Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Arte: Joseph Conrad and Me—Sarawak’s French Connection to Lord Jim

Pierre Duyckaerts and Sebastien Bardos

“The mysterious East faced me, perfumed like a flower, silent like death, dark like a grave,” wrote Joseph Conrad, the Polish-born English novelist of Heart of DarknessAlmayer’s Folly, and An Outcast of the Islands.  When French documentary maker Sebastien Bardos of Elephant Doc contacted me in late March about his project “Conrad’s Malay­sia” he asked me a question.  Of course, Conrad had been to Borneo where he had set several of his novels, but the question posed to me, had he ever been to Sarawak?  The short answer is no, but the long answer is, without Sarawak, Lord Jim would never have been written.

Sebastien works with Laure Michel, who came to Sarawak in 2017 for a Somerset Maugham and Sarawak pepper document­aries, which I had blogged about in the five-part series “Somerset Maugham and Me.”  Like Maugham, Conrad will be filmed for the Franco-German Cultural Channel Arte for the program “The Invitation to Travel” or L’Invitation au Voyage to be aired in October 2019.

Sebastien will be working with Karen Shepherd, who had worked with Laure on the pepper docu­mentary and her husband Peter John, featured in the segment “A Personal Invitation”.  On the previous production, Karen and I worked closely with Laure, recom­mend­ing people and sites.  We did the same with Sebastien until he hired fixer Edgar Ong, who for thirty years had worked in the local filming industry including such notable films as Farewell to the King (1989) with Nick Nolte and The Sleeping Dictionary (2003) with Jessica Alba, both set in Sara­wak.

Edgar would partner with Adrian Cornelius who scouts locations and deals with logistics.  Adrian is also involved with the on-again-off-again film The White Rajah, about the life of James Brooke, that dates back eighty years to the mid-1930’s when Errol Flynn was originally scheduled to star, until delays and World War Two came along.  I met Adrian last year with Rob Nevis while discussing taking part in The Road to Nationhood series. Initially I was considered for a non-speaking role of Charles Brooke but ended up play­ing smaller roles, including a man who was beheaded (sadly cut from the documentary) and Captain Henry Keppel—who, as it turned out, gave Joseph Conrad a helping hand in writing Lord Jim.  More about that later.

Edgar had called for a meeting in May to work out some preliminary details and suggestions for locations (I had suggested Fort Margherita for my segment), but the day that we had agreed upon proved problematic for me.  My Bidayuh mother-in-law had passed away and that was the day of her funeral.

Getting reacquainted with Joseph Conrad, I reread Almayer’s Folly and Lord Jim and delved into the thorny issue of his connection to Sara­wak.  Born in 1857 at the height of the British Empire, Joseph Conrad started writing late, in his thirties, after twenty years in the merchant marines, four with the French and sixteen with the Brit­ish.  Conrad always viewed himself as a writer who sailed, rather than a sailor who wrote, and used the pen name Joseph Conrad for his first novel, Almayer’s Folly, set on the coast of Borneo.  Almayer’s Folly, together with its suc­cessor An Outcast of the Islands, laid the foundation for Conrad’s repu­tation as a romantic teller of exotic tales, a label he disliked; he felt it was a misunderstanding of his purpose and it would frustrate him over his career.

Although Conrad had never been to Sarawak, he did have three significant connections to Sarawak that greatly aided his writing of Lord Jim.  Published in 1900, Lord Jim was famously based, at least the second half of the book, on James Brooke, the first White Raja of Sarawak.  An English adventurer, Brooke sailed into Borneo in 1838 and earned the title White Raja after assisting Pangeran Muda Hashim of Brunei in defeating the rebels led by Datu Patinggi Ali.

The first half of Lord Jim, however, deals with the Patna incident, whereby the captain, the first mate (Lord Jim) and two crew members abandoned what they thought was a sinking ship leaving hundreds of passengers to their own fate.  This episode was based on an actual event.  In 1880, the S.S. Jeddah travelled to Singapore to Penang en route to Jeddah and began to take on water during a tropical storm; the captain and some crew abandoned ship with 700 pass­engers aboard.  The ship didn’t sink, so there was a huge outcry and a trial in Singapore over their cow­ard­ly actions.

