Sunday, 21 June 2015

The Other Hero(ine)

A certain former prime minister spoke at some "festival of ideas" at Publika one weekend.

But I could barely keep it in when I saw this other person on the first day of the festival. Think I almost squealed.

Nik Raina Nik Abdul Aziz told me she's been manning the Borders stall since the first festival and I couldn't believe it. And I'd been following the case since it broke.

I find her more relatable. Both of us work with books and, I think, feel confident that the right to legally earn our livelihoods is protected by the state.

At least, I think we used to.

To put it simply, Nik Raina was persecuted for selling a book that JAWI, the Federal Territories religious affairs department, has deemed "bad". However, it has had its case against her thrown out several times, due largely to how it was handled.

In spite of this, JAWI is going to appeal this case to the Federal Court, and there's a possibility it might be reopened.

Many are baffled by the dogged pursuit of the Borders bookstore manager by the religious affairs department. Didn't the Syariah High Court already drop her case?

Her plight casts a pall over every Malaysian; no longer can we view the authorities as protective parental figures. We are frightened to speak up or do something - anything. We are cowed into meekness, forced to blindly obey. To follow our hearts or believe what our gut says is right can be considered treasonous.

This is no way to live.

Which is why Nik Raina and Borders Malaysia's decision to take on JAWI over the former's case gives us hope.

26/08/2015   So it seems Nik Raina's legal nightmare is finally over as the Federal Court dismissed JAWI's latest prosecution bid against her. Kudos to Borders Malaysia for sticking with her to the end of this case.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

On The Verge Of A Conversation: The Cooler Lumpur Festival 2015

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 17 June 2015

"We are on the verge of a conversation."

These are the words of Umapagan Ampikaipakan, Programme Director for the Cooler Lumpur Festival, now in its third year at Publika, Solaris Dutamas. A phrase that will become a milestone along Malaysia's road towards a developed, thinking nation.

That is, if we get around to talking to each other.

"Malaysians are on the verge of a conversation," Umapagan told The Edge. "We're not there yet, but interestingly we have found, even last year, that every time I looked out into an audience during question and answer time, when people are talking ... I can see people almost throwing their hands up and on the verge of wanting to contribute to the conversation. I think it's our job to tip them over the edge."

I wonder if he sneaked in that "edge" bit for the paper's benefit?

"Crossing the Cultural Boundaries of Food" at Cooler Lumpur 2015, with (from
left) Ben Yong, John Krich, Gaik Cheng Khoo and moderator Zan Azlee (not in
this photo - sorry!).

The piece was submitted in a hurry, so I forgot to contribute some of my own
photos - not sure if they'd be fine, anyway.

The theme of this year's Festival, Dangerous Ideas, promised all that and delivered — as best as a string of hour-long panels and conversations could at a time when temperatures are high and all we feel like doing is lob invectives over stupid things being said and perceived threats.

According to Hardesh Singh, Executive Director of the festival, "Dangerous Ideas is focused on responsibly unearthing ideas and exploring how these ideas shape our behaviour, environment and societies. In this age of instant information, ideas spread like wild fire. We'd like to harness the contagious power of a great idea and the potential it holds to inspire transformation."

Arend Zwartjes, Cultural Attaché for the Embassy of the United States, Kuala Lumpur, feels the same. "For true innovation, there must be a market of ideas and the freedom to explore expression. Fundamentally, for any kind of progression individually and as a nation, it is necessary to cultivate ideas of all kinds, especially dangerous ideas."

Zwartjes is aware of "what Malaysia has experienced in the last few months, the last couple of years" but feels it's an important time for all Malaysians to have these "uncomfortable" discussions, and that "it's good to have those dangerous ideas out there, good for your society to have conversations, to allow the space for conversations."

"Ban This Book!" A Cooler Lumpur 2015 panel discussion on book banning and
censorship, with (from left) Ian McDonald, Sarah Churchwell, Ovidia Yu and
Sharmilla Ganesan.

A lot of ground was covered, from the language of protest, fast or slow journalism, book censorship and sacred cows to the future of photojournalism, the power of caricatures, and sex and sexuality in the 21st century. A Fringe Food Festival on the grounds — a culinary micro-Cooler Lumpur — had discussions on foodie-ism, out-of-home food enterprises and a workshop on food writing, among other things.

