Thursday, 23 May 2013

Reading 'Readings' Again

first published in The Malaysian Insider, 23 May 2013

For reasons I'll only divulge over coffee, I haven't gotten involved in anything related with Readings since 2011. But is the latest release of Readings from Readings 2 that bad?

Not really.

Collective camaraderie
Local poet, writer, and lecturer Bernice Chauly founded Readings about eight years ago. The "live" reading event, which usually takes place on the last Saturday of each month, is currently held at Seksan's, a house in Lucky Garden in Bangsar that landscape architect Ng Seksan turned into an art gallery and office.

When Bernice could no longer manage Readings, it was bequeathed to Sharon Bakar, a writer, editor and creative writing teacher. Readings has hosted more than 400 writers, from the man-on-the-street types to names such as Tan Twan Eng, Tash Aw, Hishamuddin Rais, Kam Raslan and Preeta Samarasan.

I've lost count over the number of Readings sessions I've attended, but it must've been somewhere between 10 and 12. Most of these took place on warm, often muggy Saturday afternoons. Trees provided little shade, and the breeze mostly stayed away.

The crowd is a mix as eclectic as the reader line-ups. Some were new faces who have never been published before, let alone read their work aloud in front of strangers, some of whom are formidable figures in writing and publishing.

For new or unpublished writers, Readings can be a launchpad to greater heights. Simply showing up and, maybe, buying a copy or five of the books on sale helps.

Because of the current state of the local writing pool, seasoned Malaysian writers, editors and publishers are eager to share and help grow local talent ― and they should be! Every achievement, every success story, no matter how small, is celebrated.

From Seksan's to the shelves
Coming out of over eight years of Readings, this second volume in the Readings from Readings series more or less lives up to its billing as a collection of new writing, and it's a gorgeous production, thanks to writer, poet and artist Shahril Nizam's unique touch.

Reports of their suckiness were greatly exaggerated

Many contributions are short, written as they were for their 15-minute time slot. Crafting exceptionally effective and powerful short stories is hard, so, kudos to those who managed to pull it off in this collection, like Chuah Guat Eng, who manages to channel the tortured mind of a child whose ignorance sparks a terrible tragedy.

For me, Fadz Johanabas's is arguably among the better pieces, as is Amir Hafizi's outlandish, rib-tickling paean-of-sorts to his dad which, one hopes, is not "fiction."

Even without the cadence of her calm voice, Lilian Tan's poems ― including the one about a stubborn raindrop ― manage to retain some of their potency. And how not to pity the poor girl in Cynthia Reed's tale of a makeover that ends badly?

This volume overall is a slight improvement over the first, with a good mix of new and familiar names. This would also mean that more will be expected from the third book, if it comes out.

Perils of podium to print
Translating the creative energy from people into a publication can be a dicey affair. There's plenty of that energy coming out of Readings, and even more potential. The people behind Readings and CeritAku are justifiably proud of what's coming out of their years of toil, and it's natural for them to feel it's all worth sharing.

As a collection of stories, it's lovely and well-crafted. No doubt a lot of work went into it, perhaps to make it representative (somewhat) of what Readings is and what comes out of it.

But like many multi-author short story collections, R from R 2's fruit-salad nature and the brevity of many of the contributions might also work against it. Not every writer's talent and voice can be effectively conveyed by a shortie.

In spite of frequent references to Malaysian identities, issues and idiosyncrasies, the "diversity of genres" from this "eclectic bunch" of writers is vast. Like a box of chocolates, certain flavours will be preferred over the others.

And it's likely that the newcomers' efforts will be unfairly judged and compared with those by the more well-known names, diminishing this book' significance as a showcase of new (read: previously unpublished) writing.

Putting poems in the mix without some form of segregation reflects the inclusive, freeform nature of the line-ups, but such a scheme doesn't translate well into print and the random appearance of genres tends to affect the reading momentum.

We can probably expect more Readings from Readings volumes, as the event marches towards its ninth year. Regardless of the reception given to this labour of love by the Readings people, they should be lauded, at the very least, for their efforts to bring the balmy, lit-filled weekend afternoon atmosphere at Seksan's to the world at large.

Readings from Readings 2
New Writing from Malaysia, Singapore and Beyond

edited by Bernice Chauly and Sharon Bakar
Word Works Sdn Bhd (2012)
206 pages
ISBN: 978-967-10292-1-3


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