Friday, 6 May 2011

Once More, Reading Readings

I don't know if there's a need to post this again, as there isn't much difference between the original post and the final published version, but this blog is supposed to be a showcase of most of my published stuff, so here it is.

Besides, it includes a review for the book, which should've been published as an Amazon customer review - if the conditions for publishing one weren't so tight. Among all locally published books, this probably ranks amongst the country's most publicised publications.

Note: The official response to this article has been received and will be published in the upcoming issue of Quill. With that, I hope the issue(s) arising from my article will be put to rest.

I have since disabled comments for this post. One comment has been removed, as requested by its author. My thanks to all commenters for their input, which I shall take into consideration.

Reading Readings
From the launch of a collection of "new Malaysian writing", it seems the Malaysian literary cauldron is, finally, starting to boil. But is the recipe complete? What else needs to go in? ALAN WONG looks into the pages of this collection and ponders those questions, and more

First published in the Apr-Jun 2011 issue of MPH Quill

The Black Box at MAP@Publika, Solaris Dutamas was the scene for the launch of Readings from Readings, a compilation of selected works that were read at live literary events Readings@Seksan's and CeritAku@No Black Tie. The 25 February launch was part of the LiFest at MAP@Publika. Part of the proceeds from whatever sales made during LiFest went to Yayasan Orang Kurang Upaya Kelantan (Kelantan Foundation for the Disabled or YOKUK).

Copies of Readings from Readings for sale at the launch

Multitalented poet, writer, and lecturer Bernice Chauly founded Readings, which creative writing teacher Sharon Bakar said began at the Darling Muse Art Gallery about six years ago. Readings eventually moved house to Seksan's and has remained there since. When Bernice could no longer manage the monthly event, it was bequeathed to Sharon, who continues to manage it today. Bernice went on to start CeritAku in 2008.

About 400 new, aspiring and established Malaysian, Singaporean and expatriate writers, poets, and performers have been hosted by Readings and CeritAku combined. From the number of works that have been read thus far, it is hoped that the compilation will be the first of several volumes coming out from these two events.

Lots of books, and those who write them
The crowd was starting to trickle in when I went to MAP@Publika after dinner. It seemed as though everybody was there that night. Jeremy Chin is still hawking his first novel, Fuel. Haslinda Usman had her very own table for her late father's books. Saras Manickam had a copy of Unimagined autographed by its author, Imran Ahmad. Damyanti Ghosh bought a copy of Readings from Readings, and contributor Leon Wing signed his piece in the book.

Buonasera, Mr Brian Gomez! Welcome back from Italy. And why does Amir Muhammad always seem to be selling books lately? Jordan Macvay was by himself that night. Not only was the traffic bad, he couldn't locate Publika. Many of those I spoke to would express similar sentiments. And who can possibly miss Karl Hutchinson? The man can pick himself out of a crowd.

Traditional Malay folk ensemble Dewangga Sakti opened the event with a few numbers followed by the obligatory ribbon-cutting by Bernice and Sharon. Then, selected readers took the stage to read from their pieces in the book. I did not stay for the serving of Panda Head Curry (the politically incorrect band) scheduled afterwards, as it was late.

"...not one or the other..."
"Malaysian writing is not one or the other; it is one and the other."

Well spoken, Bernice. Looking around the multiracial, multinational throng at Publika that night, it’s hard to disagree. However, if this bunch, with so many of the same old faces is considered representative of the Malaysian literary circle and its supporters, then I worry for its future.

The organisers want literary events such as Readings to be inclusive and welcoming, but by design or sheer coincidence, the opposite happens. First, the choice of venues. Places such as Seksan’s and Publika can be hard to find, even with Google Maps. Second, the recurring appearance of "the same old faces". Increased participation by less mainstream writers, poets, and musicians seems to have changed little. Many attendees, who tend to know each other, end up forming little solar systems whose dynamics tend to shut out newcomers or guests. This enforces the impression of the Readings crowd as an impenetrable, tight-knit clique that is hard to enter or get close to.

