What do they call it when your government tells you what to read?

March 31, 2010 § 2 Comments

I regularly buy books from Acmamall, the online Malaysian bookstore that allows one a wide variety of choice in book titles; something that you don’t necessarily get in local bookstores (even Kinokuniya, that treasure-haven of hard-to-find books). The reason for this, as explained to me by a helpful customer service representative of Acmamall, is because all its books are imported from the US, and delivered to Malaysia on a weekly scheduled shipment. (But as the rest of this post bears out, this means that a cornucopia of book titles are available for ordering in Malaysia – but whether or not you actually get the physical book in your hands is a more tenuous matter.)

Some time back I was told that my order of Laini Taylor’s Lips Touch Three Times was detained by the Home Ministry after I had placed the order and paid for it. Acmamall was most accommodating about issuing a refund, but I haven’t stopped foaming at the mouth about being informed that I simply couldn’t purchase any book I wanted as I initially thought I could. No, in fact, I may have an idea about what I want to read – but whether or not I get to read it depends on Malaysia’s Home Ministry’s whims on whether or not that book is suitable reading for a person like me – i.e. a Malaysian. They can either choose to: 1) ban the book, or 2) randomly confiscate it from bookstores, or 3) disallow it from entering the country.

The Home Ministry is guided by that very insidious law brought about during the time of Tun Dr. Mahathir’s reign – the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984. Read it in PDF format here.

I’ve been unable to fathom what makes Lips Touch Three Times, a young adult book that’s been critically lauded in most American press, a subversive book, or indeed, one that is a threat to national security or morals. Is it the goblins? Are they afraid that reading this book will prompt a rash of young Malaysians to want to make out with pontianaks? Are they afraid it will encourage a kissing epidemic?

I have no idea.

I told myself to calm down, life’s too short to get raging mad at EVERY damn thing (wrinkles, sour facial expression, etc.), and chalked it up to one very small loss as a result of being Malaysian. Other Malaysians were dealing with far worse problems – lack of income, land, home, citizenship; lack of access to rights to see their own babies, rights to a fair trial, rights to drink whatever they damn well please without being whipped. Not being able to read a book is no big deal, really.

Or is it?

I placed my next order for Virginie Despentes’ King Kong Theory with trepidation. I told a friend that it will most likely be ‘detained,’ but I really hoped I was wrong. I REALLY wanted to read it. But sure enough, I get an email today from the Acmamall customer service informing me that the book has indeed been detained by the Home Ministry. And if you head over to Acmamall’s website, you’ll see that the book is now listed as ‘Not for sale in Malaysia.’

I felt anger at that very instant – again, being told what I’m allowed to read and not allowed to read just makes me blindingly angry. Even my parents have never told me what I could and could not read.

What drives me really crazy is the uncertainty of it all. One day, you can read this. Tomorrow, you can’t tweet about that. Today, this book is allowed to be sold in Malaysia. Tomorrow, policemen enter bookstores to ‘confiscate’ it. The government says one thing, its ministers and their respective minions do the exact opposite. Ironically, for all of Malaysia’s careful bogeyman-monitoring, it’s a free-for-all country where anything can happen – and monsters suddenly crop up where you least expect it. I hate the uncertainty. I want to know for a fact that I live in a totalitarian state. Or I want to know for sure that I live in a democracy. I want to know that I can walk down the street without fearing that someone will come out of nowhere and slap me, and then take my handbag – but where I can read what I damn well choose. NOT the other way round. At this point in time, I can’t read what I damn well choose, but I can be certain of being robbed by a man on a motorbike if I walk down the street adjacent to where I live (it’s happened to every other woman who did.)

So… will someone please, for the love of God, tell me – who exactly are the Home Ministry protecting, and who are they persecuting?

The aftermath of anger is always sadness. With King Kong Theory, reviewers have said that the author, whether or not you agree with her stand, has presented a brash, bold and thought-provoking perspective on modern-day feminism. (You can read reviews here and here.) I mean, these are the subjects I like to think about and read about. Maybe I’m the only sad sod in all of Malaysia who’s upset about the Home Ministry detaining King Kong Theory because… well, what the hell kind of book is it anyway?!? But that shouldn’t be the point. I’m prevented from reading a book for reasons I don’t even know of.

I wonder what made the authorities deem this book unfit for Malaysian eyes – is it the fact that the author was formerly a prostitute, and made a highly-controversial (if not exactly acclaimed) movie on the complex interrelations of sexual desire, abuse, and power? Do the authorities even know this? (I’m of the belief that their brains are puny; small enough to hold only recycled thoughts and prosaic wishes – such as the nature of, “Harap boleh makan nasi lemak petang ni…”) Are they afraid that Malaysian women will, en-masse, decide to prostitute themselves in an attempt at self-empowerment? Are they afraid that Malaysian women will want to migrate to France and prostitute themselves after reading this book (the author is French)? Did they simply look at the title and conclude that King Kong, being the product of American capitalist Hollywood minds, has no place in Malaysia – that a King Kong theory usurps the revered position of our local orangutans?

