By Michelle Woo
Professionally: an editor, and formerly a literary one. Creatively: a writer of socially-provocative plays and stirring prose. From the heart: an aspiring actor. Kee Thuan Chye, at 47 years of age, talks about his ripening dreams.
Kakiseni: What drives your writing? Is it a sense of the past, present, or future?
Kee: It’s a combination of both the past and present.
The dramas I’ve written are driven by the present. I look around me, and there’s so much to write about. Look at corruption, the crass materialism that we’ve acquired, the hankering for success … “Malaysia Boleh”, ”Vision 2020″… they cry out to be explored. The theatre is a good medium to bring up these issues. People can relate to them very easily.
But for my other writing, I draw on my own experiences and some of this could have come up from the past. For example, the excerpt (of a work in progress) in New Writing 10 was based on things observed and experienced in the past. It was suggested to me that perhaps it could be done as a monologue. I would like to seriously get down to writing more of the novel — where it can go and where I can take it.
Kakiseni: Is your writing always serious?
Kee: Of course, I take writing very seriously. But in my other works, there is a lot of humour. You can get something serious across with humour. For example, We Could**** You, Mr Birch has very serious themes, but it is eclectic, comedic, and draws on various inspirations. It is irreverent. It pokes its tongue out at history, sacred cows, at people, including the playwright himself. I kind of have that tone of frivolity — but not in the sense of flippancy — combined with the seriousness.
Kakiseni: Who is your audience?
Kee: Malaysians, generally. I don’t write like some people may do — to a world audience. That is so hard to conceptualise.
I don’t write with what would appeal to my audience. I try to make what I write understandable. I have an iconoclastic bent to me, an irreverent side to me that shows in the attitude that I take.
I think more of addressing my own people, using the medium of humour to prove that ‘Hey, we should not take ourselves too seriously’. I want to see that (what I write) is big and generous enough to embrace all races, cultures, religions, and languages. I want to make my people aware that there are things here that could do with change, or change for the better, as I perceive it.
I want my children to grow up without fear of reprisal, a sense of belonging. It is not easy for a person who comes from an immigrant race to feel that sense of belonging.
I’m a third or fourth generation Malaysian. I feel like a true blue Malaysian. But sometimes, one is made to feel that it is not the case, looking at the policies formulated. We helped to build this house, but we’re still made to feel like tenants. I hope that this will not be inherited by my children.
Kakiseni: Do you self-censor?
Kee: I try not to.
Kakiseni: Have you been in trouble because of what you write?
Kakiseni: Can you give an example of this?
Kee: (The play) 1984: Here and Now was staged much to everybody’s surprise. Everybody thought we would not get the permit. It was staged in 1985 and we had a full house for the five nights that it played. Word had got around to go see it on the first night because of fears that it would have its permit revoked. The play triggered a lot of discussions. The Far Eastern Economic Review had a write-up that asked: ‘how did it get the permit?’ and that (perhaps) the Special Branch were not aware of what they were doing.
Later, for The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole in which I was a one-man actor, the permit was not given on the evening of the opening night. It was a virtually harmless play which related to Singaporean society. It was reported that it was because of 1984. So, this was the kind of reprisal I faced.
After that, I directed Madam Mao’s Memories. After six weeks of rehearsal, we were told we were not going to get the staging permit. The play basically looked at the human aspect of Madam Mao. However, it was at a time that communism was still looked at as a bogey. The Communist Party had not been given amnesty.
Mr Birch was not a problem at all, probably because it was done under the aegis of Panggung Negara, a government body. We did manage to get the permit. They made some suggestions on cutting some things out, or toning that down … but I refused. It was nice of them to (come back to me with suggestions), and (when I refused) they left it at that.
With self-censorship, even though I say that I try not to, I am aware that there are certain things that should not be dealt with — things that may offend certain communities without good reason.
Kakiseni: Have you inadvertently offended certain quarters?
