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Monday 20 July 2009

Continuing the Interview with Malaysian Novelist Zaipah Ibrahim, author of The Gift in the USA

by Suzan Abrams

Here, I continue an interview I wrote up earlier on Malaysia’s debut novelist Zaipah Ibrahim who recently published a contemporary romance novel, The Gift, in America.

The earlier interview is over here or you could simply scroll down the page to read it. This is the first author photograph of the very cordial, pleasant and obliging Zaipah Ibrahim, on the web. The snap was shot at her school with her students in tow.

What stays special is that here she is standing tall among a stellar list of international writers. The Gift published by Muslim Writers Publishing USA, winds in philosophical ramifications with Islamic ideals. It may be purchased from several international online booksellers.

Perhaps Zaipah's unique accomplishment is that in the face of a stern competition among several hundreds of other aspiring Muslim authors internationally - and all bent on the same slice of the cake - Zaipah was accepted and published by a small press in the States even while she was already back home in Malaysia, during the peak of the recession last March.

Zaipah who has studied in the United States of America, is herself a qualified English Lecturer and is presently dedicated to teaching Malaysian children English. The writer runs a tutorial centre in her homestate of Trengganu; famed for its extraordinary array of cultural assortments, fascinating cuisine and scenic beachspots. The state is situated on Malaysia’s beautiful East Coast. The book cover excellently captures a similar scenery.

The Gift.
Zaipah Ibrahim
ISBN 978-0-9793577-7-0
Muslim Writers Publishing, USA
Paperback 292 Pages
Price: US$14.95

A previous article which introduces the novel is here.
The first part of the interview is here.

And now the rest of the interview.

Could you explain to other aspiring authors who may find you an inspiration, how you got published by Muslim Writers Publishing?

"Search for publishers that publish a genre you're familiar with. I found MuslimWriters America while surfing the net and later met some wonderful other writers of the Islamic faith. . Linda who is better known as Wihad, was the founder. It was only later that my manuscript was accepted by MuslimWritersPublishing."

Did you enjoy the working relationship with your publisher?

"Yes. I liked dealing with the publisher, Linda(Widad) and also the in-house editor, Debora McNichol. They are both efficient in their work and I was more then happy with the quality of the production."

Tell us a little about your tutorial centre.

"It's not the normal tutorial centre that offers all kinds of school subjects. Fajr Library is mainly for book publishing. I set it up when I self-published "Islamic Word Games". Then by chance, friends asked me to tutor their kids. So, I decided to offer English classes as part of activities under Fajr Library.

"Now I have about 40 students enrolled in both primary and secondary school English classes. Each class is made up of about 8-10 students. My main interest is teaching the primary school kids aged 8 and 9 years old. I do activities and play language games with them. I emphasize writing English sentences in fun ways. They enjoy learning English this way. Not all students have these activities at their schools due to large classes while some schools focus too much on exams, thus lots of exam practices!"

What do you find obviously different between the two careers of teaching and writing?

"Teaching is clearly more of helping the kids since English is the biggest problem among many Malay students in Malaysia. On the other hand, my passion for writing means sharing life's experiences and the perceptions gained from wide observations and happenings around me."

Could you tell us about your next book, The Gift II?

"I've always wanted to read (and watch a drama/movie) about AIDS/HIV victims from the perspective of Islam and Muslims - and in a positive way!

"I get bored of reading/watching the negative responses towards them. I wondered how a true muslim is supposed to face such an ordeal. So, I decided to write The Gift II (still a working title) which is the story of a young woman and her determined dream to become a journalist. However, life gives her more than what she bargains for.

"Through her eyes I want readers to follow the roads of life, love and loss as solely regards the disease. This, especially from the perspective of Islam as well. So much I learned from writing this novel in terms of knowlegde about the disease and the pain and the struggle to live with it among the people you love.

"Knowledge is power that gives you the strength when dealing with AIDS/HIV. Doing a research on AIDS/HIV while completing my M.A at SIU-C was unforgettable. The librarians were cooperative but I received some funny stares every time I checked out books from the Carbondale public library in America ....just imagine a woman wearing a hijab/veil and all she read was AIDS/HIV related books. :)"

When did you begin to write this?

