Saturday, April 30, 2005

Meeting Oshun

One commenter in my blog gives herself the nick “Oshun”. I ask her if she knows that it’s the name of a Yoruba goddess. She does. I tell her that once I visited the shrine of Oshun in Nigeria. She wants the story.

So here it is.

I was working as a volunteer teacher in a government girl’s school in Plateau State in the north of Nigeria in the early ‘80’s. Every opportunity I got, I travelled as far as my limited budget would take me, taking cheap local transport and often putting up at the houses of other VSO’s teaching in other parts of the country.

One trip took me to a very special town, Oshogbo, a town of great religious significance to the Yoruba people in the south of the country (towards Lagos) and two days travel away by public transport. I broke my journey in Ilorin to meet up with my friend Denise who wanted to come with me. (Denise was so beautiful that men flocked round her like bees round a honey-pot, but hey, that's another story.)

We’d read a little about Oshogbo and wanted to visit the sacred groves and the shrine of the orisha (goddess) Oshun. First though, it was necessary to visit the house of Suzanne Wenger. Wenger was an Austrian artist who came to Nigeria in the 1950's. She married into the polygamous household of an illiterate Yoruba drummer and became one of the priestesses for the Oshun cult of the Yoruba people. The sacred shrines of the Yoruba gods had fallen into decay as increasing numbers of the Yoruba became Christians and Moslems, and as missionary education and modern technology changed the mindset of the people. Wenger (called Adunni or Adored One by the locals) set about the task of rebuilding the traditional shrines, and trained local crafts people to help her. She encouraged them to produce work which was of the highest artistic standards, yet African rather than pseudo-European.

Wenger's influence spread, until the town which had never heard the word "art" before, became the most important centre for artisitic creation in the country.

Dancing carvings of Yoruba deities adorned the front of Wenger's dark house. Denise and I were a little scared to enter. The artist herself came down from her studio to meet us, a thin elderly woman with cropped grey hair and a thick Austrian accent who did not exactly make us feel at ease. She showed us some of the work in her shop (batiks, carvings) by local artists.

Then Denise and I decided to walk to the shrines following Wenger's directions, but soon got lost, and unable to speak Yoruba, we were at a loss as to what to do next. Suddenly there was an elegant young woman at our side.

Are you artists? she asked.

We told her that we were volunteer teachers. If she was a little disappointed, she didn't show it, but introduced herself as Nike Olanayi and offered to give us a lift to the shrines herself. She left us in the company of an old man who served as guide and offered to come back for us in a couple of hours so that she could accompany us to the most sacred shrine of all - that of the orisha Oshun herself.

Our guide spoke no English, but it didn't matter as he led us from one amazing sculpture to the next. The Sacred grove was part modern art gallery, part open air cathedral and Wenger's sculptures were amazing! Scattered within an area of pristine rainforest, surreal elongated figures of gods danced, and stretched their arms to the sky, twisting in and out of the trees, growing organically from the ground. The god of creativity Obatala, sprang from the head of the elephant who dreamed him. (Now that's inspiration! Let no creature be so humble as to think that they cannor conjure a god.) A ‘market’ place was inhabited by all manner of fantastic creatures. We wandered by the side of the sacred river coming across even more figures of spirits hidden in the grass.

Nike clearly made a habit of picking up all the waifs and strays who arrived in Oshogbo and shepherding them to the shrines. She came back for us a while later with two Canadian volunteers and an African-American man in tow, and we all followed her down a tree-lined path to the part of the river where Oshun's shrine was situated. The priestess (small and plump was dressed in a bright checkered sundress) was sitting among the rocks on mats. She wore a beadwork necklace (made by Nike) with the emblem of a fish which represented the goddess.

She wanted money.

Nike explained to her that we wanted to see the shrine but could not afford to pay since we were volunteer teachers and earned very little.

The priestess spat on the ground. Whites without money? All of us carrying cameras too.

Reluctantly she relented and led us to the shrine which was housed in a building of Wenger’s design.

There was an effigy of the goddess painted red. Offerings of kola nuts and other types of food were laid before it and there was a space to kneel and say prayers. Oshun is the most beautiful one, the flirtacious owner of the river, wearer of beautiful clothes and jewellery, the sensual one, the bringer of children to the wombs of the barren, the seductive dancer who lured out Ogun the creator when he had withdrawn from the world. Nike told us that the goddess brought fertility for many women. One woman was in her fifties, she said, and had conceived and gave birth to a healthy child after sacrifices to the goddess.

(Image of Oshun by the sacred river).

The American guy was the most moved by the proximity of the goddess. His was a pilgrimage of love, the journey of a life-time, back to Africa to discover his roots. He was almost weeping as he pleaded with the priestess to let him buy some cassette recordings of sacred chants for Oshun. The priestess was one tough cookie, not given to sentiment. What did it matter to her if he'd come thousands of miles in search of his identity? He was American and therefore had money. The price she asked was astronomical. (Equivalent to a good portion of my teacher's salary). Yet he was prepared to pay it only too willingly.

(Next installment - Who is Nike?).

Friday, April 29, 2005

Satanic Synchronicity

Just started rereading Peter Ackroyd's chilling Hawksmoor, twenty years or so after it first terrified me.

Ackroyd moves back and forth between the eighteenth century and the present in this tale of architect Nicholas Dyer who builds churches based on satanic principles. Dyer is based on real-life architect based on Nicholas Hawksmoor who worked with Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London and constructed a number of churches in London. And there is certainly evidence of the incorporation of occult elements in the Hawksmoor churches. (If you're curious take a look at this excellent essay The Eloquence of Stone: A Long Look at Christ Church by Eduardo Zinna.)

All my own nightmares are here between the pages. Ackroyd recreates the London I search for each time I walk the oldest parts of the city, conscious of the thousands of years of history beneath my feet. Sometimes the past seems so close that you could enter it.

I am afraid of old churches too. Wake in a cold sweat dreaming of spires and the chanting of demons.

I'm leading up to a story ...

My friend Lucy taught EFL with me on Summer School at my college in Plymouth. She has a brother who is an archaeologist and has been on numerous digs, and she's always fascinated by his work. Back in the mid-80's he was involved in the first dig of a crypt of a church from the eighteenth-century. The church was Christ Church in Spitalfields, and it was one of the Hawksmoor churches.

The idea was that the crypt was to be cleared of coffins so that it could be used as a centre for the homeless of this very poor area of the East End. But there were quite a number of coffins dating from the period when the church was built and these had to be catalogued first since they would offer important insights into the life of the local population of the time.

Now at that point in time it was common to use lead-lined coffins which preserve the body from the elements.

My friend's brother and his team set about opening up the coffins to document the contents.

Maybe it was because of the build up of gases in the coffin, or maybe there was a chemical reaction when air rushed in, but as soon as the coffin lids were prised open, the bodies just ... exploded.

One woman had a corpse explode in her face and was covered with fragments of the body. She began to scream, couldn't stop. Had to be warded in a psychiatric hospital.(Apparently post traumatic stress syndrome is a very real danger for forensic anthropolgists who need to receive regular counselling).