Coincidently, James Brooke had an Official Inquiry in Singapore over mis­leading the British about killing so-called pirates to collect bounty, when in fact he was fighting natives defend­ing their land.  Like the character Lord Jim, James Brooke had been living under a cloud.

Resisting British imperialism, Brooke founded his own dynasty, the White Rajas that ruled a jungle kingdom larger than England for one hundred years.  James Brooke became a cause celebrity, often written about in Illustrated London News, which was founded in 1842, coin­ciding with the start of Brooke’s ‘war’ against the so-called pirates.  Brooke was mythi­cized as an Imperial Hero, capturing the imagination of would-be romantics and adven­turers.  In addition to being the model for Lord Jim, James Brooke was the inspiration for Rud­yard Kip­ling’s “The Man Who Would Be King”.  Conrad was hailed as ‘the Kipling of the Malay Archipelago’.

On 6 July, I arrived at The Ranee Boutique Suites at the Waterfront where Edgar Ong intro­duced me to Sebastien Bardos and Pierre Duyckaerts, who had flown in from Penang on about two hours sleep.  They found the heat in Penang oppressive and had been sweating nonstop.  I didn’t have the heart to tell them that Kuching might be worse because of the humidity; luckily for them, it was partly cloudy outside.
Sebastien told me that for the Conrad story they had previously inter­viewed Jean-Luc Henriot in Singapore, Serge Jardin in Kuala Lumpur, and in Penang, Gareth Richards, who runs the Gerakbudaya bookstore.  Serge Jardin, who I believe I met in Penang many years ago, lives in Malacca and took part in the Somerset Maugham docu­mentary.  Sebastien informed me that my book Trois autres Malaisie, the French transla­tion of Lovers and Strangers Revisited, was being listed in French travel guide­books to Malay­sia, good news for my French publish­er, Editions GOPE

Over coffee and tea, Edgar ran through the shooting schedule for the next three days.  Before leaving the hotel, Pierre hooked me up with a microphone.  The plan was for Adrian to drive us across the Sarawak River to Fort Margherita, but I suggested it would be better for Sebastien and Pierre to take a tambang across, which I thought would be more interesting and quicker than a roundabout drive and risk getting stuck in traffic.  Adrian could meet us at Fort Margherita.


Sebastien and Pierre were expecting a bigger boat, perhaps like the one the tourists use for the Sarawak River Cruise, so they seemed taken aback when I pointed out the tambang waiting for us.  We ducked our heads and climbed aboard.  I sat up front looking out at the river while Pierre filmed me taking in the view and also the steers­man, while trying to catch the splashing sounds made by the tambang.  Once we reached the other side, they filmed me climbing out onto the small jetty where a few passengers were waiting to board.  Unfor­tun­ate­ly they had to wait a little longer since Pierre wanted to film the steersman in front of the tambang.  The waiting passengers watched with amusement.

After filming the tambang departing the jetty, Pierre filmed another arriving with Kuching as a backdrop.  He took more shots of the Waterfront and then filmed me standing at the edge of the jetty.  I was told to keep my lower body planted (and to avoid falling into the river behind me); however, I could move my upper body as I talked about Joseph Conrad, who died in 1924, on the 3rd of August, which happens to be my birthday.  Sebastien and Pierre wore hats while I melted in the late-morning, partly cloudy sun.  Thankfully, Sebastien had an um­brella, which provided us shade in between shots.

In addition to Conrad and his connection to James Brooke, I was asked to speak a little about Kuching—its history, its reputation as a river city, the Waterfront and the antique galleries at the Main Bazaar, as well as my own impressions when I first visited Kuching twenty years ago.  I purposely did not talk about the ubiquitous cat statues; Kuching means cat in Malay.

We took a short hike up to Fort Margherita and found Adrian who offered us lime-flavored 100Plus isotonic drinks, their first.  Pierre then filmed me with the fort behind me in the dis­tance as we continued with the interview.  Fort Margherita was named after the Second White Raja’s wife, Ranee Mar­garet Brooke, author of My Life in Sarawak.  I pointed out another, though minor Sarawak connection, when Conrad wrote a letter to the Ranee, praising her Uncle, James Brooke.

