Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Wisdom does not come with age ...

I ONCE THOUGHT that wisdom was the sole province of the old. Then one day I realised that I was wrong. Wisdom is the province of those who possess it; age is immaterial. Over the years, I have had the good fortune to meet young people who are wise beyond their years, and I have also had the misfortune of meeting old people who have absolutely no wisdom at all.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Rotten Durian Awards & Other Malaysian Miscellany

SOME MANUSCRIPTS are so bloody horrendous that I literally get sick editing them! I feel feverish, headachy, and all-over-the-body-achy. Seriously, one of these days we must consider giving out a slew of ROTTEN DURIAN AWARDS for the worst Malaysian books of the year. I know for sure there won’t be a dearth of contenders for these uniquely Malaysian awards where MEDIOCRITY is the only yardstick of greatness and celebrated with customary pomp and ceremony! Perhaps I will start the ball rolling with that pathetic attempt at a book ... yes, that particular book! It reminds me of the opening lines to Keir Alexander’s excellent The Ruby Slippers (Corsair, 2014): “She stinks. It has to be said. Stinks to high heaven.”
MALAYSIAN EDUCATION should start focusing on understanding and critical thinking skills. There is a serious dearth of these basic skills: reading, writing, thinking, criticism, creativity and imagination; there is also an absolute lack of interest or intellectual curiosity about the world. We need graduates who can not only eat but spell chocolate! Education per se is quite irrelevant; one must have the right mindset to use the knowledge acquired and make one’s life useful and meaningful to society. The idea of education is to make every one of us into critical, empathetic, intelligent, logical, thinking beings. If not, what’s the point of being alive?
SERIOUSLY, do we really have a publishing industry in Malaysia? I sometimes wonder, more often lately. A SAD FACT: Malaysian writers can’t write and don’t want to be edited at all. Those who can the writing is hollow, lifeless, dispirited, uninspiring and lackadaisical. ANOTHER SAD FACT: Editors don’t know how to edit. (Editing is not just about grammar and spelling.) Most of them lack the most basic of editing skills (grammar and spelling); if they can’t even handle basic editing, surely they are in the wrong profession, no? Editors and proofreaders miss more than they spot errors. Designers don’t know how to design and typeset. Most of them are not designers; they are merely typesetters. Even the typesetting sucks. Translation standards are dismal. (Translation is not just about translating words to another language; the translated text must make sense. A good translator must not only possess a solid grounding in both languages but a strong grasp of idioms as well.) A vicious cycle. So, do we really have a publishing industry in Malaysia? I believe what we have here is more akin to some kind of stunted offshoot of public relations, rather than publishing as we know it. It never fails to amaze me how publishers always find reasons to justify the publishing of substandard books as though producing as many such books as possible is some kind of noble calling or something!
EVIL, THEY SAY, NEVER DIES ... it claws its way back from the pits of hell to haunt the living. We are in the midst of editing the worst manuscript on the planet … rejected by all who had a chance to look at it but somehow foisted on us editors for the stupidest of reasons. And to think that the British once colonised us, you would expect a certain standard of English. After the last disaster of a book, we thought we had seen the last and worst of horrendous books. No-o-o-o … that’s too good to be true. Ladies and gentlemen, Evil is back in business and is here to haunt the living daylights out of us. Just goes to prove that there are some things money can’t buy … for instance, to write well and tell a wonderful story (fiction or otherwise). Some publishers claim they publish these rejected manuscripts under the pretext of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility). Seriously, you can call them anything you want; I prefer to pile them under SHIT/POO and flush them down the LOO where they belong for all time. Of course, under normal circumstances these manuscripts would not see the light of day. I fail to understand what joy these author-wannabes derive from being published under such circumstances!
AND THEN there are those so-called Malaysian authors who insist that we do not comply with standards and conventions when editing their so-called manuscripts! As the Backstreet Boys would croon back in the late 1990s, They want it that way! You can have it any way you want, Sweetheart, as long as you pay the production costs and buy up all the stocks and keep them locked up in your room! And maybe toss them in with the carrots, potatoes, onions and tomatoes when your mummy make chicken soup.
REMEMBER THE GOOD OLD DAYS when we used to have meals and lovely conversations without interruptions? We used to eat and talk, and eat and talk, all the while enjoying ourselves. Those were the days when we used to really talk with one another and conversations were long, and there were jokes and laughter, and time just passed without us realising it. Those days are long gone. People nowadays are more interested in their smartphones, internet, text messaging, etc., and seem to prefer to communicate with people not dining at the table but elsewhere, reading news updates, etc. You may have the whole wide world at your fingertips, but you don’t seem to be aware of the immediate world around you. Once in a while, think about the person sitting opposite you.
POMPOUS LASS: Only native speakers can edit me! No Malaysian editors for me, please!
Publisher: You mean someone from Good Olde Mother England?
Pompous Lass: Of course—if English is their mother tongue!
Publisher: Why’s that?
Pompous Lass: Because my book is for the wonderful people of this planet. I want it to be perfectly edited for all my readers from around the world …
Publisher: Would you like to bear the cost of getting someone from England to edit it then?
Pompous Lass: Will that be cheap?
Publisher: What do you think? Everything is cheap except you?
Pompous Lass: I wouldn’t want to spend my money on that! If it’s too expensive, a local editor should be all right, I guess!
WATERLILY: I want to talk to the editor?
Receptionist: Who’s calling?
Waterlily: Lily!
Receptionist: Lily who?
Waterlily: Water “I-can’t-tell-you-my-real-name” Lily!
Receptionist: How can I help you?
Waterlily: I want to talk to the editor about my manuscript?
Receptionist: What’s your manuscript about?
Waterlily: I can’t tell you that! I don’t know who you are. You may just steal and profit from my hard work! I want to speak to the editor!
Editor: Could you send us samples of your work, Water?
Waterlily: I can’t do that either.
Editor: So what can you do, Water?
Waterlily: Why do you need samples of my work?
Editor: So that we could assess your writing and decide whether we want to publish it or not!
Waterlily: Why do you want to review it? I am a famous writer and my work is quoted in all the leading journals all over the galaxy!
Editor: That’s nice and all. However, we would still need to assess it.
Waterlily: Will you be distributing my book in the US and the UK?
Editor: No. We only sell foreign rights for those markets. And over the internet.
Waterlily: Looks like you are not the right publisher for me. Goodbye!
AUTHOR: Would you like to publish my book?
Publisher: Well, it depends …
Author: Depends on what?
Publisher: Whether you have a manuscript.
Author: I haven’t written a book. Can you get it written for me?
Publisher: Why is that?
Author: I can’t write.
Publisher: But you have studied for a couple of foreign degrees … and you have lived overseas for many years. With your fake accent and all, I’m sure you could write English.
Author: I’m very bad at grammar. Could you get me a writer whom I could talk to, take down notes and put them all in a book for me? I can talk very well. I just can’t write.
Publisher: Can’t imagine how you manage to pass all your exams over the years!
AUTHOR: Can you label me a best-selling author on the cover of my new book?
Editor: No! You are not a best-selling author. And you’ve never have been one.
Author: It’s a way of MARKETING the book!
Editor: I don’t think that’s MARKETING; that’s CONNING. Your first book sold less than a thousand copies in over five years. That, to me, is a disaster of epic proportions!
AUTHOR: And on what grounds are you rejecting my manuscript?
Editor: Well, it sucks, for one!
Author: What! How dare you insult me! Everyone who has read it thinks it is a magnificent piece of work!
Editor: Who, pray tell, read your magnum opus?
Author: My dear husband and children, friends and relatives! And my dearest mummy and daddy, too!
Editor: Of course!
Author: So can I take it that you are not interested in publishing my manuscript?
Editor: Duh!

