Sunday, October 31, 2010
Who ever said local writer cannot produced good work. Then they have not read Kam Raslan's Confessions of an Old Boy - The Dato' Hamid Adventures. I had opportunity to interview the author. His story appears in the sun Aug 2 , 2007
The artist as iconoclast
It's not easy to write humour, but that is what writer/director Kam Raslan does with panache. Publisher Marshall Cavendish (Malaysia) is considering submitting his book Confessions of an Old Boy - The Dato' Hamid Adventures to be nominated for the Impac Dublin Literary Award. The book centres on a retired civil servant who looks back on his life from the 1940s, taking the reader from Kuala Lumpur to Monte Carlo, Los Angeles to Algiers and London. Kam talks to BISSME S. about the book, stereotypes, rewriting history, his frustration as an artist in Malaysia, directing a feature film, and his search for father figures.
theSun: Every writer has a message to convey. What is yours?
Kam: One message was to break down the Malay stereotype ... help to remind us that there are different types of Malays. And once upon a time, my character - an anglophile Malay, an aristocrat - would actually have been defined as the archetypal cliche of the Malay if we had gone back 50 years.
Over time things have changed. There has been the rise of the "working class Malay" led by the likes of (Tun) Dr Mahathir (Mohamad). That is fine.
In the process, these Malays have been scrubbed from history. It is almost an embarrassment to their history. I want to reclaim these people. I want to bring these guys back into public memory.
Why bring them back?
Because when I speak to many non-Malays, they remember these people with affection. They (non-Malays) feel these guys were just like us ... they did the same things together ... saw the world in the same way ... spoke the same language literally.
The people in his (Dato' Hamid's) generation have been through so much. They have lived through so many moments in history ... to be born under the flag of the British Empire ... living through the Japanese Occupation during the war and seeing their British masters run away ... at a fairly young age creating a new country ... governing a new country. My father was one of those people. He came back to Malaysia after having been in London for many years.
I want to remind people that people had lived lives in this country that were very exciting and very interesting ... bigger than walking around the shopping mall and choosing a new Gucci bag ... bigger than choosing a new handset.
When you remember that, you will realise that not only have these people lived this wonderful life, this country has a more interesting history than people it give credit for.
Did you receive any threats, especially death threats, when you had your character Dato' Hamid referring to his son, a politician, as the Ayatollah?
I am one of the few writers in this country who have not yet received a death threat. (laughs)
Is that good or bad?
I think a death threat is good for sales. The fellows who read my book and spoke to me - they identify more with the Dato' than his son, the Ayatollah. It might be that they are with Ayatollah but they want to be like the Dato'. Maybe there are people out there (who want to kill him), but they have not said anything to me.
Is the character of the Ayatollah a reflection of the people running this country?
The people who are running the country are the children of the same elite. They still have the same sensibilities. They still enjoy a good cigar and probably have a good whisky ... I don't know ... I can't say for sure. They still share the same tastes. But that is private. In public though they now dress in different clothes. They have to speak to different and wider audiences. So they put themselves over as being the opposite of their father's generation. Those are the people who are running the country and the ones below them, that is a different story.
Tell us about a chapter in the book that you loved?
Hamid goes to his son's house and he sees there are no books, but there is an incredibly long dining table. I have been in many of those houses. One of the saddest things about those houses is that the kids are locked up in their rooms with their Internet, checking out chat sites all over the world. That is a monolithic and rather dull cultural image. It is not really remembered now, but an essential part of the Malay culture is to travel. I hear stories of young guys who got on a ship and sailed off and ended up in San Francisco, London and Paris. I have even met some of them.
Are there any similarities between the character of Dato' Hamid and you? And differences?
He doesn't believe in anything. But I do believe in some things. He wants the quiet life and I am not so keen on a quiet life. He loves his luxuries and I love mine too. He can't afford them, neither can I. He has seen more than I have.
There is a hint of the anti-establishment sentiment in your writing. Are you?
