The third-year English Language and Literature with Creative Writing students from UNMC, namely Ooi Yining, Puteri Yasmin Suraya, Suzanne Ong, Jonathan Sim, Eugene Ng, Johann Cheong, Nafisa Tabassum and Chloe Lim have performed their prose and poetry on the stage during the George Town Literary Festival (GTLF) 2016 on the 27th of November. Each of them carrying their distinctive style and voice, we were delighted to have been presented with a variety of topics and themes. The idea was initially suggested to Bernice Chauly (the organizer of Georgetown Literary Festival) who was their lecturer in the previous year. It then had been long forgotten until they were notified that an exclusive panel slot was given to them in the GTLF programme. They were ecstatic, excited, pleasantly surprised and nervous upon knowing that and were extremely grateful for the opportunity, recognition and rare privilege of sharing their works.
“Why is writing significant to you?”
It is mentioned by the few young, aspiring writers – Jonathan, Yining and Suzanne – that writing acts as a form of therapy from which joy springs. It is an act of self-exploration, self-expression and self-discovery that is inextricably related with the process of understanding events and oneself, allowing a catharsis of intense emotions. For Chloe, being able to pursue writing without objection from her family was an arduous journey which added even more significance to it.
It is a way to gain insight about things.
– Johann Cheong
“Which are the works you have presented and what are their central themes and backgrounds?”
Yining is more of a storyteller, showing a preference for prose (especially novellas/novels) as it allows her to observe characters from the distance, and build a world around them.
“I presented a short story entitled ‘Ellipsis’ (…). It aims to express certain sentiments when the present is beyond one’s reach and the nostalgic past unredeemable. My narrator/protagonist is a ghost who returns to her home in a deserted (tin) mining town, only to find out that everything she knew is warped by time. And upon that realisation, she is doomed to be in a state of perpetual limbo, unable to move on or escape into her fantasy.”
Puteri Yasmin Suraya
For the love of rhythm and sound, poetry is Yasmin’s jam. Traces of poetic elements are seen even in her prose.
“I presented two poems: ‘A Study on Celestial Bodies’ talks about a love for someone in relation to the cosmic universe, and I wrote it out of my own fascination with cosmology. The second poem I read, ‘Apology Song’ was written on my own time during the summer break and I wrote it on behalf of someone whom is trying to be sorry for something they cannot help. It is a more personal piece for me, as I drew on events that had occurred to someone very close to me.”
Suzanne is a storyteller who aspires to recreate evolving and growing characters right before the reader’s eyes through the pages and in between the lines.
“I read an extract from my short story, which explores the mother-daughter relationship between Bridget and Suzy. It’s called ‘Flight Risk’; the title itself reveals the kind of person Bridget is.”
Jonathan currently writes more poetry than prose due to the lack of time. Poetry, being a shorter and more compact form, challenges him to intensely record in fewer words.
“I presented a poem, ‘at the end of a day‘ and an excerpt from my short story, ‘Alicia’. The poem’s central theme would be the melancholy of mental illness. I wrote it for three parties: myself, because at the time of writing it I was experiencing some turbulence; people who feel disconsolate, I hope the piece can give them a sense of fellowship; and people who are our support system. I hope what it encapsulates becomes insightful. ‘Alicia’ too, in its first part, explores a state of mind; we walk with the narrator through the painful quietness of her solitude. As her aunt is introduced in part two, the story then moves into her longing for connection with family.”
Eugene gravitates towards free verse as it provides the freedom to write whimsically. However, he enjoys poems that rhyme as his inner linguist delights in the marvellous play on words that blend together phonetically.
“I presented two poems: ‘Seasick’ and ‘Gesundheit’. ‘Seasick’ reflects a part of which was rather rebellious (if you could call me that) and was about me returning to my mother even as she chastised me for my foolhardiness. I chose the sea to represent her as she was like the sea, with tides that come and go like her mood but ever constant in the lapping waves on the shore. ‘Gesundheit’ is much simpler: I was upset with the haze as it ruined my outdoor fun like swimming, rugby and archery; the three sports referenced in the poem. I did try to make the sports vague so one had to guess what’s what. Some may tilt their heads thinking that the poem was perhaps sexual in nature to which I say is entirely happenstance which I found out only later from my course mates to my delight and dismal.”
Johann is most comfortable with short story writing and playwriting and likes the careful attention that the short story requires, while remaining a manageable form.
“I presented the first part of my short story, titled ‘The Lighthouse’. The story is centred on two people walking up a hill, towards the lighthouse. Its main theme is of friendship or siblinghood.”
Nafisa’s poems appear in free verse while her prose naturally inclines towards fantasy-influenced forms, or forms that revolve around character studies.
“I presented my poems ‘Come Down To My Earth’ and ‘Sleeping Lovers’ – you can read both at nafisalivestowrite.tumblr.com. I guess ‘Sleeping Lovers’ is a self-explanatory title, and beyond that, it was the connection of that single moment in sleep that I wanted to get through. I wrote ‘Come Down To My Earth’ from a mental space where I felt trapped, forced to be something other than myself, and it’s about that consequential desire for freedom.”
Poetry brings order into Chloe’s senseless and chaotic world and with its raw and condensed nature, appealing to her the most.
“While prose, whether it is a piece of short story or a whole novel encompasses a length of fictional time and consist of development and changes, poetry is a celebration of a moment, an emotion, a thought.