Monday, September 01, 2014

September 2014 Highlights

1. The Betrayers (Little, Brown, 2014) / David Bezmozgis
2. A History of Loneliness (Doubleday, 2014) / John Boyne
3. Outline (Faber & Faber, 2014) / Rachel Cusk
4. The High Divide (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2014) / Lin Enger
5. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (trans. from the Italian by Ann Goldstein) (Europa Editions, 2014) / Elena Ferrante
6. Edge of Eternity (Pan Macmillian/Dutton Books, 2014) / Ken Follett
7. The Secret Place (Viking Adult, 2014) / Tana French
8. Mr Mac and Me (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014) / Esther Freud
9. Flood of Fire (John Murray, 2014) / Amitav Ghosh
10. All the Days and Nights (The Friday Project, 2014) / Niven Govinden

11. The Monogram Murders: The New Agatha Christie Hercule Poirot Mystery (William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2014) / Sophie Hannah
12. The Soul of Discretion (Chatto & Windus, 2014) / Susan Hill
13. Printer’s Devil Court (Profile Books, 2014) / Susan Hill
14. Neverhome (Little, Brown, 2014) / Laird Hunt
15. Black Dance (Black Cat/Grove Press, 2014) / Nancy Huston
16. The Moor’s Account (Pantheon, 2014) / Laila Lalami
17. The Day of Atonement (Random House, 2014) / David Liss
18. The Undertaking (Grove Press, 2014) / Audrey Magee
19. Station Eleven (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) / Emily St John Mandel
20. Accidents of Marriage (Atria Books, 2014) / Randy Susan Meyers

21. The Bone Clocks (Sceptre/Random House, 2014) / David Mitchell
22. The Taxidermist’s Daughter (Orion, 2014) / Kate Mosse
23. Us (Hodder & Stoughton, 2014) / David Nicholls
24. The Dog (Pantheon, 2015) / Joseph O’Neill
25. When the Night Comes (Hatchette Australia, 2014) / Favel Parrett
26. A Sudden Light (Simon & Schuster, 2014) / Garth Stein
27. The Paying Guests (Virago/Riverhead, 2014) / Sarah Waters

First Novels
1. Under the Tripoli Sky (trans. from the French by Adriana Hunter) (Peirene Press, 2014) / Kamal Ben Hameda
2. We Are Not Ourselves (Simon & Schuster, 2014) / Matthew Thomas

1. The Emerald Light in the Air (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014) / Donald Antrim
2. Stone Mattress: Nine Tales (Nan A. Talese/Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014) / Margaret Atwood
3. Everything is Moving, Everything is Joined: The Selected Stories of Stella Duffy (Salt Publishing, 2014) / Stella Duffy
4. The O. Henry Prize Stories 2014 (Anchor, 2014) / Laura Furman (ed.)
5. Doll House (Dock Street Press, 2014) / Sara Lippmann
6. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (Fourth Estate/Henry Holt, 2014) / Hilary Mantel
7. Lovely, Dark, Deep (Ecco Press, 2014) / Joyce Carol Oates
8. Mr. Bones: Twenty Stories (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) / Paul Theroux

1. The Whole & Rain-domed Universe (Picador, 2014) / Collette Bryce
2. Faithful and Virtuous Night (Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Carcanet Press, 2014) / Louise Glück

1. The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us (W.W. Norton, 2014) / Diane Ackerman
2. On Immunity: An Inoculation (Graywolf Press, 2014) / Eula Biss
3. Epilogue: A Memoir (Liveright, 2014) / Will Boast
4. Modernity Britain: A Shake of the Dice, 1959-62 (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014) / David Kynaston
5. The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics (Melville House, 2014) / Kenan Malik

6. Between Gods: A Memoir (Doubleday Canada, 2014) / Alison Pick
7. Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul (W.W. Norton, 2014) / Charles King
8. Scorsese: A Retrospective (Thames & Hudson, 2014) / Tom Shone

Friday, August 15, 2014

The AWFUL, AWFUL Malaysian Authors

I HAVE YET TO FULLY RECOVER from producing a spate of horrendous books these couple of months. Yes, months of slow, mind-numbing torture. All right, let me be honest here, these are really bad books that I am talking about. And I am not joking. Seriously. I am calling them “books” here for lack of a better word. On second thought, “trash” would probably be a more appropriate word to use! Worst of all is being literally forced to produce books from manuscripts that have been rejected, but somehow claw their way back from the depths of Hell to scare the bloody living daylights of Humankind. (These nightmarish books to end all nightmares are lethal enough to kill you instantly!) Publishing in Malaysia is like running on a treadmill; you just go nowhere even after much painstaking exertion. Here are some of my not-so-favourite things about being a book editor!

ONE, authors who are willing to (and actually do) pay others to write about them for them (in biographies or autobiographies) and praise them to high heaven. (In this age of self-absorption, self-aggrandisement and shameless self-promotion, there are people who are so obsessed about seeing their names in print that they are willing to pay others to write their books for them!) Some enjoy praising themselves in their badly self-penned autobiographies!

TWO, authors who are ungrateful to their editors and waste their time when their so-called books fail to make a dent in the local or global marketplace.

THREE, authors who plan their all-important book launches (and the food, of course!) without having completed writing their manuscripts or going through their final proofs. Book launches (at opulent five-star hotels and exclusive golf clubs, no less!) are planned even before the ink on the pages has dried—sometimes even before the book is written! (These are a dime a dozen.) It is so easy to get published in Malaysia; there is only one qualification you need: just write badly! Too many authors fall in this category. (I have edited some of the worst autobiographies not only on this planet but the whole galaxy.) And they are such a waste of precious life and prime retail space.

FOUR, psychotic authors who “hijack” the whole publishing process and behave like prima donnas and divas. (There are many of these prancing around like peacocks and peahens.)

FIVE, authors who think the publishing house belongs to their daddies or granddaddies. Believe it or not, money does buy you everything nowadays—despite what they teach you in philosophy school!

SIX, authors who are under the delusion that they write better than V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie and R.K. Narayan put together! (An indepth study definitely should be done to delve into this very strange Malaysian malaise.) This state of overconfidence is frightening.