Again, I have no idea.

Well, I’m not being honest here. I suppose I have an inkling. Books like this one make people think; but more alarmingly, it makes people question the status quo. Police states don’t want its citizens thinking and questioning anything – especially not if it’s a police state pretending to be a multicultural, peaceful, free-thinking democracy.

Postscript from the Department of WTF (Apr 1, 2010): Was informed on Twitter that the two books, while still unavailable in Acmamall after being seized by the Home Ministry, is apparently available in Kinokuniya. These books weren’t yet available for sale (or Kino was out of copies, I’m not sure) when I made the Acmamall order – indeed, that was why I ordered it from Acmamall in the first place. But ironically, bringing it into the country after it was ALREADY allowed into the country was, apparently, the wrong thing to do. There are so many kinds of wrong with this that I don’t even know where to begin. Perhaps, I should just say… kudos, Home Ministry. Let’s continue to bumble along in utter confusion. Malaysians deserve no better, right?

Really want to read…

March 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

This book:

“‘Whiteness studies’ have so proliferated in the last two decades that historians might be forgiven a yawn in response to being told that racial divisions are fundamentally arbitrary, and that deciding who is white has been not only fluid but also heavily influenced by class and culture. In some Latin American countries, for example, the term blanquearse, to bleach oneself, is used to mean moving upward in class status. But this concept — the social and cultural construction of race over time — remains harder for many people to understand than, say, the notion that gender is a social and cultural construction, unlike sex. As recently as 10 years ago, some of my undergraduate students at the University of Wisconsin heard my explanations of critical race theory as a denial of observable physical differences.

I wish I had had this book to offer them. Painter, a renowned historian recently retired from Princeton, has written an unusual study: an intellectual history, with occasional excursions to examine vernacular usage, for popular audiences. It has much to teach everyone, including whiteness experts, but it is accessible and breezy, its coverage broad and therefore necessarily superficial.”

NYT’s full review of The History of White People here.

Warning: featuring ‘unsur-unsur sensitif’

March 27, 2010 § 2 Comments

Right after I finished Brian Gomez’s Devil’s Place I felt a little breathless and had to check to see if my hair was still in place (i.e. not electrocuted-frizzy but just regular humid-frizzy). The whole experience of Devil’s Place felt like a ride in a Bas Mini (way back in the day, holler if you remember them.) Granted, I only rode the Bas Mini probably twice in my life, bourgeois middle-class bitch that I am, yet the experience never leaves you; it lives on in shell-shocked memory. In the Bas Mini, you never know where to turn, lest your nose be buried in some unsavoury armpit or your nether regions rubbing against someone else’s unsavoury nether regions. (Wait, some of you may cry. How is that different from current buses? Bas… Ceria, for instance? Well, not much kids.) You never know if you will actually end up at your destination; whether you’d reach it alive or dead. Riding a Bas Mini is an existentialist experience; you ponder the futility of life even as you continue to live it.

In that same way, Gomez’s book, filled as it is with alcohol, botched blowjobs, piss, shit, and puke, practically flies by – your hands keep turning the pages even if you’re not aware that you’re doing it. On the one hand, that’s a good thing. It’s getting harder to find a book that sucks you in with a story these days, even if this story is a pastiche of shoot-‘em-up episodes cribbed from action movies. It’s an action book, if there’s such a thing, and one waits for the day when Amir Muhammad buys the rights to transfer it into the film. I’m sure it’ll make a very entertaining and relevant Malaysian movie, one that’ll bring in every damn race to the cinema, because this book is very muhibbah – very 1Malaysia, if you will allow me (only doing my national duty to spread the brand) – and every damn race is represented in here.

No, forgive me. The other lain-lain’s are not represented here, but there are Thai people, and American ones, so I mean, it’s not bad la!

But on the other hand, the flipside of can’t-stop- turning-the-pages is that you’re not exactly paying attention to the language (although his language is impeccable, it’s largely serviceable – I rarely stopped to swoon over the sentences), and you don’t really care THAT much about the characters although you’re rooting for the good guys to win. That’s probably one of my biggest problems with the book. I cared just enough for the characters to want to know if they remained alive or not, and to know how the story turned out for most of them. But beyond that, I wasn’t really invested in their respective life stories – mainly because we’re not told much about their lives anyhow. Some would like to say to me, “That’s the point of a crime book, stupid,” and I would say, yes… but make me care, la, dumbo! (No, nor Brian Gomez, I’m not calling him a dumbo. I’m calling the person who called me stupid a dumbo.)