I presented a poem and a very short excerpt, the beginning parts of a short story. My poem is titled ‘The Rum Mermaid’, written while but there was no rum involved in the process of writing it. Instead, I was drinking a smooth, chilled bottle of Heineken. I do not know where to situate this poem, but it was basically a stream of consciousness that shaped themselves into 3 stanzas. It is a confessional poem with ‘I’ as the persona. It explores the theme of mental illness (mainly anxiety) and to a lesser extent, alcoholism. The persona feels out of control of her own life and I used imageries such as ‘I am a wisp of smoke that blends with the unending clouds’ and ‘like screams you try to muffle but your neighbours can still hear’ to strengthen the sentiment. Her mental illness is taking over her life, and as it is gradual, she is aware of the deterioration. She wants to give up on life, but at the same time she is defiant to not let her illness define her and live life to its full potential. Lost and torn, she turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism.
My prose is entitled ‘Break’, and it is about life in medical school through the eyes of an anatomical mannequin. I garnered inspiration for it from my time in medical school. It was a challenging piece to write as the mannequin has been confined to the anatomical dissection hall all its life and has limited knowledge of the world. Her best friend is a skeletal model named Jack and together, they observe life around them. The story took a dark turn when a bullied, slut-shamed girl called Xiao Lu had a mental breakdown and destroyed things in the anatomical dissection hall, including Jack.”
“How would you describe your writing process and where do you garner inspiration from?”
Probing into their writing process, most of them responded with remarks such as ‘nonlinear’ and ‘frustrating’ with more effort focused on editing and revisiting their works. There are sudden bursts of inspiration as well as pauses in creativity – simply put – a writer’s block. In reference to Robert Olen Butler to whom the writers were introduced during their Advanced Writing Practice class, Suzanne also notes that writing should flow from the subconscious.
Bumpy. My writing process was like a bumpy car ride on your way to Cameron Highlands (it still is). I often feel nauseated half-way through, and have to take a break. […] However, writing a particularly long story in fragments helps.
– Ooi Yining
They obtain inspiration from various places – externally and internally – from people, events, experiences, recollections of the senses. Puteri Yasmin goes further to reimagine the things people around her have gone through or even simply by speaking to them through her writing.
“What are the hopes for your works? What do you plan to achieve with your works?”
When asked about the hopes for their works, while most have ambitions of getting published, they would want their writings to resonate with their readers, to inspire and ultimately, reach out to people and contribute to a better world. Jonathan also emphasises on building a relationship with readers through his writing as he finds it a very intimate act. For Chloe and Nafisa, it is solely about the desire and the ability to continue writing beautiful, aesthetic pieces without any restraints. Eugene, however, aspires to achieve a sense of personal freedom through writing and prefers his work not to be disclosed.
I hope my writing can reach out to those who are afraid to venture not just in creative writing but also to those who feel they cannot be understood, as well as to give a voice to those who have long been silenced.
— Puteri Yasmin Suraya
“How do you handle criticism on your works?”
On handling criticism of their works, most of them can be somewhat protective of their work and initially defensive – even if done in the mildest language – as they are to them their babies and immensely precious.
They do welcome, appreciate – and even hunger for – fresh perspectives and constructive feedback on their writings. Nevertheless, Jonathan and Chloe pointed out that a piece ultimately belongs to a writer. As Chloe boldly puts it, there may be too many voices and one must learn how to discern and evaluate them.
Choosing the right people to get feedback from is important to build a budding writer. […] Ultimately, we, as the writer of our own pieces, have to decide for ourselves what works best as we’d know our pieces best. There’s always a risk of the feedbacker imposing their style on your work.
– Jonathan Sim
“How did you feel when you have finally presented your work to the public?”
Having read their works aloud to a roomful of people and after their nervousness had subsided, most of them felt nakedly exposed as it seemed like a part of themselves was shared with the audience. Despite a few feeling somewhat vulnerable, all of them were motivated by the new empowering sensation and agreed that if an opportunity was given, they would indeed do it again. On a side note, Johann was grateful for all the students, lecturers and his family that came to support the reading panel, which made it an immeasurably better experience.
Suddenly the intimate is disclosed, and you’re no longer in your own space writing comfortably by yourself. A piece, a shred of you is revealed to the public. It is both scary and thrilling.
– Puteri Yasmin Suraya
“What are your views on the current literary landscape in your home country (Malaysia, Bangladesh)?”
On their views on the current literary landscape in their home country, Nafisa, a native from Bangladesh, states that Bangladesh has a rich background of literature, but in recent times is not being celebrated enough. She hopes that the enthusiasm for literature and writing would grow, and that a similar event such as GTLF would be held in her home country in order to allow the great number of repressed voices to be represented.
Meanwhile, in the context of Malaysia, the local literary landscape is seen to be slowly flourishing with budding Malaysian English writers and the emergence of independent publishing houses and organisations promoting the love of poetry and prose, as well as drama/theatre. Along with literary festivals like GTLF, which provides a platform for writers and the public to connect, there has been a growing audiences as well at reading events and writers’ gatherings. Without doubt, Malaysian writers are also gaining international recognition with people from other parts of the world reading Malaysian literature. It is believed that there is an enormous potential for contemporary Malaysian English stories.
However, Yining remarked on the division of the two major parties of Malaysian writers: one places emphases on national issues, heritage, identities and draws a line between literary writing and genre writing; another one takes pride in creating for general public (pulp fiction) and portrays the modern-day ‘urban reality’. She asserts that student-writers at her age have adopted principles that both camps stand for.
The deliverance of important messages and particular views should be written with or without the baggage from our society and nation.
– Ooi Yining
On a national level, Jonathan hopes that the term ‘national literature’ can one day welcome Malaysian literature in English and other written languages in Malaysia into its arms as well. It is indeed very heart-warming and hopeful to see a growing enthusiasm for literature and more aspiring literary artists striving to make voices heard.
By Yap Jia Ming