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MEETING SLOVENIANS AT SILVERFISH

Silverfish Books recently moved to chic new premises in Bangsar (next to Devi’s Corner). I missed their official opening and didn’t get around to dropping by until last Wednesday (11 July 2001) when they hosted an informal powwow with Slovenian literary luminaries Evald Flisar and Maja Vidmar.

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The young Evald Flisar 

Author-playwright Flisar is president of the Slovene Writers’ Association and editor of a reputable literary magazine. Ms Vidmar is a well-known poet with three published collections (Distances of the Body, 1984; Ways of Binding, 1988; and At the Base, 1998). What brought them to Malaysia was a close encounter with Malaysian novelist Chuah Guat Eng at a writers’ symposium in Helsinki earlier this year. Since they were on a cultural mission to Australia, they figured a brief stopover to say hello to Chuah and meet Malaysian writers might prove a pleasant and productive digression. A third member of the touring Slovenian writers, Andrej Blatnik, had opted to sun himself on a Tioman beach instead of staying in hazy, humid Kuala Lumpur (so his works are unlikely ever to become bestsellers in Malaysia – big deal!)

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Chuah Guat Eng

Also at the session was Singapore-born writer Lau Siew Mei (currently based in Rimbun Dahan on an Asialink scholarship). Ms Lau, whose mother is from Penang, is a Brisbane resident whose first novel, Playing Madame Mao (Brandl & Schlesinger, 2000) was shortlisted in the inaugural Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for the best emerging Queensland author. She read a few evocative paragraphs from her novel, set in the brave new island-republic of Singapore, where intellectuals do their thinking in the everpresent shadow of Big Brother and his secret police. (Or else they migrate south to the Land of Oz, where they just might get a grant from the Australia Council for the Arts.)

Apart from Chuah Guat Eng, others in attendance included playwright Ann Lee, a young poet-troubadour named Jerome Kugan, and the affable Japanese writer-translator Takashi Yoshida (who had also attended the Helsinki writers’ powwow).

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Maja Vidmar

Much interest was expressed in the Slovenian national mythos – which seems to be characterized by a pervading sense of existential angst, metaphysical restlessness, and the inevitable nostalgia of the cultural exile. Flisar himself has spent the larger part of his 56 years as a sort of Wandering Jew, working as an underground train driver in Sydney, editing a scientific encyclopedia in London, and nosing his way around at least 80 countries, mostly in the Third World. His semi-autobiographical cult novel, ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,’ documents his quest for inner balance in the Mystic East, after a debilitating nervous breakdown in 1983.

We discussed the fierce individualism and intellectual independence the Slovenian intelligentsia have somehow always enjoyed, even amidst the terrible turmoil accompanying the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Flisar drily observed that the inter-ethnic conflict in the Balkans stems mainly from the Serbs’ dogmatic insistence on racial dominance… yes, that whole “ketuanan” nonsense which we in Malaysia are all too familiar with.

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A pensive Maja Vidmar

Maja Vidmar read a few of her own poems, first in English, then in the original Slovenian. Everyone was touched by the sensual lyricism and luxurious musicality of her sensitive imagery, which came through even more vividly in her native tongue.

There was an attempt to discuss the dearth of writers and the sorry state of intellectual life in Malaysia – but fatigue rapidly set in and the thread was soon abandoned.

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Evald Flisar, writer in his prime

Certainly the featured readings and dialogues hosted by Silverfish Books are a noble attempt to keep the love of literature alive. The setting is certainly convivial enough and one can always continue the heady discussions over a few drinks just down the road.

On July 22 at 4.30 pm, Kee Thuan Chye presents excerpts from A Sense of Home – his novel-in-progress. And beginning on August 1st, Chuah Guat Eng and Lorna Tee will offer creative writing classes for adults and students.  Those interested will find more information at http://www.silverfishbooks.com.

19 July 2001

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WRITINGS ON THE WALL

Antares catches a whiff of ‘concretoceptual word-artist’ Latif Kamaluddin’s BAD BREATH

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Latif Kamaluddin, philosopher-monk
disguised as a human being

A couple of years ago, Latif Kamaluddin asked me to review a self-published collection of his “concretoceptual poems” entitled Words Have Meaning. It was printed in black ink on red card, which brought on eyestrain on top of brainstrain.

Much as I’m fond of Latif Kamaluddin the human being, I couldn’t oblige. In the first place, his idea of poetry, which he terms “word-art,” left me cold and unmoved. I viewed it as a purely cerebral exercise – a verbal wank to relieve the pressures of a stultifying ivory-tower tenure – Latif’s way of rebelling against everything academia stood for by parodying with a poker face the academic mindset itself.

