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Thursday December 27, 2007

Memories of Trengganu


A very long letter to his four children, says Wan A. Hulaimi
of his book Growing Up In Trengganu.

If life in idyllic Trengganu takes your fancy, get insight from a book by a journalist who takes a nostalgic look on his younger years in the East Coast. SU AZIZ meets 'Awang Goneng'.

CHEEKILY, the man who pens under the name Awang Goneng exclaimed: “Call me Sir”, before bursting into infectious laughter.

“No, no, I am Hulaimi,” Wan A. Hulaimi, eventually acknowledged.

A journalist by training and profession, he admitted that, “being a journalist is my only stumbling block in writing.”

An odd statement.

“Not really. As a journalist, I am always worried about the first sentence. Also about the ‘when, how, who, what and where’. Quite unlike writing my memoirs. They flowed.”

Some would say that it is a natural progression for a journalist to venture into writing a book. Some people know that this is inevitable.

For Hulaimi, “it all began with a blog. It ran for three years before a publisher in Singapore approached me to compile it all into a book. I didn’t take him seriously, he was a man of few words.”

Within a month, the compilation of Growing Up In Trengganu was completed.

“It was easy, really. When the publisher came back and requested I shorten it slightly, that was also easy.

“I wrote it for my children. I wanted them to know where I came from, a place they don’t know.”

After he and his wife Zaharah Othman were posted to London in 1979 by the New Straits Times to open a branch there, they never returned to Malaysia.

“We’ve been living in London for 28 years and all our four children were born and raised there, you see.”

A father of two boys and two girls, Hulaimi sees his book as, “a letter to my children.”

Neither his face nor stance give a clue as to his age. The only hint would be a dusting of grey hair on his thick mop of hair and a pair of wise-looking eyes.

How old am I? I am past caring!” Hulaimi said, chuckling. His eldest child is 26 and the youngest, 17 years.

Growing Up In Trengganu, some would say, is a travelogue.

It is a collection of tales on growing up in a Malaysian village, of small town charm and a sense of pride at being part of it.

While Hulaimi looks back nostalgically at Trengganu, one wonders if he wishes it had remained unchanged through the years?

“Yes, I do,” he admitted.

Isn’t development necessary for a community’s economic growth?

“I agree but development without wisdom is futile. Mindless development is what gets me. For instance, a hotel that blocks the view of the sea or development that does not please the community but merely tourists. What is the point in that?”

The book that Hulaimi wrote has become something of a phenomenon. Terengganu recently hosted the return of its prodigal son for a book signing and a reading.

“I have no favourite parts in the book. I chose certain passages to read because they are short!” he remarked, with a short laugh.

What has been the most common feedback from his readers?

“It must be, ‘I feel like you’re talking to me’. One even said that it is a book about any kampung life.”

He added, thoughtfully: “Evidently, anyone who has grown up in a Malaysian village can relate to the book.”

For those who haven’t, it is a laid-back read, to be enjoyed on a lazy afternoon with a big cup of tea.

Did he experience writer’s block at all?

“No. I didn’t. I have been lucky,” he admitted, in a humble tone.

“As I mentioned earlier, the only block comes from my journalism training. The want of that first gem of an opening sentence.”

What is next for Hulaimi, or Awang Goneng?

“I don’t really want to talk about it. A writer never really wants to talk about that.” His laughter rang out again. We found out it is another book. As to what it is about and when it will be out, Awang Goneng is keeping mum!

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Terengganu State of Mind

Meera Murugesan

KUALA LUMPUR: “It’s like a long letter to your children.

This is how a friend of writer Wan Ahmad Hulaimi Wan Mohd Ali described the author’s well received book, Growing Up in Terengganu.

It’s an apt description considering that Wan Ahmad Hulaimi himself views the book as a “bequest” to his four children, aged 17 to 26, all born and bred in London.

The book is a delightful record of a boyhood in the East Coast State, beautifully capturing the details, sights, sounds and smells of a childhood in a rural setting.

“Although my children have been back to Malaysia a few times, it’s nothing like actually growing up here, so they know nothing about Kuala Lumpur, let alone Kuala Terengganu,” said the London-based freelance journalist.

The book, which made its debut at the world famous Frankfurt Book Fair in October last year, also made it to MPH’s top 10 list in the non-fiction category, barely three months after publication.

As a boy being raised in Terengganu, Wan Ahmad had a childhood that many rural children would easily relate to. But his father was atypical in many ways, said Wan Ahmad Hulaimi.

“He was a strict father and a very religious man, but he also loved to joke and laugh with his children, and he was very fond of punning and used to create puns in Arabic, Malay and sometimes English.

“I treated him as a friend, but not in the American sense where one would call them by their first name or anything like that, but he was there for me. Yet, he was a strict parent and could be harsh when he needed to.”

His mother was an illiterate but very observant woman. She used to go to the market and return home with all sorts of stories, like the one in the book about the apam balik (a type of Malay snack) seller whom she saw hitting a goat with a stick and then used the same stick to stir the batter for his cakes."