Anyhow, Lucy heard this story from her brother when she went to visit the site of the dig in the crypt one day and she could see her brother was pretty spooked out by the incident.

Lucy later caught her bus home, decided to read on the journey and reached into her bag for the new novel she had bought that morning.

You've guessed it - Ackroyd's Hawksmoor. Set in the very same church she had just visited.

Now how's that for synchronicity?

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Cantonese for Beginners

Am just getting back into the swing of things at the gym again after my broken wrist. This morning went to my first Bodypump class in months and wimped about with the lightest weights possible. But it was so nice to get back into the usual sweaty cameradierie with the regulars. We tease each other like mad. Today's changing room talk was all about bra size and they're all envying me my more, while I'm envying them their less. It must be nice to be able to wear teeny little tops held up by a wish and a prayer I say, while I require nothing short of a miracle of modern engineering to keep me from hitting myself in the eye with a stray boob. They they fall about.

Some months ago the ladies from the gym invited themselves round to my house for a pot-luck lunch, and arrived bearing offerings of fried noodles, chicken curry, yong tau fu and cakes. Melody,our Bodycombat instructor (hey, don't mess with us!) came a little later bearing fruit salad.

Goodness though, the noise level! As soon as I came to Malaysia I discovered Cantonese is not spoken as much as yelled, and with twelve excited and enthusiatic ladies crammed around my dining table, the decibels rose and rose.

The conversation strayed onto sex and relationships and pretty much stayed there, and more interesting bits got translated for me. Of course, the ladies wanted to know how much Cantonese I can understand. I know how to swear and talk food I said.

I told them about how I picked up my first words in Cantonese from the grandmother who lived with the family next door to me whan I lived in my first small Malaysian town twenty years ago. The poor woman was given the job of looking after the small boys (I lost count of how many there were) while the parents were at work. The kids were constantly up to no good and I frequently heard the words "Ley sey!" drifting over the fence. When I asked my friends at school what it meant,thinking that perhaps it was a greeting or some term of endearment, they laughed. It was a curse: "You die!" or "Drop dead!

The ability to speak enough Cantonese to get by in a restaurant is an absolute necessity when living in a small Malaysian town. Very few places have a printed menu, so you carry your own in your head. If you know the words for the basic ingredients like rice, fish, prawns, meat, vegetables (fan , yi, ha, yuk, choy), and words for a few different cooking styles (ching is steamed, chow is fried, for example, you're well away. And then you ask for the bill by yelling (yes, yelling) "Sow loy!" at the top of your voice.

But of course the ladies were determined to add to my store of knowledge and taught me an extremely dirty song, which they said I have to learn to sing for homework. I have now added "lin ku pau" (breasts), "ku ku cheow (penis) to my vocabulary.

They also taught me a little ditty about relative penis size in the different varieties of Malaysian male, set to the tune of the romantic Indonesian song "Bengawan Solo":

Bengali one so long,
Melayu one potong,
China one so hard and strong,
Orang putih macam sotong.

And of course today they wanted to test me today to see if I was still word perfect.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

After the Storm

My creative writing course at Darling Muse is halfway through now, and the group has really gelled. We had such a good time last night. We started off sitting on the verandah, enjoying the garden and the breeze, but Sod's Law being what it is, no sooner had we got started than a terrific thunderstorm blew up out of nowhere and we hastily had to shift inside to the main gallery. We came back out later for our final writing exercise of the evening. It's a beautiful venue for this kind of activity wherever you sit.

The stories flowed as we tried out different kinds of activity, and it's so entertaining to see where everyone head had taken them. One participant sent me this note today:

"Thought i should tell you that last night i felt connected...connected with all of you but more so connected with myself. Now brimming with 3 stories all dreamt up last night, fact + fiction....nice feeling. Wonder if the heavy downpour added to the ambience?

Moreso i think it was one sacred moment when ALL was in equilibrium about me... i caught that peace for a few hours last night."

It occured to me that one benefit of this kind of course that I hadn't forseen, is that it gives very busy, often highly stressed working people a little oasis of calm and reflection in their week, a little time to reconnect with their inner selves. Maybe that all sounds touchy-feely, but it certainly works that way.

Have discovered too that there are folks who are excellent writers, but they've never written before because they just needed one thing to get started. Permission. And once they begin to put pen to paper it is as if floodgates have opened.

For sure need to find ways of supporting these new writers.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

So You Want to Write Like Ian McEwan?

A good discussion about the value of MA courses in creative writing in The Independent today. There's been a lot of debate about such courses, but as Diane Evans says in this article:

"The argument about whether creative writing can be taught has more or less been won. The techniques of fiction can be imparted, as can the techniques of acting, music and painting. Talent cannot be induced but where it already exists, it can be accelerated and focused."

Wonder if what she says about universities becoming "responsible eventually for saturating an already overcrowded market with bland fiction" will turn out to be true? Wonder if it is happening to some extent already?

And "About 80 per cent of creative writing graduates do not become published authors. Just think if that was the statistic for medical schools." I wonder what happens to 'em?

Good advice for all writers: "A text has to sell itself. What they are looking for is sentences that from the very first paragraph have a truth to them, contain interesting ideas and straightforward elegance. Sentences can swing into life on a single active verb; they should also have rhythm and a pulse. Characters should not be self-absorbed, but observers of their world and that world should build into something compelling. If it is a known world (World War Two, for example), take a fresh and unique angle. Characters are best executed through the work they perform and should be emotionally authentic. Don't try to imitate recent successes, as the market constantly changes. Writers create the market and not the other way round."

Old Teachers Never Die (They Don't Even LoseTheir Class)

Have you see the film Mr. Holland's Opus? Or any number of Hollywood movies which feature teachers. There's always this (obligatory) you've-made-a-difference-to-my-life scene where the students with tears in their eyes thank the teacher (with tears in his/her eyes) for turning perception of themselves and their abilities around. Hugs and smiles for everyone.

Well, real life ain't like that. Not usually. Generally a course finishes, or you change jobs. You shuffle off into the sunset. Your students embrace their bright and brilliant futures. And often you don't hear from them again. Or not usually. Though I do bump into my MCKK boys from time to time in shopping malls and weddings.

Anyway, this e-mail was in my inbox this morning and I'm going to treasure it.

salam sejahtera

we met almost 20 years ago. i was this young lad on the verge of finishing high school. you were, well, you were younger. in fact, you were then known as ms young. i was a student in your english class and we were in the malay college. it was english 1119 and you were the teacher. i was eager and excited. for the very first time, a native speaker of english was teaching me to write good proper english. i had always loved english. but i could never make much sense of my thoughts in the reports and the summaries that i wrote and especially in the rigid formats that limited the way i wanted to express my thoughts. then you introduced creative writing and that opened a whole new avenue for me to release all the pent up aching yearnings that were welling up inside of me. since that piece i wrote for you about the point of view of a frog, i have written many pieces, long and short, that won me praises and A's in numerous english and literature classes here in malaysia and the US. i've had many teachers whom i am grateful for enriching my life with writing. each one had that special touch in guiding me. each one had that unique style which captivated my interest. each one had that wholesome way of building up my confidence that allowed me to express myself freely in words. you had your way. before you came, i did not know that i could write. you showed me that i was not only good but that i could do better. i cannot tell you how much writing have benefitted my life. but i can tell you that you made a difference in my life. i thank God for you. terima kasih.