Recently I received in the post his second self-published compilation, this time printed on recycled brown stock and infinitely more legible and stimulating, which bore the irresistible title (itself a work of word-art): BAD BREATH & FIREPROOF DRAG QUEENS (Otherwise known as Khepa’s Dilemma – Being a Concretoceptual Celebration of Irrelevant Research).

Never mind who Khepa is and why he’s in a dilemma, one soon gets used to Latif’s esoteric references to obscure authorities and his invocation of little-known sadhu lineages. With his navel-length Mr Natural beard, perpetually furrowed brow, and shiny pate, Latif could easily pass for a sadhu or mad monk himself.

Indeed, this hirsute professor-cum-philosopher-turned word-artist, who heads a small research unit in Universiti Sains Malaysia’s School of Social Sciences, looks like some venerable Greek Cypriot archbishop or a mantra-chanting beatnik poet from an era long gone. All he needs is a pair of shades to completely mask his identity as that rarest of endangered subspecies – an “Indo-Malay-Hungarian” academic holding a unique niche in a field unvisited by mainstream Malaysian concerns.

All the more reason, then, that the advent of Latif’s second concretoceptual word-art anthology should not pass unremarked. In the arid, conformist intellectual climate of Malaysia in her slogan-slinging, consumer-industrial phase of development, Dr Abdul Latif Kamaluddin shimmers like an oasis of open-minded eclecticism and eccentricity – an indicator that there is intelligent life yet in the utilitarian factories of state-controlled academia. Or at least a mutant high-brow graffiti artist at large in the instant ghettoes of our national psyche.

What does Latif mean by “concretoceptual”? What on earth is Word-Art? Is it all a put-on? And who is Nabanidas Baul, whose mad Bengali sadhu visage opens and closes the slim volume? I can’t answer these questions. Unless some brave soul takes on the challenge, we’ll just have to accept Latif’s word for the existence of literary and philosophical notables like Dolf Hartsuiker, Oeyvind Fahlstroem, Konstantin Amadeus Wecker, and Hermes Phettberg. This is one highly educated hierophant mystic indeed.

Among my personal favorites in the anthology, Latif’s Ode to Mr Bush deserves special mention for its clarity, cogency and conciseness: 45 “SIEGHEILS”  (all in caps) arranged like a column of orcs in 15 rows.

Politics is another prime example of concretoceptual word-art: what looks like a trash can constructed  from the word POLITICS contains only the looped phrase, “Garbage in, garbage out.” No bin liner, bed linen or bin Laden jokes, please.

In Words-Worth, Latif approaches the zen heart of a logical-mystical conundrum with pristine geometric economy: “WORD ON PAGE/PAGE ON PAPER/PAPER ON BOOK/BOOK ON TREE/TREE ON SOIL/SOIL ON EARTH … EARTH IN SOIL/SOIL IN TREE/TREE IN BOOK/BOOK IN PAPER/PAPER IN PAGE/PAGE IN  WORD.” Twelve 3-word lines set in two vertical columns with a “prayalic” break – suggesting the sacred pause between inhalation and exhalation, destruction and creation, one swing of the pendulum and the next.

Latif’s polysyllabic concretoceptualizations walk a tightrope between the serious and the absurd, between the sagacious and the puerile, between solemnity and spontaneity. In a preface entitled Why Write?, he solipsistically concludes:

“WE WRITE (AGAIN) BECAUSE it is an act of semi-totalized self-colonization.” Practitioners of tantric sex value the sublime process of orgasmic non-ejaculation, wherein the seedforce is redirected internally along the spine, so that it can inseminate and fructify the crown chakra, meeting-point of Mind and Spirit.

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Front cover of Bad Breath & Fireproof
Drag Queens

Well, imagine attempting to do that in print.

There is a noticeable change in the tenor of the works dedicated to the poet’s muse, who is acknowledged only as “K.” His words become grounded in organicity, they even acquire rhyme: “We are but blood and a tear/Posted on some painted door/Yet we know not what to bear/All we ask for is some more” (Liturgy for K).

Occasionally, Latif erupts in pure peevishness, notably when he addresses local politics in pieces like Alamak Ulamak, Lagu Kebangsaan, Wa Wa Wa San, Bladi Gomen, Guess Who, Malaysia Boleh, and Sudden Death. Yes, he also writes in Malay and Manglish whenever he’s feeling particularly pissed off. Though these off-the-wall moments do not attain the heights of poetic finesse, they do serve a potent purgative purpose, and reveal a man whose heart is essentially with the rakyat, even when his mind soars way above the clouds.

Latif the Human Relations Worker has been known to support fringe causes with a burning passion, attending to marginalized groups like abused children, the visually handicapped, and the transgendered (which explains the reference to “fireproof drag queens” in the book’s title). Indeed, Latif provocatively dedicates his second anthology “to the Malay-Muslim Apostate.” There are times when one is sharply reminded of the paradigm-shifting power of the printed word.

