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Location: Dublin, Republic of, Ireland

Saturday, 14 April 2007

Comment: Of notions and a silly prejudice!

by Susan Abraham

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Biography of Malaysian author Tash Aw
Tash Aw's official website &
Tash Aw Spells It Out (A New Straits Times interview)

… “If you have something you want to achieve, you have to be completely dedicated to do it. You have to be prepared to sacrifice quite a lot to get it…and I don’t think Malaysians should really think of themselves as Malaysians vs the wide world, “I think a lot of Malaysians have an inferiority complex. I guess you should just remember that the world is full of individuals trying to make a name for themselves and it doesn’t really matter which country they are from.

“It is equally difficult for anyone, believe me, because I live in London and I can see how equally difficult it is for someone living in Britain. It makes no difference which country you are from, so you shouldn’t have any inferiority complex.” - New Straits Times.

- Spoken in a recent newspaper interview in Malaysia by world-class novelist and former lawyer, Tash Aw who lives in London and who published the award-winning, The Harmony Silk Factory with the Fourth Estate, in the UK. The novel which talked of wartime Malaya, later received several European translations, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2005 and went on to win England's 2005 Whitbread Literary Award. Aw is represented by the literary agent David Godwin who also represented Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things.

Well-said too, Tash Aw and about time.

Believe me, I've heard the strangest things, spoken by a few local bloggers in Malaysia with mirror-shattering voices - either self-published or in a local general-genre where the required standards are only a fraction of the excruciating demands placed on aspiring writers submitting to Great Britain.

And there are those who have had nothing published substantially and too, a few local reporters who write in open media, criticizing the works of Malaysian authors published abroad. They do this mostly in their blogs. In my view, they stay clueless about how the British publishing industry works.

Provide an argument by all means but study the intricacies and competitive upheavals of the European publishing climate first. Understand perspectives. See how we are currently gulfs apart from anything published in the UK (mainstream publishers) through working technicalities.

This from the number of people involved who read and approve a raw manuscript, from the investment of finances for an unknown writer, from editors involved (agent & publishers' offices), from the making and shaping of a book with the original submitted plot and later, the working knowledge carried by specialists in different continents and also from the tricky science of publicity and distribution afterwards.

My plea would be to understand how competitive and ruthless the international publishing conglomerates are, outside our peninsular. To approach every controvesial point with sound logistics while bypassing ignorance and emotional sensitivities. And be proud of every Malaysian author who has gone through this baptism of fire and succeeded with their storytelling.

Here are some of those strange things I've heard said.

a) An anonymous Malaysian writer who sought solidarity on the local writing blogs - and got it too - had a notorious go at Malaysian writers wanting to publish abroad.

Fallacy: He said they did this to try and win the Booker or wanted to get big money. How false a notion is that. He had easy ambitions for his manuscript by sending his work out to be professionally polished for a fee before he would then attempt an agent. In this way, the agent would see the perfect edited manuscript and not raw talent, if any.

I'm sure that's alright but he should then be careful not to criticize others with a better courage. He has deleted his blog, by the way.

One example, is the Malaysian novelist Rani Manicka's first novel manuscript The Rice Mother, that is still being sold steadily in Europe, thanks to numerous translations. It was picked out from the slush pile by Darley Anderson, one of Great Britain's top five agents.

Her life in London and Malaysia, was never the same. The Rice Mother won a Commonwealth Literary Award some months later, after it was published by Sceptre, UK and she now writes full-time for a living. The only person besides an excited family - none write - who saw her manuscript beforehand, was a friend who packaged it and took it to the post.

b) Fallacy: "Malaysian writers have to go to the West to be found." Spoken by a lady with no understanding. So not true for the novel. A right notion of a fallacy. You can send it from anywhere. Location doesn't matter.

But the words West and East? " Yes, the mostly defunct phrase West/East, is still used here by these domineering voices.

We have brilliant authors too but they just stay in their reclusive worlds and do what they do best. Write.

Unfortunately, many don't blog. This lady who made the statement above, doesn't understand how writing journeys differ. The world is made up of many countries and not just Malaysia. There is no necessity to chain writers together with one padlock, in one location.

c) Fallacy: Malaysians write pretentiously for the West. Yes, it's that word, West again. Such is the underlying prejudice and hostility that is so obvious to outsiders. Imagine, if I believed them that no Westerner should be impressed by my work... Otherwise, it couldn't be Malaysian. Do you realise how silly that sounds.

d) Fallacy: Malaysian writers who publish abroad deliberately picture Malaysia as exotic to the West. This allegation sounds ridiculous. Such dribble still being mentioned in this new age. You'd think the Caucasions had no mind of their own, that they've never travelled or seen Asia with their own eyes.

e) Fallacy: The real Malaysia is never captured by Malaysian writers who publish abroad. What about local accents, dialogues etc., they ask? Unfortunately for the sceptics, more than a few Malaysian writers spot multi-faceted personalities. They will write by what they are inspired to and not from what they are told to write. Otherwise, the very purpose of being a novelist is defeated.

