By Pang Khee Teik
Dina Zaman, writer for Marie Claire and former script editor and veteran of the rough and tumble world of corporate Malaysia, is finally staging her play, Harakiri, a satire on office life based on her experiences at the latter. The play, presented by Chakra Works and directed by R. Rajen, will be performed this weekend at The Actors Studio Bangsar. You can imagine the kind of working environment which might inspire a person to write a play about suicide (Dilbert should count himself lucky). But no, the character driven to the window ledge is not Dina’s alter ego. He is merely someone else in the office Dina had felt like killing at that point in time…
How did you end up studying Creative Writing at Lancaster University?
There are two places known for creative writing in UK, East Anglia and Lancaster University. East Anglia is very industry-driven. You have a lot of these cocktails to meet the agents, bla bla bla. You go there you have to have something ready to be published. Maybe because I used to be in PR, so I am sick of all these cocktail functions lah. And Lancaster is near the lake district, so I decided just go lah, balik kampung lah.
What was your first degree?
My first degree is communication; I minored in creative writing. It was in the States. But that wasn’t in depth. I came back after my degree, did PR bla bla bla.
I was writing short stories but I didn’t have any guidance. I was shooting blanks. But when I went and did my Masters, oh my god, I realised it was not a matter of banging your ideas out. There’s a craft. Things like show versus tell.
When I arrived in the UK, for a good two months I didn’t submit any work. I didn’t know what to do, the students who went in already had the background. I came in pretty much like a virgin lah. I started out with previous short stories that I had done. Ya lah, kena lah. I was told, “This doesn’t work, it is crap.” And since I’m the only Asian student there, I was afraid they would think all we Malaysians are shit writers. I had an option: cry, commit suicide and all that, or swallow it, listen, read books on craft, which was what I did.
After one, two months, the lecturer asked, “Aren’t you gonna submit anything?” So I started submitting. Takut you know!
What made you take the course?
I was doing PR, and then I was working for three, four years with a local TV station, as a script editor. I was working around the clock, no life or anything. I just wanted to go away and rethink my life. And I always wanted to do my masters. I wanted to do creative writing. I want to write and get away.
You see, when I started writing, I really really enjoyed it. I would be using the office computer and instead of doing my work I would be writing short stories or articles. I was freelancing for a national daily. And then tak malu right? I photostat on office machine lagi.
By then I thought, well, it is over-taking my life. So I thought this is where I want to go.
And my university was right next to a farm. So every morning I pass the pigs, oink oink. And the sheep, you know, go moo. It was fantastic!
Sheep go moo?
Oh sorry, cows go moo.
But it was clean living, I had fantastic roommates, it was half an hour from the lake district. At night the rabbits, deers, foxes, squirrels would come out. My roommates and I like to go for midnight walks. It was great. I had fun.
So you came back and… ?
Freelance copywriting. Newspapers, Malaysiakini, corporate clients. Just copy editing, press releases, like that lah. I also lectured at UIA, Islamic University. I was teaching Malaysian-Singaporean Literature in English.
I brought in the Silverfish anthologies, told them to read, tell me what you think. For some it was their first exposure to things like homosexuality, drug addiction. They were like, “Madam, things like these happen in KL ah? There are prostitutes walking around? Madam!”
I told them you have to learn to accept people as they are.
What about your creative writing?
Right now I am revising my novel. I’ve chucked out the whole thing and I’m starting from scratch all over again. Dhojee [publisher, producer and occasional Kakiseni contributor] said, “I think it’s better as a film.” I said, you got money to do my film or not?
What is the premise of your novel?
Secret. This country banyak orang ciplak.
It’s about a young kampung boy who has dreams. It was all in the 80s. You were still a baby.
No, I was not… So, how did Harakiri come about?
I wrote this when I was working.
Cannot mention. Because if I want to ask for sponsorship they would not give me the money.
I was inspired by people that I worked with. A lot of creative people, but a lot of mad people as well.
That time I just came out from surgery. I suffered from Endometriosis, growths in my womb. So I was stuck at home for one month. I had nothing to do, so I wrote this. It was meant to be a short film but never took off.
So anyway, Rajen was working with me. So, he said, “Eh, Dina, what happened to that script you wrote?” In the computer. “Why don’t we make a play out of it?” Okay lah!
