Sunday, November 7, 2010

Amri Rohayat

Here is another article that gives you a glimpes of what is taking place in our literature scene. The article appeared in the sun on Feb 19 2009 .

Headline: Writing to tell a story

Storyteller and publisher Amri Rohayat is interested in adding new colour to the Malay literary scene. He wants to bring in contemporary voices and vibrant ideas. The 40-year-old talks to BISSME S. about the local literary scene, the usage of Bahasa Malaysia and racism.

What is the philosophy behind your imprint, Stormkitchen?
A stormkitchen is this cheap cooker you use on camping trips. It is simple and utilitarian. That is the underlying philosophy: to make writing fun. Even frivolous.
My belief and experience is that young Malays are repressed. Our society behaves like it does not welcome young ideas … That these youngsters have no value. Fair enough. But we still need to give the young an outlet to express themselves safely before it gets too late. Otherwise it will be like a pressure cooker without a safety valve. But there are not many places where they can be creative and expressive. I wanted to give them one such platform. If they go to mainstream publications, they are unlikely to get published.

Why do you think the mainstream publications wouldn’t publish their fiction?
Maybe it is simply the job of the mainstream anywhere to not tolerate alternative viewpoints. Or maybe it is simply because often there are no messages in these "karya picisan" (unimportant works). When I first started out I was often asked: "What is the message of the story? What is the moral?" But heck, not every story needs to have a moral purpose.

Some people believe writers should change the world by having moral messages in their works. Don’t you agree with that?
Yes. A writer needs to be aware that whatever he writes will have an influence on at least someone. If words have no weight then people would not have burnt books or prosecuted writers throughout history. But honestly, a writer of fiction should write for no reason other than to tell a story. It is not for the writer to guide society. In the realm of fiction, the story should operate on its own moral terms. That is what separates it from reality.
I do believe that writers have a responsibility, but that responsibility is simply that they should be true to themselves. Anyone who writes deliberately with a subtext in mind is being manipulative, if not naive. Today you cannot dictate what the subtext is going to be anymore.

Is it true that the National Library refused to launch one of your books, Aweks KL?
Yes. They said the book was not suitable for their target audience. I have no problems with that. If you go to somebody’s house, it is his rules. So when somebody comes to my house, I expect the same: they will have to follow my rules. But that is not what is happening today. People come to my house and keep wanting to impose their rules on me. (We laugh)

Is it true that a writer refused to let his work be featured in Aweks KL?
Yes. I liked his poems and wanted to feature them. At first he was okay with it. But then he saw the cover. He said it was repulsive and demeaning to women. He asked me to consider changing the cover. I said I would think about it. So I thought about it and I stuck with the cover. He decided to pull out, which was a surprise. He saw an image of debauchery. I saw a reflection of something happening among us. A seedy secret that no one wants to discuss or acknowledge, about how women are viewed and treated.

What is the biggest challenge you faced in running your publishing house?
First of all, this is not a proper publishing house. Stormkitchen is not even a registered company. It is not a business. I don’t intend to make money out of it. It is just a hobby, something I do when I have the cash to spare.
Elarti is supposed to be a quarterly magazine. But I have to make it an annual for a couple of reasons. The first is financial: the money comes out of my pocket. The second is practical: we just don’t get enough quality contributions. And my bar is not set very high, so that ought to give you something to think about. Or maybe I am just not reaching the right kind of crowd. Most contributors are still sticking to convention. It goes back to how we have been raised. I think it is also a cultural thing. Traditionally, the Malays are not outspoken. Even when we criticise, we are very polite. We do not say things directly to your face. For example, if you asked us to do something, we always say "Insya Allah" even when we already know we are not going to do it. It is one of the things I admire about this culture, but these days it is not always the right solution.

Some people say the works you publish are not high literature?
Some have also said Histeria (his first movie script) is trashy, shallow and has no meaning. They are right. I was told to write a B-grade movie and that is exactly what I did … the kind of Sunday matinee I used to enjoy watching when I was 10 or 1. You get engrossed for an hour or two and then it is over and you simply get back to your life.
People really should have better things to do than to centre their lives on movies, celebrities and literature. Right now I am interested in digging up new voices and pushing them into the public consciousness. So that people can see what others are thinking about. I would rather have literature manifest by accident.
You fire up an active cauldron where a lot of things are simmering, and then, some day, maybe, the best works rise up to the top. Forget about creating anything or leaving a mark to soothe your insecure feelings of mortality. You should do what you feel needs to be done and let everything else take care of itself. Good works will eventually get noticed on their own merit. Or not. But if you just do what you believe in, then it does not really matter.