SEVEN, authors who are supposedly graduates of some of the finest universities on the planet, and yet are unable to string proper sentences together or organise their (unintelligible) prose into paragraphs. (Who was it who said that education makes one a well-rounded person? He obviously haven’t had the misfortune of meeting such a creature as a Malaysian. (“If you can’t do such simple things, you might as well flush your degree down the you-know-where,” a schoolmaster once told me in the late 1960s.)

EIGHT, authors who demand advances even though they have no manuscript to show. (Go figure this one out!) For some reason or other, they also want to know their sales figures before sitting down to write the book they say they were put on earth to write. And (this is a good one) they always want to know when their books will be available in the bookshops (when they have yet to write anything)! (I was told by Mama that this sort of behaviour is rooted in one or a combination of these: traumatic childhood experiences, psychological trauma or defective upbringing!)

NINE, authors who do not allow editors to edit their books (and who, for one reason or other, do not edit their own books themselves, usually due to pure laziness, pomposity or other human flaws which should make the Devil so proud of them). They also demand an assurance from the editor that as editor he will be personally responsible for reading every line or word of the atrocious manuscript to ensure that the book is perfect! They just love contradicting themselves, don’t they? (“Don’t you dare edit my work; you are solely responsible for every mistake that occurs in my book and make sure my author photograph is in colour; I want the graphs and tables to be in colour, too. What do you think?”) It’s no surprise to find more than one preface and/or five or six forewords in these books! This group of authors also loves launching their masterpieces and making a public spectacle of themselves! (On the other hand, there are authors who keep amending their work, even after their books have been on bookstore shelves for months!) Or how about this evergreen: “All my friends and relatives have read my manuscript and they all think it’s perfect; there’s no need for more editing to be done.” Or this chestnut: “Why so many rounds of editing-huh?” Or this: “I need the comma there. I dont feel comfortable without it.”

TEN, most potential authors just want to get published; it doesn’t really matter whether their writing is good enough. But it does matter in more ways than one as we all very well know.

AND LAST BUT NOT LEAST, authors who cry and wail over the phone and who won’t take no for an answer because they have already invested so little time on the manuscript. (Somehow, they don’t seem to understand why I have rejected their yet-to be-written manuscripts. “I’ll only write it if you want it,” they lament!)

Ironically, authors who write well tend to give editors less problems than those who can’t write!

Rare though they are, I have had the privilege of working with authors who have become great friends over the years. Editing can be a very traumatic experience, but when both writer and editor work well together, the end product is something to behold. I always look forward to working with writers who believe in and are not afraid of rewriting and revising their work; such writers are a joy to work with because they are really passionate about their work and are not afraid of pushing themselves beyond the boundaries.

Do you belong to any or a combination of these stereotypes? I hope not, because these are not exactly role models worth aspiring to!

Friday, August 01, 2014

August 2014 Highlights

“July had been blown out like a candle by a biting wind that ushered in a leaden AUGUST sky. A sharp, stinging drizzle fell, billowing into opaque grey sheets when the wind caught it.” GERALD DURRELL, from My Family and Other Animals (1956)

1. Before, During, After (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) / Richard Bausch
2. The Betrayers (Viking, 2014) / David Bezmozgis
3. Lucky Us (Random House, 2014) / Amy Bloom
4. Outlaws (trans. from the Spanish by Anne McLean) (Bloomsbury Publishing) / Javier Cercas
5. Falling for Hugh (Doubleday Canada, 2014) / Marina Endicott
6. The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Chatto & Windus/Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) / Richard Flanagan
7. The Secret Place (Hodder & Stoughton, 2014) / Tana French
8. The Ghost in the Electric-Blue Suit (published in the U.K. as The Year of the Ladybird) (Doubleday, 2014) / Graham Joyce
9. The Lotus and the Storm (Viking, 2014) / Lan Cao
10. Diary of the Fall (trans. from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa) (Other Press, 2014) / Michel Laub

11. The Golden Age (Random House Australia, 2014) / Joan London
12. Bittersweet (Simon & Schuster, 2014) / Colleen McCullough
13. He Wants (Salt Publishing, 2014) / Alison Moore
14. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage (trans. from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel) (Alfred A. Knopf/Harvill Secker, 2014) / Haruki Murakami
15. The Long Way Home (Monotaur Books, 2014) / Louise Penny
16. A God in Every Stone (Atavist Books, 2014) / Kamila Shamsie
17. The Tongues of Men or Angels (Corsair, 2014) / Jonathan Trigell
18. Their Lips Talk of Mischief (Faber & Faber, 2014) / Alan Warner
19. The Thing About December (Steerforth, 2014) / Donal Ryan
20. The Story Hour (Harper, 2014) / Thrity Umrigar

First Novels
1. The Miniaturist (Ecco, 2014) / Jessie Burton
2. The Feathers (Piscataqua Press, 2014) / Cynthia Lott
3. The Scatter Here Is Too Great (Jonathan Cape, 2014) / Bilal Tanweer

1. Mr. Tall (Little, Brown, 2014) / Tony Earley
2. The Liar’s Wife: Four Novellas (Pantheon, 2014) / Mary Gordon
3. Night: Collected Stories (Faber & Faber, 2014) / Edna O’Brien

1. Black Country (Chatto & Windus, 2014) / Liz Berry
2. Poems of the American South (Everyman’s Library, 2014) / David Biespiel (ed.)
3. Standing Shadows (Faber & Faber, 2014) / David Harsent
4. Where the Wind Sleeps: New & Selected Poems (Salmon Publishing, 2014) / Neil Monahan

1. Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (Free Press, 2014) / William Deresiewicz
2. Bad Feminist (Harper Perennial, 2014) / Roxanne Gay

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

July 2014 Highlights

1. The Symmetry Teacher (trans. from the Russian by Polly Gannon) (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014) / Andrei Bitov
2. Arts & Entertainments (Ecco, 2014) / Christopher Beha
3. Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands (Random House, 2014) / Chris Bohjalian
4. Touched (Hammer, 2014) / Joanna Briscoe
5. The Narrow Path to the Deep North (Chatto & Windus, 2014) / Richard Flanagan
6. John the Pupil (Fourth Estate, 2014) / David Flusfeder
7. Sisters of Treason (Simon & Schuster, 2014) / Elizabeth Fremantle
8. The Far Side of the Sun (Sphere, 2014) / Kate Furnivall
9. The Fortune Hunter (St Martin’s Press, 2014) / Daisy Goodwin
10. Upstairs at the Party (Virago, 2014) / Linda Grant

11. The Emperor Waltz (Fourth Estate, 2014) / Philip Hensher
12. The Sea Garden (Orion, 2014) / Deborah Lawrenson
13. The Hundred-Year House (Viking Adult, 2014) / Rebecca Makkai
14. Little Lies (published as Big Little Lies in the U.S.) (Penguin/Putnam, 2014) / Liane Moriarty
15. The House of Small Shadows (St Martin’s Press, 2014) / Adam Nevill
16. The Final Silence (Harvill Secker, 2014) / Stuart Neville
17. In Love and War (Faber & Faber, 2014) / Alex Preston
18. Evergreen (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) / Rebecca Rasmussen
19. The Girls at the Kingfisher Club (Atria Books, 2014) / Genevieve Valentine
20. The Storms of War (Orion, 2014) / Kate Williams

