Thursday, June 30, 2005

Pitching In

Razlina at 95% The Writer's Academy invited me to be a panellist for a most interesting event called "Pitching Night".

The three of us, filmmaker/activist Hishamuddin Rais, Dhojie (Why do I never seem to be able to escape these kutu guys?) and myself were asked to listen to and judge three students from the Story Writers in Progress course who were "pitching" their stories.

Now "pitching" is a term I'd never heard until recently and made friends with a copywriter. It means making a presentation to sell an idea to a potential client, I gather. Fine with a concept for an ad, but a strange thing to do with a story, I thought.

There were three students whose work was up for scrutiny. Each presented in turn with very nicely produced power point slides to underline their points. The first had the outline and first chapter of a self-help book cum novel. The other two were pitching film ideas. And we were three formidable judges, in a scenario reminiscent of Malaysian idol. Hishamuddin was the bad guy and gave the toughest feedback, though in every case it was spot on. And he stirred things up a bit too, much to the delight of the audience. ("Where's the sex? Come on, you must show us this guy's a wanker ...")

They all did pretty well with their presentations, though I felt that in every case they were trying to be terribly over-ambitious, with plots that were just way way too complex and not enough understanding that good stories must be primarily character driven.

The potential novelist had a good idea basic plot but I am not sure that she will be able to make her character's change of heart (on which the whole novel turns) convincing to the reader. I told her afterwards to fastwrite the whole thing and let the characters take charge of the story, because they would know better than her where to go with it.

Hishammudin spoke about hating stories with too obvious a moral purpose. ("I dislike all morality," he said. I've had a stomach full of it too, particularly after training teachers for schools here where every lesson has to have its laboured "moral value".) In fact there's no need to have novels which are overtly didactic - if the book is well written we will learn from it anyway!

The second presenter had a very nice idea for a film, I thought, with a character Hishamuddin called a Mat Rempik (a motorbike-riding excitement-seeking young Malay man, I gather). I liked his basic concept, the small guy (a pizza delivery boy) with big dreams who has to clear his name when he is wrongly accused of a murder.

The third presenter had a love story. Dhojie and Hishamuddin were quite right to keep stressing the fact that you couldn't write a film-script in a vacuum - you had to know the whole lineage of great films in that genre and understand how they work.

They pointed out too that a love-story couldn't work without some kind of obstacle to keep the lovers apart. (It was too easy for this well-heeled couple from Ampang, they didn't have to fight to win each other.) I didn't feel her characters deserved love at all, they were so anaemic and non-descript. "We have to care about them first, before we can ever believe that they might care for each other," I said.

(I think the word "love" is all too casually tossed around, anyway ... I think it should have a tax slapped on it to make people weigh its use more carefully. Miserable old cynic I've become.)

Anyway, it was a good evening with some important points about story-telling in the Malaysian context brought up for discussion.

Thanks for inviting me along, Raz. I was very happy to find out about other creative writing courses in the city and make contact with you all. And thanks for the gift of the writer's notebook.

Writers! Don't Say No-one Never Does Nuffink for You!!!

Dear Malaysian Writers,

Perhaps it's time to dust off that novel you have lying in a drawer. Utusan Publications is announcing an English Novel competition with some serious dosh attached to it.

Here's an e-mail I just received (Thanks Nisah!):

Dear friends,

These are the rules & regulation for submitting manuscript to Utusan Publications & Distributors Novel Competition

For the first time the organiser has introduced a new category i.e. the English Novel / Novel Remaja Bahasa Inggeris. They are looking for new talents in creative writing particularly novel. The audience / readers for this novel should be teenagers and young adults (13 - early twenties).

1. Manuscript must be attached with a covering letter stating the author's biodata, which includes name, pen-name (if any), address, contact number, 2 pieces of passport size photo and a declaration stating that the manuscript is the original work of the author. Manuscript without the complete details together with the said declaration will not be considered for the competition.

2. The manuscript of the novel must be typed in double spacing, neatly bound. Only the title of the novel should appear on the page cover. The name of the author must not appear on any of the page in the manuscript.

3. Participants are free to write on any theme of interest.

4. Manuscript must not be less than 150 pages on A4 size paper.

5. The organiser has the right to publish the manusripts selected as the winner.

6. Royalty will be paid to the author.

7. The unselected manuscript will not be returned to the author. However, the author may submit the same manuscript to another publication only after the announcement of winners is made.

8. Winners will be announced in Utusan Malaysia / Minnguan Malaysia.

9. Announcement will be made in 2006.

10. Closing date : 1 December 2005

Prizes :

1st : RM6,000
2nd : RM4,000
3rd : RM3,000

Send you manuscript to :

Urus Setia
Hadiah Sastera Kumpulan Utusan-Exxon Mobil 2005
Utusan Publications & Distributors Sdn Bhd
No. 1 & 3, Jalan 3/91A
Taman Shamelin Perkasa
56100 Cheras
Kuala Lumpur.

Enquiries : Call 03-9285 6577 (Puan Faridah Shamsudin)

p/s : Kindly forward this mail to anyone who might be interested. Thank you.

If you don't have a novel written yet why not enter the Nanowrimo and knock out 50,000 words (or more)fairly painlessly in November?

Wonder if a non-Malaysian like yours truly can enter? I was not allowed to enter the NST short-story competition last time round. A couple of decades of living and working here doesn't count. The right piece of paper does. I don't think that a writing competition in Britain would disqualify anyone on the same grounds?

Meanwhile MPH is doing a great job of encouraging younger writers with its Search for Young Writers competition which it is holding in conjucntion with The National Library. It invites young writers to set a story either in 1942 or 2030, and gives plenty of scope for ambitious imaginations. You can read all about it here and download the entry form.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Day My Toilet Caught Fire

Today, in a picturesque small town called Rye on the South coast of England, my friend Barry is celebrating his 80th birthday. And he'll have with him most of his far-flung children, their spouses (from Australia, Canada, Hawaii and Britain), and his grandchildren with him to make this a very special day.

Barry has always called me his "adopted daughter", which brings a lump to my throat everytime he says it.

I've know Jean and Barry for over twenty years now. Jean came to teach here with CfBT (Centre for British Teachers) and was posted to Kluang. Barry came with her as a non-working husband, though within a year had taken over the running of the 'A' Level programme when the previous Project director died suddenly of a heart attack, and thus became not only friend but boss for a while.

We stayed friends after Jean and Barry moved back to Britain, and I used visit them in Plymouth. Later they came out to live in Malaysia again when Jean was involved in resourcing our college library for the B.Ed programme.

Anyway, cue the burning toilet story which Barry teases me about to this day. He says it could only happen to me. But it really wasn't my fault ...

At the time (mid 80's) I was teaching at the famous (or should that be infamous?) Malay college, and one day Barry (as big boss) came up on an official visit to check on our progress. I agreed to host a gathering of all the British teachers on the programme at my place. (I rented the upper floor of a semi-d from the Hokkien family who lived below.)

I cooked all day, and around seven in the evening my colleagues began to arrive. Irene and Alan who taught Economics, John who taught Business Studies, Lorri who taught Geography, and then Chris and Neil, who both taught English with me, turned up with wives and kids in tow.

Of course there's that little period of chaos whenever you hold a gathering - folks all arrive at the same time and you're letting them in, and greeting them, and saying thank you for the flowers, and opening the wine, and getting them a drink and so on.

So I had my hands full when, amid this chaos Chris pointed out that the lightbulb in my loo had gone and asked if I had a candle because his kids wanted to use it. I found one, gave to to him and thought nothing more of it.

The evening went very well, we talked shop for a while, then ate and chatted. The only thing that surprises me, looking back, was that in all that time no-one went to the loo.

Alan was helping me to wash plates in the kitchen while the rest continued to party, when we heard a strange sound like oil frying in a pan. Oddly enough, it was coming from the toilet!

Alan and I looked at each other and, mystified, crept up to the door to listen. What on earth was happening inside? I yanked the toilet door open and a huge cloud of black smoke whoofed out into the flat causing my guests (boss included) to run screaming to the balcony. Soot blacked every inch of my lounge and highlighted most embarrassingly all the cobwebs I had failed to clean in my slatternly housekeeping.

Alan and I meanwhile hurled buckets of water at the flames, which fortunately were easily extinguished. But the plastic cistern of my squat loo was now a molten puddle on the floor, the tiles were blackened and cracked, and the window broken. It was a scene of utter devastation.

We were all totally mystified as to the cause of the fire. It was only next day that that idiot Chris (who ironically been the first guest to go home and had missed the excitement) said that it was just possible perhaps that it had been caused by the candle he'd left burning, stuck to cistern without anything underneath it.