Editors Sharon Bakar (left) and Bernice Chauly officially launch the book

A writer I know has refused numerous invitations to literary events. "I just feel out of place," was the explanation. Pressed for a more details, she finally said, "Whatever they may aspire to be, the plain fact is Readings invariably attracts the same old names. It's a literati's Ivy League. How do you encourage growth and participation when newcomers feel judged not long after they step through the door? That can’t be healthy."

I suspect it has a lot to do with the encounters she had with "award-winning" authors at a previous Readings session. One dragged an e-mail interview over several weeks for no apparent reason. Another author she’d written so glowingly about wrote lifestyle off as "the easy beat". "Do they even know what’s involved in lifestyle writing? Or, for that matter, ads and corporate writing?" she’d huffed.

What about the aspiring writers? Students of creative writing programmes or English language courses, for instance, can benefit from such live literary events – but do they attend them? From the volume of Internet comments, blogs and letters to newspapers, Malaysians can be considered a vocal bunch. So why does it seem so hard to find smashingly good writers in such a huge pool of voices? Where Readings is concerned, doors are opened, and Facebook announcements posted. Why the difficulty in finding contributors and audiences?

A possible factor, I think, is our socio-political climate. Our society in general doesn’t regard literature or the arts as a means to a prosperous future, and the school of thought that dismisses such pursuits as "highbrow" still persists. And we know how the powers-that-be feel about vocal people. Don’t these walls separate us into "the ones" and "the others": those who are writing, and those who wish to write? How can we unearth more new talent under such conditions?

Writing is more than grammar, ethics, e-books vs dead trees, and Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, and more than Booker longlists, shortlists and prizes, and a plug by The New York Times. It’s not enough to simply throw open doors and arms, and plant signboards that point the way. You need more accessible doorways (Google Maps not required), and hearts must be open as well. We need to make the newcomers welcome and help them mature and improve without inadvertently cutting them down to size or leaving them out of the big picture.

Writers are human. Sometimes, people forget. Sometimes, writers forget, too.

Readings from Readings is a selection of mostly short stories and poems from six years of Readings at two of Malaysia’s live literary events. This collection is supposed to best represent the pool of work the editors refer to as "new Malaysian writing". The editors refuse to categorise the stories by genre, form, or where the writers were born – a sentiment echoed by the nature of this collection.

Readers will find works in two of Malaysia’s mainly spoken languages: Malay and English, including some poetry about jellyfish, salt, and joy (at least, I think so) and a story that really isn’t about saving marriages. An English poem is given a Malay title. Like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, it has a bit of everything: fiction and non-fiction, with elements of funny, sexy, heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, disturbing, and everything in between.

Within the pages: Well-known cat lady Ellen Whyte tells us why Malaysian cats have kinky tails. The cat in Uthaya Sankar’s satirical feline fable, meanwhile, manages to get hired by a government department. Reza Rosli sends chills down our spines when he recalls a mugging that threatens to get worse. Kam Raslan serves up a titillating whiff of a possible sequel to his fantastically funny Confessions of an Old Boy. And of course, poems by singer-songwriter Jerome Kugan, and poets Sharanya Manivannan and Alina Rastam, plus many, many more.

However, it might be a bit late to call this collection of Malaysian writing "new". It has been six years, and many of the "new" names within have since made their mark on the literary scene at home and abroad. Though the contents appear fresh and, to my understanding, not published elsewhere, staunch followers of Malaysian writing won’t be able to see much that distinguishes this collection from others of its ilk.

However, to those who are curious about the kind of stuff being written from and about this far-flung corner of the world by other than Rani Manicka, Tash Aw, and Preeta Samarasan, try reading some readings from Readings.

Readings from Readings
New Malaysian Writing

Edited by Bernice Chauly and Sharon Bakar
Word Works Sdn Bhd (2011)
198 pages
ISBN: 978-967-10292-0-6


  1. I think you are a bit harsh on Readings. When I attended, there was a good mix of first-time writers and more established authors, and looking at past line-ups, that seems to be case usually. And even for a mat salleh like me, Seksan was easy enough to find - its advantage is that it's a lovely, intimate place for this kind of event. And it's free, so is really accessible to all.

