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Jeff Daniels: Life lessons on screen


Sara Veal

“The moment I knew I wanted to make films for the rest of my life, was when I learned how to edit on a computer…

…And I put what was in my head on the screen. The first time I saw what was in my head on the screen, I cried,” says Jeff Daniels, a Melbourne-based filmmaker and high school teacher.

Throughout the past decade, the 31-year-old has pursued this love for film in various ways, working as a researcher and assistant editor at New York production houses and teaching video production at a Melbourne high school, along with history.

At this year’s Jakarta International Film Festival (JiFFest), Daniels presented his first full-length documentary, 10 Conditions of Love, which profiled Uighur human rights activist and prominent businesswoman — once the wealthiest entrepreneur in China — Rebiya Kadeer and explored her personal sacrifices throughout her relentless fight for her people’s autonomy, gaining the label of “terrorist-separatist” from the Chinese government.

The documentary is the culmination of a seven-year US$250,000 process, set in motion when Daniels first heard about the Uighur people, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group that had lived in the far west of China for more than 1,000 years, from a friend teaching English in Beijing.

The native New Yorker said his subsequent research into the Uighur challenged his perspective on 9/11. Several people he knew had died in the Twin Towers and at the time it was mentioned that Osama Bin Laden might be in China, which he accepted without question, eager to assign blame.

“I eventually understood that the Chinese government was persecuting the Uighur, their religious practices, their political freedoms, in the name of a global war on terror. And I felt manipulated. I didn’t want other people to be as misinformed.”

So began his mission to tell the Uighur’s story, without any idea of anyone would ever see the final product, using his teacher’s salary to fund the bulk of the project, as broadcasters were wary of a first-time director and the controversial topic.

Four years into making the film, after gaining the trust of Uighur exiles in New York, he was introduced to Kadeer.

“It was then that I realized that I didn’t just have a news story, a five-minute piece for CNN, I had a film, and it was about Rebiya… she embodied her people’s struggle with her own history,” he says.

Although he had found his star, the challenges continued, especially with the language barrier.

Kadeer, who was only released from prison three years ago, is still learning English and many Uighur translators felt too intimated to interpret their icon’s words, so he’s grateful to her American colleagues and daughter Rey “who speaks perfect English”.

Daniels’ perseverance has paid off, as his film was selected for this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF). The film is an Australian production.

MIFF’s announcement came shortly after the July 2009 riots in Urumqi, the capital city of the Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region, which was instigated by 1,000 Uighurs and led to 200 deaths, most reportedly Han Chinese.

The Chinese government called on the festival to ban the film, describing Kadeer, the president of the World Uighur Congress (WUC) and the Uighur American Association, as their “Osama bin Laden”.

MIFF’s organizers declined, and received death threats, by email, phone and fax. In a single day, 75,000 Chinese citizens hacked into MIFF’s website, leading to the festival losing AUS$60,000 in online ticket sales, as every film had been marked as “sold out”.

Daniels assumes he won’t be able to return to China, but stills hopes people in China will be able to view his film and “see a point of a view that the government does not want them to see”.

To this end, he is working on a Mandarin version of the film.

He was surprised that considering the influence China has over Indonesia, JiFFest’s screening of 10 Conditions of Love didn’t seem problematic. Still, he was on the verge of pulling out, following the ban of fellow Australian production Balibo.

“I called the director about this – Bob Connolly – and spoke to him about it. And after really thinking about it, I just felt it was more appropriate for me to show the people in Indonesia, a story about a strong Muslim woman standing up to her government… to fight for her people’s basic human rights, including freedom of speech.”

Aside from her human rights work, 10 Conditions of Love considers Kadeer as a wife and a mother, roles that have often conflicted with the former.

The title refers to Kadeer’s 10 conditions for remarriage, after her first husband divorced her in favor of a promotion and allegiance to the Communist Party.

Her conditions were: “He must be moral; he must have a literature degree; there must be two years’ age difference; it must be love at first sight; he must have gone to prison for his beliefs; we must truly love each other; loyalty; we must fight for the same goal; and he must be willing to sacrifice himself for the good of our people.”

“Love should be unconditional… but because of the position Rebiya was put in, she had to have these conditions in order to love, and I felt that story… and the title… really said a lot about what Rebiya had been through, what her people were going through,” Daniels says.

Kadeer found these qualities in her second husband Sidik Rouzi, an associate professor and human rights activist who had in fact had been the one to convince Kadeer that it was possible to do more for one’s people. Their love story offers several of the film’s standout moments, from Kadeer charismatically describing how they met, to Rouzi shedding tears when recalling his wife’s 6-year imprisonment.