First Novels
1. A Man Called Ove (trans. from the Swedish by Henning Koch) (Atria, 2014) / Fredrik Backman
2. Life Drawing (Random House, 2014) / Robin Black
3. The Miniaturist (Picador, 2014) / Jessie Burton
4. High as the Horses’ Bridles (Henry Holt, 2014) / Scott Cheshire
5. Friendship (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014) / Emily Gould
6. Nobody Is Ever Missing (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014) / Catherine Lacey
7. The Home Place (William Morrow, 2014) / Carrier La Seur
8. California (Little, Brown, 2014) / Edan Lepucki
9. Lay It On My Heart (Mariner Books, 2014) / Angela Pneuman
10. Mating for Life (Washington Square Press, 2014) / Marissa Stapley

11. The Great Glass Sea (Grove Press, 2014) / Josh Weil
12. Land of Love and Drowning (Riverhead, 2014) / Tiphanie Yanique

1. Noontide Toll (Granta Books, 2014) / Romesh Gunesekera
2. The Best British Short Stories 2014 (Salt Publishing, 2014) / Nicholas Royle (ed.)
3. Animals in Motion (Roundabout Press, 2014) / David Ryan
4. England and Other Stories (Simon & Schuster, 2014) / Graham Swift
5. Last Stories and Other Stories (Viking, 2014) / William T. Vollmann
1. The Orchid Boat (Enitharmon Press, 2014) / Lee Harwood

1. My Two Italies (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014) / Joseph Luzzi
2. The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee (Penguin Press, 2014) / Marja Mills
3. This Divided Island (Penguin Books India, 2014) / Samanth Subramanian
4. A Broken World: Letters, Diaries and Memories of the Great War (Hutchinson, 2014) / Sebastian Faulks & Hope Wolf (eds.)

Sunday, June 15, 2014


Three well-known Malaysian comedians, HARITH ISKANDER, DOUGLAS LIM and KUAH JENHAN, speak to NAJUA ISMAIL and shed light on the serious side of stand-up comedy in Malaysia

Photography by KENNY LOH
Hair & Make-up by AMBER CHIA ACADEMY

OUR COVER STORY is all about people who make a living by making others laugh. Malaysia’s well-known professional stand-up comedians, Harith Iskander, Douglas Lim and Kuah Jenhan, have a way of tickling our funny bones. While each of them has attained a measure of success, they are quick to acknowledge that pleasing a crowd is no walk in the park. They spend a lot of time researching their funny stories, observing everything around them, and drawing inspiration from their own lives.

On Merdeka Day 22 years ago, Harith Iskander stood in front of a small audience of about 12 at the lobby lounge of the Subang Airport Hotel and told them his “funny stories”. He didn’t realise it then, but that was the beginning of his professional journey as a stand-up comedian.

A few weeks later, he was at a bar in SS2, Petaling Jaya, watching a performance by Rafique Rashid. During a break, someone mentioned to the singer that Harith tells funny stories and he was invited on stage. He got a good response and was asked to come back the following week. People who came to watch began asking him to do the same at their functions and events.

“And that’s how it started. There wasn’t any planning. I knew it was stand-up comedy but the audience didn’t know,” says Harith. At the time, there wasn’t really a stand-up comedy scene in Malaysia. Unlike today’s generation of stand-up comics who have access to YouTube and other social media channels for reference, Harith’s sole resource was Eddie Murphy’s comedy sessions that were available only on VHS.

“Someone had gone to the US and had brought a copy of Delirious and Raw, which were Eddie Murphy’s stand-up comedy shows on film.” He watched and learned from Murphy and then other comedians as his stand-up career took off. “I got my friends to send me more VHS tapes of people like Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Billy Connolly so I could study them.”

For a long time, he was the sole stand-up comedian in the country. However, when others began to emerge on the scene, Harith took them under his wing, offering people like Douglas Lim and later Kuah Jenhan the opportunity to open his shows. While both have said he made a difference in their careers, one can’t help but ask why he embraced the competition when he had the market cornered.

“It keeps me on my toes because for 15 years I could just sit back and not feel the need to get better but with the new comedians coming up, I’m forced to keep getting better and I welcome that,” he says. Harith also points out that there are currently a few comics catering to the corporate crowd.

“I know the younger ones want to break into the corporate market but it’s tough. Douglas and I started doing corporate shows but the young comedians today are cutting their teeth in clubs.”

It’s a different ballgame, says Harith, who explains that it’s easier to get a laugh in the clubs where people come expecting their funny bone to be tickled. “It’s like a slap in the face when nobody laughs at you in a corporate show after you’ve had the crowd in stitches at a club.” However, having more stand-up comics in the market is not only good for variety, it also helps create appreciation for what more experienced performers can bring to the table, he reveals.

There was a time though when Harith had trouble seeing the value in his own work. “For the first 12 years, I was earning what I considered a lot for doing this but deep down I actually thought I didn’t deserve it.” However, an encounter with a fan at Afdlin Shauki’s open house changed his mind. “There was this Chinese gentleman in his mid-forties who came up to me and said, ‘Hey Harith, I’m a big fan, thank you very much, I love your jokes, you’ve got to keep doing what you’re doing ...’, and he kept going on and on and it was getting a bit embarrassing,” he recalls.

He began to see the man in a different light when the gentleman told Harith what he did for a living. “He was a paediatrician and he started telling me about the many children he had to treat every day because of a dengue outbreak at the time. Some he could save, and some he couldn’t. Then I was really embarrassed. This guy saves children’s lives and for the last five minutes he has been telling me how good and important I am!”

But the doctor put things into perspective for him. “He faces death every day and what he needs after work is to go to a club or function and ‘laugh at Harith’. It was only then that I realised what I do has a value.”

Quick & Quirky Q&A
What is usually the first thought you have when you wake up?
Did my wife sleep well and how is the baby?

Name one thing you’d do if you were Prime Minister of Malaysia.
Eliminate the four boxes denoting race on forms. Only one box will do: Malaysian. I’ll make that a ruling, put it out there and see what happens.

If you could date a cartoon character, who would you pick and what would the date be like?
Veronica from the Archie comics. I’ve never been into blonde Mat Sallehs. When I was studying in Australia for five years, I wasn’t attracted to any blonde chick but I was attracted to the Asian-looking chick, the Spanish-looking chick, the ones with dark hair. I think that started because of Veronica. So, on the date, I’d tell her she’s The One.

If your son told you he wants to move to LA to do stand-up, what would you say to him?
I’d say, go! Because my parents were like that with me. Do whatever you want to do.


According to family lore, at the age of three or four, Douglas Lim proclaimed that he wanted to be a clown. “I guess what resonated with me at that age is that it’s synonymous with humour,” says Douglas. “I guess I liked this whole idea of laughter and being part of it, and if possible being the cause and catalyst of it.”