Home-grown Malaysian products always make me hyper-anxious and none more so than its books. Fine, we can have Milo-tin cars and palm-oil chocolate, but our books MUST be good. To that end I admit that I hold Malaysian books to an unreasonably high standard, and more often than not I’m probably unfair to local authors as a result. But I can’t help it. Each time, before I begin a book written by a Malaysian, I feel almost nauseous – is it going to be good? Is it going to suck? How can I deal with my guilt if it sucks? You can’t really blame me; I’m still recovering from The Rice Mother. But I also feel compelled to love books by Malaysian authors, and because this stresses me out, I end up unreasonably hating certain books more than I should because of all that guilt. It’s all very complicated.

I really wanted to uninhibitedly love Devil’s Place. I didn’t, but there is still plenty that I liked. Brian Gomez is a very confident writer, and you know you’re in capable hands from the very first chapter. There’s no mincing about here. And I can’t help but compare it to a movie, even though it’s probably been said many times (well, one time that I know of – by Amir Muhammad, here) but that’s because it does get its stylistic inspiration from pop-culture, and pulp crime novels. So this book is no slow meandering walk through the exotic rice paddy fields, or a playful romp through the leafy green villages of small-town Malaysia.

It’s a madcap Bas Mini ride through the heart of urban Klang Valley. But like a Bas Mini ride, though, it does adhere to a route and the book largely works on a “yea, I can sort of see this happening in KL” scale because it has an internal logical structure, a linear narrative that takes you from Point A to Point B through with detours thrown in, but with a purpose. Sort of like the Bas Mini stopping smack dab in the middle of Federal Highway to allow someone to disembark.

For this reason, I will say that Brian Gomez is a mini Malaysian literary god. This is the first local book (that I’ve read) that has attempted to represent modern Kay-Ell for all that it really is, as opposed as all that it could be through the perspective of hazy nostalgia or poetic literary license. He has a knack for dialogue, a gift for being able to infuse the tragic or plain horrific with a delicious sense of absurdity, and a strong scent for local flavours in all its variety and putridity. Within the first few pages I seriously thought I was in Waikiki Bar, PJ, and had to look around to remind myself I was actually at home and not to say “fuck” out loud lest my mom heard me.

But it’s difficult to actually talk about what the story is all about – it’s essential not to give things away, because part of the charm of the story is not knowing what madcap farce/tragedy might ensue next even if you feel like you’ve been down this road before. Suffice to say that the a basic rundown of the key characters are listed on the back cover, and there are terrorists involved, as well as pub musicians, pub owners, Thai prostitutes, taxi drivers, singers, murderous politicians, murderous ex-girlfriends, thoughtful mothers, incompetent policemen, dead people, Hawaiian shirts, as well as locks, guns, fire, conspiracy theories, and nasi lemak.

There are moments where I laughed out loud. There are instantly recognisable comic characters and situations; for example, unfailingly foolish reporter Joe Maniam’s penchant for alliterated, pun-ny headings for his pieces is a gently derisive poke at our local newspaper headlines.

Or consider Gomez’s spot-on observation about pub phenomenon in KL: “O’Reilly’s Pub was an Irish bar in Bangsar that had almost exclusively white and Indian patrons,” he writes in one of the earlier chapters. Later on in the book, he observes that “Mat Sallehs, especially the English, tend to see Irish bars around the world as sovereign British ground. Sort of like an embassy that serves alcohol. […] Indians, who have always felt a kinship with the Irish, due to their common love of alcohol, also claimed the Irish bars as their own.” He continues several paragraphs later: “Many fights had broken out over the years, but today everyone at O’Reilly’s, the Mat Sallehs and the Indians, were united in bewilderment. There was a Chinese man at the bar.”

Another moment of hilarity that all Malaysians will recognise with pride is the scene where the police try to elicit some useful information about a taxi by calling the taxi company. You can already see it coming. Detective Azmi calls, explains the situation, asks for the name of the taxi owner and his address, and the female voice replies, “ ‘Taxi on the way, 15 minutes. You wait outside now.’ ” After explaining to the operator again what he wanted, he waits and tries again: “Do you have the name and address?” and gets the reply, “Taxi on the way. You go outside now.”

There is also Gomez’s relentless eye for the ridiculous and the willingly stupid and ignorant – the aforementioned Joe Maniam and his goon buddies, Arun and Siva, both perpetually drunk and unfailingly at Joe’s beck and call (because he buys them drinks). Or the fact that some politicians ARE evil, and some terrorists ARE bloody crazy.