There are several teachers in my life I wish I could thank ... Perhaps I shall do it here.

Monday, April 25, 2005

If You Want to Make a Big Impression Smell Bad

So imagine you're a durian tree, and you're growing in a rainforest. From time to time your mind turns to the making of little durians. So you put out your flowers and the bats pollinate them. Your fruit grows as the monsoon rains fall. You put an armoury of spikes around them to prevent the monkeys and gibbons and orang utans eating them before they're ripe.

And then you have a problem.

You have got to get your seeds out into the world. If they fall too close to your trunk, they'll just be competition for space and light.

Other trees have light seeds with wings that can be carried on the wind. Some trees bear berries and the birds eat them and carry the seeds. But your seeds are heavy. You need the largest mammals, tigers and elephants and apes to eat the flesh and carry your seeds as far away as possible to a place where they may germinate. The humans, the 'orang asli' have their uses too.

Now you're on your own in this forest, as far as you can see. Every tree around you is of a different species: this is the reality of biodiversity.

Yes, yes. You might have the most delicious fruit in the forest, the best product on the market, so to speak. But without advertising, who's going to know it? The tigers and elephants and apes and aborigines could be anywhere in this huge forest. However will they find their way to you when you need them most?

So you develop a marketing plan. Will it be billboards or banner ads or sky writing that get your product sold?


You learn to create such a stink, such a stench that it travels for miles on the air. And the animals come.

Other trees see your success and jump on the bandwaggon: jackfruit, cempedak, petai, jering, kurdas, and some varieties of wild mango.

But you do it best.

(The fruit has entered my bloodstream and is taking over my thoughts. Help!)

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Nathaniel Tarn

My interview with poet Nathaniel Tarn in StarMag today:

If anyone can lay claim to the title “world citizen” it should surely be poet Nathaniel Tarn: his biodata lists his ethnicity simply as “Earth”, and with good reason. Born in France and educated at major universities in Britain, France and the United States, he became an anthropologist and travelled to many parts of the world including Guatemala and Burma, becoming a specialist in South-East Asia.

He says that he has fallen in love with this part of the world all over again after a trip to Bali, Java and the Philippines last year, and is looking forward to travelling in Sarawak. He was in Kuala Lumpur recently and invited to read from his work at an event sponsored by Pusaka at Maya Gallery in Bangsar.

After a distinguished career in anthropology, Tarn eventually gave it up to concentrate on his poetry because he found it too difficult to “keep both scholarship and literature in one head”. Tarn became a professor of comparative literature at Rutgers University in New Jersey and is probably best known for his translations of Pablo Neruda’s work.

He also spent a brief spell in publishing: he teamed with Jonathan Cape to produce Cape Editions, an influential series of paperbacks which covered a wide variety of subjects and introduced a variety of new writers (including Neruda) to the reading public.

Poetry is vitally important to society, Tarn believes. “It defends against cancer of the language and encourages precise intelligible expressive language without which none of us get far at all.” He believes too that poets have a duty to tackle bigger themes rather than the purely personal and anecdotal. Tarn is pessimistic about the state of the world and sees the human race as “severely menaced at this point”. The care of the earth and all its inhabitants is a huge task and poets have an important role to play in bringing issues to public awareness.

He quotes Shelley saying that poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” and says that the poet needs to be political in the word’s widest sense, which has to do with the workings of the state on every level.

The status of poets also concerns Tarn. In Britain and America poets tend not to be regarded very highly by society. At particularly low point in his career he wrote “now I believe our average poet, if it can survive, is lucky to be something like a liver fluke progressing through the guts of sheep.”

He rails against the overproduction of writing and the underproduction of readers turned out by academic creative writing courses in the US, and believes that writers “should live a life,” rather than attend courses.

Tarn is himself a voracious reader and the basement of his Santa Fe home is filled with many thousands of volumes. He tries to keep abreast of developments in at least twelve academic fields including ecology, history of religion, psychology, Russian Studies and aviation history. His first impulse when he knew that he was coming to Malaysia was to rush out buy some fifty to sixty books on this area. But he adds wistfully, “When you get to a certain age you cannot keep on top of things: you can’t read several hundred books simultaneously”.

Tarn has written numerous critically acclaimed volumes of poetry comprising both shorter and longer pieces. (He collaborated with his wife, poet Janet Rodney, on three of the works.) His poetry was described by one times Literary Supplement reviewer as being “a very original mixture of the high and the low, the deliberately elevated and the humorously familiar”. And of course Tarn’s anthropological background and myriad academic concerns feed into his poetry.

Tarn read from his Selected Poems 1950-2000 on Saturday night, opening with Before the Snake which he describes as a totem poem describing the landscape in terms of Eden before the fall. He and read an extract from his first long poem, The Beautiful Contradictions about a Mayan village in Guatemala; and several more recent pieces including an extract from his The Architextures, about Persephone, the goddess of lyric poetry. An extract about St. Petersburg from Three Letters from the City was read first by Tarn and then read in a Malay translation by Eddin Khoo.

Khoo announced that a collection of Tarn’s poetry in Malay is underway and should be published next year. And Tarn has to come back to Malaysia, joked Khoo, since he has “seen a lot of the world, but he hasn’t yet seen Kelantan.”

On the internet you can read the whole of Tarn and Rodney’s poem Alashka at and his beautiful Bartok in Udaipur can be found at
Felt tremendously privileged to have this opportunity to talk to Tarn. I knew him only as the translator of some of Neruda's work but the reading so whetted my appetite that I have his Collected Poems on order. Felt he was someone I'd loved to have spent many hours talking to: he radiates enthusiasm for life, love of learning and tremendous compassion. And maybe poetry keeps you young, because he looked a good decade or so younger than his 77 years - very physically robust.

I was most impressed to hear that he had written some of his poetry with his wife. His long poem Alashka was written while they were on the road in an old Dodge van - who wrote which part is a closely guarded secret. Seems to me to be a particularly loving thing to do, to share your work in this way. Sehati sejiwa, hey?

Look forward to seeing him when he passes this was again, hopefully next year. So glad that Eddin Khoo is translating his work.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Serving Up Cervantes

April 23rd was declared World book day by UNESCO back in 1995. The date marks the anniversary of the deaths of two greats: Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare on the same day in 1616.

There was a marathon reading from Don Quixote at MPH 1 Utama and I volunteered myself.

Kee Thuan Chye was there to read as well - a short while before me. We listened to one or two readers (Adriana - Malaysiakini intern - read impressively in Spanish!). But customers meandered by, few curious enough to stop and find out what was happening. The fuzzy microphone didn't help matters.

The only way to do this, I said, is to ham this up as much as possible. Pull in the crowd.