“The first Rajah Brooke has been one of my boyish ad­mira­tions, a feeling I have kept to this day strengthened by the better understanding of the greatness of his char­acter and the unstained rectitude of his purpose.  The book that has found favour in your eyes has been inspired in a great measure by the history of the first Rajah’s enterprise and even by the lecture of his journals as partly reproduced by Captain Mundy and others.”

Conrad knew the Malay Archipelago as a sailor.  In writing Lord Jim and other Borneo-based novels, he could rely on his own observations for the natural surroundings and the sea.  His landfalls, however, were limited to four stops at Berau in East Kalimantan, which he used as a setting for Almayer’s Folly.  Instead, he relied on read­ing first-hand accounts by others including James Brooke’s journals and those who had written about him, as mentioned in the above letter.  He also relied heavily on a second major connec­tion to Sarawak, Alfred Russel Wallace, of the Wallace Line fame, who was based in Sarawak for fourteen months, collecting birds and beetles and other specimens to ship back to England. 

Wallace travelled extensively throughout the region and wrote about his experience in The Malay Archipelago (1869), highly regarded as a great travel book and the most famous book on the Malay Archi­pelago—the very reason Con­rad kept the book handy at his bedside, which he had used for several novels.  Conrad not only relied on Wallace’s description of the area but also used Wallace himself as a model for the character Stein in Lord Jim.  Stein was the man whom Marlowe had convinced to hire Lord Jim to work for him in some remote, out-of-the-way locale…so he was sent to Patusan, a third connection to Sarawak.

Some experts have argued that Patusan, the setting used in Lord Jim, was based on Berau in East Kalimantan, a place Conrad had visited.  Others suggested that Patusan was located in Java; however, con­vincing arguments have been made that Patusan was in fact based on an actual site on the Batang Lupar river in Sarawak that was called—Patusan.  Although Conrad was never there, he did read about Patusan in a book by Captain Henry Keppel.  A friend of James Brooke, Keppel wrote about their exploits in Borneo in The Expedition to Borneo on HMS Dido for the Suppression of the Pirates—another significant tie to Sarawak.

More importantly, inside of Keppel’s book was an actual map of Patusan, identifying the fort and village that Conrad had put to good use since he had never been there himself.  By look­ing at the map, you could see that Conrad followed it closely in his descriptions of the fort and the village, the river, the tributaries—integral to the ending of Lord Jim.  That map, along with Keppel’s descriptions of Patusan, was perfect for Conrad to use in Lord Jim—in lieu of actually visiting the location—just as Conrad had based the Patna incident on the real S.S. Jeddah and the subsequent trial in Singapore.

Incidentally, although Joseph Conrad never visited Sarawak or Patusan, present day Sri Aman, another famous English writer did—Somer­set Maugham.  Maugham, in fact, nearly died in Patusan in the 1920’s in a tidal bore and wrote a story about the incident, “Yel­low Streak.”

When I finished speaking, we went to another side of Fort Margherita so Pierre could take some more shots.  He then brought out a drone and I couldn’t help but recall what happened to the drone used in other French documentary; it went around a bend and struck an over­hanging branch and was lost in the river.  Pierre used the drone to film me walking alongside Fort Margherita; then walking down some steps and approaching the entrance.

Later, after enough footage had been taken outside of Fort Margherita (after Sebastien and I had finished solving the world’s problems), Pierre packed the drone away and we entered the Fort.  Pressed for time, we had to bypass the nicely done Brooke Gallery@FortMargherita.  They filmed me inside the fort climbing the stairs and making my way along the parapet walk on two sides, past a bolted but unlocked door containing some heads.  I had first seen the human heads about twenty years ago, which they kept in a suspended rattan basket, but now covered with traditional cloth to keep tourists from disturbing them.  Previously I had blogged about seeing heads at a Bidayuh longhouse and being disturbed that evening at my wife’s village by an actual spirit—my first and hopefully my last encounter.  

by Paul Carling
by Paul Carling

I kept asking Sebastien if they wanted me to open the door to have a peek inside but they didn’t seem to understand the significance, so I would glance at the door each time I passed by, only natural since there was a skull painted on the door.  Sebastien did press me about my views of how the Bidayuh revered James Brooke because he had put an end to their seemingly endless slaughter by the Iban head-hunters.  Back in the 1840’s, village after village, including my wife’s village, Quop, had been decimated.

