. But from what I’d read … and from what Paul Bailey said about her when he was here, knew that she would be fun … and so it turned out.

Our audience this time was very small. Are there really so few booklovers in KL, so few wannabe-writers who wish to learn a little more about their craft from one of the greatest living novelists? Maybe the timing wasn’t good for working folks.

Anyway, we had Leon Wing join us. He’d heard about the session from my posting on MyWordUp and amazed me by saying that he was a terrific fan and had read everything.
Also in the audience were Joanna Thorpe of British Council, Diana Cooper, and Jagdev – a lecturer from UTM. I think the five of us asked all the questions between us.

Joanne asked first of all how we should address Ms. Bainbridge. The British are often sticky for correct protocol. David Lodge had wanted the formality of “Professor Lodge” throughout his interview. But here we were talking to just “Beryl”.

A slightly blurred image on the screen of Beryl, dressed all in black, wearing reading glasses, sitting at a table. She read for us from “According to Queeney” her novel about the relationship between Samuel Johnson and the Thrales. An amazing, luminous novel, which made me feel like a fly on the wall as history unfolded. (It helps too that I’m extremely fond of Samuel Johnson, and if I ever had a dinner party to which I could invite anyone I wanted living or dead, he definitely would be there!)

Her reading was punctuated by coughing. She was an infamously heavy smoker for most of her life, but I’d read that she’d given up for health reasons. (Later she said that she’s only coughing now because she doesn’t smoke anymore!) She also blames giving up smoking on the writer’s block which is preventing her from being able to think of the opening section of her new novel. “Smoking is a release for the soul”, she said. (I came home and quoted that at Abu who loved it.)

Of course the first question I asked was about why she had shifted from writing novels which were largely autobiographical to the historical novels of recent years. I also had the answer up my sleeve – was it, as Paul Bailey confided, that she had killed off all her family in the earlier novels and this had nothing to write about. She hooted with laughter and said that it was very largely true.

But, she said, (and I couldn’t quite believe my ears) “I’ve never seen the point of writing fiction”.

She says that for her earlier books she borrowed the plots from newspaper stories, and then populated them with people that she knew – principally her own family. She says that characters come to life in fiction, because they are people you already know. She wouldn’t dream of including people she hasn’t learned for at least 20 years. For “Harriet” her murder story, she said she stuck herself and her friends in. “The Dressmaker” was based on her aunts. And when Leon asked about whether “Sweet William” was based on anyone she knew, she said “Yes, and I had a child by him.”

For her historical novels she goes back to early sources, journals, letters and so on, but “nothing contemporary”. However, they are still populated by people that she knows.

She works on an antiquated computer (15 years old – the only other one of its type still in existence is in the Science Museum!) . She constantly prints off her work and reads all the pages she has completed out loud – a process which clearly takes much longer as the book nears completion. She has to hear the correct rhythm of words in her head. She also says that she has to get every page right before she goes on to the next, and she revises as much as 14 times until she is satisfied. She says she still feels terrific thrill from seeing her work in print.

She works around the clock starting at 6 and taking a nap in the afternoon, then working again for several hours and setting her alarm to write again at 3a.m. (And I thought I was disciplined for the Nanowrimo.)

Her favourite writing treats are 1) to have a bath because personal hygiene gets a bit neglected when you are writing like this 2) a fried egg 3) to watch “Coronation Street” the longest-running British soap opera (she acted in it in the early days). She says that she and Paul Bailey both love it, and if one of them has to go out and miss an episode, they phone the other up to find out what they missed.

Her advice to would be writers – “Write, write, write till you drop.” She also says that you must write as if no-one were going to look at your work.