I got workmen in and managed to get the damage repaired without my cantankerous landlord suspecting anything.

But the damage to my reputation has never been repaired, and Barry loves to remind me of that.

Happy Birthday, anyway Barry. I'm thinking of you today and sending my love from across the world.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Sex, Religion, Royalty, Onions and Milk

Syed calls. Nino's hovering in the background adding her comments. I haven't heard from him for months and I'm trying to be angry about the night I cooked up a storm for them both, and my dinner party slipped their minds. As I say, I'm trying to be angry but fail miserably because I'm so delighted to hear Syed's voice.

"We really miss you," he says. And I melt. "Sharon binti Syed. If it's a daughter Nino wants to name it after you."

"Oh my goodness, you're phoning me to say Nino's pregnant?"

I'm mentally calculating Nino's age, surely ....?

"No, no, it's me that's pregnant. My belly's getting bigger all the time. I tell her that if we have a kid we'll have to call it Anchor beer."

We catch up on each other's news. He invites me over to their house and I know I will go soon. We reminisce about how we first met in Kuala Kangsar, retelling the story and filling in the bits the other has forgotten.

"And yes, we talked about Anthony Burgess at the Rest House, I remember."

He pauses for a second.

"You know," he said, "he taught me that there are just three ingredients to a good story."

My God, he's giving out the master's secrets and I have to write these words of wisdom down.

"This was way back in 1955 when I was sitting in his classroom in U.K. ... that's Ulu Kelantan ... He said the first ingredient of a good story is sex. The second one is religion. The third one is royalty."

I scribble sex, religion, royalty at the bottom of the shopping list under onions and milk.

"... And Burgess then wrote this sentence on the board 'Oh God the Queen Mother's pregnant again' and said it was a short story in itself because it combined all three elements."

"How much of this is bullshit?" I ask.

"Probably most of it," laughs Syed.

I must catch up with Syed and Nino soon, collect more stories, bullshit or not.

"We love you," says Syed as we say goodnight. That love runs both ways.

The Power of Dreams

I'm a great believer in the power of dreams. Have had many which have told me truths about myself that I hadn't got round to facing. Have had others which have told me the truth about relationships I was in. (I wish I had listened more carefully.) Have recognised a soul-mate from a dream and wasn't wrong. Was told in another that someone needed my help even before my waking self had recognised it.

I write my dreams down as soon as I wake, because I know they are important.

I keep dipping into Naomi Epel's book Writer's Dreaming, and in fact have used extracts from it on my course where I do a writing-from-dream-exercise.

Epal interviewed 26 writers about their dreams and their creative process what is facinating is how many of the writers featured have used dreams to help them in their work. Many more writers talk about entering a "dream-like state" when they write.

William Styron saw the heroine of his novel in a "waking vision" standing in a hallway of a boarding house in Flatbush, a number tattoed on her arm.

And Bharati Mukherjee (a writer I was lucky enough to meet not long ago) has dreamed the endings to stories and to her novel Jasmine. She says:
As I'm getting to the end of a story, the ending that, during my waking hours, I think will happen is sometimes subverted or obliterated by the dream. It happens as I'm just about to write that scene. ... In many of the stories in The Middleman, the endings are not the way I had planned them.
(The Middleman is one of the best collections of short-fiction I've ever read. Just don't know how Mukherjee can get so far into the heads of all these so different characters ...)

Just for fun, dear readers, here's a little quiz for you. A famous writer had the following dream. At the time that Epel's book went to print, this writer had not yet used the material in his writing. Later it became the basis of a novel.

Now then, can you name the writer and the novel. (Anyone who has done my course is not allowed to answer!) First prize as usual is to buy me lunch.
I don't have repetitive dreams but I do have an anxiety dream: I'm working very hard in this hot little room where I lived as a teenager - and I'm aware that there's a madwoman in th attic. There's a little tiny door under the eave that goes to the attic and I have to finish my work. I have to get that work done or she'll come and get me. At some point in this dream that door always bursts open and this hideous woman - with all this white hair stuck up around her head like a gone-to-seed dandelion - jumps out with a scapel.

And I wake up.

I still have that dream when I'm backed up on my work and trying to fill all these ridiculous commitments I've made for myself.

How the West was Spun

Trust Annie Proulx to tell it like it is. In this article from The Guardian she debunks the myth of the Wild West. (Die-hard Western fans, don't read!) And she's clear-eyed and unsentimental as ever.

If you've not had enough of Proulx's writing, The Guardian website also yields a delightful short story: Hoof-Boots and Bolo Tie.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Brown Sugar and Special Branch

Went along to the readings at Jalan Tempinis 1 yesterday afternoon. People write, must support, what. Though was not in the mood to sit and listen because was in a big strop with my other half who started World War Three because we were out of brown sugar (white doesn't count apparently).

A bit disappointed about changes to the advertised programme, and the crowd that showed up ... didn't exactly amount to a crowd despite bernice's exhortation to "datang beramai-ramai" .... there were about 15 people, and three of them Raja Ahmad's kids.

Raja Ahmad read first. I have a running joke with him because I bump into him all the time, at every reading and literary event. "You still following me around?" I say "We just can't go on meeting like this." But it's great to see a writer who supports other writers to this extent.

I was glad that Raja Ahmad told me that he is a poet, that first time we met at a Darling Muse, because he looks the part with his long hair and thoughtful expression.

He read several of his poems including one called membaca buku di kinokuniya - a nice piece of free advertising for Kino! I like the way the poem ends:

if everybody is silent
what kind of society
is this


I bought his collection of poetry Manyarung Jiwa, a beautifully produced book of uncluttered layout and quality paper. I'm so glad that it is a bi-lingual edition so that I am not going to miss anything.

Raja Ahmad had his daughter read an extract from his work in progress, a novel written in English.

Then some of the kutu-kutu guys read. RuhayatX gave us Anak Kepala Anjing; Natasha "champion blogger of the Neohikayat website" read Dhoji's Tsunami; Irman read a piece by Danny Lim; Nizam Zakaria read his Penunggu Malam. Then Abror Rivai, a young poet who has been writing for about a year read a few poems, and the very encouraging Bernice insisted on reading a few more herself.

I can't give you any stunning critical insights into the texts ... I really have to get my brain into gear to begin reading again in Malay ... And I'm a much better listener when my head is not full of visions of brown sugar and deeply-disappointed-in-me husband.

Nizam wins my prize for the most sartorially elegant performer of the day. His t-shirt had a picture of fingers held up in a victory sign (was it? or?) outlined in flashing bands of neon. It was not magic as some had thought, Nizam showed me the battery pack. (Haven't seen any piggy t-shirts for a while, which seemed to be de rigeur garb for those who wanted to project an image of being both creatif and alternatif in the Darling Muse days.)

Listened into a conversation between some of the Wilayah Kutu-kutu, debating whether or not there had been Special Branch guys at the launch at Silverfish and if there had been quite what it implied. Whilst not exactly the Stasi, the thought of Special Branch opening a file on their subversives strikes a certain amount of terror particularly as ther ISA means that dissenting voices can be disappeared for quite a while.

Perhaps it's all paranoia? Those Special Branch guys don't actually need to show up in a physical sense to show up in your psyche.

Perhaps too, there's a vicarious thrill to be gained from courting the possibility?

Oh yes, and the other big news of the day was that Zedeck has had a haircut. And now you can actually see that he has eyes.

One Aw-some Day

My article about following Tash around last Saturday is in the Star today.

Tash Bash a Boost for Fiction

Tash Aw’s return to launch his debut novel was heralded by news of its success abroad. SHARON BAKAR shadows him for a day to see how Malaysians take to the author.

IF recognition here for the achievement of Malaysia novelist Tash Aw has been strangely slow in coming, it suddenly seemed last Saturday that folks just couldn’t get enough of him.

The local-boy-made-good was in town for a series of author appearances at bookshops and his first stop was the Writer’s Circle meeting at MPH Megastore at 1 Utama, Petaling Jaya, Selangor.

The Writer’s Circle is a group for aspiring local authors set up by the bookshop. Previous meetings have focused largely on the practicalities of getting non-fiction books published at home. There is no money to be made in writing fiction, we were told at the first meeting back in January. So it was deliciously ironic that Aw (who won a very lucrative publishing deal and international acclaim for his first novel, The Harmony Silk Factory), was there to speak that day!

He was clearly moved by the welcome from his first Malaysian audience, and shared with us his journey from beginning writer to successful published author.

“I really didn’t know what I was doing when I started out,” he admitted disarmingly. He began by experimenting with the short story form to explore the boundaries of narrative technique. His stories began to grow progressively longer until, in one (about three young people who go off to an Arcadian island), he found the central core of what would later become his novel.

