Truth in fiction by Daphne Lee

July 3, 2011

A recent gathering of authors elicits descriptions like ‘inspiring’ and ‘entertaining’.

IT’S been several years since Kuala Lumpur played host to a literary festival, so the city’s book lovers were understandably excited when Malaysian writer and poet Bernice Chauly announced the Writers Unlimited Tour KL/Makassar 2011 a couple of months ago.

At the time, there was some doubt whether the festival would happen as the organisers were having problems raising the necessary funds (a common problem faced by arts and literature groups all over the world). Fortunately, Chauly’s appeal for RM22,000 was met in the nick of time by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and Institut Terjemahan Negara Malaysia.

The event was jointly organised by Writers Unlimited and Readings@CeritAku. Writers Unlimited, formerly known as Winternachten, is an initiative that organises an annual international literature festival in The Hague, as well as literary events abroad, in cooperation with local partner organisations. Readings@CeritAku is Chauly’s creation, a showcase (held at KL café-bar No Black Tie) for Malaysian writers, and a continuation of Readings, the platform for published and unpublished writers that was started by book blogger Sharon Bakar and that is now a monthly event in the Klang Valley.

Going great guns: The afternoon session at the Writers Unlimited event featured moderator Umapagan Ampikaipakan (with mic) and writers (from left) Dain Said, Abeer Soliman, Rodaan Al Galidi, and Chua Guat Eng.

 

Chauly met Writers Unlimited director Ton van de Langkruis at the UtanKayu Literary Biennale in Jakarta back in 2009 and through him became part of the touring festival. She is the first Malaysian to have toured with them and this is the first time the festival has come to Malaysia.

The festival in KL lasted for three days and comprised readings at Taylor’s University, readings and panel discussions at the Annexe Gallery, and more readings at No Black Tie.

I attended the readings and panel discussions on the second day of the festival and was inspired as well as thoroughly entertained by what I heard. The Annexe Gallery at Central Market was an ideal venue for these sessions, being small enough to create a sense of intimacy between the writers and the audience.

Two sessions split the nine featured writers into two groups. Gündüz Vassaf (Turkey), Maaza Mengiste (Ethiopia/US), Dipika Mukherjee, Uthaya Sankar S.B., and Kee Thuan Chye appeared in the morning, while Rodaan Al Galidi (Iraq/Netherlands), Abeer Soliman (Egypt), Chua Guat Eng and Dain Said appeared after lunch.

Chua Guat Eng: Fiction allows her to explore things, and leave them in a state that allows further exploration.

The writers read published and unpublished works, and then answered questions posed by sessions’ moderators Amir Muhammad and Umapagan Ampikaipakan as well as the audience.

Central to the discussions was the idea of how the truth may be presented in various ways. This was in keeping with the festival’s theme, Writing The Truth – Fact Or Fiction?, which was decided jointly by van de Langkruis and Chauly.

Said Chauly at a later interview, “I wanted to work with a theme that would resonate with readers, writers and audiences here. Issues like religion, identity, nationality, conflict, corruption are issues that we deal with along with people in many parts of the world. And so we began working on the theme which would deal with writing and truth.”

The blurred lines between fact and fiction are what Chauly is more than familiar with. Her most recent collection of poetry, The Book Of Sins, is a deeply personal and painfully truthful exploration of life, love, death and disappointment, while her latest work, Growing Up With Ghosts (to be published by Matahari Books in August), is a fictive memoir based on her Chinese-Punjabi family’s history.

Gündüz Vassaf: Writers should avoid dealing with only their own truth and view themselves and their beliefs with a critical eye, questioning them constantly.

Unfortunately, she did not read from her work at the sessions I attended. However, the featured writers I did hear presented richly diverse material in a variety of voices and styles, all reflecting their lives, their experiences and the places they’re from. Based on truth, the work was written and presented as fiction.

Maaza Mengiste said, “Fiction gives us breathing room – gives our imagination room to play and helps us fill the gaps left by memory.”

Her novel, Beneath The Lion’s Gaze, is set in the 1970s and describes life in Ethiopia under the repressive and cruel Derg regime.