Chye said, That's just what I intend to do. Don't laugh when it's my turn.

He had a long poetic soliliquy - which yes, he dramatised beautifully, bringing out all the humour and pathos. And I did laugh. Not at Chye, but at Quixote.

My extract was several pages long - and I felt ought to have been edited a bit to make it easier for an audience in passing. But I was lucky to have a very humourous extract - Don Quixote's seduction of a chamber maid with breath smelling of piccalilly whom he mistakes for a fine lady. I played it for laughs, getting really carried away. Thespian tendencies, long buried, coming to the fore.

Maybe it's time to take to the stage again?

Friday, April 22, 2005

Litterati Bloggerati Susah Hati

Dina Zaman forwarded this article to me today and I thought I'd share it. It describes how many bloggers have won lucrative publishing deals with major publishing houses in the US.

Blogging means exposure for writers:

"Anything that helps someone who is writing come to the attention of the public is going to help them on their road to being published," says Robert Miller, president of Hyperion ..."

It also allows writers "to really hone a voice, and that's something that, to me as an editor, is very important to find," says associate editor of Riverhead Books, Megan Lynch.

I also think one of the greatest values of a blog for those-who-would-be-published is that because of it's interactive nature, you can gauge just how interested (or not!) readers are in your material, and what touches them, makes 'em angry, and so on.

If anyone's blog should find a home between the pages of a book it's Dina's Gongkapas Times which I miss very much indeed for it's humour, charm and wisdom. (It was her blog that made my fingers itch to start one too.) Am feeling not a little sad also to see that Shakeel Abedi has stopped blogging recently - really miss his intelligent and thought-provoking entries. Then the Hustler - entertaining naughty guy has been harrassed from the blogosphere perhaps by those who would like to see only thoughts more sanitised. (Shock horror, the guy actually had the nerve to write about sex!) I'm not too sure what goes on behind the scenes, but sincerely hope that all of these bloggers will come back to share their words with us again before too long.

Moving in Rhythm

It was my first time ...

Mark sent a text message to see if he could come round for just half an hour, and I was up for it. I knew exactly what he wanted.

My husband graciously cleared out of the way, leaving us alone together. He pretended he was working at the dining table, but really he was listening in.

We took out our instruments, and then the moment we had been breathlessly anticipating - me for years, he for just a few months.

He wanted to be on top, and without a struggle I gave way. Next time, we'll change over, I said.

We practiced just a little to make sure we had the speed right, and then took a deep breath to begin ...

J'en vais perdre la vie by Lully (1639-1687)

The very first time I had played a duet with anyone. (His second - he had cheated on me with his violin playing girlfriend a couple of days before!)

And it was just beautiful! It was a simple melody, but we played it through without error, he the main line, me the harmony.

We were both so moved - shook hands. (But shoulda hugged him - just that he's too beautiful.)

It's the start of a wonderful musical friendship and the start of a consort with a couple of other people interested in joining us.

How was it? I asked the Old Man once Mark was gone.

Very good. But what do you want to do this for?

Because we're going to give a concert. (Whoa that was a big leap of faith after just one little duet!)

What concert? Oh, with the Philharmonic Orchestra in the Dewan Phil. We just need to practise a bit more.

He wasn't sure whether to believe it or not.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

The Naffest Musical Instrument

My favourite shop in London is The Recorder Centre.

Yes. Indeed. I'm afraid so. I'm out of the closet.

I play the naffest musical instrument of them all.

Painfully inflicted on generations of school kids as an introduction to ensemble playing (and this is how I began), the recorder is almost universally reviled.

Tell someone you play it and they invariably say "Oh so do I. I learned it at school." And then they launch off into a discussion of how their son/daughter plays the violin/cello/flute/oboe and so on. A REAL musical instrument.

I was apologetic too. At first.

I could tootle away for hours, just pleasing myself, making up tunes, playing by ear. But that was as far as it went. When I went to Nigeria, I took a recorder with me and played songs and Christmas carols for my students to sing to. I chucked two recorders in my suitcase when I first came to Malaysia, and just played for myself whenever I wanted to relax and had nothing better to do.

Then I found the shop on one of my visits home, on Chiltern Street, a short walk from Baker's Street and Oxford Street. A whole shop selling recorders? I was amazed.

I asked the assistant if she could sell me some music for my recorder. I wasn't very advanced, did she have something fairly easy to play? I enjoyed the instrument, I told her, but wished that I could play a PROPER instrument.

She didn't skip a beat. She lead me across the shop to a display of CD's. Look, she said, all these are recordings of recorder music, and all by professional recorder players. It is a proper instrument. A beautiful instrument. And it's every bit as challenging to play well as any other instrument. You need to take it seriously. (Since she was a professional recorder player herself, as I later learned, I can appreciate her anguish.)

She showed me recorders costing thousands of pounds and let me try them. My favourite was a sub sub contra bass recorder, shaped like an organ pipe with a curved metal mouthpiece and as tall as me. Whoever would have thought that a recorder could look and sound like this? (One day I'll buy one.) And then she searched her shleves for music I would enjoy learning to play.

I brought the sheet music and a couple of books on technique back to Malaysia with me. Practiced almost daily and enjoyed myself thoroughly.

On my next trip home (alas when my mother was dying of cancer, and I needed, desperately, something to make me happy), I bought a tenor recorder, a ton of music and CD's of recorder players to inspire me.

And now, although I still have much to learn (particularly about how to get the ornamentations - trills, battements, flattements, grace notes - to sound right), I'm really flying. I love the feeling of being right inside the music, making the notes with my breath.

And above all I love the music I play. Telemann, Mozart, Vivaldi, Purcell, Loueillet, Handel and many composers I'd never heard of before, but am equally enchanted by. I'm learning the recorder part from Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 - a brilliant, glittering piece which stands alone perfectly without the rest of the orchestra (but which is just a single thread of colour in Bach's scheme of things, each thread as vivid as the next to form an incredible tapestry of sound).

I don't care I don't care I don't care if the instrument is naff! I don't care if the world doesn't care for this instrument. I don't care if no-one cares for my playing. I'm happy making music and am busy discovering new worlds.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Saving the World by Saving My Words

I recyle my

old clothes

I reuse what I can
marmalade jars hold spices
plastic takeaway cartons do service in the fridge

and I realised that when I'm at my computer
editing a document
I hate to delete a faulty line
and then retype it

it would be faster but
I painstakingly move text around
move from word to word
inserting a letter here
deleting one there

so that I don't
clutter the planet
with my

wasted words

Monday, April 18, 2005

Unlocking the Secrets of the Ancients

Found this incredibly exciting news in yesterday's Independent.

Thousands of previously illegible manuscripts containing work by some of the greats of classical literature are being read for the first time using technology which experts believe will unlock the secrets of the ancient world.

Among treasures already discovered by a team from Oxford University are previously unseen writings by classical giants including Sophocles, Euripides and Hesiod. Invisible under ordinary light, the faded ink comes clearly into view when placed under infra-red light, using techniques developed from satellite imaging.