At a lookout tower, they filmed me gazing out at the Sarawak River, slowly turn­ing my head from right to left.  Back on the parapet walk, despite the mid-afternoon sun beating down on me, the clouds having long since departed, we continued with the interview.  I talked about the tragic fates that Conrad gave to the principle characters of his novels and stories.  He often saw the darker side of man whether it was The Heart of Darkness in the Belgian Congo, The Secret Agent, or the elusive anti-hero of Lord Jim, trying to escape the shame of abandoning the Patna, while still remaining noble—not an easy task for any man to do.  This was also the theme of Lord Jim, the restora­tion of a man’s honor and pride.  In many ways the character Lord Jim is one of us…tragic; a part of him would always be kept secret so we would never know like others will never know our own secrets.

view of Old Courthouse with Cat



After wrapping up the filming at Fort Margherita, we dropped off Pierre at the hotel so he could take some shots of the nearby historical building since there was still sun.  Adrian then took Sebastien and me to the Old Courthouse where we met with Karen Shep­herd, who would be talking more in depth about Alfred Russel Wallace, and Peter John, about the local inhabitants.

Edgar Ong joined us.  Sebastien and the others tried to finalize the details and the logistics for the next two days of filming in Kuching.  They had just settled on an itinerary—Santubong for one day and Bau, Siniawan and the river along Suba Buan for the other day—when Sebastien asked about seeing some wildlife, particularly the proboscis monkeys or the orang­utans, to work into the documentary.  Since they couldn’t do both (located in opposite directions) and still complete the other filming in Bau, they settled on Bako National Park where they could see plenty of wildlife in addition to the proboscis monkeys and some jungle shoots for Karen.

Proboscis monkey, Sarawak Tourism

Since my part of the Joseph Conrad filming had come to an end, I called it a day, feeling rather burnt out from way too much sun, yet feeling satisfied in knowing that without Sarawak, Joseph Conrad would never have written Lord Jim.

*Here is the link to the video on Lord Jim.


Somerset Maugham and MePart I-V 

Beheaded on the Road to Nation­hood—Part I 

Beheaded on the Road to Nation­hood—Part II 

Thursday, July 18, 2019

INTERVIEW MALACHI EDWIN VETHAMANI: Robert Raymer chats with Malaysian Writer Malachi Edwin Vethamani on Writing and Publishing his Books

I was introduced to Edwin back in 2006 when I gave a creative writing workshop for MELTA, the Malaysian English Language Teaching Association, in Kuching.  At the time, I had been based in Penang and was considering moving to Sarawak with my Sarawakian wife and our young family (we were expecting our second child) and I thought I could make some connec­tions at the conference and apply for a position at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak where I later taught creative writing.  Every time I saw Edwin, who was the President of MELTA from June 2001 till January 2008, he always had a big friendly smile on his face.

Not only is Edwin a gifted poet, but also a short story writer, editor, bibliographer and academic.  He is currently Professor, School of English, University of Nottingham Malaysia.  He holds a doctoral degree from University of Nottingham UK.  His most recent publication is his first col­lection of short stories entitled Coitus Interruptus and Other Stories (Maya Press, 2018). He has published two volumes of poems, Life Happens (Maya Press, 2017) and Complicated Lives (Maya Press, 2016).  He edited a volume of Malaysian poems covering a period of 60 years entitled Malchin Testament: Malaysian Poems (Maya Press, 2017).  In 2003, he edited a volume of poems for young adults entitled In-Sights: Malaysian Poems (Maya Press, 2003).  In 2015, he published A Bibliography of Malaysian Literature in English (Petaling Jaya, Maya Press).  In addition to being a past President of MELTA, he was also Vice President of Asia TEFL from 2008 to 2013.  He is a recipient of the Chevening Award (1993-1996) and the Ful­bright Scholar­ship (2000).  He had received the Asian Education Leadership Award from the World Education Congress in Mumbai, India in June 2013.


RR: Lately you’ve been rather productive with the recent publications of two books of poetry, Complicated Lives and Life Happens, a collection of short stories Coitus Interruptus and Other Stories, plus the Malaysian anthology Malchin Testament: Malaysian Poems!