Thoughts change with a physical shift from a parochial community. Senses stop being muted and one embraces liberalism and tolerance even while life regales in its wide opportunities to shape global writers with hard-thinking perceptions. This, for the enrichment of any soul and a gift that does not threaten to discard any Malaysian writer of his/her heritage, no matter where one may choose to live.

After having researched the world market and in planning to send out my own submissions, or otherwise, re-entering the thick of the British industry as it is today and has been for the last few years, this is what I pick up so far:

i) Ignorance because no one - at least not in writing circles in England uses words like East or West anymore to define countries, writers or book-buyers. Everything is centred around being global. The worldwide web has broken every barrier. I read and hear writers say global or local or international, european american, multicultural (which could be one of hundreds of different cultures all placed together), but definitely no longer East or West, words popular in the '80's & '90s.

Presently, 300 languages are spoken on a London street every minute and an agent receives an equal 300 manuscripts a week for its slush pile. Japanese, Romanian, Indonesian, Spanish...who cares.

Writers who submit to the UK are all striving for a slice of the same pie and I'm learning that it's the manuscript you submit and the standards you employ for the use of the English Language that counts, and not your nationality.

ii) The English Language standard for Great Britain is so high in the submission of manuscripts for an unknown to get noticed, that it has to be right the first time.

It's just so much higher than what I've seen in some local fiction. That's like child's play to me. Some of the newspaper articles I read written by a few of these local reporters who criticize accomplished writers, also feel like child's play to me.

I have to strive everyday to improve my own language. You're competing with other writers who may write much much better than you for the manuscript that may be directly underneath yours, in that slush pile.

iii) Ignorance because they have no clue how ruthless the mainstream British publishing industry has become and how difficult it is to get something published, where a publisher invests in your work and which is not subsidy/vanity.

This meticulous rigidity was already evident in the time of Tash Aw a couple of years ago. Nearly-impossible is not a distant word.

iv) You know those shattering-mirror voices don't read. That they don't read The Guardian, Independent or The Times though they may say they do. Because if they did, they would gain real knowledge and see any internationally-published Malaysian writer as a pure miracle and not someone who waded in that easily for his/her success. They would be thankful that any single writer got published at all. They would understand the intricate technicalities of how the business worked and taste its pain. So this stays the biggest fallacy, amongst them, I would think.

v) Ignorance because they have no clue too, how monumental the British publishing & media industry currently is.

In Malaysia, most things are centered around Kuala Lumpur the capital city. Living on both sides of the world, I'll attest to the publishing/writing/media industry being very much smaller than what Fleet Street was alone. Perhaps, just a fraction of it.

Also having worked here as a magazine writer, I've observed that reporters, editors, public relation officers, tv people, restaurant and theatre owners all mostly know each other.

I don't think the local scene has changed all that much. Many are still around. How could they not be? Plus, you meet all the time in launches, conferences and events. It's easy if you want to write reviews or publish something or make contacts. Somebody will know someone who knows someone. It's very very easy. I speak from personal experience, having been in the thick of this circle in the 90s. Almost everyone knows everyone.

vi) But in London, there are hundreds of editors, reporters, television producers, commissioning editors, dozens of departments. Things are happening, revolving non-stop for 24 hours. The Malaysian writer together with several international ones and the Brits, really have to earn their accolades or bylines through a fair shedding of blood, sweat and tears.

Contacts and networking are not sufficient. You have to strive to be a bloody good writer.

So how do I know we don't yet compare? Out of my many observations, perhaps, the latest stays in an article, I read recently, written by a writer for a local paper. It was supposed to be a review of a recent writer's festival. One of the words in his description, to my horror said school-going age. It sounded so amateur. Such a word I thought went out long ago with the dodos and the caveman. But we still use it here for of all things, a critical review in what is a called a literary supplement.

I cringed. That's fine for the standards we choose to employ for ourselves but if we do, we should think twice before we make critical remarks of any Malaysian writer published in Europe. Because you know, they're amongst the best, struggling to be the best.

I mean, submit a word like schoolgoing-age in your fiction/non-fiction manuscript to a literary agent in London and it may turn into sawdust in the next few minutes. A word like this being used in a professional context in the year 2007, stayed a mortifying discovery to me.

Picture Credit to LoveReadingUK

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