The Oxford documents form part of the great papyrus hoard salvaged from an ancient rubbish dump in the Graeco-Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus more than a century ago. The thousands of remaining documents, which will be analysed over the next decade, are expected to include works by Ovid and Aeschylus, plus a series of Christian gospels which have been lost for up to 2,000 years.

Wonder what new knowledge will emerge from this haul?

Sunday, April 17, 2005

A Surfeit of Readings

Brain got sozzled with other people's words yesterday p.m.

The Darling Muse gig was on. Kam Raslan was first up, reading more of his novel about his datuk. A line I laughed at: "England when it was still part of the Malaysian Empire. ... London was our reward."

Nizam had his Kisah Dua Wanita performed by three friends. Bless his heart, he'd read in my blog that this hopeless Mat Salleh isn't the best at following spoken Malay and had printed off the text in a little booklet. It made understanding much easier, particularly as the piece was written in Kelantanese dialect. (Love the music of it.)

Zedeck looked all bashful when you could see his face at all, hidden beneath a cascade of hair. (He looked a bit like that ghost in The Ring.) He ummed and erred and fidgeted with his notebook annoyingly - just like an unwilling kid forced to read out something in front of the class, dragging his feet every inch of the way. And a writer should never rubbish his own work before he reads! Once he got going he was fine, and the piece entertaining and well observed.

Bernice read a heartfelt piece she'd written about three years ago about the pains of being a mother and the lost rebelliousness of youth. She is working on a one-woman show based around this material.

After a short break Rahmat was up. His dreadlocked hair was like a piece of installation art, like gnarled branches of a tree, and into it he'd woven a bright red gerbera flower from one of the flower arrangements. His t-shirt had a picture of a couple of stylised piggies for the sake of true rebellion. He'd been just a little too much into the generously donated La Bodega wine, I think. His first "piece" I'd call a "sound poem" - was it scripted or just improvised on the spot? Then he read (with plenty of outrage) a psychiatrist's letter about his purported "dadah addiction" as if it was a poem (he was arrested for possession of cannabis).

A performance artist and poet, Arahmaini, read next. (She's currently doing an artist's residence at Rimbun Dahan.) I understood her first poem about wanting to be a prophet but being told by her father that she could not be one because she is a woman. There was a longer passionate piece, conplete with ghostly sound effects about her father, a refuse collector. Didn't understand this one. Nor why she poured and drank a glass of whisky and then smashed the glass on the floor with the final words.

But it doesn't matter if I don't understand the readings in Malay. It's great that the two languages are side by side. That writers make one community.

Later in the evening went to a reading at Maya gallery on Telawi 3 (the galleries are the lit. places!). I was due to interview poet Nathaniel Tarn who was stopping in KL briefly on his way to Sarawak with his wife. Shall post up the article I'm writing after it appears in next Sunday's Starmag.

More than deserved my pint of of Kilkenny at Finnegan's afterwards - eating all those words makes you thirsty.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Varieties and Variations

The dictionary-loving part of me romped out this morning to do a presentation for Oxford University Press for the launch of the new Advanced Learner's Dictionary. Did my product endorsement bit up on stage, stressing all the unique selling points of the 7th edition.

I have no problem wearing the hat of dictionary advocacy - and the OALD is an excellent product, forced by an increasingly competitive market to continually reinvent and improve itself. (Bet you didn't know, incidentally, that all profits from the dictionary are ploughed into training scholarships for English language teachers.)

I learned when I was doing my agony-aunty-for-the-English-language bit for the Mind Our English page for The Star that most folks had problems with grammar points that could be both quickly and easily solved by reference to a good dictionary. The fact that they were willing to write e-mails to us and wait days if not weeks for a reply, frankly baffled me. "Buy a good learners' dictionary," I wrote at the end of almost every reply. Teach a man to fish ...

Am especially happy to see that so much vocabulary in the new OALD has been taken from other Englishes besides the big two ... and particularly that some Malaysianisms have made it into the dictionary. English is a world language and Malaysian English speakers own it as much as anyone. Malaysian English vocabulary differs somewhat from standard British English. Different is not wrong. And when such variations are acknowledged by the world's most scholarly publisher of dictionaries, it can only boost the confidence of local users. (I would actually like to see Oxford go even further and produce a fully localised English dictionary, but I guess the economics will always preclude that.)

When Chief Editor of the OALD, Sally Wehmeier, came to Malaysia last year she talked about how Oxford has lexicographers around the world working to chart developments in local varieties of English. I mentioned "handphone" to her as a local usage that should go into the dictionary because it is so widely used in Asia - and isn't it much nicer sounding than than "mobile" (beloved of Brits and antipodeans) and more descriptive than "cellphone" of American usage?

The word "bungalow" in British English means a single-storey house, but in this part of the world the word refers to "a large house, sometimes on more than one level", according to the dictionary. I'm really happy to see this. Shortly after I came to live here, I found myself expending vast quatities of red ink marking "double-storey bungalow" wrong wrong wrong in an end-of-year exam ... only to find that everyone in the English department sided with the kids and not with the supposed-expert Brit. My attempt to swim against the tide didn't last long. I'm quite proud of the fact now that I live in a double-storey bungalow house ... especially now that the word has Oxford's endorsement!

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Postscriptum Tashum

POSTSCRIPT: Seems Tash Aw has not been ignored at all. Apologies for my over reaction! Apparently the book is due for launch here in June, and The Edge and The Star (and I suppose the NST and others) will be interviewing him. And I now have a review copy of the book in my hands, so I'm happy at last.

I like what Elizabeth Wong wrote in reply to my post in mywordup: "There are plenty of great writers from here and on occasion, and some do 'make it' like Beth Yahp, Rani etc. who had great reviews abroad and their work translated. Tash isn't the first and he won't be the last. And these are just the ones who write in English... So let's give mucho support to those who are trying to write here and who are trying to make a difference. Go Pang! Go Kam! Go Neohikayat! Go to Darling Muse this Saturday!"

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Point of No Return

Beth Yahp was reading from a work in progress at Universiti Malaya this evening. Just a small group, not amounting to a crowd, made it over there. The rain belting down outside didn't help.

Beth talked about how the story Point of No Return came to be written.

Last year, she returned to Malaysia after 20 years away, and saw a country which embraced modernity and westernisation, with huge development projects, and a new rhetoric of openness and anti-corruption with its new Prime Minister. On the surface, there seemed to be widespread hopefulness.

However, reading the newspapers she saw that there was a darker undercurrent. Whole pages of rape reports and high profile murder cases, as if "the media was feeding on a lurid collective psychosis".

While the men involved in these cases (ranging from young boys to grandfathers) were presented as anomolies, she says, the burden of guilt appeared to be onto the female victims: with questions asked about the way a woman dressed, or whether she had been sexually active.

Beth cited two articles which had particularly sparked her imagination. The first was an article which appeared in The Sunday Times: Vice and Virginity by Sulaiman Dufford (Feb 8th 2004) which talked about the pressures of modern life on young people and suggested that because of Malaysia's strong culture of virginity, because hormones were raging more than ever at age 18-19, and because it made economic sense, young people should be encouraged to marry in their late teen years.

