Thursday, December 29, 2011

Footprints in the Sands of Time

TINA KISIL grew up a loner in a brood of twelve. A misfit and a misunderstood child, her shyness often misconstrued as arrogance, she began observing people at a tender age and took refuge in the world of books. Forced to quit school at eighteen to help support her younger siblings through school, she was told by her mother to choose: be a nurse or a teacher. Since blood makes her faint, she chose the latter. After earning her teaching diploma, she dedicated the best 35 years of her life to her students. She now lives a quiet life in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, where she catches up on her reading and tries to charm her backyard into a garden. She still finds refuge in the world of books.

Her first book, Footprints in the Paddy Fields (MPH Publishing/MPH Digital, 2010), is both a family portrait and a childhood memoir, set against the vanished world of bamboo huts on spindly timber stilts, a world where one’s prized possessions were makeshift farm tools and a buffalo or two, and where the dead were placed in stone burial jars. It documents a waning way of Malaysian life, one where, sadly, many Malaysians are not aware of. Those were the days when removing human heads was a sport, and the only mode of transport was a pair of good legs. In her memoir, Kisil takes the reader on a journey into a world very seldom seen; it is fascinating to see how the Dusuns in Sabah on the island of Borneo lived at a time when wealth was measured by the amount of rice a farmer harvested and a hard-working sumandak made a more alluring bride than her pretty sister. Written to preserve some of the old Dusun beliefs, customs and cultural practices that the author grew up with, this engaging and enlightening memoir is a delightful reminiscence of what it was like to be a child growing up in Sabah in the 1960s when Sabah was still known as British North Borneo.

Kisil thinks she is a little weird because she enjoys her own company and likes to think and ruminate about things. “I’m at the moment taking a short break after finishing my first book, Footprints in the Paddy Fields, and trying to read as many books as possible between cooking, washing and everything else a homemaker does,” she says. She is also polishing a story for a picture book, trying to tone it down so it doesn’t turn into a horror story for kids. She doesn’t like horror. She’d love to attempt a short story or two or a novella.

Interview by ERIC FORBES
Photograph courtesy of TINA KISIL

How do you find the time to read?
Even when I was working, I found the time to read. You need not finish a book in one sitting. Five minutes stolen here and ten minutes there can add up to a certain number of hours per week. I always have a book with me to read while I wait for my turn at the bank, post office, clinic, etc. Now that I’m retired, I’ve the luxury of time and I can read whenever I want to. I also read before turning in, usually around one in the morning.

Do you think reading matters?
I believe very much so. Besides being an enjoyable activity, reading fiction makes us aware of a bigger world and takes us to places we may never even dream of going to. Reading gives us countless opportunities to walk in other people’s shoes and to experience their emotions, their worldviews, etc. We learn to care for and to empathise with fictional characters. This helps us to understand the real people we meet, perhaps even become less judgmental and critical. We develop as social beings and we understand ourselves better.

What kind of books did you read when you were growing up? Were there any books that had a significant impact on you at that early age?
There wasn’t a wide choice of reading materials for children when I was growing up, way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth! I loved the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. Enid Blyton was very popular then and I read many of her books although I wasn’t too fond of Golliwog, Noddy or talking toys as I was past the age for talking toys when I came across her books. I read most of Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven and Famous Five series. I remember thinking she was a brilliant storyteller.

When I was a little older I read the usual stuff girls read: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, etc. At thirteen, I read Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel. It made such an impact on me that I remember the title to this day. I found an abridged version of it recently and plan to revisit it to see why it stayed with me all these many decades!

Who are some of your favourite contemporary writers? Why do you enjoy reading their books?
Contemporary? I don’t know if the writers I read are contemporary. When I check a potential read, I look at the blurb, flip through a few pages and decide whether to read it based mainly on the style of writing. I like books which tell me something new. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed Arthur Hailey’s novels. Reading his books was like watching a documentary on Discovery or National Geographic. I also loved Wilbur Smith and his sagas about powerful South African families amidst the wilds of Africa. After my teen years, I never liked mushy love stories. I don’t think I read more than a handful of Denise Robbins and Barbara Cartland—the equivalent of M&Bs during my teenage years.