BAD BREATH is destined to be a collectors’ item: a bold and fragrant breeze of inspired unworldliness, lovingly published in a limited edition and on sale at Silverfish Books, Jalan Telawi 3, Bangsar Baru (next to Devi’s Corner).

For a free digital sample of Latif Kamaluddin’s concretoceptual word-art, visit http://www.magickriver.net/latif.htm

October 2003

8 Brilliant Plays in 4 Tumultuous Years

ImageHuzir Sulaiman must be sick and tired of being called precocious, an enfant terrible, a veritable prodigy. But that’s only because people believe him when he says he was born in 1973.

After reading his recently published Eight Plays, I’m convinced that Huzir must be at least several years my senior and ready to withdraw his EPF money. Either that or he’s suffering from progeria – a wasting disease that grossly accelerates the aging process – because I distinctly recall acting with Huzir Sulaiman in a 1981 production called Struggles of the Naga Tribe when he claimed to be only seven. Well, even then, he seemed rather precocious – and a whole lot more approachable than the image of the enigmatic and disdainful savant he sports today.

But I’ll say this: few people I know deserve to be called “creative genius” as much as Huzir Sulaiman does, regardless of mental age or attitude towards his audiences.  I have no idea what his formative years were like. I know his parents are incredibly smart (his dad was one-time president of the Bar Council, and featured prominently as a senior member of Anwar Ibrahim’s defence team) – but what books did he read, was he good at sports, did he like girls? I’m told he was a top student at Princeton, though I haven’t a clue what his major was. All I know is that Huzir returned to KL in the mid-1990s looking like a tweedy middle-aged Ivy League professor.

But, boy, could he act! He was superb in every rôle he played, even when cast as a Malaysian “Mr Bean” in a silly TV sitcom series. Then he tried his hand at directing – and the results were outstanding. Next thing I knew, this prodigious enfant terrible had churned out a slew of plays – all of them excellent, damn him!

And now Silverfishbooks have published eight of them in an affordable paperback edition. Unfortunately the laminated covers curl as soon as you begin to read. Well, one either lives with this or holds out for a hardcover edition. And this collection undoubtedly deserves a permanent place in any library. Not everyone thinks plays are good reading but in this case I found the text extremely engaging as literature, and the exercise actually forced me to change my mind about some Huzir productions I’d seen (but more about that later).

It’s true Huzir’s first play, a one-man show called Lazy Hazy Crazy, was pretty much an Instant Café Theatre revue – but without the rest of the famous cast, of which he had been a member for a season or two. It was nonetheless hilarious and wackily inspired, and established his Straits Theatre Company as a cutting edge force. The playwright decided to omit this early effort from the collection – either because he prefers the numeral 8 to 9, or perhaps he felt it didn’t quite match the elegance and sophistication of his subsequent works.

A strategic move: because his second play, Atomic Jaya, was simply explosive. No, it didn’t bomb. On the contrary, it was arguably the most scathing, timely, and intelligent satire ever seen in these parts. The first version had the incredible Jo Kukathas playing all 14 parts. It was revised and restaged three years later in Singapore with the phenomenal Claire Wong as the entire cast.

Who can resist quoting a brief exchange between Dr Mary Yuen (nuclear physicist) and General Zulkifli (who commissions her to build the first Malaysian atom bomb)?

General Zulkifli welcomes Dr Mary Yuen to the research laboratory of Syarikat Perniagaan Atomic Jaya Sdn. Bhd.

YUEN:  Yes, I was confused about the sign. You mean this is a private company?

GENERAL:  It’s not my decision. Everything they must privatize now. But it’s okay. The directors of the company include seven generals and one Prime Minister’s son. You must have Prime Minister’s son. Keep them busy. Otherwise if unemployed they will start the NGO.

Exquisite precision. Atomic Jaya had the same electrifying intensity as Stanley Kubrick’s classic Dr Strangelove or Terry Gilliam’s hyperrealistic Brazil. It was delightful to be able to read the script and be mesmerized all over again by the sparkling wit and sheer inventiveness of this brilliantly mad exposé of the psychopathology of Bolehland.

The Smell of Language – an involuted and priapic experiment in verbal synesthesia (no doubt inspired by the fractal semantic constructs of Jorge Luis Borges) struck me as one huge wank when I saw Huzir perform it – albeit a highly erudite one with serious political undertones. But as a printed text, it holds enormous appeal for anyone who takes pleasure in cunning linguistics and the ruthlessness of intellectual virtuosity.