So are you one of the founding members of this company?
I think I am a member. The founding members would be Rajen, Ishak and Dida.
How did they come about?
Dida is a traditional Malay dancer, and she has always been doing her own shows. And she teaches. Rajen did a lot of Malay theatre on his own, working with other people, for other people. Ishak did a lot of concerts, but he was hired lah. So they thought, hey, why don’t we marry the few talents we have and give it a shot lah. At the very least, when we are old, senile, we won’t have any regrets lah. So they are starting off with my tiny play and then Dida’s having her own dance show early next year, and then we’ll see how it will go lah.
How tiny is your play?
I have a seven-actor ensemble, playing multiple roles.
How long is it?
It’s about an hour, at most an hour and a half.
But let me tell you, it’s not deep yah? It’s not intellectual. One of the actors who auditioned, when he heard Harakiri, he thought it was about a noble Japanese warrior. I thought, oh dear, it has nothing to do with nobility and all that. I wrote it for fun, for the heck of it.
So why that title?
Because it sort of deals with suicide. I can’t write Bunuh Diri, right? There’s no kick in that.
Well, this is a corporate satire. It deals with a few people who are working and what happens one day at work. And they’ve got this suicidal colleague named Mooncake bin Fruitcake. He’s just mad lah.
Have you ever been tempted by suicide in the corporate environment?
No. But I’ve felt like killing someone.
Because this person plagiarised my work. And a few other people’s works. So we have big bing bang. I think I threw a wastepaper basket at him. I was so angry. I’m not a violent person. But I thought we were friends. You don’t do this to friends.
How did he plagiarise your work?
Basically he claimed what we did as his lah. He put it on his resume. These days I see him I say, hello. No use killing myself, feeling angry.
Does plagiarism happen a lot in the industry?
I think so. When I was in TV, right? My friends would call me, “Switch on your TV.” And yah, why do you want me to watch it? “That was my idea! They actually copied A to Z.”
There isn’t any respect for people’s work here lah. Because we have that typical pirate mentality.
You have conducted one writing workshop. What was that like?
It was a disaster. I am very particular, which hasn’t earned me popularity. But I cannot accept written work on torn paper in bloody pencil. I had that.
You want to be a writer, you pay this kind of money, you be serious, or at least write neatly. I cannot read your cacing kerawet writing. And then they don’t turn up. I believe I was committed. I photostatted articles, used my own money.
Who were the students?
Three young kids. They said, “My friends think I have a talent to write, so here I am.” Then there was one. Glamorous person also. Turned up once, read – very promising writer. She wrote very well. I told her, I think you have the gift, you should work on that. But… “Oh, I’ve got this work, this function, can you push this workshop to suit my… ?” Then I said, this is a disaster. After three meetings, I said forget it. Take back your money. I am not gonna kill myself driving all the way from Ampang, all the way to Plaza Putra and coming to three miserable people who are not interested.
Tell us about your experience editing Silverfish Three.
It was very different. I’ve never edited before. I worked with Quayum. And then Professor Quayum halfway had to go to America. I went, oh-oh. So I worked with Raman [owner of Silverfish Books and publisher of the eponymous anthologies] and Raman and I have different styles. For him, it’s like, “I’m here to give an avenue for people’s work to be published. So I’m not going to disturb the style.” I am a bit different. I want to work with the writers. I’m not saying I’m the best editor, I’m not. But let’s work it. But we also have a deadline you see, we had no time to meet the writers. So I basically did what I had to do. Edit what I can. Not just edit grammar. There was this story, Six Strokes…
Yes. The first paragraph was like a documentary on Malaysian prison in 2000 da da da. Then he talks about the warden. And then another documentary, a factual paragraph. It’s very schizophrenic. I killed the factual stuff, concentrated on the story. But he was good.
Yeah, I like the story. Was he agreeable to the changes?
He was cool. But a lot of people submitted their first drafts. They were not publishable.
Do you think Malaysian writers have found their voices?
From editing this, half of them have found their voices, but they don’t know how to bring it out. They are working in a vacuum by themselves. Then the other half: “Oh I am inspired to write the Great Malaysian Fiction!” It’s not wrong. They have to start somewhere.
First Published: 07.10.2003 on Kakiseni