"I think it all started at the end of 1997 but I completed the research by the end of spring 1998. The writing was done after I came home to Malaysia. At the time, due to a busy teaching schedule at the college, I couldn't focus on the manuscript. When I resigned in 2001, I put more hours into writing it."

Who is publishing your second novel?

"Telaga Biru - a local Malaysian publisher - will publish it. At the moment I'm waiting for the final letter of confirmation from them. They liked the manuscript the first time they read it but hesitated to publish it (due to the language being in English) until they saw the published version of The Gift. I was eager to send them a copy as requested and this paid off. Sometimes from wishful thinking, I do wonder if they would like me to translate the novel to the Malay language."

How do you feel about it all and where do you find the time for your promotions?

"Oh dear... I am too busy these days with teaching, so I just can't manage the time to do promotions of The Gift in Malaysia. At the moment, my promotions are all online. And yes, I'm still getting used to that idea. Whenever people ask for my signature, I feel strange and smile before signing the book. I can't help myself."

What are some of your favourite things?

"Due to a food allergy, I am selective of what I eat but I like trying non-Malay cookings as long as the food is halal. Right now Indian and Korean cooking are my favourites. I love the colours yellow, pink and turquoise. And as for flowers, they just have to be pink and red roses. At the moment, my hobbies are reading, writing, travelling and internet-surfing."

What do you love about Terengganu?

"The coasts! Only one word to describe them. Magnificent! It's one of Allah's greatest works of art! I become speechless everytime I sit on the beach waiting for the sun to rise. I watch a universal change happening right before my eyes! No matter where I go, I just cannot forget these beautiful natural view. Once upon a time, I loved jogging very early in the morning and would wait for the sun to rise. Nowadays, I don't get to jog much though I still try to catch a sunrise whenever possible."

The book cover features a lone figure of a Malay woman walking on the coast. Who designed it ?

"Linda/Widad told me the idea and I liked it. She had it designed and showed it to me."

And what about your family?

"I'm not married. I love spending time with my family esp. with my two little nephews."

How do you spend your writing days currently?

"I'm not writing much these days...still sifting through my many little notes but I'm planning to write more soon. Also, I'm writing some Islamic romance short stories at the moment. I have finished a few so far. Also, since my two novels The Gift and the other soon-to-published The Gift II feature serious and weighty themes, I plan to introduce elements of fun and laughter from the notes I mentioned."

Do you intend to visit America again?

"InshaAllah!" (God Willing)

Do you have any golden rule for aspiring Malaysian writers who have plans to publish abroad?

"Be honest and love what you write. Never give up and keep searching for the publishers. I believe there is one for each writer out there."

Do you have a favourite old Malay poem or folklore?

"I don't have one. The young Zaipah was such a big fan of mysteries and adventures. Even romance novels came much much later in her life." :)

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Sunday 19 July 2009

Remembering Frank McCourt

by Suzan Abrams

I am heartbroken that Ireland's illustrious writer, Frank McCourt, who authored a bestselling memoir featuring a poverty-stricken Irish childhood, Angela's Ashes, has died.

My personal experiences are of having met and spoken to him twice, not too long ago.

Once was a signing at the Eason Bookstore on Lower O'Connell Street on a weekend afternoon, close to the Christmas of 2007. Having just published a seasonal picture book for children, McCourt was present to meet with fans.

He asked me where I was from. When he heard me say Malaysia; he talked to me a little about his time in Singapore, a country he had visited and thoroughly enjoyed. He asked me if I had been. He said that he had grown tired of travelling and just wanted to return home. He wished it could be Ireland. He kept saying he wanted to rest. At the time, he looked terribly frail.

I spoke to him again this February at the wonderful Emirates' Festival of Literature in Dubai. I was amused to see that the now buoyant McCourt was in jest a lot of the time. He had put on weight and seemed in his element, cracking jokes that came complete with his sarcastic wit and an array of sardonic quips.

