Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Malaysian books as year-end presents

Susan has declared on Facebook Page that all her Christmas presents this year will be Malaysian books!

This is how it started. She sent me a link to a Publishing Perspective story about how Finns (unlike Malaysians) take their home-grown authors seriously, even though theirs is such a small market. I replied saying, “Obviously, the Finns are proud of who they are. Can’t say the same for Malaysians, who either think they are inferior or superior (bodoh sombong) to everyone else.”

Then Ksyatriya Words N Rhymes chipped in, “It’s still very much a feudal mind, methinks. Everything white/Caucasian is celebrated and the idea the local is inferior is very much rooted in that …” (Never mind the native-speaker syndrome.) That’s when Susan decided to do her bit. Good on you Susan, less talk more action is what we need.

It would also help if countries recognised and respect their own writers.

I was in Frankfurt mid-October. I attended as a trade visitor. First, I felt it was way too expensive to take a space at the official Malaysian stand. Second, I preferred the freedom of walking about, observing and learning from other displays, and meeting people.
This year, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore all had stands in Hall 5.0, and next to each other. (Malaysia was in the middle.) Maybe the organisers thought that ASEAN members would like to stick together. They probably didn’t know that ASEAN does not have a common currency like the Euro, but survives on suspicion, jealousy and envy; with the chances of working together on books and publishing (on a G to G level) ranging from zero to nil.

With the three stands next to each other, it was tempting to compare and contrast; to determine winners and losers. The task was easier than I expected. There were simply no winners. So, which country had the worst stand? Without hesitation, I’d say Singapore. What were they thinking? They had Pearson and Marshall Cavendish promoting 'O'-level English and Mathematics textbooks! And a host of others with their own ‘educational’ books.  (They were probably there on national duty.) Okay, Monsoon Books was there as an indie publisher. I couldn’t help feeling embarrassed. “Where are your general publishers, particularly indie ones?  Where were yours authors and their books?  For God’s sake, this is Frankfurt; show off your best."

It’s difficult to take their own home-grown authors seriously, when the government treats them with such disdain. Yes, authors are dangerous; they can say things the government might not like. But, they are the life-blood of a nation.

Score: D- (Very gomen with focus on KPI, not effectiveness. I expected much more.)

As for the Malaysian stand, let me say the good things first. The design (in black) was minimalist and classy. Then they had one wall for displaying the 50 best Malaysian titles (in Bahasa and English) of the year. This was at least in keeping with the spirit of Frankfurt. Then it was downhill. The cost of participation for publishers was up from RM1000.00 last year to RM6700.00, as a result of which there was only one private publisher present, PTS. The others were government bodies, quasi-government bodies, those who got grants from the government or those who (one way or another) didn’t have to pay to get their space. Less than half of those who took part last year were present. It was sad. (But there were several others with independent stands scattered around that floor.)

Then, they had to bring a wayang kulit performer. I have nothing against him, but why? If the MOT wanted a cultural component, then they should have paid for it. At least, that would have made it cheaper for the rest of us. This was Frankfurt, not a MATTA fair! And what did they expect one performer crouched behind a TV-sized white screen, with a back light, to do? I am unsure if I felt more sorry for him (doing his wayang kulit thing for a totally bored audience), or the uninterested audience trying to be polite at the pathetic display.

Then, they decided not to pay for any writer. Children’s book author and wonderful illustrator, Emila Yusof, who had four or five books on display at the stand, paid her own way, while the wayang kulit man's trip was sponsored. (I was told that three years ago, Pak Samad was knocked off the list for a Mak Yong dancer.)

Score: D+. (Also very gomen. I have learned not to expect too much.)
The Thai stand was on the other side. Well, to start with, they gave out nice little elephant key rings. Most of the exhibitors were private, though they appeared to consist of the usual suspects – the big boys. They had a good selection of books on display, some of them interesting. One would guess that they had done their homework well before coming to Frankfurt, and appeared to have a much better understanding of the market, compared to their two neighbours in the South.  They didn’t promote school text books or workbooks and, like the Singaporeans, they threw a party. (Malaysia didn’t.) But their stand design was rather basic and not particularly exciting.

Score: C+. (Also gomen, but less so. Since they don’t have that ‘English’ albatross thing hanging around their necks, they are less pretentious and willing to learn. They will improve.)

I wish representatives of all three countries would simply walk around Hall 5.0 (and hall 5.1 upstairs) to see the Central European and Latin American displays, some of which were stunning. One common theme they’d see would be the way these countries show off their writers and their works, and how obviously proud they are of them.

(Malaysian officials often wonder about the total lack of interest by the international publishing industry in some the titles, normally from gomen presses, on display in their stand, of which they are so proud – you can guess which ones. What does one say?!)