The other was a Dear Doctor column which appeared in Berita Harian where a young wifer wrote in to ask for advice on dealing with her husband's premature ejaculation (the "point of no return" of the story's title). The letter was answered in an extremely detailed and open way - surprising in a society where sex is little talked about in public. (But we see these contradictions all the time, don't we? The Gardner & Wife letter I pasted up the other day also illustrates this nicely.)

So Beth's story deals with teenage sex, a topic generally swept under the carpet, frankly and head on. She read a longish extract - beautifully crafted - of the story in progress which she says keeps growing.

A relevant story. A story about issues which people in Malaysia really face. A story which will for sure stir debate.

And that's what great writing is all about.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Tash Aw

Malaysians should be proud of their writers who make it big.

Back in January, The Independent listed the publishing events of the year, and Tash Aw's book was seen as one of the most promising novels of 2005. The Harmony Silk Factory was released worldwide six weeks ago to great acclaim. Their have been reviews in the major British newspapers. The novel is set in the Kinta Valley.

There has been nary a whisper of it in our press. Would anyone here have heard of it if not for the western press? I was the first person to mention his name on the e-groups I belong to and to Raman of Silverfish, who then featured a short piece on him on his website. (Tash Aw's publicist wrote to Raman to say thanks.)

Copies still have not materialised in the bookshops here. What are the distributors (in this case MPH) doing?

I was going to buy the book online back in February. (Hint - you can get lovely cheap uncorrected proofs of books at abebooks in advanced of release dates). But I thought hey, the local distributor needs the business and so does my friendly bookseller, Raman, who said that the book would be in end of March. So I am still waiting ... and waiting ... and waiting ...

While I was in the shop yesterday, the MPH rep. dropped by and got an earful from me. Poor guy facing ther bookdeprived wrath of a big Mat Salleh couldn't make any excuses. "We're bringing him in," he said, finally. Not just the books, the author? Is there some big event planned which is at present top-secret-hush-hush?

I certainly hope so, because book distributing, bookselling, bookpromoting folks have some making up to do ...

But as Raman said to me the other day "How many people in KL do you think actually care about books and writers?"

Monday, April 11, 2005

Read and Become Wise

I found one of my books in the bin and rescued it.

"Well you left it lying around for so long, and then the cat pissed on it," Abu explained, as I wiped the cover clean of vegetable peelings.

It doesn't look much - scarcely more than a pamphlet. It's actually a chapbook written to deliver a moral lesson, in this case how to manage your money properly. It's poorly printed with crude black and white drawings. The text is not set straight on some of the pages. But this is one of the most treasured books in my library. I bought it in a bookshop in Nigeria more than twenty years ago and it is a classic of Onitsha Market publishing called Money Hard to get but Easy to Spend: Read and Become Wise. And reading it again I became nostalgic for West Africa.

So here is some of its wisdom and a taste of the delicious style of writing so common in Nigeria.

Jealousy too much nowadays, whatever you do people must jealous you for that and say against you. One wife one trouble, two wives two troubles. Not the person who calls police do win, but the person who is right.

Money is hard to get but easy to spend. Big man big trouble, small man small trouble. Time is money and waits for nobody. Law is no respect of any person, whether rich or poor.


Men are powerful and do suffer. Women are difficult. You can't win them by lies because you can't feed them on lies. Money hard to get but women do not know. They are the same with children.


No condition permanent in this world. Big or small, rich or poor, all will die. When some people hate you, some people will love you. Make monkey go England and come back, it will still answer monkey.

Prevention is better than cure. A word is enough for the wise. When an old woman falls down twice, she counts the contents of her basket. My son is tall is not power. That a man talks too much does not mean he knows word. Everyday is not Christmas; You cannot pass me in two ways, if you are taller than me I will be shorter than you. If you are richer than me I will be poorer than you.

Nobody is perfect. A patient dog eats the fattest bone. Not that wrestling started from morning to night is important but who wins. It is true that it is hard to see a man who does not like the affairs of women and that it is also hard to see woman who does not like the affairs of men? … Be a man of your words. Do not say something you don't know about it.

Women like to engineer words so don't agree all that your wife tells you.

There are two major things that kills a man. MONEY AND WOMEN.

These type of men and women dancing are the type of people who spend money too much. They can get 10 Naira a day and spend all on useless things. Give me twelve bottles of beer give me one roasted fowl, tune to Congo, tune to Nigeria, tune to Ghana, put better records, are what their bodies want.

Harlots are dangerous women and should be strongly bewared for. They are commonly found in hotels. They contribute to the existence of holiganism, robber and the deteriorating immoral life of some of our boys.

So now you know.

But amazing what the Internet turns up. I discovered that a writer called Kurt Thometz has compiled a book of some of the best market literature from Nigeria called Life Turns a man Up and Down: High Life, Useful Advice, and Mad English (Random House) and ordered it from Amazon. It's a wonderful collection of texts, and just goes to show that a nation's most loved literature does not have to be printed on glossy paper, does not even have to couched in faultless English to find a lasting place in the heart of its people.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

That Wedding

A gem from today's Independent:

News: "The wedding was a fairytale ending to a fine romance. The groom looked dashing as he stood outside the Guildhall in Windsor yesterday afternoon; the bride was radiant. They paid no heed to the world's press, gathered in their hundreds. Nor did they care that their plans had been disrupted by the death and funeral of the Pope. Their day could not even be spoilt by the visibly heavy security presence in the town. They understood that it was necessary, for the eyes of the world were on Windsor yesterday.

Major Thomas Nigel Crapper of the Royal Signals married Deborah Jane Biltcliffe in a civil ceremony at the Guildhall. They kissed for the photographers on the steps as they emerged as man and wife.

The bride and bridegroom are both 34 years old. They were both marrying for the first time. After a hog roast supper at the Biltcliffe family home in Cookham, Berkshire, they left for a honeymoon in Rome.

The new Mrs Crapper, who has let it be known that she would prefer to be addressed as 'Debs', said the couple intended to live in Bath and have what they describe as 'lots of little Crappers'.

There were three other weddings at the Guildhall yesterday: Mr Fraser Moores of Windsor, Berkshire, married Ms Grace Beesley; Mr James Hooper of St Albans, Herts, married Ms Nadine Hopkins; and HRH Charles Philip Arthur George Windsor, Prince of Wales, married Mrs Camilla Parker Bowles."

The Independent seldom gives space on its pages to stories about the royal family, a stance I think admirable. Our ongoing soap opera gives the world plenty of titillation, but in my opinion is nothing but an embarrassment for the British people. Am a republican at heart.

Having said that, I'm happy that the wedding went ahead - everyone deserves their shot at happiness ... and doesn't Camilla scrub up quite well?

Yes, surprised myself by being glued to the TV for the duration, channel hopping from the BBC (reverential) to CNN (clearly taking the piss) and back again.

