Tuesday, July 31, 2007

What I Found at ... MPH Mid Valley, Kuala Lumpur

WHILE BROWSING at MPH MidValley, I chanced upon a wide selection of wonderful paperbacks and first-edition hardbacks amidst many jostling for my attention, but I only bought a couple:

1. One Good Turn (2006) / Kate Atkinson
2. The Saffron Kitchen (2006) / Yasmin Crowther
3. Middlesex (2002) / Jeffrey Eugenides
4. A Spot of Bother (2006) / Mark Haddon
5. The Lollipop Shoes (2007) / Joanne Harris
6. Lost Hearts in Italy (2006) / Andrea Lee
7. Hav [comprising Last Letters from Hav (1985) and Hav of the Myrmidons (2006)] (2006) / Jan Morris

1. The God Delusion (2006) / Richard Dawkins
2. The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History (2006) / Jonathan Franzen

1. Cataloochee (2007) / Wayne Caldwell
2. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007) / Michael Chabon
3. Lost Men (2007) / Brian Leung
4. South of the River (2007) / Blake Morrison
5. Divisadero (2007) / Michael Ondaatje

Monday, July 30, 2007

Magazines: Off The Edge & Tell

IN THE AUGUST 2007 issue of Tell magazine, there’s an interview with the desperate housewife of Klang, Lydia Teh, author of Honk! If You’re Malaysian (MPH Publishing, 2007), by Adam Lee. Lydia has done it again! (Of course, the July issue had featured Tunku Halim and his new collection of stories, 44 Cemetery Road.) There’s also an interview with poet-dancer Sharanya Manivannan by Michelle Gunaselan. (Lydia’s Honk! will also be featured in the August issues of Female, Marie Claire and Parenthood magazines. She and her daughter will also be on the cover of Parenthood magazine.)

In the August 2007 issue of Off The Edge magazine, possibly the best English-language magazine in Malaysia right now, check out Jason Tan’s and Ingrid Leong’s exclusive interviews with Dato’ Hamid/Kam Raslan, author of Confessions of an Old Boy (Marshall Cavendish, 2007). And guess what? He’s on the cover of the magazine as well! Janet Tay also makes her literary début with her short story, “Transience.” Well done, Janet! Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns (Riverhead Books, 2007) is reviewed by Yasmin Yaacob. And a dose of humour from Amir Muhammad. (His book, Politicians Say the Darndest Things, is due out in September and is being serialised in Off The Edge, beginning in the August issue.) As always, there’s Farish A. Noor, Hishamuddin Rais and Patrick Teoh doing what they do best. I always enjoy reading Farish’s travel pieces and there is one in this issue: his travels in Istanbul, Turkey.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Breakfast with ... Tinling CHOONG & Kam RASLAN

BELONGING TO NEITHER HERE NOR THERE. That was the common thread that bound both Tinling Choong’s and Kam Raslan’s talk at the 6th MPH Breakfast Club with LitBloggers on Saturday, July 28, 2007, which saw a tremendous turnout, thanks to people who care about literature and the writing and reading of it.

Being far from the centre of things, of not quite belonging to this or that, of living between cultures, of “multirootedness” and multi-hyphenates, these are the feelings that drive Tinling Choong’s writing in FireWife (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2007), her first novel, an “erotic phantasmagoria” that transcends boundaries. Having her first novel published was a dream-come-true for Tinling. “I got really lucky. The sun, the moon, everything somehow aligned!” She is now hard at work on her second novel, Yuyu and the Banyan Tree, which is due to be published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday in 2009.

Kam Raslan also writes from the outside looking in. “You can be Malay and Muslim and still be outside the centre,” he says. Sometimes you need this sense of not-belonging to be able to write objectively. He found writing Confessions of an Old Boy (Marshall Cavendish, 2007) exhilarating, especially the process of creating “a world that’s bigger than the one you live in.”

Saturday, July 28, 2007


CHECK OUT Johan Jaaffar’s take on the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows issue in the New Straits Times of July 28, 2007.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Tunku Halim ... Gravedigger's Kiss (2007)

HOT ON THE HEELS of Tunku Halim’s last collection of stories, 44 Cemetery Road (MPH Publishing, April 2007), I am also working on another collection of stories by the Malaysian Prince of Darkness. We have decided to call it Gravedigger’s Kiss: More of Tunku Halim (MPH Publishing, October 2007). Halim has specially written four brand-new stories for this collection of new and selected stories: “Gravedigger’s Kiss,” “Black Death,” “Hawker Man” and “Blue Glass.” Look out for the collection when it makes its appearance sometime in October 2007.

