Malay lit under threat
National Laureate Abdul Samad Muhammad Said, better known as A. Samad Said, has 65 books to his credit, from short stories to poetry. His popular novels include Salina, Hujan Pagi, Cinta Fansuri and Langit Petang. The state of serious Malay literature in the country, however, makes the writer sad, angry, and frustrated. He tells Bissme S. he has given up all hope of it getting the recognition and support it deserves.
What is the biggest challenge you face as a Sasterawan Negara (National Laureate)?
To get real recognition, to have all your work accepted, especially in school. As a writer, you usually want your books to be accessible to students, who will be your audience in the future.
There was recently a news report that two years from now, books by national laureates would not be included in the school curriculum. What is your opinion on this matter?
Some clever guys in the Education Ministry have said Sasterawan Negara books shouldn’t be included in school because they are difficult. During my school days, we studied William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, John Buchan’s The 39 Steps and Lord Byron. They were hard. But we had good teachers as intermediaries ... to help us understand the text. When you are 18 or 19, you already know these famous literature figures.
So you don’t agree with the move?
I think what they are doing is insulting. Usman Awang, Keris Mas and Shanon Ahmad have been writing for almost 50 years.
You cannot just say all the work of Sasterawan Negara are difficult. There are bound to be one or two books that are suitable.
You can say my poem Al-Amin is very difficult. But I have another poem Kita Ini Tetamu Singgah, which has been made a song. That poem is easy.
You must have teachers to help you understand the text, so you have some knowledge of good literature.
When Anwar Ibrahim was the Education Minister, and then when he was Finance Minister, he took care of this. He respected literature. He remembered writers. He even sent me books ... good books ... to read. He would invite Sasterawan Negara to read poems and their work for his office functions. This is rarely done now.
He even invited W.S. Rendra from Indonesia to read poems for his functions. He encouraged reading.
Even in Tun (Dr) Mahathir (Mohamad)’s time, he sent me books. He wrote "Samad, you should read this." They (Mahathir and Anwar) created situations where you love literature, where you loved writers.
Do you think these situations no longer exist?
Yes. It is very clear from what they are doing.
Some people say you’re angry because you’ll get less in royalties when your books are not used in schools.
I am 72 now. I don’t need a lot to survive on. I just need a small amount of money. I don’t even have a car. So I don’t have to worry about petrol and road tax. It is not about royalties. I don’t mind that they don’t want to use my books.
So you believe fewer youth will develop the reading habit as a result of the move?
Yes. With the help of the Education Ministry, this will happen. Just think of these students two decades from now. They are not exposed to good literature.
If you start saying the work of Sasterawan Negara are difficult at school level, then don’t expect them to touch these books when they leave school. You are sending out a clear message - do not read the work of Sasterawan Negara. Everything should start in school. We are not creating a situation where people will read good literature.
In America the students are studying To Kill A Mocking Bird, and in England they go for Lord Of The Flies. All are difficult books. If you want simple books, then just read ABC all the time.
Are you sad at the situation?
I used to be. But not anymore. I am angry now. They should be respecting Sasterawan Negara. But they are not.
What is your hope for serious Malay literature? What changes would you like to see the government make?
I don’t want to visualise anything anymore. I have no more hope. I will leave the situation the way it is. There is a small group of people in the ministry who are so clever, let them go on being clever. If they want it like that, let it be. I want to make them happy.
It appears that you have given up?
Yes. I have given up. I am sick of it. I don’t care any more. I am defeated.
What is your view of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP)?
They have no tongue. (Writers association) Gapena (Gabungan Penulis Nasional) has no tongue now. They have not shown any reaction to this school situation. Their silence shows that they agree with what the ministry is doing.
The last time we spoke, you said you were trying to get from DBP the copyright for your books so you can publish your own books. Did you succeed?
Not all. They have given me the rights to 12 books, but not to seven others ... the most important ones ... the ones I want.
DBP always says the work of Sasterawan Negara is difficult to sell. When you ask for your copyright, they don’t want to give it to you.
I think it is the right time to give me the rights to all my books. What is the point of keeping the copyright for my books if people are not interested in reading them?
Is it your opinion that we do not appreciate Malaysia’s literature figures?
I believe so. I have just returned from Korea after attending an Asia Africa Literary Festival. I was there for nine days. It was wonderful to see how they loved books and writers.
There was a special segment on me on TV. I was so inspired that I have written 68 poems and will compile them into a book called Soneta Pohon Ginkgo (available in the market in April).
My poems were recently translated into Bangla and launched in Bangladesh. It appears that I am beginning to be appreciated in other countries. So I don’t worry that my country doesn’t appreciate me.
Do you think the country will ever learn to appreciate you?
When you are no longer here, then they will appreciate you. They will sing praises of you. They will say we have lost a shinning star from the sky. They will say you are so good. They will say hilang tak dapat diganti. (what is lost cannot be replaced)
You constantly criticise DBP. But they gave you your first big break. They launched you into stardom by publishing your books. Some might say you are biting the hand that feeds you.
Yes. I bite the hand if I see the hand doesn’t really give me good things (laughs). It is wrong to say DBP gives me anything.