This book is also very much fuelled by testosterone. Virtually every important character is a guy, except for one – the Thai prostitute. There are two other women who make small appearances; one is a bitchy ex-girlfriend, the other a devoted mother. So there you have it, the women of Malaysia: prostitute, bitch, mother. But to be fair, even though his book is populated by males they are largely also bumbling idiots, and even the ones who aren’t do make stupid choices and screw things up. And the only character who does have a shred of dignity is the prostitute, Ning, but you can’t get much from her except when written from her point-of-view; otherwise, she barely speaks English. However, so much of this book’s premise hinges on things that go wrong that maybe it’s a compliment to women in general that they play such a small role in it.

Is it a book I would recommend? Yes. I think underneath the layers of misfired shoot-outs, misplaced identities, and misunderstood intentions, Gomez captures a lot of culturally relevant issues that will have most Malaysians snickering, but possibly with a heavy heart. It’s not all flippant cynicism, though, because Gomez seems to be saying that even if things are generally fucked-up, and powers-that-be rarely have our interests at heart, we should count on each other – regular citizens – to help each other out of our everyday misery. Or even out of non-everyday, seemingly catastrophic miseries. The police might try to pull batik over your eyes, or your elected ministers might try to kill you, but you just never know when a taxi driver might show you the way out of a dead-end.

The Department of Bah

March 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

A lazy Sunday morning is not the ideal time to get one’s knickers in a twist, but knickers will be twisted when and where they will. I suppose it was good to have a bit of bitter ire to go with my cup of coffee, the ire courtesy of New Straits Times in an article titled ‘Where is Mr. Right?’ and a companion piece, ‘Gorgeous and looking for love,’; the coffee courtesy of Nescafe (sadly).

Let’s start with the companion piece first. It begins with these lines:

“She is a full-time model and Miss World Malaysia 2009 finalist, but Malaysian men shy away from Kyanmay.

The beauty acknowledges that she gets a lot of attention from foreigners, however.”

Further on, the article alludes to the foreigners as being ‘white.’ There’s a shitload of baggage that comes with that – white expat men coming to certain parts of Asia precisely to be able to date long-haired sweet-looking Asian girls – that I won’t even bother going into it, because I can’t talk about it at length in any reasonably logical way. I start foaming at the mouth. (Not that Kyanmay doesn’t have other attributes besides physical ones that make her attractive to white men – or men of any colour, for that matter – but I thought it was interesting that the whole Miss Saigon syndrome was just overlooked and summarised as “Malaysian men are intimidated by hot girls, white men are not.”)

GAAH. No, no, no.

Not to mention the tone of the entire article that belabours the point of these being beautiful, attractive, successful girls who are single. Can you imagine that? Why would any female choose NOT to be part of one-half of a couple? And yes, most of these women talked yearningly of wanting to be in a relationship, but there was no room in the article for debate about the structure of romantic relationships in general, especially in capitalist yet traditional cultures like in Malaysia – where we’ve got one foot going forward chasing abundant riches and another planted firmly back in age-old beliefs and principles.

One of the women interviewed comes closer to the actual state of things, I reckon, when she says, “They are attracted to these two things [beauty and intelligence]. It is always the women who have high expectations.”

Meaning… be as beautiful as you can (naturally) and be as smart as you want, but don’t actually use your brain? What are these ‘high expectations’? Isn’t it just another way of saying that you know what the fuck you want out of life? Is that so bloody wrong that a woman uses her smarts to think about what SHE WANTS?

*Foams at mouth, wipes with tissue, takes a minute to calm down*

I really don’t know about this “men are intimidated by smart, beautiful women” thing. It could be another myth designed to keep women dumb and docile, or men dumb and aimless, or both. Wouldn’t having a partner that’s both beautiful and smart be something that men want? I think it’s more to do with women’s personality traits and character types, and how they choose to exercise agency in running their own lives. Perhaps this offends some people very much. You know, when women choose to strike out on a path that’s very divergent from the prescribed path.

That’s why you get an article like “Where is Mr. Right?” in every damn magazine or newspaper every few months. Women’s attitudes towards relationships have been gradually changing (for better or for worse, I’ve still not decided). But men’s attitudes towards relationships have not. If women have started to relate to men differently because of increasing amounts of economic independence, then isn’t it fair to say that men have not yet caught on that they’re expected to adjust/change their expectations and attitudes, as well?

I’m serious. I think they’ve really not caught on. And that’s a position of privilege. When you’ve always been the one to call the shots, you won’t have to seriously consider changing anything about yourself.