Tunku Halim is also working on a novella called Juriah’s Song slated for publication in early 2008.

MPH Publishing is also planning to reissue his two novels in brand-new editions: Vermillion Eye (to be retitled Vermilion Eye) (MPH Publishing, 2008) and Dark Demon Rising (MPH Publishing, 2008).

Tunku Halim will be making an appearance at the MPH Breakfast Club for LitBloggers on Saturday, January 26, 2008.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

MPH Breakfast Club for LitBloggers 6


THE 6th MPH Breakfast Club for LitBloggers on Saturday, July 28, 2007, will feature Tinling Choong, whose début novel, FireWife, was published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday on January 23, 2007. Born and bred in Penang, Malaysia, Tinling is working towards her Ph.D. in East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale University. “FireWife,” according to Tinling, “is a story of plight and hope, escape and desire, offering vignettes in the lives of eight Asian women: a photographer, six women she photographs, and a girl travelling in between lives.” In January 2007, FireWife was nominated for the Henry Miller Award for the best literary sex scene published in the English language. And yes, she is a blogger.

Also featured is Kam Raslan who has written his first novel, Confessions of an Old Boy: The Dato’ Hamid Adventures (Marshall Cavendish, 2007). All except one of the Dato’ Hamid adventures collected here were first serialised in Off the Edge magazine. Kam Raslan is a writer and director, working in film, television and theatre in Malaysia. A columnist with The Edge weekly and Off the Edge, he hopes to make a feature film of his own one of these days. He shares a collection of essays with Amir Muhammad and Sheryll Stothard in Generation: A Collection of Contemporary Malaysian Ideas (Hikayat Press, 1998).

Tinling Choong and Kam Raslan will be introduced by Eric Forbes. Kenny Mah will be facilitating the session.

Date July 28, 2007 (Saturday)
Time 11.00a.m.-12.30p.m.
Venue MPH Bangsar Village II, Lot 2F-1 (2nd Floor), Bangsar Village II, No. 2, Jalan Telawi 1, Bangsar Baru, 59100 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Tel: 603-2287 3600

Food and refreshments will be served
All lovers of literature are most welcome


Tinling Choong will also be doing a reading at Seksan’s.

Date July 28, 2007 (Saturday)
Time 3.30p.m.
Venue Seksan’s, No. 67 Jalan Tempinis Satu, Lucky Garden, Bangsar, 59100 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Readings at Seksan’s is organised by Sharon Bakar, where lovers of all things literary congregate and do readings once a month. Tinling Choong will be appearing with other writers, reading excerpts from their writings, both published and works-in-progress. Jit Murad and Alina Rastam will also be reading. Alina has just released her first collection of poems, Diver & Other Poems (Cricket Communications, 2007). You might like to get your copies of FireWife signed, too.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

2007 Man Asian Literary Prize Longlist

THE FIRST Man Asian Literary Prize longlist was announced on Friday, July 20, 2007. Writers from India dominate the 23-title longlist with 11 titles. The Man Asian Literary Prize is sponsored by the Man Group, the same company that sponsors Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize for Fiction. Asian novels not yet published in English are eligible for this prize. I am familiar with the work of a couple of writers: Xiaolu Guo, Hitomi Kanehara, Mo Yan and Xu Xi.

1. The Living God / Tulsi Badrinath
2. The Sound of Water / Sanjay Bahadur
3. Cappuccino Dusk / Kankana Basu
4. Injustice / Sanjiv Bhatla
5. Without Dreams / Shahbano Bilgrami
6. The Amnesiac / Saikat Chakraborty
7. Soledad’s Sister / Jose Dalisay, Jr.
8. Families at Home / Reeti Gadekar
9. 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth / Xiaolu Guo
10. A Moon in the Water / Ameena Hussein
11. Smile As They Bow / Nu Nu Yi Inwa
12. Wolf Totem / Jiang Rong
13. Autofiction / Hitomi Kanehara
14. Litanies of Dutch Battery / N.S. Madhavan
15. The Little God / Laxmi Narayan Mishra
16. Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out / Mo Yan
17. The Pangolin’s Tale / Nalini Rajan
18. Little Hut of Leaping Fishes / Chiew-Siah Tei
19. Maria’s Room / Shreekumar Varma
20. Seeing the Girl / Anuradha Vijayakrishnan
21. Pichaikuppan / Sujatha Vijayaraghavan
22. Habit of a Foreign Sky / Xu Xi
23. Fleeting Light / Egoyan Zheng

