Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Isa Kamari

This is an interesting interview where it has generated various kind of reaction. Some like it and some don't. I find the award winning novelist Isa Kamari has spoken from his heart. Isa Kamari is the second novelist I have interviewed in Singapore. The first one being Alfian Saat. Isa Kamari interview was published in theSun on Oct 7

Headline : Humanistic Islam

Singaporean novelist Isa Kamari has been conferred the S.E.A. Write Award, the Cultural Medallion -- Singapore’s highest award for art -- and the Anugerah Tun Seri Lanang. He tells BISSME S. that religion comes before his art.

Have you faced challenges writing in Malay in Singapore?

There are no major challenges faced by writers in Singapore who write in Malay. We enjoy freedom and the support of the government in our literary pursuits in terms of publishing, translation and project grants. There are also literary awards such as the Golden Point Award and Singapore Literature Prize offered for outstanding literary work in the four official languages – English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil.

Why don’t you write in English, which will give you a bigger audience around the world?

I think in Malay. It is only natural and more impactful if I write in Malay. English is my working language. Every language has its own cultural codes and historical references. Of course, I would want a bigger audience. As a stepping stone, some of my novels and poetry have been translated into English. Three translated novels were recently published; two more novels are in the pipeline. I am also trying to get my work translated into other languages and published in other countries besides Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Why do you prominently feature Islam in your work?

Islam is an essential part of me; so it is only natural that I write about it. However, I prefer to approach Islam from humanistic perspectives. I write about experiencing Islam as human beings with limitations, dreams and aspirations, confronted with the realities of the modern world.

Do you consider yourself a Muslim artist, focusing only on the subject of Islam

I am a Muslim first, an artist second. Being creative is my way of worshipping God. Islam is a way of life. So indirectly, I am writing about life. I have no qualms about not being an artist, as long as I am at peace with God and myself.

Your novel Tawassul portrays the cloning of Prophet Muhammad and has been considered controversial. Some have accused you of blasphemy.

I guess such reactions can be expected since my writing challenges established norms. I have chosen to push the out-of-bounds markers to provoke readers into thinking deeper about challenges we all face today which affect our beliefs and value systems.
With regard to Tawassul, there are two camps. Some readers accuse me of desecrating the Prophet. A particular reader goes to the extent of accusing me of creating a false Prophet. The other camp of readers is of the opinion that I have written an avant garde piece of Islamic literature that addresses pertinent issues faced by modern Islamic societies.
Another novel which has been perceived to be controversial is Kiswah which some conservative readers feel is pornography. Others think I have written a piece of literature that is fresh and touching. Kiswah attempts to bridge the duality of sexuality and spirituality.
My latest novel Duka Tuan Bertakhta, published this year, might be perceived as controversial because I did not mince my words in describing the stupidity and follies of the Malay Sultanate in bygone years.

Tell us more about Duka Tuan Bertakhta. What motivated you to write it?

I have always wanted to write “the Singapore story”. What better way than to write about its founding in 1819. In Duka Tuan Bertakhta, I offer an alternative history of the founding of the island by Stamford Raffles. He has always been portrayed as a hero in the official version of Singapore’s history, but I discovered that he was really a scoundrel who had blood on his hands.
The novel also relates how the British took advantage of the conflict between the families of the Sultan of Johor and the Yamtuan Muda of Riau, and duped the greedy and weak Sultan Hussein and Temenggong Abdul Rahman into “selling” Singapore to the British East India Company, which took full control of the island in 1823.
I was disappointed when a similar situation arose in 1874 when the British took advantage of the fight between three parties for the throne in Perak and Raja Abdullah sought the help of the British to establish him as the Sultan. The Treaty of Pangkor was signed and became the model for the British to subsequently “rule” the Malay lands by proxy of the Sultans.
This novel is pertinent because recently the issue of whether Malaysia was ever colonised by the British was brought up. I smiled when I read about it. You have to read Duka Tuan Bertakhta to appreciate how Singapore became the keystone and launching ground for the colonial ambitions of the British in the Malay lands.

Have you ever gotten into trouble for writing on these issues?

So far, I have not been sanctioned by anyone. I hope that I would not have to face such troubles in the future. I am just interested in telling the truth.

Have you alienated anyone with your writings, especially on religious issues?

You can’t please everyone. People inadvertently do get hurt or disagree strongly with some of my views, but I never seek to break any bond of friendship. I welcome healthy conflict as long as it remains civil and is based on respect and tolerance.

