Interview with Fadzlishah Johanabas

Fadzlishah Johanabas is the author of Visions, a story we have previously published.

Expanded Horizons: Tell us a little bit about yourself as a writer.  How long have you been writing?  Have you always written speculative fiction?

Fadzlishah Johanabas: I started writing when I was 6. To be honest, I only scrawled lines after lines in my elder sister’s unused notebooks. But I have always loved reading, even before that age. I gathered enough courage to write my first story at 16. A fantasy, about a family of wolves, for my school magazine. So yes, I do write a lot of speculative fiction, but not always. I also love writing contemporary stories about love and relationships.

Expanded Horizons: Who/what have been your influences as an author?  Favorite authors, favorite books/stories, personal experiences?

Fadzlishah Johanabas: My first love will always be fantasy. When I started reading on my own, I devoured Enid Blyton’s books. I absolutely loved The Faraway Tree series. Still do, actually. I love the idea of endless possibilities and worlds at the tip of a magical tree. I even imagined worlds not included in the books. Then I moved on to CS Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. When my friend introduced me to the original Dragonlance trilogy written by Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman, I fell in love with Epic Fantasy. I discovered that novels written by women are somewhat stronger. While male authors can be better at portraying battles and large-scale world-building, female authors tend to provide a richer characterization and deeper relationships between characters. Take Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince saga, for instance. I keep on revisiting Sioned’s and Rohan’s world, the world of Sunrunners and Princes, of family ties and intrigue. Or Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series. Absolutely brilliant. While Raymond E Feist’s Riftwar Saga is a wonderful read, The Empire Trilogy, co-written with Janny Wurts, is a different class altogether, and a definite must-read for everyone who loves fantasy.

However, when it comes to love stories, I much prefer male authors. I had found a first print copy of Erich Segal’s Love Story among my mother’s collection, and immediately fell in love with it. When Nicholas Sparks’s books and movies based on his books came along, I was inspired. It doesn’t matter if his stories have become formulaic; Mr. Sparks is a brilliant storyteller.

Personal experiences also play a major role in my stories. The stories I wrote as a teenager and as a young adult lacked depth. But as I learned more about life, and about writing, my stories have become publishable. I’ll let readers decide if they are any good. By observing and interacting with people, I’ve learned how to create believable characters and dialogues. From my experience working as a doctor, I have a deeper understanding about life and death, and the pain in between. The joys, too. When you’re surrounded by death as much as I am, you tend to focus on the joys, on the beauty of life.

Expanded Horizons: How does your religious and/or ethnic background influence your writing?

Fadzlishah Johanabas: When I was in high school, I approached my ustaz — my Islamic Education teacher — regarding my intention to pursue a career in fantasy fiction. He did not exactly stop me there and then, but he taught me that if I were to create worlds and values that go against Islamic teachings, and shake a Muslim reader’s faith, even a fraction, I will have to carry the burden of his sin. For instance, if I wrote a story about polytheism, and Muslim readers start questioning the One God, Heaven’s doors will be off limits for me for eternity, even though I believe only in the One God, in Allah. I know some people may scoff at this, but just look at George Lucas’s Star Wars. Jediism, or Jedi Knight, is a recognized religion. Never underestimate the power of fiction.

Where I come from, English is not our first language, even though plenty of us are proficient at it. I read both English and Malay stories, but my fictions are exclusively in English. Unfortunately, when I started writing, I found writing about local characters thinking and talking in English somewhat disconcerting and, to be honest, pretentious. My stories lacked depth because I wrote about vaguely Western characters in vague settings, usually based on what I gathered from watching television. I told myself only recently that my characters could be talking in Malay, Cantonese or Tamil, the languages of Malaysia, but translated in English. To put it simply, think speculative fiction where the characters are talking in Common, Orcish, or Zarminan, but readers always read the dialogues in plain English. Endless worlds of possibilities opened up to me after that epiphany. Malaysia is rich with a multitude of cultures and religions, all mine for the taking. My friends at Let’s Publish!, a small community within Writing Dot Com, keep on telling me that my stories are exotic. They also tell me that I bring to light the peaceful facet of Islam. Islam is, truth be told, a peaceful and tolerant religion, within certain boundaries. But nowadays, when people want to portray terrorists, be it in motion pictures or in written words, they almost always use Muslim characters. Pick an Arab-looking guy, give him a beard (and a turban if possible), and slap a ‘bin something’ (bin means ‘son of’, by the way), and the whole world will know that character is a terrorist. I hope to eventually change that perception, even when I’m not so sure how the Islamic communities themselves will react to my stories.

So this is what I bring to the table: speculative fiction with characters of color.

Expanded Horizons: What are the challenges faced by speculative fiction authors in Malaysia?