  2. I second Rob Spence's comment. I think there is almost always a good mix of emerging and established writers at Readings, and Sharon really tries very, very hard to encourage the former to come and read. I've witnessed her efforts in person and on Facebook. The thing is, new writers don't always *want* to read their work in public in front of an audience of strangers; it's daunting and they don't always have the confidence. I'm not sure *I* would've had the confidence, before I was published, or, at least, getting a lot of encouragement from teachers I respected. There's not a whole lot Sharon can do to change the reticence of new writers -- she can't physically force people to get up on stage and read. As for everybody knowing everybody -- KL is a small city in some ways. The arts/literary scene is small, just as other social circles in KL are also small/insular. It seems to me that the way to change that is to have more and more of these events, not fewer of them.

    Also, I think you misunderstand the "new" in the title -- I don't think it's meant to suggest that the authors themselves are "new" at writing or unheard of. It's new Malaysian *writing,* not new Malaysian *writers.* To me, that just means that the work in the book is previously unpublished and recent -- "new" also in the sense that it reflects Malaysia as she is today.

    -- Preeta Samarasan

  3. Alan, I was one of the newcomers to writing three years ago when I joined Sharon's course, then started going pretty often for a listen at Seksan, and finally read there.

    I've found quite a nice welcome...though I do admit I myself have not talked to every single person each time (I'm bad at starting conversations). But I got to know many people, you amongst them, and had some fascinating conversations.

    So, from my experience, Readings has been very beneficial, and Sharon extremely supportive...she even read out my piece the last time when I had lost my voice (numbing injections due to dental surgery)!

    I believe we need more such events and books, not less, in order to foster the culture of creativity and storytelling.

    There is no harm in repeated shows folks are serious about their work (you yourself are a repeated face at Seksan, and do some excellent photography from time to time).

    I have encountered quite a few new voices at Seksan, and met people who have come down from far-flung places to participate.

    I agree much remains to be done, as with any other event, but I also think Sharon has done a great job of it so far and needs to be helped out in what is often a very spirited, but lonely endeavor.

  4. I fully agree with the above comments.

    Your article is suitable for a personal blog post but not for a publication like Quill (which I understand, is a sort of literary magazine in Malaysia?).

    If you really have to criticise then back up your statements with evidence - for example, you write that the venues are hard to find and YET you mention Google Maps in the same sentence. If people cannot even use that wondrous technology called Google Maps to locate the venues, then perhaps it is not the fault of the organisers of the Readings event!

    And I agree with the commenter called Preets that you have perhaps grossly misunderstood the meaning of 'New Writing'. New writing does not mean new writers but *unpublished written works*. YET, on that misassumption you have constructed your article on how 'elitist' the literary event is and the apparent scarcity of new and upcoming talent.

  5. I don't think Seksan's is inaccessible. Sure, it doesn't have a bus stop just outside, nor a LRT station next door, but how many venues do? I've directed several friends to Seksans, including foreign ones, and none of them had problems finding the place.

    I've attended several Readings sessions, and although I don't consider myself very socially adept, being a bit shy, I've always found the people there friendly and supportive. If it seems as if it's the same people who turn up all the time, this may be due to the fact that there's a relatively small population of people who love literature and books in KL rather than that the Readings crowd is elitist and unwelcoming.

    It takes an enormous amount of dedication to host Readings month after month, year after year, and I am deeply grateful to Sharon for her efforts to ensure there is a space in KL for writers and readers to meet and interact. I think we would be greatly impoverished without Readings.

  6. right... unpublished works by ancient writers also qualify as new writings. just like the warong across the road that recycles the previous days' leftovers as today's special. but where are the NEW new writers? the closet writers. it would be interesting to quote how many new faces to old faces at such events. writers are, humans, are, organic. And organic sentients don't take kindly to newbies who are invariably viewed as threats. without exception. the emo-ego-centric vitriols from the coterie is what i'd expect and hey! 'nuff said. proof is already out. writing's on the net.

    Alan, you've got balls. Say it as you see it. I'm with you.

  7. Hello Alan. I think it's great that you have taken the time to write such a lengthy and frank review of Readings. Yes, some of it is harsh and blunt, and it has understandably drawn the ire of many people. But, nonetheless, you are certainly entitled to your opinions.