Friday, April 08, 2005

The Last Night

There we are, the last night of the course, sharing writing around the table in the Booker Room. Everyone has brought along a piece of writing they've been working on over the past week, polishing and extending the first thoughts that appeared on their notebook during class exercises. They shyly hand out typed up copies and read their words aloud to the group. We listen and we comment and we think about the direction each piece might take.

Jo-Ann has an evocative piece about her grandfather's house in a rubber estate, the careful observation of details bringing alive both scene and character. Fisha's piece about a remembered room has been transformed into an article about her own growth of confidence. ("I've never shown a piece of my writing to anyone before," she says, surprised when we tell her that we could imagine her writing a newspaper column.) Both Jo-Ann's and Fisha's pieces sprang to life in last week's session where we used drawing as a way into memory.

Keiko has written a piece on the tsunami for the childrens' magazine she edits.

Helen took me at my word when I said write about something that brings a lump to your throat: she has written about a dear friend who threw a birthday party for her despite the fact that she was dying of cancer, and cries as she reads it. ("You know, I haven't cried for years.") Abby has transformed a memory piece from a previous class into a moving short story: she was online chatting to a friend when she realised that he had collapsed at the keyboard with a heartattack. Fortunately, the friend survived thanks to a text message she managed to get to his daughter, and Abby's story is intended as a very personal gift for him.

Viv also has a short story for us about a troubled marriage, and there's plenty of tension crackling under the surface. Karina stuns us all with a wonderfully dark and angry piece written in a very distinctive voice: is this woman actually going to murder the guy she detests so much? Again, both pieces have grown from real-life experiences.

Seven writers who've made a promising start ... who've begun to make the clay which can be moulded into a finished work of power and beauty. But of course, they still have a way to go to learn how to shape and fire and glaze the final product. I hope they will stick it out and learn, because they each have so much to say, so much to contribute.

There is no creative magic wand that can be waved over people who want to write. There's a long apprenticeship which demands real commitment, deep faith and copious infusions of the writings of others.

We adjourn to Delicious cafe (which Abby manages) with the trifle Fisha made for us, exchange addresses and plan to get together for another writing session soon.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Johnson's Dictionary

Samuel Johnson's Dictionary was published 250 years ago this month. Beryl Bainbridge here describes how a failed teacher and celebrated 'hack' worked for nine years in a London garret to redefine the English language - and his reputation. His working methods for compiling the dictionary are described here in some detail. Just imagine what he could have done with a computer at his disposal!

I think dictionaries are sexy, and in a parallel universe I'm a lexicographer for sure - a job that combines a love of words with a love of research. (I seem fated to have a lot to do with dictionaries - writing reviews on them for The Star and promoting them for Oxford.) And I'm a great fan of Johnson's - if I had the chance to go back in history and have dinner with just one famous writer, it might well be him. I loved both Boswell's Life of and Beryl Bainbridge's novel about him: According to Queeney.

There's a lovely little cafe on Marylebone High Street in London called Patisserie Valerie where I love to hang out when I'm back home. Everywhere in London you get a buzz from stepping on history. But this place is special to me - quite apart from the fact the cakes are heavenly! The upstairs rooms used to accommodate a bookshop ... and it was here than Boswell met Johnson for the first time.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Ministry of Muffled Thinking

Went to see Alone It Stands, (which tells of how the a provincial rugby team defeated the All Blacks) at Actor's Studio last night. I am actually reviewing it for StarMag so don't want to get ahead of myself and tell you all about it ... and besides I'm going again on Friday night because it's Abu's birthday and he's a rugby fiend. Had a good time too because I'd wandered along on a night sponsored by the Embassy of Ireland and it was great craic (excuse the Irishism) to meet up with so many friends including H.E. Daniel Mulhall and his wife Greta, Datuk Shan, Raman and Lakshmi and make the aquaintance of a whole lot of new people.

Of course these days the scripts of all plays performed have to be submitted to the Ministry of Culture Arts and Heritage, so that the powers that be can "vet" them in the belief that they are protecting the moral fibre of the citizenry. The cuts the Ministry made to Alone It Stands were arbitary and daft. And rather than take all this silliness lying down, the correspondence between the Ministry and Gardner & Wife was displayed for all to read in the foyer. Diong Chae Lian for Gardner & Wife wrote an absolutely brilliant riposte to the proposed cuts and was kind enough to give me a copy. Only by waging this war in a consistent way might this censorship issue finally be put to rest.

We have received both your fax and letter dated 14 March 2005 regarding the upcoming ptay ALONE IT STANDS, presented by Malaysia Airlines and the Embassy of Ireland, specifically pages 2, 5, 6, 13, 17, 18, and 39 of the script and the censorship marked thereon.

Upon reflection, we realise that we may have given insufficient background of the vocabulary of the play to your Ministry for the assessment of some of the words used in ALONE IT STANDS. For this we apologize.
We respectfully request to appeal the ministry’s censorship. We base our appeal on the following points:

1. actual meaning of the words
2. consistency of policy

Please note that we do not deny the right of any government to censor. Our appeal is directed only at these specific censorships listed below, which have been deleted from the script on the grounds of “untuk menjaga tatasusila masyarakat umum yang akan menonton”.


bastard: literally means no more than “a child of unmarried parents”. In actuality, it means a great deal less. It is something said playfully, as in ‘you silly bastard”. In fact, it has much less bite than bugger”, a phrase often used in Malaysia which literally means “he who sodomises”.
In addition, we would Like to point out that “bastard” appears no less than 54 times in Shakespeare’s plays, namely:

• KING JOHN - in which one of the characters is actually named Philip, the Bastard.

Several of these plays have been screened in our cinemas and many of them are studied in Malaysian schools.
We therefore respectfully suggest to the ministry that the use of the word bastard wiLl not offend or disturb “tatasusila masyarakat umum yang akan menonton” and that. our Irish visitors be allowed to use it.

... will shit themselves!: “shit” is an even older word than “bastard’ and can be found in the works of the great English poet, Chaucer (1343- 1400 AD), who is also studied in all English-speaking schools and universities around the world. We respectfully suggest that “shit” wilt not offend or disturb “tatasusila masyarakat umum yang akan menonton” and that our Irish visitors be allowed to use it. can kiss ye’re arses goodbye: is a reference to a phrase first coined at the height of the Cold War and the Cuba missile crisis. At that time, the U.S. government was attempting to reassure its citizens that crouching down (preferably) under desks or tables would save them in the event of a nuclear attack. A wit took this idea and talked about tucking one’s head between one’s legs during a nuclear attack in order to kiss your arse goodbye”. Those with a Western education will understand the reference. There are NO sexual connotations to this phrase.

But you go lickin’ up to your da: To “lick up” to someone is a reference to an earlier, more rural life where dogs, sheepdogs, etc. were a part of many European households. Dogs, when scolded or looking for food, lick one’s boots as a submissive reflex, “Da is the Irish pronounciation of “dad”. Therefore, ‘lickin’ up to your da” means no more than being over-servile to your father. There is NO suggestion of fellatio or any other sexual connotations to this phrase.