At the festival's opening on June 12, Umapagan also announced the DK Dutt Memorial Award for Literary Excellence (for Malaysian-English Writing), conceptualised by author Dipika Mukherjee and Sharon Bakar and named after the late Delip Kumar Dutt, who was the principal of CYMA College (Penang) and the president of the Schools Sports Council of Malaysia.

Shikha Dutt, daughter of Delip Kumar Dutt, launched the award. Submissions opened on June 14 and will close on July 31. The awards will be announced and presented at the 2015 George Town Literary Festival in Penang, scheduled for this November.

Umapagan also spoke about the difficulties in organising and running a festival and, after thanking the sponsors including the British Council Malaysia, the US Embassy in KL and BMW Malaysia, acknowledged his parents' contributions, to the amusement of the audience. "You will get paid back, I promise... you will see that money again, it hasn't disappeared."

"There are NO spaces between (or was it "around"?) em dashes!" thundered Zen
Cho (OMG I love her) as she launched Fixi Novo's latest anthology,
Cyberpunk Malaysia, at Cooler Lumpur 2015 with Amir Muhammad.

He also apologised for the absence of Delhi-based novelist Chandrahas Choudhury who was supposed to deliver the festival's keynote speech at the opening ceremony. Flight delays, we were told.

This year's festival, which ran from June 12-14, also saw the scheduling of some last-minute events, including the much-hyped one with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, titled "My Most Dangerous Idea." From what's been reported, the event delivered in spades.

For Umapagan, Mahathir's presence at the festival was symbolic. "I had a lot of questions as to, ‘Why did you invite him? This is supposed to be a platform for free ideas and you know he did a lot in his tenure to restrict those ideas.'

"But I think one thing Hardesh and I always endeavour to do is make this a platform for everyone, irrespective of your ideas," said Umapagan. "This is the one place where you can come and talk about it ... and leave as friends, Have a con-ver-sa-tion, right? That's what it's all about and that's what we're trying to do."

No sacred cows were killed during the panel "Killing Sacred Cows: Comedy in the
Age of Offence" during Cooler Lumpur 2015, with (from left) Jason Leong,
Harith Iskander, Lindy West, and Ezra Zaid moderating.

Though I would have wanted to hear what other voices *COUGHISMAPERKASAPEGIDACOUGH* had to say. Maybe next year? Or have we heard enough from them to know that it'll be more of the same and will remain so for the foreseeable future?

That, I think, was missing from the festival: a chance to see some truly dangerous ideas panned for what they are. For better or worse, ideas are part of who we are. In conversations, good ideas shine, while bad ideas teach.

If conversations die, where would we be as a civilisation, a people, a nation?

So, let's keep talking.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

A Nose For Trouble: Ovidia Yu’s Singapore Sleuth

My first book review in months - almost a year, really. Whew! Finally, we're getting back in business. And I've fulfilled an obligation (though I had to ditch another one; Murakami's is not my kind of thing, after all).

...Feels good, albeit a bit rushed, as I'd only finished reading both novels last Saturday and hammered out a draft on Sunday. And, whoops, forgot I was reviewing two novels at the last paragraph - but meant to wrap a word in double quotes to make it more general.

Another thing to note: Ovidia Yu's first Aunty Lee novel is good, and the second is great. Not just because of volume, either. But I had to keep the word count low to avoid giving too much away. I was initially apprehensive - another Miss Marple/Southeast Asian kind of thing? Thankfully, I wasn't disappointed.

A great couple of novels to jump-start my flagging book review count. Let's keep it up!

A nose for trouble: Ovidia Yu's Singapore sleuth

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 09 June 2015

I was passed a couple of "crime novels with a twist" some time back, and nearly forgot about them. After all, what crime novel doesn't have a twist?

These novels promised something else: a crime-solving Peranakan aunty from Singapore, who runs a small café and, when she's not being sam pat (nosy) about scandals, fraud and mysterious deaths, ends up investigating some of them.

Though much watered down, my Peranakan side was piqued by the notion.

Aunty Lee's kitchen, now serving mystery, mayhem and murder - with
a side of acar, sambal and maybe ayam pongteh

Singaporean author and playwright Ovidia Yu unleashed Aunty Lee's Delights upon us in 2013, followed by Aunty Lee's Deadly Specials about a year later.

