Book review by Mitali Chakravarty

Front cover

Title: Kiswah

Author: Isa Kamari

Publisher: Kitaab, 2019

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.

This year, in the Singapore Writer’s festival, one of the books  launched is a translation of Isa Kamari’s Kiswah, a novel which was created with two more in 2002 — Intercession and The Tower. While these novels focus on spiritual evolution by evolving religious lore, in two of them at least the protagonist is an architect.

So, what does architecture have in common with literature? 

Russian author Ayn Rand  found some answers in The Fountainhead (1943), where the protagonist, architect Howard Roarke moves towards her theory of Objectivism,  a theory which the author herself defined as “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” 

Do Kamari’s books, though studied in a religious light by Henry Aveling of Monash University, also subscribe to Objectivism?

by Mitali Chakravarty

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Isa Kamari

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…

 

Front coverYou 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.

By Aminah Sheikh

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Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

I write when I am disturbed by issues or ideas. I then do a bit of research on the subject matter. I begin to write if I have a sense of resolution and only if I can offer windows for readers to ponder upon the issues and form their own thoughts or opinions on them. In that sense I write to grow and validate my own existence.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it? 

In my next novel I am exploring the need for religion to grow naturally with cultural practices. This is to ensure that the practice of religion is relevant, meaningful and not alienated from the lives of the adherents. Much of what we see today is the opposite. Religion is very much an imposition or a borrowed phenomenon imported from peoples of different cultural backgrounds. This has resulted in unnecessary tension and alienation.

Describe your writing aesthetic. 

I try to write simply, yet offer layers of interpretation on my work.

IntercessionOne of the aims of Kitaab is to celebrate Asian writing through translations, and make great literature available in various Asian languages.

Kitaab made its foray into publishing with a book of Urdu poetry, translated into English. Urdu Poetry—An Introduction was published in 2013 and was released at the Singapore Writers Festival in the same year.

“We are kicking off Kitaab’s Asian Literature in Translation Project with Isa Kamari’s seminal novel, Intercession,” said Zafar Anjum, founder-editor of Singapore-based publishing company, Kitaab. The novel was published in Malay as “Tawassul”.

Kitaab will get the novel translated into Urdu and Hindi languages and will get it published.

Singaporean writer Isa Kamari is a Cultural Medallion winner (2007) and has written nine novels in Malay: Satu Bumi, Kiswah, Tawassul, Menara, Atas Nama Cinta, Memeluk Gerhana, Rawa, Duka Tuan Bertakhta and Selendang Sukma. Seven were translated into English: One Earth (Satu Bumi), Intercession (Tawassul), Nadra (Atas Nama Cinta), Rawa (Rawa), A Song of the Wind (Memeluk Gerhana), 1819 (Duka Tuan Bertakhta) and The Tower (Menara). He has also published two collections of poems, Sumur Usia and Munajat Sukma, a collection of short stories, Sketsa Minda and a collection of theatre scripts, Pintu. Isa has also been honoured with  the S.E.A. Write Award (2006) and the Anugerah Tun Seri Lanang (2009).

“The publication of Tawassul (Intercession) in Urdu and Hindi is indeed a breakthrough after 13 years of its first publication,” said Kamari. “I would like to thank Kitaab for this wonderful opportunity to present it to an audience that it deserves and beyond. It is timely and crucial. You have to read it to understand why.”

by Zafar Anjum

Isa Kamari

I had heard of Isa Kamari ever since I set foot in Singapore over a decade ago. Winner of many awards, Isa Kamari is a major Singapore Malay author. He has been a regularly featured author at the Singapore Writers Festival. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to read Malay and I did not know that Isa’s novels had been translated into English.

It was only recently that I got to know him in person. A few months ago, he sent me a copy of his novel, Intercession. I found it a bold work of fiction dealing with serious themes of science and religion, and yet it was so thrillingly narrated that I could barely stop reading it.  The book reminded me of Hermann Hesse’s masterpiece, Siddhartha.

Born in 1960 in Kampung Tawakal, Isa’s family moved to a Housing Development Board apartment in Ang Mo Kio while he was still in his teens. After studying at the elite Raffles Institution, he went on to take the degree of Bachelor of Architecture (with Honours) from the National University of Singapore in 1988. He now holds a senior position with the Land Transport Authority. Isa has also earned a Master of Philosophy degree in Malay Letters from the National University of Malaysia in 2007.

A prolific writer, Isa has so far published two volumes of short stories, eight novels, six volumes of poetry, one collection of stage plays, and several albums of contemporary spiritual music. He has been honoured with the SEA Write Award in 2006, the Singapore government’s Cultural Medallion in 2007 and the Singapore Malay literary award Anugerah Tun Seri Lanang in 2009.

Isa-quote2Isa’s novels are increasingly being translated from Malay for wider audiences. Satu Bumi (One Earth, 1998) was published in Mandarin in 1999 as Yi Pien Re Tu and in English in 2008, under the title of One Earth (translated by Sukmawati Sirat). Two other novels appeared in English translations in 2009: Intercession (Tawassul, 2002, translated by Sukmawati Sirat and edited by Alvin Pang); and Nadra (Atas Nama Cinta, In the Name of Love, 2006, translated by Sukmawati Sirat and edited by Aaron Lee Soon Yong). In 2013, four translations have been released: The Tower (Menara, 2002, translated by Alfian Sa’at); A Song of the Wind (Memeluk Gerhana, Embracing the Eclipse, 2007, “rendered in English from Malay” by Sukmawati Sirat and R. Krishnan); Rawa (Rawa: tragedi Pulau Batu Puteh, Rawa: The Tragedy of White Rock Island, 2009, “rendered in English from the original Malay” by Sukmawati Sirat and R. Krishnan); and 1819 (Duka Tuan Bertakhta, You Rule in Sorrow, 2011, “rendered in English from Malay by Sukmawati Sirat and R. Krishnan”).

Here is a two-part interview with Isa Kamari:

PART ONE: Becoming a Writer

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What set you on the road to being a writer? Do you ever regret the drive or passion that makes you keep writing?

I have always loved writing since my secondary school days but never took it seriously until my late teens. Something happened to me in 1979, the story of which I have told in my novel Memeluk Gerhana (A Song of the Wind).

That incident made me look at life in a more critical manner. It made me view writing not as a hobby but more of a calling. In any case, I begin to write only if an event or issue disturbs me deeply. I do research on the subject and try to find my own resolution/ take on the issue/predicament. Only when I understand and come to terms with the problem and form my own opinion or position do I begin to pen my thoughts on it in the form of a poem or fiction. Thus writing is like therapy to me. It is my way of finding meaning and peace with myself and the world.