Shi bobilin mor aige; Ach do fuar Se ba Agus bhi se marbh ansin: will be sung in Gaelic and unlikely to be understood by anybody other than the Irish Ambassador, who is already fully familiar with the song. As far as we can tell, it is unlikely to disturb his “tatasusila”.


In recent months, the performing arts community has been summoned to participate in forums initiated by the ministry. In those forums, the message has been consistently reiterated that it is the government’s intention to promote the arts in order to position Kuala Lumpur as a modern, international-class city.

We respectfully suggest to the ministry that banning words like "bastard" and "shit" cannot be combined with the objective to make KL an international "arts hub".

Like it or not, these are non-offensive words commonly used in developed English-speaking countries.

If the ministry has even the smallest intention of carrying through with their frequently- repeated ambition of having an international theatre festival, this kind of censorship will knock it out of the water!

There is a further question of fairness and consistency. Any child in Malaysia can pick up a Malaysian daily newspaper and read about “Michael Jackson masturbating young boys”; violent crimes and court proceedings with explicit descriptions involving semen” and vaginal discharges”; incest; and descriptions of murders. This is aU availab to anyone old enough to read so we are astonished that the ministry feels that while all this will not disturb “tatasusila masyarakat umum yang akan menonton" yet the use of words found in Shakespeare and Chaucer will! Respectfully, we beg to differ.

We therefore suggest, in the interest of consistency and the application of uniform standards, that at least the same editorial standards be applied to live theatre as other English-language mediums such as the Malaysian daily newspapers. In the theatre, younger people usually only attend performances with the explicit permission of their parents (who else will pay for their tickets?!). Newspapers can be picked up by anybody.

In conclusion, I would like to share something with you. As a theatre practitioner, I was recently invited to attend a schoot production. The audience was made up of about 500 appreciative parents, students and friends. The school chose to present a modern ciass It was a difficult play, touching on issues of colonialism, genocide, xenophobia arid religion. As some of the characters were sailors, they occasionally used words like bastard”. As a Malaysian, it’s very distressing to think that I have to go to a school to see adult theatre, It’s even more distressing to think that I may have to send my child to an international school in order to have a modern education here in Malaysia.

Again, we respectfully ask that your ministry reconsider your censorship rulings as marked on pages 2, 5, 6, 13, 17, 18, and 39 of the script for ALONE IT STANDS.
Diong Chae Lian

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Worst Prophet

"If a homosexual author should come anywhere near the [Man Booker] short-list, someone will make sure he gets no further on the grounds of friviloity, or narrowness of experience. ('I thought the women were just unconvincing.')"*

This particular piece of idiocy, written by critic Phillip Hensher, appeared in a preview of the prize in The Independent a day before Alan Hollinghurst was announced winner. Someone might have told him that gay writer Paul Bailey has been shortlisted twice. And what is there about gay that makes your experience of life "narrow"? Presumably he's saying that a gay writer cannot produce a book which appeals to a hetrosexual audience. Well , he's wrong, and if we needed further evidence of it Hollinghurst's In The Line of Beauty more than adequately provides it.

Set against the backdrop of the 1980's, the "Thatcher Years" of boom and bust, the novel tells the story of a Nick Guest. Fresh from Oxford, he goes to live with the Fedden family in their grand house in London as a friend of "the children". (Gerald Fedden is a conservative MP, a rising star in Thatcher's government.) Nick is a born free-loader and social climber with an appetite for sex and cocaine and the finer things of life. Nick's sexual relationships begin with Leo, a working-class black man. Later, he becomes involved with Wani a beautiful millionaire of Lebanese extraction.

The novel is very much a comedy of manners, elegantly written and substantial. It has an "old-fashioned" feel to it (Do I detect the influence of Henry James?). It explores the social values of the period, particularly towards homosexuality and social class. And it's very carefully observed and funny.

There is a lot of sex in the book - and graphically described, though never gratuitious. (Hollinghurst is one the gifted minority of writers - homosexual or not - who actually writes sex well.) But this being the '80's, the shadow of AIDS hangs over the novel.

The characters (of both sexes!) are wonderfully realised. I felt a lot of sympathy with Nick - enjoyed his subversiveness, especially in the scene when he dances (high on coke) with Thatcher at the Fedden's wedding anniversary celebration. Many of the scenes take place during social occasions (often the kind of parties the likes of you and I would never get invited to!) and Hollinghurst ably juggles a large cast of characters on stage at the same time.

Yep, Hollinghurst deserved the prize for sure.

*Ouch! Didn't realise tat the time of posting that this article was actually supposed to be ironic!

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Murakami Shares His Thoughts

Came across an e-mail forwarded by a friend back in 2001. (I'm a magpie collecting all kinds of things about writers and the writing process.) It contained an article by Anita Patil of The Observer following a student dialogue with the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami at Tufts University. I decided to retype part of it for the more sceptical participants on my creative writing course who can't quite believe that your subconscious will find you all the stories you need if you just allow it to let go. It lends a little much needed authority to my cause - if a highly respected and prolific writer says this ... it might just be true that writers can and do work this way.

“I write spontaneously,” Murakami said. “I don’t think about anything when I write, I don’t know anything when I write.”

He related his writing to computer games, saying that when he writes he is like the programmer and the player at the same time; the mind is divided in half.

Murakami discussed how we are living in a world that is reality but underneath, he strongly believes there is an “underground”. In addition, there is a kind of underground within his mind. “I have things in the back of my mind that are lying beneath my conscience. Writing for me is a passive way to get these thoughts inside of me, out.”

Murakami strongly emphasized that there is no underlying meaning beneath his works, and he does not want his work interpreted.

He does not plan anything; he just writes. “If I choose to write about sheep, it is because I happened to write about sheep. There is no deep significance.”

And I loved his advice to aspiring fiction writers, which really says it all:

“Don’t think too hard.”

Congrats Chye!

Just heard from Kee Thuan Chye that his play The Big Purge is to be featured at this year's 4th Typhoon Festival presented by Yellow Earth Theatre in London.

The festival is described as "an important and unique event in British theatre, designed to promote the best of contemporary East Asian drama through playreadings directed by distinguished guest directors. ... To date, Typhoon has showcased work from new and established writers across 10 East Asian countries. This year, T4 presents work from Vietnam, Malaysia, China, Japan, Korea and from Yellow Earth and Soho Theatre's Yellow Ink initiative which nurtures young British East Asian writers."

Here's the blurb about the play:

Allegorical and clever, The Big Purge is a hilarious play that addresses very serious issues. Set in Equaland, it moves between the shadowy wayang kulit world of ruling politicians and the naturalistic world of five people of various ethnic origins caught in a meelstrom of racial politics. At the core is a plot to purge Equaland of dissenters and Opposition Partly stalwarts who have become increasingly critical - a plot concocted by none other than the constipated, manipulative Chief Minister. What effect will his machinations have on the populace? will they be cowed by the spectre of racial violence? How will the immigrant races respond to this test of their royalty - stay on in Equaland or emigrate to Australia?

Hmmmm .... any of this sound familiar?

The festival runs from 17-21 May 2005, and if you are going to be in London (and how I wish I was!), do go and check it out.