The #MYWritersBookFest2015** (for convenience, shortened to “BookFest” below) is set to begin in a few days, and there has been a lot of discussion of late, fueled by a recent media piece, which resulted in a number of members questioning the motives and purpose of the BookFest. As an individual, I did not feel it was necessary to respond to every criticism or dissenting voice to my work–everyone is entitled to their own opinion, after all, and the reader of an opinion piece is free to form their own conclusions as to whether or not an opinion is justified when they view the efforts and results of any endeavor themselves. However, I realized that, as the event organizer and founder of the online platform which serves as the medium for the meeting of minds within the Malaysian Writers community, allowing such criticisms to stand without riposte may instead result in discouraging participation of people who perhaps already harboured some uncertainty as to any efforts made within our culturally-unaware community or, more importantly, allow the confidence of writers, already fragile, to become injured and thus demoralized.
I take this opportunity, firstly, to thank the outpouring of love from members of the Malaysian Writers FB Group*** (hereafter “#MYWriters”) since release of that media piece yesterday. These people have been kind enough to express their continuous support to the BookFest, #MYWriters and all efforts made to take the Malaysian Writing industry to greater heights. I also appreciate all the public statements made by individual members expressing their view against the negative sentiments made within said media piece. Most importantly, I applaud the close to 100 Malaysian Writers who have decided to take a chance on the Bookfest, an inaugural effort to create awareness of the Malaysian Literary industry that transcends genre, language, experience levels and, most distinctly, does not differentiate the manner in which a writer reaches out to the Malaysian reading public—whether self-published or via traditional publishing—nor treats a writer any lesser based on which publisher/distributor or medium, if any, they are working with. It is important to note that many writers featured within the BookFest are self-published writers who otherwise struggle with finding a way to bring their books to the reading public.
It is certainly encouraging to see so many suggestions coming in to improve the format of the BookFest. However, suggestions, as good as they may be, will always remain mere suggestions if they fail to be backed by concrete steps to see them to fruition, or the funds necessary to ensure they can be carried out smoothly.
The BookFest in its present form (almost 100 writers appearing in 12 venues/dates around Peninsula Malaysia) is the most manageable endeavor that could be put together by this humble two person team (Gina Yap Lai Yoong and myself) within the constraints that we faced. It is easy to say “this could be done better, that could be done better”, when one doesn’t have to lift a finger to carry out such suggestions oneself. I am reluctant to appear to be tooting our own horns, because we do what we do in our true wish to see a better literary industry in our beloved nation, but the fact remains that no one has stepped up AND FOLLOWED THROUGH with any genuine attempt to assist us in our execution of various efforts to help the community. Not only is the BookFest organizing committee operating on a shoe-string budget to execute it all, we are fronting our own money, employing our own time and effort for what we believe will benefit every stakeholder in the local industry! Money, time and effort which, if we are honest, could be spent on endeavors which would better benefit our own careers, as well as our personal and professional lives. Thus, despite our personal constraints—which believe me, there are many—Gina and I are doing our part to bring the Malaysian literature industry to a higher level. In view of the approaching one year anniversary of the formation of the group, Gina and I had decided that we wouldn’t wait until our membership (recently having exceeded 2,000) and support system grows, or until our community coffers suffices for us to do a decent job, before we start taking concrete steps towards this agenda.
It is very easy to say that the level of writing in Malaysia is pitiful, and very easy to criticize that any effort is a waste of time. Any effort at this infant stage of our industry may very well be paltry. It may even be pathetic, but all the best changes—which incidentally also includes a revolution of the mindset in a conservative society like Malaysia, where the Arts is seen as something people only do ‘for fun’-require a conscientious, consistent and concerted effort to be developed over time. Rome wasn’t built in a day! How can mediocre writing transform into something critically acclaimed without the atmosphere to nurture it? How can a diamond in the rough be discovered and polished without it first being identified and shared with other stakeholders in the industry, by highlighting its availability? That said, I have every confidence that all the writers featured in the BookFest have the talent, passion and determination, and are able to showcase writing that has the capacity to delight the Malaysian readership if only they were to be exposed to it.