I like Roald Dahl—Matilda is one of my favourites among his many books. I think Dahl’s Revolting Poems are outrageously funny! Recently I borrowed My Uncle Oswald from the library, thinking that it was similar to Matilda (and therefore skipped reading the blurb) and got the shock of my life! I’m still reeling like a drunk after that ride with Dahl. Enough said.

What are some of your favourite contemporary books? Why do you enjoy reading them?
I happen to like older works, especially stories about Asians such as those written by Han Suyin, Pearl S. Buck and W. Somerset Maugham. They tell about a different world, a different time. I liked Ha Jin’s collection of stories, The Bridegroom, and his sad love story of a novel, Waiting. I thoroughly enjoyed Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. (I’m especially drawn to books about the Chinese written by Chinese authors, such as Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, Ningkun Wu’s A Single Tear and Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai.)

Why do I enjoy reading them? They transport me beyond my four walls and make me experience a wide range of emotions. I laugh and cry and marvel; I feel anger, hope, despair, horror, love and disgust. In short, I feel and am reminded I have a heart in my chest—not a piece of rock.

Do you have an all-time favourite book? Why do you enjoy reading it? Do you reread books you enjoyed the first time round?
I have new favourites all the time! But two favourites from long ago include Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds and Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. Both have the ability to evoke such strong emotions. I always reread books I enjoy and can never bear to give them away.

Assuming you enjoy reading fiction, what are the elements in fiction that take your breath away? In other words, what do you think are the essentials of good fiction? What distinguishes the great novels from the merely good? (If you prefer reading nonfiction, tell me why. Perhaps you enjoy reading both fiction and nonfiction?)
I read both fiction and nonfiction. I find memoirs fascinating and I love their novel-like quality. I guess I’m curious about people and reading about them satisfies this curiosity. Before memoirs of ordinary people became popular, I preferred biographies and history to other genres. One of the first autobiographies I read was Christiaan Barnard’s One Life. I was hooked immediately and returned to the library for more.

For me, a great story must have believable characters who are neither saints nor devils. Everyone has some good and bad in different proportions in them. It is important that I care for the protagonist. A good plot is important as well as an easy-to-read style. I find long, unbroken paragraphs of descriptions tedious and prefer them to be woven into the narratives and dialogues. Scenes and characters from great novels keep coming back to haunt you long after you’ve finished the book.

What are you reading at the moment?
I’ve just finished Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring which I liked very much and I’m finishing Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. (I’m surprised that the novel has been around for over half a century!) I usually read two or three books at once, mixing fiction with nonfiction. It takes me ages to finish a book, especially when I like it tremendously because I tend to go over the bits I find beautiful or fresh, much like caressing them with my eyes.

What are your thoughts on the future of books, particularly on e-books and e-book readers? Do you think the sale of e-books and e-book readers will have a repercussion on the sale of physical books in a bricks-and-mortar bookshop? Do you think they will replace physical books one day?
I like books. I like the way they feel, the way you could flip through the pages, write notes in the margins, etc. I think many people my age find it difficult to visualise other forms of books such as e-books and e-book readers. I guess when e-book readers are more affordable and the price of downloading a story is a fraction of the price we pay for a real book, fewer people would buy books in the bookshop. Most readers, after all, just want to read the stories and it makes no difference whether they’re flipping the pages of a physical book or clicking a button on a piece of plastic. However, books may not disappear completely if they become another collectors’ item. On the plus side, more trees will be saved, it’s lighter to travel even if you’re ‘loaded’ with books, and there’ll probably be less clutter at home. I’m just wondering, what are we going to put in the libraries?