And each time, we are reminded that the protagonist, Rosie Lee, owns and runs Aunty Lee's Delights, a café at Binjai Park, less than five minutes' walk from Dunearn Road; she makes good traditional Peranakan food with modern equipment; she's a small, precise lady whose fair, plump kebaya-clad form smiles from her jars of Aunty Lee's Amazing Achar and Aunty Lee's Shiok Sambal; and her fashion sense can sometimes be a little off.

Among other things. Because so many things can happen in a year and we can lose track.

We also meet Nina Balignasay, Rosie's Filipina domestic helper. A former nurse and the Watson to Rosie's Holmes, Nina's powers of observation were heightened by living with Aunty Lee for years — as one would when one's employer tends to be a boh kia si (recklessly fearless) kaypoh (busybody) with a nose for trouble (gao chui soo) and fake organic food.

The first instalment saw Aunty Lee investigate two missing persons' cases, after one of them fails to turn up for a food and wine tasting do at her establishment. The other is a sister of a family friend, so it becomes personal when the body is found.

In Aunty Lee's Deadly Specials, the shoe's on the other foot as she becomes a suspect in the deaths of two people, apparently due to her ayam buah keluak. Buah keluak, the seeds from the kepayang tree, naturally contain cyanide and have to be treated before consumption. To repair her reputation, she sniffs around and uncovers a potential scandal involving the illegal trade in human organs.

Anyone who's had to deal with nosy aunties will be familiar with Rosie Lee — and the rambling narrative that sort of mirrors how her mind works. When it's not what the other characters are thinking, it's about what Rosie is thinking — and there's a lot.

From what's right and wrong about Singapore and its society (a reference to a Singapore mega church drew a guffaw) to how timing is important when eating a freshly-made curry puff (hers, preferably) — and picking a spouse. Plus, of course, some occasional Peranakan food porn that will make outstation Peranakan homesick.

I'm sure there are better ways to draw out the suspense before the gloved hand drops the pistol butt, so to speak.

Still, once all that is out of the way, the novels are quite enjoyable, especially the interactions between Aunty Lee and Nina — better than Holmes-Watson. But I think these tend to overshadow members of the supporting cast, more of whom we'll probably get to see in future instalments.

Rosie's circumstances also lend another dimension to the stories. She married into money, but isn't ostentatious about it like some other tai tais (ladies of leisure).

Too bad this does not placate her stepson's wife, who feels Rosie's fairly successful culinary enterprise-slash-hobby is whittling down her husband's inheritance (also hers) and has repeatedly attempted to force Rosie to retire and close shop.

And for all her wit, wiles and homely wisdom, deep down she's an old widow who turned to cooking, catering for parties and sleuthing to distract herself from thoughts about mortality and her man.

But does she have to put her late husband's portrait everywhere — and talk to it? That's kind of creepy.

A recognisable and relatable local heroine, plus (so far) plausible scenarios and no auta (far-fetched/unbelievable) situations or action scenes makes Aunty Lee's "delights" piquant palatable fare you can sink your teeth into — and maybe ask for seconds later.

Ovidia Yu is scheduled to appear at the 2015 Cooler Lumpur Festival at Publika, Solaris Dutamas, happening from June 12-14. Coming soon: Aunty Lee's Chilled Vengeance, probably in several months.

Aunty Lee's Delights
Ovidia Yu
William Morrow
264 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-222715-7

Aunty Lee's Deadly Specials
Ovidia Yu
William Morrow
360 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-233832-7

Friday, 5 June 2015

#GTLF2014: Lost In Penang

"Are you lost?" asked Gareth Richards from the Gerakbudaya Penang bookstore. "You look a bit lost."

Oh you have no idea, sir.

I was at the 2014 George Town Literary Festival and had trouble deciding where to spend my time between programmes. After a taste of the Festival in 2013, I thought about going for the next one.

At least it gave me another excuse to balik kampung, besides for Chinese New Year.

The venue for the 2014 Festival, The Whiteaways Arcade, threw up several surprises, including an Old Town White Coffee outlet in the premises, a bazaar along the street it was located (weekends only), and a famous nasi lemak stall at a nearby food court that served some of the best examples of the dish.

Okay, so it's my first time there when Whiteaways was opened. And I rarely go to town when I'm back.

My old, largely unexplored backyard has changed so much, even before I'd begun looking into its nooks and crannies. It was the same with my being in publishing and writing, although I've only started with the latter towards the end of 2007 and been in the former for only four-plus years.