He talked in length about how when he was a schoolteacher nobody knew or bothered much about him and that suddenly at such a late age, fame would hit overnight. How he regaled us with the comedy of a life well lived and learnt and too, his trials posed from aspiring authors who often posted him strange manuscripts for which he never knew how to comment.

We would all see how McCourt so enjoyed speaking to a full house in Dubai. How glad I am now that Emirates and Foyles had chosen McCourt for a select author invitation and that he in turn, had so cheerfully given his time to the festival.

McCourt was clearly in high admiration and respect for Orange Prize winner, the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi's writings and also her observations on life. He was deeply interested in all she said and at a panel discussion, kept probing her thoughts on issues he himself felt compelled to comment on.

May the beautiful Frank McCourt's soul rest in peace.

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Friday 10 July 2009

Malaysian Author Tash Aw to Read at the Edinburgh International Book Festival August 2009

by Suzan Abrams

If you're an ardent reader, Scotland's the place to be this August!

Glance through the detailed programme that's been elaborately laid out and styled - more the decorative element, I'd say for a coffee table glossy - and it's easy to see how this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival 2009 is truly a universal meeting of the minds. The festival carefully shapes a prism that reflects a monumental number of slants in which detailed subjects of authors, publishing, literature and writing may be delightfully probed and measured.

Many, many big names and also fascinating lesser known authors. Also, a fantastic schedule of children's book events.

Malaysia is represented by its most popular bestselling author worldwide of all time, Tash Aw. Aw who's currently in big demand for readings in several countries will talk about his newest novel Map of the Invisible World on Saturday, 15th of August at 4.30pm. His event which takes place at the Writers Retreat, is listed under the category of World Writing. Aw will share the spotlight with debut novelist Sulaiman Addonia's The Consequences of Love; a plot which draws on a forbidden romance in Saudi Arabia.

Singapore is represented by pioneer poet Edwin Thamboo and also the poet Simon Tay and the region's highly popular novelist, Suchen Christine Lim. All three will speak at 4.00pm on Sunday, 16th August at the Peppers Theatre. I've met and spoken to Suchen. She stays one of the most level-headed, friendly, humorous and unpretentious writers I know.

Another shy writer that comes to mind is Diana Evans who's also reading at the Fest and who I'm surprised has just had another novel out, which I didn't even know about. Especially too, that I had been waiting the longest time. I once sat next to Evans at a Tash Aw reading in London and she was extremely soft-spoken, gentle and pretty much the lovely soul.

One more humble author - but he's not at the Fest - is Vikram Seth. I've met Seth twice . Chatted with him once at Hatchards in Piccadilly's London and went to a reading another time at the South Bank. He is a very very funny man and enjoys holding an audience up in stitches for as long as it takes.

Here is the link to the Edinburgh Book Festival Programme. Do enjoy your scroll down as you gasp at all the lovelies..

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A Short Interview with Malaysian Novelist Zaipah Ibrahim, writer of The Gift

Here is a short interview with Malaysia's debut novelist Zaipah Ibrahim who recently published a contemporary romance novel, The Gift, in America.

Standing tall among a stellar list of international writers, The Gift published by Muslim Writers Publishing in the USA, winds in philosophical ramifications with Islamic ideals. It may be purchased from several international online booksellers.

Zaipah who studied in the United States of America and is a qualified English Lecturer, is dedicated to teaching Malaysian children English. The writer currently runs a tutorial centre in her homestate of Trengganu; famed for its extraordinary array of cultural assortments, fascinating cuisine and scenic beachspots. The state is situated on Malaysia's beautiful East Coast. The book cover excellently captures a similar scenery.

A previous article which introduces the novel is here.

The Gift.
Zaipah Ibrahim
ISBN 978-0-9793577-7-0
Muslim Writers Publishing, USA
Paperback 292 Pages
Price: US$14.95

A short interview with Zaipah Ibrahim by Suzan Abrams

When was the moment you knew you wanted to be a writer?