On October 25, 2007, a shortlist of five writers will be announced. The winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize will be awarded in November 2007

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Harry Potter and the Evil Price War: Latest Development

HERE’S THE LATEST DEVELOPMENT in the continuing saga of Harry Potter and the Evil Price War in Malaysia. The four Malaysian bookstore chains have released a joint statement on Monday, July 23, 2007:

“MPH, Times, Popular and Harris bookstores are happy to have reached an agreed solution with Penguin Books Malaysia and Singapore with regard to the sale of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and will resume sale of the said book at the recommended retail price of RM109.90 fixed by Penguin Books Malaysia and Singapore with immediate effect. As a gesture of goodwill to customers, all four bookstore chains have decided to accord customers with the following offer for the purchase of said title: (i) 20% discount for all customers with any other purchase; or (ii) 25% discount for members of loyalty cards. For loyal customers with pre-orders, please refer to the respective bookstores for more details.’’

Monday, July 23, 2007


THIS 32-PAGE, fully illustrated book by Penang-based journalist Choong Kwee Kim (MPH Publishing, August 2007) tells the rags-to-riches tale of a poor, wily rickshaw puller by the name of Ah Fu, who sails from China to Malaya to seek his fortune in late 19th-century colonial Penang. Narrated by a girl named Siti the Storyteller, the story, in rhyming couplets, tells of how Ah Fu finds not just fame and fortune in the new country, but is also hailed as “King of the Road.” Kwee Kim’s illustrations are simply sumptous and rich, a feast for your senses.

Heartiest congratulations, Kwee Kim, on your first book.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

2007 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Prize Shortlist

Who are the six writers shortlisted for the 2007 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize?

AUTHORS from five countries, including two from the U.S., have been shortlisted for this year’s Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize. The shortlist for was announced on Saturday, July 21, 2007, and the award will be presented at the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Festival in Cork, Ireland, on September 24, 2007. In 2005, Yiyun Li received the inaugural prize for her début collection of short stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (2005). In 2006, the prize went to Haruki Murakami’s Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (2006). So, who will clinch the prize in 2007?

1. Opportunity (Random House, New Zealand) / Charlotte Grimshaw (New Zealand)
2. No One Belongs Here More Than You (Canongate, U.K.) / Miranda July (U.S.)
3. Missing Kissinger (Chatto & Windus, 2007) / Etgar Keret (Israel) (trans. from the Hebrew by Miriam Schlesinger and Sondra Silverston)
4. The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, U.S.) / Manuel Muñoz (U.S.)
5. Valentines (Pantheon Books, U.S.) / Olaf Olafsson (Iceland)
6. The Separate Heart and Other Stories (Jonathan Cape, U.K.) / Simon Robson (U.K.)

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Harry Potter and the Almost-Half-Price Deal

THERE IS SOMETHING EVIL THIS WAY COMES. We know that money makes the world go round and all that, but there are such important things as ethics and integrity in the conduct of business. Tesco’s and Carrefour’s strategy of making the new Harry Potter—Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—a loss leader smacks of unethical business practice and a perfect example of the supermarket industry infringing on the book industry’s territory.

Malaysia’s major bookstore chains—MPH, Times, Popular and Harris—held a press conference on Friday, July 20, 2007, and in a statement of solidarity said that they would not be selling the seventh and final instalment in the hugely successful series by J.K. Rowling in protest against the two hypermarkets which would be selling the novel at a much cheaper price. These major bookstore chains have invested lots of money on advertising and promoting the novel since the beginning of the year.

Hypermarkets should just stick to their baked beans, ground coffee, prune juice, anchovies, chicken, milk and other stuff and leave books to the bookstore chains.