I wouldn't say I am anti-establishment. I was born into the establishment. I am anti-rewriting of history in ways I think that narrow the Malaysian imagination. I am anti-inefficiency. I am anti people not being given a fair chance.
Can you elaborate on "rewriting Malaysian history"?
I will give an example. I have a painting on my wall which I cut out from an old British newspaper (1870s). It has a bunch of Malay warriors charging at uniformed British soldiers who are shooting at them. It was the Perak War in 1876. In a way, that image describes me because I am half British and half Malay. That is my Malay side charging at my British side.
But the thing is that the story is not that clear cut. My forefathers were not those Malay fellows charging. They were on the other side and they benefited. They weren't necessarily Pro-British but they were just one faction vying against another.
My mother's family (Kam's British side) is very working class and I am not a member of the ruling class there. I have a working class British background but I led a very middle-class life.
The point I am making is that when I see images of history portrayed in very simplistic terms, when people say that the Malay warriors were charging at British soldiers and we must celebrate, I will say it is too simple.
If you ask me to look at the real background, it is much more complicated and much more interesting. It actually helps to describe who and what we are - we stop being two-dimensional characters and become three-dimensional.
I do not like rewriting history. I like us to be honest in the way we understand our history.
So you think we rewrite history?
I think we do. I remember watching the TV one Merdeka and there was a Malaysian guy who was saying it is really great to celebrate the sacrifices the freedom fighters made. I thought, "who is he talking about?"
One of the great things about this country is that we negotiated our independence. I have been getting the impression that there is a passive rewriting of history that our independence was fought for. Fighting for it suggests guns and guerilla ambushes.
Would you want to turn your book into a movie?
No. It is un-cast-able. The budget is too big. Everyone who reads the book, they are the film directors, they are directing that movie, they can hear it the way they want to hear it and they can see it the way they want to see it. If someone comes along and gives them an official image, they will be disappointed.
You said you always wanted to direct your first feature film. Why haven't you done so?
I had an offer to do a romantic comedy. I like the genre, but I wanted to do something that grips me. I grew up watching the likes of The Godfather. Not that I want to do The Godfather - it has already been done. I am gathering the strength to do it.
Do you have a story idea for your first feature film?
Yes. It is set in Kuala Kangsar in 1917 when a young man returns from Al Azhar University in Egypt. These days we think of Al Azhar as being a potential breeding ground for militant Islamists.
Back then, it was seen to be a place for secular and progressive western ideas. He comes back with modern ideas and comes into conflict with his father who is very much old school of adat (tradition) and working with the Istana (palace).
My hero is found guilty of a crime he didn't commit, and gets away with a crime he did commit. It is so huge and requires so much of money.
Why not start with small films like Yasmin Ahmad and Amir Muhammad have?
You are absolutely right. There are many stories but I never felt confident enough before. Now I have seen Sepet and said to myself "Oh yeah, I know these guys and I could have done that". I think what Amir and Yasmin are doing is fantastic. In fact I am a big fan of Afdlin Shauki.
I will direct my first film when I start getting my proposal together, and start writing my synopsis, and start knocking on the door of the rich and powerful who will sign me a blank cheque.
Which are you more passionate about - going behind the camera as a director or sitting down to write?
It's funny: I enjoy both, I hate both. Directing is getting up really early every day for weeks and constantly having to have an opinion on everything. It is not nearly as creative as you imagine.
The down side of writing - it is lonely, boring and unhealthy. You never move, you just sit there and you smoke.
The good thing with movie making - you have the opportunity to get out and be among so many people. It's exciting when you are making it happen. It's a hell of a thrill - making the sequences come together and the actors giving more than you imagine.
The good thing about writing is that I don't have to think about a budget and constraints like censorship.
Do you think there is less censorship in writing?
There is in a sense. In book publishing, you can say quite a lot. You go through the shelves in any bookshop in the Malaysian section and you can find many very interesting and surprising voices.
What are the changes you like to see taking place in this country?
