Thursday, July 31
Writing for change
by Bissme S.
The Sun July 31'08
Faisal Tehrani, 34, is a rising star in the literature scene. This novelist has won prizes and awards, including the prestigious Anugerah Seni Negara in 2006. His kind critics predict this talented writer, whose real name is Mohd Faizal Musa, is a national laureate in the making. Others say his writings are Islamic extremism, anti-West and are ultra-nationalist. He speaks frankly to Bissme S. about his controversial image, early days as a writer of erotic literature and the future.
Tell me your start as a writer.
I became a writer when I was 16. Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) had this programme Minggu Penulis Remaja. They pulled out a few potential writers from different schools and started giving us writing lessons.
Did you always want to be a writer?
When I was young, I wanted to be a writer for the wrong reasons. I wanted to show off to my friends and tell them: ‘I can write ... what can you do?’ I was also earning good pocket money. I was the first one to have a handphone when I was in university. It was more of an ego thing, a glamour thing, a money thing.
When I turned 22, I changed. I wanted to became a responsible writer. I wanted my writing to change society for the better. Writers should not only write stories, but be philosophers as well. They should offer solutions in society.
What inspired you to become a responsible writer?
I met Pak Samad (A. Samad Said, a national Laureate) and Shahnon Ahmad (another national Laureate who wrote the controversial Shit which is a sharp criticism of the political climate in 1999). These two writers influenced me in many ways. Pak Samad gave me many books from international writers ... writers from countries that are oppressed. I was so inspired by Shahnon’s fire and courage. That changed my perception, my principles. I also went to Kerpan, Kedah. What I witnessed there, also changed me.
What happened in Kerpan?
I saw a group of farmers whose land had been confiscated by the government for a mega project (prawn breeding). The villagers told me stories different from what was reported in the media. They were oppressed. It was not a fair negotiation.
Their story actually inspired me to write my first work of fiction Perempuan Politikus Melayu (The story loosely centres on a rich Datuk who confiscated some farmers’ land without mercy).
Because of the title of the book and because it was published during reformasi (when Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was sacked as deputy prime minister), everyone quickly related the book to (Datin Seri Dr) Wan Azizah (Anwar’s wife who headed Parti Keadilan Rakyat after Anwar was sent to prison).
Then, my second novel Cinta Hari-Hari Rusuhan came out. In it I touched on the student movement and the Baling demonstration. Once again people said I was talking about Anwar Ibrahim. But both of these novels have nothing to do with Anwar Ibrahim or his wife, Wan Azizah. They are about human rights. These books are about oppression.
What is your personal view on Anwar Ibrahim?
I met him only once. That was after he was released from prison. As a person, I like him. He is seems to be a nice guy. But A. Samad and Shahnon Ahmad always tell me, ‘as a writer, you have to analyse people ... you have to analyse issues ... if you want to bring them in your pages.’ I started to analyse Anwar and I found contradictions. That is all I will say about him.
Some people think Anwar will make a great prime minister. What do you think?
That is subjective matter. Why should Anwar be the prime minister? Why do we put the burden on him only? We are not lacking leaders, are we? Why don’t we give the prime minister’s post to someone from the younger generation? There is a younger generation in PKR, PAS, DAP and Umno, with new ideas. They should be given a chance.
What about Nurul Izzah (Anwar’s daughter)? She is refreshing. She must have some new ideas. PAS has a few fresh faces who are liberal and sophisticated. DAP’s Lim Guan Eng seems to be cool. He even took pictures with Ning Baizura (singer) and flew in economy class.
The older guard ... they always have had some dramatic episodes in their past and these could easily become ... an issue. We should give the younger generation a chance.
Look at the Russian president. He is very young. (Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev. Age: 43) Look at America ... they might elect (Barrack) Obama. He is young. (Age: 47). The whole world is changing for a perspective from the young and for new ideas. I think Malaysia should walk a similar road.
You feel a writer must write to change the world for the better. But today, some people, including writers, have lost the belief that the power of words can change the world for the better.
When I was a teenager and when things were not right, my mum asked me to write letters to the newspapers to complain about stray dogs roaming freely, garbage not being cleared regularly, etc. But then things began to change slowly. The stray dogs were caught, the rubbish got cleared regularly and changes began to take place slowly. The power of words did change the situation. I also believed at that time that all "that letter writing to newspapers" spurred my interest in writing. (laughs)
Why do you prominently feature Islam in your novels?
One of the reasons is because I find there is a vacuum. Not many writers write about this and there are so many demands. When I meet readers during book festivals and fairs, they always encourage me to write on such subjects. Islam is facing many challenges now and I want to offer my views on the religion.
Some people say that based on your writing you are an Islamic extremist. Are you?
People who do not read my stuff will jump to that conclusion. Just because I write about Islam, people think I am an extremist. I feel I write more about human rights and oppression than Islam. Human rights is part of religion.
When the film Fitnah was shown, people wanted Malaysians to boycott products from Holland. I opposed the idea. I believed such boycott would get us no where. In fact, I said let us Muhasabah (look within ourselves) and ask why this film-maker (Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders) created that film.
Why didn’t you support the boycott?
Personally, I felt Fitnah was depicting Osama bin Laden, the Al Qaeda leader. It is not me. I do not interpret the Quran like that .That guy (Osama) interpreted the Quran like that. Extremism is an act by certain groups. It is not related to Islam at all.
Fitnah is different from Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. The Satanic Verses was written deliberately by Salman Rushdie to not only insult Islam, but also the British people and their former prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
Geert Wilders wrote Fitnah because he is confused. Let us have a discussion about this and find ways to solve this.