I'd felt I was still scratching the surface when it came to both, so I felt that the Festival would provide some direction. Yet I managed to give two important events a miss: "Publishing Today", where editor Bernadette Foley, Hans Kemp and publisher Tom Vater shared insights on new trends in publishing and the impact on writers and readers; and "What Publishers Want", a workshop by Foley on how to get published.

Gareth was, as usual, spot on.

Because I'd left my KL home in a hurry to attend this, I'd forgotten my camera and notebook. One could say I can buy more paper and pen on arrival, but I decided to be less journalistic and more of a festival-goer this time.

After a while, "covering" events starts feeling like work, and I'm not sure how I can immerse myself in the atmosphere and just let go and enjoy. I'm not even writing for print media these days.

Worse still, the torpor has seeped into what I'd call recreational writing - hence, this late, late dispatch. The gears are still gummed up today.

But the programmes during the festival last year raised some points to ponder:

Putting pen to paper
A writer I met suggests that Malaysian writers are a tad insecure about their writing and, therefore, tend to only write what they know, sticking to familiar topics. We have experts on the Japanese occupation, Japanese gardens, May 13, Independence, race relations in Malaysia, mango trees and what to do with them.

For many, however, the problem can be as simple as "I can't write" or "I have nothing worthwhile to say".

That last bit is bullshit.

For those with the urge, start writing, whatever your native language or degree of skill. Nothing happens if you don't get moving.

Pick something from daily life: a tree, a cup of coffee, an incident at school. Describe it, then add some degree of retrospective - what does it make you think about? That curiosity to go further, deeper, farther, is important. Don't worry to much about grammar, spelling, and so on. You're practising, so practise lots.

“To aspiring writers, stop looking at writer's success and comparing
yourself; it's not worth the trouble. All you have to do is start writing.”
― Gina Yap Lai Yoong

I complain about crap copy all the time, but would I like a world where everything is proper, polished and politically correct?


An ecosystem takes all sorts to be complete. Each bit of writing, good and bad, goes into a pool others will dive into and the readers are supposed to be navigating these waters, picking out what they deem is the best and ditching what they feel is the worst. That's how it's always been.

(Besides, in such a perfect world I'd have no job.)

Also: read, and read LOTS. Start from what you like or prefer to read, and take it from there. Again, be curious. Never mind if you don't understand some of it; with time and more reading, you will come to understand more - and start connecting the dots. And consult Mr Dictionary and Ms Thesaurus if you don't understand the words.

Why not start with, say, what's being sold at lit-fests?

The (im)permenance of words
It's hard to imagine a lit-fest without the participation of Fixi. In a panel discussion about Malaysian writing, Fixi chief Amir Muhammad seemed to imply that what his publishing company produces is throwaway fiction: stuff you read once before moving to something else, stuff that's almost never revisited.

Sounds like what Ursula K Le Guin said about the Amazon model of books: "written fast, sold cheap, dumped fast".

Seems a waste, considering how much work goes into making a book.

“The words get easier the moment you stop fearing them.”
― Tahereh Mafi

But it's probably a mistake to believe that words are meant to last. For many of us, even an encounter with a great book leaves an impression like the spark of a firefly - once the enchantment wears off, one is left to wander around - lost for a bit, like I was - until the next great thing comes along.

Amir was philosophical about this, as he was with the notion of "being a good author". "No matter how good we are, we all die one day," he said - not dismissive, but somewhat matter-of-fact. "So do what you like, not what you feel compelled by others to do."

In that vein, you shouldn't mind the brickbats because the trolls and those who throw them will also die one day. Time's too short not to follow your passion when it burns so much you feel it.

Changing landscapes
Like most of my generation, I tend to kvetch over "the end of an era", be it in publishing, education or blues music (you're the king, BB).

But do we really have the right to speak of the old in such vivid or endearing terms when some of us never experienced it?

Yes, the skyline isn't what it used to be when I was in school and I biked several kilometres ferrying my mother's rented VHS tapes of old TVB serials to and from the shop (gone by now, probably). But I can talk about those times because I lived them and those were the days.

“Writers are the exorcists of their own demons.”
― Mario Vargas Llosa

Then we have the freakazoids who keep reminding us of how bad the Japanese and Communist insurgents are, persistently warn us of "another May 13" and wax romantical about how things were better when our grandmas grew mangoes.

