Monday, 27 July 2009

Readings@Seksan's, July 2009

Despite having a front-row seat at the latest Readings@Seksan's I was unable to take any still photographs. My digicam was doing videocam duty (and boy, does that drain the batteries), and I also did audio recordings - all with Sharon's permission.

Nope, they won't be published here. It's for a project which might be launched in another month's time, and I probably won't have the rights to publish them elsewhere. And to my chest-beating, hair-wrenching rage, my laptop, GIMP and Windows Media Player won't let me grab screenshots of the videos for pictures.

Which is why I haven't retired the desktop.

It was a hot afternoon at Lucky Garden, the kind of weather that the Meteorological Service says will persist until September, maybe. Rob Spence, a lecturer on English Literature from Manchester, UK stopped by the place. I think he was here for the The International Anthony Burgess Symposium. Pity I couldn't think of anything to ask him. I don't think I should blame the weather.

Amir Muhammad was there to sell New Malaysian Essays 2, the latest compilation of essays from Matahari Books. I informed him that his piece in that compilation will be appearing in a local publication in days - and apologised for the cuts that were made to it. All copies he had with him were apparently snapped up.

Jac SM Kee, one of three feminist activists in the line-up read bits from her contribution to Amir Muhammad's New Malaysian Essays 2, a story about tits and female ghosts and monsters. Former stewardess and beauty queen Yvonne Lee read a chapter of the perils of plastic surgery from her book Vanity Drive - proof of the tenacity of Michael Jackson's spectre.

I had to Google for the title of Dipika Mukherjee's book of poems, The Palimpsest of Exile, which she picked for that day. The word - one of many esoteric ones in her work - is a kind of oft-reused parchment (a piece of animal skin used as paper) which she compares herself to, a product of multiple education systems. I think we all need a bit more variety in our education.

Most of the laughs were supplied by Shamini Flint (nee Mahadevan), another feminist who wrote under a Western surname because it had the combination of "the exotic and the hard" (flint is a kind of stone) that she says sell crime novels.

The former lawyer who quit her job to be a mom - who then started writing to "escape her children" - found inspiration for her crime fiction from CNN, and comfort in Malaysian radio, where she learns that every day "traffic on the Penang Bridge is slow-moving - in both directions." And she does a great monologue - not bad for a feminist whose passions are "easily swayed by commercial interest."

Compared to the quirky and witty Ten (a story of a tomboyish football-crazy girl of ten), (deep breath) Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder was a bit staid in places, even though well-written and well-edited... I just know, okay? Trust me.

The laughs continued as she read from Ten. A reference to a granny with "teeth that sprouted from her gums like dirty brown mushrooms" drew hearty "hurhurhurs" from Peter Hassan Brown (the man sings and his voice carries a long way, no acoustics required). Though taken aback, Shamini wisely notes that punchlines may not be where you think they are. Those are the best kind, I say.

Paul Gnanaselvam's story of a man searching for char koay teow had a mellowing effect after the bellylaughs from Mrs Flint, and included a free recipe (big prawns, more fishcake slices, less oil, and line with banana leaf afterwards; cockles are optional).

There was some confusion in his name, which was shortened in the poster advertising the event. Fortunately I had a copy of Write Out Loud 3 - signed by several contributors - for reference; his contribution is a ghost story (see? more ghoulish references) called Doiiiiii! (six "i"s). Unfortunately, his name is even shorter in WOL3. Finally found his name spelled in full from the Body2Body event happening next month at Central Market's Annexe.

Amir Sharipuddin's notes on his national service (NS) stint, which he had to explain for Mr Spence's sake, was not so different from the notes of another notable NS graduate. The latter had to remove her posts on the subject, which was deemed too revealing by the folks.

Amir contributed his NS notes to New Malaysian Essays 2, which is laid out in the ruled pages of a notebook. I found him a bit too soft-spoken. Dude, speak up! The voice of the youth is loud and clear! Play the part!

Readings will be held after Hari Raya at the "new" Seksan's for one or two sessions before returning to the old place. What will it look like? September can't come soon enough... uh-oh.

I think I have a plane to catch on that date.


Sunday, 26 July 2009

It's Like She's Still Here

...Has it only been about a year?

