Dipika Mukherjee writes that at a time when Malaysian authorities are clamping down on free speech and political dissent on any kind, a free discussion of “Dangerous Ideas” …is timely.
It is 10.30 at night at the Hock Teik Cheng Sin Temple. Built by Chinese immigrants from the Fujian Province almost 165 years ago, the temple is now shrouded in darkness and a drooping angsana tree shivers in the wind as the gentle rain continues to fall.
This ancient place of worship is where the performance of “Pontianak”, by five leading women poets of Malaysia, will take place.
The venue for this performance, which is part of the 2016 Georgetown Literary Festival, is evocative. The Pontianak (a vampire-ghost) looms large in Malay folklore, usually as the avenging spirits of women who died while pregnant. Books and movies abound with this familiar trope setting up a tale of thwarted desire leading to bloodthirsty revenge. This show situates the Pontianak within a Taoist temple, within hallowed ground with spiraling incense smoke and red lacquered doors.
The performance, as the introduction explains, “explores the way women and ‘the feminine’ have been systematically demonized, their stories buried, their collective and individual power taken away from them, their role in society demeaned and diminished and their natural, universal status as goddesses removed, through traditional patriarchal narratives told as myth and legend.”
The audience spills out, too large for the shaded area in the central courtyard. Umbrellas continue to bloom overhead as the five poets approach a cauldron. Part poetry and part theatre, the images are Shakespearean as the women stir a brew and circle, but the waving scarves, in gossamer silk and cotton batik, situate them colorfully in the tropics. Their words are their own, as each invokes a Pontianak as Medusa, a Puteri Duyung, or a Draupadi. The Hantu Tetek, the Breast Ghost of fables, makes a statement about objects of desire becoming the instrument of suffocation.
Sandee Chew, Elaine Foster, Nabila Najwa, Melizarani T.Selva and Sheena Baharudin are the poets who feature in this show, and they represent the many and mixed races of Malaysians. They are all accomplished artistes and dissect the Malay, Chinese and Indian legends of Malaysian childhood, as well Greek mythology. The show starts beautifully, with the discomfort of the rain and dark gloom adding to the ambience. Then the sound system stutters to a stop too often, leaving poetry unheard. An excess of emotion leads to some overwrought lines.
But the concept is brilliant.
Bernice Chauly, festival director, describes the GTLF 2016 as “about taking a serious look at where we are, at what we have become, and where we think we’re going”. The theme is ‘We Are Who We Are/Are We Who We Are?’.
At a time when Malaysian authorities are clamping down on free speech and political dissent on any kind, a free discussion of “Dangerous Ideas” (the title of a panel), is timely indeed. Chauly, the author of five books of poetry and prose and founder/director of the Kuala Lumpur Writers Workshop, spotlights the burgeoning creativity of Malaysian writers and artists along with international voices, without flinching from the controversial in these troubled times.
Musa says it is an act of defiance for him, as a brown Muslim poet, to stand up in front of audiences in Australia and tell “a different story”.
Zunar, the Malaysian cartoonist facing nine charges under the Sedition Act and 43 years imprisonment was here selling his banned books. Outspoken social activist Marina Mahathir gets into a debate with Australian rapper-poet Omar bin Musa about the virtues of artists leaving their country as opposed to making change. Musa says it is an act of defiance for him, as a brown Muslim poet, to stand up in front of audiences in Australia and tell “a different story”; he urges people in Malaysia to do the same.
There is poetry everyday at lunchtime at the China House, the audience spilling into the corridors and stairs, standing-room only. Other notable poetic events in the evening include a performance by the Dutch artist Jaap Blonk, who uses his ‘cheek synthesizer’ to produce mouth sounds driven by air, creating new sounds in poetry. Melizarani T Selva launches “Taboo”, an exploration of “Indiantity” as a minority in Malaysia among other quests; she is an emerging voice in Spoken Word Poetry to watch out for.
Penang feels like an older, freer Malaysia. There are honest and open discussions; even the politicians inaugurating the festival seem perilously outspoken. There is a space open here for multiplicity and multilingualism in a way that feels very different from the severity of Kuala Lumpur.
While showcasing Malaysian talent, it also put into context how world events affect all our writing. On a panel titled “Fears, Gun and Amerika”, we discussed how American fears are changing the way writers write about geopolitics and terror anywhere in the world. In a rapidly changing Southeast Asia, especially after the sudden clampdown on Ubud Festival last year, having a literary festival that is truly open and “dangerous” has almost become a luxury.
Dipika Mukherjee’s debut novel, Thunder Demons (Gyaana, 2011) was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize; it is being republished as Ode to Broken Things (Repeater, UK) and distributed by Penguin/Random House worldwide in Summer 2016. Her short story collection Rules of Desire (Fixi, Malaysia) was launched in November 2015. She has two poetry collections: The Third Glass of Wine was published in December 2015 (Kolkata: Writer’s Workshop) and The Palimpsest of Exile, (Canada: Rubicon Press) in 2009. She is Contributing Editor for Chicago Quarterly Review and Jaggery and curates an Asian/American Reading Series in Chicago.
Pictures courtesy Georgetown Literary Festival website