I don't think we'll see the end of this until EVERY MALAYSIAN has coughed up his or her post-British, post-Independence, post-May 13 epic. When they're not writing about husbands who are religious teachers, "perfect" or cephalopods.

Well, it won't be evolution without some painful chapters along the way.

Still, I found some interesting things under that crowded skyline, so it's not all bad.

Food writing? More like food directorying
I was a little disappointed to hear several food bloggers claiming that their readers are more into directory-style stuff rather than multilayered food pieces, meshing storytelling, history and other trivia.

US writer John Krich, who was with food bloggers CK Lam and Ken Tho on a panel discussion on food writing, looked out of place - I wonder, what was he thinking?

In what generally passes as "food blogging" these days, we get an intro to a place, what amounts to a glorified menu of what was reviewed with price tags, and a wrap-up that includes the name (in case you didn't get it), address and contact information.

"Oh, don't you do the same thing sometimes?"

Well, at least TRY not to make it LOOK SO OBVIOUS that it's a glorified tasting menu. When you're writing for someone else who wants it presented in a "boring" format, however, that's forgiveable. You have my sympathies.

“People have writer's block not because they can't write, but
because they despair of writing eloquently.”
― Anna Quindlen

Krich's book, A Fork in Asia's Road: Adventures of an Occidental Glutton (plan to review it), is a collection of articles that are anything but glorified menus and NO contact information - the kind of thing that the rest of us (like Lam and Tho) ARE NOT DOING but would want to do someday.

But it's a job that requires a lot of legwork, experience, a cast-iron stomach, and loads of curiosity - how else did he manage to pry so much out of what might otherwise be another cursory culinary stopover?

Later, perhaps hours or a day after the panel, I saw Krich at the Subways downstairs. It did cross my mind to ask him why he was eating at a Subways in the middle of Southeast Asia's street food capital? What did he think about the panel?

I thought the better of it; sometimes, you have to know when not to be curious.

So yes, I was lost. This was not the Penang I left behind when I was a teenager. But I like it. I'm getting curious about it already.

And I managed to write this up, somehow. Been a while since I've conjured this bubble where everything I scribble sounds about right.

If only I can find a way to enter this zone at will.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Book Marks: Mystery Places, Filipiniana, and Charlie Chan Hock Chye

Sara Nović explains the challenges of being a deaf author:

In reality, the language – or linguistic modality – in which I am most fluent is written English. When I'm writing, my mind and body need not be translated for a hearing audience. I don't worry that I am unclear, that my lips and tongue will revert to their unpractised ways under pressure, or that I'm speaking at the wrong volume for the background noise I cannot gauge. When I'm reading a book, I do not have to guess in the way that I do when lipreading – paper never covers its mouth or turns its head.

Why do novelists disguise the actual settings of their works?

There is no one reason why an author should fictionalise a place. John Galt, Scott's contemporary, invented places called Oldtown and Dalmailing, Guttershiels and Gudetown, because he regarded his novels as "theoretical histories of society". The places were exemplary, not individuated. They also had a certain onomatopoeia that Dickens would take much further (in his character names as well as place names). It also circumvented the kind of green-ink letters authors still receive, pointing out, say, there are no buses from Heriot to Galashiels after 10.30pm, or that the bookshop on Buccleuch Street closed four years before the action of the novel. Places that aren't anywhere can be everywhere.

When Philippine literature struggles to be visible, even in the Philippines:

If you're a believer in supporting local authors, entering a Filipino bookstore can be a dispiriting experience. Book store chains often have piles of Dan Browns and Stephenie Meyers forming book towers at the entrance even as they shunt local authors aside in a single shelf under "Filipiniana." That one shelf is often relegated to the back, where history and sociology textbooks haphazardly mix with horror books and children's books because who cares, right?

"Filipiniana"? Don't feel so alone now, do we?

Recommendations included, though we might have to go online for those.

Singapore's National Arts Council revokes a S$8,000 grant for Sonny Liew's graphic novel, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, on eve of its launch in Singapore, over "sensitive content" in it, that "potentially 'undermines the authority or legitimacy' of the government.

So far, the only thing the retraction of the grant seemed to undermine was the authority of the NAC. Public interest in Liew's work emptied many stores of the book, prompting a second print run.


Oh, and read this "terrifyingly accurate indictment of the journalistic world" by Tom Cox, formerly of The Guardian. Some of you might be able to relate to this.