"I've always liked writing but never thought I would actually become a writer one day! I started penning short stories in *bahasa melayu (*the Malay language which is Malaysia's national language) while studying in the Second Form and just to share with friends. When I chose the science stream in the Fourth Form, I stopped writing altogether. Then a year later, while in the Fifth Form, my story was chosen by a teacher who read it to the whole class. At that moment, I felt a sharp desire to pursue writing once more but didn't.

"Later I studied computer science until I decided to switch to linguistics! It wasn't until 1996 /1997 that I seriously got myself into writing. I was in the USA doing my M.A at that time. I was searching high and low for an Islamic romance novel to read but couldn't find any... so I thought of writing it myself! I grabbed whatever free time I had to read books on creative writing...sort of independent learning. Slowly I drafted a manuscript and the journey finally began for The Gift!"

Did anything or anyone special inspire you to write?

"It was more a desire to provide quality Islamic fiction, especially in the romance genre.

In Malaysia, romance novels in Bahasa Malaysia/Malay are very much influenced by Western literature in particular and this with regards to cultures and values and all...

I found very few novels in BM that reflected Islam as a way of life... in a non-preachy way that is. For me Islam owns its rituals just like any other religion would, but it is more of a faith that reflects a specific art on living a life. Unfortunately, I don't see this act being translated/incorporated into Malay romance novels or television productions like weekly dramas and serials."

Tell me something about family life in your hometown, Terengganu.

"I come from a big family...grew up with mom as house-wife...dad worked with the MARA shipping yard. Mom passed away years ago and dad now runs his own carpentory workshop. I was in standard 6 and 12 years old when i seriously decided to improve my English. Before that, i used to collect bad grades for the language. I had this teacher....teacher Safiah who made me love english... When I entered high school, there was a sudden tremendous improvement! Two teachers I will always remember....Madam Safiah and Madam Latifah! They offered a new meaning to the very idea of pursuing the English Language...lots of fun and possible to master!"

How was your love for literature influenced in your younger years?

"Libraries are homes for me. Morris Library (SIU-C) was a the best place in the campus! As a child my dad stressed the importance of reading (he used to say "people read books on buses, so you have no excuse to not read at home"). Slowly I picked up the habit. I just loved reading and the school library was heaven for me. I loved reading Aesop's Fables (in BM) when i was 8 - 9 yrs old. Later I was a big fan of the mystery series, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys...The Famous Five...all in BM... In High School I read loads of of Sherlock Holmes in English. But the romance novel? Ah well, not until finishing high school. Only then did I start reading novels by Danielle Steel."

What were your favourite storybooks as a child?

"As a child of course, of course it had to be the Aesop Fables....lots of lessons in morality to learn plus the happy endings and all wishes coming true. As for those mystery novels, I loved finding out how a crime was solved! I became really fascinated by all of that. Sherlock Holmes especially was a great character that left an important influence on me as a teenager..."


What did you study in the States and how long were you there for?

"I did linguistics for my B.A and TESL for my M.A. I did both at Southern Illinois Univ - Carbondale.For each course of study, I spent almost 2 years. For my B.A I completed 2 years in an MUCIA program in Malaysia before going to the States."

How did your writing develop when you were in the States?

"Completing my M.A was a lot of work, but my growing interest in writing made me strive to learn how to write. The internet too helped me explore the writing world and conduct research. When I came home I continued my research ventures at the public library in my home town."

You appear a prolific writer with initially two self-published educational books, a second novel almost ready and a third with notes on the go. How did such an event as writing The Gift 10 years ago come about?

"As I mentioned earlier, I badly wanted to read an Islamic romance novel. I read 'Cinta Madinah' by a local writer. It stayed close to the philosophical and religious ideals I was looking for but produced in the Malay language. I told myself to go ahead with The Gift! So, I gathered experiences from my life and of others I saw around me...Saleha, a main character, was my main focus at first and then came the others... Ani, Imran and Syakirah...all these characters suddenly became real to me.

