Different sides of the Straits
Huzir Sulaiman talks about straddling Malaysia and Singapore, and balancing research and spontaneity in theatre
By Mohammad A. Quayum
One of Malaysia's pre-eminent playwrights, Huzir Sulaiman, was born in Kuala Lumpur in 1973. He attended the International School of Kuala Lumpur for a decade, graduating in 1990 as valedictorian of his class. He studied English Language and Literature at Princeton University, where he won the Bain-Swiggett Poetry Prize and graduated in 1993.
In 1996, he founded Straits Theatre Company in Kuala Lumpur. In 2002, he co-founded Checkpoint Theatre in Singapore and serves as one of its Joint Artistic Directors. He became, in 2004, the inaugural recipient of the Writing Fellowship jointly given by the National University of Singapore and The Arts House.
Several of his plays are collected in his book, Eight Plays (Silverfish Books, Kuala Lumpur, 2002). They include Atomic Jaya (first staged in 1998), The Smell of Language (1998), Hip-Hopera (1998), Notes on Life & Love & Painting (1999), Election Day (1999), Those Four Sisters Fernandez (2000), Occupation (a commission of the 2002 Singapore Arts Festival) and Whatever That Is (2002). His unpublished plays include Lazy Hazy Crazy (1997), They Will Be Grateful (2003), One Plot (written 2002, as yet unstaged) and Colony of Singapore (written 2005, as yet unstaged).
Sulaiman is married to the Malaysian actress and director, Claire Wong, and now lives in Singapore. This interview was conducted by Mohammad A Quayum in November 2006, and originally published in the Journal of Postcolonial Writing in the UK in 2007.
MQ: Tell us a bit about your family, childhood and education. When were you first introduced to the English language and to English literature?
HS: I'm the only child of lawyers and academics. My father's from Penang and my mother's from Singapore. We've always spoken English at home. As far as I can work out, my family on both sides has been educated in English for three or four generations (despite also containing speakers of Malay, Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi, Urdu and whatever language my Tartar great-great-grandfather spoke).
I remember we listened to the BBC World Service quite a bit during dinner, through a shortwave radio that was sometimes overcome by waves of static. There was always a coup d'etat or something exciting happening. To this day, the World Service theme, Lilliburlero, makes my heart beat faster. It's the secret vice of many postcolonial writers, apparently.
I started school in London when my parents were doing their Master's. One day when I was about 5, I came home from school to find the television missing. My parents said they were taking it away because I wasn't reading enough. After that, we didn't have a TV in the house until I was about 21 when I bought one with my own money. But I'd never gotten into the habit of watching it, so I suppose I did read quite a bit. My father's taste was more historical and current affairs, as well detective novels, while my mother read more serious literary fiction.
As a child, I suffered from bad asthma and would miss school every so often. My inclination was to lie around and not do much of anything, but my father would insist that I research something from the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the other books in the house and present a paper to him when he came back from work.
My taste for self-directed study probably comes from there. An American professor friend of my parents wrote something to me when I was very young: "You must wean yourself of teachers." It made a big impression on me, probably because I have an instinctive dislike of authority.
In my teens, I used to play role-playing games with my friends, things like Dungeons and Dragons, and I usually wound up being the Dungeon Master, creating the worlds and taking my friends on these adventures. It's been 20 years since I thought about it but I now realise it was probably very good training for a playwright and actor.
MQ: Recollect for us some of the books you read in childhood. Have they in any way contributed to the making of who you are?
HS: I tend to think I'm quite transparently the sum of the books that I read in my childhood. Tolkien, like everybody else; Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, and perhaps more importantly the radio series, which my friend Brian lent me tapes of; the great comic novels of PG Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford; Gerald Durrell, particularly his Corfu trilogy of memoirs.
