Isa Kamari is a well-known legend in the Singapore literary community. He has won numerous awards — the Anugerah Sastera Mastera, the SEA Write award and Singapore Cultural Medallion, the Anugerah Tun Seri Lanang. He has been written about and discussed in Universities. With ten novels, nine of which have been translated into English — and some into more languages like Arabic, Mandarin, Urdu and Turkish — three poetry books and plays under his belt and one novella written in English by him, one can well see him as a maestro of storytelling.
The last translation of his novel Kiswah has been launched in November at the Writer’s Festival in Singapore. Isa, a reformer at heart who claims to write only when he is very moved, authored and published three novels together in 2002. Intercession was to do with much needed comments on Islam — an outcome of the 9/11 bombing in New York; The Tower was to do with an individual’s own journey through materialism to a more spiritual plane and the last, which is what will be dealt with here, was Kiswah, a critique on the effects of pornography on young minds.
Most of Isa’s books can be seen as the journey of the protagonist towards self realisation. The issues he takes up are of global concern, though he claims to focus on the Malay community in his books.
The S.E.A. Write Award (South East Asian Writers Award) has been revived after a three-year break with three writers from Singapore selected for the honour. The three winners have been selected for the three years, 2016-2018, when this prestigious ASEAN award was put on hold to mourn the passing of the late King Bhumibol.
Chia Joo Ming
Peter Augustine Goh
Ovidia Yu gets the award for 2016; ChiaJoo Ming for 2017 and Peter Augustine Goh for 2018.
Yu, a writer of light detective novels set in 1930s Singapore, said, her first reaction was “amazement and disbelief… mostly because I write humorous murder mysteries and, on the literary hierarchy, that ranks far below poetry and literary novels”.
“It feels like a validation of something I deeply believe – that whatever we set out to write has first to entertain,” she added.”Reading is only a luxury we can’t afford if it’s not fun. After all, we somehow afford bubble tea and mobile phones.”
Poet. Photographer. Singer. Bearded botak (bald man). As an artiste, Marc can be best described as a living kaleidoscope. His creative work can be hard to pin down. So far, he has written and edited twelve books of poetry, the latest being Sightlines, a collection of poems and travel photography co-created with photographer Tsen-Waye Tay. He plays with a band, Neon and Wonder, and set numerous poems to music with his band mates. He is also active in Singapore’s poetry slam scene, and participates in regular sessions at Blu Jaz Cafe.
If that’s not all, he is passionate about photography and the principal photographer of Mackerel, an online culture magazine he founded. He also collaborated with well-known Singaporean satirical personality Mr Brown in an online video that made fun of a MasterChef judge who misunderstood the nature of chicken rendang. Responding to his criticism that the chicken was not crispy enough, the song playfully (shown in the video below) corrects the judge with an appropriate understanding of the Malay delicacy:
His books transport one to a past — a time where under the green creepers on a softly moving river, a boat sails and take one into a unique world of what has been. You discover how much the world has changed and how Singapore has evolved, you meet people who intrigue and bring to the fore the roots that created the little red dot. And yet some of his books look forward to a future – a world of harmony where technology and spiritual peace co-exist… Meet the author, winner of numerous awards and a voice to be reckoned with — Isa Kamari.
Isa Kamari was born in 1960 and lives in Singapore with his wife and two children. He is currently Deputy Director in the Architecture Division with the Land Transport Authority of Singapore, leading a team that manages the design and construction of transport infrastructures. While his profession is an architect, his passion lies in writing, though his architectural background has also found a way into some of his novels.
In all, he has written 9 novels, 3 collections of poetry, a collection of short stories, a book of essays on Singapore Malay poetry, a collection of theatre scripts and lyrics of 2 song albums — all in Malay. His novels have been translated into English, Turkish, Urdu, Hindi, Arabic, Indonesian and Mandarin. His collections of essays and selected poems have been translated into English. His first novel in English, Tweet was published in 2016. Isa was conferred the Southeast Asia Write Award from Thailand in 2006, the Singapore Cultural Medallion in 2007, the Anugerah Tun Seri Lanang from the Singapore Malay Language Council in 2009, and the Mastera Literary Award from Brunei Darussalam in 2018.
In this exclusive, he talks about his book Kiswah, whose translated version is being launched on 8thNovember in the Singapore Writer’s Festival; the dramatisation of his novel, 1819 and much more…
You will soon be launching Kiswah. It shuttles between various locales. Can you tell us the intent of this book? What led you to write it?
Isa: In the late 1990s, I was disturbed by the rampant spread of pornographic materials in in Singapore. Vendors openly sold X-rated VCDs near MRT stations, bus interchanges and bazaars illegally. There were also reports in the newspapers about the addiction to pornography amongst professionals and the young. At the same time, I knew from my wife, who was doing voluntary service at a welfare home, that there were many family breakups arising from sexual abuses. All these compelled me to ponder on the topic of manifestation of sexual life in relation to spirituality or the lack of it. The various locales — like Delhi, Agra, Kashmir, Kathmandu and finally Mecca — becomes the background for me to explore, confront, interrogate and somewhat find a resolution on the topic.