    Personally, I feel the issue has nothing to do with the content, venue or membership of Readings itself. Rather, what it comes down to is something more intangible: the class bubble.

    Readings, of course, is reflective of its organizers -- they are upper middle-class liberals who happen to be ardent connoisseurs of literary writing. You will not find, say, working-class conservatives, or even those whose writings are provocative and edgy.

    I happen to fall into the latter category, and I have never been invited to Readings. But I wouldn't go as far as to say that active discrimination is at work or that the organizers have somehow failed to deliver.

    Rather, it's just a fact of life. People of a certain class attracts people of a certain class. And no matter how welcoming they may or may not be, there's always going to be a barrier for writers who don't originate from their world.

    Perhaps you should look into setting up another club for writers. For the rest of us unwashed masses. =)

  8. Catalina RembuyanMay 18, 2011 4:24 pm

    I've been thinking about whether I should post this comment, and I decided that I'll go ahead anyway. It comes in 2 parts -- I find that editing out or simplifying some things distorted what I meant to say.

    Metalfrog, I think the number of 'closet writers' is much smaller than you think (and likewise, I do think that the Readings invitee list is much wider than people think -- maybe the regulars tend to be the same old arty farty types, but I know that Sharon does try to include writers from as broad a range as possible).

    I participate in events like Nanowrimo and Script Frenzy. These are very populist writing events -- perfectly suitable for anyone interested in churning out a chick lit novel or that ambitious bit of sci fi they've drafted for ages. The number of people who participate in these events is also very small, and also tends to be the same faces over and over again. Why is this so?

    To be perfectly frank, I think the reason why we don't see closet new writers is because they're not there. I don't mean people who claim that they 'can write'. Almost everyone I know claims that they 'can write'. [More often, I find that when they say that they 'can write', what they're really looking for is an ego trip: they want the kind of glowing praises and congratulations they got from their parents or teachers in school when they got an 'A' for their English narrative essay. They expect the same when they move on to the adult world, and when that world does not bestow praises just as easily, they lose their motivation; they give up.]

    I realize that Alan is probably swamped with comments, but I hope this gets through, because this is not a comment on Alan's criticism of Readings, as much as it is a comment on Alan's statement in his own entry / article where he asks:

    "From the volume of Internet comments, blogs and letters to newspapers, Malaysians can be considered a vocal bunch. So why does it seem so hard to find smashingly good writers in such a huge pool of voices?"

    Alan, you're an editor, so you know very well that Internet comments, blog entries and letters to newspapers do not make enough substance for writing. I'm not just referring to ‘literary’ writing. I'm also extending it to include genre writing, nonfiction, even cookbooks. A vocal populace doesn't necessarily translate to a population that encourages writing.

  9. Catalina RembuyanMay 18, 2011 4:30 pm

    Part 2 of the comment:

    Writing takes work. People underestimate the importance of that. I participated in Nanowrimo and am working on a few works of fiction on my own. I am also involved, on and off, in the very small English language poetry 'scene'. Do I get a lot of support from others? Yes, I do. I started getting involved in poetry because of the British Council. I get prodded from Raman of Silverfishbooks from time to time. I have friends working in MPH who recommended me to write and submit to their anthologies. I have friends who are writers, poets. We encourage each other, read. I don’t think I experienced any lack of encouragement and support.

    But for all the support I do get, nothing changes the fact that a lot of writing is a lonely and often difficult task. I spend many hours writing, and despite all the time I have poured into them, I still have nothing I consider satisfying enough that I can show. Then there are days when I plunge into a novel only to realize that I have written myself into a corner and have to undo the work of several days before. Hours go into the process of writing; days. I write in public places; cafes.

    Whenever I look around me in these areas I see many people writing, but they are not writing books. They have Microsoft Excel spreadsheets in front of them, or they have their Facebook turned on. Once in Damansara Uptown's Starbucks when I saw a young woman attempting to scribble something into a fancy little notebook she had purchased. But this is only once, and most of the time, it is hard to even find someone reading a book.

    Writing is work. A Malaysian man I know who now lives in Amsterdam wakes up early every morning and writes. (He has completed a novel and he is completing another, but he does not wish to publish. This is the least one can do if one needs to produce a written work, I think that if publishing were a goal the work is even more arduous still.) Many people claim that they can be writers; not many people are willing to work.