The cartoon albums of Lat were hugely influential. I think Kampung Boy and Town Boy are the standard by which every Malaysian work of art should be judged: masterworks of beautiful, economical storytelling. They're seemingly simple, but actually very deep. I've always tried to write scenes as funny, nuanced and true as the one in Town Boy where he and his Chinese friend discuss dietary restrictions:
Mat: "Is there anything that you can't eat?"
Twenty-five years later that scene sticks in my head.
I was in hospital with appendicitis when I was 13, and one of my parents' friends, Dr Arichandran, came to visit and gave me a copy of Brighter than a Thousand Suns, a history of the Manhattan Project. It became one of my favourite books and lead to a great interest in science, or more specifically the history and culture of science, which 12 years later resulted in my first full-length play, Atomic Jaya, a satire about the making of the Malaysian atomic bomb. So I've always believed that giving someone the right book at the right time can have a profound impact on their life.
MQ: Were you a theatregoer from childhood? I know you acted your first role when you were 7 years old. In hindsight, was that a turning point in your life?
HS: I was in The Little Clay Cart, at the Experimental Theatre, Universiti Malaya. I think my line was "My father! My father!" Following that earth-shattering debut I was in Rendra's The Struggle of the Naga Tribe, playing a village kid. Then I was in the Temple of Fine Arts' Shakuntala, at the Old Town Hall. And then I did a lot of theatre at school.
My parents took me to arts performances when I was a kid, not just theatre but music and dance, so I think I caught the bug quite early. And they were enormously supportive of my childhood forays into theatre. I remember my mother borrowed an audio recording of Waiting for Godot from the British Council library and played that in the car; I was transfixed by Lucky's speech. Years later, I got a chance to play Lucky in a student production of Godot at university and I felt like I'd won the lottery.
MQ: What motivated you to become a writer/playwright? Who were your major influences in the early years of your writing?
HS: I'm still in the early years of my writing, frankly. My early motivations are still the enduring reasons why I do it. I've always loved theatre. I acted a lot in school and I started directing there. I wrote my first play when I was about 15 at a summer writing course, but I didn't write for the stage again until 1995 when I was invited to join the Instant Café Theatre Company, which did largely topical, political sketch comedy. That was interesting training because you learned to write pieces under a very tight deadline and perform them to all sorts of audiences, from the wildly enthusiastic to the utterly indifferent. The year I spent performing and writing with them was a sort of boot camp – you learned to be disciplined and not precious, that the show must go on even if you've got a headache or you're in the middle of a huge argument about something inconsequential.
The first production of Jit Murad's Gold Rain & Hailstones was very inspirational. I loved the fact that he'd taken a subject and a milieu that was so personal to him, and had opened it up to an audience in such an intelligent and entertaining way.
I started Straits Theatre Company in 1996, but it wasn't until 1997 with my one-man show, Lazy Hazy Crazy, that I started writing things essentially just to please myself. My first full-length play, Atomic Jaya, came in 1998 and that was the point of no return, I suppose.
I came to writing from having been an actor, and I wanted to write good roles for actors that came out of a Malaysian reality. I was also reacting (perhaps over-reacting) to the trend in Southeast Asian contemporary theatre in the 90s that seemed to emphasise physicality and movement at the expense of language and text. My entirely megalomaniac goal was to restore to the playwright some of the privileges that had been gradually appropriated by the director. The irony, of course, is that I wound up directing my early work myself, and then when I began to work with other directors, like Krishen Jit, and later Claire Wong, they couldn't have been more respectful of the text. So in hindsight I'd gotten myself much too worked up. But it did give me a sort of youthful momentum.
MQ: How is literature and theatre important in this age of ingrained materialism and booming technological know-how? Do you think literature/theatre will survive the challenges it currently faces from the other forms of entertainment, such as video games, the internet and the iPod?
HS: Theatre is such a frighteningly vulnerable art form. You need a physical space, you need to get a bunch of people together in the same room, you need money, and in this part of the world you need the authorities' permission too. It's so crazily difficult to mount a play that you wonder why you do it… but then when it works, it's amazing.