Footprints in the Paddy Fields is also available as an e-book
Reproduced from The Malaysian Insider of May 29, 2010

Friday, December 23, 2011

Immersing Oneself in the Deep Pool of Humanity

ERIC FORBES talks to novelist KUNAL BASU about the relevance of literary fiction and how it helps us to navigate the rough seas of life

KUNAL BASU was born in Calcutta, India, but has spent much of his adult life in Canada and the United States. He has taught at the McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and has been a Professor of Marketing at Templeton College, Oxford University, England. Basu is the author of four novels, The Opium Clerk, The Miniaturist, Racists and The Yellow Emperor’s Cure. He has also acted in films and on stage, written poetry and screenplays, and has written and directed two documentaries. His first collection of short stories, The Japanese Wife and Other Stories, was published by HarperCollins India in January 2008. “The Japanese Wife,” a story from that collection, was made into a film by India’s celebrated director Aparna Sen, with Rahul Bose and Chigusa Takaku in the leading roles.

Define literary fiction and give examples of some books you consider to be works of literary fiction.
It’s hard to define literature just as it is hard to define art. A fictional piece of work that raises an individual’s aesthetic appreciation of life’s many facets would perhaps qualify as such. Its key distinction with popular fiction lies in its ability to probe a deeper consciousness within which the essence of humanity is revealed beyond the unfolding of simply a plot. Examples include War and Peace, Oliver Twist, Germinal, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Waiting for the Barbarians, and many, many more. Take J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, for example. While on the one hand it’s a brilliantly searing story about a powerful minority brutalising a whole society, it speaks as well to the evil that lurks within all of us no matter where we live.

What enjoyment do you get from reading such works?
For me, it creates an ‘out-of-body’ experience. It makes me connect, emotionally and cerebrally, with the wider humanity. Day-to-day life is, by definition, constricted to a specific context. I live in a small English town [Oxford] and rub shoulders with my neighbours and colleagues at the university. Virtual contact over the Internet creates an illusion of community. Yet it is fiction that truly panders to my romantic soul, allowing me to inhabit different characters and immerse myself in their own contexts. Fiction allows me to become truly omnipresent.

Name some of your favourite literary fiction and why you like them.
I was reared on a healthy dose of classics. Growing up in a house full of books (with a novelist mother and a publisher father), I read everything I could lay my hands on, sometimes without true comprehension. To their credit, my parents never discouraged me from reading anything. So [D.H. Lawrence’s] Lady Chatterley’s Lover was an early read alongside [Émile Zola’s] Nana and [Leo Tolstoy’s] Anna Karenina! Novels of romantic adventure appealed to me in my early years—the likes of The Count of Monte Cristo—and have tinged my palette. I read the vernacular [Bangla] voraciously as well. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, the 19th-century Bangla novelist, is still my all-time favourite. Dickens’s descriptive brilliance, Dostoevsky’s inner landscapes and Hugo’s dramatic moments kept me awake many, many nights. But I have favourites among contemporary authors as well. Here are a few: Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (it makes the most jaded of souls fall in love); Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (it reminds me of the devil that we all possess within ourselves); Amin Malouf’s Samarkand (for a spectacular civilisational sweep that connects the East and the West); Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (for infusing prose with poetry); and Marguerite Duras’s Lovers (for sheer playfulness).

Do you think that not liking literary novels is simply a matter of preference or does it imply a lack of discernment?
It’s a mark of superficiality. For many it could be lack of exposure as well. We are increasingly witnessing a dumbing down of sensibilities, stretching from early school years well into adult life. The world of reality TV, ‘laugh-a-minute’ and bathtub reads (e.g., chick-lit) is shaping our taste buds. Without sounding like an obscurantist, I view the late 20th and early 21st centuries to be inimical to the creative arts. It is becoming fashionable now to publicly confess that one doesn’t read books, just as it was once shameful to do so among decent folks around the world.

Who do you think literary novels are written for? Do you think most authors of such books have a particular demographic in mind?
Literary novels are written for those who aspire to a sensitive immersion in the pool of deep humanity. I don’t think most serious practitioners of literary fiction write with any audience in mind except their own selves. That’s what I do. In fact, the creative ethic runs exactly counter to the marketing ethic. The latter starts with the other—the ‘consumer’—trying to determine what they’d prefer to read, then work backwards to suggest to the author what he or she should write about. The creative person always starts with the inner voice and hopes that readers would appreciate what so appeals to him or her.

