Monday, September 27, 2010

Cable tv killed 1Malaysia

This tear jerker is still talked about in my family,
we sing the theme song's refrain now and then
I'm just gonna put this idea out there that with the advent of cable tv our experience of other ethnic cultures was suddenly very limited. 

Remember when the only thing showing on the telly on a Sunday afternoon was a Hindi movie? My family spent many hours enjoying Hindi and Tamil movies together. Then 7 o'clock swung around and it was Cantonese drama time. Tony Leung crying over Dodo Cheng's comatose body in the hospital. Leon Lai breaking some girl's heart. 

We live in the era of customization and only see and hear the things that we want. We subscribe to the Astro channels that we feel comfortable with, naturally: the Chinese watch NHK, the Indians stick to Vaan, etc. Our only common tv experiences are Star World, ESPN, etc - the English language channels; but even then not all Malaysians watch these.

Meanwhile, the internet which has the ability to provide us with information that is otherwise unobtainable is often used in a way that divides people further and reinforces prejudices:
“The most striking power provided by emerging technologies [is the] growing power of consumers to ‘filter’ what they see.” (Cass R. Sunstein)
"...it’s possible to spend hours surfing without ever entering new waters." (Elizabeth Kolbert writes, in this fabulous New Yorker article)
When I moved to Singapore to study, my teacher told us to write about our childhood for an assignment. I wrote about growing up on Hindi films and she found that hard to believe. At that moment, I was so proud to come from a country where, back then at least, the races shared the same tv shows a lot more. 

Oh well, at least we are still as enthusiastic about each other's food as ever!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

New blog find

Alan Gray's illustrations are deceptively casual - here he captures Gordon Ramsay
There has not been a blog that has made me laugh for five minutes straight, until Reality TV NZ. Written by Melenie Parkes and illustrated by Alan Gray, it offers an entertaining recap of reality tv episodes currently airing in New Zealand. I love Alan's masterful drawings that capture the essence of each character (check out Tyra's scary eyeballs) with just a few strokes - right up there with Quentin Blake, imho. Seriously the most fun I've had in the blogosphere to date :)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Now showing @ Annexe gallery, Kuala Lumpur

Flung II (Lime)
Some of my paintings are currently on show at the above gallery. Read more about the exhibition here.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Today's meditation

Perhaps no one can say that they are strong enough to withstand emotional and spiritual affliction. Who can say, when in the throes of a challenge, that they are strong?

If we are lucky, we will be confident of pulling through and the end will be in sight, somewhat; but mark that the sensation of weakness lingers and victory is not yet guaranteed.

In reality, survival is a matter of placing ourselves away from such harm, as we would walk around fire.

Sometimes it takes all our strength to keep our distance from the things that hurt us.

I do not content myself with the belief that there is bravery, only acceptance of the task at hand.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

New Malaysian Essays

Happy Malaysia Day, everyone. 

(For the benefit of my non-Malaysian friends, this is not to be confused with Independence Day.) 

As a special Malaysia Day gift, Matahari Books has generously uploaded New Malaysian Essays Vol.3 as a free download. Yay! It looks like quality material. 

So far, I have read Wong Chin Huat's How To Demonstrate Creatively: A Manual of Innovative Civil Disobedience in Malaysia. Now that's something you wouldn't be able to buy off the shelf in Malaysia! Admittedly, the tone of this essay is a little dumbed down, but just skip to the bits where he offers ten suggestions for creative demonstration in Malaysia. They're not so much ten suggestions as a list of actual demonstrations attempted by various individuals and groups in Malaysia in recent years. I quite like this one:
On September 16 1999, hundreds of Malaysians - Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Taoist, Atheist - had decided to fast together
...as an act of protest and solidarity. How effective. Actually, I nearly choked up when I read that one. I'm a real sop for that sorta thing.

NME Vols.1 and 2 are actual physical books for sale. You can order them from the Matahari website, if you're intrigued.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

John Berger deserves an entry all his own

Love the man, love love him. Watch him in this 1995 interview. See how he answers every question, including "Are you a Marxist?", with dignity, grace and generosity.

How on earth did he and his leftist friends know that American Abstract painting was being secretly supported by the CIA to counter communism? The rest of the world found out only in the 90s.

