Sunday, March 23, 2008

Sharon BAKAR reviews ... Growing Up in Trengganu (2007)

Sip slowly to relish

A blogger who shifted from the screen to the printed page offers a very personal book that it is also a cultural record of a time and place greatly changed

By Awang Goneng
(Monsoon Books, 336pp)
ISBN 978-981-0586-92-8

THERE is a delicious irony about the fact that a book as distilled from memory and marinated in the rich spice of nostalgia as Awang Goneng’s Growing Up in Trengganu actually owes its existence to the electronic media. For this is one of Malaysia’s first “blooks” (as books based on blogs or websites are known).

Awang Goneng is actually the nickname of London-based veteran journalist Wan Ahmad Hulaimi who began his Kecek-Kecek (which means “just chatting” in the Terengganu dialect of Malay) blog as a way of recording what his childhood was like for his children who have grown up in Britain.

The blog (which can still be read online at would probably have remained online had it not been for proactive publisher Philip Tatham of Singapore-based Monsoon Books who contacted Wan Ahmad and asked him whether he thought there was a book there.

While the material has been re-edited and reorganised for print, the book retains many of the characteristics of the blog, and I’d say is enhanced by this, rather than otherwise.

Just as the online reader drops by a blog casually and may read posts out of sequence, the reader of this book can dip into it at any point since each short piece is self-contained and satisfying, often flowing in stream-of-consciousness style from a thought or a photograph.

This is not a book to be hurried through, but rather sipped slowly and relished.

Interaction with readers plays a very important part in shaping a blog, and Pak Awang (for so I shall call him) soon acquired a following of readers whom he credits with filling in gaps in his own recollection.

Not that he seems to have too many of those, for although he protests at one point that, “The light of the present has limited recall when you open the door slightly to the dark back room of your past,” what amazes the reader is the detail in which he is able to render each scene, bringing vividly alive the sights, scents and tastes of his childhood.

Whether he’s describing listening to storyteller by lamplight, talking about how the people of Terengganu coped with the monsoon season, letting us in on the secrets of making the infamous anchovy sauce budu, ruminating on the role of chickens in kampung society, or describing a family Hari Raya celebration, Pak Awang proves himself an erudite and gently humorous companion, weaving personal recollection into the rich tapestry of everyday life of Terengganu of the period.

It is, though, the recollections of ordinary people, shopkeepers, hawkers, kampung folk, imams and teachers—each of them described with respect and love, none of them too humble to be noticed—that most strikes a chord.

Another of the great delights of the book is the insights it gives into “Terengganu-speak,” a dialect (which I’ve always found impenetrable and mysterious) that has a word for everything, for, “There are as many ways to speak as there are chairs for cats to scratch,” as Pak Awang says.

While Growing Up in Trengganu is a book that is intensely personal, it is also a stunning cultural record of a time and place greatly changed, and not necessarily improved, by “progress.” The crowds flocking to the launch of the book in Kuala Terengganu and to author events in Kuala Lumpur earlier in the year have clearly taken the book and its author to their hearts.

Since its publication late last year, the book is now almost through its third reprint and the publisher, Monsoon Books, except to order a fourth soon. That’s not bad going for a writer who hadn’t even thought about making a book from his blog!

Review first published in The Sunday Star, March 23, 2008


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