Kee: I have been told that, … but this was not intended. Some people have taken exception in 1984 and Mr Birch. 1984 was modeled on (George) Orwell’s 1989. I adapted class conflict to racial conflict. There would have been some people offended by some of the things in it. But it was reality as I perceived it.
If they felt offended, I cannot claim responsibility. As a writer, you cannot be responsible for how people react to how you write, and I believe what I wrote was aimed at making a proposition for a better society. Transcending that, it was also bringing out human values that were more important than some of the laws in society. My conviction is if people get offended, then what can I do?
Kakiseni: Moving on to your ‘work in progress’ — when do you see the completion of your novel?
Kee: Perhaps in my next life time. You have to have a lot of concentration, time, and focus. I have a full-time job, and I have to give time to my family. I chauffeur my young kids to school — I share this with my wife — I help out with my wife, and when I get home from work, I spend time with my kids as well. It’s a luxury to have that time and to sum up your concentration to pursue that goal.
But last year, I made an effort to write and do something. I was stealing time here and there — an hour or 45 minutes. Over a period of time, I managed to write a screenplay. For a screenplay, it’s workable. For a novel, it’s harder.
Kakiseni: Where does your forte lie — in plays, prose, or poetry?
Kee: I used to write poetry — it was one of the first few things that I did. There are some that I am proud of. Some have been anthologized abroad, and here. These days, I find I don’t have the words for poetry — maybe because of my work in journalism. In journalism, the way you write has to be logical, objective. It is a totally different kind of approach to creative writing.
I say to people who are aspiring to be writers that they should not get into journalism. Journalists have to deal with words the whole day. At the end of the day, they may find it hard to switch. They should work in a bank. (Franz) Kafka, for example, worked in an insurance company.
As for my forte, I think it would be in writing dialogue. I find that I have the facility for doing that. You have to be a good listener.
Kakiseni: Yes. When you read the excerpt from New Writing 10 at the British Council, you managed to transcend gender differences, she was so real. You gave her a palpable voice, and tapped into her emotions very well. Do your friends, family, or people you know, appear in your writing much? Is much of what you write derived from your personal experiences or relationships?
Kee: A lot of it. The woman in New Writing 10 was a composite of different people. You have to draw from real life, or else your characters may not be real. How people talk, for example, is drawn from real life. And of course, a lot of it is drawn from my own experiences that have gone through a process of filtering and what I’ve observed from other people and filtered through my own lenses, so to speak.
A very important thing is to try not to be too judgmental when you transpose these real life people, these real life experiences into this creative work. Sometimes, you have to let these people speak for themselves without imposing your own values.
I learnt a very important lesson between 1984 and Birch. 1984 was a very propagandist play, a form of agitprop (agitation propaganda). It was preachy, and very direct. There were no subtleties about it. It was obviously pushing a certain point.
When I got to Mr Birch, it was better if one didn’t push — to let the various viewpoints emerge and leave the audience with their own conclusions. Mr Birch was more successful because it was subtler. It was less partisan.
Kakiseni: Do you worry about whether you will get published, and by whom?
Kee: No, actually. Nowadays, if you have a bit of money, you could self-publish. Then, the problem is you have got to find a distributor. Mr Birch is self-published, and it’s now in its fifth printing because it has been used by colleges.
When you begin to write, you don’t think of who’s going to publish it. Your main concern should be the work. After you have finished writing, then you’d look for people to publish it. If after the work is finished and I have not found someone to publish it, I would not be too sad. The achievement is that I’ve written it.
But because I’m not dependent on it financially, I can be cavalier about it. Of course, it wouldn’t be the same for someone whose livelihood depends on it.
Kakiseni: What problems do you have as a writer of fictive or creative work? Is there mental and intellectual space to thrive as a creative writer within the Malaysian ‘space’?
Kee: I’d say the biggest problem would be … you’re not encouraged in this country if you write in English. Now, it’s better. There’s more acceptance. (But) I have sometimes felt I was not doing the right thing still continuing to write in English — in what was considered the colonialist language.