The people give tax to the government and the government goes through DBP and then DBP gives the money to me.
It is people’s money that published my books. If I owe anything to anyone, I owe to the people who paid taxes. I don’t owe DBP. It is their mission is to see what allocation they have and give the money to the authors who they think can give back to the country. The money is not from the DBP director’s own pocket.
Some people think I might have grudges against DBP. But that is not the case.
What kind of roles do you like to see DBP play in promoting literature?
I don’t want to complain about DBP anymore. What is done is done. What I care about now is just give me back my copyright and I will be happy.
How do other Sasterawan Negara feel about the situation?
Maybe I am the only one who is not happy with what is happening. Maybe the others are happy. I should not represent them.
What do you think of your own writing and your own work?
I keep meeting people who ask me about the same book I wrote almost 50 years ago. I wrote it when I was 23. I’m going to be 73 in April and people are still taking about Salina (his first novel). It is as if they don’t know that I have written 65 books.
I have gone into short stories, novels, essays, poems and plays. But people keep coming back with the same book. Yes they know me, it doesn’t necessarily mean they read my work. I believe they read my work only when they are in school. (Salina is a school textbook) Only those who want to be writers read all my books later.
How do you know people don’t read your other books?
I know when people read my work. When I ask questions about my books, they grope in the dark.
Reading is not easy. Unless you have cultivated the habit, you will not read. Things are becoming easier with the existing graphic novels. Now they can see pictures only. The intellectual groups always complain that my books are difficult to read, my books are difficult to study.
So why don’t you make your books easy to read like popular fiction?
I am always moving up. I should not go down. They (readers) should also go up. If they don’t understand me, it doesn’t mean I am wrong. I am 72 and I have been through all sorts of experiences. I don’t just make a sentence. I care about every word I write, whether it is reasonable, whether it is beautiful.
Schools must help them come to that level. Instead they just say the books are difficult, so let us run away from them.
You could write in English. Why don’t you write in that language?
People have in the past advised me to write in English, so I will get a bigger audience. But I want to create Malay literature. When I die, I want to leave behind a khazanah Melayu (Malay heritage). You can have my work in English after you translate it. A lot of writers in the world write in their mother tongue and have their work translated into English.
Some say you see English as a colonial language and as a result dislike English and refuse to write in it.
(feigning disapproval) Yes. I dislike the English language. Yes, I don’t like it that you write in English ... You have no alternative because English is the language of the world. Most of what I have read is also in English. As I said earlier, I want to create Malay literature.
So why haven’t we translated your work as well as that of other Sasterawan Negara in English so the books can be sold in the overseas market?
You should ask this question to DBP and the National Translation Institute. That is their work. I wonder what the function of the institute is if they don’t translate work.
Do you think the media is supportive of serious Malay literature?
They are not helping. Malay newspapers do not have a specific literary editor ... I don’t know about English language newspapers. As a result, good books get ignored. Bad books get advertised and supported. Good literary events don’t get reported.
Do you think you have come to a stage where critics are afraid to criticise your work and say what you have produced is the work of a genius?
We do not have good critics. I don’t worry about that. But there are people who still say I write rubbish. There have been arguments before this on why a book like Salina, in which I write about prostitutes in Singapore, should be promoted in school. They say the topic is not suitable for students.
But in America students read To Kill A Mockingbird, which is about racial discrimination. They want to explain to students about racial discrimination.
How would you like to be remembered?
As an A. Samad Said who was always unhappy with what was happening around him.
Why this unhappiness?
I want different things. I dream of a caring society, where there is peace, where we respect each other, where we will always smile always, where we shake hands and hug each other. We don’t get that in Iraq or Pakistan or Indonesia, and we don’t get that in Afghanistan. But this is the world, This is not heaven. You get that only in heaven.
Some people believe this is zaman kejatuhan (the era of the downfall) of serious Malay literature. Do you agree?
I do not think literature has jatuh (fallen). There are still new young writers such as Faizal Tehrani and Nisah Harun who are writing serious literature. If I can fall down, they too can fall down. But I always tell them to continue to write no matter what. But there is no appreciation for what you have given them. I would say this is zaman kejatuhan penulis (the era of the downfall of writers).
Did you ever imagine that serious literature would be in the doldrums when you first started writing?
Never. When I started writing (in his 20s), I thought the writing scene would have a vibrant and marvellous future. But I was wrong. If they don’t want to read my books, what can I do? If they don’t want to read books, what can I do? They will be stupid because they don’t read.
In the current situation, how do you motivate yourself to write?
There are times when I want to give up writing altogether. But when I pray, I feel peaceful and I become inspired.
Lately, I have been painting and drawing. I held an exhibition recently and sold 20 paintings. I got more than for what I write.
Seeing the present state of serious Malay literature, do you ever wish you could turn back the clock and had never chosen to be a writer?
I would still want to be a writer, even knowing this would be the ending. I will not change the fact that I am a writer. Writing is in my blood.
What is your advice to budding writers who want to dabble in serious Malay literature?
I have no more advice for writers. They no longer need my advice. They know Malay literature will not be supported.
Updated: 11:52AM Thu, 06 Mar 2008
28 Safar 1429H