Monday, July 11, 2011


The interview with the latest national laureate Dr Ahmad Kamal Abdullah or better known as Kemala appeared in the Sun newspaper on July 1, 2011.

Title Enriching literature

DATUK DR AHMAD KAMAL ABDULLAH was recently announced the 11th Sasterawan Negara (national laureate). The 70-year-old poet and writer of short stories, known by the pen name Kemala, has had his work translated into eight languages. The author of Titir Zikir and Pelabuhan Putih tells BISSME S. about taking literature to
greater heights.

What was your first reaction on winning the Sasterawan Negara award?

When a friend of mine first sent me a text that I had been given the award, I thought he was pulling my leg. In the preceding months, the media had been highlighting that 10 men had won the title and that it was the right time to
give it to a woman. So I was surprised when I found out.

Some say female writers have not produced work to qualify for the award.

I disagree; two names immediately come to mind – Dr Fatimah Busu and Dr Zuriana
Hassan. The themes they talked about in their work are very mature and have international appeal. In fact, there are a few non-Malays writers who write in the language such as Lim Swee Tin, who can be considered for this

There is a belief that there is Malay male domination over the award.

I don’t think there is any kind of dominationor monopoly over the award. Let us not
politicise Sasterawan Negara by bringing in race and gender. Let us give the panel the freedom to select the right candidates for the title. Let us just look at the candidate for his contributions to literature. When the time is
right, a woman and a non-Malay will get the award.

What is your opinion of the development of Bahasa Melayu in the country?

Grammatically, the language is getting weaker. We like to mix Malay with other
languages. Same goes with English. The use of the English Language is also deteriorating in the same way.

Some see English as a colonial language.

People who hold this kind of thought do not value knowledge. The Quran has always
encouraged us to enhance our knowledge, and mastering different languages is one way of doing that. Some Indonesian intellectuals and politicians know more than eight languages. They don’t see mastering different languages as a bad thing. So why should we?

Is it true to say that today’s youngsters are not interested in serious literature?

Yes, they are more into pop culture. Electronic media pushes them in that
direction. If we want serious literature to be popular among youngsters, then our
education system must emphasise it. Serious literature should be
taught from kindergarten.I remember during my school days, we had weekly literature competitions and literary clubs. My friends and I recited poems at these competitions. All these efforts, indirectly, created a love of literature in
In the old days too, when a friend had a birthday, we would make up poems and
recite them as a birthday gift. But now all we do is walk into a
shop and get a greeting card.
In the 60s, a handful of poets and writers got together in Puan Azah Aziz ’s house – she is a culturist who promotes Malay tradition and culture – with an adviser from the Education Ministry.
We brainstormed ideas and even produced a poetry book targeted at children. But we no longer do that sort of thing. Schools could also arrange a meeting
between the Sasterawan Negara and their students.
There could be creative ideas exchanged. The students would likely treasure
moments like these and remember them. The media can also play a role in making serious literature popular among youngsters.

What kind of a role can the media play?

Maybe carry interviews with serious literary figures on ad hoc basis – perhaps once in three months, or better still monthly. This will create more awareness of serious literature.

What is your opinion of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP)?

The government should give serious attention to making DBP a powerful institution, not only for serious Malay literature, but also for serious literature in any
language produced in this country.
DBP should take on the task of translating serious Malaysian literature of different
languages into Bahasa Malaysia. I would like to read what Malaysian Chinese and Indian writers are writing about our country and about us, as Malaysians. The same principle should apply to all native languages in this country. If there
is a book written in Kadazan, then DBP should translate that too.
It could even create an award for Malaysian literature initially produced in different languages. That will encourage more to write in different languages.
DBP should organise solid writing programmes for youngsters in order to produce a new generation of writers who writes serious literature. I expressed this idea to DBP a long time ago and they were keen on it, but I have not seen them acting on making it a reality.
Our themes in serious literature should be broader. In the past, our literature
centred on the survival of the Malays because it was relevant to the times. But now
the survival of Malaysia should be our theme. We should also focus on the lives of the indigenous people of Sabah and Sarawak to give our literature a wider appeal. But of late, I have seen some positive changes slowly taking place in DBP.

Many Japanese, Indian and Chinese novels have been translated into English and sold worldwide. Do you think Malay literature has the substance to appeal globally

One novel that comes to mind is Shahnon Ahmad’s Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan. But to make a mark globally, having a great theme is not enough. We need to promote the book as well and our promotion is very weak. The terrible thing is that the Malaysian authorities do not give any support to promoting Malaysian literature outside of our country, and I am speaking from experience.
Last April, an Indonesian organiser was promoting two of my poetry books in Jakarta
and I was there for the launch. I had made a polite request to the Malaysian embassy in Jakarta to send at least one of their representatives to the launch to show some support – it would have been great to have someone official from the Malaysian government representing Malaysian literature launched overseas – but no one turned up. I must admit I was a little embarrassed and upset.
(Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan was made into a Cambodian film entitled Rice People in 1994. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and was submitted for the 67th Academy Awards. It was the first time a Cambodian film had been submitted as a possible nominee for Best Foreign Language Film.)

What is the biggest change you would like to see in Malaysia?

I live in a multiracial neighbourhood. My neighbour on my left is an Indian and on my right, a Chinese. We get along very well. I want to see more truthful unity among
the races. At this moment, I must say our unity is very artificial. Our tolerance for each other is artificial too. We don’t sit down and sincerely discuss the problems affecting us as Malaysians. We suppress our emotions and real problems and that is not very healthy.

Did anyone inspire you to be a writer?

My mother and my wife. Both these women played an important role in my life. My mother loved reciting poems and telling me folk stories when I was young. She was the first person who exposed me to the world of literature. One of
my fondest memory of my mother was during the fasting month. She and I would go the
nearby forest to find pucuk paku to make nasi ulam.
My wife is my fierce and honest critic. She will tell me honestly when my work is good and when it is not. She gives me constructive criticism so I can better my work.

You have been married 47 years. What is the secret to a lasting marriage?

When she is angry, I will keep quiet, and when I am angry, she will keep quiet. When her anger gets too much for me, I will just leave the house (laughs)

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