The discussion between Tash Aw and readers at Silverfish Books focussed on exoticism in Malaysian fiction, plot structure and the use of the first-person point of view, among other things.
Aw went on to describe how he initially tried to write in his spare time from his job as a lawyer, but eventually decided to make the big leap of faith and abandon his legal career for a Master’s course in creative writing at the University of East Anglia.

He encouraged the audience to ask questions, “no matter how ridiculous”. These pragmatic folks wanted to know as much as possible about securing an overseas agent.

“That first step into commercial life can be emotionally bruising”, he replied, adding that writers should wait until they were really confident before taking this step. They should also have written a great deal.

Working with a publishing house on job-experience during his spell at UEA showed him how ruthlessly most submitted manuscripts are discarded. Aw acknowledged that luck played a very big part in the selling of his manuscript and that there were many other excellent writers on his course for whom the lucky break had not yet come.

He was refreshingly humble about his success and most encouraging to those who would follow in his footsteps.

“People are interested in reading about Malaysia,” he assured us, adding that publishers in Britain and the United States are looking for material that is well-written, no matter from which part of the world it comes. He cited the recent success of The Kite Runner by Afghan writer Khaled Hosseini as an example.

His main advice to local writers was to read as widely as possible to find out just what was possible in fiction, and to develop the kind of self-criticism needed to be able to assess our own work.

In the afternoon, there was a stint at MPH Mid Valley Megamall, Kuala Lumpur. The “courtyard” area of the bookshop is a cool green oasis with potted palms and a feng shui fountain. A good crowd had turned out to meet Aw, including his uncle and aunt, who had flown in specially from Brunei. Many people paused in their shopping to see what was happening and stayed to listen.

The author’s voice was giving out just a little by this stage, as he retold the story of the writing of Harmony and patiently answered many of the same questions that had been asked in the morning. Then it was time for a signing session and a long line of folks clutching copies of the novel formed in front of him.

After yet another interview with a local paper, it was on to Silverfish Books in Bangsar, KL. Although Aw’s reading there had been hastily arranged, a good crowd of mainly hardcore literati crammed into the tiny shop to enjoy glasses of Chilean wine and chat with the author in a very relaxed dialogue session.
Many had already read the book, so the discussion moved up a notch and there was talk of influences on the work, plot structure, the use of the first-person point of view, and the whole issue of exoticism in Malaysian fiction. Aw read an excerpt from the novel, one calculated to shock with its veiled reference to cannibalism.

If accompanying him around on his various engagements that Saturday has taught me one thing, it is that a novelist clearly needs stamina: not only for the discipline of writing a novel in the first place and seeing it into print, but also to endure the rounds of signings, interviews and book talks which accompany its promotion. It had been a long and exhausting day for Aw, but he left in his wake a buzz of excitement about the future of fiction in Malaysia.

Somewhere in this picture you can see Tash, Raman and yours truly.

My favourite moments are ones I didn't write about in the article:

At I Utama a member of the Book club I belong to got quite upset about the passing of Tiger Tan. "Why did you let Tiger die?" she demanded of the author in a choked voice "all he wanted to do was retire and make a garden and he died."

Poor Tash must have been feeling as much a murderer as Johnny Lim. (If indeeed it was Johnny ...). All he could do was shrug "What can I say? Life's a bitch."

In The Harmony Silk Factory, Tiger Tan is not the only wanna-be gardener, of course. There's Peter Wormwood's eccentric dream of creating an English garden in the tropics. Tash has his own little piece of Malaysia in the garden of his basement flat in London - a banana tree, which he has to wrap in blankets when it snows! (Remember, you read it here first.)

At Midvalley, I was sitting between two gentlemen who were asking most of the questions (most folk being on the shy side). The guy on my left asked Tash why it was a Mat Salleh who reviewed his book, shouldn't it be someone who knew the history of the country rather better. (This guy turned out to be my friend Diane's brother-in-law. In an earlier draft of the article I was going to get my own back on him by describing him as "elderly", but the word limit saved him.)

Anyway, Tash didn't miss a beat. "Sharon Bakar is probably more Malaysian than I am" he said and squashed the guy most satisfyingly. Hadn't realised that Tash knew anything about me (am flattered!) ... and now I feel I have perfect legitimacy for setting out to write the great Malaysian novel myself! (Underway, Mr. Raman, worry not. Am not a lazy silverfish content just to munch on the books of others.)

(P.S. Nizam took a couple of very nice pictures of Tash at I Utama. Check out his blog.)
Ohhh, okaylah, I'll pose for just one more.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

The Ascent of Brokeback

It's a rare treat to be read to once you've left childhood.

Last night a group of friends came over to to my house for supper and to hear Jaeson Iskandar's performed reading of Brokeback Mountain, Annie Proulx's long short story about two cowboys who meet while shepherding in the mountains and begin a relationship which lasts a lifetime. Arguably the most moving of all gay love stories; never mentioning the word love, scarcely allowing the main characters to acknowledge their homosexuality. The language is gritty, even austere which makes the story it carries even more poignant. (And I'm reminded yet again that Proulx is my favourite writer, and in a thousand lifetimes I would never be able to approach her prose style. *Sigh*)

And Jaeson read it so beautifully: it seemed that the voices of Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist spoke through him as he brought out every nuance of emotion in an performance as restrained as it was heartfelt. And goodness, his Wyoming accent never flagged.

This is a performance looking for a wider audience, which I hope Jaeson finds.

Just as I hope that he will soon be performing his own words again. It’s been a while since the performance of his monologues I’m not Talking to My Mother & Other Stories, Blood and Love Songs at Actor’s Studio. I've seen his writing and I know it sings.

And it was a great night for friendships - these folks brought together from different corners of my life, and hitting it off as if they'd always known each other. The conversation went on to almost one a.m. and still everyone was reluctant to move.

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Friday, June 24, 2005

Makcik Kantin

She was the best possible language teacher. She loved to gossip and wasn't going to let a small thing like not having much language in common stand in her way.

My Malay was just about good enough for buying things in the market and ordering food at the stalls (thanks to Edward S. King's book which I'd dilligently worked my way through)

but really didn't take me any further than that. I spoke in a stilted textbookish way, sounding every bit the awkward mat salleh.

Until Makcik Kantin took me in hand.

If I had no classes at the end of the morning, I'd slip down to the canteen to sit with her while she shaped the doughnuts for the boys' end of school snack.

Makcik was an expert in the matters of the heart. I found myself telling her in my very limited vocabulary about the comings and goings of various boyfriends in my life and about what I wanted from love. About how I wanted to marry. About the kids I wanted to have. When I was stuck for how to say something, she'd patiently fill in the gaps for me while I noted down the new phrases and slid them into my own response.

And of course, in the process, I picked up something of the back-of-the-throat- gutterality of the Perak dialect.

Makcik knew the secrets happy marriage. I must cari orang yang baik hati. She had definitely found hers. She and her husband were still very much in love after many years of marriage and bringing up three children. Her sons helped to run the canteen and were grinning in the background as she told me this.

Most of all though, Makcik loved to talk about ghosts, and I was simply amazed at the variety and ingenuity of Malay ghosts. And I listened with rapt attention as Makcik introduced me to pontianaks, langsuyars and toyols, and the djinns (a better class of spirit for royalty) who lived in the Sultan's palace. She saw the ghosts as fellow kampong dwellers, part of the natural order of things, and seemed to be on speaking terms with many of them. Why, only the previous night she had seen a hantu kumkum stitting on a neighbour's roof.

The only stories about British ghosts I could offer in return seemed remarkably feeble in comparison.

Sometimes I often brought along Berita Harian and we'd go through some of the stories together. There was always an amusing tale of the would-you believe-it kind on the front page of the newspaper (or "suratkaboor" as Makcik called it.

How we howled with laughter when we read about the poor bridegroom sitting in state on the wedding dais when along came a tebuan and stung him on his kemaluan.

With stories like this who could resist learning Malay?

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Books for Writers

Kinokuniya has a special offer on writing books at the moment. If you snip the voucher from the Mind Our English page of The Star you can get 25% off a selected title. Went along to check it out for you (my excuse anyway!) and came away with two more creative writing books to add to my already burgeoning shelves.

The first is Writing About Your Life by William Zinsser, and is about memoir writing.

The second is A Lie that Tells a Truth by John Dufresne. The jacket describes it as "A truly creative - and hilarious - guide to creative writing, full of encouragment and sound advice". Well, we'll see.

There were plenty of other titles stacked on the table, many of them style guides which I'm not really so keen on, as they tend to be very prescriptive about what is and what isn't acceptable grammar. The book I really wanted, having seen it featured in the paper this morning was one called Pen on Fire: A Busy Woman's Guide to Igniting the Writer Within by Barbara De Marco-Barrett, but Kino was already out of stock of that one, though they said they can order it. (And still give the discount when it comes.)