One dating service agency director interviewed in ‘Where is Mr. Right?’ says that “Hollywood is partly to blame.”

Right. (Okay, Hollywood is the symptom, not the cause, but it’s a very potent symptom.)

But also, women. Women are to be blamed for having too-particular expectations (wanting a tall man, or someone who chews his food with his mouth closed) or for making the mistake of “overlooking submission.” She goes on to say:

“Successful women find it difficult to strike a balance between independence and femininity. Many feel they’ve got far in their career because of certain characteristics, which they try to apply to their relationships.

“For a man, attraction on a first date lies in the femininity of a woman. Every woman should showcase this.

“She may want to portray the ‘tough’ image at work, but at home, it might be better to play the ‘small woman’ role — indulging in her femininity.”

Did the cave-woman mother say this to her cave-woman daughter? “Daughter, I don’t care how many bears you’ve successfully killed on your own. In front of potential husband over there, if a bear comes at you, cover your face and scream delicately. THAT is how you get to mate in a nice, cool well-ventilated cave and have offspring.”

No matter what you do, you still need to fit into the mold of ideal femininity, or be what turns on heterosexual men. Imagine that. It’s 2010 and you still have to do that! Years of feminist rah-rahing later, we still come back to this. Women can bend over forwards and backwards to do a million things at once and they still have to please men the right way, while men simply don’t have to do a thing. What’s this called again? Oh yeah. Patriarchy.

That’s not to say that certain women don’t have unreasonable expectations, as do men. I’ve got a friend with a paunch who’s still holding out for a Naomi Watts-lookalike, and I know some girls who think Brad Pitt is going to come along and shower them with diamonds while giving them a footbath twice a day. But aside from those nutjobs, most human beings have normal human expectations of the person with whom they’d like enter into a relationship.

Besides, her comment ignores the fact that people are complex, and no one fits into the “manly” or “feminine” molds because those are just idealised constructs based on a warped system. A desirable relationship is one where both partners can show both their strengths and weaknesses, where the power structure is not rigid or swayed to one particular partner, but flows comfortably between both.

In that same article, another dating agency manager says this: “I have asked several career women to describe their ideal mate. Most of them gave me answers such as; emotionally secure, financially stable, intellectually stimulating, a good sense of humour, ready to commit and responsible.”

Does that sound wrong in any way? Like you’re audaciously daring to reach for the stars? Maybe the “ready to commit” part is a bit much. Because as we’ve been told over and over again, all men are little boys at heart. And all little boys want to do is play. Bonus points if he’s ‘responsible’ – it means he makes money first, plays later.

The fact that it still has to be women who need to adjust their attitudes, their expectations, their looks and their behaviour is a telling sign that we’re NOWHERE near any sort of tangible equality between the sexes. Women are still the afterthought sex (“Oh, look… here are some winsome, sexually-alluring creatures with their puny arms and their awesome breasts!”) while men are the default sex by which all societal norms are continually rehashed and perpetuated.

None of the women interviewed talked about the actual pleasures and freedoms of singlehood. No one talked about opting to have alternative relationships to the exalted, socially-sanctioned Heterosexual Couple. No one talked about the joys of having single sex with whomever you want, male or female, whenever you want – or the joys of not having to have sex. All their other accomplishments – a strong career, thriving passions, solid friendships, good family ties, or any other thing – was secondary to the ultimate goal of a romantic relationship.

It’s fascinating, really, because throughout this article readers are indeed left wondering about the whereabouts of Mr.Right. No men were interviewed at all. No room for debate about men’s attitude in love, no battle-cries for men to alter their expectations. I know young Malaysian women who work all day, bring home the bacon, cook it up, and serve it on a plate to their husbands who sit in front of the TV with their feet up on a stool. Malaysian men like having their wives bring home the bacon. They don’t want to give that up. But many don’t see why this means that they might also have to take turns cooking the damn thing. Depressingly enough, it’s women who are also holding on to beliefs that have long passed their use-by date. And scarily enough, they’re out there running dating agencies and being politicians.

And articles like this in our national media just keep going over the same topic over and over again, and no one really has to think about how we can change the actual structures that underlie our social relations. How can we do it? I have no blinking clue. But let’s start talking about it thoughtfully, instead of summarising it tritely just so it sells better, just so we can all just pay lip service to ‘feminism’ and ‘equality’ and carry on, same as before, without ruffling any feathers.