The film is further characterized by Kadeer’s conflict with her daughter Rey, who, due to her mother’s eventful life, had to raise her 11 siblings.

Rey resents the high price the family has had to pay, particularly with the 2006 and 2007 imprisonment of her two younger brothers, for their involvement in “secessionist activities”, which many see as punishment for Kadeer’s crusade.

“It’s a battle that you want fought, but by somebody else… it was very difficult for Rey,” he says.

Daniels sees his two occupations – filmmaking and teaching – as comparable and overlapping, and tries to make history topics personal, enlivening them with multimedia.

He wants to be able to continue teaching, but is open to what the future holds.

“I’m very happy at the moment because someone asked me, where do you see yourself in 15 years? And I see myself exactly where I am now.”


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John Ajvide Lindqvist : Monsters, magic and Morrissey


Sara Veal

John Ajvide Lindqvist doesn’t like vampires, and hasn’t the slightest idea why the fanged ones are so in vogue.

“There’s such an immense amount of rubbish,” says the Swedish writer. “It’s so sad because when you go to the bookstore, in the horror section, half of the books are about vampires.”

Yet his own debut novel, Let the Right One In, features a romance between a vampire and a boy – and is an international bestseller that has been translated into 28 languages and adapted into a multi-award-winning film.

The 40-something novelist was speaking at the 13th Biennial Singapore Writers Festival last month, at a “Meet the Author” Q&A and to The Jakarta Post.

In person, he belies his novel’s disturbing tone that deftly mixes the socio-realistic horrors of bullying and alcoholic fathers with supernatural ones such as zombie rapists and bloodsucking children – as well as the beautiful melancholy of the film, for which he wrote the screenplay.

He punctuates his speech with lively gestures, emphatic sounds and a reverberating laugh that competes with the Hammer-horror-worthy thunderclaps outside.

When he began Let the Right One In in 2001, he had no idea vampires were going to be so popular. He simply wanted to portray his 1980s adolescence in Blackeberg, a Stockholm suburb, but with the addition of a fantastic element to see how this would affect the suburb and its inhabitants.

“I wasn’t even sure that this thing was going to be a vampire, but as it turned out, I decided I wanted my protagonist Oskar [based on himself] to befriend the monster or the horrible thing … a vampire was the most suitable monster.”

Becoming a horror writer – let alone the foremost Swedish horror writer today, dubbed his country’s Stephen King – was similarly unintentional.

Although he is a lifelong “horror aficionado”, devouring books by King, Clive Barker – his favorite – and Dean Koontz and obsessively watching horror movies (“as soon as I could sneak in . you had to be 15, but I was 13”) – his original “great purpose” in life was to be a magician.

At 18, he came second in the Nordic Card Championships, but realized he enjoyed speaking on stage more than performing tricks. He then turned to stand-up, but found he was more interested in creating new material than honing jokes, and began writing for “more famous” comedians and television.

Meanwhile, he strove to be “a Writer with a big W”, trying to write plays, novels, short stories and poetry, without much satisfaction.

Eventually, he tried his hand at horror, attempting a short story, which he says was “not really a good story” but was “quite exciting”, petrifying himself and his wife as he read it out load.

The experiment prompted him to pen Let the Right One In, an exhilarating, seven-month process.

“When I was trying to write *serious’ literature . I was like sweating over every sentence . But while writing *Let the Right One In*, it was like, I know how to do this, I know what’s going to happen, this is easy!” he says.

“Horror is the maximum open genre; you can basically write about anything … you just have to make it believable.”

Let the Right One In was initially rejected by several publishers, leading Lindqvist to shelve it and start another. It was finally published in 2004, and quickly became popular, assuring a new career.

Lindqvist’s feverish productivity seems to have found the ideal outlet. Since 2004, he’s published two more novels, Handling the Undead and Human Harbour, and completed a fourth, Little Star, in October; three more are planned, in addition to a short story collection, Paper Walls, and several screenplays.

Yet his magical and comedic past still seeps into his present.

Magicians figure in Human Harbour and a recent film script. While signing books, he performed card tricks for fans, and exudes a natural stage presence.

Comedy and horror are similar, he says, as both involve explorations of the unexpected, and his experience performing for an audience informs his writing – he is always aware of his readers.

With the horrible and the fantastic, Lindqvist prefers to part with clich*s and consider how to apply such elements to reality.

In Let the Right One In, he depicts vampirism without “sparkle”, glamour or sex appeal.

“It would be an impoverished, disgusting existence … Basically, being a child living with a terrible disease, and having to kill people in order to survive,” he says.