I really want that one day for all 25 million (of the Malaysian population) to be able to take part in important things ... for everyone to have the tools and the ability to be the CEO ... to be the chief editor of a newspaper ... to be a contributor to our future. Now, because of various policies, we have many people in this country who cannot perform certain functions.
What is the biggest limitation you face as a writer and director in Malaysia?
The creative arts and entertainment in this country are not well paid. Maybe it is because we are not a terribly rich country.
I find that when I get involved in a TV project, it is not considered an important priority to pay people like us.
The way I see it, the people who are creating works that are actually generating an audience should be paid. Instead the priority in this country is the manager. He is considered more important that the creator.
Can you give an example?
Just this morning I went to a production house to talk about a script. The man who owns it has been in the TV industry for 30 years and he has to close his place down. He can't pay his staff. He simply can't get a commission from the TV stations. After generating programmes that were the most popular thing on TV, he has to close down. He's a good guy and played by the rules but he is being passed over. For the creative artist who wants to do something, that is the problem. It is a system that doesn't encourage people to come along and create stuff. The system doesn't exist to recognise these people.
Is that one of the reasons you plan to go back to England to try your luck as director and writer?
Yes. It is tough for me because I know I am good at what I do. It sounds incredibly arrogant. Sometimes I find myself in a situation where I am talking to people who have the ability to make my dream come true.
I say to myself that you are so stupid and I am so talented and don't you understand how it is supposed to work around here? I walk out of the room and it didn't happen. At least if I go to England, I will be tested. I just feel I need to go off and achieve something somewhere else, just so I can come back and prove to people that I am actually capable of doing what I said I was.
Is it frustrating being an artist in Malaysia?
You tell me. How many artists have you interviewed over the years who have said it is not frustrating to be one.
Do you believe writing can change the world? Do you believe your book has changed anything?
We kind of harbour that illusion. But at the same time we can't help it. I've got no choice. I need to do this. I can't turn my back on it (writing).
I would love for a book to change the world. But I don't think that any more. I used to believe that could happen.
If someone read my book and agreed with something in there and said, "I must now do this", it is because of all the other things happening in their lives. It is also because they already believe in that. It is just that my book might have given it a voice and put it into words. I don't think it is possible for one thing to come along and do that.
I love the book, but it is not Martin Luther King Jr standing and saying "I have a dream and let us walk hand in hand". It is not Mahatma Gandhi's salt march.
Tell us about your childhood years and how they have influenced you?
You are not my analyst (laughs). My father died when I was five (Kam was in Malaysia at the time). My first five years were very privileged ones. Suddenly I was taken to England, we weren't dirt poor, but we just suddenly landed in a middle class environment. I was so young and not so conscious of it.
I grew up in an English environment, but I was always aware of being a Malaysian. I would always tell my friends I was Malaysian.
I guess on a psychological level, I was affected by the dislocation and shock that something could be taken away. I am not talking about material things but the fact that my father suddenly disappeared.
I was the youngest of three siblings and looked up to my two brothers. My eldest brother was only 11, and he suddenly had to play a role that he could barely comprehend.
Growing up without a father figure meant I was always looking for father figures and creating them. In a way, with Hamid, it is no surprise that I should feel so at home writing about a guy who is my father's age. But he is not like my father. I have been drawn to seeking out these father figures and at the same time rejecting them. I must say that the biggest single influence of the whole experience is that I really raised myself intellectually. I didn't learn to understand the world around me by asking what that is and how is it that works like that. But I happened to work it out through discussion with my other six-year-old friends. It has given me an enormous sense of independence.
What one piece of advice would you give budding writers?
Don't do it. It's too hard. I would not wish it on my worst enemies. I can get by but I can't see myself making a pensionable future. If my words mean nothing to you, then learn the art of writing ... learn the techniques of writing. Concentrate on it to the exclusion of all other things, and most importantly, live life with your eyes and ears wide open. If you don't live life, you will have nothing to write about.