“What are you doing in Malaysia?”
Posted on 4 March 2013
“Welcome to Readings, I’m Sharon Bakar,” said the host Amir Muhammad. Sharon Bakar, the organizer, was seated in the front row, taking a break from her hosting duties.
The readings usually take place in front of Hamir Soib’s Tak ada beza, a 4-panel painting of pigs walking on their hind legs. This time, the readings took place in another part of Seksan Gallery, in front of a series of mixed-media works by students from Universiti Teknologi MARA. Reading@Seksan’s 9th anniversary was last month, but this month’s event is bigger.
Why? Tash Aw is reading. His first novel, Harmony Silk Factory, won the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Novel. Nobel laureate Doris Lessing said the book is “unputdownable.” He is in Malaysia promoting his new book. He is a Big Deal.
The first reader is Ksatriya. Amir Muhammad introduces him as the “next Cecil Rajendra,” no doubt because of the Penang connection. Ksatriya is based in Gelugor, near George Town, and he organizes an monthly open mic at China House, a restaurant in George Town itself. Like Cecil Rajendra, Ksatriya is a poet. His first poem was called “Small Blessings.” It’s short enough to quote in full.
A golden sunset extinguished
into azure seawater,
Pop hits and hip-hop beats mingle
with the Muslim call to prayer,
The aroma of spice-
cardamoms and star anise
sauteed with onions and a bite of chili:
pungeant and tangy,
In some secret places
shy lovers share furtive glances
eager young fingers exploring
each others horizons
parted lips praying against prying eyes
between wet kisses,
The Malacca Straits
pools into little puddles
on my balcony floor,
A fresh cup of coffee,
Could a poet ask for more?
Ksatriya tries to set a beautiful scene, but ends up resorting to a few clichés. I’m sick of hearing about a “golden sunset,” or about water being “azure.” I haven’t heard “pop hits” and “hip-hop beats” mingling with the Azan, but the image is already stale.
Is “Little Blessings” a good poem? Is it a poem at all? Purists would say no. These are people who say that poetry’s job is to talk about what is unspeakable. Unspeakable in the sense of something that is impossible to say, not something horrific. The revolutionary message of slam poetry is that anyone can write a poem.
Melizarani Selvakkumar’s poems are slam poems. Her first poem is written from the point of view of a microphone. The previous sentence should have carried a spoiler alert, because she wanted us to guess. Creating that sense of curiosity in the audience is the art of slam poetry, and performance in general. She has worked on her delivery, it is strong and sensuous, even though she’s reading off of her smartphone.
Melizarani’s second poem, Indiantity, starts off with a question: How can you be proud of your racial identity if you struggle with it?
I struggle with my identity
Or should I say my Indian-tity
Though I proudly tick Indian on the tiny checkboxes
Of forms trying to fit me into a category
Identity is an important theme in literature. We don’t know who we are when we are born, we grow into that understanding. In Malaysia, there are limits. There is a belief that Malays should deal with Malay culture, Chinese with Chinese culture and Indians with Indian culture. That’s the way it works and if you don’t like it then, in the words of Sharifah Zohra, what are you doing in Malaysia?
Like many poets, Melizarani rejects these clear-cut labels in favour of a murkier version of identity. It may be less clear to others how she chooses to identify herself, but it is her choice. Indiantity is a celebration of that.
In between Ksatriya and Melizarani’s readings, the Satay Trio performed a Herbie Hancock cover, an original composition, and a cover of Bryan Adams’s “Heaven.” The violinist Fung Chern Hwei’s solo during “Butterfly,” the Herbie Hancock cover, accompanied by guitarist Az Samad a quarter-note behind (or ahead of) him, was jarring, captivating. I couldn’t look away.
As the first reader after the break, Zafar Anjum gave an unspectacular reading. At one point, he asked the audience if he should read another story. I have never gone to a reading where the answer to that question was no.
I came across a puzzling simile in Zafar’s short story “Crime and Punishment“:
“He is so famished, he gobbles up the meal like a glutton just released from internment in a terrorist’s den.”
This strikes me as overkill, which I suppose is the point.
Kris Williamson read next. He kept apologising for stuff. It was his first reading, he was nervous, so he gets a free pass. Kris speaks fluent Malay, he tweets in Malay, but he is white. A Malay girl attended one of Kris’s book signings, Amir said, just to make sure.
Kris read from his novel Son Complex. Kris read his “Malay rage” passage in the novel, a part where the protagonist, a clueless American Muslim, goes to the mosque for prayers. He kisses the ground, instead of touching it with his forehead and nose. At least the spot where he was praying won’t need any extra cleaning, his host remarks. The protagonist, Aaron, is an outsider in Malaysia, and part of the charm of the novel comes from Aaron stumbling his way across the Malaysian landscape.
Son Complex is the first release from Fixi Novo, a new Malaysian genre publisher. The imprint announced its arrival with a manifesto that declared “we wanna reach out to the young, the sengkek and the kiam siap.”
Tash Aw rounded off the event. He related the story of his first reading event in the US, where he went onstage after a rapper with a voice like Tom Waits. No one got the Tom Waits reference.
He read a passage from his new novel Five Star Billionaire where one of the protagonists (there are 5), a woman named Phoebe Chen, is on a date with her rich boyfriend. The boyfriend wants to drop by his apartment to pick up his handphone. Phoebe thinks this is a ploy to get her into bed. As they drive into his apartment, she catches a glimpse of one of the security guards and their eyes meet.
“She saw herself through his eyes: the beautiful girlfriend of a millionaire, the kind of expensive, classy woman who would be rude to you without even knowing it, and you wouldn’t mind her rudeness because she was pretty and rich, and you were nothing.”
In the moment where Phoebe and the security guard exchange glances, something troubling occurs. Not only does she see herself as the security guard sees her; her old self sees her new self, and her new self is found lacking, empty, meaningless. And then the moment passes.
Amir didn’t bother asking the audience if we’ve read Harmony Silk Factory, or Aw’s second novel, Map of the Invisible World. It was a given that we haven’t.∗
See Tshiung Han is a reverse cina ah pek. He edits and publishes New Village zines.
Disclaimer: Han has organized Readings@Seksan once and hosted twice, and he regularly sells his zines at Readings.
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