A long long chat with ... Ezra MOHD ZAID
Independent Malaysian publisher Ezra Mohd Zaid spoke with candour about everything, from who he is to what he looks for in a good manuscript and the importance of translation for the Malay market. Eric Forbes reports
(Read the edited version of this interview in the Sunday Star of December 28, 2008)
THERE IS A YOUNG UP-AND-COMING MALAYSIAN PUBLISHER IN TOWN ... and his name is Ezra Mohd Zaid of ZI Publications, a new independent Malaysian publishing house. Ezra is a personable and engaging young man bursting with vigour and wonderful ideas to shake up the local literary landscape a bit—exactly the kind of publisher we need in a contemporary Malaysia: broadminded, intelligent, passionate, funny and straight-talking at the same time.
Ezra, who completed his high school in Geelong Grammar School in Australia and graduated with a degree in Political Science and Philosophy from The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, says: “Our vision is to provide a balance of new and exciting titles while not forgetting the classics that have shaped our understanding and experience of the world. Now, more than ever, we find that there is an appetite for innovative, alternative ideas that challenge the mainstream. Be it in English or Malay, we wish to help transmit these ideas to the Malaysian reader in contributing to the building of a new spirit of critical inquiry and reason in the nation.
“We publish fiction and nonfiction, in both English and Malay. That said, we feel that there is great potential in the nonfiction market for both languages, especially for the Malay-language audience. Currently, the Malay-reading public doesn’t truly have the option of reading Thomas L. Friedman’s The World Is Flat, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist or Camilla Gibb’s Sweetness in the Belly in Malay; so the translation market is something that we’re going into aggressively—to provide current international best-sellers, books that have garnered international critical acclaim, and maybe some of the great classics, in Malay. Every other country is doing the same with their national languages, and it is about time we did, too,” the irrepressible 25-year-old publisher, whose illustrious father named him after American poet Ezra Pound (1885-1972), says with the wisdom and conviction that belies his youth.
Ezra spoke with me in late October and early November 2008.
Please tell me something about yourself.
I am just another Average Joe trying to make sense of this crazy world we live in! Clichés aside, this isn’t a question that can be summed up in 30 words or less. But to give you some idea (or not at all): at the age of 10, I dreamt of playing professional table-tennis in Japan! At 13, I thought perhaps being a video-game tester with Sega would be the ultimate dream job, personally and professionally (a win-win situation, no?). At 17, it was saving the world (and making some money) by banging on the drums in a rock band. As of late 2008 heading into 2009, I think I will stick to playing my part and attempt to re-ignite an interest in books and encourage folks to read more books.
What’s your idea of Malaysia? Has it been realised?
My idea of Malaysia has not been realised yet. I must admit I haven’t got it all figured out. I sometimes see glimpses of it, but then they fade away. We are a young nation with plenty of problems to sort out and this has to begin by finding some equilibrium in understanding our past, appreciating the present and preparing ourselves for the future. And it’s not such a far-fetched ideal I’m hoping for. I believe that my idea of Malaysia is one that resonates with the thirtysomething who runs a Ramlee burger stall in Penang to the businessman in Kuala Lumpur and to the mother of three living in Sarawak. Our country has so much potential, it is ridiculous! And the only barrier preventing us from realising this potential is ourselves. We are all in this together, and we really must come to terms with that. Malaysia will outlive us all; so for me, we have a collective moral responsibility to make sure that it is kept up to shape for the generations to come.
Tell me about your publishing plans: fiction vs. nonfiction? English vs. Malay?
We plan to do both, on both fronts. It has to be this way because the market demands it. But also, as publishers, there is a certain responsibility that’s attached to that. We live in a country where it is not just English and Malay that surrounds our bubble, but a host of other languages as well. Therefore, it would be fantastic to venture into those areas, too. But for now, we are trying to find a balance by publishing books that will relate to the general reader, while providing other target groups with titles that push the boundaries of mainstream. There is an implicit understanding (or misunderstanding) of what those confines are and should be, and the general public will be the judge of that. We tend to underestimate the maturity of Malaysians and their reading patterns. This way, we’re looking at opening doors for ourselves, the readers and the marketplace. This, I believe, creates a very dynamic relationship for all parties involved, which will only benefit everyone in the long run.
What do you love about the publishing industry? And what do you hate about it?
I am afraid I am still wet behind the ears in this industry, so the love and hate comparison would probably find its feet in the years to come. But like anything else, there’s always the good and the bad. I enjoy meeting both aspiring and famous writers and authors. The enthusiasm that writers have about the story they wish to share—it’s a powerful vibe. There is a great variety of writers sharing different stories, in various styles that appeal to different audiences. So to play a small part in that storytelling process is something I’m enjoying very much.