However, Lindqvist doesn’t discount Stephenie Meyer’s romantic creations.

“My 12-year-old son is reading *the Twilight Saga books and really likes them so I will read the first one, at least.”

In Handling the Undead, he explores the concept of peaceful zombies, monsters he prefers to vampires.

“Because that’s a staple of almost every zombie story, they’re aggressive and there tends to be a war in the end … Also, every zombie is someone’s sister, father, brother … you would have a relationship with these dead people.”

Human Harbour
features vengeful ghosts, Little Star has shape-shifting wolves and there are trolls in Paper Walls. This supernatural theme will continue for at least his next three novels, as will the Swedish setting.

His devotion to British singer Morrissey and The Smiths is another ingredient he weaves into all his stories. Let the Right One In refers to Morrissey’s song, “Let the Right One Slip In”, as well the myth of vampires needing to be invited into homes.

“I need them as emotional equipment for what I’m writing … I know that this chapter should sound or have the feel as this song by Morrissey or The Smiths … it somehow sets the pace with the quote … I use it to push myself on,” he says, adding he includes quotes from his poet wife too.

A real-life encounter doesn’t appeal though.

“*A Swedish newspaper* wanted me to interview him and I said yes, because I couldn’t say no, but I didn’t really want to do it … you shouldn’t meet your idols.”

He is more interested in his upcoming interview with King. While he feels they’re very different writers, he acknowledges King has likely influenced him subconsciously, and lauds the other author’s “no-nonsense attitude towards writing”.

“He’s not a writer with a big W… *His approach is, ‘I hope you like them, I try to make them as good as I can, and make each new one better’.”

He has a similar literary approach, writing chronologically for about a year at a time, and says his strength is stubbornness.

“Stories for me are much more ways of creating bridges and pathways to images that I simply can’t let go of … this gives my stories a certain amount of intensity, because I believe so much in these images.”

Lindqvist aims for high-quality popular culture, citing Pan’s Labyrinth as the epitome. He has been hands on with adapting his novels, all of which seem destined for the screen, insisting on writing the screenplays himself.

“If someone else f***ed it up, I would hate this person for the rest of my life, and I don’t want to feel that way towards anyone,” he says.

Fifteen directors wanted to adapt Let the Right One In
. He chose Tomas Alfredson, whose film Four Shades of Brown he considers “very funny, very dark, perfect, melodramatic, wonderful, heartbreaking”.

He was moved to tears by the result – “for me the book and film feel almost exactly the same” – so he and Alfredson plan to team up again to film Human Harbour, after Kristian Petri directs Handling the Undead.

“I really want to make Swedish movies … I had to fight a lot with the Swedish production companies because they want to sell it to American production companies as there would be more money in the project,” he says.

However, he is looking forward to Hollywood’s version of Let the Right One In, renamed Let Me In, which Cloverfield’s Matt Reeves will direct.

“It can’t possibly be better because I love the Swedish version, but it will be different, and I think that’s good.”

With so many projects on the go, and his recognition on the rise, one wonders if it challenges his writing process?

“No, I don’t let this affect the way I write or what I write . the story takes me in. This problem might apply to writing a series … but I still haven’t written a series,” he says, adding the nearest thing is a 10-page epilogue to Let the Right One In, called “Let the Old Dreams Die” (the next line of the song), to be included in Little Star.

Lindqvist confesses he always wanted to be famous, although he does not aspire to being a “literary rock star” like fellow SWF attendee Neil Gaiman.

“But it would sadden me if I couldn’t at least keep this level of fame,” he says, with a twinkle.

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Petr Lom: Finding his place in the world


Sara Veal

Six years ago, if you had told Petr Lom that he’d be presenting a documentary at the Jakarta International Film Festival (JiFFest), he wouldn’t have believed you.

“Are you kidding? I had no idea what you could do with films, with documentaries,” says the Czech-Canadian who has a PhD in political philosophy from Harvard University.

Many might consider an Ivy League doctorate and a lecturing position at the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest an enviable career, but Lom, now 41, found it “very narrow”, “too lonely” and “self-centered”.

Through academic visits to Central Asia, he encountered a more fulfilling occupation, one he entirely taught himself, and to which he could apply his thesis-editing skills: freelance filmmaker.

“Basically, I had the idea for a film and I just went and made it. Bought a camera, all that. I spent several months in Kyrgyzstan, researching the subjects, finding contacts… I was very scared, I almost didn’t do it,” he says, referring to what became Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, which won the jury award at the 2005 United Nations Festival and was screened at festivals in the US, Asia and the Middle East.

