Angeline Loh replied 18th Mar '13:
An Introduction to Wordcraft
My reply is from a personal perspective, my own personal experience of becoming a writer, as I have no formal training in journalism or writing, as such. It was something that grew out of necessity and the impulse to share my thoughts.
Perhaps, it all began with my 'O' Level study of English Literature. The exposure to many kinds of writers in the English language, from Shakespeare to Alechi Amadi, Leon Uris, Anita Desai, Agatha Christie, Dostoyesky, Harold Robbins, and many other best sellers, less known and translated authors. The middle-class, English educated family I come from, saw reading as the key to knowledge and language. Even so, the written word is a large part of daily life, now in this cyber literary age.
I didn't aspire to be a writer, at first, it just happened. From reading the classics on my school literature syllabus, and gradually learning to appreciate and enjoy the wit of words used by those master word smiths of classic novels, plays and poetry, I ventured into other worlds. When reality was getting me down, Dad's library of books became a world of adventure to escape to. I love history, and books were the threshold to the past in different lands, cultures, religions, so many varied and completely diverse environments. The world of words became a means of mental escapism. Then, the wandering and looking, progressed to dabbling in words, imitating and experimenting – writing short imaginative, descriptive pieces, just to try it out. At that early stage, writing served as a valve to “let off steam” for daily frustrations I faced in trying to realize my childhood dream of becoming an artist. One day, I sent a couple of poems to a newly advertized monthly tabloid, and earned 10 Malaysian Ringgit (about USD 3) for their publication. For the first time in my life, I'd earned a little money from writing. It seemed a flash in the pan as later attempts to get published got nowhere. That door seemed to have shut. But, the reading never lost its appeal as I went on to further my studies and after six years of academia, and nearly ten years living in a foreign country, returned to Malaysia. I was a happily married, very busy housewife, whose husband worked for a multinational company. My husband was seconded to Hong Kong for three months and I went with him. During those long days in Hong Kong, when he was at work and I had nothing better to do than wander downtown into the Kowloon department stores, parks and seafront, have the cheapest snacks I could find, and take photos, I decided to keep a journal. I can't speak Cantonese or very much of any Chinese dialect, so writing was another way of speaking to myself, since holding a conversation with anyone local would be difficult and stilted. Being quiet and passive by nature, doesn't exactly advertize my approachability, either. Apart from reading, hours were also whiled away watching satellite television in the hotel room, since we didn't have it at home. For some reason, I decided to write a letter to the Editor commenting on a TV news article, and sent it to a Hong Kong English language daily, without expectation of its publication. It was a hand-written letter to the Editor. To my surprise, the letter appeared in the next day's Letters column. But, I was still writing for my peace of mind and made no effort after that, to get published. It just seemed to be another lucky strike.It was only about five years later, when I wrote another comment on a piece of Malaysian news and sent it to a local NGO magazine, that my writing 'career' actually took off. Since then, I have been writing articles on people and their problems for this same media NGO. Yet, amongst the various authors I've read, the most inspiring ones are Leon Uris, T.S. Elliot, and my earliest inspiration – The Bard - William Shakespeare! I used to 'savor' his words and admire the complexity and witticism of puns, analogy, sarcasm or inuendo used. How clever, the usage of words. Other author's like Christie or Desai would paint pictures in my mind. Amadi and Dostoyevsky exuded the flavours of their cultures. Uris or Robbins could convey the cut and thrust of politically charged, hectic or dangerous lifestyles and circumstances. I wished I could draw my reader into my world, as they did. Every novel I pick up is not only an adventure but a learning experience to taste, the life of a protagonist/s in the time they live in. Even fiction speaks and influences the senses, at least for the duration of uninterrupted reading. So, writing is like painting but with words to create a different universe. With this inspiration, one can touch another through the mind, almost like holding a conversation between telepaths, in a highly sensuous and sensitive way. Like painting, I can present anything, it may appeal to some but not others, it may even anger and outrage, it may sadden or elicit compassion. Words can do many things. I am still learning to be a master word smith in the tradition of those who inspire me. The journey continues, when or if it will end, I do not know.
Mariel Matze replied 18th Mar '13:
The Real-Life Characters of Journalism
I can only answer this question with my own experience, specifically as a nonfiction writer. I was inspired not by characters already woven into a narrative, but by people who I felt needed to become characters, people I needed to write about.
For nonfiction writers, including journalists like myself, our characters are not our direct invention. We recognize them and translate them into a written (photographic, cinematographic) form, but they arise with their own stories.
That's why I can tell you that my answer is my own characters: three Chilean high school students perched on chairs at the top of a thick wall in the cruel December sun. An orange construction cone on a string hung from their fingers, dangling in front of passersby on the busy Santiago street below. They called down politely, asking for donations. I called up timidly, asking for information.