“Writers confront the facts,” she said, “but fiction allows us to get into people’s hearts – it’s a more visceral connection. If writers remain silent we have lost everything.”

Mengiste and the other visiting writers showed how fiction is used to explore reality. Abeer Soliman, whose blog and book (Diary Of An Old Spinster) deal with the problems single women face in Egypt, spoke about how literature is used by writers in the Arab world to “run from restrictions”. She described how a certain writer got around the impossibility of writing about religion by depicting god as a mysterious and powerful man. “Reality is more surprising than fiction but we can use fiction to manoeuvre around the truth.”

I was incredibly moved by the work read by Soliman, Mengiste and Al Galidi. Al Galidi’s poems I found especially affecting. They are based on his experiences as an Iraqi refugee in The Netherlands, and, in translation (Al Galidi performed, with panache, the pieces in their original Dutch, but English versions were projected on to the wall behind him), the nonchalance, whimsy and wry humour of the pieces underline all the more the bitter irony of the situations they describe.

I had a less favourable reaction to Dipika Mukherjee’s reading of the prologue of her soon-to-be published novel Thunder Demons. The piece describes the murder of a beautiful young Tibetan woman at the behest of a corrupt Malaysian politician and sounded to me more like gossipy reportage than creative fiction.

While I don’t deny the importance of writing about controversial events and “outing” leaders guilty of committing atrocities, I feel that there is no merit in simply presenting the same “facts” as discussed in coffee shops and taxis up and down the country. Sorry, but a bunch of adjectives and fictitious names doesn’t make it good fiction.

I would much prefer our country’s troubles and foibles be explored through the depiction of how they have impacted ordinary Malaysians. Perhaps Mukherjee’s book goes on to do this and if so, the prologue is misleading.

Chua Guat Eng, in answer to a question on why writers choose to write fiction, said that this was a form that allowed her to explore things and leave them in a state that allows for further exploration. It seems to me that this approach helps a writer avoid the pitfalls of preaching just one view point, thus coming across as didactic.

To avoid didacticism, Gündüz Vassaf advised writers to avoid dealing with only one truth – their own. He stressed the need to view oneself and one’s beliefs with a critical eye, questioning them constantly.

Kee Thuan Chye read an amusing story that left no one in doubt about his politics. He has always worn his heart on his sleeve in any case, and is admirably forthright in his articles for online news sites MalaysiaKini and Malaysian Digest. I think he has the potential to create powerful and affecting fiction. But first, he needs to stop writing stories as though they are op-ed pieces. (Kee was an associate editor at The Star and also editor of the paper’s Mind Our English column.)

One of my favourite stories from the sessions was Uthaya Sankar S.B.’s Cat, an absurdist tale of a multi-lingual feline who learns that the most successful civil servants are seen, not heard.

The story ends with Uthaya stating his point rather too plainly, but at least the rest of the story manages not to suggest that Malaysians are unable to draw conclusions without the aid of an instruction manual. And I have to say, the writer’s deadpan expression leads me to believe he would do well as a stand-up comedian.

I left the sessions wishing there were more such events to look forward to. When I e-mailed Chauly to ask if Writers Unlimited would be back, she replied, “Writers Unlimited has had its share of budget cuts in the arts and there is a real possibility that they will lose their funding for these tours in two years.” However, we should not rule out the possibility of Chauly organising an event of her own.

“I think its important to have a regular literary festival in KL,” said Chauly in her e-mail. “I think the model that I have learnt from this festival and from the tours is that it’s important to keep it small enough to engage the writers and the audiences. I also have a sense of how the literary scene works here, having organised readings for so many years now. So, as an organiser, a writer and a reader, I have a better idea, more so now than ever, how to make a literary festival in KL work.

“Rodaan Al Galidi took me aside after the final reading on Sunday and said, ‘For 11 years I have been to literary festivals, and this is the first time I have been to a festival like this. It is so great, thank you.’ ”

My sentiments exactly.

——

(Post taken from: The Star: Truth in Fiction)

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