Meeting Yasmin Ahmad was one of the serendipitous things that happened since I started working at the new job. Funnybunny and I were at Khadijah's Kitchen, for dinner I think. And as we left there she was, holding court with her husband and a few other people. Funnybunny met her before, while she was filming Talentime in Ipoh.

Then, sometime around November (I think) last year Funnybunny and I got a treat: a private screening of the then unreleased Talentime. I remember the cavernous office spaces at Leo Burnett. Before the screening there was breakfast. I remember lempeng (a kind of pancake), rice, egg sambal and the fiery sotong sambal, among a few other things. All were brought by her sister, who supposedly inspired the name of the main character in Sepet, and later Gubra. I loved the sambal - flavourful, and hot enough to put hair on your chest and set it alight. I lost count after helping number three.

I note with some embarrassment that Talentime was the only film of hers I had seen. There was not a dry eye in the screening room by the time the credits rolled. They'd bought the rights to a Tamil song from an Indian movie that didn't perform very well, and used it in the film - with good effect.

I've said way too much for someone who didn't know her well. There is no way I can tell a story like she does. But I know this would be a boring place to live in if all our voices fell silent.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

More History Here

This was a favour for two friends, but it took me more than three months before I finally penned it and sent it off. Last month, I was told that the author will be relocating to China. But for some reason or another the review didn't come out until today; I suppose the order of publishing was already determined some weeks back.

At least I kept my promise.

But it's strange that the word "history" has lots to do with some of the reviews I've written lately. I wouldn't call it coincidence.

Is this our history?

first published in The Star, 12 July 2009

Nostalgia. Every time life deals us a blow, we reach for it like child with a scraped knee running to his parents. Is that why we're seeing so many biographies on the shelves nowadays?

There's a different kind of nostalgia hovering over our heads right now, brought on by depressing news headlines greeting our mornings in the past several years – commentaries over our once shared past, now frayed for what seems to be political pantomimes for specific audiences.

Muhibbah, according to at least one old-timer, could be summed up by one name: P Ramlee. Who remembers the blindfolded Chinese tailor who was led by Ali Baba's faithful maid via a song-and-hop routine to perform the gruesome deed at her master's house? I'm not sure if anybody would be able to film that again in this day and age without some sort of outcry.

When did we stop being confident and comfortable with ourselves to the point where we cannot laugh along when others laugh at us?

Some people are trying to find the answers; others are content with revisiting those simple serene days, so far away now that it sounds like another place. The anthology Postcards From a Foreign Country is of the latter persuasion. The author, who goes by the single moniker "Yin", wrote these stories as a hobby, it seems, and was persuaded by a friend to publish them.

The book comprises 10 stories blurbed as sepia vignettes of a less complicated time and set in the 1950s and 1960s, although no dates are mentioned.

From the first few chapters it would seem that the past – or more precisely our past – should be seen as a country with closely-guarded borders. "The Langchia Man", one of Postcards' better stories is also the grittiest one, with the harsh and sometimes seedy lives of the rickshaw men of old laid bare for all to see.

In Postcards, the characters' mannerisms and prejudices appear to have been deliberately magnified, making them quite stereotypical, and I found myself thinking, "Wow, is this how things used to be?" Not to say that the author is being pedantic about the signs of our times but, looking closer, I found no heroes or villains.

Just people, sometimes at their best, but often at their worst. Sensitive minds should probably take comfort in the fact that this is fiction.

However, some parts in Postcards did take me aback – in a good way: Ho lan sui! Or "Holland water", that antique Cantonese term for soft drinks when one brand known as Fraser & Neave often came in re-used, not-so-new glass bottles. And how amusing it was to read about another kind of muhibbah – a bunch of punters, representing our major ethnic groups, divining for winning lottery numbers at a cemetery. I bet there are some of us who want to forget a time when we believed in ghosts and black magic.

The progression of stories in the beginning was okay but quickened towards the end, at the point where the last two stories began.

Still, the last piece is poignant in its brief hurried way, a subtle rebuke to those who try to sanitise history and erase the role of "outsiders" in the nation's history, even if their goals and means may have been less than ideal.

Often wistful, at times tongue-in-cheek, and sometimes discomforting, Postcards is like the grimy, scuffed F&N bottle of my childhood. But no amount of "Holland water" will bring back those good old days.

Postcards from a Foreign Country
Published by East West Publishing Pty Ltd
235 pages
ISBN: 978-0-9751646-5-5