    So Alan, my main objection to this entry and the treatment of the lack of new voices is the idea that the world of writing is seen as a 'scene'. In a 'scene', people go to be seen, people go to look hip, people get bored when it's the same people over and over again. But writing, to me, isn't about that -- at least it shouldn't. It should be, I think, about the work.

    In the scenario you provided, there are only 'old writers' -- an 'Ivy League' of sorts -- and new, fresh voices. What you've ignored is that there is a huge space in the middle populated by people who are working hard on refining their craft. Poetry in English in Malaysia is a lot like that: it tends to be the same people over and over, but these same people have developed greatly over the years. I say this not because I value poetry more than any other written form, but because of my familiarity with the people involved in it, and the fact that I can see their improvement.

    Where do those in the middle fall in, I wonder? I guess I'm kind of affected, because in an older version of this blog post, I was mentioned by name. So I have some reputation, even if that reputation was built by simply attending many literary events. If I come out with a novel, or an anthology of short stories, or a script, am I an old face, or a new one?

    I know that one person in the recent Readings anthology, Reza Rosli, has (to my knowledge) never published creative nonfiction before. He started with poetry. The publication of his story in Readings from Readings is a small milestone for him. I know that he, among many others I know, is continuing to develop his craft and their art. They are improving. They produce new work, not always quickly, but produced nonetheless. They are not scraps (this is an address to Metalfrog) they are new dishes designed by the same chef.

  10. Catalina RembuyanMay 18, 2011 4:31 pm

    I'm really sorry for this, but my comment turned out longer than I expected:

    Perhaps they become the same old faces after a while, perhaps the scene is bored. But new talent won't emerge because you demand for new faces to come out. You can’t yell and demand geniuses to appear, you have to craft them. In the meantime, the 'same old faces' are working and producing work -- so why not encourage them? As you mentioned, Readings from Readings is an excellent compilation to introduce to someone from abroad. I agree, too. My colleagues are expatriates and I find it hard to recommend them literary works that don't require a load of postcolonial theory and Malaysian socio-historical context to make sense. I can recommend them this book. The Malaysian writers in it get a slightly wider audience. Is this not what all of us involved in literature in Malaysia (high or low) want?

  11. Writing takes work. People underestimate the importance of that.

    The 10,000-hour rule applies here. Basically, If you want to pick up any skill and be good at it, you have to be wiling to spend at least 10,000 hours honing your craft.

    Unfortunately, only a very narrow and very privileged segment of Malaysian society can afford to do that, and perhaps Readings is reflective of this reality.

    Malaysians are a vocal bunch only on blogs and forums only because the country's economic growth has seemingly stalled and flatlined. They are vocal because their ricebowl is affected; not vocal for creativity's sake. There's a vast difference.

  12. Hello, Alan.

    I won't comment much on your book review--everyone gets a different experience reading a book. However, just as the title suggests, the book showcases new writings from Malaysians. Isn't that reason enough to celebrate?

    I had the honor of reading at Seksan Gallery last December. I used Google Maps to look for the venue; then again, earlier today I used the same app to guide my way to Wisma Tani, Putrajaya. I love Google Maps. Sure, the gallery is a little secluded, and Jalan Maarof can be a nightmare with its endless traffic lights and unpredictable traffic, but once I walked under the trimmed hanging roots, a sense of hushed awe washed over me. Gone were the noise of traffic, the bustle of city life, and the nagging rush that seem to dominate us city folks. Life stood still, except for the trickle of an ornamental waterfall by the entrance. And I finally met Sharon Bakar, a warm yet commanding presence, welcoming my whole family into the gallery. There I became the seventh little pig, as my brother called me, as I sat reading an excerpt of my story while a painting of six little pigs hung behind me. I was a stranger, a new presence among old friends, but I did not get a vibe of exclusivity there. Not once. I've not been to other reading venues, but Seksan Gallery is perfect for reading stories and poetry.

