Article courtesy of Robert Raymer published on his blog.
I was introduced to Edwin back in 2006 when I gave a creative writing workshop for MELTA, the Malaysian English Language Teaching Association, in Kuching. At the time, I had been based in Penang and was considering moving to Sarawak with my Sarawakian wife and our young family (we were expecting our second child) and I thought I could make some connections at the conference and apply for a position at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak where I later taught creative writing. Every time I saw Edwin, who was the President of MELTA from June 2001 till January 2008, he always had a big friendly smile on his face.
Not only is Edwin a gifted poet, but also a short story writer, editor, bibliographer and academic. He is currently Professor, School of English, University of Nottingham Malaysia. He holds a doctoral degree from University of Nottingham UK. His most recent publication is his first collection of short stories entitled Coitus Interruptus and Other Stories (Maya Press, 2018). He has published two volumes of poems, Life Happens (Maya Press, 2017) and Complicated Lives (Maya Press, 2016). He edited a volume of Malaysian poems covering a period of 60 years entitled Malchin Testament: Malaysian Poems (Maya Press, 2017). In 2003, he edited a volume of poems for young adults entitled In-Sights: Malaysian Poems (Maya Press, 2003). In 2015, he published A Bibliography of Malaysian Literature in English (Petaling Jaya, Maya Press). In addition to being a past President of MELTA, he was also Vice President of Asia TEFL from 2008 to 2013. He is a recipient of the Chevening Award (1993-1996) and the Fulbright Scholarship (2000). He had received the Asian Education Leadership Award from the World Education Congress in Mumbai, India in June 2013.
RR: Lately you’ve been rather productive with the recent publications of two books of poetry, Complicated Lives and Life Happens, a collection of short stories Coitus Interruptus and Other Stories, plus the Malaysian anthology Malchin Testament: Malaysian Poems!
People often say or think…who has time to read poetry? Sadly, I was one of them until I found a way! Red Lights. Like most drivers I detest getting caught at a red light, especially when I am running late, but then I found the perfect solution — a way of killing two birds with one poem! I keep a book of poetry beside me. Now I often wish the red lights were slightly longer so I could finish the poem I’m in the midst of reading.
This past year, thanks to those red lights, I have read most if not all of your published poetry. They even inspired me to dig through my unread collection of poetry that I had accumulated over the years with the best of intentions and began reading them…poem after poem that I might never have gotten around to read. And for this, I am grateful for you for getting the poetry ball rolling.
One of your poetry collections is titled Complicated Lives, which seems to sum up our lives these days. Are our lives truly more complicated than those of previous generations, even that of our parents, and does that complication give us more possibilities (angst) to write about? I’m also thinking, perhaps, the various sexual permutations that seem to exist in your own writing. Does complicated lives produce better poetry and prose? Or just better gossip for the readers?
Edwin: I believe every generation has had its own kind of complications. I would agree that our lives are indeed complicated. We would wish for simpler lives but I’m afraid that’s not often the case for many of us. The complications do give us (at least, it does for me) more to write about. It allows me to explore the various kinds of relationships we find ourselves in, not just with fellow human beings but with fellow creatures and the environment itself. The sexual permutations are often about love and the desire to be loved; gender is secondary. And some of my poems deal with sexual desire and how that could complicate lives. It can be difficult to separate sex and love and that could cause its own complications. “Better gossip?” No! There’s no gossip in the poems. There’s both pain and celebration.
RR: True, but that doesn’t prevent readers (and nonreaders) from gossiping about the poems (and the poet), which was what happened one hundred and fifty years ago when Walt Whitman published Leaves of Grass (and added to it throughout his life). Speaking of Whitman, I recently had this surreal literary moment. While in the midst of reading Leaves of Grass (at red lights), I was reading Lincoln by Gore Vidal (at home), when a clerk-cum-novelist asked Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of Treasury, to consider a clerkship for a great poet. “He comes to you, sir, with a letter of introduction and commendation from Ralph Waldo Emerson.”
Suddenly I had goose bumps; I knew he was referring to Walt Whitman! I knew he had gone to Washington D.C. during the Civil War because his brother had been wounded in a recent battle; then he stayed to help to comfort the other wounded soldiers, which he wrote about in Leaves of Grass. Although he never met Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln did know him (and his infamous reputation) as did Lincoln’s personal secretary, John Hay who later wrote a book about Lincoln and had asked Walt Whitman, since he was in town, to sign his copy of Leaves of Grass. Then Walt Whitman added several tributes to Abraham Lincoln after he had been assassinated.