People often say or think…who has time to read poetry?  Sadly, I was one of them until I found a way!  Red Lights.  Like most drivers I detest getting caught at a red light, especial­ly when I am running late, but then I found the perfect solution — a way of killing two birds with one poem!  I keep a book of poetry beside me.  Now I often wish the red lights were slightly longer so I could finish the poem I’m in the midst of reading.

This past year, thanks to those red lights, I have read most if not all of your published poetry.  They even in­spired me to dig through my unread collection of poetry that I had accumulated over the years with the best of intentions and began reading them…poem after poem that I might never have gotten around to read.  And for this, I am grate­ful for you for getting the poetry ball rolling.
One of your poetry collections is titled Complicated Lives, which seems to sum up our lives these days.  Are our lives truly more complicated than those of previous generations, even that of our parents, and does that complication give us more possibilities (angst) to write about?  I’m also thinking, perhaps, the various sexual permutations that seem to exist in your own writing.  Does complicated lives produce better poetry and prose?  Or just better gossip for the readers?

Edwin:  I believe every generation has had its own kind of complications.  I would agree that our lives are indeed complicated.  We would wish for simpler lives but I’m afraid that’s not often the case for many of us.  The complications do give us (at least, it does for me) more to write about. It allows me to explore the various kinds of relationships we find ourselves in, not just with fel­low human beings but with fellow creatures and the environment itself.  The sexual permutations are often about love and the desire to be loved; gender is secondary.  And some of my poems deal with sexual desire and how that could complicate lives.  It can be difficult to separate sex and love and that could cause its own complications.  “Better gossip?”  No!  There’s no gossip in the poems.  There’s both pain and celebration.

RR: True, but that doesn’t prevent readers (and nonreaders) from gossiping about the poems (and the poet), which was what happened one hundred and fifty years ago when Walt Whitman published Leaves of Grass (and added to it throughout his life).  Speaking of Whitman, I recently had this surreal literary moment.  While in the midst of reading Leaves of Grass (at red lights), I was reading Lincoln by Gore Vidal (at home), when a clerk-cum-novelist asked Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of Treasury, to consider a clerkship for a great poet.  “He comes to you, sir, with a letter of introduction and com­mendation from Ralph Waldo Emerson.”

Suddenly I had goose bumps; I knew he was refer­ring to Walt Whitman!  I knew he had gone to Wash­ing­ton D.C. during the Civil War be­cause his brother had been wounded in a recent battle; then he stayed to help to comfort the other wounded soldiers, which he wrote about in Leaves of Grass.  Al­though he never met Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln did know him (and his infamous reputation) as did Lincoln’s personal secretary, John Hay who later wrote a book about Lin­coln and had asked Walt Whitman, since he was in town, to sign his copy of Leaves of Grass.  Then Walt Whitman added several tributes to Abraham Lincoln after he had been assas­sinated.
I don’t know how many degrees of separation that is, but sudden­ly I felt like I personally knew Walt Whit­man; and thanks to reading his poetry, I was inspired to read four books about the Civil War that had been lying around for years waiting for…someday.  That day came after reading your poetry, Edwin, because that got me to read Leaves of Grass.  So, who knows where a good book of poetry or even a single poem can take you if you let it?  For me, it brought me closer to an infamous Poet and a famous President and a terrible Civil War that still haunts the American psyche today.

In Life Happens you quote the Bible “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sin”.  Love — wanton love or self-indulgent love — can also cause a multi­tude of sin (and a few marriage breakups along the way).  Do lovers, more today, than in the past, go too far in their kiss-and-tell books or their hook-up and broad­casting their blogs all over the social media?  For the lover, it can increase their notoriety (Don Juan, anyone?  Or the Kardashians?), but what about the named or flushed-out victims who must deal with the real-time fallout that can destroy their current relation­ships and wreck their professional and personal lives?  Are people going too far to inflict pain on others (payback) and even themselves?  Is poetry and even prose, based on your own writing, truly cathartic or are writers merely a glutton for punishment?  But at whose expense?

Edwin: I certainly do not subscribe to any form of kiss and tell in my writing.  Those who write such real-life confessional books are certainly not doing it for any kind of literary reasons.  Sadly, that seems to be what some publishers want, and they know these books have readers and they will sell copies.