It’s easy to see why Hip-Hopera – Huzir’s shot at writing and directing a feel-good rap musical – proved such a box-office hit, playing to packed houses for a full month. The characters are breezy and instantly likeable, the tunes lively, funky (and forgettable), but the lyrics… the lyrics are something else, check this out:

I’m a soap-box preacher, a lyrical teacher
And if you come into my theatre there’s an usher who will seat ya
And if you come into my parlour I’m sure I’m pleased to meet ya
And if you come into my bed you can see the main feature
Got a lot of philosophy that just might reach ya
Cause I dig Heidegger and Friedrich Nietszche
I need ya, I’ll feed ya, I’m never going to cheat ya
But if you lie like the President I am going to impeach ya

Genuinely capable and inventive individuals like Huzir Sulaiman are the only cure for Terminal Malaysiabolehitis. Their creative contributions rescue us from chronic cultural embarrassment or, worse, premature self-congratulations.

I regret missing Zahim Albakri’s performance of Notes on Life & Love & Painting, which received critical accolades. Reading it was truly an aesthetic experience and further reinforced my admiration for the way Huzir Sulaiman has integrated his Ivy League education with an intrinsically Malaysian sensibility. His diatribe on the myth of artistic originality is worth framing as a poster and I feel compelled to quote a portion of it, truncated for brevity:

We have rubber trees because rubber trees were brought here from Brazil by the British. Chilli is not indigenous. Chilli was imported from South America 500 years ago. What comes from Malaysia? We buy our rice from Thailand now and our sarongs from Indonesia. Was the novel invented in Malaysia? No. Did we invent films and television? Is painting indigenous to Malaysia? No. Is abstract art an outgrowth of weaving mengkuang? Like fuck it is. So why should anybody expect me to be original? It angers me when after hundreds of years of importing aspects of other people’s culture some politician in a 4,000-ringgit Italian suit complains about Western values and such-and-such a thing is not from our culture. Our culture is everybody else’s culture. We’ve never had our own. Deal with it and grow up. Would you like some coffee? No? It’s Colombian.

He even succeeds in ending the monologue on a positive, life-affirming note. Awesome! It’s one of those wonderfully self-contained masterpieces one wishes one had written.

The neo-existentialist mood of Election Day annoyed and depressed me when I caught the play, staged as it was nine days after a bitterly disappointing election that saw business-as-usual triumph over ethical and environmental considerations. But in the ensuing years, I have come to accept that Huzir was right – the male ego’s desire to screw something terribly sexy, like an exotic woman or an entire country, transcends belief systems and underlies all acts of betrayal. However, I’m still unhappy with the way Huzir disposes of two of his characters, getting them hauled off by the cops for assaulting a police officer. Surely he could have found some way to invoke the dreaded ISA?

Those Four Sisters Fernandez represents the playwright’s exploration of his own Malayalee roots. There are many scintillating moments and memorable lines, yet the play leaves a great deal unresolved – but I suppose life’s a lot like that. As an attempt to document the collective psyche of a fascinating subculture and how it responds to change, the play carries considerable value. Nonetheless, it isn’t my favorite in the collection.

The last two plays – Occupation and Whatever That Is – have only ever been staged in Singapore. The former was commissioned by the 2002 Singapore Arts Festival while the latter was presented as part of an evening of 10-minute plays entitled Squeeze and SqueezabilityOccupation is a masterful and disciplined exploration of internal puns and rhymes, and the nebulous nature of historical reconstruction. I found it a tad clinical yet strangely heartwarming. What impressed me most was Huzir’s knack of capturing the inflections of his characters’ speech in print.

Huzir Sulaiman of Studio Wong Huzir

If one must draw comparisons, it’s Salman Rushdie who comes to mind: I regard Rushdie as one of the most engaging contemporary writers in English, a happy and unexpected by-product of the late great British Empire, whose “native” soul fuses ecstatically with his “colonized” mind. Well, we don’t want a fatwa on Huzir’s head – but it definitely does me proud to claim dat young fler as an old friend (no pun intended). And to think he used to call me “Uncle.” This is ridiculously mature work for someone who just turned 29.

Whatever That Is reads like a miniature gem in the chic and cerebral style of Yasmina Reza (whose award-winning play, Art, was staged by Huzir’s Straits Theatre Company in June 2001). Huzir certainly knows how to play with pregnant pauses, making silence speak louder than his wonderfully crafted words.

An extremely hearty slap on the back to Silverfishbooks for making Huzir Sulaiman’s Eight Plays available in print. What an excellent public service. May it reach far and wide and redeem our pygmified intellectual self-esteem. I hope we don’t lose one of our finest creative minds to a neighboring country for lack of appreciation.

[First published on kakiseni.com, December 2002. A year after this review, Huzir Sulaiman decided to settle in Singapore, where he married Claire Wong, another former Malaysian and an absolutely superb actress.]

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