What is the greatest misconception people have about Islam and Muslims around the world?

Islam is more feared than respected by many. The fear comes from not understanding that it is a peaceful, tolerant and inclusive religion. The fear is compounded by terrorism by fundamentalists such as Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah. However some of the comments and criticisms directed at Muslims deserve to be considered squarely and earnestly by Muslims, in particular the resistance of Muslim communities to change. A lot of work has to be done within Islam to facilitate the willingness of Muslims to be adaptable and embrace changes which do not go against the teachings of Islam.

What can be done to change this unflattering image of Islam so it would not be feared and seen as intolerant?

The best way is to lead by example. Muslims have to come out and portray Islam as a religion of peace, love and understanding. Efforts must be made by them to bridge the understanding between different faiths. Muslims must lead dignified, just and compassionate lives so that the beauty and glory of Islam are manifested in everyday living for others to appreciate and emulate.

Why do you say Muslim communities are resistant to change?

I think it has to do with the way in which history is interpreted by most Muslims. It is true that we can learn from the past. But it is equally important that we have a firm grounding of the present and a vision for the future. We should not copy everything from the past but be able to differentiate between principles and forms in religion. To remain relevant to the present and contribute to advancement in civilisation of the future, we must be willing and brave to rethink and reformulate some of the forms while remaining faithful and true to the principles in religion.

What is your opinion of the Lina Joy case (where a Muslim converted to Christianity)?

I did not follow the case closely, but from the little that I know, I have this to say. As much as I would wish that she remains a Muslim, I would respect her choice to embrace any faith she desires. It is meaningless to enforce a legal ruling to keep her within the Islamic faith if she is determined to denounce Islam either secretly or openly. My position is based on surah Al Kafirun (The Disbelievers) in the Quran.

Please explain surah Al Kafirun?

Let me quote the verses:
I do not worship what you worship,
nor do you worship what I worship.
I shall never worship what you worship,
neither will you worship what I worship.
You have your own religion and I have mine.”

Should Muslims be allowed to convert to any religion they want?

Choice of one’s own religion is a fundamental right of every human being. There is no compulsion in religion. In as much as I would welcome the conversion of others to Islam, what right do I have to prevent a Muslim from converting to another faith? Of course as a matter of concern, I would offer counsel to the person who wants to leave Islam, but the final decision entirely rests with that person. Every human being has to answer to God of his or her own accord. I would have done my part if I’d tried to convince that person to remain within the fold of Islam.

What is your stand on freedom of expression – about books that mock religion and God?

Everyone has the right to express his thoughts and feelings freely, as long as it does not infringe on the rights and freedom of others. Books that mock religion and God would inevitably infringe on the rights and freedom of the adherents of the religion and should be removed from circulation for the public good.

There is always talk that Singapore Malays face some form of discrimination.

Discrimination happens everywhere. I prefer to regard is as a challenge which has to be overcome. Some of my work addresses these challenges squarely.

In what way?

In my novels, I try to break stereotypes and prejudices that result in discrimination through the creation of characters which are caught in challenging and conflicting situations. For example in Satu Bumi, my character Tan Swee Mei was adopted by a Malay family during the Japanese Occupation and fell in love with a Malay politician. She who had changed her name to Aminah was later killed by a group of Chinese during the racial riots in 1963 when they found out that she had become “Malay”.
In Atas Nama Cinta (Nadra), a Dutch girl Maria Hertogh was adopted and brought up as a Muslim by Aminah, a Malay businesswoman in Tjimahi and Kemaman. Maria’s biological parents wanted her back and a legal battle ensued in the colonial courts of Singapore. The tensions that arose resulted in racial riots in December 1950. These two novels in particular dealt openly with the issues of prejudice and discrimination. The purpose is to invite cross-cultural dialogue between readers.

What is the philosophy and message in your work?

My philosophy and messages evolve through my writing career. You have to read my work to trace the evolution. However, I have always believed that life is essentially spiritual and writers must be sincere and uphold truth regardless of the consequences.

How do you continue to sharpen your writing skills?

I don’t drive. I take public transport to ponder on issues and observe people. I also love to read and travel. To me, writing is not just about having the skill to put words together, but the conviction and courage to delve deeper into life through the exploration of thoughts, and coming to terms with emotions that might evolve, and sharing these with others in a beautiful and convincing way.

I understand you sing.