There is something electric about live theatre and the power it has to transport an audience, to have them in tears or gales of laughter. You can feel the energy in the room. Nothing can replace the power and complexity of that shared experience, and that's why theatre people do it, and that's why there will always be a market for good theatre.
Of course, bad theatre is completely criminal. A theatre professor at my university, used to say, "I'd rather stay at home and masturbate than go and see a Broadway musical; it's cheaper, and you learn more about life." I'm not so prejudiced against musicals, but I know what it's like to waste an evening watching bad theatre. Never mind the money, that's two hours of your life you're never going to get back. So theatre makers have an incredible responsibility not to waste people's time.
What's interesting is that in this technologically depersonalised world we're seeing a resurgence in organised religion. People are looking for a communal experience that's bigger than themselves. That's something that theatre does very well too. And that's why I think there will always be a place for it.
MQ: Who do you write for? Does it affect you as a writer that Malaysians lack the habit of reading and going to theatre?
HS: I write for myself, because I really have no idea what other people like. I've always just wanted to write the sort of play that I would want to go and see. So I'm always terrified that no one else will like it, and then I'm delighted and grateful when people appear to. I don't spend too much time thinking about the supposed shortcomings of the theatre-going public. Obviously, there are Malaysians and Singaporeans who do read, and there are Malaysians and Singaporeans who do go to the theatre, and they're my constituency, as it were. I'm not trying to drag people away from online poker games. Good luck to them, I say.
You've only got so much energy to expend on things. Rather than worrying about how to expand the audience base for theatre, we should be concentrating on making the best theatre we can for the existing audience.
MQ: What are your predominant interests as a writer/playwright? Do you start writing a play with an issue or idea in mind, or is it some theatre technique or some other interest associated with language and characterisation that acts as your primary inspiration? How do you negotiate between spontaneity and research in your writing?
HS: I start with a topic I want to cover. I have a lot of things in my head; some date back a long time, some are recent. Through some mysterious organic process I arrive at what seems to be the most urgent topic for me to address. I then also try to think about the form to best serve that topic; that's where some authorial vanity comes in because I try to do something different each time, to push myself into a new area.
I tend to spend a lot of time researching, but then I'm quite happy not to use any of it. There's a lot of staring into space and appearing to do very little while I'm gestating the material, and this goes on for weeks. And then I write in a concerted burst for two or three weeks, day and night, often working until the sun comes up and then sleeping till lunch. I used to fret about this process but now I've just learned to accept it. At some point my subconscious takes over and the plays tend to write themselves. I don't want to appear as though I'm romanticising it, because there is a lot of craft and analysis required, but that tends to happen after the first wave of creativity.
That's the sort of general process but it has varied considerably. For instance, in Election Day, a monologue I performed, Krishen Jit worked very closely with me; I improvised and worked out a rough plot with his guidance just before the 1999 Malaysian General Elections. Then I worked as a polling station volunteer on election day itself, taped all the results on radio that night, and wove my experiences and sound bites into the play over the next nine days before we opened. Damn scary it was too; I lost about ten pounds just from the stress and the adrenalin.
MQ: You are perhaps best known for your play Atomic Jaya? Given the scathing criticism of Malaysian politics and culture it provides, did you have problems in getting permission to stage the play?
HS: In 1998, City Hall gave Atomic Jaya a licence, and then I got a call from police headquarters asking me to come for an interview before they issued the licence. I told them that City Hall had already given me the licence. Irritated and bored, the Inspector said that City Hall really should have checked with the police first, and that the next time I wanted to do a play I should call them first. Oh, of course, I said, and that was that. I never heard from them again.
A far more serious instance of government interference occurred with the 2004 production of Election Day, when the authorities refused to grant a licence to exactly the same script that had been licensed five years earlier unless I took out the names of everyone real in it. This ranged from (former Malaysian Prime Minister) Dr Mahathir and (former Deputy Prime Minister) Anwar Ibrahim right down to Guardian Pharmacy and Volkswagen. This was an obvious attempt to disembowel the play and excise any relevance for the audience, and I was determined not to let this happen.