That ambition, however, was soon forgotten as he grew older and began pursuing other interests such as singing and songwriting. He even cut an album at an early age but admits that things didn’t work out as he hoped. One of the songs from the album, however, was selected as the theme song for local sitcom Kopitiam and Douglas, who was only 17 at the time, also became a cast member. “From then on, comedy came back into my life in a very big way,” he remembers. “I’ve always liked making people laugh but then I had proof that what I did was funny.”

This confident outlook was put to the test when he made his debut as a stand-up comedian at a show called Comedy Pest at the Actor’s Studio (then in Bangsar) in 2002. “The Star gave me a scathing review and tore me apart,” he recalls. This was followed by a show at the Beach Club, which on hindsight, Douglas realises, he should have turned down. “You can’t do stand-up there! There are distractions of a very ‘alluring’ nature. How can you compete with that?” he chuckles.

It must have been heartbreaking at the time but today Douglas laughs as he recalls his early struggles as a stand-up comic, especially when doing shows for the corporate crowd. “It was a year to a year and a half of bad shows. Some were so bad, they didn’t want to pay me. They were like, ‘You were rubbish!’ ” He had a pillow thrown at him at a slumber party for a VIP. During another corporate event, the band actually crept back onstage, first to help out by having the drummer cue the audience to the punchline and when that didn’t work out, to play him off the stage!

The turning point came when Harith invited Douglas to open his shows. “I started learning from Harith what you are supposed to do or what helps in an entire stand-up performance. And it’s not just your jokes.” Douglas points out that, unlike public shows, audiences at a corporate function are not there for the sole purpose of watching a stand-up performance. “They are there to meet their friends, eat, drink, network, and maybe win a fridge. You are just a pleasant distraction, if at all,” he reveals.

“What I learned from Harith about corporate shows is that its success really starts before you even come on stage. You have to make sure there is an atmospheric change.” Aside from the humour, logistics is what makes stand-up comedy successful, says Douglas, who further explains that lights should be dimmed or completely blacked out before the comedian makes an appearance, and for very large crowds, big screens should be installed.

“It’s also hard to do comedy and get a response when the prawns are out on the dinner table,” he contends. “You cannot compete with prawns no matter how funny you are! For comedy, it has to be vegetables or rice ... better still, no food should be served during a stand-up set.”

What’s also important in stand-up comedy is to understand the audience. “Why is stand-up associated with urban crowds instead of rural audiences? It’s because of the scepticism expected from audiences who come to watch stand-up comedy. The audience must know what irony is, they must be slightly jaded, so when the comedian says something, they understand the meaning behind it,” explains Douglas.

“Like when I go on stage and say the Malaysian police force is the most efficient police force in the world, an urban audience would understand what I’m talking about. When I did it with a rural crowd, they started applauding! Then I thought, uh-oh, this joke is not going to work!”

Getting a negative response or no feedback at all from the audience is not only disheartening, but also has a physiological effect on him. “My tongue goes dry, the throat catches, and I start to sweat. Fortunately (or unfortunately), he has done enough bad shows to persevere in the face of a hostile or indifferent audience. “Just keep trying and don’t give up. If something’s not working, I’ll try something different, maybe something more physically or accent based.”

While he maintains that stand-up comics tend to remember their bad shows instead of their good ones, Douglas says a highlight in his career was going to Australia to perform for Malaysians who were living or studying there. “It was great to see the response from the audience over there. Not only were they laughing at the jokes, you could hear in the laughter that tinge of homesickness and it was beautiful! It felt so nice to bring them a piece of home for a while.”

Quick & Quirky Q&A
What is usually the first thought you have when you wake up?
Is it lunch time ... and what do I want for lunch? I wake up at about 11.30am.

Name one thing you’d do if you were Prime Minister of Malaysia.
I would write a book while I was still in office.

If you could date a cartoon character, who would you pick and what would the date be like?
I would date Jem from Jem and the Holograms. We would sing songs and just jam at a karaoke session so she would know I’m a much better singer than her boyfriend Rio.

If you had a kid, and he told you he wants to move to LA to do stand-up, what would you say to him?
Make sure you pack everything!


As a schoolboy, Kuah Jenhan dreamed of performing at the Actor’s Studio in Bangsar. His chance came about a couple of years after he left school. “There was an event called Free Flow, which was an open-mike show at the Actor’s Studio. The rule was you pay RM10 and you get 10 minutes on stage to do a comedy bit,” he recalls.

Jenhan enthusiastically forked out the RM10 and told the organisers he would be doing a sketch. “They told me this is stand-up comedy—just one man telling jokes,” says Jenhan. “I was like, ‘Got such thing ah?’, so they booked me for the last day.”

Jenhan admits his first show was a hit and miss. However, the friends he gained through the experience alerted him to another opportunity a few months later. A club in Avenue K was organising a comedy competition but Jenhan was reluctant to take part until he heard that the top prize was RM500.

“My second show was the preliminaries and I made it to the finals. My third show as a stand-up comedian was the finals,” Jenhan recounts. Not only did he win, he also received a surprising offer. “The emcee, who was also the event organiser, came up to me and said, ‘Boy, do what you just did at my event and I will give you the same amount of money,’ and I actually asked him, ‘You mean this is a job?’ ” That was the first time Jenhan learned he could actually earn a living doing stand-up.

He had second thoughts, however, about pursuing a career in comedy when he fared “horribly” on the two professional assignments he was given. Jenhan was largely ignored during the first show, which was a networking event. “People go to meet and talk with other people—not to keep quiet and listen.”

While he described the second show as a “teenage boy’s wet dream”, Jenhan admitted the experience turned out to be a nightmare. “It was in a club called Babe with an all-female audience,” he recalls. Unfortunately, English was not the audience’s first language. “The girls didn’t really understand my jokes and there was free flow of alcohol, so they just talked to each other.”

Jenhan was crushed by the reception. “If there are 300 people in the audience, it feels like 300 people have just dumped you and they are now forming an ‘anti-you’ club and they are bitching about you right in front of you!”

He put comedy on the backburner for three years to pursue his studies and made a grudging comeback at the urging of his friends when the Actor’s Studio Bangsar was closing. Returning to the stage where he made his debut as a stand-up comedian proved fortuituous. While he was watching the show after his performance, a “drunk Indian guy” looked at him and said, “Meet me outside.”

“It was Indi Nadarajah!” Jenhan exclaims. Indi had been one the judges of the comedy competition at the club in Avenue K. He asked Jenhan why he disappeared from the comedy scene. “I told him, ‘Indi, I’m too afraid to do comedy, I doubt myself too much.’ ” Then, the seasoned comedian gave the young neophyte “the best advice I’ve ever been given”, as Jenhan puts it.