That happened by accident. A friend wrote some songs based on my poetry. We approached another friend and formed a band called Sirrfillsirr (Secrets within Secrets) in 2004. We have produced two albums so far: Cinta Arafah and Kurnia. The songs are mainly spiritual in nature. We have a niche following in Malaysia and Singapore. Our concerts and gigs are generally well received.

Famous writers from the East such as Haruki Murakami (Japan), Rabindranath Tagore (India) and Zhou Weihui (China) had their work translated into English and gained international acclaim. Why is the same not the case with writers who write in Malay?

Honestly, I think we have not reached such a calibre. We have good writers such as A. Samad Said, Anwar Ridhwan, Masuri S. N., Suratman Markasan, just to name a few. But we have not yet produced great writers. And the quality of English translation of some of the work of these writers leaves much to be desired too.

Some believe the themes Malay novelists adopt are very Malay culture-orientated, which an international audience cannot relate to.

Yes, that is partly true. It is not so much in the subject of the writing but the lack of depth and breadth of the work that causes the lack of interest. I believe there are many readers around the world who would want to know us better. It is just that we have not produced work appealing enough to capture their hearts and imagination.

What can we do to enable Malay writing to gain international appeal?

We simply need to produce great works. No amount of promotion or advertisement will work if in the first place we do not have great works to share with the world.

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

The change is already taking place slowly. People are more open and willing to voice their opinions and express themselves.

Three of your novels have been translated into English. How do you overcome the challenges in translation especially in maintaining the essence of the work?

The translator of my novels into English is my wife, Dr Sukmawati Sirat, who knows me better than anyone else. We would discuss the translation, but I would let her have the final say before sending it to the publisher. (Isa’s novels which are available in English are Satu Bumi (One Earth), Tawassul (Intercession) and Atas Nama Cinta (Nadra).

Describe your childhood years? When did you begin writing? Which writers inspired you?

It was very tactile in nature. I lived in a kampung and have wonderful memories of catching spiders, playing in drains, stealing chickens and climbing fruit trees. I have related those memories in my novel Memeluk Gerhana. I started writing when I was in school, and published my first poem in Berita Minggu in 1979 when I was 19. I have not stopped writing since. In my younger days, I read the work of W.S. Rendra, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Anwar Ridhwan, Latiff Mohidin, Rabindranath Tagore, Rumi and more. There wasn’t one particular writer who inspired me. I guess all of them influenced me in their own special ways.

You are an architecture manager with the Land Transport Authority Singapore. How do you balance your job and writing? Will you write full-time?

Architecture is my profession. Writing is my passion. I spend most of the day at work. I write mostly at night when everyone is asleep. Once, my chief architect at the Housing Development Board, my first place of work, told me that the secret to good art is being focused during its production. I have taken his advice and tried to be productive and distinctive in my art by focusing on it whenever I could, although I am tied up with a demanding day job. I wish I could retire from my day job and devote my time fully to writing, but at the moment I have responsibilities and commitments.

What is your opinion of the development of Bahasa Melayu?

A language is alive when the community uses it. A language is also dynamic as it goes through transformation in accordance with the demands of the day. It also has different facets. As a cultural language, Bahasa Melayu is slowly losing its significance. There are fewer Malays who can articulate and speak their thoughts and feelings eloquently in proper Bahasa Melayu.
As a working language, it is also losing its importance because Malay is not the language of knowledge, science and technology in this region or anywhere else. As a common language, it is still alive, although it has been adulterated by the mixing with other languages especially English.

What about Malay literature? Do you think there are fewer people reading serious Malay literature compared to Malay pop fiction?

I don’t believe in the division between serious literature and pop fiction. It is an artificial segregation created by academics. In my opinion there is only good and bad writing. The current situation in which the so-called pop fiction dominates the scene is symptomatic of the banal consumerism prevalent in our age. People tend not to think deeply and appreciate the finer aspects of life any more. It is a sad and sorry state which needs to be reversed if we want to lead more meaningful and fulfilling lives.

What changes would you like to see in Malay literature?

To see a Malay Nobel Prize winner in Literature in the next 20 years. I think it is possible.

Some people believe writers should change the world by having moral messages in their work.

We live in a globalised world. Writers play an important role in conveying messages of love and peace, just like everyone else who cares about mankind and our Earth.

What advice would you give young writers?

Be brave and honest in your writing. In the early phases of your career, it is only natural that you emulate other successful writers. But as you mature, you should listen more to your own inner voice and not be afraid to explore unchartered territory.