I collect books on writing. Already have quite a library and keep adding to it. It isn't at all that I buy them because I feel I personally need them as a writer. (I already have excellent books of prompts and on the writer's craft). But more out of academic curiosity. What's the angle? Is it helpful? Is there anything I can lift for my courses? Would my course participants/writing friends find this useful and should I recommend it?

And also because, in a strange sort of way, I find their presence on my shelves oddly comforting ...

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

67 Jalan Tempinis 1 Strikes Again

Please don't moan that no-one does anything for writers. Please don't moan that no-one keeps you informed. Please don't moan that nothing exciting is happening in the writing scene here.

But please do turn up and support the latest round of readings organised by Bernice:

This month we are very pleased to present a group of innovative, dynamic writers who are currently pushing the boundaries of contemporary Malay-language poetry and prose in Malaysia.

Readings at 67tempinis satu presents:

Nizam Zakaria
Saifullizan Tahir
Jerome Kugan
(of the Wilayah Kutu anthology)

Raja Ahmad


Abror Rivai

Time: 3.30pm
Date: 25 june 2005
Place: 67, Lorong Tempinis Satu, Lucky Garden,Bangsar.(for directions check

Free entrance

Writers' bios:

1.Dhojee is the co-publisher of Neohikayat. He started out in journalism before joining his father's publishing company. His heart has always been in moving images though so now he works as production consultant for Grand Brilliance (TV3).

2. Nizam Zakaria is a copywriter by day and exhaustive blogger and serial novelist by night. His novels can be found online on his blog.

3. Saifullizan Tahir brings some mainstream credibility to the ensemble, being the only writer in the anthology who has actually won a literary prize (Anugerah Sastera Johor). Currently a landscape architect in Putrajaya, he has just started up a production house with the aim of making his own movies.

4. Jerome Kugan is a precocious soul who moves around so much he's sometimes a blur. A part-time sub-editor and writer, his heart is full of poetry and song.

5. Raja Ahmad is a writer/poet and also the Director of Yayasan Kesenian Perak.

6. Abror Rival is a Performing Arts graduate from Uitm and has worked as a journalist for the pop art magazine Siasah. He currently works at a film studio. This is his first reading.

"Readings" is organized by Bernice Chauly and is made possible by the gracious sponsorship of Seksan from 67tempinis satu and La Bodega.

Datanglah beramai-ramai!! and thank you for your continued support of Malaysian writing.

bernice chauly

hp: 012 323 0929


I was telling someone at a party about my creative writing course recently:

"You know," he said "you've tapped into one of the great needs of our information age."

I said "Huh?" or something very like that.

"The need for authenticity" he went on. "People need to know who they are, and your course does that for them."

That struck a chord with me.

Two moments of truth from the writing class:

One of my participants burst into tears after a writing exercise one evening. She said that while writing, she'd suddenly realised why she was doing the course. It wasn't that she particularly wanted to be a published writer. "I'm writing to find my own voice," she said. And the course was making that happen for her.

Another participant had decided that the piece that she would work on during the course would be given as a gift for someone she cared about very much. She worked on her story through successive drafts, taking on board suggestions from the group for improving it. In the end she had a polished piece in her hand and she gave it to her friend with love.

A short time later he passed away. But she had the knowledge that she had given him something very special and from the heart.

When things like this happen, I just feel so ... humbled. There's a great satisfaction in having touched people at their deepest.

And the funny thing is that when writers begin to write from that kind of genuine, heartfelt need - something special begins to happen on the page.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The Harmony Silk Factory Tour of Perak

Our book club, Fiction&Friends, would like to point out a factual inaccuracy on page 13 of The Harmony Silk Factory:

"In 1947, my father installed the first flush cistern and septic tank north of Kuala Lumpur ..."

Jessica is aggrieved because the first flush toilet was in fact installed in her family house in Taiping in 1938. The house was the first one to be built of concrete in the town, and it was commandeered by the Japanese during the war.

Jessica is prepared to open up the toilet for public viewing ... for a fee.

This leads us to discuss the possibility of getting in ahead of Tourism Malaysia and organising our own Harmony Silk Factory Tour of Perak.

After all, something similar has been done in Britain with writers from the Brontes to the Bard.

The tour could take in all the places mentioned in the book and include, not only a visit to Jessica's family throne, but also a romp through the Cameron Highlands (and make it back to Kampar on foot in time for tea),

... a ride on a specially restored tin dredge (with costumed Mat Salleh bosses to shout at everyone) ...

... a now-you-see-it-now you-don't drive through the forest to Kellie's castle with twin sisters hawking fruit by the roadside ...

... and of course an optional boat trip out to the islands ...

... in a highly unseaworthy boat with self-assembly engine and no crew. (For this part of the trip, tourists would have to sign an indemnity clause covering both physical and psychological damage.) Accomodation would be provided in rest houses along the way (bathtowels and pontianak provided).

Think about it - the possibilities are endless!

Seriously, though, we had a really good evening discussing the book. There are many books which we enjoy reading, but which don't lend themselves to a deeper level of scrutiny. The many twists and turns and ambiguities of plot and different viewpoints of The Harmony Silk Factory provided us with one of the liveliest book debates in our three year history.

And how nice it is to read a book in which we recognise Malaysia.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Bookshop Snakes and Ladders

So in the latest round of KL bookshop snakes and ladders, who's on the way up and who's coming down?

MPH for sure climbs up a fireman's ladder for arranging events for Tash Aw this weekend - a dialogue at the Writer's Circle, two booksignings and a private gathering tomorrow. (Am dying to tell you all about it - have sheaves and sheaves of notes - but have to get my article out first. And yes, I am still alive and totally totally charmed by young Tash.)

Silverfish also climbs a ladder. Although Tash's reading there was hastily arranged, a good crowd came and crammed into the tiny bookshop, and many of them had read the book so asked thoughtful questions. The Chilean wine was good, and there was a wonderful relaxed atmosphere.

MPH slips down a few rungs for not bringing in hardback copies of the book. Honestly! Why didn't they realise that we'd be flocking to get our books signed for posterity?

Borders (which slid right down the biggest blackest snake the other day telling me that it would take 6-8 weeks to get Edward Carey's books which the other bookshops could obtain in half the time) now redeems itself by having anticipated the desire for hardback copies of The Harmony Silk Factory.

Silverfish goes up another ladder because it can get me Edward Carey's books within a fortnight. They have a good relationship with the local supplier, apparently. Responsive, personal service wins the day.

MPH goes up a rung for having a counter selling delicious chocolates and sweets which you can munch as you browse. I laid waste to a bag of sugared almonds while browsing the shelves. (Laid waist to my waistline?)

But I'll make them descend a rung (spiteful, aren't I?) for shelving a novel by Will Self in the psychology section. I guess someone just saw "Self" on the spine and decided it belonged with Freud.

Incidentally, the funniest misshelving of books occurred in Times, Bangsar Shopping Complex a couple of years ago. I found a whole pile of Peter Carey's The True History of the Kelly Gang in the non-fiction section. I went up to the counter to point out that the book was fiction and should be shelved with the novels. The staff there argued that it must be non-fiction because the title said "True History" and refused to move the copies.

I felt so sad for Peter Carey because his books couldn't be selling. When the staff had their backs turned, I picked up the books and transferred them to their rightful place among the fiction.

The next time I went into the store, the books were back in non-fiction. And once again I moved them.

In the end they left the books where I had placed them. Maybe the staff thought there were ghosts around?

Writers who Illustrate

My interview with novelist/playwright/artist/illustrator Edward Carey in Starmag today. The brief was to focus mainly on his involvement in the Macbeth in the Shadows project.

Those of us who were lucky enough to hear Carey read from his novel-in-progress, (provisionally titled Little after the stature of it's diminutive heroine) on Tuesday night at Maya gallery really had a treat. The story is a delight, very darkly humourous. And I loved the way he became his characters as he read: the macabre doctor with a collection of body parts in bottles in his lab, the mother who becomes his housekeeper and later commits suicide, and the child, Marie, who narrates the tale. (Do drop by and read Minamona's account of the evening.)

Must confess I'm absolutely fascinated by what Carey had to say during my interview with him about the way in which his art feeds into his writing. He has more to say about the subject in this article .

Carey's first novel, Observatory Mansions, actually grew from a character he found himself sketching over and over, while wondering who on earth he was. This character was eventually given words and became the white-gloved Francis Orme who narrates the very dark adult fairy tale. There are nine of Carey’s etching’s in the book and he also had an exhibition in Ireland eighteen months or so ago of items listed in the eccentric inventory list at the end of the book.