My mother was laughing when she told that story. She was a very humorous person with a keen eye for detail and although she was illiterate, she could read numbers, so you couldn’t fool her with money,” said Wan Ahmad Hulaimi with a smile. The fact that the book has been well received despite it being highly personal in nature, took him by surprise.

“It’s very comforting to know that what you’ve written or called up from your past is still relevant to people who grew up 10 or 15 years after you.

“I believe it’s because all of us have this desire for a simple life. Everyone has a rural past in their heads that they yearn to go back to.”

That Terengganu has changed tremendously since his youth and boyhood there, many people still remember the State the way it has been captured in his book. “Even people who are relatively young, have come up to me and said they can identify with the Terengganu in my book.”

But Growing Up in Terengganu is not just for those who share a close bond with the State. The book’s appeal cuts across borders as even those who were not born in Terengganu or who have never been to the state have pointed out to Wan Ahmad Hulaimi that they too can relate to the book and the many colourful episodes of his childhood which spill out of its pages.

“The book appeals to them because it’s not just about Terengganu, it’s about kampung (village) life, so it’s relevant to all kampungs in Malaysia, to anyone who grew up in such a setting or to anyone who has fond memories of their childhood.”

Material for the book came essentially from Wan Ahmad Hulaimi‘s blog, where he was known to fans as “Awang Goneng” (mischievous local boy), the same pseudonym that he also used to write the book.

“People say lots of things about bloggers, most of them uncomplimentary, but I’m very upset about that.

“Blogs are very special tools for honing your writing skills or to get you started on writing, and I used my blog as my notebook, for rough notes which would one day form the substance for this book.

“Somewhere in the back of my mind, there was this idea that it (the material on his blog) would turn into a book someday.

“I think everyone has a book in their head. I was toying with the idea of publishing it, but money was a constraint and many people asked why I sought a Singaporean publisher (Monsoon Books), but the truth is they came to me and I thought why not. As it turned out, they are very good publishers.”

The process of writing the book was easier than expected, he said, the only stumbling block surprisingly, being his journalistic training and discipline.

“Journalism breeds a certain discipline that is inimical to creative writing.

“It may seem an odd thing to say but as a journalist, one is always worried about the first paragraph of a story. That’s the gem of your writing (as a journalist). You tend to fret and worry and cut or extend that first paragraph as if it is the all and end of your work.”

He said when writing a book, one needs to be able to just go ahead and write, and one can always come back and rewrite with a fresh perspective later.

“That’s the most important lesson I’ve learned. Do not worry about what you’re writing. Do the best you can at that moment. Go on with it and then come back to it if you have a fresher insight.”

But despite his book being well received, Wan Ahmad Hulaimi points out that many local authors rarely, if ever, get support despite their talent.

“I blame the local infrastructure, the publishers, distributors and editors for not promoting local books.

“Many good local writers are being ignored. They’re simply not being given the exposure they deserve and yet, when such authors thrive overseas, we want to hail them back and claim them as our own.

“There’s something wrong here and those responsible have a lot to answer for.”

Having been in England for over 30 years, Wan Ahmad Hulaimi is constantly surprised by how things change in Malaysia with each trip back.

“It’s not just the landscape and the roads which project a drastic difference, but even Malaysians themselves.

“Malaysians today seem so focused, even obsessed with doing their own thing, they don’t have time for others. One can actually see the tension in their faces and in their body language.”

The recent street demonstrations didn’t take him by surprise either. Demonstrations were, after all, the norm in the country during the seventies.

“In fact, we had more demonstrations during the seventies and eighties. I remember a few which were organised when we tried to save Court Hill in the centre of town. If it had been saved, there would have been a nice patch of green there but they eventually built a huge building there. I still recall that they promised to preserve the greenery but there’s not a shred of it there now.”

He said Terengganu itself has changed much, with shop houses and other commercial lots occupying Kuala Terengganu while many people who used to live in the city, have moved to the outskirts.

But the house where Wan Ahmad Hulaimi grew up is still there and when he returned for the launch of the book in Kuala Terengganu recently, it was also a time to catch up with family members, from cousins and distant cousins, to long lost aunts.

Many of his school friends and former teachers also showed up for the launch at Alam Akademik, a pioneer bookshop in Kuala Terengganu that has fond memories for Wan Ahmad Hulaimi.

It was the place where he bought his first book and where his father used to buy his kitabs (religious books) and newspapers.

Wan Ahmad Hulaimi’s best memories of his home State remain the joys of growing up in an easygoing atmosphere, of being with his parents and of having good friends and wonderful food.

“It was all about colourful experiences, laughing at people and being laughed at. It makes the gaiety of your life.”

Sunday February 3, 2008

Local boy makes good (tales)


As this tale shows, you can take the boy out of Terengganu but you can't take Terengganu out of the man.