There must be other reasons why people jump to the conclusion that you are an extremist.
People also jumped to that conclusion again when I criticised Yasmin Ahmad’s film, Gubra. (The story touches on a bilal and his wife’s close relationship with their neighbours who happen to be prostitutes). I just didn’t like the film. I think the film is superficial.
Did you have a problem with the scene where the bilal is touching the dog?
No, not at all . In fact I did not mention it in my review. But I do like Yasmin’s Mukhsin because it is more sincere. People did not read my reviews on Mukhsin. They just read my review on Gubra and when it was out, some of my friends avoided me. They isolated me. They put me aside.
How did you feel about being isolated? Did you wish that you didn’t write anything about Gubra or that you didn’t write too much on Islam?
I cannot stop my friends if they want to avoid me. I wish I had written more about Gubra. I really do not like that film (laughs) and I cannot avoid myself from writing on Islam ... it is just inside me. I majored in Islamic studies in the university.
What other misconceptions do people have about Faisal Tehrani?
They also say I am an ultra nationalist. In one of my articles, I said the official language is Malay and that the Malay language should be approved as the language for films, art and literary works. So people started calling me an ultra nationalist. I also opposed the idea of science and mathematics being taught in English. They have been taught in the Malay language since the 1960s, so I asked why are we changing?
Just because Tun Mahathir (former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad) thought that a few students cannot speak English he felt we should teach Science and Mathematics in English. How can you learn English grammar from Mathematics and Science? It doesn’t make sense at all.
There is an assumption that you are anti-Westerner. In your book 1511H Kombat you had Muslim soldiers take over the White House.
People in Germany thought this book was cool and wanted to translate it. (The book is being used as text in one of the universities in Germany). They say ‘we dream this will happen to the White House’. Some European countries hate America. It is not about the East hating the West or the West hating East. It is just about what one particular government is doing.
America has supported a lot of vicious stuff around the world. It is not just what they did in Iraq. It is also about what they did in Vietnam, Korea. Have we forgotten Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Now I am sounding like Iran. (laughs)
Why am I depicted as a West basher? There are other writers who did the same thing. Just because I wrote one novel where Muslims took over the White House, people are calling me names, but my book fulfilled the fantasy of many young readers. It became one of my most celebrated novels from which I am still earning royalty.
A certain Western power is oppressing many countries, so I speak against it.
One day, when China becomes a super power and starts oppressing other countries, I will write about it. Then people might say I am anti-Chinese. But I am not. Like I said earlier, I write about human rights, I write about oppression.
In your early years, you wrote some erotic short stories. Are you ashamed of those works?
I will never deny that I wrote them. Those works carry my name. Some young readers have told me that they find my early works are very sexual, erotic and help to spice up their imaginative minds for something (laughs).
A part of me feels very embarrassed, but I also believe that if I didn’t write those stories, I would not have been able to arrive at this point. I might not have become a writer at all.
Do you look down on writers who write erotic stuff?
Seriously, I cannot say I look down on them. Some of them are really brilliant writers ... even better than me.
But I do not write such stuff any more. It doesn’t interest me.
Personally, I avoid discussing principles of writing or other writers. My belief is that if what we write leads to a society becoming irresponsible, then it is not good. A writer should promote good things … changes that we can believe in.
Some people say the literature scene is going through a bleak period.
I see a bright future for serious literature. The Malay market is flooded with romance and thriller novels.
People are bored and tired of such novels. They are looking for something different to read. Serious literature is slowly gaining a foothold, especially with those who have become frustrated by cheap thrillers.
Is Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka doing enough to promote serious literature?
I am a product of Dewan Bahasa. If I say they do nothing, it is not fair. But when you are a government agency, you have bureaucracy, you have too many rules, you have too much red tape. They should think like an artist, they should think creatively.
What changes would you like to see taking place in the literary scene?
I’d like to see our works being translated not only into English but also other languages. But we are not doing that. I will also like to see the works of local writers who write in other languages being translated into Malay. We should be translating Kee Thuan Chye and K.S. Maniam’s works into Malay.
Is the government playing its role effectively to promote serious literature?
Saying the government is not promoting literature at all is unfair. Compared to Indonesia, we are better off. Their government doesn’t do anything at all.
The Malaysian government has been helpful in many ways. But we are moving to Vision 2020. We want to be known as a first world country. We should be doing more. We have to put more effort into literature.
Would you see any of your novels made into films?
Yes, Tunggu Teduh Dulu may be made into a film. It is one novel where I do not deal with heavy issues. It is about two women struggling to plant papayas. The theme is suited to the Malaysian audience.
Do you have any film-maker in mind?
If it is Yasmin, I will be willing. She is a good movie-maker. I am willing to sit down with her and discuss the project with her. If others, I might have some doubts. Most of our films are illogical.
One of my short stories Cahaya Pada Jiwa (Light On Soul) has been adapted into a TV drama. It is about corruption.
The director changed the contents so much till it became illogical. I can understand when you adapt literature to screen, there will be changes. But to make a logical short story into an illogical and complicated TV drama is really damaging.
I heard that you are dabbling in film-making. Is that true?
Yes. I am interested in making short films. I have made one that is loosely based on the recent election and it is called Bulan Mengambang Ke Langit KL. (In it, he looks at how the opposing party was trying to get its message across without the help of the mainstream media).
I am also planning to make a short film called Air (Water). There are a lot of proverbs about water and I want to translate them into images on the screen.