When Carey came to write his second novel, Alva and Irva, he made an intricate plasticine sculpture of the imaginary city in which the story is set.

And for Little (to be published later in the year) he reckons he will have completed several pieces of sculpture including a 4’6’ ventriloquist doll which wears a wig made from his wife’s hair, carved wooden masks and a wax death mask.

I told Carey that the strange gothic world of his novels and illustrations remind me of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, an absolute favourite of mine.

Was Peake an influence? “Yes," he says, particularly becasue publishers don't especially like to novelists who want to include illustrations: "Peake gives me faith to keep going on. I love his work.” Other writer/illustrators he admires enormously include Scottish writer Alasdair Gray

and Bruno Shultz, a Polish writer who wrote two books of short stories before being murdered by the Gestapo.

Carey also mentioned other writer/illustrators whom he greatly admires (and some of the names on the list really surprised me): Kipling, August Strinberg, Victor Hugo, Hans Christian Anderson and Robert Louis Stevenson.

My own interest in the way that art might work alongside writing springs from a great desire to try to understand how the creative process works for different individuals. I've experimented a little bit with drawing as a way into writing on my courses and have found that it leads to some of the strongest pieces of writing. I'd like to push this further.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Tash Dash

Ever mindful of the fate of the critic in The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish episode in David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, after my review of The Harmony Silk Factory in last Sunday's Starmag, I had resolved to go along to the events featuring Tash Aw today, and to keep a lowish profile. (I'm tall to keep a really low profile.)

No such luck.

Oon Yeoh was supposed to run the Writer's Circle meeting at MPH this morning, but he's still in pain after his knee operation, and I was asked to take over.

"Fair enough," I said to Oon and to MPH.

So I'll be introducing the author and kicking off the questions this morning.

Then, my friends at Starmag called up. "We'd like you to do a piece on Tash. Can you follow him around to all his engagements today and write about it?"

Of course.

The MPH Writer's circle, the signing at 3p.m. at MPH Midvalley Megahell, the reading 6.30-8.30 at Silverfish. All fine.

Then Raman e-mailed. "Can you make sure that Tash gets safely from Megamall to Silverfish?"

I think poor Tash is going to be totally fed up with me by the end of the day.

And if he wants to do in the critic, he's got lots of opportunities.

Criticide. Not in the Oxford English Dictionary.


Friday, June 17, 2005

Tuesday is Shoesday is Choo’s Day

(This post dedicated to Kak Teh's shoemaker friend who always forgets names ...)

I have beautiful feet. Honestly.

Actually my feet are the only part of my body that is really beautiful, the only part of me that people exclaim over and that I’m a little vain about. (I have been told that they should pursue a modeling career. Never mind that the rest of me might be jealous.)

They’re long and slim and elegant. Without bunion or corn, callous or verucca. I pamper them with pedicures, slather them with lotion, have pictures painted on my big toes. Delicate spring flowers, intricate abstracts, gold Chinese characters for prosperity at new year, holly at Christmas, feng-shui goldfish in a pond, and the Citibank logo for the Litfest last year. (Maybe I should hire my big toes out as advertising space as that woman did with her stomach on e-bay some time ago?) Alice at Cut Above is my miniaturist working in the medium of toe nails, and I leave my feet in her hands (“Decide for me, will you? Just go with what your heart tells you.”) while Felix tinkers with my hair (a hopeless case).

But no matter how I love my feet, me and shoes (or should that be “shoes and I”?) have had a long and troubled relationship.

When I was a kid, my father insisted that I wear Tuff shoes. They were black, unisex (before all things unisex became fashionable in the 1960’s), and irredeemably ugly. They were, as the name might suggest, strongest, toughest pair of shoes on the market. They were so tough that they came with a guarantee. If you could wear them out before the six-month guarantee was up, then you were entitled to a free pair. The manufacturers felt they were on safe ground

My father, ever thrifty, would eye the calendar. And when we’d had our shoes for five and a half months he took us to the children’s playground with instructions to scrape our toes on the ground as we swung on the swings, and scuff them on the tarmac as we rode the roundabout and witches hat, and go for a wade in them in the paddling pool.

He would then march us back to the shoes shop and thrust our scuffed, battered shoes at the assistant along with the guarantee card. “Just look at these,” he’d declare “can’t even stand up to normal wear and tear. I insist that you change them.”

And thus we got our new brand new pair of Tuff shoes, and the six month cycle began again.

My sister asserted her independence one day and threw a tantrum in the shop until she was allowed to choose her own shoes. Three hours and several dozen tryings-on later, she emerged victorious with a dainty little pair of black patent pumps. I was not as well-versed in the feminine wiles as Tess, and continued to wear Tuff shoes for much longer.

When I did finally win the freedom to chose my shoes for myself, I found that I had very little choice available to me anyway. My feet might be beautiful, but they were also big. British size 8½. And in those days the shops catered almost entirely for the average. (Now, fortunately, this has changed.) I scuffed around it trainers, and clomped along in wooden Scholls.

And when I came to Malaysia, where the population is that much smaller, the situation was much worse. I found myself having to buy all my shoes on my trips back to Britain, and then hoarding them up like a miser until my next trip back.

That was before I met MY Jimmy Choo.

My Jimmy Choo was not a Choo at all. He was Mr. Leong and he operated his business from his home off Old Klang Road.

Every Tuesday he used to come to our college, between the assembly period and the mid-morning break, and take our orders for new shoes. And when he arrived the cry would go up: “It’s Tuesday so it’s shoes day. Must be Jimmy Choo’s day.”

First he needed an accurate measurement. I remember my students giggling one morning from behind the shelves as Mr. Leong, having tracked me down to the library knelt at my feet, placed my feet one by one on a big sheet of paper and drew round them. He then took some measurements with a piece of string. Finally, I got to choose the exact design of shoes I wanted from his plastic folder, in which he had collected pages from shoe catalogues. He could also copy your favourite pair of shoes, faithful to the last detail. He spread out too the leather samples of all colours and textures. (I did though have to wait a long time for gold shoes, until he had enough customers wanting the same to make it worth his while for him to buy a whole piece of leather.) And all this for a price so reasonable that I would blush if I were to convert it back to pounds sterling. (Though I always had to pay a little more because my feet needed more leather to cover them.)

When the shoes finally came, a week or a fortnight later they were beautifully crafted to our individual designs. We’d try them on, parade around the staffroom in them for the admiration of others, work completely forgotten, meetings abandoned, classes delayed just a little. And I learned for the first time in my life, something that my smaller-footed friends have always known ... beautiful shoes are SEXY!

I have pairs of Mr. Leong’s shoes in almost every colour of the rainbow in a rack in my cupboard; a perfect match for every outfit.

And I hoard them like a miser.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

What the Butler Couldn't Remember

Andrew is an old friend of my sister's family, and butler to RockStarofGreatFameandFortune. (Clue: you may have caught him in action here, not so very long ago.)

Andrew has a dream of a job, travelling continually between RockStar's huge estates in Britain, Tuscany and Malibu. He constantly rubs shoulders with the rich and famous of showbiz. (He's a confidant of Madonna, was at her wedding, chats to her in the kitchen.) And while he's the very soul of tact and discretion, I love to prise out of him stories about what these folks are really like when they kick off their shoes at home. ("We had the London Symphony orchestra round to play a little music over dinner. As one does.")

And Andrew makes me laugh. He's such an old lady. And now some of RockStar's glitzy lifestyle is rubbing off on him. Designer clothes. (I get him to show me all his labels everytime I see him - even his underpants!). Sports car. First class airtravel. ("My dear, I don't do Economy.") A bank account at Coutt's (the Queen's banker) so that he can sign for things for "his" family.

I loved this story that my sister told me. Andrew was serving drinks at Bruce Springsteen's New Year's party ("As one does") in Malibu. RockStar's wife asked Andrew to go over to one gentleman who appeared to have finished his drink, and to offer him another.

Andrew couldn't remember for the life of him, what the guy's name was, but of course he recognised his face - one of the most famous actors in Hollywood. RockStar's wife thought it was hilarious that Andrew couldn't name the guy and wouldn't help him out.

So Andrew reaches for his handphone and calls my sister, Tess, all the way back in London. Tess is a bit of a film buff and he felt that if anyone ought to know who this guy was, it should be her.

He gets her to reel off the list of older actors with wrinkles and grey hair.

Richard Geer?
Harrison Ford?

And so on down the list.

My sister runs out of names and decides to try a different tactic.

So what does the woman with him look like? (My sister reads "Hello" magazine and is up on all the celeb. gossip.)

Andrew describes hair and clothes and demeanour. They still draw a blank.