With the book publishing industry, I am a tad disappointed with the external support that surrounds the industry, especially when we are talking about the marketing of books. Malaysian newspapers, magazines, television and radio could really do a lot more to be more proactive in this process. The awareness of books, especially local publications, has to be brought into the consciousness of the mainstream audience. Some inroads have taken place, but a lot more could and need to be done.
Oh yes, banned books. I don’t understand this whole thing (well, I do, but I don’t really get it, if you know what I mean). For what greater purpose it serves, I will probably never understand because the public, the publishers and everybody involved loses out. It is unnecessary controversy. When books are labelled ‘controversial,’ it had better earn that right and actually be controversial. But most books are banned for the most frivolous of reasons, and there isn’t even a standard of consistency to the selection of titles that are banned. And even if the decision is made, there has to be some order and process for publishers to appeal and discuss such matters in an open and transparent manner.
Why is reading important? How do we go about getting more Malaysians to read?
For the longest time ever, before radio, television, YouTube, Facebook and smartphones entered our realm, reading was an essential activity. Obviously, it is still prevalent, but to a certain degree, there is a sense that it is no longer the primary activity. So, it is a tragedy to observe that with time, people have lost their skill and passion to read. There are currently many other exciting and thrilling options (or distractions) available aside from books; yes, we acknowledge that. But it is a shame, because reading offers an unparalleled approach to being introduced to new ideas and exploring new worlds and adventures. Reading has this remarkable way of simultaneously challenging one’s beliefs and opinions, and at the same time reinforcing or clarifying some received wisdom or those half-truths that somehow got lodged in our heads. The magic of it is, is that it kicks you off on this amazing journey where you will be always searching for more answers and asking more questions. And that can’t be a bad thing. On a practical level, it does help us stay in touch with contemporary ideas and appreciate history, which hopefully in turn, makes us more sensitive to global issues.
With regard to getting more Malaysians to read, there are three ways of looking at the issue:
Firstly, if we’re talking about the big picture and in the long term, our national education system has to promote the reading of books in an inclusive and meaningful way. It shouldn’t stop at Little Red Riding Hood and the Pak Pandir stories at the tadika (kindergarten) level; it has to continue all the way up to secondary school so that it provides some sort of counterbalance to the daily grind of reading ‘textbook’ materials that kids have to plough through. So, sastera (literature) has to be a ‘constant’ fixture in our education system, just as the presence of mathematics and science. It would be shortsighted of us to suggest that these subjects are not as significant.
Secondly, believe it or not, Malaysians might find books boring or uninteresting. These same folks also feel that reading a book is a lot of work. My theory is that, perhaps, they possibly just haven’t found ‘it’ yet. I am referring to that one book that they’ve picked up, by accident (or choice), and the pages just turn themselves. The reading of the text seems just effortless. It is a lot to do about finding the type of book or subject matter that interests you. Much like going to the movies, isn’t it? Just because it says “#1” right next to it, it doesn’t mean it suits you. There is a book for absolutely everyone out there, trust me. So I would encourage folks to spend more time browsing at the bookshops, until you find your book. Once you do, it just opens up that window of ‘imagination’ and you’ll be on your way to wonders beyond your imagining. That initial spark of interest will create a constant desire to read more of the same, and eventually, read something a little different as well.
Thirdly, we have got to somehow make books more affordable to readers. It is a hard truth, but books aren’t exactly affordable in Malaysia—and that is always a consideration when the reading public thinks about buying a book. That has to be addressed. I won’t go into it now, but there has to be a concerted effort by all parties concerned to make sure that books are accessible, while not burning a hole in their pockets.
Why do you think it is important to translate the best books in the world into Malay for the Malay-reading public?
Language, in itself, is involved in a fluid and dynamic process which continues to grow and develop over time. The Malay language has undergone tremendous changes since its inception and I believe that this process will continue to evolve. Translation of books into Malay ensures that we encourage and promote the growth of the language in a positive manner.
This also means that the Malay-reading public is given the opportunity to be exposed to all types of books. This will not restrict the Malay language to just appear in specific types of genres, information and ideas. Why should an amazing book written in Portuguese, Arabic or Japanese escape the radar of an interested Malay-reading public? We have Malay readers who would love to read the works of Paolo Coelho, Naguib Mahfouz, Haruki Murakami and Orhan Pamuk. While it is quite likely that the works of these writers will appear in English, it is not so in Malay. They must be similarly made available in Malay. The Da Vinci Code was not just a compelling read to those who could read it in English, but to people all over the world who read it in its various incarnations in different languages.
We would be limiting ourselves and our understanding and experiences of different stories, cultures and ideas by ignoring the translation of great books into Malay. The Malay-reading public will grow bored, restless and lifeless if we do not provide them with the options they rightfully deserve.