“He said, ‘You should be happy you doubt yourself because when you doubt yourself, you know you are real, and when you know you are real, the audience will know you are real. The worst thing that can happen for a comedian is overconfidence.’ ”

Not long after that, Jenhan was back to resume his stand-up career. The going was tough in the beginning and for a long time, Jenhan was only earning RM200 a month performing at open-mike shows. He took it in stride, though. “I thought to myself, I’d rather invest time working on myself because when you’re good, people will know,” he says. “At the end of the day, you can sell yourself however much you want but you still have to perform. I think that was a good move.”

It appears so, as Jenhan has joined the ranks of established names like Harith Iskander and Douglas Lim. He expects more people to join the fray in the future, which he views as a positive development. “When there are more comedians, that means there is a higher demand. When there is more demand, more people will want to watch stand-up comedy.”

Quick & Quirky Q&A
What is usually the first thought you have when you wake up?
What day is it? Probably because I have the luxury of not having a routine, so there are times when I’m damn busy and others when I’m very free, that’s usually when I have no idea what day it is.

Name one thing you’d do if you were Prime Minister of Malaysia.
I will implement an incentive to encourage more people to pay their taxes. It will be a lottery system that is only eligible for taxpayers. One name will be pulled from this system every day and that person will be escorted by outriders to work and back during rush hour for the day.

If you could date a cartoon character, who would you pick and what would the date be like?
I would date Sailor Venus (from the Japanese anime series Sailor Moon) and tell her that even though she is not the leader of the gang, she is still my favourite. I would take her out for some nice yakitori because she’s probably more comfortable with Japanese food. I’ll make sure there’s a full moon, we would go to the lake and I’d say, “Do you see the big moon behind me? I don’t care about Sailor Moon, all I care about is you.”

If you had a kid, and he told you he wants to move to LA to do stand-up, what would you say to him?
Go ahead … but if you fail, I’ll have more jokes for my routine!

Reproduced from the October-December 2013 issue of Quill magazine

Sunday, June 01, 2014

June 2014 Highlights

1. The Fever (Little, Brown, 2014) / Megan Abbott
2. Song of the Shank (Graywolf Press, 2014) / Jeffery Renard Allen
3. Travelling Sprinkler (Serpent’s Tail, 2014) / Nicholson Baker
4. In the Approaches (Fourth Estate, 2014) / Nicola Barker
5. Bliss House (Pegasus, 2014) / Laura Benedict
6. Hidden Knowledge (Sceptre, 2014) / Bernadine Bishop
7. The Stories We Tell (St Martin’s Press, 2014) / Patti Callahan Henry
8. Outlaws (trans. from the Spanish by Anne McLean) (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014) / Javier Cercas
9. Abroad (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014) / Katie Crouch
10. The Good Children (Tinder Press, 2014) / Roopa Farooki

11. Midnight in Europe (Random House, 2104) / Alan Furst
12. The Silkworm: A Cormoran Strike Novel (Mulholland Books/Sphere, 2014) / Robert Galbraith
13. Virginia Woolf in Manhattan (Telegram Books, 2014) / Maggie Gee
14. The Book of Unknown Americans (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) / Cristina Henriquez
15. Other Lives (trans. from the Arabic by Michelle Hartman) (Interlink World Fiction, 2014) / Iman Humaydan
16. The Pink Suit (Virago, 2014) / Nicole Mary Kelby
17. Euphoria (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014) / Lily King
18. Mr Mercedes (Scribner/Hodder & Stoughton, 2014) / Stephen King
19. Summerhouse with Swimming Pool (trans. from the Dutch by Sam Garrett) (Hogarth/Atlantic Books, 2014) / Herman Koch
20. Mambo in Chinatown (Riverhead, 2014) / Jean Kwok

21. Her (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2014) / Harriet Lane
22. The Sea Garden (Harper, 2014) / Deborah Lawrenson
23. Road Ends (The Dial Press, 2014) / Mary Lawson
24. The Last Kind Words Saloon (Liveright, 2014) / Larry McMurtry
25. The Arsonist (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) / Sue Miller
26. The Illuminations (Faber & Faber, 2014) / Andrew O’Hagan
27. The Girl Who Was Saturday Night (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014) / Heather O’Neill
28. The Blue Room (trans. from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin) (Peirene Press, 2014) / Hanne Ørstavik
29. The Rise & Fall of Great Powers (The Dial Press, 2014) / Tom Rachman
30. Shirley (Blue Rider Press, 2014) / Susan Scarf Merrell

31. China Dolls (Random House, 2014) / Lisa See
32. I’ll Be Right There (trans. from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell) (Other Press, 2014) / Kyung-Sook Shin
33. The Illusionists (The Overlook Press, 2014) / Rosie Thomas
34. All My Puny Sorrows (Faber & Faber, 2014) / Miriam Toews
35. The City Son (Soho Press, 2014) / Samrat Upadhyay
36. Eyrie (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014) / Tim Winton
37. The Unexpected Waltz (Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster, 2014) / Kim Wright
38. The Night Watchman (Corsair, 2014) / Richard Zimler

First Novels
1. A Song for Issy Bradley (Hutchinson, 2014) / Carys Bray
2. The Living (Atlantic Books, 2014) / Léan Cullinan
3. A Replacement Life (Harper/One, 2014) / Boris Fishman
4. The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street (Grand Central Publishing, 2014) / Susan Jane Gilman
5. Elizabeth Is Missing (Penguin Viking/Harper, 2014) / Emma Healey
6. We Are Called to Rise (Simon & Schuster, 2014) / Laura McBride
7. Everything I Never Told You (Penguin Press, 2014) / Celeste Ng
8. The Quick (Random House, 2014) / Lauren Owen
9. The Antiquarian (trans. from the Spanish by Joseph Mulligan) (Black Cat/Grove Press, 2014) / Gustavo Faverón Patriau
10. After Me Comes the Flood (Serpent’s Tail, 2014) / Sarah Perry

11. Home Leave (Grand Central Publishing, 2014) / Brittani Sonnenberg

1. Further Joy (McSweeney’s, 2014) / John Brandon
2. Little Reef and Other Stories (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014) / Michael Carroll
3. So Much a Part of You (Little, Brown, 2014) / Polly Dugan
4. Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Short Stories (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014) / Stuart Dybek
5. Paper Lantern: Love Stories (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014) / Stuart Dybek
6. The Stories of Jane Gardam (Europa Editions, 2014) / Jane Gardam
7. Noontide Toll (Granta Books, 2014) / Romesh Gunesekera
8. Problems with People (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) / David Guterson
9. Black Vodka: Ten Stories (Bloomsbury USA, 2014) / Deborah Levy
10. Let Me See It (Triquarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, 2014) / James Magruder