We’re all mad here

March 19, 2010 § 2 Comments

The only thing that just about saved Alice in Wonderland was Alan Rickman as the voice of the Caterpillar (named Absolem in the film version), and Stephen Fry as ‘Chessur’ the grinning cat (as opposed to ‘Cheshire Cat,’ which is what it’s called in the book). Props also to Anne Hathaway for truly embodying the weird, whimsical spirit of Carroll’s classic – her White Queen was all smiles and twirliness understated by intelligence and kindness. Helena Bonham Carter – occasionally cute, but mostly overdone.


There’s nothing more tiresome than someone going, “Oh, but that’s not what happened in the book” during a film adaptation of a novel, but it’s inevitable that a viewer’s perception of the movie will be coloured by what she has read. Especially so if the book is treasured not only in her memory but by a collective of memories and is a ‘classic.’ Which is sort of understating the appeal of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

But it’s okay for someone like Tim Burton, an idiosyncratic and visionary filmmaker, to bend the rules a little and alter bits here and there without being tried in the court of literary sacrilege. Fine. But it’s just that you expect someone like Tim Burton to bend the rules good.

This movie felt like a drawn-out labour not of love, but of necessity. As in, “I started this damn movie and oh god, I have to finish making it.” Call it the Disney effect – but the wonder in Alice in Wonderland was tepid, sluggish, and run-down. I couldn’t find anything really wrong with Mia Wasikowska’s performance, but I couldn’t really find anything right about it either. She just makes you go, “Hmmm… okay. Alice.”

And Johnny Depp sort of went from utter manic (at the Tea Party) to all sad and emotional towards the end, which was just odd. I think I understand what they were going for with the character, the attempt to embody various facets of different personalities that makes the Mad Hatter, well, mad, but there wasn’t really a proper blend of those characteristics. The Mad Hatter is mad and memorable. Depp’s Hatter is forgettable. It just felt like I was watching a bunch of various emotions on-screen, not a cohesive blend of traits that makes a character a character.

Speaking of the Tea Party scene – it wasn’t long, but it gave me a headache. I expected to be charmed, damnit. I did not expect to wish I had a Panadol with me.

And the Jabberwocky – can I just say “no comment?” I’ve always wanted to say that, and I’ll say that in relation to the Jabberwocky. I preferred my Jabberwocky when it was a pencil illustration.

(It must be said that I give big shout-out to the nice people who did the subtitles. “Curiouser and curiouser” translated as “orang yang ingin tahu, orang yang ingin tahu” kept me giggling through the few following forgettable minutes of that pronouncement.)

... or Cheshire Cat?

To pull an Anais, or not to pull an Anais? That is the question.

March 18, 2010 § 2 Comments

I don’t know why I started this blog, other than I wanted a space to ramble as incoherently (and coherently) as I liked about all manner of things that interest me. Being a NERD, books interest me the most. Most of the time. Other times it’s other things.

But I told myself never to write here about stuff like… my feelings. However, why do I now feel compelled to wax lyrical over my happiness over a large, warm Pepperidge Farm chocolate-chunk cookie? Why the absurd urge to post pictures of my puppies? Why do I feel like saying, “This is what my nephew said, how cute, teehee!”


(Granted, I know Anais Nin wrote stuff like, “Today I wore my dark, mysterious Spanish shawl and all the men on the bus could not stop looking at me and Fernando kept stroking my fingers and saying, ‘You are the most exquisite woman, Anais. No other woman compares!’ or some such thing like that, but you know, the impulse behind documenting lascivious glances directed at my exquisite self or cute moments with my dog is one and the same, right?)

Farewells to bumblebees never sounded this good

March 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

There are no words to capture the authentic magic of the Pink Martini show at the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra last night. It was incredibly cohesive, controlled, with not a single fumble or misstep. If that makes it sound as though the show was rudimentary, clinical, and cold, that would be dead wrong, because it was also one of the most engaging, warm, utterly *musical* concerts I’ve been to in recent memory.

What does it mean to be *musical*? I have no blinking clue; I’m sure masses of concert reviewers will convulsively twitch reading about a music concert that was ‘musical.’ Yet it was, and the only way I can describe it is to say that Music took centre-stage last night, whether drifting along sweetly or pounding hard on the floors with intensity, while the Players were merely that – Players. They were each of them so masterful on their respective instrument, and so assured, that no one person overshadowed the other, and this allowed for what seemed, for those few hours at least, like a genuine creative collaboration of minds and hearts completely in sync and in rhythm.

Which I imagine must be hard on a stage filled with 10 people. O was it 11?

