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.


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