14 Jul 2023

Defiant Uthaya Sankar SB Courageously Overcomes Challenges to Publish The Painted Cat

For more than three decades, the 51-year-old Uthaya Sankar SB has been a prolific Bahasa Malaysia writer who writes fiction and nonfiction.

Born in Taiping, Perak in 1972, he is the author of over 25 books and has written extensively on topics including language, culture, literature, politics, and religion.

Some of his works have been translated into English, Tamil, Mandarin, and German. In 1999, Uthaya founded Kavyan Writers Group and since 2009, he has been a columnist for various newspapers and online news portals.

With numerous literary awards under his belt, Uthaya has been presented the Ambassador for Peace Award by the Universal Peace Federation in 2008. In February 2023, The Hindusthan Art & Music Society (India) conferred him the Saraswati Samman Award.

Recently, he has taken 11 of his short stories in Bahasa Malaysia and translated them into English. For those who are interested to purchase his anthology of short stories, The Painted Catyou may visit his website.

What motivated you to produce The Painted Cat?

The idea of translating or rather transcreating my stories in English has always been at the back of my mind. When I go to literary events abroad or when I meet non-Malaysian friends, they often say that they hope to be able to read my stories. In September 2021, I asked my friends (who have been supportive of my Bahasa Malaysia books) if I should publish a collection of my stories in English translation. The response was very good and encouraging – [read the responses here].


The book was supposed to be published earlier. What caused the delay?

The flood which hit Taman Sri Muda, Shah Alam (December 2021 and where I stay and run my writing workshops) has hindered the progress. When I was arrested by Bukit Aman for allegedly insulting Prophet Muhammad (April 2022), people from foreign countries were interested to know more about my writing and me. So, last February, I started to concentrate fully on this project. I want my stories to reach larger groups, especially those who have problems reading the original Bahasa Malaysia stories. I am not looking for any recognition locally or internationally. I just enjoy telling stories.


Give us a sneak peek at what kind of stories we can expect from The Painted Cat.

Each transcreator was given the freedom to choose which story to transcreate. Only after the book was put together, I noticed that most of the stories highlight Indian characters, culture, myth, beliefs, etc. There are stories happening in the 1950s and 1960s, and some happening in the 1990s – a time when people still used public telephones to contact each other. The characters are simple, everyday men, women, and children. There is a story about a cat who wants to become the nation’s leader. A parrot who wishes to be able to communicate with its owner. A migrant gardener with a secret identity. A doctor who believes his son is the incarnation of Hanuman and an old lady who claims to have stolen the moon in the sky. I hope these stories will touch the readers emotionally and intellectually.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in producing The Painted Cat?

Money. That was and always is the only problem for a full-time writer and self-publishing author like myself. Transcreating the stories was not a problem. Getting people interested in this project was also not a problem. The biggest challenge is getting enough funds to cover the publishing cost. I am truly blessed with a group of friends who are always supportive of my book projects. The names of the funders – I call them “social capital contributors” – are listed in the book.


Sometimes when you convert a short story from the original language to a different language, you may lose the essence of the stories. Are you worried this will happen to your anthology?

This has always been an issue when we talk about translation. Two of my short stories – “Nayagi” and “Yang Aneh-aneh” – have been translated into English in the past. I was not satisfied because it lost its essence. But for this project, I was working closely with the transcreators. They were given the freedom not to merely translate but to transcreate the stories. From the very beginning, I wanted to make sure the stories read well in English; not simply translated word by word. If you were to compare the stories in The Painted Cat with the original stories in Bahasa Malaysia, you would see the differences. That was done intentionally in the process of transcreating. Once the transcreators have done their part, I checked their manuscripts and was happy to see that their transcreation has stayed true to the original spirit of each story. I must say that the transcreators and the editor did a wonderful job. The Painted Cat contains the best English transcreation of my stories so far.


What advice can you give to other Bahasa Malaysia writers who are planning to translate their stories into English?

I would say that they should go ahead, but only if they are very sure of the quality of the stories. At the same time, do not expect government-funded agencies like Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) and Institut Terjemahan & Buku Malaysia (ITBM) to do it for you. Even though earlier this year the government allocated RM20 million to DBP, ITBM, and Yayasan Karyawan to handle translation activities, everyone in the writing, publishing, and translation industry already knows how they work. There are many online journals and magazines accepting translations. That is where you should try to get published. As for the translation, get someone you are comfortable working with in tandem.


What is the biggest challenge you face as a writer in Malaysia?

I have been writing fiction and non-fiction in Bahasa Malaysia since 1991 and the biggest challenge I face is the bigoted Little Napoleans in the literary scene. For example, in 1999, DBP tried to stop everyone from using the term “Bahasa Malaysia”. Of course, I fought back to reclaim my right – [read here]. In 2021, DBP made it obvious that non-Muslims do not have the right to use “Tuhan” because DBP claims that it can only be used to refer to Allah – [read here]. DBP and the “Malay” literary scene in general only want non-Malays who are average. If you are a “Pak Turut” (yes-man), you can go places as a lapdog. If you outshine them, they will go all out to “kill and destroy” you. I have already written about this in a story titled “Fail Merah: Konspirasi Membunuh Sasterawan Pulau Cinta” (Dewan Masyarakat, September 2002). I can gladly say that I do not face such challenges because I have self-respect and I know my rights and my values. At the same time, I am aware that many non-Malay writers are stuck in a vicious circle because they need DBP way more than DBP needs them.


What is the next project you are working on?

For 2024, I am thinking of publishing a compilation of essays, especially those previously published in Utusan Malaysia newspaper. Then, in 2025, perhaps another collection of stories in English (transcreated). But everything depends on the support from my friends because I need the social capital contribution to enable me to cover part of the publishing cost.

[This interview was conducted via e-mail on 27 June 2023 by Bissme S and published in Eksentrika on 11 July 2023. To contact Uthaya, click here.]