To circumvent the ruling, I decided to have a lot of fun making up colourful epithets for the names that I couldn't say. Dr Mahathir became "Our Glorious Leader", and Dr Wan Azizah (wife of Anwar Ibrahim) became "Our Gentle Lady In The Tudong," and so on.
Some people said we should have withdrawn the production entirely (to protest the censorship exercise) but I felt the only appropriate response to the stifling of creativity was the exercise of more creativity. In fact, several months later, when Claire Wong directed me in the same play in Singapore, the Singapore authorities, not wanting to offend Malaysia, insisted on the same changes (though they were sensible about Guardian Pharmacy and Volkswagen). But I found that the indirectness and colourfulness of the epithets made the play work even better for an audience that might not have attached much significance to the original names.
MQ: Unlike the other forms of literature, theatre is essentially collaborative work, in which the playwright has to join forces with directors, actors and audience to realise the final product. Is that a strength or weakness of the medium?
HS: This forced collaboration is one of the joys of the medium, if you have the right attitude to it. There are skills that you need as a playwright that other writers don't because your work has to offer something not just to the final end user (the audience) but also to the artistic collaborators who are bringing the script to life. It's got to provide the spine and the colour of the work while being porous enough to allow for the talents of the director, actors and designers to add to the vision.
You're writing for two audiences: the people performing the play and the people watching the play. If you overwrite and over-specify with a lot of stage directions you wind up killing the possibility of anything fresh being added to it. Conversely if there are no markers at all in your writing you're very much open to terrible formless productions that rob the audience of time and money. So there's a fine balance.
In writing dialogue, you have to give actors enough of a hook to hang their performances on, but you shouldn't say everything with words. There must be room for the glances and shrugs and smiles that the actor will add that will say it far better than words. You've got to let the play breathe.
MQ: Explain for us your experiences as an actor and a director? Is it convenient to act in your own plays or to direct them?
HS: I think, if you start as an actor, it offers you more tools as a writer and a director. You know what works on stage; you have a sense of whether a line is say-able or not. Looking at it from the perspective of the playwright, too, it's helpful to act in or direct your own plays because you feel you know them inside out.
More importantly, directing a play is a different skill and poses a different artistic challenge, which I also love. So, directing my own plays also makes me look at and work with the text through different artistic lenses, which is immensely satisfying.
Having said that, it is both terrifying and wonderful to watch other directors work with my text. This goes back to my earlier point about the importance of publishing plays. Because the play as literature has a life of its own, distinct from its three-dimensional life as a production, the hope is that it can have a long, happy life and become a classic – something that years, decades, centuries later will speak to a theatre practitioner who will be inspired to give it life on stage, and still be relevant.
At first, I used to be a little protective of my plays. But then I realised I had to let them go and find a life of their own. And it's been lovely to receive requests for them to be performed, and to know that they are being interpreted by all kinds of practitioners, from students to professional groups, and all over the world, including the UK and US.
MQ: How has your work evolved over the years? How are your recent plays different in theme or technique from the earlier ones?
HS: I've tried to do something different each time, as I've said, so I've probably forced myself to evolve a little unnaturally. When I look back at my plays, I realise they are very much a reflection of who I was at that time. It's not that they're autobiographical per se, but they reflect my mental state and world view at that particular point in life. In 2002, when I was going back to edit my plays for publication, I found it impossible to make any revisions to them because they were so much a product of a certain time and place, it was as though they were written by a different Huzir, and it felt faintly transgressive to try to revise or "update" them.
Keeping the craft fresh has always been important, so I always try to work with different themes and forms for each new play. I'm terrified of being bored and of being boring, at least in my work. So I try quite hard to bring something new to the table… all of which allows me to be very boring in real life.