I haven't been interested in his fiction, but I guess I ought to read G., the novel that won him the Booker Prize which, to the judges' horror, enabled him to donate generously to the Black Panther Party.
I fought very hard for John Berger to win for G, and then he threw it in my face by giving half the prize money to the Black Panthers. - George Steiner, Booker judge in 1972
The Booker, you see, had a dirty little (open) secret. Its sponsors, Booker McGonnall, had garnered much of their wealth, as Berger related in his acceptance speech, from 130 years of trading in the Caribbean. "The modern poverty of the Caribbean is the direct result of this and similar exploitation," he said. He also later told everyone that he was going to give half his prize money to the Black Panthers - who were, as he explained, "the black movement with the socialist and revolutionary perspective that I find myself most in agreement with in this country". - The Guardian
I need to read more of his books. I do not know any other writer who combines poetry with politics the way he does. Just the crystal clarity of his writing is inspiring enough.
Not all desires lead to freedom, but freedom is the experience of a desire being acknowledged, chosen and pursued. Desire never concerns the mere possession of something, but the changing of something. Desire is a wanting. A wanting now. Freedom does not constitute the fulfilment of that wanting, but the acknowledgement of its supremacy.
Today the infinite is beside the poor.
- From Berger's Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance (in my top ten books of all time)
Read him! :)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

In the author's own voice

Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf
as snapped by Lady Ottoline Morrell
Now available on the BBC website is their valuable archive of interviews with key British authors. Most exciting for me are the podcasts featuring Virginia Woolf (it's funny and quaint the way she pronounces 'mysterious' - messTEErious), John Berger and Zadie Smith (is it me or does the interviewer get slightly irritated by her coyness/self-effacement?). I can't wait to explore the others. What's more, it's all FREE.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Tan Twan Eng's Gift of Rain

I'm following up on the first impressions I jotted down here.

When I finished reading this book earlier this week, I did not want to pick up another, preferring to let my mind further marinate in the ideas, emotions and atmosphere of this story.

In my initial notes, I wondered if this was going to be a satisfying novel. I was aware that the first half of the book was setting the reader up for something explosive in the second half. So, does the latter half indeed live up to the former? 

Thankfully, yes, it does. But it is hard to tell you why without giving the plot away. Suffice it to say that the bonds established between family members and friends are very much tested in the latter part of the novel, when Malaya falls to the Japanese. When I finished the last page, I found myself returning to the beginning almost immediately to see how everything tied together.

Gift of Rain is not perfect but it is a strong novel, its ambitions numerous: it is a WWII story that includes the points of view of its Japanese characters, a story that explores ancient philosophy through the art and discipline of aikido (I read somewhere that Tan is himself an aikido black belt but don't let this lead you to think that this novel is an aikido manual... far from it), and an unusually intense friendship between a young student and his sensei who happens to be the Japanese enemy. The novel deals with all these difficult themes effortlessly, meditating on the problems of free will vs determination.

I really enjoyed reading about the deepening relationship between said student (Philip) and sensei (Endo-san). Philip has ample reasons to mistrust Endo-san, yet a spiritual reality that is even bigger than the war keeps him close to Endo-san. Their words to each other is not the language of lovers or between teacher and student, but of soulmates who have no need for words. That said, I like how real doubt clouds Philip's thoughts about Endo-san:
'When I am gone, what will you most remember of me?' Endo-san asked, his eyes on the planes as they faded into the distance.
I pondered the question. 'I don't know. I don't even know what to think of you now; how can I even contemplate what to recall of you?'
With each cycle of mistrust and regaining of trust, their relationship deepens.

Some novels make their readers aware of the 'space' within. For example, Preeta Samarasan's Evening Is The Whole Day largely takes place in a big house, so that we can sense the claustrophobia, or 'cabin fever', experienced by its characters. Gift of Rain is the complete opposite because it is set in wide open spaces. Since rain - that bringer of both destruction and blessing - is a recurring motif, Tan often paints his scenes with images of clouds, open seas and clear skies. I have actually skimmed the book for cloud/sky references and counted more than ten. My favourite one is this simple but effective line: 
"Dark heavy clouds rolled over the ridges like surf breaking over sea boulders". 
Even the swords used by the two main protagonists are named Cloud and Illumination, mirroring the spiritual progress towards enlightenment. Rain, of course, lowers the sky and obscures vision and clarity, hence the most harrowing period of the novel features non-stop heavenly showers. Finally, I must mention a very rewarding scene at the end that involves the Union Jack, which further illustrates my point about the freeing wide open spaces of this novel - but to tell you would be to give too much away!

So, would I recommend this book to anyone? It really depends. A 'Western' reader unfamiliar with Buddhist philosophy and reincarnation might find the mystical bits annoying or difficult, or she might find the Japanese concept of duty over love rather challenging. However, such a reader might also enjoy the twists and turns of the plot. In any case, the descriptions of people and evocations of place are beautifully written, so yes I would say, to anyone, that this is a worthwhile read. 

By far the best thing about this book is that it has spurred me to read up on this period of Malayan history, something I have not done in earnest since my school days. Somebody once said, "Art should make life more interesting than art". Isn't that the wonderful thing about literature, how it can get you enthused about other things in life?