I began writing during the time when there was (a sense of) ‘nationalistic fervour’, and I felt that I was not patriotic enough. You felt guilty that you were not writing in the national language. As a child who grew up in English, with Malay being taught as a language, people of my generation didn’t take it (Bahasa) seriously enough. (However) it would’ve been foolhardy to try to write in Malay. I would never have cut it if I had written in Malay.
National literature was considered to be Malay literature. Other literatures were considered sectional, or ‘other’ literature. As a person who writes in English, I felt very marginalised — not accepted, not recognised. And even till this day, writing in English is still not fully recognised. That should not be the case. The person writing it is still Malaysian. The concerns are still Malaysian concerns. The ethos could be very Malaysian too.
Kakiseni: Are you concerned about -isms — such as sexism, or racism — appearing in your writing, consciously or unconsciously?
Kee: Prejudices, I’m sure, will always appear. What is expressed by the writer is very personal work. I am prejudiced towards liberal thinking and expression. There will be people who may disagree with me … but I can’t allow myself to think about that when I write.
Kakiseni: You touched on this issue earlier … but do you have any sort of discipline or routine as a writer?
Kee: I don’t have that luxury. I’m not a full-time writer. I get up at 6.30, send the kids to school — I share that with my wife — I may go for a walk if I have the time, then I get ready, and go to work. I will be at work until seven-ish. In between, I pick up the kids on some days from school and send them off to their activities — I (also) share this with my wife. I go home, then it is dinnertime, and I spend time with the kids. I am tired out — I have no aptitude to take something out and scribble on it.
The only available time is the weekend, but then there are other things to see to — bills to pay, spending time with the family, going out, … and sleeping a bit more.
Kakiseni: Do you prefer working on a computer, or writing in long hand?
Kee: I do both, but I find writing long hand works better for me. Screenplays, New Writing 10, and most of my plays are written that way, too.
Writing for TV’s Idaman was on the computer. It depends on how serious it is. Idaman was hack work. It’s not really art.
Kakiseni: Are you sure you want this mentioned?
Kee: Yes. It was hack work. It’s like churning out assembly line products and it has to be done quickly and the deadline is short.
Kakiseni: Which hat do you wear the best? Or rather, where would you say your heart is?
Kee: My heart is in acting, actually. The one thing I would like to do is to be an actor right now. But I’ve always had dependents in my life. I’ve always had to have a regular job.
There have been acting offers after Anna and the King — guest roles in Kopi Tiam, Phua Chu Kang, and a regular role for a new series supposed to have been shot for Singapore TV. But after a few episodes, it was shelved because of worries in Singapore over recession.
I was recently also offered small, small roles in film. In between, I was in two Malaysian indies: Amir’s (Muhammad) Lips to Lips and James’ (Lee) Sniper. On stage, I was in Expat Comes To Town.
Now, if I could have a second life and could choose what I wanted, I’d choose acting. But of course, with a face like mine … I wouldn’t be able to get romantic roles.
Postscript: A graduate from Universiti Sains Malaysia with a major in Literature, Kee had initially intended to study Mass Communication, but had ‘ironically’ ended up in Journalism.
Kee: Another irony was, by the time I majored, I wanted to do Performing Arts. I had to take classes for acting. I audited the class for a few sessions, and decided ‘No, I didn’t want to’. My life is full of ironies. That’s why irony is dominant in my writing. Foreigners have said despite things that have happened here, they don’t detect much irony in Malaysian writing … but that’s not exactly true.
*vorpal: reference to the weapon used by the warrior or slayer of the Jabberwocky (the mythical creature of terror in Lewis Carroll’s poem)
Note: For a taste of Kee’s writing, a reading of excerpts from his plays — including his new play The Fall of Singapura — will be held at Books Kinokuniya, Level 4, Suria KLCC, on Sunday, October 21, at 3pm.
First Published: 17.10.2001 on Kakiseni