I don’t know how many degrees of separation that is, but suddenly I felt like I personally knew Walt Whitman; and thanks to reading his poetry, I was inspired to read four books about the Civil War that had been lying around for years waiting for…someday. That day came after reading your poetry, Edwin, because that got me to read Leaves of Grass. So, who knows where a good book of poetry or even a single poem can take you if you let it? For me, it brought me closer to an infamous Poet and a famous President and a terrible Civil War that still haunts the American psyche today.
In Life Happens you quote the Bible “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sin”. Love — wanton love or self-indulgent love — can also cause a multitude of sin (and a few marriage breakups along the way). Do lovers, more today, than in the past, go too far in their kiss-and-tell books or their hook-up and broadcasting their blogs all over the social media? For the lover, it can increase their notoriety (Don Juan, anyone? Or the Kardashians?), but what about the named or flushed-out victims who must deal with the real-time fallout that can destroy their current relationships and wreck their professional and personal lives? Are people going too far to inflict pain on others (payback) and even themselves? Is poetry and even prose, based on your own writing, truly cathartic or are writers merely a glutton for punishment? But at whose expense?
Edwin: I certainly do not subscribe to any form of kiss and tell in my writing. Those who write such real-life confessional books are certainly not doing it for any kind of literary reasons. Sadly, that seems to be what some publishers want, and they know these books have readers and they will sell copies.
My poems are often drawn from various sources and I rework them and create my own images and metaphors that attempt to capture the experience, the moment or the emotion. Writing prose and poetry are different experiences. Writing poetry sometimes has an element of being therapeutic.
RR: As does writing prose, which I had experienced firsthand during a divorce and a custody battle. I wrote a long story that suddenly answered my unasked question…where was she coming from? Why was she doing this? And what had I done that led to this? And, more importantly, what could I do to help resolve this in a way that would be best for both of us and our child?
Edwin: Some of my early poems, especially the ‘Mother Poems’ in Complicated Lives deal with my coming to terms with my mother’s old age and Alzheimer’s illness. These poems are very close to me and I still find it difficult to read them aloud in the Readings sessions. I actually invite others to read these poems.
Some of my poems have been described as confessional poems. Here, I’d say that I’m not necessarily the persona in all of these poems. Poetry allows for this ambiguity and I do draw on it. When I write stories, I draw from various sources. If one listens and looks hard enough you see and hear so many things that give fodder to writers. They are seeds that allow for fertilisation with the imagination and you have your stories. I often take an issue or a problem and see how I can give it a fresh look. My stories do not have a clear closure as I want the readers to continue to think about the characters and what options they may have.
RR: We write, if not for ourselves, then for others, it seems to me, even if it is only for one person. What may be closure for the writer and closure for the reader may be very, very different. It’s how we react or respond to a particular piece of writing or, by association, how it links to our past that suddenly awakens us or even provides a solution that we hadn’t been seeking. Each reader may respond to a different aspect of the story or the poem, even to a particular word that resonates for them in unexpected ways. Thus, the cause and the effect can go on and on for generations of readers…long after the author had passed away.
Another of your quotes from the same collection is TS Eliot, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” This is a true sentiment that applies to various aspects of our lives, including running a marathon, but specific to writing, based on your own experiences, please elaborate.
Edwin: I subscribe to what Eliot is advocating in this quote. I like to think that my writing is an attempt at “going too far”. One needs to be careful with what one decides to publish. There are things I write and don’t publish. But I certainly needed to write them for myself. My editor is my barometer who cautions me, and I rarely disagree with him. Some of my readers say I’m brave to publish what they read in my books. So maybe, now I can go a little further. Malaysians self-censor for many reasons. There is the fear that our work might be banned or at worse the writer gets arrested. One has to be careful with matters of race and religion. My writings do deal with race and aspects of religion, but I am very careful not to offend though I might touch on these issues.
RR: I remember reading one young poet in an anthology that I was asked to write a comment for and it seemed to me that was exactly what he was trying to do, offend. My advice to tone it down fell on deaf ears; I had told him, later, when you mature, you are going to cringe and regret this.
What got you interested in reading and writing poetry? Who were your early Malaysian influences or mentors at school? Which poets, both local and overseas, grabbed you or shook you out of your complacency and made you think, this is what I want to do!