My poems are often drawn from various sources and I rework them and create my own images and metaphors that attempt to capture the experience, the moment or the emotion.  Writing prose and poetry are different experiences.  Writing poetry sometimes has an element of being thera­peu­tic.

RR:  As does writing prose, which I had experienced firsthand during a divorce and a custody battle.  I wrote a long story that suddenly answered my unasked question…where was she coming from?  Why was she doing this?  And what had I done that led to this?  And, more importantly, what could I do to help resolve this in a way that would be best for both of us and our child?
Edwin:  Some of my early poems, especially the ‘Mother Poems’ in Complicated Lives deal with my coming to terms with my mother’s old age and Alzheimer’s illness.  These poems are very close to me and I still find it difficult to read them aloud in the Readings sessions.  I actually invite others to read these poems.

Some of my poems have been described as confessional poems.  Here, I’d say that I’m not nec­es­sarily the persona in all of these poems.  Poetry allows for this ambiguity and I do draw on it.  When I write stories, I draw from various sources.  If one listens and looks hard enough you see and hear so many things that give fodder to writers.  They are seeds that allow for fertilization with the imagination and you have your stories.  I often take an issue or a problem and see how I can give it a fresh look.  My stories do not have a clear closure as I want the readers to continue to think about the characters and what options they may have.

RR: We write, if not for ourselves, then for others, it seems to me, even if it is only for one person.  What may be closure for the writer and closure for the reader may be very, very different.  It’s how we react or respond to a partic­ular piece of writing or, by association, how it links to our past that suddenly awakens us or even provides a solution that we hadn’t been seeking.  Each reader may res­pond to a differ­ent aspect of the story or the poem, even to a particular word that reson­ates for them in unexpected ways.  Thus, the cause and the effect can go on and on for generations of read­ers…long after the author had passed away.

Another of your quotes from the same collection is TS Eliot, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”  This is a true sentiment that applies to various aspects of our lives, including running a marathon, but specific to writing, based on your own experiences, please elaborate.

Edwin:  I subscribe to what Eliot is advocating in this quote.  I like to think that my writing is an attempt at “going too far”.  One needs to be careful with what one decides to publish.  There are things I write and don’t publish.  But I certainly needed to write them for myself.  My editor is my barometer who cautions me, and I rarely disagree with him.  Some of my readers say I’m brave to publish what they read in my books.  So maybe, now I can go a little further.  Malay­­sians self-censor for many reasons.  There is the fear that our work might be banned or at worse the writer gets arrested.  One has to be careful with matters of race and religion.  My writings do deal with race and aspects of religion, but I am very careful not to offend though I might touch on these issues.

RR:  I remember reading one young poet in an anthology that I was asked to write a comment for and it seemed to me that was exactly what he was trying to do, offend.  My advice to tone it down fell on deaf ears; I had told him, later, when you mature, you are going to cringe and regret this.

What got you interested in reading and writing poetry?  Who were your early Malay­sian influences or mentors at school?  Which poets, both local and overseas, grabbed you or shook you out of your complacency and made you think, this is what I want to do!

Edwin: From an early age, I loved reading.  A habit I picked up from my eldest brother. As we could not afford to buy books, I joined the British Council library and the library at the Lincoln’s Cultural Centre.  Living in Brickfields in the 60s and studying in Methodist Boys’ Secondary School, Kuala Lumpur, I could walk to both the libraries.  I used to look for new books and try to be the first reader.

In my 20s, I read more poetry than prose.  And I read more modern poetry than I did the Roman­tics like Wordsworth.  In fact, I only began to like Wordsworth much later in life. I enjoyed T.S. Eliot from my Form 6 days.  I loved the way he wrote about people and life after World War Two.  His religious poems resonated well with me, coming from a Christian back­ground.  I try to capture our contemporary society in my poems too.  

As in the case of poetry, I read more modern prose writers like Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad and E. M. Forster.  Shakespeare grew on me very quickly too.  I started reading Shakespeare in Form 4.  I had a wonderful English Literature teacher.  She introduced me to many writers in­cluding Ovid.  The American writers came much later in my life, then I discovered Walt Whit­man, Emily Dickinson, Hemmingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner and Baldwin and Scott Fitz­gerald.

