Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Awang Goneng’s A Map of Terengganu

“Bok ning molek ddo’oh ...!”
DAPHNE LEE follows Awang Goneng’s map of Terengganu back in time to a place where people took their time with things, and gets the author to talk about his books

“BOK NING MOLEK ddo’oh, rekok wok!” That’s “This is a damn good book” in the Terengganu dialect. “It’s you, not I, who said it,” Wan A. Hulaimi stresses in his email reply.

We were supposed to meet but I wanted to read his books, Growing Up in Trengganu and A Map of Trengganu, before interviewing him. This took longer than anticipated because neither book can be read quickly. This is not to say that they are hard or unpleasant to digest, but simply that these are not the kind of books you flick through to get the gist of what the author intends to convey.

Well, you could, if you chose to, speed-read the books, but I feel you would then miss a lot. It’s more pleasurable to savour the descriptions of people and places, to allow the writer’s words to form pictures, scenes and faces in your mind, and to listen to the sounds and sniff the smells in his reminiscences.

Awang Goneng (Wan A. Hulaimi’s non de plume) writes in the style of my parents, who would be in their seventies if they were still alive. The pace is leisurely, the sentences long and complex. Young writers don’t write this way. These days there is little patience for long, involved descriptions and musings, whether you’re an author or a reader.

Growing Up in Trengganu grew out of your blog Kecek-Kecek, whereas A Map of Trengganu contains, I believe, more content that was written especially for it. Would you describe the difference between the compiling of the two books?
I would say that both books grew out of Kecek-Kecek. It was Monsoon Books that initially asked me, after looking at the blogs, if there was a book there. I sat down and rewrote and organised the blog posts into parts and like-minded bits and pieces, and Monsoon found this brilliant designer in Dublin for the cover.

When I was compiling A Map of Trengganu, I thought I should write a few long pieces, especially for the book, to give my regular blog readers something fresh. I have rewritten most of the blogs that I have selected for the book.

The blogs were trials, ideas at first blush, and were put there by me and then left there to simmer for a while. I read somewhere that every writer should put his or her work aside for a while and then come back to it with a fresh look.

When you agreed to publish Growing Up in Trengganu (and now A Map of Trengganu), did you have an idea of what sort of reader it would attract? Have those expectations been met or otherwise? Can you relate any interesting encounters with individuals whom you were surprised to learn were readers of your books?
I didn’t know who, outside Trengganu or Terengganu as it is now, would have the slightest interest in Growing Up in Trengganu. But let’s go back earlier than that: who’d be interested in Kecek-Kecek the blog? I wrote them as letters to my children, and then I wrote them to amuse myself. A man in New York read the blog and I Googled his name and found that he was a very big name in World Music. It drew some of the most unlikely readers, from Latin America, from New York, and one of the earliest orders I had was from Moscow. Here in Malaysia many people from other states wrote in to say how accurately I had described life in their village. And a lawyer from New York used it as his travelling companion in Terengganu. And then there’s an English lady living in Besut who wrote to say that she never travelled without the book. And another English lady from the north of England sent me a copy of her life story, written, after many years of prevarication, she said, after she read it. I feel now like a small cog in the movement of a greater machine and I am humbled by that.

You have said that this will be your last book about Terengganu. Have you plans to write other books and if so, what might they be about?
Yes, the phrase I’ve used is Terengganu-fatigue on the part of my readers. So A Map of Trengganu is probably my last book on Terengganu. Writing is a bug that bites you once and you’re hooked. I love writing and I still marvel at the power of words, not mine, but other people’s, so I write to emulate. Have I other books in mind? Well, there’s always the itch.

Reading your books, I was most reminded of Gerald Durrell’s descriptions of his boyhood in Corfu. How differently do you think you see or remember Terengganu now than when you looked at it as a boy?
I am not familiar with Durrell’s works but growing up in a place you love is a magical experience. And I believe many people have written about places where they grew up. Terengganu—as it is now—still holds its magic for me but it also saddens me because people have this urge to build and develop without looking at the general aesthetics. I am not necessarily anti-development as some people have said but I believe that change should not make us forget. We should build around our heritage, not on its rubble. The past should be incorporated into our future and there’s a place for both if the change has been well thought out.

If the Terengganu of your boyhood still existed, do you think you would be tempted to return to live there?
No, I’m not clamouring to return to the Terengganu of my boyhood but I treasure the memory of those wonderful, innocent times. I know that things have to move on but we must move warily into the future because not everything that’s new is good. We don’t need high-rise towers in Terengganu for instance, and that’s my belief. A low-rise city is always, to me, more beautiful than New York. And a civic city with a thriving, living community will always be better than a conglomeration of shops.

Reading your books is the closest many of us will ever come to experiencing the dialect of Terengganu. Would you be able to write an entire book in the dialect? After all, Winnie the Pooh and Peter Rabbit (as well as other classics) have been published in Latin so why not a book in Terengganu dialect?
I have actually written a whole detective story in Terengganuspeak. My Terengganu Private Dick is called Mat Sprong and I have left him there among my blogs. Well, you’re quite right—the whole Bible has been rendered in Pidginspeak.

And finally, any advice for young writers?
I have done workshops for students at schools and universities. What I tell them is, “Look, I come from Terengganu where facilities were few and books were scarce. If I can do it, so can you.” How do you start? Well, just do it.

DAPHNE LEE is the editor of Malaysian Tales: Retold & Remixed (ZI Publications, 2011)

Reproduced from the July-September 2011 issue of Quill magazine


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