Edwin: From an early age, I loved reading. A habit I picked up from my eldest brother. As we could not afford to buy books, I joined the British Council library and the library at the Lincoln’s Cultural Centre. Living in Brickfields in the 60s and studying in Methodist Boys’ Secondary School, Kuala Lumpur, I could walk to both the libraries. I used to look for new books and try to be the first reader.
In my 20s, I read more poetry than prose. And I read more modern poetry than I did the Romantics like Wordsworth. In fact, I only began to like Wordsworth much later in life. I enjoyed T.S. Eliot from my Form 6 days. I loved the way he wrote about people and life after World War Two. His religious poems resonated well with me, coming from a Christian background. I try to capture our contemporary society in my poems too.
As in the case of poetry, I read more modern prose writers like Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad and E. M. Forster. Shakespeare grew on me very quickly too. I started reading Shakespeare in Form 4. I had a wonderful English Literature teacher. She introduced me to many writers including Ovid. The American writers came much later in my life, then I discovered Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Hemmingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner and Baldwin and Scott Fitzgerald.
Among the earliest Malaysian writers, I read were Ee Tiang Hong, Muhammad Haji Salleh, Wong Phui Nam and Hilary Tham. Edwin Thumboo had just brought out a volume of Malaysian and Singaporean poems entitled ‘The Second Tongue’ and it opened the door to local writing, especially poetry. I read Malaysian short stories and novels much later.
I had the privilege of being a student of Professor Lloyd Fernando. He was certainly a mentor and role model. We became friends and he gave me access to his personal library in his home and much of my early research on the bibliography of Malaysian literature was done here.
RR: Getting the right teacher or lecturer can make a huge difference; one turns you on, the other shuts you down. For your Malaysian anthology Malchin Testament: Malaysian Poems, which spans sixty years and covers nearly sixty poets, what were your criteria for choosing the poems? I could imagine that would have been a difficult undertaking, not wanting to leave someone deserving out, against cries of bias or showing favouritism or having to defend yourself to the inevitable backlash from fellow poets and friends, “How come so-and-so has four poems and I only have three!”
Edwin: I had several criteria for selecting the poems. First, that the poets are Malaysians or are poets born in Malaysia and may now have gone abroad but continue to write about Malaysia. Second, I chose only poems that have been previously published.
My work on The Bibliography of Malaysian Literature in English helped me to find just about every published poetry collection by Malaysians poets. Third, I only published poems that the writers gave me permission to publish as they hold the copyrights to the poems. The number of poems for each poet represented the volume of the poet’s publications. There are some poets with just one or two poems. These are usually the emerging poets whose works have appeared in anthologies and the poets did not have their own collection of poems. There are more poems from the established Malaysian poets.
RR: That sounds fair; I hope they were all happy! I liked how the anthology, as you stated, “brings together voices of poets from multicultural and multilingual Malaysian appropriating the English language for their own expression” which I feel is a tribute for all Malaysians, something everyone should be proud of. But has there been a struggle for this multicultural and multilingual Malaysian voices to be heard and accepted by all? Is this an on-going process or has Malaysia turned the poetic corner, so to speak, and embraced all of these voices, enriching the literature of Malaysia in the process?
Edwin: Malaysians write in an English which is quite distinctive. We can recognise Malaysian English both in its standard and non-standard forms. We can see the influences of the local languages on Malaysian English and it certainly enriches the language, but we need to bear in mind that it should have intelligibility for both local and international readers.
Writing in English in Malaysia has not been easy. Having the writers’ voices heard is a good start. We do not have many publishers who want to publish poetry. There is the option of self-publication. Even established poets like Wong Phui Nam self-publish. Most poets look for options abroad and online literary journals. It slightly better if you are publishing prose but that too is very limited though the opportunities are more in the last few years.
Those who write in English in Malaysia do not get any governmental support unlike those who write in the Malay language. This lack of support has not deterred the writers as we see many more young people writing in English than ever before.
There are some success stories of Malaysians publishing in English who have won awards and received international recognition. The first person to win such an award was Shirley Geok-lin Lim in 1981 when she won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for a debut volume. Tan Twan Eng, Tash Aw and Rani Manicka have won prizes for their novels. This year, Saras Manickam won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Asia. So, it is looking good for Malaysia, writing in English. As a literary tradition, we are only about sixty years old. There is a lot of diversity in the writing and that for me makes Malaysian writing in English rather vibrant.
