Recently, Fai had got more interested in her studies. She was a loner. Her mother used to do daily chores for neighbours against a sum of money. Her father had a small shop that sold second hand goods and knick-knacks that he got from the dealer — some of them were antiques – more like trinkets. The merchandise in his shop fascinated Fai.
Her father narrated to her stories about these strange objects. He unraveled the mysteries of the town and wove stories around them to try and sell the objects to his clients. The dealer provided him with goods sold in auctions by museums and by abandoned high schools and tour groups. Rusty sleeping bags, mountaineering gears and all kinds of skiing stick– even golf clubs, a tiara discarded by someone who did not understand its value — such merchandise were the focal points of his stories.
Her father kissed her on her forehead and told her a story every night before she went to sleep. These stories were woven around the objects in his shop. They were not like the story of Big Fish in America. The story of the Big Fish was from the story book she got from the school library. It was a strange tale — the hero’s daddy would turn out to be the fish at last which had swallowed the ring of hero’s mommy. The library at Fai’s school would only allow them to borrow one book for the weekend.
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.
It’s tempting to blame it on inner impulses that would devour me if I didn’t, but that wouldn’t be the whole story, especially with non-fiction. Simply put, I’m better at writing than I am at most other things I’ve tried my hand at (though not necessarily better at writing than most other people), and the act gives me pleasure of a laboured kind. That’s more than what you can say for most kinds of work, and believe me, the complete act of writing – from conception to execution to almost-perfection – is work.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
Speaking Tiger has just published my second book, Thamel:Dark Star of Kathmandu, a biography of the tourist quarter that grew out of a medieval Buddhist settlement in Kathmandu. Writing about a place like Thamel is not, on the face of it, an urgently necessary task. At least not as obviously so as a book on our relationships with Nature (my next writing project). Nonetheless, I feel it’s useful to obtain an understanding of the totality of the environments we have spent significant time in – past, present and future. This is what Thamel means to achieve, as much as the book on Nature: to deepen our understanding of our built and natural environments, and thereby of ourselves, so we can reconsider and improve on our interactions with them.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
I’m no fan of bald writing that means to drive home a social message, nor lazy writing dragged along by a pacy, racy narrative. With both fiction and non-fiction, I hope to provide serious reading pleasure, without being carried away by either the message or the medium.
Who are your favorite authors?
Those I haven’t read – names I know, names I don’t know, names that haven’t seen the light of day. They represent the titillating totality of my ignorance.
The gifted Nepalese writer Samrat Upadhyay writes in English about ordinary, mostly middle class characters in his homeland, and their struggles against economic hardship and entrenched social customs. His latest novel,The City Son, explores dichotomies already familiar to readers of his work: he sets the city — always Kathmandu — against the village, and men against women. His female characters are, again, particularly vulnerable, as they are forced into arranged marriages and later abandoned by their husbands, who fall in love with other women. In this case, the rural, female protagonist ofThe City Son refuses to accept her fate, and fights back in a manner that challenges not only social norms, but also what we’ve come to expect in a South Asian female character, period. Upadhyay’s Didi is a victim who becomes a predatory villain, yet she remains a deeply tragic, near mythic figure, whose actions lead to no happiness, least of all for herself.
In Nepal, and especially Kathmandu, coffeehouses are too expensive to foster intellectual creativity: Kantipur.com
Today’s coffeehouses in Nepal are nothing like the ones of old in England, or even the old teahouses of Kathmandu that were literary hotspots. They are commercial, expensive and don’t foster an intellectual spirit.