Tuesday 4 August 2020

Elaine Chiew Chats With Professor Malachi Edwin Vethamani, Malaysian poet and short story writer.

Photo Credit: Chris Leong

Malachi Edwin Vethamani is a Malaysian-born Indian poet, writer, critic, bibliographer and professor. He is currently Head, School of English, University of Nottingham Malaysia. He has two volumes of poems, Complicated Lives (2016) and Life Happens (2017), and a collection of short stories, Coitus Interruptus and Other Stories Happens (2017). His research on Malaysian literature in English led to the publication of A Bibliography of Malaysian Literature in English (2015) and two edited volumes of Malaysian literature which cover 60 years of Malaysian poetry, Malchin Testament: Malaysian Poems (2017) and short-stories, Ronggeng-Ronggeng: Malaysian Short Stories (2020).


EC: Welcome to Asian Books Blog, Malachi. Great to have you here. Your most recent publication, an anthology of short stories which you compiled and edited, Ronggeng-Ronggeng, has a Table of Contents that reads like a Who’s Who in the Malaysian short story. What was the impetus for this project, what are your hopes for the anthology, and how did you go about the selection process? 


MEV: I wanted to bring together a volume of short stories that is representative of Malaysian short story writing from the 1950s till the present. The two existing significant collections of short stories were compiled and edited by Lloyd Fernando in 1968 and 1981 and were republished in 2005 but are generally unavailable. Ronggeng-Ronggeng is one of the outcomes of my research on Malaysian literature in English and I wanted a volume of Malaysian short stories that showcased the works of a range of writers, the new, emerging and the established. I read all the published works that were available and then went on to select the stories and get permission from the writers to include their works for this collection. It is my hope that this collection will contribute to more scholarship on Malaysian literature in English.


EC: In your illuminating precis on the development of the short story as a form in Malaysia, you wrote that Malaysians writing in English have a distinct flavour, for example, in the use of Manglish or other vernacular – how important is it to retain this characteristic within the tradition of a national literature, and how has this played out nationally versus internationally, where big publishing houses may not yet recognise or appreciate local tongues and the hybridity it brings to British English as a global (though colonial) standard?


MEV: I believe that it is essential that Malaysian writing in English is recognisable as a distinct flavour both in the linguistic and literary dimensions. Malaysian English, in its full spectrum, ranges from the standard form to the non-standard form (Manglish). Between these two poles, there is a range of Malaysian English which contributes towards a national identity. This emerges not only in the linguistic forms but also in the literary dimension, the idiomatic expressions and local images that are used in the works. The multi-cultural mix in Malaysia further contributes to the hybridity in Malaysian English. It is a part of World Englishes, just as British English is a variety of the English language. The fact that Malaysian writers have won international literary prizes is indicative of the contribution Malaysian writers make to contemporary Literature in English worldwide. Sadly, at the national level, Malaysian writing in English remains in the margins as it is not considered part of national Malaysian literature as only literary works in Bahasa Melayu (the Malay language) is included in this literary canon.


EC:  You’re also quite prolific, having published two volumes of your own poetry and one short story collection, Coitus Interruptus (all with Maya Press). Which form do you gravitate more towards – poetry or short story? 


MEV: I have been writing for a long time but began to publish much later, starting with a publication of a poem in 1989 in SARE (South Eat Asian Review of English) Journal and in 1995 my first short story won a Consolation Prize in a nationwide New Straits Times/McDonalds Short Story Writing Competition. Since then my poems and stories have been published rather intermittently as my academic work overshadowed my creative writing life. These 3 volumes of my published work from 2016-2018 cover a long period of writing. 


The short stories tend to come between the poems, but I certainly write more poems than stories. Many of my poems are snapshots and stories in themselves. I don’t write very long poems. While my poems tend to be often personal, my stories are not. I spend more time researching for the stories and they tend go into more rounds of re-working. I listen to people talking about episodes in their lives, read newspapers and other sources and these often provide fodder for my stories.


EC:  When inspiration comes, do you instinctually know whether it takes poetry or short story form, or do you experiment in both?


MEV: I’m not big on inspiration. There are certain things that trigger my writing and there are times when my writing is more planned. I know what I want to write about and will work on them.  You’ll gather from what I said earlier that because of the slightly different preoccupations in the two genres, I often know whether what’s budding in my brain is going to be a short story or a poem. I experiment in both forms to keep the writing fresh and to give my readers a variety of experiences with my writing.


EC: Your poems felt to me very intimate and confessional. For your poems, is personal material often where you draw inspiration from? Who are your biggest influences in poetry?

MEV: One of the reasons why I held back on publishing my poems was because of the personal nature of my writing that you have mentioned, although I may not want to call it inspirational. I also draw from my surroundings and have a few pet areas I write on. I seem to be gravitating towards more public issues these days and this will probably be evident in my next collection of poems. The biggest influences in poetry are American poets, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, and British poets T.S. Eliot, Tennyson and Thomas Hardy.


EC: Your short story collection, Coitus Interruptus, takes on daring subjects: queer relationships (within Malaysia’s rather restrictive religious environment – ‘Beaten Twice’), oppressive cultural norms as applied to women within the Indian community (‘The Good Daughter’, ‘Husband Material’), racism (‘Drowning’), and I’ve noticed Malaysian writers recently taking on more controversial subjects too in their fiction, e.g. May 13 racial riots. In the past, writing about these subjects could have landed a writer in very hot water. Have you seen a relaxation in terms of censorship restrictions? Are there taboo topics within Malaysian literature?


MEV: That’s an interesting observation and I agree with you that more Malaysian writers seem to be pushing the boundaries nowadays. Writers like Kee Thuan Chye, Salleh ben Joned and KS Maniam have in the past expressed concerns on censorship and self-censorship. There are certain issues that are out of bounds as dictated by the Internal Security Act (ISA). The late KS Maniam addressed these issues when he said that writers cannot describe things as openly as they want to and that there are so many subjects here that are called “sensitive issues” and writers must not offend anybody. He went on to say that writers also cannot describe personal obsessions or personal fantasies which have to do with sex unless you sugar‑coat it.  As writers, we find out what is considered taboo when certain books get banned or confiscated by the Ministry of Home Affairs, this seems to be the modus operandi in Malaysia. 


EC: Do you see yourself writing a novel?

MEV: It is something I don’t really think about but it’s a question I seem to be getting a lot. I am often asked to write novellas, extending on some of my short stories. I like my short stories as they are. I want to stop the story at a point where the readers then give a life of their own to my characters in their imagination. 


I enjoy writing dialogues and conversations in my stories and I’m actually thinking of writing plays. I have re-written two of my stories into monodramas and would like to work further in this genre. Plays are probably not the best things to write during these Covid-19 pandemic days when there are fewer opportunities for live performances. 


EC: Thank you for joining us on Asian Books Blog, Malachi. 


NB: All of Malachi's books can be bought from Penang Bookstore Gerakbudaya and elsewhere at Kinokuniya (Malaysia) and also at Silverfish Books