Speaking of Histeria, you added a touch of lesbianism in the movie and it attracted a certain amount of controversy. Did you put the scene just to be controversial?
No. It was supposed to be a reflection of the culture in a girls boarding school. That’s it. Some people have said the film is generally illogical. If you left out lesbianism in a story about an all-girls boarding school, now that to me would be illogical. I was not making a judgment call either. I did not put it in there to either praise or condemn the behaviour. It is what it is. I just wanted to document things as I found them. Plus, I thought shooting that scene would be hot. It almost did not get made. And I was not there when it was shot, sadly.

If you are not making money from Stormkitchen, why are you doing this?
It is corporate social responsibility on a personal level. I freelance by doing copywriting, graphic design and corporate videos. All very commercial. So this is my way to atone for my sins of making money through shallow means (We laugh). Seriously though, there should be more to life than just making a living. I know a lot of people say that, but it’s not reflected in how they live and behave. When you talk about nation-building these days, a lot of the focus is on the economics. The government should also stress the intangibles: culture, civilisation and giving space for people to be creative.

What is your view on culture?
Culture has become stagnant and stereotypical here. For a culture to survive, you need to keep changing. You need to keep adapting. But for some reason it all stopped evolving in the 80’s. We keep repeating the same old themes. We keep writing the same old way. It has also become insular and inward-looking. This is not how it used to be. I can still remember when art and literature were still an integral part of society. I would go to a relative’s house in Ulu Atok or wherever, and they’d have paintings done by a member of the family on display. There would be tattered and yellowing books of poetry lying around. If you look at it from a bigger perspective, Malay culture has been adapting and evolving throughout its life.
When we were Buddhist and Hindu, you saw a lot of Buddhist and Hindu elements in our culture. When we became Muslims, you saw a lot of Islamic influences. But now it has stopped, as if someone had said, "Okay, the culture is already perfect now so let’s put it in a tin." Worse, wholesale parts of the culture are being either Americanised or Arabified.

So you believe a culture should not stop evolving?
Of course! If you want to be a great culture, you have to borrow. Otherwise it becomes incestuous. Eventually the culture will become genetically defective. Again, I do not like it either, but it is something you can’t run away from. The Greeks borrowed heavily from the Egyptians and Persians, the Persians from the Indians and so on. There has always been cross-pollination. There should be no shame in it; it is how great civilisations are born.
But now they say, we should not borrow from the West. But culture tends to follow the predominant civilisation. And the West is this epoch’s predominant civilisation. So how do you resist the osmosis? Yet, we have to be smart about it. What we need to do is borrow, not ape. The Japanese absorb a lot of Western culture and they turn these influences into something very Japanese. Same thing happens in Indonesia. But the problem here is, we merely like to ape. We do not take an idea, internalise it and come out with our own take.
For example, some people are saying US has a black president, then we must have one too. But who understands what the blacks in America had to go through to get where they are? Every country should have its own natural evolution.

You said you don’t get stories out of the box. Why do you think this happens?
Limited reach, mainly. I have not been promoting the publications as much as I should. But on a wider scale I think it has something do with the government’s clamp down on student activism in universities since the 1970’s. It has a downstream effect. Once you clamp down activism in campus, people become docile. You get followers who cannot think. Eventually everything slows down or stops.

You think the government made a mistake by not allowing politics among university students?
They thought it was necessary and I agree with their reasoning. I do not think the government is deliberately evil, despite what some people say. They just did what they thought had to be done. I have no idea why, but it seems to me that with most Malay boys, they will find any excuse not to study. If you allowed them to indulge in politicking, then that is all they are going to do.
Some Malay students in the 1970’s were squandering the opportunities being handed to them on a golden platter. They had the hopes of an entire people on their shoulders, and all they used it for was their own selfish gains, masked in a cloak of "berjuang untuk rakyat" (fighting for the people).
If you want to dedicate your sole focus into fighting for that ideal, fine, but don’t whine when the government tries to take away your scholarships and insist that it is "your right".

What other government policies do you feel have failed?
I do not think the government planned for failure. Not at first, at any rate. The problem as I see it is that they like to implement a policy in reaction to a problem. Once they think they have plugged that leak, they think that’s it, job done, and they move on to other leaks. They forget to keep monitoring the previous policy, so that it may be amended or adapted as the situation changes. So in time the policy gets calcified, and it becomes the way things are done.
This constant monitoring mechanism must be consciously written into the original plan. Surely you have to realise that all policies have side effects. But when you fail to monitor, you won’t know what the side effects are. So when those side effects come up, you think it is a new problem, which you can solve with another, unrelated policy.
For instance, Britain took 200 years to go from an agrarian society to an industrialised one. We did it in 20 years! The government’s plan for rapid industrialisation may have achieved the target to create a sizable urban Malay population. But I also believe that the disastrous fallout from this accelerated process has not been addressed even now.
What happened was you got a new generation of Malays who became rootless. They no longer had a strong sense of identity. It gets worse over the generations. And now you have all these weird social ills, which everyone thinks is just a new phenomena.