This question is both easy and difficult to answer. Malaysians in general have a certain aversion toward reading. Comics, we love them. Tabloids, keep them coming. Anthologies, sure, some even have the patience for them. But novels? A lot of people roll their eyes just looking at them. Our bookstores are thriving and well stocked, but our libraries are severely underutilized. The reading community is small; the writing community is even smaller. You can count the number of Malaysian-English publication houses with one hand, with fingers to spare. Unfortunately, they do not want genre fiction, especially erotica and speculative fiction. The reason? Simple: there is barely a market for mainstream and literary fiction. Erotica is usually banned, while speculative fiction readership is so small publishers won’t be able to make enough to cover the cost. It’s a shame, really. Malaysia is steeped with culture and mythologies that peoples of other nations brought along when they migrated here.

While I would have preferred to establish myself locally, I don’t find the lack of local markets an obstacle. Not with the availability of online submissions. I made my first short story sale (for actual money) at Expanded Horizons, and Dash is half a world away! I have also recently sold a science fiction piece about a robot embracing Islam, to Cosmos Magazine, which is based in Australia. I avoid snail mail submissions, but what I’m trying to say is that it doesn’t matter if your community doesn’t appreciate what you write. There will be a market for your stories somewhere. You just have to look hard enough, and persevere through all the rejection slips.

Expanded Horizons: You wrote, “but he taught me that if I were to create worlds and values that go against Islamic teachings, and shake a Muslim reader’s faith, even a fraction, I will have to carry the burden of his sin.”  Is this a commonly held view on speculative fiction (and fiction in general), in Malaysia?

Fadzlishah Johanabas: To be honest, I can’t say for sure. Our classic literature, as well as tales passed down from one generation to another, are actually rich with the mystic, the supernatural, and the fantastic.

These stories had been influenced by early Hinduism and even earlier animistic beliefs. Unfortunately, nowadays, only literary fiction is worthy of serious praise and attention.

While Malaysia produces speculative stories and novels written in Malay, Mandarin and Tamil, love stories and political non-fiction are far more popular and in demand.

The younger generations do read translated comics from Hong Kong and Japan, and most of them have fantastic elements (yes, including gods — Sun Wu Kong is a well-known and loved character, and he’s a Monkey God).

I don’t see anyone veering off from his or her religion. However, as a writer, it is my burden to bear if even one reader deviates from his faith because of some elements in my stories go against the teachings of Islam.

That much is clear.

Expanded Horizons: You wrote:

“Where I come from, English is not our first language, even though plenty of us are proficient at it. I read both English and Malay stories, but my fictions are exclusively in English. Unfortunately, when I started writing, I found writing about local characters thinking and talking in English somewhat disconcerting and, to be honest, pretentious. My stories lacked depth because I wrote about vaguely Western characters in vague settings, usually based on what I gathered from watching television. I told myself only recently that my characters could be talking in Malay, Cantonese or Tamil, the languages of Malaysia, but translated in English.”

Have you read this?  http://ephemere.dreamwidth.org/6827.html  I was reminded of it by what you have written here.

Thank you for the link. I agree with Charles Tan to a certain extent. What he’s advocating is not ‘write what you know’, but ‘know what you write’. Same words, but a world of difference. As writers, we have to strive for believability. We are responsible to be as accurate as possible, not to appease the natives of the culture/location we write about, but to ensure readers in general get the correct impression of the culture/location. Since race is a sensitive issue, let me talk about something different yet similar. I’m a doctor, and I avoid watching medical-related shows if possible, especially in Malay dramas. The general population can tell when a show is well-researched or not, but I can tell the discrepancies with real-life medicine and hospitals even in well-researched shows. I would gripe about these discrepancies. But get this: I represent a minuscule percentage of the audience. If a story is about a character in a hospital, it is enough to have superficial and commonly seen things to create an imagery of a hospital setting. People don’t really care that an intravenous drip is set in a wrong direction; they don’t even know what it is for in the first place. However, if a story is about hospitals and medical-related staff, you are obligated to learn as much as you can, or people will call your bluff. There will always be people who are unhappy with what you do, no matter how well you do it. Take Avatar, for example. Blog posts sprout like fungi condemning James Cameron for blatantly exploiting and stereotyping Native Americans and South Americans with the Na’vi. Or at how pro-environmentalism the movie is. The premise is simple: greed can drive people to selfish destruction no matter the cost. Some people overlook this because they have their own agendas. But the movie is so believable, so detailed, that its gross earnings have surpassed two billion dollars. Mr. Cameron did not preach; he entertained. If he managed to create nature-awareness in a portion of his audience, that’s a bonus.

I’ve read wonderful ethnically-centered stories. The world of Kelewan in the Empire Trilogy (Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts) is reminiscent of feudal Japan. Stone Flowers, featured in Fantasy Magazine, is vividly Japanese, and the author, Aidan Doyle, is a white Australian. He spent four years in Japan, and it certainly helped with his believability — because he knew what he wrote.