We chatted for a half hour or so, calling back and forth on the street, both of us sweating in the heat. They lived at their school; they had for the past six months. What they wanted was free, universal public education through college and like many of their fellow student activists around the country they had taken over their high school to demand it. They ate what supporters gave them and slept on classroom floors. Their faces fell-- sad or scared I couldn't tell-- when I asked them about the marches in which protesters had suffered injuries during harsh crackdowns by the Chilean police. None of the three were older than eighteen.
Finally, I dropped all my change into their cone and wandered away, feeling dizzy. How had these teenagers found something they cared about enough to chain themselves to as tightly as they had to their high school? I certainly hadn't. I was working as a fulltime waitress in Argentina, fed up with disrespectful customers and restless from the monotony of polishing plates. Both of us were young, bored, and tired. But whereas I was confused, they were convinced.
I found a cafe and fired up my computer; I needed to tell my friends, my family, everyone I knew about this. I researched, wrote, edited, and reedited over the course of the next few months, on fire with wonder at these kids who had dismantled their lives for something they loved. The op-ed piece I produced was never published, but it was the writing sample that got me a reporting position at a news and culture publication in Buenos Aires.
As a journalist, it still works like this for me. Each piece gets done because of a conversation with someone-- a character-- who cares deeply about his or her cause. I dig into the research process until I can build a well-founded context because I am moved by their passion. I use their story to craft a vivid narrative through vignette. With an ear for both faithfulness to their message and for reader impact, I use their words to make a case for the issue's importance.
If we're really being precise, I actually wouldn't say that a character inspired me to take up writing. Rather, it's that when I write, I'm taken up by the character's inspiration. To write a version of his or her legacy is a charge I undertake and a privilege I am given.
Collin Jerome replied 18th Mar '13:
Great Literary Figures and Their Influence
Great literary figures may be known for their excellent literary merits and flair, as well as their prestigious literary accolades. Writers such as Karim Raslan and and Dina Zaman do not necessary fit into this mould to be considered great!
There are indeed many ‘great’ literary figures who have inspired me to take up writing. Among them are William Shakespeare, John Keats, Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, Latiff Mohidin and Amir Muhammad. I purposely placed quotation marks or scare quotes around the word great to indicate that the greatness of these literary figures cannot be solely measured by the set of criteria defined by the literati. Instead, their greatness can also be measured by their hopes and aspirations, personal values and dreams which have not only inspired me to write, but also impacted my life deeply. However, the two great literary persons who have profoundly shaped my thinking and writing, especially over the years I spent working on my PhD thesis in the United Kingdom, are Karim Raslan and Dina Zaman. I say this because these writers (whose works I referred to in my thesis) had changed my perspectives on myself and what it means to be a member of an ethnic minority group in the multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural Malaysian nation-state. Before I proceed any further, some background information about the writers is necessary.
Karim Raslan is a Malaysian-born, British-raised, Malay Muslim writer and columnist for major newspapers in Malaysia and abroad. His articles on the political and socio-cultural landscapes of Malaysia and Southeast Asia have been published in his Ceritalah (Tell me a story) book series. The short stories ‘Go east!’ and ‘Neighbours’ which I referred to in my thesis that explored Malay identity formation appeared in Karim Raslan’s anthology of short fiction, Heroes and other stories. Out of the ‘eight morality tales [that] paints a vivid and compelling portrait of modern-day Malaysia’ (Karim 1996b), ‘Go east!’ and ‘Neighbours’ are the only ones that explore the lives of Malaysian Malays (Malay sexual dissidents in particular) and the ways in which they create and articulate their own notions of being Malay marked by sexual difference. Dina Zaman is a Malaysian Malay Muslim writer and editor whose works have appeared in one of Malaysia’s leading English-language dailies, New Straits Times, and on the popular local news websites, Malaysiakini and Malaysian Insider. Dina’s fictional works have appeared in Skoob Pacifica Anthology No. 2: The pen is mightier than the sword and in her anthologies of short stories entitled night & day and King of the Sea. Dina’s most recent non-fiction book, I am Muslim, explores Malaysian Malay Muslims’ varied views about Islam and their religious faiths. The book, which comprises Dina’s short articles that were mostly published on Sajakkini and Malaysiakini’s websites, is divided into four main sections: ‘Travels in faith’, ‘Sex within Islam’, ‘Soul searching’ and ‘Portraits’. The article, entitled ‘It’s a Muslim issue: how gay are you?’ in the second section of the book highlights the strategies used Malay sexual dissidents in formulating their own sense of being Malay, and the ways in which they revise and redefine dominant conceptions of Malay identity.