What is the biggest change you would like to see taking place in the literary scene?
I would like to see more non-Malays reading and writing Malay proficiently. Making it their own. It is about building a common national identity. I hear people talk about Malaysian Malaysia all the time. And then they won’t even wear a songkok, as if it is somehow beneath them.
Recently, I read a piece where the columnist suggested that since some politicians can’t speak Malay properly in Parliament, why don’t they make MPs speak in English. "After all, this is Malaysia," he says. If this is Malaysia, then people should be speaking Bahasa Malaysia. I swear, smart people are sometimes so smart that they become stupid.

What do you think about racism in Malaysia?
To hear people talk today, it is as if only one side has that bias. My ex-boss, who was a white American, lamented once that in the US, a white man cannot even use the "N" word without expecting some kind of backlash, but the blacks can create entire comedy performances based on ridiculing white people. These days, in some crowds, I know exactly how he feels. A racist does not just make derogatory remarks. At heart he would be someone who not only wants his own race to win all the time, but also actively stops another race from succeeding or wants to keep them subjugated. You can find those people in any race.

Do you think the Malays still need the NEP?
Yes. As a businessman, I say it is still a useful counterbalance. All this talk about competing on price and merit is fine if we had a level playing field. I remain to be convinced that we do. When you can guarantee that a Malay, a Chinese or an Indian who goes to the same supplier will get the same prices or deals, only then should the NEP be abolished.
In terms of education, I think a review should already be made in the urban areas, where there are large populations of affluent Malays. Especially when those parents had already benefited from the NEP themselves, even though I know some have not even bothered to pay back their study loans. I have met some of these loan defaulters who are anti-NEP. Go figure. It goes back to the entitlement mentality again.

Do you think the NEP has any weaknesses?
Any system has a weakness. It was there to provide us with a leg up but it has become a life-long crutch. I had one middle-aged guy say to me: "I am not going to be a beggar in my own land." The irony was he did not see that he was already begging, with his dependence on the subsidies being given to him for his farms. I think the NEP needs to be modified. You give assistance to a certain point. You don’t keep supporting them if they keep failing. You need to keep weeding out the hopeless cases. When you know that every time you fail there will be something for you to fall back on, it creates a weak society.

As a writer do you believe in total freedom of speech?
I don’t. I think people who advocate it don’t really know what they are asking. I have a feeling that at the end of the day, they won’t like what they’ll get. If you examine it, I think you will quickly find that actually they don’t support freedom of speech, either. They would just like to be the ones to control what gets to be said and what does not, that’s all.
I also think that somehow they do not see freedom of speech as being inseparably intertwined with action. They seem to think that they can get away with saying anything they like. They don’t see words as a form of action itself. I find this odd.
The American serial killer Charles Manson uses this defence frequently. He says all he did was talk. His young disciples had gone on their murder spree of their own accord. He never held a gun to their heads. All of which is true, of course. So if you believe in the freedom for someone to say whatever they wish, then you must campaign for Charles Manson to be set free.

What is the biggest misconception that people have about you?
They think I am a liberal. I am not a liberal. Not a conservative either. I am as liberal as the Quran permits me, and as conservative as it requires me to be. I err and transgress from time to time. But I try to stay on that path. I try to stick to the principles.
So when I see racism on the other side I have to call it for what it is, not make up excuses like "They are still young" or whatever. So I get in trouble with both sides every now and then. I used to critique the conservatives more, but now that the liberals are winning the battle, I find myself commenting on them more often these days, because I find them to be just as corrupt.

Who are the people who influenced you?
The five women who raised me. My mother, grandmother, my aunt (my mother’s elder sister), my mum’s cousin, and one maid who stayed with us for a while. I saw the world through their eyes. The men in my life were largely absent. So I grew up empathising more with the female agenda.

You like to go against the current. Why don’t you go with the flow?
I don’t intentionally want to be rebellious. I think God, for some reason, made it so that there will be people who are always fighting the current. I did try to be mainstream; follow the script, toe the line. But I didn’t get satisfaction or peace of mind. Every two years I would "awaken" and need to find something new to do.

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