What are some of the titles you plan to translate to Malay for the Malay-reading public?
Translation is essential because we live in a diverse society that demands it. There is no reason that language should be a barrier to ideas. If an idea is good, it translates into any language. You realise how blessed Malaysia is when its citizens are able to converse in not one but two, three, sometimes four, languages. But when it comes to reading, there is always that comfort zone that we find in a particular language. Or rather, some readers like to challenge themselves by reading in another language. So by default, that option should be made available to everyone.
We began by publishing Farish A. Noor’s Di Balik Malaysia: Dari Majapahit ke Putrajaya, which is a translation of his selected writings published over two books, including some unpublished essays. It was necessary to get these contemporary ideas on Malaysian politics, history and society out to the Malay-language audience as well. Next, we have a blend of fiction and nonfiction: Ed Husain’s The Islamist (Penguin UK), Rajaa Alsanea’s Girls of Riyadh (Penguin USA), Reza Aslan’s No god But God (Random House) and Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building (The American University in Cairo Press). There are several other titles in the pipeline, but it is dependent on the response to these titles in the next few months. We do hope that the targeted demographic responds to these titles positively. And if they don’t, I would like to know what would pique their interest.
These are all excellent titles fit for translation, I must say. What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up?
Ironically, I didn’t read a lot of books while growing up. I guess I was a late reader, beginning to properly appreciate books only when I was about 16 or thereabout. As a kid, it was all about Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica—the Archie comics! My mother was concerned that I wasn’t into the Famous Five and Hardy Boys, but she understood. I had an Ujang or Gila-Gila phase that went on for a couple of years! But strangely enough, the first book I remember reading cover to cover was a book on the adventures of the Malay warrior Hang Tuah—and it was in English. I couldn’t put it down. That got me realising, “Wow, books aren’t so bad after all!” So this goes back to my earlier point about finding the book that’s right for you. I was lucky enough to find it and am thankful for that.
I remember reading the Archie comics, too, but I was more into the Beano and Dandy comics and Disney’s Now I Know magazine in the late 1960s and early ’70s. I read Life and Movie News magazines religiously, too. I was very much lost in the world of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Franklin W. Dixon’s Hardy Boys series. I believe I must have read practically everything written by them! What kinds of books do you enjoy reading now and why?
I naturally do enjoy nonfiction, and I guess creative nonfiction falls into that category as well. Specifically, I have a soft spot for autobiographies because they usually chart some form of evolution of the person; observing that perspective can be very insightful and that fascinates me tremendously. Whoever it might be: actor, rock star, football manager, world leader, spiritual leader, comedian, etc.—the best writings usually tend to be raw and honest, with some humility and a sense of humour thrown into the mix as well. It then becomes an ‘easy’ read, to a certain extent, because you seem to be able to relate to it while a part of you can also wonder about it, too.
I am at the moment reading Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria. What about you?
I am nearly finishing Slash (HarperCollins, 2007)—the memoir of one of the greatest rock guitarists of our era. I’m a big rock ’n’ roll-heavy metal fan, so reading about his experiences growing up, being an icon in Guns N’ Roses, the excessive lifestyle, etc.—it all just seems pretty surreal to me. I’ve also just put down Me of Little Faith (Riverhead Press, 2008) by the stand-up comedian, Lewis Black. It’s his take on all things related to one’s belief or religion, his personal observations and discoveries, and showing us the funny side to such ‘serious’ topics. He’s absolutely hilarious, but the nature of the topic in itself is bound to attract lots of criticism, disagreements, etc.—but that’s his job, to put the ‘funny’ into it.
As a publisher, what do you look for in a good manuscript?Originality and good writing are two important factors, among others. The originality of the work is an important factor. The subject matter or idea that is being addressed sets the tone of what the reader may expect. From there, what usually complements it is that unique or familiar ‘voice’ the author brings to the work―whether it is humour, honesty, sarcasm, point of view, etc. While these aspects provide the platform for a good manuscript, it still comes back to good, quality writing. Between writers of fiction and nonfiction, we have to appreciate that there are different types of styles that writers adopt as their own. But within all that, clarity and accessibility are important considerations that we look out for as well. You can be elaborate or simple with words and even the ideas, but rarely is the clarity of the work compromised. But as a whole, a good manuscript has no specific predetermined criteria. I think it usually comprises or combines some form of purpose, imagination, intellectual significance and entertainment value.
ERIC FORBES is a senior book editor with MPH Group Publishing in Kuala Lumpur. After reading economics for a degree, which he didn’t particularly enjoy but somehow endured, he had a succession of jobs before joining the publishing industry. He has been in bookselling and publishing for over 20 years now. He can’t imagine doing anything else.