1. Terror (Faber & Faber, 2014) / Toby Martinez de las Rivas

1. Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up (University of California Press, 2014) / Mary Beard
2. J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist (New Harvest, 2014) / Thomas Beller
3. The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers (Oxford University Press, 2014) / Joanna Bourke
4. Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters: An Eccentric Englishwoman and Her Lost Kingdom (Picador USA, 2014) / Philip Eade
5. A Literary Education and Other Essays (Axios Press, 2014) / Joseph Epstein
6. Curious: True Stories and Loose Connections (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2014) / Rebecca Front
7. Divided Lives: Dreams of a Mother and Daughter (Virago, 2014) / Lyndall Gordon
8. Ten Cities That made an Empire (Allen Lane, 2014) / Tristram Hunt
9. Things I Don’t Want to Know: On Writing (Bloomsbury USA, 2014) / Deborah Levy
10. A Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes (Jonathan Cape, 2014) / Sam Miller

11. Indonesia Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation (Granta/W.W. Norton, 2014) / Elizabeth Pisani
12. My Salinger Year (Alfred A. Knopf/Bloomsbury Circus, 2014) / Joanna Rakoff
13. Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation (Perigee, 2014) / Ammon Shea 
14. Take This Man: A Memoir (Simon & Schuster, 2014) / Brando Skyhorse
15. Stephen Crane: A Life of Fire (Harvard University Press, 2014) / Paul Sorrentino
16. On Silbury Hill (Little Toller Books, 2014) / Adam Thorpe
17. Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014) / John Waters
18. The Nile: A Journey Downriver Through Egypt’s Past and Present (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) / Toby Wilkinson

Thursday, May 01, 2014

May 2014 Highlights

1. The Garden of Burning Sand (Quercus, 2014) / Corban Addison
2. Suddenly, Love (trans. from the Hebrew by Jeffrey M. Green) (Schocken Books, 2014) / Aharon Appelfeld
3. From a Distance (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014) / Raffaella Barker
4. Darkling (Chatto & Windus, 2014) / Laura Beatty
5. Bittersweet (Crown, 2014) / Miranda Beverly-Whittemore
6. Above the East China Sea (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) / Sarah Bird
7. The Snow Queen (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014) / Michael Cunningham
8. Wonderland (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) / Stacey D’Erasmo
9. All the Light We Cannot See (Scribner/Fourth Estate, 2014) / Anthony Doerr
10. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (Viking/Little Brown, 2014) / Joshua Ferris

11. The Orphans of Race Point (Harper Perennial, 2014) / Patry Francis
12. Sisters of Treason (Michael Joseph, 2014) / Elizabeth Fremantle
13. The Confabulist (Riverhead, 2014) / Steven Galloway
14. Tigerman (William Heinemann, 2014) / Nick Harkaway
15. In Certain Circles (Text Publishing, 2014) / Elizabeth Harrower
16. The Possibilities (Simon & Schuster, 2014) / Kaui Hart Hemmings
17. The Painter (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) / Peter Heller
18. The Book of Unknown Americans (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) / Cristina Henríquez
19. Remember Me Like This (Random House, 2014) / Bret Anthony Johnston
20. Fallout (Chatto & Windus/Random House, 2014) / Sadie Jones

21. The Last Illusion (Bloomsbury USA, 2014) / Porochista Khakpour
22. My Struggle: Book Three (trans. from the Norwegian by Donald Bartlett) (Archipelago, 2014) / Karl Ove Knausgaard
23. We Were Liars (Delacorte Press, 2014) / E. Lockhart
24. The Last Kind Words Saloon (Liveright, 2014) / Larry McMurtry
25. Sugar Hall (Seren, 2014) / Tiffany Murray
26. The Lives of Others (Chatto & Windus, 2014) / Neel Mukherjee
27. Next Life Might Be Kinder (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) / Howard Norman
28. The Thrill of It All (Harvill Secker, 2014) / Joseph O’Connor
29. The Girl Who Was Saturday Night (Quercus, 2014) / Heather O’Neill
30. Catching Air (Washington Square Press, 2014) / Sarah Pekkanen

31. Landing Gear (Touchstone Books, 2014) / Kate Pullinger
32. The Rise & Fall of Great Powers (Sceptre, 2014) / Tom Rachman
33. Family Life (Faber & Faber/W.W. Norton, 2014) / Akhil Sharma
34. Astonish Me (Blue Door, 2014) / Maggie Shipstead
35. Lost for Words (Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Picador, 2014) / Edward St Aubyn
36. The Vacationers (Riverhead, 2014) / Emma Straub
37. Nora Webster (Viking, 2014) / Colm Tóibín
38. The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins (Jonathan Cape, 2014) / Irvine Welsh
39. History of the Rain (Bloomsbury USA, 2014) / Niall Williams
40. Eyrie (Picador, 2014) / Tim Winton

41. The Heroes’ Welcome (The Borough Press, 2014) / Louisa Young
42. The Lobster Kings (W.W. Norton, 2014) / Alexi Zentner

First Novels
1. The Good Italian (Hodder & Stoughton, 2014) / Stephen Burke
2. The Untold (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, 2014) / Courtney Collins
3. The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair (trans. from the French by Sam Taylor) (MacLehose Press, 2014) / Joël Dicker
4. Cutting Teeth (St Martin’s Press, 2014) / Julia Fierro
5. An Untamed State (Black Cat/Grove Press, 2014) / Roxane Gay
6. Fourth of July Creek (Ecco, 2014) / Smith Henderson
7. The Book of You (Harper, 2014) / Claire Kendal
8. Black Lake (Little, Brown, 2014) / Johanna Lane
9. In the Light of What We Know (Picador, 2014) / Zia Haider Rahman
10. The Memory Garden (Landmark/Sourcebooks, 2014) / Mary Rickerts
11. Point of Direction (Ig Publishing, 2014) / Rachel Weaver

1. The Promise (University of Queensland Press, 2014) / Tony Birch
2. Inside Madeleine (Soho Press, 2014) / Paula Bomer
3. We Were Flying to Chicago (Black Balloon Publishing, 2014) / Kevin Clouther
4. Chase Us (New Harvest, 2014) / Sean Ennis
5. American Innovations (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014) / Rivka Galchen
6. The Stories (Little, Brown, 2014) / Jane Gardam
7. We Were Flying to Chicago (Black Balloon Publishing, 2014) / Kevin Clouther
8. Collected Stories (Faber & Faber, 2014) / John McGahern
9. Snow in May (Henry Holt, 2014) / Kseniya Melnik
10. Funny Once (Bloomsbury USA/Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014) / Antonya Nelson

11. Many Roads Through Paradise: An Anthology of Sri Lankan Literature (Penguin India, 2014) / Shyam Selvadurai (ed.)
12. The Tao of Humiliation (BOA Editions, 2014) / Lee Upton