So, Harry, what’s the twist in the tale in all these strange goings-on in the world of the Muggles?

Here’s the latest development in the continuing saga of Harry Potter and the Evil Price War in Malaysia. The four Malaysian bookstore chains released a joint statement on Monday, July 23, 2007 detailing the following:

“MPH, Times, Popular and Harris bookstores are happy to have reached an agreed solution with Penguin Books Malaysia and Singapore with regard to the sale of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and will resume sale of the said book at the recommended retail price of RM109.90 fixed by Penguin Books Malaysia and Singapore with immediate effect. As a gesture of goodwill to customers, all four bookstore chains have decided to accord customers with the following offer for the purchase of said title: (i) 20% discount for all customers with any other purchase; or (ii) 25% discount for members of loyalty cards. For loyal customers with pre-orders, please refer to the respective bookstores for more details.’’

Friday, July 20, 2007

Urban Odysseys: KL Stories

Call for Submissions

MPH GROUP PUBLISHING is pleased to announce an open call for submissions of short fiction and creative non-fiction for an anthology tentatively entitled Urban Odysseys: KL Stories. We aim to publish the anthology in 2008, depending on the number of submissions that we receive.

The theme of the anthology will focus on life in the city, specifically Kuala Lumpur, with writings that show images of the new juxtaposed against the old, urban living with contrasting bright lights and shadowy realities and other short fiction or creative non-fiction which best encapsulate the spirit of the national capital. This is not a travel book but an anthology of literary writings about the city.

Stories must be original, between 3,000 and 5,000 words, and must not have been previously published. We invite submissions from both emerging and established writers. Stories for children are not eligible for this compilation. Manuscripts must be edited, typed double-spaced with 12pt font and e-mailed to mphpublishing@mph.com.my. Please include your name, address, telephone number and e-mail address. You may submit as many pieces as you wish. Faxed or handwritten submissions will not be entertained and manuscripts will not be returned. We will contact you only if your piece has been selected for inclusion in the compilation. Writers whose submissions are selected will be expected to work with the editors to fine tune their stories.

Deadline: 30 November 2007
Payment: A small flat fee and two copies of the anthology

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Janet TAY reviews ... Half of a Yellow Sun (2006)

Compelling tale of war
Reproduced from a review in The Sunday Star, June 17, 2007

Half of a Yellow Sun
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
(Harper Perennial, 433pp)

“WE NEVER ACTIVELY remember death,’’ Odenigbo, one of the book’s main characters, says. “The reason we live as we do is because we do not remember that we will die. We will all die.’’

Starvation. Genocide. Pregnant women who have their bellies cut open and young Igbo men shot at point-blank range. A running headless body, unaware that its head has been blown off in an air raid.

This is a tale of a country torn in two by an attempted secession of the predominantly south-eastern Christian Igbo provinces of Nigeria as the self-proclaimed Republic of Biafra (this conflict became known as the Biafran War or the Nigerian Civil War, 1967-1970). Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie brings this piece of harrowing history to life and ensures that the memories of a war that most would rather forget are planted firmly in the minds of those who know about it, and more importantly, those who do not.

Before the horrifying images of war, there is another collage—an opulent household, love and lust between men and women, loneliness amidst material comforts, lost family ties, interracial relationships and expatriate condescension.

The banal and ordinary dwells like a weed amidst the calamity that can change a person, a family, a nation—a civil war that turned poets into soldiers, boys into rapists and friendship into religious hatred. A war where priests exchange food for sex with starving girls, where its survivors feel guilty for being alive when their families have been massacred.

When Nigeria obtained its independence from the British in 1960, it had a population of 60 million people of nearly 300 different ethnic and tribal groups, not to mention the invisible boundaries between the three main ethnic groups; the primarily Muslim Hausa in the north, the Yoruba in the half-Christian, half-Muslim south-west and the Christian Igbo in the south-east. The well-educated Igbo people, in particular, were considered to have benefited most from the political situation in the 1960s, resulting in serious economic, ethnic and religious tensions between the various peoples in Nigeria which ultimately led to the Biafran War.

Adichie chronicles the events leading to the civil war in narratives by Ugwu, an Igbo houseboy, Olanna, an academic from a wealthy Igbo family and Richard, an English journalist writing a book about Africa who falls in love with Olanna’s twin, Kainene.