All in all, she was tremendous fun and very approachable. Someone it would be great fun to sit in a pub with, and you can’t get better than that.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Reply To Susan Abrahams

Oh dear. My graceless reply to Susan Abrahams re. The Rice Mother provoked a great long angry reply posted on an e-group (which has bumped me off to boot and I don't really blame them) and another great deluge of justification via the same e-group of why the Rani Manicka is the best thing since sliced bread (or should that be "roti canai"?). Susan lists all the conferences Rani's been invited to, the translations, the piles of books in shops everywhere, the fact that it is sold at airports. Pretty impressive stuff. I don't knock commercial success and I'm glad that a Malaysian is commercially successful at writing, just as I'm glad that Jimmy Choo makes shoes in London, and Michelle Yeo king-fu's her way into Hollywood films. (I actually do identify with Malaysia more strongly than my own country for all that Susan finds my attitude "colonial" - I've lived here nesrly half a lifetime.

Okay, it's a popular novel that should be viewed as such, and the application of any kind of literary yardstick to the book is superfluous.

But I read critically. Can't help it. I don't read to tear apart. In this case I was actually gung-ho about supporting a Malaysian writer - and then greatly disappointed when the book didn't measure up. And absolutely open mouthed that a book so flawed and so poorly edited should garner such praise.

I was gobsmacked by the obvious inaccuracies in the book, galring evn to this Mat salleh who never formallys tudied Malaysian history. Perhaps someone reading this would like to tell me if I'm right or not.

In Chapter 1, the journey from Penang to Kuantan (in 1930) by road is surprisingly fast. Lakshmi and her husband arrive after daybreak and reach Kuantan before darkness falls on the same day and Lakshmi has time to clean up her new house before dark. (I believe that the journey from Temerloh to Kuantan used to take a whole day even in the 1950's - maybe someone can enlighten me?)

Strangely enough Lakshmi seems to notice nothing about the journey but some dulang washers along the road and a Chinese woman with bound feet selling eggs by the roadside. (I thought only very upper class Chinese women would have their feet bound ... certainly not itinerant egg-sellers)

P31 "In a daze I handed over the twenty ringgit note ..." (This is in 1930. I thought the unit of currency was the Straits Dollar?)

The salary for a clerk in 1930 is quoted as 220 ringgit (still ringgit!) per month. (I don't know if this is right or not but it sounds a lot.)

P26 Writing about a wooden bench: "Not knowing that that piece of furniture would survive me ..." (How can a person know the fate of a piece of furniture after their death???? Is she writing this in her afterlife? Why on earth didn't an editor spot this???)

P27 She hears "... a lemur scratching in the rambutan tree". (Malaysia doesn't have lemurs at all. They are native only to Madagascar. She might mean a culogo, but they would not be found in rambutan trees. Also, it begs the question, how did she know from the sound of scratching alone that it was this particular animal? Particularly as she is new to the country?) Later on there is a reference to swimming monkeys, a species I haven't come across despite being an ardent nature lover and long-time member of MNS - though there are fishing monkeys off PD but they don't actually swim.

P40 About the durian "I loved even its astonishingly unique smell that I am told prompted an English novelist to describe it eating a sweet raspberry blancmange in a lavatory." (For me this begs several questions. first, is Lakshmi the kind of character who would read a novel let at alone one published in English and not translated - she is uneducated and doesn't, as far as I can remember, speak any English. Would a woman like this be at all bothered what a novelist says? Secondly, how would she have a clue what a blancmange was or what a raspberry tasted like? The quote is from Anthony Burgess in the first part of "The Malayan Trilogy" (1956). So the earliest she would have heard the quote would have been 26 years or so after she ate that durian! Just wonder how she or the folks she chatted about durians to, got hold of a copy?

p122 "Weeks before the Japanese invaded Malaysia .." (Classic!!!)

p206 "two boys played conkers" Conkers are the fruit of the horse chestnut tree, not found here. (Does she mean congkat?)

Okay, okay, I stop there. A certain amount of artistic license is permissable. Writers are free to create their own realities. But I find such glaring actual inaccuracies insulting to readers and the mark of extremely poor editing. An overseas reader wouldn't notice these things, but I know Malaysians would. Who is the book aimed at?

There's more I could say about the book, but for the moment won't because it would mean actually rereading chunks of the book. Might take the task on later and construct an academic paper. Do I feel a PhD coming on???