Among the earliest Malaysian writers, I read were Ee Tiang Hong, Muhammad Haji Salleh, Wong Phui Nam and Hilary Tham.  Edwin Thumboo had just brought out a volume of Malay­sian and Singaporean poems entitled ‘The Second Tongue’ and it opened the door to local writing, especially poetry.  I read Malaysian short stories and novels much later.

I had the privilege of being a student of Professor Lloyd Fernando.  He was certainly a mentor and role model. We became friends and he gave me access to his personal library in his home and much of my early research on the bibliography of Malaysian literature was done here.

RR:  Getting the right teacher or lecturer can make a huge difference; one turns you on, the other shuts you down.  For your Malaysian anthology Malchin Testament: Malaysian Poems, which spans sixty years and covers nearly sixty poets, what were your criteria for choosing the poems?  I could imagine that would have been a difficult under­taking, not wanting to leave someone deserving out, against cries of bias or showing favouritism or having to defend yourself to the inevitable backlash from fellow poets and friends, “How come so-and-so has four poems and I only have three!”

Edwin:  I had several criteria for selecting the poems.  First, that the poets are Malaysians or are poets born in Malaysia and may now have gone abroad but continue to write about Malaysia. Second, I chose only poems that have been previously published. 

My work on The Biblio­graphy of Malaysian Literature in English helped me to find just about every published poetry collection by Malaysians poets.  Third, I only published poems that the writers gave me permis­sion to publish as they hold the copyrights to the poems.  The number of poems for each poet represented the volume of the poet’s publications.  There are some poets with just one or two poems.  These are usually the emerging poets whose works have appeared in anthologies and the poets did not have their own collection of poems.  There are more poems from the established Malaysian poets.

RR:  That sounds fair; I hope they were all happy!  I liked how the anthology, as you stated, “brings together voices of poets from multicul­tural and multilingual Malaysian appropriating the English language for their own expression” which I feel is a tribute for all Malaysians, something everyone should be proud of.  But has there been a struggle for this multicultural and multilingual Malaysian voices to be heard and accepted by all?  Is this an on-going process or has Malay­sia turned the poetic corner, so to speak, and embraced all of these voices, enriching the literature of Malaysia in the process?

Edwin: Malaysians write in an English which is quite distinctive.  We can recognize Malaysian English both in its standard and non-standard forms.  We can see the influences of the local languages on Malaysian English and it certainly enriches the language, but we need to bear in mind that it should have intelligibility for both local and international readers.

Writing in English in Malaysia has not been easy.  Having the writers’ voices heard is a good start.  We do not have many publishers who want to publish poetry.  There is the option of self-publication.  Even established poets like Wong Phui Nam self-publish. Most poets look for options abroad and online literary journals.  It slightly better if you are publishing prose but that too is very limited though the opportunities are more in the last few years.

Those who write in English in Malaysia do not get any governmental support unlike those who write in the Malay language.  This lack of support has not deterred the writers as we see many more young people writing in English than ever before.

There are some success stories of Malaysians publishing in English who have won awards and received international recognition. The first person to win such an award was Shirley Geok-lin Lim in 1981 when she won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for a debut volume.  Tan Twan Eng, Tash Aw and Rani Manicka have won prizes for their novels.  This year, Saras Manickam won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Asia. So, it is looking good for Malaysia, writing in English. As a literary tradition, we are only about sixty years old.  There is a lot of diversity in the writing and that for me makes Malaysian writing in English rather vibrant.

RR:  Plus Ivy Ngeow’s Cry of the Flying Rhino and Bernice Chauly’s Once We Were There both won prizes.   Having witnessed that transition in the thirty plus years since I first came to Malaysia, I wholeheartedly agree.

Anthologies...poetry...short a novel the next in your future offerings, or is that risking going too far?

Edwin:  I am working on a number of projects.  I hope to bring out a collection of Malaysian short stories, similar to that of Malchin Testament: Malaysian Poems.  It’s ready to go to the publisher.  This project has taken a lot of time as I want it to be representative of stories from the 1960s to the present.

I have also been writing poems and short stories.  This I do constantly.  I’ve re-written couple of my short stories into scripts, hoping they will be staged at some point.  I was very encouraged when three of my stories from Coitus Interrupted and Other Stories were used to stage a per­for­mance called ‘Love Matters’ in Mumbai by Playpen Performing Arts Trust directed by Ashish Joshi in 2017 and 2018.