    Writers are a reclusive bunch. Most of us are introverts. I know I am. I had to drag my whole family along for my reading so that I have a sense of home with me. You say you want to see emerging writers. I bet you've not even heard of me, yet I have published 17 short stories (in English) internationally, with a science fiction story in COSMOS, Australia's premier science magazine, and I've even won an award for a horror story. There is a story I submitted to MPH-Alliance short story contest that did not even make the long list, yet it's one of the six stories chosen for an anthology by CCC Press, UK. A Malaysian anthology, I might add.

  13. I got the invitation to read at Seksan's after I asked Sharon to retweet the news of my story published at Crossed Genres. By the way, John, getting invited or not is not a political agenda or a class-related issue. Sharon had known I wrote stories, but it wasn't until I shared a published piece with her that I received an invitation. You cannot expect people to search out relative unknowns and coax them out of hiding. We writers have to be proactive in getting ourselves known and heard. "Jeremy Chin is still hawking his first novel, Fuel." This is him being proactive. I respect you as a person, John, but sometimes I think you're just paranoid (and delusional).

    Alan, you commented that the choice of venues and the exclusivity of Sharon's crowd, and that a friend of yours feel like this particular clique feels like a Malaysian literary ivy league. But she's out there helping writers promote themselves. Amir Muhammad is out there championing literature and he's not shy doing it. What have major local publication houses done to help local writers? Feel free to submit your manuscript, but make sure it's not speculative fiction (fantasy/science fiction and the like), erotica, or thrillers that can ruffle political feathers. Literary is fine, but there's an impenetrable wall for most genre fiction.

  14. How is this not exclusivity, and how is this helping new and emerging voices? Where are short story writing and poetry competitions, and where are slots for fiction in major newspapers?

    So the same faces appeared at the launch. Why not view it as old friends supporting Sharon and Bernice? I'm sure you know how poor the attendance is for book launches and signings here in Malaysia. Books about political scandals and celebrity gossips (and scandals) can attract a throng of media folks, but literary books? You're lucky if you get a small newspaper column talking about it.

    Say what you want about your experience reading the book. But I take offence in your putting a downer on Sharon Bakar's efforts in promoting local writings and writers.

  15. Wow, John.

    I disagree with you regarding the 10k-hour rule on honing a creative craft. Not everyone writes every day, and not everyone needs to practice a creative skill. When I can only write crap, I stop writing. When my drawings are sub par, I don't draw. I don't believe in producing crap and hope some of it will be salvageable, good even. I believe in producing good works, and the great ones will come naturally.

    Then again, to each his own. So I won't argue with you on this one.

    But Malaysians are not a vocal bunch because of the stagnation of our economic growth or whatever political crap you're thinking about. Malaysians thrive in the 'surat layang' culture. We tend to hide behind anonymity. That's why you get 'concerned citizen', 'tired doctor', 'angry motorist' and 'anonymous' in blog comments and in letters to newspapers. Face to face? It's 'yes, sir' all the way.

    The internet has opened up a whole world of possibilities. You can say whatever you want because you can hide behind a persona, or behind a wall of anonymity. Hence, loud blogs and comments.

    Yeah, yeah. I know you'll find some political reason behind this as well. Have fun.

  16. But Malaysians are not a vocal bunch because of the stagnation of our economic growth or whatever political crap you're thinking about. Malaysians thrive in the 'surat layang' culture. We tend to hide behind anonymity. That's why you get 'concerned citizen', 'tired doctor', 'angry motorist' and 'anonymous' in blog comments and in letters to newspapers. Face to face? It's 'yes, sir' all the way.

    I don't begrudge you for misreading the situation. You have never been working class, so you don't know what it's like.

    So here's a snapshot: according to the latest Global Wellbeing Survey (, 80% of Malaysians consider themselves struggling, and
    the trend is worsening even as we speak. Hence the 'surat layang'. But you know what? It really is the only immediate power they have left. They are so disenfranchised and battered by life that this is all they can do. Keeping their heads above water and letting out a gasp of dismay.

    So, yes, you have the luxury of practicing medicine, and you enjoy writing, drawing and playing with Apple products in your spare time. But please bear in mind that not everyone has been accorded your privilege.

    These same struggling Malaysians are also the ones you are not likely to see at Readings -- they would be hard-pressed to afford literary leisure or creativity.

    Thank you.