He is one of our brightest literary stars and has won many awards. But in the kampung that is the National Language literary scene, he’s often accused of being arrogant simply because he speaks his mind.
His latest collection of short stories, Sasterawan Pulau Cinta (2001) is excellent, but you will not find it in bookstores.
He has decided to publish it himself and sell it through his website, which also contains his essays and story extracts. I asked him about the benefits of doing things his way.
. AMIR: Your previous books were published by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) but your current one is self-published. Is this related to the Bahasa Malaysia controversy?
. UTHAYA: Yes. It all started in 1998. For an anthology of Indian writers that I edited, I used the term Bahasa Malaysia several times in my preface. The editor changed them to Bahasa Melayu. He said my term does not exist since it's merely "political." But since I know the term exists, I decided not to go ahead with the publication. The manuscript was given back to me and now I will not give my books to publishers that do not acknowledge the term Bahasa Malaysia. The struggle goes on! [Click HERE for details regarding the Bahasa Malaysia controversy.]
. Is your decision a sort of mogok seni?
. It's not the same as what [National Laureate] A Samad Said did [in the 1980s]. When he did it, everybody knew who he was. But if I tried, most people would say, "Who's Uthaya?" It's not a mogok but a protest. I'm not losing anything.
. You could be losing something. Don't big publishers have the power to print and distribute lots of copies?
. Not really. The normal print run [for this sort of book] is only 1,000 copies. And the distribution is damn bad. I always mention this in seminars, and I think I have upset some people.
. What's the larger issue behind the Bahasa Malaysia controversy?
. There are individuals who want to use the term Bahasa Melayu [so that the Malays can feel proud in saying, "The Indians and Chinese are using our language"] instead of acknowledging it's the language for everybody in the country. THIS is what I would call "political" and trying to deny facts.
. Since you don't contribute to the main papers and magazines anymore, you're no longer eligible for those big literary prizes?
. I have won prizes but, unlike some people, I never wrote for the sake of competitions. Now that I can't win any, I'm still not bothered. I'm happy being what I am. You know how arrogant I am!
. There are some literary competitions that divide the entries into Malay writers and non-Malay writers. Do you think it's proper?
. Even when I first won a prize, I told reporters that these categories should not exist. Maybe in the 1950s, but not now! Anyway, I got second place in the Esso-Gapena contest in the Open rather than Closed category. The judges said, "We can't award him in the non-Malay category because he's as good as any Malay writer." The Utusan Malaysia literary editor also once told me, "If an Indian submits a story to me, I will only publish it if can reach your level." I told her that's not fair but she was just setting standards.
. Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
. I grew up in Taiping and in those forms we had to fill in during primary school, under cita-cita I would always put "Lawyer, polis, doktor." Not "peguam" but "lawyer" because that was the more familiar word. But these were never real ambitions.
. I always put "ahli bomba" at the top. When did you start writing?
. I started in Form 3, to prove to myself that I could produce better things than what I was reading, all these "cerpen remaja" from the library. I was printed in school magazines and so on. When I was in Form 6, [Dewan Bahasa's] A Rahim Abdullah came to Taiping for a book fair. I asked him how to submit to [teen magazine] Dewan Siswa and he got me to send a story. When he read it, he gave my name to the Minggu Penulis Remaja [training scheme for young writers] committee. [Related - Bagaimana Uthaya Mula Menulis]
. Are you conscious or are you made conscious of the fact that you're in a minority?
. I think outside elements make me conscious. In the beginning people used to ask, "How come you can write Bahasa so well?" even though it's my first language! For me it's better if you can compete with everyone as a writer. It's different if there's a compilation of stories by Chinese or Indian writers, that's OK because there's a special scope. But it would be nice if we were all just Malaysians. [Related - Antologi Karya Penulis Malaysia]
. How old were you when you first got printed in Malaysia's most important literary magazine Dewan Sastera?
. Twenty-two. By that time the literary establishment sort of knew me from my earlier stories. My first book, Orang Dimensi was published in 1994. It was under the label Cerpen Remaja but even though it was targetted at teenagersteenagers, it's also for adults.
. Is your preferred format short stories rather than novels?
. Yes, because I'm very forgetful. Even when I read novels I need to make short notes of the characters' names. My only novel is Hanuman: Potret Diri which was confusing to readers – but not for me – because it contained 30 years in one day. The publisher decided not to print my second novel [Panchayat] because it was about Malaysian Indians, which meant they were Hindu and would pray. I was told to take away all the culture and religion. The manuscript was even given to an ustaz.
. Why? .
Because they wanted to see if it was relevant to Islam.
. You could have changed the setting to a mamak community.
. I can't tailor the characters to a Malay way of life, which would have been very artificial. So the book was rejected. Ironically, the publisher prints translations of foreign books that have Hindu characters.
. Maybe they think you're trying to convert your readers.
. As if I have nothing else to do! Not all my stories are about Indians, anyway. I have been published in [Islamic magazine] Dakwah too. But when I write about a particular person it has to be authentic to what he would do.
. Why did you decide to self-publish rather than go to a small company?
. I started writing because I did not like the stories that were available. Instead of just complaining, I decided to write. So now that I'm complaining about publishers, I decided to just go ahead and publish! There are lots of ways to promote your book rather than just leaving it in the bookstore.
Speaking of arrogance, you like making comments like "pembaca bodoh" …
. No. When newspapers print that, it's not in context. What I said was, "Readers are not stupid. And if there are any stupid readers, I'm not writing for them. I write for readers who want to think."
. But I've read articles that said "Uthaya ni egois lah!"
. I'm used to it by now.
. You conduct workshopsworkshops for teenagers. What are today's students like?
. Compared to our time, the school system now is creating robots. Students join societies just because they have to and they only read exam-related books. They will always use "exam" or "tuition" as excuses for not doing anything. But during my SRP exam in Standard 3, I actually started writing a short story and snuck the paper out of the hall. So what's the problem?
. Aside from teaching in colleges, you also work part-time in the RTM news department, right?
. Yes, even though it would be nice if I can make a living purely by writing. I started doing work for RTM while studying in Universiti Malaya. I help edit the world news and sometimes interview people.
. Are there any constraints?
. Of course, since it’s a government thing. The good thing is that I'm a part-timer so I am not too bothered. If they say, “You can only use this type of story” then I say, “Fine.” I don't own the media, so why should I tension myself? I want to stay young, man! [Related - How Uthaya left RTM]
[Amir Muhammad, “Uthaya Sankar SB: Bahasa Malaysia Writer,” Options (The Edge), 19 November 2001]