These three lives intertwine in consecutive chapters, starting off with Ugwu meeting his Master, the “revolutionary’’ Odenigbo. Olanna moves in with Odenigbo but refuses to marry him; Ugwu vacillates his affection between Olanna and Odegnibo; Odegnibo’s mother disapproves of Olanna, causing her to worry about the transience of happiness—a fear which is clearly not unfounded as the tolls of war unfold.

The novel is divided into four parts, but has two epochs—the early 1960s and the late 1960s. Adichie does an excellent job of interplaying the two periods of time with each other instead of the more conventional chronologically-placed events. The result is well-paced emotional disquiet and a heaviness of heart that never really leaves the reader even after the last page is thumbed.

The problems that come with war and violence sit side by side with problems that come with sex, relationships, family and friendship. Political betrayal runs parallel with betrayal in love. It is a time when trust is the next most important commodity to food, when everyone is a potential saboteur, and thunder becomes misunderstood as the sound of air raids.

Adichie paints a portrait of war that is real and touches home: Readers who have never experienced war may never be able to empathise with those who have, but her skilful depictions of food rationing, soap-making and running from air raids enables them to imagine the horrors of war and death much more succinctly than pictures on the news.

Adichie’s brilliant storytelling in Half of a Yellow Sun recently bagged her the 2007 Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction. However, the 29-year-old Nigerian has won several awards for this book prior to this, including the 2007 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and the 2007 PEN “Beyond Margins’’ Award. She was also shortlisted for the 2007 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book (Africa).

During an interview in the Emerging Writers Forum in 2004, Adichie took issue with reviewers who reassured readers that a book about Africa (especially one written by a Black African about Black Africans) has universal appeal, whereas an American or British book needs no such reassurance.

There is no doubt that her tale of people who fight to survive will leave a lasting impression on anyone who picks up Half of a Yellow Sun, and Adichie could well answer those reviewers by borrowing a line from her book: “There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things forgivable.’’

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Excerpt ... The Book of Heaven (2008)

“THE WORLD WAS CREATED WITH A KNIFE AND A PRAYER. The knife you can see well, especially in the late summer nights. Look up after dark; you will see its green jade hilt, the sickle of brilliants that forms the curve of the scimitar’s blade, and the field of red stars sprayed around it, the drops of blood. It forms the topmost section of the constellation called the Murder, though decrees have been issued, as yet with no success, to change its name by compulsion to the Sacrifice. Nevertheless, the true name of this group of stars is the Murder, and there the knife quivers unmistakably at night, lodged where it was flung back into the heart of heaven. Whatever human beings would suppress or refuse to see, the heavens record their true acts and their true dreams in the ineradicable testament of stars.” Patricia Storace, in The Book of Heaven (Pantheon, 2007)

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Richard RUSSO ... Bridge of Sighs (2007)

IT HAS BEEN some six years since Richard Russo published his portrait of small-town life, Empire Falls (2001), winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Of course, there was his first collection of stories, The Whore’s Child and Other Stories (2002), which I thoroughly enjoyed reading when it first came out. His new novel, Bridge of Sighs (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), will be hitting the bookstore shelves on September 25, 2007, proving once again that Russo is surely one of the best novelists around. He sets his stories in depressing, miserable small towns and the people who people that landscape: the decaying upper class, angsty youths, out-of-work mill and textile workers, small-time crooks, etc. Nobody captures the rhythms and cadences of small-town and working-class America like Russo.

RUSSO Richard [1949-] Novelist, short-story writer. Born in Johnstown, New York, U.S. Novels Bridge of Sighs (2007); Empire Falls (2001: winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction); Straight Man (1997); Nobody’s Fool (1993); The Risk Pool (1988); Mohawk (1986) Stories The Whore’s Child and Other Stories (2002)

Empire Falls (2001)
The Risk Pool (1988)

Monday, July 16, 2007

2007 Forward Poetry Prizes

JOHN BURNSIDE has been shortlisted for the 2007 Forward Poetry Prize for his new collection of poems, Gift Songs (2007). Eavan Boland, Sean O’Brien and Adam Thorpe are on the shortlist as well. Daljit Nagra has been shortlisted for his first collection of poems, Look We Have Coming to Dover! (2007).