1. The Last Days of Troy (Faber & Faber, 2014) / Simon Armitage
2. Bright Travellers (Jonathan Cape, 2014) / Fiona Benson
3. A Poet’s Dublin (Carcanet Press, 2014) / Eavan Boland
4. The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (Carcanet Press, 2014) / Kei Miller
5. Where the Wind Sleeps: New & Selected Poems (Salmon, 2014) / Noel Monahan
6. New Selected Poems (Faber & Faber, 2014) / Tom Paulin
7. Gunpowder Valentine: New and Selected Poems (Dedalus Press, 2014) / Paul Perry
1. A Curious Career (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014) / Lynn Barber
2. I Put a Spell On You (Jonathan Cape, 2014) / John Burnside
3. Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal (Simon & Schuster, 2014) / Ava Chin
4. Dublin: The Making of a Capital City (Profile Books, 2014) / David Dickson
5. Metaphor (Harvard University Press, 2014) / Denis Donoghue
6. Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A Pelican Introduction (Pelican, 2014) / Orlando Figes
7. The Extraordinary Life of Rebecca West (Counterpoint, 2014) / Lorna Gibb
8. The Empire of Necessity: The Untold History of a Slave Rebellion in the Age of Liberty (Oneworld Publications, 2014) / Greg Grandin
9. Roald Dahl and Philosophy: A Little Nonsense Now and Then (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2014) / Jacob M. Held (ed.)
10. Eleanor Marx: A Life (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014) / Rachel Holmes

11. Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times (Simon & Schuster, 2014) / Andrew D. Kaufman
12. Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field (Doubleday, 2014) / John Lewis-Stempel
13. The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics (Atlantic Books, 2014) / Kenan Malik
14. Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press, 2014) / Justin Marozzi
15. An Encyclopaedia of Myself (Fourth Estate, 2014) / Jonathan Meades
16. The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life (Fourth Estate, 2014) / Andy Miller
16. The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of the World’s Greatest Invention (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press, 2014) / Alexander Monro
17. The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters (William Collins, 2014) / Adam Nicolson
18. The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World (Other Press, 2014) / George Prochnik
19. Everything is Wonderful: Memories of a Collective Farm in Estonia (Grove Press/Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014) / Sigrid Rausing
20. In Search of Landfall: The Odyssey of an Indefatigable Adventurer (Ultima Thule Press, 2014) / Patrick Richardson

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Beware of Vampire Bosses

HR practitioner and author ANNA TAN reveals the traits of toxic bosses that suck employee productivity and morale dry. Are you one of them?

ONE MONDAY MORNING, I rode the elevator with a colleague who heads the finance department. Complaining bitterly, Rona told me she was unceremoniously handed another challenging project in addition to her day job. “As if I don’t have enough issues to handle, I am given a project from hell,” she lamented. “The budget is minuscule and with a skeletal team, I am doomed before I even started.” When she tried to push back, her protests fell on deaf ears. Her boss’s reply was, “I don’t care how you do it, but for your own good, you better get it done!”

Let’s face it; we have all seen and experienced bad and dysfunctional bosses at work. In Albert J. Bernstein’s book Emotional Vampires: Dealing with People Who Drain You Dry, emotional vampires are typically people who are “extremely critical, controlling, narcissistic, or generally very negative and manipulative.” According to Bernstein, such “vampires” fall into five types: Antisocial, Histrionic, Narcissistic, Obsessive-Compulsive and Paranoid. While these may sound technical, they are characters and behaviours I am sure you have come across on a daily basis at work.

Rather than do a technical analysis, let me draw on famous villains from Batman who exhibit traits of these emotional vampires and imagine them in a corporate setting where they reign supreme and inflict harm on undeserving victims. So, here are my villain-themed vampire bosses:

The Joker
A vampire boss, Darren is a known comedian-of-sorts in the office. Without fail, he would turn up at the pantry at 3pm—on the dot—every day, regaling eager co-workers with his tall tales and jokes. Possessing the gift of the gab, his stories are delightful, captivating and generally interesting. Many of the employees find him entertaining and charming. Working in a pressure cooker-like environment, they appreciate his light-hearted and easygoing approach. As time passes, spooky vignettes about a darker side of Darren began to emerge. From the grapevine, we heard that morale is slumping and his department is showing signs of diminishing productivity.

Min is having her weekly one-on-one with Darren. As she waits outside, she feels the niggling dread in the pit of her stomach. Darren, as she discovered, loves to hijack meetings by talking about himself relentlessly and complaining about everything under the sun. He just can’t say anything positive or constructive. Instead, he is quick to criticise and find fault with almost everyone.

Woe betide those who are unfortunate enough to cross his path. Having no respect for others’ time, Darren frequently turned their 30-minute touch-base sessions into three-hour marathons. Min is always exhausted after these drawn-out one-way exchanges. Akin to being bitten by a vampire, she is sucked dry and drained of all blood and energy. Darren’s toxic persona in private is far removed from his pleasant and good-humoured public image.

When Min enters the office, she found Darren sipping his morning tea. Out of politeness she asks if he is enjoying his tea. At that, Darren turns around and, with a serious demeanour, leans in and delivers his lethal rejoinder: “No, I am not having tea. I am drinking my own urine!”

Thrown off-guard by what she hears, Min is shell-shocked. Her expression of horror gives Darren such a rush that he bursts into a rapturous laugh which lasts a good minute. What ensues is a blur to Min. When she finally flees the toxic scene, she heads straight for the HR office and lodges a complaint.

Poison Ivy
When questioned by Human Resources (HR), Darren defends his case with aplomb. He promotes himself as a coaching boss, approachable and, at times, friendly to a fault. Using humour to lighten things, he admits that his jokes might not be everyone’s cup of tea. He proceeds to trivialise and water down the complaint by alleging that Min is too sensitive and has misinterpreted a harmless act. To further undermine Min’s credibility, Darren claims that she is prone to exaggeration and has a tendency to overreact.

Character assassination is a low-down practice that vampire bosses use to shed unfavourable light on people who get in the way. Alas, there’s no happy ending or victory for the underdog in this scary movie.

From A-list to Blacklist
On the surface, it appeared that Darren has gotten away with murder. However, as he is a senior leader, the case attracted “paparazzi” attention when it was escalated to senior management at HQ. Words have it that Darren’s superstar status has gone from the A-list to blacklist after the HR investigation.

So, take heart! There are indeed companies which are genuinely committed to shaping a respectful workplace, and they will stop at nothing to ensure that workplace bullies are stopped in their tracks. While the fang-marks are still there, Min has moved on to another department and studiously avoids Darren. Although her garlic strategy is not ideal, it nonetheless gives her peace of mind, knowing that he can no longer harm her.

See the Light!
Toxic bosses cause much unnecessary stress in the workplace. They are a major cause of reduced productivity and employee disengagement. If you exhibit any of the above-mentioned villainous personalities, I urge you to stop before you leave shrivelled hollow shells of people in your wake. As a leader, you want to create a climate of trust where your team members are empowered and engaged to give their best.

The whole point of work is to find purpose and meaning in what we do. When people are treated with respect, they will reciprocate with respect. The vampire treatment achieves exactly the opposite and the malignant culture that results will leave emotional scars and permanent damage to the organisation. See the light and leave the dark side!

ANNA TAN is a bean counter who found her calling in HR. Her journey in corporate HR has led her to write Stretched!: Unleashing your Team’s Potential by Coaching the Rubber Band Way, a book which likens human potential to the flexible and agile rubber band.

Reproduced from the January-March 2014 issue of Quill magazine