How important do you think it is for readers to read literary fiction? Why do you feel this way?
We are as a species sinking into the quicksand of superficiality and an all-embracing consumption ethos. Literature (and the Arts in general) is our only lifeline. If for nothing else, it’s vital for developing a well-honed intuition about oneself and one’s precious relationships. How would you navigate the rough seas of love, jealousy, hatred and tragedy without the compass of so many tales told by so many authors? It stands to enhance our sensations making for a more thrilling experience. I was once stranded in Paris without much money in my university days. Strolling around the city on an empty stomach, I’d be reminded constantly of Hemingway and A Moveable Feast. It helped to turn my mind from my stomach to my heart!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Retreating to write

Janet Tay
Editor JANET TAY heads for the highlands to beat writer’s block, only to discover distractions aplenty in paradise

ALL WRITERS WORK IN DIFFERENT WAYS. Some need absolute quiet, while others white noise is a must. Others borrow holiday cabins, country cottages, city flats, isolated bungalows, and even castles, so they can write. Most people don’t have the luxury of friends with extra, empty properties or time to get away. So writing is often done before or after one’s day job, after the end of the bustling day, after the children have gone to sleep, or just before the world awakes, before the children wake up to go to school.

When—often miraculously—you find yourself with time and a place to go to for a retreat, it’s an irresistible opportunity. I had been wrestling with the idea of a retreat for years, always making excuses for myself, thinking that it was an undeserved luxury and why couldn’t I just save some time and money instead and just write a little every day, in between work, in between meeting family and friends? Children do not occupy my time and I have no charge, young or old, in my care. An artist friend, who had been suggesting the idea of a retreat since a year ago, mentioned it again when I finally said to her: I think I’m ready.

What I had in mind was quite different from reality. Like the danger of writers who write because they are in love with the idea of writing, I was already deep in my fantasies, imagining an idyllic holiday more than an actual writing boot camp, which a retreat has a tendency to become and for some, what it actually is. I’m not saying there’s an instructor there with a whip shouting out orders. If there were one, it would be myself. And that’s the difficult part—I’m a terrible instructor. Discipline is also not in my nature; it has to be forced, cajoled, coaxed out. So as I was imagining quaint little budget hotels, clean with modern amenities, she suggested a spartan apartment in Bukit Tinggi, a mere forty minutes out of Kuala Lumpur, yet secluded and quiet enough to work.

If I had earlier imagined two artists (a painter and a writer) inspired by nature or stillness, hard at work for most of the day and exchanging (artistic) ideas at mealtimes, my fantasy was once again dispelled when my friend said she would probably meditate instead.

When she is deep in meditation, I do not speak to her and try not to make any noise. Even mealtimes are quiet, and she says to speak only in emergencies. We do not make small talk and I, not knowing the decorum and still struggling awkwardly with the foreignness of the act, try not to even make eye contact. Although it wouldn’t make a difference, as my friend says we will be invisible to each other, or at least try to be.

The first two days feel like a holiday. We settle in, and spartan though the apartment might be in most areas (there is no TV in the living room, there is no couch, only a dining table, there are no beds, only mattresses), the kitchen is well stocked, with a microwave and a fridge. I make endless cups of tea—the water up in the hills seems to taste different somehow—and enjoy the freshness of the icy cold water when I wash my face umpteenth times a day and put the heater on for the shower when it gets chilly, a luxury I had not expected. My friend is familiar with Bukit Tinggi so she brings me to her familiar eateries, mostly kopitiams with simple food and sundry shops to buy basic groceries—eggs, kaya (coconut jam), bread, even canned food.