Best Collection
1. Domestic Violence (Carcanet, 2007) / Eavan Boland
2. Gift Songs (Jonathan Cape, 2007) / John Burnside
3. The Drowned Book (Picador, 2007) / Sean O’Brien
4. Birds with a Broken Wing (Jonathan Cape, 2007) / Adam Thorpe
5. The Harbour Beyond the Movie (Salt Publishing, 2007) / Luke Kennard
6. Beasts of Nalunga (Bloodaxe, 2007) / Jack Mapanje

Best First Collection
1. Twenty Four Preludes and Fugues on Dimitri Shostakovich (Arc Publications, 2007) / Joanna Boulter
2. Galatea (Salt Publishing, 2007) / Melanie Challenger
3. Look We Have Coming to Dover! (Faber and Faber, 2007) / Daljit Nagra
4. Andraste’s Hair (Salt Publishing, 2007) / Eleanor Rees

Best Single Poem
1. “The Hut in Question” / David Harsent (Poetry Review)
2. “Thursday” / Lorraine Mariner (The Rialto)
3. “Dunt” / Alice Oswald (Poetry London)
4. “The Day I Knew I Wouldn’t Live Forever” / Carole Satyamurti (The Interpreter’s House)
5. “Goulash” / Myra Schneider (The North)
6. “The Birkdale Nightingale” / Jean Sprackland (Poetry Review)

Thursday, July 12, 2007

A Bond for the Noughties

SEBASTIAN FAULKS, the best-selling British author of Charlotte Gray (1998) and Birdsong (1993), has been commissioned by the Ian Fleming estate to bring his alter ego James Bond back to life in a new novel set in 1967 during the Cold War. The new James Bond novel, Devil May Care, will make its appearance on May 28, 2008, the centenary of creator Ian Fleming’s birth. Devil May Care will be published by Penguin UK.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

What I Found at ... Kinokuniya

1. The Whole World Over (2006) / Julia Glass
2. Pearl (2005) / Mary Gordon
3. The Transit of Venus (1980) / Shirley Hazzard
4. Carry Me Down (2006) / M.J. Hyland
5. How the Light Gets In (2004) / M.J. Hyland
6. David Golder (2007) / Irène Némirovsky [trans. from the French, David Golder (1929), by Sandra Smith]
7. In the Wake (trans. from the Norwegian by Anne Born) (2003) / Per Petterson

The Pomegranates of Kandahar (2007) / Sarah Maguire

1. God is Not Great: The Case Against Religion (2007) / Christopher Hitchens
2. Ghost Train Through the Andes: On My Grandfather’s Trail in Chile and Bolivia (2006) / Michael Jacobs
3. Shadow of the Silk Road (2006) / Colin Thubron

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Excerpt ... Be Near Me

“My mother took an hour out of her romances to cast some light on the surface of things. I was just back from Rome and we stood together on the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle, watching the sky go black above a warship anchored in the Firth of Forth. Picture that time of day in the old city when the shop windows stand out and the streets of the New Town begin to glow with moral sentiment. She took my arm and we rested like passengers bound for distant lives, warm in our coats and weak in our hearts, the rain falling down on the stone.” Andrew O’Hagan, in Be Near Me

Monday, July 09, 2007

Colin THUBRON ... Shadow of the Silk Road (2006)

Why travel?
“You go to touch on human identities, to people an empty map. You have a notion that this is the world’s heart. You go to encounter the protean shapes of faith. You go because you are still young and crave excitement, the crunch of your boots in the dust; you go because you are old and need to understand something before it’s too late.” Colin Thubron, in Shadow of the Silk Road (2006)

Sunday, July 08, 2007


Reproduced from The Sunday Star, July 8, 2007

What Malaysia needs now

This collection of writings from the 1970s has a particular relevance to life in Malaysia today.

By Adibah Amin
(MPH Publishing, 368pp)

IF THERE IS SOMEONE Malaysians could look to as a role model, it would have to be Adibah Amin. As a writer, she is truly accomplished. And through her writing, she comes across as an open-minded, cosmopolitan, all-embracing person who sees the virtues and positives in people and things, and does not discriminate against what she is unsure of or is seemingly alien to her.

These qualities are clearly demonstrated in her newly republished volumes As I Was Passing and As I Was Passing II.