Anthony Burgess served in my country (she was called Malaya before her independence), and wrote his Malayan Trilogy (Time for a Tiger, The Enemy in the Blanket, and Beds in the East). Robert Raymer, an American expat teaching at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, has published numerous Malaysian-flavored short stories.

Does this mean you have to physically be in a certain place before you can write about it? Sure, it helps, but with the internet readily accessible, it’s not a must. There is no excuse for a writer to not do his research. Want to set a story in Papua New Guinea? Google it. As I said, no excuse. At the end of the day, you are doing your readers a disservice if you blatantly get a culture or location wrong. The natives will hate you (well, some of them will be blissful their province is even mentioned in an internationally-read story), and the rest of the world will get a wrong impression.

Here’s a question I want to throw back at the public: what if the world in general are not interested to know the reality of a locality? Sure, the movie Entrapment featured Malaysia’s pride and joy, the Petronas Twin Towers. But to Westerners, it’s just another skyscraper. People were more interested with the seedier locations — Chinatown, the back alleys, the markets. People want the exotic, things they don’t normally come across.

In The Sleeping Dictionary, Jessica Alba is portrayed as a native Sarawakian. I don’t know if this is the direct result, but some Westerners still think all Malaysians live in forests. Back in my university days, we had entertained a group of students from America. Their eyes bulged when they found out we have Internet and cinemas. I kid you not.

Same with international movies from China. People are more interested in kung-fu movies set in olden days, and think that most Chinese are kung-fu masters and have no indoor plumbing. It doesn’t matter that China has densely populated modern cities. Publishers and movie-makers keep on feeding this skewed view of other countries because, well, exotic sells.

Expanded Horizons: You wrote: “Islam is, truth be told, a peaceful and tolerant religion, within certain boundaries. But nowadays, when people want to portray terrorists, be it in motion pictures or in written words, they almost always use Muslim characters. Pick an Arab-looking guy, give him a beard (and a turban if possible), and slap a ‘bin something’ (bin means ‘son of’, by the way), and the whole world will know that character is a terrorist. I hope to eventually change that perception, even when I’m not so sure how the Islamic communities themselves will react to my stories.”

You raise another interesting point, that when white American audiences think of Muslim characters, they usually think of Arab characters, not Malaysian characters, or of Muslim characters from any other racial or ethnic background.

Fadzlishah Johanabas: Well, when our locals see a Caucasian walking about in Malaysia, we immediately assume he’s American. Blame the media. Maybe people think Islam and Arabs are synonymous because Islam originated from Arabic countries. Maybe, since 9/11, the media has been feeding the public Arab-looking characters who shout ‘Jihad’ or ‘Allah’ before exploding. And now everyone thinks all Arabs are Muslims, and all Muslims are terrorists. It is sad, really.

Expanded Horizons: You wrote: “Malaysians in general have a certain aversion toward reading. Comics, we love them. Tabloids, keep them coming. Anthologies, sure, some even have the patience for them. But novels? A lot of people roll their eyes just looking at them.”

Why do you think this is the case?

Fadzlishah Johanabas: This is actually a never-ending argument we have here. Parents blame the education system, while teachers blame parents for not nurturing the values of reading in their children. This is what happens when no one wants to take responsibility. English novels are quite expensive here, averaging RM35 per book (RM100+ for certain hardcovers). Unfortunately, the same people who complain how expensive novels are, can afford a pack of cigarettes at RM10 per day. Ideally, parents should read in front of their children so that the young ones will eventually imitate their behavior. But more than that, parents should encourage their children to read, even though they themselves cannot finish even one novel cover to cover. And instead of using archaic novels as part of the syllabus, maybe the government should revise reading materials. God, there are so many good YA books out there that are relevant to contemporary life and issues.

You expect the young generation to read? Buy books for them. Revise the prescribed syllabus. Children can only afford comics with their allowances. Newspapers are so grown-up, and most teenagers are only interested in their own lives. Create opportunities and venues for affordable fiction magazines. I post short stories on my blog. I link venues where my stories are easily accessible, such as Expanded Horizons and Crossed Genres. But I only have twelve followers on my blog, and twenty-eight followers on my Twitter account. Without help from local medias, I cannot reach far.

Expanded Horizons: Has the internet opened up new opportunities for other Malaysian authors, both literary and genre?

Fadzlishah Johanabas: AM Muffaz, a Malaysian living in San Fransisco, has her stories published at Fantasy Magazine, among other venues. Ika Vanderkoeck (local girl based in Kuala Lumpur), has also published her story in an anthology by DAW Books. Tunku Halim (based in Australia) is known internationally for his horror and thriller stories and novels. More and more Malaysians are also involved in region-based anthologies with online submissions, including a GLBT anthology (Body2Body) and erotica (Best of Southeast Asian Erotica). I have been advocating the use of Duotrope for possible publication venues.

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