The band - in KL, minus the lady on the left. (Photo nicked from pinkmartini.com)

[Total irrelevant digression: Having bought the ‘cheap tickets’ we thought it was an accident to have been placed in the front row. Why are these the cheap tickets? We were smack dab in front and comments among my companions ranged from, “Are we sitting in someone else’s seats?” to “Will we go bloody deaf?” to “Oh my shit, will they call us up on stage? I can’t handle that!” (Shy Malaysian Syndrome.) I could see every movement of China Forbes’ gloriously sparkly eyelids, and the sound was beyond awesome and not at all overly-loud. It was my first time in the MPO, and admittedly the acoustics are brilliant. But still, the question remains… HOW WAS THIS THE CHEAP TICKETS?]

I don’t mean to single anyone out, but it has to be said that China Forbes’ voice is a thing of wonder. I mean, if you can sing like that, then you can never feel useless in this world. Also, great stage presence. Just the right amount of mysterious seductiveness mixed with warmth. As I’ve compulsively Googled the band members’ respective bios since the concert, I know now that she’s had a bit of a thespian past. (And oooh, she majored in English Literature! China, you and I… we are so alike! In some ways!)

An example of a really good marriage is Timothy Nishimoto’s vocals merging with China’s. Those voices blending together must produce babies.

Violinist! (Nicholas Crosa). You in the corner, breaking violin strings with your intensity, we fall at your feet.

Thomas Lauderdale on piano, reading scripted announcements in Malay, twirling and banging on the piano like some little wood sprite. Really, he’s not quite human and I mean that in the best way possible. Imagine my shock when I found out that he used to be in politics. However, his bio clarifies that “he spent most of his collegiate years in cocktail dresses” which makes it all okay.

And really, Trumpet and Trombone dudes were astounding (Gavin Bondy and Robert Taylor, respectively). I swear the trombone was actually talking to me at one point and that’s no mean feat.

Some brilliant standouts: ‘Hey Eugene’ which really sort of brought the house down, and their encore number ‘Brazil’, which got Malaysians dancing! My ass was sort of plastered to the seat as I was having dress issues, but other assorted uncles and aunties were really jiving. I loved the energy of ‘Una Notte A Napoli’ and one of my favourites, ‘Dosvedanya Mio Bombino’ when done live.

Charming: Introducing themselves as ‘Martini Merah Jambu,’ and the introduction to ‘Hang on Little Tomato’ which had some quirky Malay translations.

One was apt to twirl and prance in a lovely daze after the concert, or be prompted to sing out loud in the car ride back home. But I won’t name any names.

Here is a video of them performing ‘Una Notte A Napoli’ on what seems to be an Italian TV show:

All this bunnying about has to stop at some point

March 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

For one of the most hilariously inaccurate online quizzes ever, do check out this Book Quiz. (via infinite thought)

You’re Watership Down!
by Richard Adams
Though many think of you as a bit young, even childish, you’re
actually incredibly deep and complex. You show people the need to rethink their
assumptions, and confront them on everything from how they think to where they
build their houses. You might be one of the greatest people of all time. You’d
be recognized as such if you weren’t always talking about talking rabbits.

In the Mansion of Happiness, nothing is as it seems

March 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

The world inside Robin Ekiss’s The Mansion of Happiness is a beautiful, grotesque, tragic world of miniature machines, toys, and automata. Enclosed within these tiny objects are large, messy feelings – carefully circumscribed and concealed by their narrow boundaries, allowing Ekiss to explore the disturbing detritus of emotions that lurks just outside what is ‘normal and acceptable.’ It’s a feat that works throughout much of the book and one that makes The Mansion of Happiness a thoroughly absorbing and rewarding collection of poetry.

I first heard about Ekiss when I was browsing through Poets & Writers magazine in Kinokuniya. Once in awhile, that bland vanilla publication promoting the interests of white-bread authors comes up with something interesting. One of it was the feature on upcoming poets to watch. In that little one-page interview, Ekiss described her inspirations – the toys of her childhood, because her mother made dollhouse furniture and accessories, and her paternal grandfather’s home was filled with toy mechanical banks – which I found pretty intriguing. Looking around online, I came across some of her poems and thought them beautifully-written, suggesting sparse, controlled elegance, but clearly indicating an avalanche of deeper, darker, messier emotions beneath. That precise juxtaposition has always intrigued me in poetry.

Plenty of clear, arresting, and disconcerting images abound in her poems. For example, in ‘Meanwhile, under the shade palms’ (which you can also read here), Ekiss begins the poem with an intriguing scene: “the Turks are inside the egg / on the backs of elephants. / It’s customary to describe their attire: / feathered headdresses / shedding quills in ribbons of heat, / moustaches and slippers / curled fetal at the ends.” Those slippers, “curled fetal at the ends” already suggest an ominous tone about either a maternal presence or a thwarted vision of motherhood. Possibly, there is a suggestion of barrenness – both emotional and physical: “Nothing happens inside the egg: / the Turks are yoked to their carpets” and later, “Her egg is small, encrusted / with diamonds. Death watches / through the emerald window.”