Andrew goes back to Rockstar's wife, suitable chastened and she whispers the name in his ear.

And that's why poor Clint Eastwood was kept waiting for his drink!

Director's Workshop

Please go along to support this event. I heard that last week's performance of Fahmi's play (which was performed in Sekseng's kitchen!) was absolutely excellent, and I was sad that I didn't have a chance to attend because of too many other things. Hope I can make it for this.

Five Arts Centre with the support of 67 Tempinis Satu presents

Directors' Workshop 5 - CPM @ 67, Jalan Tempinis 1, Lucky Garden, Bangsar, Kuala

Thursday 16th June - Saturday 18th June 2005 @ 8.45pm
Entry by minimum donation (RM10).
Maximum Capacity: 70 people, first come first served.

Three Uncertain Histories

An exploration of both Chinese opera as well as the CPM,
Three Uncertain Histories presents the not-always-reliable
memories of the emergency as told by three different
characters struggling to negotiate the dilemmas of the
conflict: a female guerilla who takes an offering to a
temple before she joins the communists in the jungle, a
failed Chinese opera actor who hears rumors of killings and
torture, and a police interrogator who engages in a
dialogue with his prisoner.

written & directed by Gabrielle Low
performed by Kiew Suet Kim

Baling (membaling)
Rundingan Baling '55. Arms traders. Pistol-pistolan Darurat. Sympathisers & deportations. Memory and forgetting dengan Chin Peng, Tunku, Harold Briggs dan lain-lain.

directed by Mark Teh
performed by Chang Yoong Chia, Fahmi Reza & Imri Nasution
devised & written by semua orang

Mentors - the late Krishen Jit & Chee Sek Thim

Producer - Wong Tay Sy

Executive Producer - Marion D' Cruz

For map and directions to 67 Tempinis Satu, please visit Audiences are advised to park at Bangsar Village car park or Lucky Garden (near Pizza Hut-TMC).

For more information, please call Five Arts Centre at 03-7725-4858, Wong Tay Sy (012-328-1946), Fahmi Fadzil (012-281-1150) or Mark Teh (012-207-3744).

Hmmm ... talking about Marion D'Cruz, met her at a British Council reception the other night and she is over the moon about Tash Aw's success because she used to be his teacher! So of course lah, she deserves all the credit for his novel and a share of the royalties.

Shakespeare in the Shadows

Monday learned about a very exciting project by Pusaka (Centre for the Study and Documentation of Traditional Performance in Malaysia), in association with The British Council. Called Macbeth in the Shadows, it involves the adaptation of Shakespeare's play for wayang kulit. The performance will be staged at the new Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre in September.

The project brings together one of Malaysia's top dalangs (shadow puppet master) Abdullah Ibrahim (also known as Dollah Baju Merah) ; British novelist, playwright and illustrator, Edward Carey; and poet, writer and translator, Eddin Khoo. And its aim is not only to carry on the tradition of wayang kulit, but to expand its vocabulary with new stories, puppet design and techniques of crafting. You can read all about the project in Starmag, this coming Sunday, and also my interview with Edward Carey: I'll post links then.

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Carey and Khoo making puppets

Traditional art forms are in grave danger of extinction in Malaysia, and I thought one of the speakers at the press conference, YB Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, chairman of Pusaka, hit the nail on the head when he said: "The government as a whole should do more. If you don't keep this alive, then something more important will die too."

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Carey's drawing of the witches

Carey echoed this when I spoke to him: "It's awful what's happening to the culture. Things should be cherished. Mak Yong and Main Puteri are in a very fragile state. It's so important the work that Pusaka is doing. ... in many countries Pak Dollah would be seen as a national treasure and it's a great shame that he isn't."

I have only seen wayang kulit only once, and it was an unforgettable experience. Badan Warisan arranged a performance by a group from Kedah and it was held in the space underneath the "rumah penghulu": the beautifully restored Malay house. I did not understand too much of the Malay because the dialect was so thick - but it was so fast paced and exciting and very very funny with many contemporary puppets being used.

And so now I'm so excited that Macbeth is going to be given the same kind of treatment. Maybe, just maybe, it will revive interest in this wonderful art form and encourage others to approach it in new ways.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The Underground Route to Self-Publishing.

Problems getting published? Here's a couple of solutions.

Zafar Anjum, who links to all the best lit. stories in the UK newspapers before I'm even off the starting block (not that I'm jealous, you understand!) picked up this story about a writer who decided to give his novel away in the streets. The article is both hilarious, and gives an interesting insight into the UK publishing business, so do go follow the breadcrumb trail back to the original piece.

I thought you might like to read about another very enterprising individual who sells her stories at a subway station in New York. Source: The New York Times.

NEW YORK -- Since the day it opened, and for obvious reasons, the subway has been as much a supermarket as a means of transportation. Daily, it delivers a group of prospective consumers numbering in the millions. August Belmont, the system's chief financier, sensed the potential and tried to tap into it by plastering the early subway with hundreds of tin-framed advertisements for everything from rye whiskey to washing powder.

Over the years, there have been cigar stands, flower stands, newspaper stands, chewing gum machines, a record store and an army of hard-working immigrants who wander the trains selling AA batteries, toy cell phones, lighted yo-yos and plastic sticks that make funny sounds when you wiggle them. Once, I spotted a well-used one-piece bathing suit for sale at the Second Avenue stop on the F line.

So it is in that grand tradition that a small, friendly 27-year-old woman named Adrian Brune set up shop about two months ago to sell her wares at Times Square. Her "shop" is a very common one for subway commerce, consisting of a small cardboard box, behind which she sits with her back against the wall. But what differentiates Brune from her competitors are her unique handmade products, advertised in a hand-lettered sign on the sides of the box. "Writer w/ good short stories for sale: $2 each," it says, adding in parentheses, "Masters from Columbia; bad economy."

In other words, Brune is a player in what the writer Terry Southern once called the "quality lit game," but instead of trying to sell her work through publishers, she has decided to go right to the reading public. This would be a brave decision, if it were one she made herself. In actual fact, she says, it was made for her by the publishers.

"I got to the point where it was either start selling my stuff or try to sell my work," she said last week, sitting on the floor of the Grand Central subway station, where she has relocated because the police there seem to appreciate nonfiction prose more than those at Times Square do. ("I've only been kicked out of here three or four times," she said with appreciation.)

Brune, who was raised in Tulsa and came to New York by way of Chicago and Boston, says that she originally conceived of her subway sales job as a form of "protest slash performance art." After graduating from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism last year, she tried in vain to find full-time work, but landed only occasional freelance jobs (including a few short articles for The New York Times). She was angry at New York, she said, and wanted to find a way to let the city to know it.

But then a funny thing happened: She discovered that low-priced, cheaply copied, heartfelt short memoirs held together with paper clips actually sell pretty well in the subway.

In fact, on good days she sells out of them, unloading 20 copies or more of each of her three stories. (One is about the death of her stepmother, with whom she was very close; a second is about online dating and a third is about a whirlwind romance she had with another woman at Columbia. She is at work on a fourth story about another romance.)

Last week, Brune was doing a very brisk business in the corridor leading to the Times Square shuttle. As a salesperson, she tends to comport herself with ease, something like a country-store clerk selling fertilizer to farmers. "You like short stories?" she says to the undecided. "Try this one."

"Hey, have a good one now," she says as they walk away. When a man in a baseball cap walked up, she gave him her friendly sales pitch. "You want action or satire?" she asked.

"Action," he said finally and forked over two bucks for the whirlwind romance. Brune folded the bills into her pocket. "Guys like the action story," she said.

In the space of about two hours, she had sold more than a dozen stories, some to satisfied repeat customers like Orlando Fonseca, who had also bought the whirlwind romance story and gave it a big thumbs up. "It reminded me of some of the stupid things I did," he told Brune, smiling.

She says that she has never had any customers demand their money back, though one man did return a story, apparently disappointed that she is gay. "I think he was a little sweet on me," she said.

Of course, the subway is not always the most relaxing sales environment. Once she spent the whole afternoon with a rambling drunk at her side. The same day, she said, "a slam poet or whatever he was came up and slam-poeted me."

Some people, most often women in business suits, look at her behind her box, well dressed and well fed, and roll their eyes. But others seem to understand. In fact, one woman recently gave her a $10 bill for a single story

"O.K., maybe she thought this was about charity," Brune said. "Or maybe she just thought I was undervaluing my work."

See, there are all kinds of ways to get your words out there and all you need is a little imagination.

Maybe you'd like to post your own suggestion in my comments. There is a prize for the best one: you get to buy me lunch.

Monday, June 13, 2005

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Writer

If you're in London, you can catch this tribute to the writer's art on Hampstead Heath.