TWO thousand and seven was indeed the year for Malaysian writers and literature, and ending the year with a roar all the way from Terengganu was Awang Goneng’s whimsical memoir, Growing Up In Trengganu. The book has hit a steady stride, gathering fans who love its gentle and humorous look at a life and a past that are almost invisible now in modern day Terengganu.

As a Malaysian from the same state, it was indeed exciting to find a book that has chronicled histories that I saw in bits and pieces when I was very young, and heard about from older relatives.

Awang Goneng's book has sparked nostalgia among older Terengganu-ians, such as my mother and her peers. For many, the book brought back memories of a “kampung” they had once known intimately, and seen it disappear amidst the rapid progress the state is currently experiencing.

Their children are not familiar with that particular history, and Growing Up In Trengganu has become almost an heirloom among Terengganu families now. Parents are passing the book to their children and grandchildren, and gatherings and meetings among the elders are being organised to discuss the book and forgotten childhoods.

It's no wonder. To quote Susan Abraham who wrote in her blog: “In this book, a concoction of blog posts lovingly cooks up the persuasive yarns that shapes old-fashioned story telling with delicious spoonfuls of tastes and flavours laid out decoratively, for the mind and heart. All of which create an exotic mystery that serves up intrigue for a young boy in his childhood years.”

So it was with some trepidation when I met with Awang Goneng. My family wanted to know if he had known the Goneng they had known – an effeminate young man who wore a long batik sarong on his head, which acted as his “long hair”. Somehow I never got around to asking him that question.

Anyway, Awang Goneng, which means “mischievous local boy”, is the non de plume of former journalist Wan Ahmad Hulaimi, 60.

As it turns out, he is a shy man. Accompanied by his somewhat more gregarious wife, Zaharah Othman (or Kak Teh as the veteran journalist is more popularly known), the writer came across as diminutive and retiring. Not withdrawn, mind you.

But when he spoke, you knew that this was a man of letters and books, who loved language and its idiosyncrasies, who enjoyed humour but not frivolity. As a former journalist who wrote about politics and current affairs, Growing Up in Trengganu was a huge departure from his previous work.

“I wrote it because I wanted my children to know of my life. My childhood,” he said. Having lived in Britain for over 20 years, his children had known no other life than the one in London. The sporadic trips back to Malaysia weren’t enough, and because of the rapid development in the state, there really wasn’t a true kampung for them to go back to.

It started with a simple blog, prompted by a friend and fellow blogger, Pak Adib. It then evolved into a germ of an idea: to get his children to know Terengganu. Initially, the blog, Kecek-Kecek, had no direction but gradually found its tempo, which is the mainstay of the book.

“I tried to capture the rhythm of the language, the lifestyle we had back then. Writing the blog liberated me from my rigid, structured background as a journalist. I was always neurotic about writing the first paragraph! But the blog was free-flow. I wasn’t writing for anyone; I was essentially writing for myself. I could write whenever I wanted.”

One comment he received was that he wrote “like Dickens” and he was adamant that no one saw him in that light. “I’m no way near Charles Dickens. What mattered to me was that each sentence had a rhythm in it. Look at some of the Malay pantun in the book. They make no sense but the rhythm’s fantastic.

“I wouldn’t say that the book’s meant for a certain generation. It was meant for my children, but it seems to have struck a chord with many Terengganu people. Someone wrote to me, Long Ladang, and he said, 'You write about things long ago, but you write like a young man.' Another young blogger, Dr Bubbles, said that I wrote not about Terengganu but about kampung life. And he could relate to that.”

Would he change anything about his book?

“I may change or edit certain sentences, but in essence, no.”

If he had a grouse, it would be the distributorship of his book. He declined to elaborate except to say, “There are two sides to the story, of course, but things are getting better.”

What is it like to have two writers in the family? Hulaimi and Kak Teh laughed. The few months prior to publication, they were sitting back-to-back and communicating through chat programmes.

“He’d be facing the garden, and I’d be doing my work, and he’d email me messages,” shares Zaharah.

Hulaimi is now a full-time writer, though he does get involved in other media projects as “freelance work does not exactly pay the bills!”

And on how Terengganu seems to have given birth to quite a number of writers, what would he attribute that to?

“It’s probably in the water. Air jernih! This is what people have forgotten. Terengganu is not isolated. We have a long tradition of scholars, from Pattani, Yemen, and they wrote and wrote. You should have seen some of the old kitab (religious books) which were translated into Malay in the 17th century. My family came from a long line of such scholars.”

Since the book’s debut, many have been eager to be in touch with Hulaimi, to give their take on what the old Terengganu was like.

“I don’t find it offensive at all. The sad thing is, the latter generation do not appreciate literature, the past.”

Here's hoping Growing Up in Trengganu will change that.

From the V.I. Archives

Wan Ahmad Hulaimi (seated second from left)
is editor of the Arts Journal, Analekta (1967)

VI The V.I. Web Page