I must first confess that I did not like Sightlines when I first read it. As I absorbed this book of poems with photography by Marc Nair and Tsen-Waye Tay, I couldn’t help but feel that a certain song-like lyricism was missing. Usually, my first instinct is to judge verses based solely on the quality of sound alone. Meaning can be secondary, as long as the words form a particular harmony. Knowing that Marc Nair is an established poet in Singapore with a huge reputation for spoken word, I was slightly disappointed.
But on my second reading, something very simple happened.
I followed the recommendation in Mr. Nair’s introduction: I read the poems with the images in mind. And suddenly, like Blake’s experience of seeing a world in a grain of sand, the entire book changed for me. Mr. Nair’s words, together with the stark and beautiful photography of Ms. Tay, emerged as mini-narratives of their own.
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Elaine Chiew is a writer and a visual arts researcher, editor of Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World (New Internationalist, 2015) and her short story collection The Heartsick Diaspora is forthcoming from Penguin Random House SEA (Oct 2019) and Myriad Editions UK (Jan 2020). Twice winner of the Bridport Short Story Competition, she has published numerous stories in anthologies in the UK, US and Singapore. Originally from Malaysia, Chiew graduated from Stanford Law School and worked as a corporate securities lawyer in New York and Hong Kong before studying for an MA in Asian Art History at Lasalle College of the Arts Singapore, a degree conferred by Goldsmiths, University of London. Elaine lives in Singapore and blogs about art at www.invisibleflaneuse.blogspot.com. In this interview, she reveals more about her new book and her ideas.
Why do you write?
Very simply, I can’t not write, call it word-constipation or what Danish short story writer Naja Marie Aidt calls ‘an urge that cannot be overlooked’ or a ‘point of desire’. A character or voice arrives out of the blue, takes hold of you as in a waking dream, make me real, it says, and you do.
With the literary festivals season blossoming around Asia, Singapore will host its 22 nd writers’ festival from 1st to 10th November with big names dropping in, including Pico Iyer. Pico Iyer, who has spent the last three decades in Japan will be talking on ‘Beyond Borders, Beyond Words’. Iyer will reflect on human connection and belonging. After his talk, he will be in dialogue with acclaimed novelist who has spent a large part of her life in Japan too and now lives in Singapore, Meira Chand.
This year Pico Iyer has been the writer in residence for the newly renovated Raffles Hotel in Singapore. He penned down a book on the Hotel called This could be Home. the novel was launched on 5th august. Long ago in history, this heritage hotel had housed the likes of great writers like Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham.
Pico Iyer was born Siddharth Pico Raghavan Iyer in 1957. His great-great-great-grand father was a Gujarati writer-reformer in the late nineteenth century, Mahipatram Nilkanth . His parents were Indian academics who moved to England to study. Iyer’s unusual name is a combination of the Buddha’s name, Siddhartha, with that of the fifteenth century Florentine neo-Platonist Pico della Mirandola and the last name is that of his father. Schooled in Oxford and Harvard, Pico Iyer is known for his brilliant essays and travel writing. He has written a few novels too.
The Asian Festival of Children’s content organised by Singapore Book Council from 5 th to 8 th September, 2019, celebrated its tenth year with the country of focus being Myanmar. There were talks and discussions on the need for book reviews, the need for diversity in children’s literature, translations and how to proliferate books from different cultures all over the globe.
Panel discussions and lectures dotted the event with delegates from USA, England, different parts of Asia and more. Some of the discussions were thought provoking. For instance, at the end of discussion on diversity with panellists from North American background ( academic Philip Nel, writer editor Emily Pan and Lisa Charlieboy) with moderator Avery Fischer Udagawa, the relevance of their experience to the Asian experience was put under scrutiny by a member of the audience as even Emily Pan grew up in USA identifying as an American.
During a discussion on ‘Portrayal of Special Needs in YA (Young Adult Fiction)’, while award winning writer Suzanne Kamata focussed on the need to assimilate children with disabilities into the mainstream, Hannah Alkaff from Malaysia totted off statistics that proved more children would suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder( OCD ) over the years and therefore the need to create fiction like hers where children could identify with such issues. One wonders though why schools and caregivers would allow this rise in OCD to occur. Sarinajit Kaur from National Institute of Education, talked of how teachers could create not just better readers but generate hope in children by giving them books that are empathetic.
At the start of September, the Bras Basah National Library in Singapore will be a hive of activities with writers, books, illustrators and publishers exhibiting their wares and holding workshops to celebrate the upcoming Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC). The festival adopts “diversity” as its theme.
Organised by the Singapore Book Council, the tenth AFCC will feature 150 speakers, of who 104 are local and 47 are international.
“AFCC has been championing diversity and Asian children’s books since its inception,” said the Executive Director of the Singapore Book Council, William Phuan, in a press release . “As we mark our 10th anniversary milestone, it is even more important that we continue to push to enrich the literary landscape with multicultural stories and diverse themes.”