Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Marina Mahathir: Telling It Straight

Marina Mahathir has just came out her latest book Telling It Straight. Her launch took place at the Borders The Garden Kuala Lumpur. This article appeared in theSun on Nov 28. 

Caption : From left : Ineza Roussille ( Marina's  daughter), Tun Dr Siti Hasmah ( Marina's Mum), Marina and Shaista Mayada Sosrowardoyo ( Mariana's daughter)  

Headline : Making A Difference 
By Bissme S 

DATIN Paduka Marina Mahathir has been commenting on the political and social affairs of this country through her column in an English daily for the past two decades.
Recently, she decided to compile 90 of her best pieces of writing covering a wide range of topics like gender equality, politics, religion, HIV, education and free speech (some of which have never been published before), in a 264-page book entitled Telling It Straight (Editions Didier Millet/RM39.90).
At the launch of the book at Borders The Gardens in Kuala Lumpur, Marina sat down to talk about her work.

* What makes your book stand out from other compilations?

"I have no idea really. Maybe because my column has been around for so long. And perhaps because I'm a woman writer and there aren't that many books on popular social commentary by women in our country."

* Why is that? 

"Probably because people generally don't take women seriously. Women writers have to write novels, preferably on romance because apparently, that's all we think about.
"And we are not allowed to write about current affairs unless we're academics, in which case, nobody reads us anyway.
"Men churn out books on social and political commentary all the time. But not all of the books are good, yet people still read them because they think men, by virtue of being men, have the authority to talk about these things while women don't."

* Some believe books have lost their power to change society. Do you agree? 

"I think the power of ideas will always be strong and this power is conveyed through words. In the end, an idea has no power if it is not accepted by a lot of people.
"So how would they find out about this idea except by reading? Surely, this is one reason why people love putting quotes from public figures on their Facebook or in whatever they write.
"I do think writers play an important role in conveying these ideas to people.
"Many ideologues have written books and these books have been powerful, for example, Karl Marx's Das Kapital or Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf. They get lots of followers this way.
"Similarly, with the words in the Quran or the Bible, beautiful and powerful words conveying ideas about justice, morality, etc are conveyed. So yes, books can change the world."

* What do you think about censorship in the mainstream media? Do you see yourself writing for online media where you can express yourself better without censorship?
"I think censorship is unfortunate and no media can truly call themselves credible if they insist on censoring, especially when there are alternative media around these days.
"It's frustrating for writers but our job is just to write, not to practise censorship on ourselves. Self-censorship is really the most insidious form of censorship.
"I have my blog, Facebook and Twitter, so I don't really need to go to any online media just to get my opinions published.
"That's the beauty of the internet today. Anyone can publish their own opinions.
"Then it's left to the discerning readers to decide which opinions are credible.
"And by the way, I don't know if it's true that online media never censors anything. When you select what you want to publish, you are already exercising a form of censorship."

* What are some of the changes you would like to see taking place in our country? 
"I'd like to see more openness in government and among people in general. People are so used to thinking in one way that they aren't aware there are other ways of thinking and seeing things, and therefore, find it discomfiting, even frightening, when a different point of view is put forward. The openness can only happen when all points of view are given equal airing."
* Some people think reading is a dying art form in Malaysia. Do you agree?   

"I don't think reading should be thought of as an art form because that immediately makes it elitist and inaccessible to most.
"It amazes me how many large bookstores we have even when we're being told that Malaysians don't read much.
"They are reading something but we need to see what it is that they are reading. Are they stretching their minds when they read?
"There is no other way to encourage people to read than by getting interesting books published. If we encourage good writing, then people will read.
"Just look at how Harry Potter made so many children read."
"I was just at the Singapore Writers Festival and was amazed at what an interesting event it was with so many different authors and genres of writing, in different languages.
How come we don't have something like that in Malaysia?"

*What are the biggest misconceptions people have about you?

"That I'm hard-working. But actually, I'm very lazy and procrastinate all the time."


Because of space constraint, there were some questions that I asked Marina Mahathir was not published in the interview that appeared in theSun newspaper. However I take the opportunity to put the extra question this blog.   

*Most people have the impression compiling your columns into a book are an easy task. Do you agree?  

Most people think that because the columns are already written.  But they forget that I write 24 or 26 columns a year and I've been writing for some 20 years, so there are about 480 columns we have to choose from because obviously we can't put every single one in the book. That's the tough part, the selection. Luckily my editor does that because I can't. Once they are selected, it's a matter of grouping them according to themes and writing some introductions for them.

* What are some of best compliments and worst criticisms you have received about your writing? 

The best compliment is probably when people say that I put into words what they think and feel. I don't pay much attention to criticisms  so I wouldn't know what the worst ones are.

* You have been writing for more than 20 years. Do you ever face a burn out? 

No I don't actually. In fact I think I should write more but I am so busy that I don't really get to. Actually I write much more than my columns because I give a lot of talks and I write my own speeches. I have my favourite themes but there are never-ending subjects to talk about so I never feel burnt-out. I feel more burnt-out with the state of things in our country but I do think writing is one way of getting different perspectives across.

*Tell us something about your childhood years that have a big influence on you as a  writer?

I always loved reading and writing in my childhood, something which my parents always encouraged. My favourite and best subject in school was English. So I knew I would be a writer of some sort, possibly a journalist. And that's exactly what I became for a while until I realised that there is more to writing than just reporting.
My parents always also encouraged me to be aware of what was happening in the world and I realised as an adult that I could combine that with my writing skills to convey certain messages to whoever reads me. Communications is about being able to convey complicated ideas and events in a simple way. without compromising the integrity of the information. That's what I try to do.

* What is the biggest challenges  you faced as a  columnist in Malaysia?

Trying to stay current is always a challenge. My column comes out once every two weeks so I have to keep in mind that I'm not talking about something which is already stale. Sometimes things just don't happen within the week I have to submit my column so when it does appear, it can seem a bit out of synch with the topic of the day. I can't help that and I certainly don't want to change to a weekly column because it's hard enough trying to keep up with a fortnightly one.

* What is your advice to budding writers out there? 

If you feel an urge to write, then write. Like everything else, writing takes practice so you just need to start writing and not worry if you're writing well or not. Eventually you'll find your unique voice and that's really what people want to read. Blogging is good because it gives you feedback and I've discovered so many good writers through reading blogs.  

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