"Due to a heavy teaching workload at college, I couldn't really focus on writing but I never stopped. I guessed that was the reason why it took me so long to finish, rewrite, polish etc...around 2003 I submitted the manuscript to a local (Malaysian) publisher but they were not willing to publish. Reason - a local romance novel in English would not well-received in Malaysia!

"I held on to the manuscript and began writing my second novel. The same thing happened to the second manuscript - no takers to those I submitted to in Malaysia because I wrote it in English! It was after 'meeting' Widad (Linda of Muslim Writers Publishing in the States) that The Gift finally began its publication journey. Still, on having observed my first novel now being published in America, a Malaysian publisher stepped forward to announce that they were willing to publish the second manuscript."

How was your everyday writing discipline?

"I wrote The Gift in my bedroom. Didn't matter whether it was in Malaysia or in Carbondale! But I have a habit of keeping a little notebook with me and I write down any scenes or ideas that come to mind wherever I go. So, when I sat down to write The Gift, all the little notes were with me.

"I would spend at least an hour a day on the manuscript once I managed a complete draft of the novel. I usually make up my mind on the ending right from the beginning. However, the beginning might change as the story proceeds.

How did you then start to properly organise your writing for even other pieces of work?

"Once I settled on a theme I would start keeping little notes. Right now I have a bunch of them for my third novel....I wrote a short note in my blog about this (www.polariswriter.blogspot.com). Once I have enough notes, I would sit down to fix all the pieces together. It's fun, really!Then I will write a draft....the big picture I call it. The plots come along as I begin writing later on. A lot of editing/polishing as the chapters build.

"I do have moods. That's why it's important to carry that little book. Sometimes I just sit down and type away with the notes beside me! Otherwise, I write reams of pages in longhand before anything else.

Name a favourite book for the present time.

"I like tafseer (Commentary of the Quran) by the late Prof Hamka."

And what are you reading at the moment?

"Dont Be Sad by Aaidh Al-Qarnee. The English version of 'La Tahzan'. A super book and very inspiring."

What was a precious page or moment or chapter for you personally with regards to your own tale of The Gift?

"Pages 202- 203 (Saleha and Imran before their wedding) and page 254 (Syira and Imran on the subject of trust)."

While writing The Gift, how vividly did the characters occupy your headspace?

"I practically lived with them. Laughed and cried with them. I was really sad when Saleha died. I felt so much for Imran's loss and wanted Syira to be there for him though they were still strangers in some ways. Love and trust were still missing at that point. And yes I did miss them when I finished that last chapter especially Saleha!."

Did your finished manuscript alter or inspire your individuality in any way?

"There are some things in life - good and bad experiences- that can be translated and shared in the form of fiction. After all there are always lessons to learn with every big/little episode in life. A novel is no different."

Who are your favourite Malaysian authors?

"For fiction, I enjoy Abu Hassan Morad's talent. He wrote 'Cinta Madinah'."


How do you feel about Malaysian fiction in English, making it in the world?

"I wish for more Malaysian fiction to be written in English thus getting international readership. But, the writers must have a clear vision why he/he wants to do this. For me, being a Muslim, I feel it's a duty almost to make use of what little writing skills I possess to contribute to the production of quality Islamic fiction. So far, my friends - both Muslims and non-Muslims - have enjoyed reading 'The Gift'. Also, never give up! Believe in what you write! One reader in the UK was happy to read The Gift because she just loved the story about Malaysians written by a Malaysian!

How important currently are friends for intellectual pursuits?

"Writer friends help boost my spirit to write esp. when I go through writer's block. Yes, I do have a few specifically in the Muslim Writers Group though we are all busy with other non-writing tasks at the moment. Generally, I tend to stay the solitary writer although I love getting comments from anyone in the writing world anywhere at all."

Would you see having experienced the dire writing process yourself that being published internationally is different from being published locally?

"Yes! I get more worldwide feedback. It's also interesting how people living outside Malaysia appreciate not just the story but the places and cultures presented in the novel."


Credit: Clip art of Sherlock Holmes, courtesy of Gnurf.Net.

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