One might question how exactly Karim and Dina had impacted my thinking and writing and altered my perspective on myself and my understanding of ethnicity. Briefly, numerous scholars have argued that the Malay state elites and the larger heteronormative Malay society continue to sanction a Malay ethnic identity that is not only constitutionally defined in terms of Malay culture and religion, but also materially organised around gender and sexual normativities. Karim and Dina (through their fictional and nonfictional Malay sexual dissidents) dispute this state-defined Malay identity by forging a Malay identity marked by sexual difference. Such a nuanced sense of self and ethnicity has a deep resonance with my own struggles in identifying and realigning myself in relation to others within and beyond my ethnic group. This is particularly true of the difficulties I personally experience in identifying myself as university-educated and secular middle class man in my Bidayuh ethnic community, which, like the Malay Muslim community, places immense emphasis on cultural, religious, and communal values, in addition to heteronormativity in formulating a culturally authoritative notion of Bidayuh identity. I have been called many times and on various nama jak Bidayuh (Bidayuh only in/by name) and Bidayuh murtad (no longer a Bidayuh) for failing to adhere to and exemplify dominant conceptions of Bidayuh-ness simply because social class and educational background are important components in the process of my own ethnic self-identification. Writing about sexually dissident Malays who are featured in the writers’ works has enabled me to think about other ethnic subjects and individuals whose sense of self and identities do not fit dominant notions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and so on.
While there is already a body of literature that investigates the formation of dissident Malay identity in present-day Malaysia (see for example Kahn, 2006) and a growing number of publications on dissident sexualities in Malaysia (see for example Kugan & Phang, 2006), I personally think that Karim’s short stories and Dina’s non-fiction writing had compelled me to rethink not just the way I write about the subjects of my thesis (Malay sexual dissidents in particular), but also the way I perceive myself as an ethnic subject. This is mainly because both writers are often resented by the larger Malay community on the grounds that they challenge the dominant notions of ethnicity by writing about non-normative sexualities and Malay sexual dissidents (Tope 2010: 98). This is germane in the way Karim portrays highly mediated representations of queer Malays while Dina discusses real people talking for others and about themselves. Despite their varied depictions of their Malays subjects, both writers draw from their own knowledge and experience, and use narrative conventions to write about the lives of Malay sexual dissidents. Dina, for instance, uses dialogues, settings and characterisation in narrating the lives of her gay and lesbian Malay informants. By using the first person perspective, Dina participates in the narration by providing details and examples based on her own experience of meeting and befriending queer Malays in Kuala Lumpur and beyond. Karim, on the other hand, also utilises narrative conventions in crafting stories about gay, bisexual and transgendered Malays. Although Malays in Karim’s short stories are highly mediated representations, he draws upon his sheer understanding of the ways of life in Kuala Lumpur and Sabah (see Karim 1996a) in crafting realistic dialogues, familiar settings (e.g. upper class neighbourhood, plantation household) and life-like characters (e.g. nosey and gossipy neighbour, dutiful and obedient servants) and the tensions and conflicts experienced by his characters which local readers like myself can relate to. Karim and Dina’s use of narrative conventions has allowed me to explore and examine how queer Malays featured in their works construct a sexually dissident Malay identity. Such construction can be used to understand the complex processes of identity formation among members of the Bidayuh community and other ethnic minority groups in present-day Malaysia.
To conclude, great literary figures may be known for their excellent literary merits and flair, as well as their prestigious literary accolades. Writers such as Karim and Dina do not necessary fit into this mould, but rely on the ways their works have impacted readers’ (myself in particular!) thinking and writing to be recognized and acknowledged for being great!.
Note: Most of the content of this brief essay is drawn from my original works (see the references below).
Dina, Zaman. (2007). I am Muslim. Kuala Lumpur: Silverfish Books.
Jerome, C. (2013). Queer Malay identity formation. Indonesia and the Malay World, 41(119), 97-115. DOI:10.1080/13639811.2012.757875
Jerome, C. (2012). Queer Melayu: Queer sexualities and the politics of Malay identity and nationalism in contemporary Malaysian literature and culture. Unpublished PhD thesis, Sussex: University of Sussex.
Kahn, J.S. (2006). Other Malays: nationalism and cosmopolitanism in the modern Malay world. Singapore: Singapore University Press.
Karim, Raslan. (1996a). Ceritalah: Malaysia in transition. Singapore: Times Books International.
Karim, Raslan. (1996b). Heroes and other stories. Singapore: Times Books International.
Kugan, J. and Phang, K.T. (Eds.). (2009). Body to body: A Malaysian queer anthology. Petaling Jaya: Matahari Books.
Tope, L.R. (2010). The hushed identity: Malay ethnicity and sexuality in Malaysian and Singaporean literature in English. In R. Hosking, S. Hosking & Omar Noritah Che Dan Washima (Eds.), Reading the Malay world, (pp. 98-110). Adelaide: Wakefield Press.