We walk, we talk, we settle down. She dives immediately into her work. She has a paper to prepare, so when she’s not meditating for hours at a stretch, she sits at her desk to complete it. I too sit at the dining table with my laptop before me, thinking that in this quiet, chilly place, with fresh air and fresh water and almost zero distractions from family and friends, that the words will come rushing in, engulfing my head and hopefully my pages.

I was wrong. Like any other time, the discipline required comes from within. My mind has to settle itself, instead of waiting for external forces to settle it. There’s the whole day to work on my writing, instead of the schedule I’m used to, juggling other editing jobs and dissertation writing. I had looked forward to the conceived paradise of having absolutely nothing else to do but to write what I want to write.

As I pace about restlessly, making cups of tea that now remain undrunk and washing invisible dust off my face, I tell my friend I’m not as productive as I thought I would be. She does not understand: “Why not just be disciplined, sit down and do the work?” She’s right, of course, but the wild, flighty animal in my mind scratches itself, scratches me and begs to go home. It begs for television, for my usual routine, for an escape hatch when the writing is blocked.

I email friends and family, letting myself lament a little, but just a little, because it feels like a sin to complain about paradise. If on the first day I had banned even SMSes from family because I would be “busy working,” I now craved for them to distract me from my hostility against myself and my surroundings. I felt cheated even though nothing was ever promised to me, except the many assumptions my mind had made.

Once the mind accepts its fate glumly, there is nothing left to do but to make the best of it. It is not a holiday. You can take naps—or walk, eat or rest—if you want to. But when you’re not doing what the body and mind needs to be productive, be productive. Write, even when you don’t feel like it. For the first two days, without venturing very far to start a story from scratch or do some major rewriting, I do minor editing and frantically Google and read articles about publishing and writing and short stories by other writers, feeding on them like a cocaine addict. When I’m utterly stumped and frustrated, I go to my room, pick up my copy of East of Eden and try to let Steinbeck’s dense descriptions seep into my mind. I can only manage a few small chapters at a time, so I come out again to the living room to try to “write.”

The routine becomes like this: when I’m not writing, whatever else I do should be facilitating the writing process, whether directly or indirectly. If I’m not reading, I can take walks to clear the mind. I hear swimming is a great way to do this, but unfortunately I do not swim. Checking emails is fine, but obsessively doing it and praying someone will write is not.

I observe my friend, who, when meditating, is completely absorbed in it, the way it should be. Everything else, for this moment, for this retreat, is unimportant, except for the process on which she is focused. Her determination is effective medicine for me, and after a night of contemplating what must be done, without complaints, without self-pity and without second-guessing or self-doubt, I sit in front of my laptop—wherever it may be—and just write, as if it is the only thing left in the world to do.

Reproduced from the October-December 2011 issue of Quill magazine

Friday, December 02, 2011

December 2011 Highlights

1. 1222 (trans. from the Norwegian by Marlaine Delargy) (Scribner, 2011) / Anne Holt
2. Mistaken (Soft Skull Press, 2012) / Neil Jordan
3. The House at Tyneford (published in the UK as The Novel in the Viola) (Plume, 2011) / Natasha Solomons
4. Murder in Mount Holly (Mysterious Press, 2011) / Paul Theroux

First Novels
1. One Hundred and One Nights (Back Bay Books, 2011) / Benjamin Buchholz
2. Out Of It (Bloomsbury UK, 2011) / Selma Dabbagh
3. Jubilee (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2011) / Shelley Harris
4. The Origin of Violence (trans. from the German by Frank Wynne, 2011) (Serpent’s Tale, 2011) / Fabrice Humbert
5. All the Flowers in Shanghai (William Morrow, 2011) / Duncan Jepson

1. The Artist of Disappearance (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011) / Anita Desai
2. It Chooses You (Canongate, 2011) / Miranda July
3. The Uninnocent (Pegasus Books, 2011) / Bradford Morrow