It is clear that progressive steps have to be taken in any manner, before awareness and then participation can be expected to increase. Furthermore, it is unsurprising that, in our infant industry, progress may be at a slower rate than we can hope in comparison to the situation in better developed communities. That means one cannot moan and despair when attendances and reception is minimal, because awareness takes time and consistency to develop. That awareness can be nurtured is already evidenced by the craft exercises shared within the group (3 weekly WritingPrompts) and fortnightly Write-Ins which commenced from the beginning of this year, the Writers Retreat which was held in August and various Group Gatherings which sees a exponential increase in participation since its inception. A parallel can also be drawn to the community efforts of Readings@Seksan run by our devoted Sharon Bakar and the poet’s showcase, If Walls Could Talk, organized by Melizarani T Selva. Also, let’s not forget the various articles on craft and industry as shared by members of the #MYWriters community over Facebook, which go on to encourage fruitful discussion and sharing of experiences, propelling further elucidation into how these techniques may be applied to our writing or modified to suit our local industry. If all these efforts ceased the moment the organizers faced inadequate reception, we would not have the successes that we see today. And so many in the industry have benefitted from these efforts! I can attest to the fact that, in this past year alone, I have personally witnessed many new writers fortifying themselves to take part in competitions, submission calls and open mic events, encouraged by the competitive spirit exhibited by their peers; established writers becoming more motivated to write and publish new material; a closing and removal of perceived ranks and differences between us, due to the coming together of different minds and viewpoints, and an unprecedented awareness of the literary industry the likes of which has never been seen before. And this can only be good for EVERYONE in the community and industry: the writers, the editors, the media, the publishers, the Malaysian reading public in general and the state of Malaysian literary scene as a whole.
Indeed, our participating writers may need to prepare themselves for a paltry attendance at the meet-the-writer events, and be prepared to sell a minimal amount of their work. But, isn’t the opportunity to sell some books better than doing nothing at all? Isn’t the very act of mingling with readers—whether they actually buy your book or not—a positive effort towards raising public awareness of your work? And certainly, local writers can only benefit from mingling with other writers from different backgrounds and experience levels. And as we keep at this effort, year after year, isn’t it absolutely foreseeable that a full-fledged Malaysian Book Festival is what it will grow to be? Isn’t it likely that we can move on from this to bigger better things, such as a Malaysian Writers Convention or Workshop, or Literary Fest if we take positive steps towards that goal now?
Shame on the naysayers who moan and complain about how things could be better but do nothing positive to eliminate the constraints within the industry. If you cannot be encouraging, then don’t be disparaging! Anyone in the industry knows how fragile an artistic talent can be, and someone who cultivates negativity within the community is doing nothing but working AGAINST its development. Don’t shoot down an effort before it can even take off. Don’t kill a talent before it begins to soar! It is not enough, after having stabbed a person in the back and twisted the knife around a couple of times, to say at the end of the stabbing “here, let me give you a plaster so you can put it over your wounds”. That is nothing but sanctimonious hypocrisy in its purest form. Any stakeholder of the industry, if genuine about their intent to bring the industry to greater heights, would not need a gold-plated invitation card to lend a hand, or to do their part to help the members of our small struggling community.
So, I call upon you, the Malaysian Writing community and the Malaysian readership, to be united to make the #MYWritersBookFest2015 a resounding success. Instead of being an armchair critic, how about doing YOUR part, by rallying your FB friends and social media contacts to attend the BookFest? You may only be able to influence only a few fans/followers, one person, two people, a family or a group of friends to attend, but if ALL of us make the concerted effort to make the event a success, I have no doubt that this is entirely possible.
Steer away from the kiasu thinking that: “if I can’t do it, you shouldn’t be able to either”. I urge you to BELIEVE that, as writers with the God-given privilege of talent and education, we are ALL above such childish behavior.
I urge #MYWriters to be united, to each commit to do their part for the betterment of the industry.
I end with a saying taken from an old P. Ramlee movie “Seniman Bujang Lapok” in response to a quip by a fellow artist: “Ini macam muka nak jadi pelakon?” wherein the observing Singh guard pointed out: “Lu punya rezeki, lu makan. Dia punya rezeki, dia makan. Apa salah makan sama-sama?”
*This is a continuation of the blogpost A Call For Writers to Unite.
**The #MYWritersBookFest2015 is organized to celebrate the first anniversary of the Malaysian local writing community that transcends genre, language, function, medium and experience levels. #MYWriters will be hosting a month-long festival throughout October 2015 by holding mass writer appearances, book sales & signings at various locations in Malaysia. Meet and mingle with local writers, find out about their writing and publications, buy their books or bring your own copies, take wefies and get their autographs! Find out more at the dedicated event website www.mywritersbookfest2015.wordpress.com
**This writer is founder and moderator/administrator of the Malaysian Writers Facebook group, https://www.facebook.com/groups/malaysianwriters/ which is described as “A platform and community–inclusive and non-profit in nature–for WRITERS hailing from MALAYSIA (Malaysian citizens/PRs, and foreign expats who write, live and work in Malaysia); that transcends genre, language, function, medium and experience levels. For avoidance of doubt, this includes writers of fiction, non-fiction or poetry; short story writers, columnists, journalists, bloggers, editors, copywriters, scriptwriters, graphic novelists and literary translators; that are self-published, under independent or mainstream presses; whether established, emerging or aspiring; writing in any genre, via any medium, and in any language.”