In ‘Edison in Love,’ also published here, she writes, “Rene Descartes, too, traveled alone / with a doll-in-a-box / he called his daughter. Francine / Francine… is it better to be silent / and wait for everything / we were promised? / Or should we love them back, / The way a train loves a destination, / as if we have the machinery necessary for it?”

That’s gorgeous – to imply that the obligation of having to love someone is like a train loving a destination, because equipped with the machinery necessary for it; no choice but to keep going, keep loving.

In the poem ‘The Mansion of Happiness’ (Ekiss writes in her notes that the title is taken from one of the first board games published in the U.S., the precursor to Milton Bradley’s contemporary board game, The Game of Life.), Ekiss sets up a rather disquieting version of her recurring theme – a present but seemingly disturbed mother – “In another room, / mother played her clavichord / while I practiced my infant alphabet- / then, bored, took up the doll / which could always stand undressing.”

She builds layers of images, tying dolls – vulnerable, passive – with the presence of her mother, who hovers about the periphery, vague and overwhelmingly present in her absence. In ‘At the Doll Hospital’ Ekiss writes that the dolls have “started to look entirely like children – barefoot, sexless.” In one of my favourites, ‘The Question of My Mother’ (also published here), she writes, “The question of my mother is on the table. / The dark box of her mind is also there, / the garden of everywhere / we used to walk together.” The disturbing yet beautiful images throughout – of “fallopian city ingrained in memory,” or “dark arterial streets, neglected ovary / hard as an acorn hidden in its dark box / on the table” is painful, suggesting a deeper loss that cannot be assuaged, which leads to the plaintive final lines: “Mother, I am / out of my mind, spilling everywhere.”

There is also a paternal presence throughout, as well, no less chilling in its apparent offhand cruelty of neglect, or misguided attention. In ‘Elegy for My Father, Not Yet Dead,” Ekiss asks (tells) us: “When I pass my dead father on the street, / will I say about him what Kierkegaard said / of Hegel: he reminds me of someone.” Elsewhere, the lines, “There was no refraining. / My legs snapped shut / as clothespins” occur in the same poem as “You be the father / and I’ll be the daughter. / For God’s sake, / if that door’s bricked up – / try another.” In another poem, there is this: “During the fever, Father circled relentlessly / with new toys. I could hear the perforated music / of his breath approaching”.

Games, toys, and pretty, tiny things – the diversions of childhood mingle with family dynamics to create an intensely claustrophobic world that fairly ripples with underground tensions waiting to blow up the smooth facades. Much like a ticking time bomb planted in a sweet-faced doll, Ekiss’ poems reflect the ambiguity of relations between parents and children more than anything else. Her poems are linguistically and emotionally tightly-wound, subtly lodging itself under your skin for days after. These poems don’t scream out at you during the first reading, and Ekiss is confident enough to allow the reader to want to come back to them, over and over again – and anyone who appreciates gorgeous language and intriguing images and poetic tropes will want to approach these poems repeatedly.

I’ve had The Mansion of Happiness at my bedside for weeks, and it’s likely to stay there for quite some time. I would definitely recommend this for people who are interested in contemporary poetry, but who have been put off by much of contemporary poetry that’s just self-absorbed poets wanking off to their own narcissistic impulses, writing poems shrouded in deliberately oblique (and often meaningless) language. Whoops, sorry. That was a digression, and an extended way of saying – read this book. Really. It’s an intensely rewarding poetic experience.

Was there life before Internet?

March 4, 2010 § Leave a comment

It was a tough day. The blink-blink-blink of my blue TM Net-issue modem was evidently a cry for help, or a final goodbye, because it died this morning. There wasn’t a moment of silence, only a wail of grief – mine. Faced with the prospect of no internet for what could be days, or MAYBE EVEN A WEEK, I took swift action. I took my modem (3 years old and counting) and ran to the first PC vendor I could find in Mid Valley Megamall.

After laughing at me when I told him how long I’ve had it (apparently, nothing is meant to last more than 2 years these days), the dude at one of the stores asked his surly but ultimately helpful lady colleague to go test the modem. They pronounced it dead around 2 PM. Grief, however, is a fickle mistress – it can just as well find a new object on which to hang onto. Grief for dead modem was easily replaced by the grief I felt for having to shell out RM 80 for a new one. All things considered, not a terribly bad expense – IF I STILL HAD A FREAKING JOB.

But hey, I’m not mad at myself for doing the right thing and quitting.

Anyhow, what was I saying? Oh yeah – new modem. It works fine. I have internet again.

Happiness can be found within plastic

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