1. Memoir: An Introduction (Oxford University Press USA, 2011) / G. Thomas Couser
2. George F. Kennan: An American Life (Allen Lane, 2011) / John Lewis Gaddis
3. The Happy Life: The Search for Contentment in the Modern World (Chatto & Windus, 2011) / David Malouf
4. Traces Remain: Essays and Explorations (Allen Lane, 2011) / Charles Nicholl
5. Ehere the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford University Press, 2011) / Alvin Plantinga
6. An Honourable Englishman: The Life of Hugh Trevor-Roper (Random House, 2011) / Adam Sisman
7. The Poet’s Freedom (The University of Chicago Press, 2011) / Susan Stewart

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Catchy Covers

Malaysian publisher AMIR MUHAMMAD reveals the inspiration behind the bold eye-catching covers of his new imprint, Fixi

WHEN I STARTED a new book imprint, Fixi, for urban Malay pulp fiction, I knew I wanted the books to look bold and distinctive. This is because pulp fiction needs lurid, catchy covers.

My immediate inspiration for the covers was the Vintage Black Lizard label. I bought many of its books in the 1990s, especially its reprints of titles by my favourite crime writer, Jim Thompson. They all had posed, moody black-and-white photos of people, overlaid by the titles and author names in bold strips of colour.

So I knew I wanted photographs and bold colors and one-word titles. This goes against the trend of Malay fiction, which normally has illustrations in pastels. These are how the first seven covers came about; they are all designed by Teck Hee.

Author: Khairulnizam Bakeri
Photographer: Danny Lim
This is inspired by the very first scene of Pecah, which is a bank heist conducted by men who cover their faces in purdah. Since the story has many flashbacks which gradually reveal the truth about what’s going on, the purdah is kept here as a metaphor for concealment. Also, the gun is to indicate the crime genre. Along the way, we were also inspired by the poster for the Robert Rodriguez movie Desperado.

Author: Shaz Johar
Photographer: Danny Lim
Kougar is about a 40-year-old woman who has a thing for younger men. So the idea of appetite needed to be there. There is a scene where the protagonist Kisha eats an ice-cream sundae, so we tried to mock it up. But we ended up cropping out most of the sundae (you see some cream) to concentrate on the face.

Author: Ridhwan Saidi
Photographer: Danny Lim
Cekik is a postmodern, trippy kind of book totally unlike anything I have read by a Malaysian. The protagonist is a teenage boy who has a fetish for necks, and whose views on life are perhaps formed by his early experiences of watching porn. The idea of a woman strangled by VHS tape gets to the kinkiness right away, as does the effect of the image being ‘stuck’ in a film projector.

Author: Affifudin Omar
Photographer: Pang Khee Teik
Dendam is a tale of corruption and ambition in business and politics. The protagonist Khalil Gibran has a base in KLCC, so we wanted to use the towers as the backdrop. The initial idea was to have just the towers (like Salman Rushdie’s Fury) but it was decided that having a model worked better. Having the face subtly ‘sliced’ in two is also meant to show the distortion of his worldview.

Author: Saifullizan Tahir
Photographer: Pang Khee Teik
Kasino is about a businessman who enjoys the finer things in life such as wine, women and the baccarat table. We wanted to convey unapologetic decadence. My initial idea involving a champagne glass didn’t work, so Pang suggested burning money! Luckily my RM100 notes weren’t really burned, just mildly singed.

Author: Dayang Noor
Photographer: Nik Adam Ahmad
Jerat is a thriller set in the IT world. The protagonist is a woman who has lost her memory. This took quite a while to conceptualise because I wanted the cover to convey both the vulnerability of her amnesiac condition as well as the IT backdrop. Hence the final decision to have the model ‘mummified’ by computer cables.

Author: Gina Yap Lai Yoong
Photographer: Nik Adam Ahmad

Ngeri is a college thriller about a serial killer who has difficulty distinguishing between movie fiction and murderous reality. This also went through many drafts because we did not want to give too much of the plot away, such as the gender of the murderer (or even the victims). So we decided on something as iconic as a movie teaser poster, where we are told that, yes, there will be blood.

More information on Fixi titles can be found at
Reproduced from the October-December 2011 issue of Quill magazine