The scultor, Giancarlo Neri calls the design a "monument to the loneliness of writing". It stands 30 feet high.

Hampstead Heath was chosen because of its literary traditions. Writers such as DH Lawrence lived nearby and poets Shelley and Keats strolled together there.

Neri says that the work has been well received by writers:
They all identify with the condition of being prisoners of their desks, of the confinement that it requires to actually write about the outside world. ... The idea was to reverse that sense of captivity and put the writer on public display.
Nice of someone to think about the writer's lonely toil!

Jack the Ripper

The taxi driver begins in the usual way:

“Where are you from?”

I tell him Birmingham, which is near enough the truth.

“Not Yorkshire?”

“No, not Yorkshire. Why Yorkshire?”

“Jack the Ripper.”

“Jack the Ripper murdered people in London. In Victorian times. You’re thinking of the Yorkshire Ripper. That’s a much more recent case.”

“They never caught him.”

“Who? The Yorkshire Ripper? Yes they did. His name’s Peter Sutcliff and he’s in prison serving a life sentence. But Jack the Ripper, you’re right, they never caught him. They say that there was some connection to the Royal Family and his identity was protected. I don’t know. It’s never been proven, though there are theories of course. … Anyway, why are you so interested? Do you think all Mat Salleh’s are serial killers?”

He laughs and is quiet for a moment.

Then –

“Sherwood Forest,” he says.

“Sherwood Forest? That’s where Robin Hood lived.”

“You been there?”

“Passed through it in the car. It’s not as exciting as forests here. Anyway, Robin Hood was just a legend.”

He falls silent again.

“Buckingham Palace.”

“Yes, Buckingham Palace. So?”

“You been there?”

“Yes. Once.”

“What was it like?”

“Pretty boring. Lots of paintings. Shame we weren’t allowed to go round the gardens. Now that really would have been interesting.”

“You can’t go into the gardens?”

“No. Only when the Queen has garden parties and you have to be specially invited for those.”

He’s quiet for a minute.

“Queen Victoria.”

“What about her?”

“They chopped off her head for being unfaithful.”

“Not Queen Victoria. Ann Boleyn got her head chopped off and she was Henry VIII’s wife. I’m not sure about the other wives who got their heads chopped off.”

“She was unfaithful?”

“No, Henry VIII wanted a son and she couldn’t give him one so he got rid of her.”

But I’m curious. Where does his knowledge, albeit a little muddled, of all things British come from? Has he been watching documentaries on Discovery channel?

“I don’t watch TV. I’m a scholar. I read books. But you. You’re British but you’re not so interested in history?”

I tell him that I don’t like history when it’s about Kings and Queens. But I like it when it’s about ordinary people.

“Like you and me,” I say.

“And Jack the Ripper.”

Sunday, June 12, 2005

The Harmony Silk Factory - Review

My review from Starmag.

“Tropical Asia (is) suddenly the focus of every gaze” wrote critic Boyd Tonkin in The Independent earlier in the year, announcing a spate of first novels by young Asian writers. Neil Mukherjee of The Times meanwhile noted: “India, China and Japan are almost reeling from overexposure in fiction but Malaysia is relatively new to the English reader.” Enter Malaysian writer Tash Aw who scooped one of the year’s most lucrative publishing deals for his ambitious first novel The Harmony Silk Factory, which was published simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic at the beginning of March.

Set in the Kinta Valley of Perak against the backdrop of World War II, the novel charts the rise to power of notorious gangster and communist leader, Johnny Lim. The Harmony Silk Factory of the title is a shophouse which serves as a front for Johnny’s varied criminal activities which include smuggling and black marketeering. Aw’s prose, both elegant and highly readable draws the reader into the story immediately.

“We all know that the retelling of history cannot be perfect” says Johnny’s son Jasper, and the plot unfolds through a clever triangulation of viewpoints, forcing the reader to constantly reappraise each narrator’s account of events at every turn.

Jasper, now in his forties, narrates his father’s early history with information gleaned from libraries and newspaper archives as well as from scraps of memory and visits to some of the locales of Johnny’s story. He draws the landscape, both social and physical, of the Kinta valley: creating a slightly romanticized world of misty jungles, cave temples, hidden coves and mysterious islands.

Johnny is the son of South Chinese immigrants and makes a name for himself by inventing “the amazing toddy machine”. With the slump in rubber prices in the 1930’s, Johnny goes to work as an indentured labourer in a British-owned tin mine. After he stabs one of the British mine managers with a screwdriver, Johnny is forced to move from town to town as an itinerate worker, teaming up with communist sympathizers on the way. In Kampar he ends up working for local businessman and communist leader, Tiger Tan in his fabric business and commences his ruthless rise to power.

These opening chapters of the book are a delight, as Jasper lays before us the nature of Johnny’s many betrayals and machinations. But although this narrator promises the reader “a clear and complete picture of the events following my father’s terrible past”, he is unable to keep his word because important pieces of the puzzle remain in the hands of other witnesses to Johnny’s life.

A diary kept by Johnny’s beautiful wife Snow in 1941 forms the central section of the novel. She narrates the story of the journey she makes with Johnny to a nearby chain of islands called The Seven Maidens, ostensibly as a belated honeymoon trip. They are accompanied by the repulsive Frederick Honey, a British mine owner with strong views of colonialism; Mamoru Kunichika, a Japanese professor (soon to become leader of the Japanese secret police and infamous for the atrocities he commits); and Peter Wormwood, Johnny’s rather camp and aesthetic British friend. They make an unlikely party, and Snow describes the journey in an almost surreal, dreamlike way: people and landmarks along the way appear and disappear as if they are mere illusions. Unfortunately, the novel looses pace and impetus during Snow’s narrative and the events described as they sail out to the legendary islands seem more than a little melodramatic.

Peter Wormwood offers his own account of the trip in the book’s third section. Now an old man in a nursing home in Malacca, he alternatively talks about the garden he is planning to build and dips into the past to reminisce about his first meetings with Johnny and Snow. As he offers his own version of the fateful trip to the Seven Maidens we gradually understand the real purpose of the journey and the nature of the devil’s bargain that Johnny is forced to make.

Aw’s demonstrates how each narrator sees a different version of the truth through the prism of their own prejudices and preconceptions. To his credit Aw manages to keep some clever plot twists till the end. Yet for all his deft handling of his material, lose ends there are a-plenty, and the novel ultimately fails to satisfy because the reader never truly gets a handle on the key relationships. The character at the novel’s heart, Johnny Lim, remains shadowy and unconvincing, and much as we might sympathise with Snow, trapped in a loveless marriage, she never fully comes alive for us.

Jasper is perhaps the character the reader can identify with most readily, as he struggles to come to terms with his father’s past. It’s a great pity that Aw does not allow him to revisit it with fresh insight once he has all the strands of the story in his hand.

Tash Splash

At last! Big spread about Tash Aw in Starmag today as well as the cover pic. Again, it's the financial success of his book that grabs the main headline - The 3.5 Million Ringgit Man!

Here's some bits from Gim Ean's e-mail interview. (I post them up because you won't be able to access the link in a few days' time unless you are a subscriber. Stingy newspaper!!)

"I find personal information too difficult to handle, too stifling. You feel too obliged to stick to the truth, even when it doesn't suit the novel. For that reason, I never ever use anything from my own or my family's life. ... Autobiographical novels are often very moving for the writer, but really boring for everyone else ... I don't want to inflict my memories on anyone else because they'd probably find them really dull."

"I got the idea for Johnny's (alleged) betrayal from the story of Lai Tek (the Vietnamese secretary-general of the Malayan Communist Party, who switched from being a British agent to a Japanese one during WWII), but everything else about him was simply made up. Peter began life as a parody of a Somerset Maugham character, but quickly became something much more substantial."

Which part was harder to write, Jasper or Worm-wood?

"Jasper. The reasons for this lie in what I said earlier about the distance between the writer and his subject. Jasper, having grown up in Malaysia, had (on paper at least) more similarities to me and my life, whereas Peter had none. Ironically, this made Peter much easier to write because I was completely free to construct him as I wished."

What about comments that Snow's voice was insipid? Did he have difficulty putting himself in her shoes?

"No. I try not to think of how 'women' would behave in general, but rather how this particular woman that I'm writing about would behave. The same is true of my approach to men. ... In many ways, Snow's section is the most adventurous of the three. I took the biggest risks here. I wanted to give her all the things that are traditionally given to men: the action/adventure narrative, the road trip, the thriller. I wanted to play with readers' expectations of a diary written by a Chinese woman in the 1940s it isn't at all sentimental or even intimate. She tried to 'tell it like it is', and is really quite hard."