I would look to write a novel but maybe not yet.  Some of my short stories could have the seeds for a full-blown novel, we’ll have to wait and see.

RR:  Back in the 1990’s, I used to be the Penang Coordinator at MACEE, the Malaysian-American Commis­sion on Education Exchange, which was run under the Fulbright Program.  As a re­cipient of a Fulbright Scholar­ship, tell us about your Ful­bright experience.  How has the program impacted your writing and your profession­al life?

Edwin: I totally enjoyed my Fulbright experience.  It was the first of a series that was called “Reading America”.  We started at New School University, New York where we were given lectures on a variety of topics ranging from literature to politics and history.  New York City was in itself a learning experience.  There’s so much to see and do. Going to the New York Univer­sity Library and having access to use it was very exciting for me.  I was in all the bookshops, especially Strand.  There were theatres, museums and art galleries to go to.  I can just go on.

We then went to New Mexico.  Here we had a few tours and going to the native Indians reservations was an amazing experience.  Made me feel rather sad when we were told about the history and violent past with the white settlers.  A highlight in the New Mexico section was going to Georgia O’ Keeffe’s house and seeing her work.  Finally, we went to Washington D.C.  Here, we re­ceived various guided tours, including the White House and some monuments.  The visit to Library of Congress is something I will remember.  What an amazing library both architecturally and in terms of its collection of materials.

The Fulbright program provided an excellent opportunity for networking.  There were about twenty of us from different countries who shared similar interests, mostly literature.  We are still in contact and I’ve been to visit some of them.  We continue to communicate and read each other’s work.  This has cer­tainly contributed in our professional lives.

RR:  I'm sure it did.  Hopefully you'll inspire other writers to apply.  I once had an amusing experience with Fulbright in Kuala Lumpur when attending a for­mal dinner in the mid-1990s.  The set menu consisted of, among several delicious dishes, two Brussel sprouts, which I thought a rather peculiar choice.  I wondered who had taken the poetic licence to suggest such an unpop­ular dish for the menu of a formal dinner filled with hundreds of Fulbright scholars, Malaysian government officials, and interna­tion­al digni­taries?  No doubt, someone very important and everyone was afraid to say, “Aiyoh, are you crazy?”  Instead they meekly shook their heads in agreement.  Not to any­one’s sur­prise (I call it poetic justice), those same two Brussel sprouts were the only un­touched items left on the hundreds of plates taken away by the waiters.

What else would you like us to know about you, about your writing, or any writing topic that you feel passionate about that needs addressing?

Edwin:  I like to present a Malaysian Indian perspective which is contemporary but also deals with the past.  The past is very important to me, for example the loss of people and places.  Brickfields, my birthplace, features in my poems.  I like to write about loss, longing and loving.  My hope is that my treatment of these themes and issues will be different and will give a fresh and unique perspective.

I am currently doing a book tour to many universities.  The purpose of this tour is to meet my readers and potential readers.  It gives me an opportunity to meet young people and very much want to share my love for poetry and literature.  So far, I’ve visited about eight universities in Peninsular Malaysia, one in Sarawak, one in Singapore and two in Taiwan.

RR:  What advice would you give young poets or writers who are struggling to finish (or even seriously start) their first book?

Edwin:  If you want to write, my advice is to read.  Read widely and read as much as you can. That is certainly the first step towards becoming a writer.  I would advise writers to have reading buddies.  People who you could trust to be honest with you about your work.  Also, a poet or short story writer, one could send poems and stories to literary journals and online magazines.  Many of these are peer-reviewed and they often give useful feedback; getting them published is certainly a great way of building one’s confidence.  Hopefully, with this one publication they will have enough writings and confidence to get more work published, possibly even a book.

My interview with Malachi Edwin Vethamani has been published in Blue Lotus 19.

Other Interviews with First Novelists:

Ivy Ngeow author of Cry of the Flying Rhino, winner of the 2016 Proverse Prize.

Golda Mowe author of Iban Dream and Iban Journey.

Preeta Samarasan author of Evening is the Whole Day

Chuah Guat Engauthor of Echoes of Silence and Days of Change. 

      —Borneo Expat Writer