Culled from the column she wrote in the New Straits Times in the 1970s under the pen-name Sri Delima, these pieces have generally weathered well and still make a good read. Time has not dated her style nor the contents of her column. What’s more, there is nary a harsh word in them.

This avoidance of harshness is part and parcel of Adibah’s personality. I know this because I was a colleague of hers at the paper and observed the way she conducted herself. She exudes a natural ease and grace in her relations with people, and this is reflected in her writing.

From the two volumes, one can gather that she is solidly rooted in her own culture, and that being so, derives the confidence to explore and even enter into other cultures without fear of losing her identity. All those petty-minded chauvinists who constantly warn against cultural pollution would be wasting their diatribes on her.

The first three sections of Volume 1 immediately set the cultural milieu she lives in. Her love of her own Malay culture is clearly and lovingly expressed. She describes her fascination for ghazal, Quran reading, bangsawan, dondang sayang and so on.

On Malaysian humour, she writes:

“... our public today must be a lot more sensitive than that of past generations. The humorous Malay folktales, told orally by the village Penglipur Lara to generations of kampong people, contain some strong satire.

“They ridicule not only common
kampong types but also traditionally revered people—kings, ministers, religious officials.”

In 2007, about 30-odd years since the above was written, you could say Malaysians have become even more sensitive. The number of taboo subjects has certainly increased. And there are sacred cows that cannot be criticised—even the slightest bit.

There is also reluctance by some quarters to open up and accept pluralism in our society. Remember the e-mail that went around last year telling Muslims not to greet non-Muslims on the occasion of their festivals? And yet, as early as three decades ago, Adibah was writing lines like these:

“Deepavali has for me all the mystique of tales from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.... It is part of a rich, ancient culture that has through the ages infinitely enriched mine. It belongs to a people who have become my people and are part of my present and future as they were part of my past.”

I feel the warmth in my heart when I read these words and the humanism inherent in them. Adibah celebrates Hari Raya, which she writes about in the book, but she also celebrates Deepavali and Christmas and Chinese New Year.

Recalling her childhood experience of Christmas, she writes of following her Eurasian neighbours into their house and singing Christmas songs “until the cocks began to crow”.

“It was heaven. To this day my idea of Christmas is sitting up till dawn singing song after song and stopping only to munch tapioca crisps and sip home-made pineapple juice.”

These days, some people might consider that culturally haram.

She writes, too, of Yin, her close Chinese friend, and how “wonderful it is to walk into Yin’s house on Chinese New Year Day ... and be warmly welcomed by the whole family”. She feels very much at home sitting among Yin’s multi-racial visitors, munching peanuts and melon seeds and “love letters” and adding “my noise to the merry din”.

“Perhaps you too have a Yin of your own—someone of another race with whom race becomes irrelevant, someone whose very existence makes nonsense of all race-based arguments. If you do, you will understand why I feel as I feel about many things.

“... I smile to think how far I have travelled from those childhood days when I sat by a drain and exchanged insults with Chinese schoolboys....

“In those days the Chinese held for me the fascination of an alien people. Their ways, I gathered, were very different from those of my people and were therefore necessarily wrong....

“I wonder what eventually shook my own conviction of my people’s monopoly to rightness? Was it reading, or thinking, or mixing? Or perhaps it was all three.

“But I know what shook my notion of my people’s monopoly to goodness. It was getting close to people from another race, culminating in Yin.”

I’ve let Adibah’s own words do the talking extensively here because she and her writing are so relevant to the present, so essential in these times when we find ourselves confronted with issues and sentiments in the public sphere that threaten to rend the fabric that holds our multi-racial, multi-religious society together.

What Malaysia needs now is not another bridge, another towering building, Malaysia needs more people like Adibah Amin.

More people should read the articles in these two volumes and take what she writes to heart.

There is certainly much more in them than I’ve described. Like comparisons between city life and kampung life; men-women relations; the joys and tribulations of youth; changing trends and fashions; reflections on people and places; the quirks of language; “dating, mating and the borrowed blouse”—all imbued with a bountiful sense of fun and humour.

You should get hold of both volumes and experience for yourself how Adibah celebrates Life, with a capital “L”, in its various shades and colours and totally without prejudice. That is undoubtedly a ray of sunshine in this cloudy climate of life-negating taboos.