What made him start in the first place?

"Just the simple conviction that this was my vocation, that I loved words and had an ability to use language and to tell stories. Later it became an obsession. Then I realised I was in too deep and couldn't go back; then I had to pay the rent. Very simple, really...."

Do the accolades (e.g the comparions to maugham etc.)affect him?

"It doesn't make much difference to my working life, particularly since I don't pay all that much attention to reviews. I don't need good reviews to assure me that my work is good, because I know there are still aspects of it that are truly appalling. Neither do I take to heart bad reviews because I have enough confidence in the general strength of my work. I am, however, encouraged by comments made by established writers whom I have always admired. If someone like Doris Lessing or Chang-Rae Lee likes my work, that's all I need in terms of encouragement they render a thousand reviews (good or bad) utterly useless."

What would he say to Malaysian writers who dream of making a global impact?

"Stay true to what you think suits you best. Don't change your style for anyone and keep working, even if people tell you it isn't going to succeed. Don't ever think of potential riches or fame. The moment you start thinking of international glamour, you're finished as a writer, and you'll probably never attain those ridiculous dreams. ... Writing is still one of the few professions that involves purity and integrity (though, admittedly, this is decreasing). I know it sounds terribly cliched and schmaltzy, but you must try and focus on the work you believe in. But do bear in mind that it is really hard work, and that there is a very fine line between self-belief and self-delusion."

There's an interesting little side-column about the "man behind the author". He's a La Salle boy and grew up in Bangsar (centre of the universe!).

And there's my review of The Harmony Silk Factory.

I'm absolutely thrilled about Tash Aw's international success. Over the moon that he's put Malaysia on the literary map. But I honestly have very mixed feelings about the book.

His written style in wonderful, his plotting complex and clever. But what use is any of that to me if I cannot find myself in the shoes of any of the characters? Throughout the novel I felt myself standing outside looking in. I was never fully engaged by it.

Vox populi - reactions from friends who have read it (Raman, Sham, Mercy, so far) seem to be of the order of "Yes, it's good. Good but not great."

But he will undoubtedly develop further as a writer, and am happy to learn that he is in the midst of writing a novel set in Indonesia and Malaysia in the 1960's. The country may finally have found the voice it needs to chronicle its rich past and complex present.

True Love and a Flowerless Wedding

Went to See Ming and Sim's "almost flowerless" wedding reception yesterday evening - really a lovely informal party at by the poolside at Luna on the 33rd floor of the Pacific Regency with a stunning view of the KL skyline.

Am so very happy for them both ... you can sense the love between them without any words needing to be spoken ... and the fact that they can't quite believe their luck in having found their soul mates. (Was so touched by the way sim kept touching her hair as they cut the wedding cake ... .) See Ming looked gorgeous in a most unusual brilliant orange dress with decorative beadwork by a local designer.

She and Sim had each prepared a list of things to do at the wedding party. In typical See Ming style, she began with the instructions with "network network network ... who knows you will meet your next boss, editor, neighbour, best friend etc."

Sharanya Manivannan read a couple of favourite love poems beautifully. One was Openness by Polish novel laureate Wislawa Szymborska:

Here we are, naked lovers,
beautiful to each other—and that's enough.
The leaves of our eyelids our only covers,
we're lying amidst deep night.

But they know about us, they know,
the four corners, and the chairs nearby us.
Discerning shadows also know,
and even the table keeps quiet.

Our teacups know full well
why the tea is getting cold.
And old Swift can surely tell
that his book's been put on hold.

Even the birds are in the know:
I saw them writing in the sky
brazenly and openly
the very name I call you by.

The trees? Could you explain to me
their unrelenting whispering?
The wind may know, you say to me,
but how is just a mystery.

A moth surprised us through the blinds,
its wings in fuzzy flutter.
Its silent path—see how it winds
in a stubborn holding pattern.

Maybe it sees where our eyes fail
with an insect's inborn sharpness.
I never sensed, nor could you tell
that our hearts were aglow in the darkness.

The other was the Neruda poem I wrote about last week. I have an automatic burst into tears response to this one (usually by the last stanza, but here I managed it by the first) and someone had to hand me a tissue. Well that is a kind of networking, isn't it?

A young man poked video camera into my face and asked me to record my good wishes for the couple. I said I'm sorry for being so blur, I know I know you from somewhere but quite where ... (I am a very confused individual by nature, always forgetting names and faces). He laughed and said "Did you see the movie Sepet?". "Ohhh, now I know you!" This was Linus who had played the part of Keong. "Tell Yasmin what you thought of the film," he said, poking the camera into my face again, and I burbled something suitably inane. We then exchanged blog addresses (in lieu of business cards) before he went off to film someone else.

What else? The buffet spread was great and I made friends with one of See Ming's cousing from Teluk Intan as we stood in line. Janet Lee sang golden-oldie love songs in a creamy, jazzy voice. See Ming made a from the heart and very beautiful speech. We toasted and yam singed 'em. The cake was cut, and cute little cupcakes were handed out. Chatted to Jerome, Amir Mohammad, Danny Lim, who had just come from the launch of Wilayah Kutu at Silverfish.

And when it was time to go, I wisked Sharanaya and her guy Ashok of with me to go and hear romantic guitar music at The Dewan Philharmonic.

To Sim and See Ming - health, wealth, loads of happiness, beautiful kids ... and may you keep the love you share - always.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

A Quacking Duck Takes Flight

How nice to see Leon Wing's short-short appear on the Malaysiakini website. Leon has just joined us as a Quacking Duck (many thanks to the blogger who suggested the name some time back) and last Sunday we did a power of good critiquing.

Malaysian Anti-Semitism

Bloghopping (great word!), came across Asiapundit's entry about Malaysian anti-semitism, from where I stepped across to Ranjan's entry, from where I stepped across to this little story in the Traveller's Tales section of the Far Eastern Economic Review:

What Are Malays Reading?

Entering the bookstore in the check-in hall at Kuala Lumpur airport, the first book we saw on the table near the door was Hitler's "Mein Kampf." Odd. Then our eyes were drawn to a cover with a caricature of a Jewish financier straight out of Nazi propaganda. Yup, it was Henry Ford's anti-semitic tract, "The International Jew," with the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" thrown in for good measure. Elsewhere on the table was "The High Priests of War: The Secret History of How America's 'Neo-Conservative' Trotskyites Came To Power and Orchestrated the War Against Iraq as the First Step in Their Drive for Global Empire" by Michael Collins Piper. Mr. Piper is a Holocaust "revisionist" and JFK assassination conspiracy theorist. It would appear that former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's complaints about the Jews have had their desired effect on Malays' reading habits.

I really am surprised that this issue has not been brought up before.

I am not at all one for censorship, as anyone reading my blog will know, and I believe that it's necessary for readers to read their way round all sides of an argument come to their own conclusions about what they're reading. Just because I don't approve of a book doesn't mean that I want it banned.

Henry Ford's ugly piece of anti-semitism The International Jew (written in the 1920's for heaven's sake!) sits there on the shelves of major bookshops in this country and positively screams at you from the counter of almost every little newsagents shop here even when they have scarcely any other books to display.

And it makes me furious! Just as I would be furious if I came across anti-any-racial- or-religious-group propaganda. Here or overseas.

(I've not yet confronted a bookshop owner, not because I'm afraid of speaking my mind, but because I am afraid of how far over the edge my anger would carry me ... Sharon is a formidable force of nature when roused!)

But I have been appalled by how deeply anti-semitism runs in this country.

Let me give you this example:

I was teaching literature to students on a B.Ed matriculation course here a few years ago. I took to class some poems for them to discuss - personal favourites - to sharpen their interpretive skills. The subject of the holocaust came up. I was stunned to discover that none of these 20 year olds had ever heard of it.

Then one student said: "Why should we care? Anyway they were Jews ...".

My blood froze. I couldn't believe what I was hearing and told them so. What are these kids being taught in schools?

A couple of days later I booked one of the teaching rooms with a video-player and loaded up a couple of episodes of The World At War, the BBC documentary with war footage and interviews. They saw concentration camps for the first time. And yes, were chastened by the experience, and able to answer the "Why should we care?" for themselves. Thank goodness.

We need to be reminded of the holocaust. Lest the same thing happens again.

It's such a pity that the film Schindler's List got banned here. I think a naked boob could be seen in one scene. (Shock horror!) Spielberg refused to make the cut. So the film was never shown at the cinema, although it circulated in pirated copies. But I think Spielberg made the wrong decision - a little cut would have meant a much wider audience for his film, and a chance to educate a new audience about the holocaust.

We not only need to be reminded, we sometimes need to be informed in the first place, of the genocide which stems from the propaganda of hatred.