RR: Plus Ivy Ngeow’s Cry of the Flying Rhino and Bernice Chauly’s Once We Were There both won prizes. Having witnessed that transition in the thirty plus years since I first came to Malaysia, I wholeheartedly agree.
Anthologies...poetry...short stories...is a novel the next in your future offerings, or is that risking going too far?
Edwin: I am working on a number of projects. I hope to bring out a collection of Malaysian short stories, similar to that of Malchin Testament: Malaysian Poems. It’s ready to go to the publisher. This project has taken a lot of time as I want it to be representative of stories from the 1960s to the present.
I have also been writing poems and short stories. This I do constantly. I’ve re-written couple of my short stories into scripts, hoping they will be staged at some point. I was very encouraged when three of my stories from Coitus Interrupted and Other Stories were used to stage a performance called ‘Love Matters’ in Mumbai by Playpen Performing Arts Trust directed by Ashish Joshi in 2017 and 2018.
I would look to write a novel but maybe not yet. Some of my short stories could have the seeds for a full-blown novel, we’ll have to wait and see.
RR: Back in the 1990’s, I used to be the Penang Coordinator at MACEE, the Malaysian-American Commission on Education Exchange, which was run under the Fulbright Program. As a recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship, tell us about your Fulbright experience. How has the program impacted your writing and your professional life?
Edwin: I totally enjoyed my Fulbright experience. It was the first of a series that was called “Reading America”. We started at New School University, New York where we were given lectures on a variety of topics ranging from literature to politics and history. New York City was in itself a learning experience. There’s so much to see and do. Going to the New York University Library and having access to use it was very exciting for me. I was in all the bookshops, especially Strand. There were theatres, museums and art galleries to go to. I can just go on.
We then went to New Mexico. Here we had a few tours and going to the native Indians reservations was an amazing experience. Made me feel rather sad when we were told about the history and violent past with the white settlers. A highlight in the New Mexico section was going to Georgia O’ Keeffe’s house and seeing her work. Finally, we went to Washington D.C. Here, we received various guided tours, including the White House and some monuments. The visit to Library of Congress is something I will remember. What an amazing library both architecturally and in terms of its collection of materials.
The Fulbright programme provided an excellent opportunity for networking. There were about twenty of us from different countries who shared similar interests, mostly literature. We are still in contact and I’ve been to visit some of them. We continue to communicate and read each other’s work. This has certainly contributed in our professional lives.
RR: I'm sure it did. Hopefully you'll inspire other writers to apply. I once had an amusing experience with Fulbright in Kuala Lumpur when attending a formal dinner in the mid-1990s. The set menu consisted of, among several delicious dishes, two Brussel sprouts, which I thought a rather peculiar choice. I wondered who had taken the poetic licence to suggest such an unpopular dish for the menu of a formal dinner filled with hundreds of Fulbright scholars, Malaysian government officials, and international dignitaries? No doubt, someone very important and everyone was afraid to say, “Aiyoh, are you crazy?” Instead they meekly shook their heads in agreement. Not to anyone’s surprise (I call it poetic justice), those same two Brussel sprouts were the only untouched items left on the hundreds of plates taken away by the waiters.
What else would you like us to know about you, about your writing, or any writing topic that you feel passionate about that needs addressing?
Edwin: I like to present a Malaysian Indian perspective which is contemporary but also deals with the past. The past is very important to me, for example the loss of people and places. Brickfields, my birthplace, features in my poems. I like to write about loss, longing and loving. My hope is that my treatment of these themes and issues will be different and will give a fresh and unique perspective.
I am currently doing a book tour to many universities. The purpose of this tour is to meet my readers and potential readers. It gives me an opportunity to meet young people and very much want to share my love for poetry and literature. So far, I’ve visited about eight universities in Peninsular Malaysia, one in Sarawak, one in Singapore and two in Taiwan.
RR: What advice would you give young poets or writers who are struggling to finish (or even seriously start) their first book?
Edwin: If you want to write, my advice is to read. Read widely and read as much as you can. That is certainly the first step towards becoming a writer. I would advise writers to have reading buddies. People who you could trust to be honest with you about your work. Also, a poet or short story writer, one could send poems and stories to literary journals and online magazines. Many of these are peer-reviewed and they often give useful feedback; getting them published is certainly a great way of building one’s confidence. Hopefully, with this one publication they will have enough writings and confidence to get more work published, possibly even a book.
Posted on 22nd July 2019