I was once chiding my father for the regularity of his habits, and he quoted me something by Alvin Toeffler or some such social theorist about how people who were creative and unstructured in their work were usually utterly boring and predictable in their daily habits, and of course, like clockwork, I find the same thing happening to me.
MQ: I have heard that you have written for film and television as well. Could you elaborate on this?
HS: My first feature script, Dukun, has just finished being shot in Kuala Lumpur by Dain-Iskandar Said for Astro Shaw, and I'm working on two more, one for a Singapore producer and one for a director in India. I wrote and directed a short film, That Historical Feeling, in 2002, and over the years I've written a fair bit for television, including four one-hour telemovies for Singapore TV.
Writing for the screen is superficially similar to writing for the stage but they're actually very different disciplines. Screenwriting requires an enormous attention to how you tell the story with pictures, whereas the playwright's impulse is to always tell it with words which is of course fatal on screen. So I had to very quickly learn to access the visual side of storytelling.
That said, one of the problems with the current state of art house filmmaking in Malaysia and Singapore is the distrust – almost a hatred – of language and acting. The trend seems to be that an art house film should have beautiful camerawork, long silences and wordless scenes. Why not make a film with swans, then, or better yet, molten lava? We're completely closing off one of the great parts of being human, which is communicating with language.
The irony, of course, is that in trying to get international funding for local films it is very difficult to get Western film producers to accept an Asian film where the characters speak good English. I've been told this again and again by industry people. Apparently, brown and yellow people should sound brown and yellow. It's surreal. I mean, you come here, you colonise us, you force us to learn your language, and then when we master it, you don't want to hear us speak it?
But I'm not going to go the other way and deny who I am. I am an English-speaking Southeast Asian, and I'm proud of it. I will continue to tell those sorts of stories whenever I can.
MQ: Why have you moved to Singapore? How has the move helped you as a writer/playwright?
HS: The initial and very personal reason was that this was where my wife lived. But Singapore has also been receptive to my work. I remember when Claire first performed Atomic Jaya at the Substation in 2001 I had eight offers of writing jobs that arose from that, including the commission for the Singapore Arts Festival.
I also have ties to Singapore in that my mother's family is from Singapore, and I always spent school holidays with my grandparents and aunts and uncles in the Republic. So I'm at an interesting crossroads where I'm not a Singaporean artist but I am a Singapore artist – while still obviously being Malaysian.
It's good to be away; it gives me a different perspective and a different set of stimuli which take me to different places as writer. For instance, because Singapore has a slightly different relationship with its past than Malaysia does and appears to be more concerned with conservation, heritage and archiving, it has enabled me to tackle historical themes in plays like Occupation and Colony of Singapore.
I wrote Colony of Singapore in 2005, under my National University of Singapore (NUS), Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences-The Arts House Writing Fellowship. It's the story of the 1956 Singapore Constitutional Conference in London at which David Marshall led a Singaporean delegation to negotiate for independence with Britain's Colonial Office. I wrote it entirely using historical documents, editing and juxtaposing newspaper accounts, radio broadcast transcripts, the Hansard of debates in the Legislative Assembly as well as a whole trove of declassified top secret British government dossiers and memos. All these resources were in the Singapore-Malaysia Collection of the National University of Singapore Library, which made it very convenient.
MQ: What are you working on now? What are your future plans?
HS: I'm working on a musical with composer Saidah Rastam, and I'll be writing and directing a play for the 2007 Singapore Arts Festival called Cogito, which is about artificial intelligence and what it means to be human.
Besides theatre, I've just shot and edited two eight-minute documentaries for the National Museum of Singapore, which will be shown on a screen in the permanent galleries. I'm working on two more feature film scripts, as I've mentioned.
I've been getting more involved in teaching and mentoring activities, which I find very satisfying, and I'll be teaching a playwriting class at NUS from next semester.
Add to that a graphic novel that I'm developing, and a novel that I've slowly been tinkering with, and the calendar gets very packed. But it keeps me off the streets, I suppose.QLRS Vol. 7 No. 1 Jan 2008