His first film met with protest in Kyrgyzstan because of concerns about the filming of real kidnappings. This combination of acclaim and controversy has characterized his subsequent films, which have been internationally screened, garnering prestigious awards like the Grand Prix at Chicago International Documentary Festival.

At JiFFest, Lom introduced his latest film Letters to the President, which follows Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on trips to the countryside, focusing on the letters poor Iranians write to him, requesting everything from sheep to prayer gowns – and the bureaucratic processing of these millions of letters.

Via this device, Lom’s documentary depicts a side of Iran not usually visible to outsiders, exposing deep class divisions, and allowing the audience to decide for themselves whether the populist president is as bad as he’s usually represented in the West.

Another two of his films were screened at JiFFest: You Cannot Hide From Allah, about a Pakistani taxi driver who won US$54 million in the US lottery and returned to his hometown to become mayor, and On a Tightrope, featuring Uygur orphans learning to tightrope. Lom also taught a masterclass, sharing tips and techniques of working in conflict situations.

Lom prefers making films about ordinary people, a preference that is clear even in Letters to the President, in which the most memorable scene is two women bemoaning the price of strawberries and the standout character is a charismatic propaganda-poster painter who is patiently waiting for a response to his letter.

His films are observational verite, with no narration, minimal title cards and no set ups, with the only interventions being questions from himself and his translator. His subjects relax and open up remarkably in front of his camera, which is all the more astonishing considering that the 1.83-meters-tall blond filmmaker is likely prone to attracting attention in the countries he has filmed in.

“Sometimes spending a lot of time with your subjects helps you be invisible, because it makes you accepted by them, and other times, it’s just the energy you exude,” he says.

Letters to the President is notable for the rare access Lom had to Ahmadinejad. He succeeded where others failed, including Oliver Stone, which he attributes to his proposal to focus on the letter-writing, a request the authorities likely found a refreshing antidote to applications related to Iran’s nuclear technology – as well as his invaluable network of contacts.

“The smart approach to working in any authoritarian country is to work officially. Don’t try to sneak around, it’s a bad idea, it won’t work. So you have to try and find a subject for which you can get official permission, which is going to have to be something relatively positive.”

The promised access wasn’t completely delivered – his planned interviews with Ahmadinejad never happened due to the latter constantly rescheduling – and his five months in Iran were mostly spent “fighting for permissions”, rather than filming.

This thwarted his original intention, which was “to make a film that’s respectful, that shows the point of view of the so-called enemy”.

“I didn’t have proper access… so how could I make that movie if the only narrative line I had was to set it up as a propaganda film and then undermine it as the film goes along?”

The Iranian response to the footage was mixed, and he doubts he’ll be able to re-enter the country under the current government.

“The vice president… he’s in the film and he doesn’t like how he comes across… Ahmadinejad didn’t like it because he said it makes Iran look like a poor country,” he says, adding that was inevitable as he was only allowed to follow the president to the poorest areas of the country.

“In a way they were happy that the film got a lot of international publicity. They put in the newspapers, ‘Ahmadinejad goes to Berlinale’.”

Lom also planned to focus more on ordinary Iranians, such as the painter, whom he thought could be “the main character”. However, as the film took a more critical shape, he realized a character-driven film could be dangerous for those involved.

“Now it’s a vignette film, you meet people here or there, but it’s not really about anyone in particular… so nobody’s really affiliated.”

Lom describes Ahmadinejad as “chaotic”, but otherwise reserves his views.

“I only filmed what you see so my opinion is the same as yours. He seems like a very religious person, he’s a very good politician, he seems like he genuinely cares about poor people. Is that just an act because he’s a politician? I don’t know.”

He is currently looking for his next project, as his plan to film Uyghurs in Palau who were released from Guantanamo, fell through two weeks ago. The former prisoners were worried about angering either the US, China or Palau.

“I told them, I won’t release the film until you find a new home somewhere… they still didn’t want to be in the movie.”

Although he’s usually “depressed for a month” by such setbacks, he accepts them as part of the work.

“The bigger the film, the bigger the risk. You never know things are going to work out.”

Despite the international recognition his films have received, Lom says it remains challenging to realize new projects and secure funding.

“In the broadcast world a lot of it about trust; most films don’t get made, so your reputation helps a lot, when you’re looking for work. But is it that much easier? No, you’re always starting from zero; you always have to convince people.”

Nonetheless, Lom intends to remain a freelancer, as it allows him “to make creative documentaries, the way I want to make them”.

Having so successfully made a dramatic switch from one profession to another, one wonders if there’s anything else Lom might want to tackle?

“Nothing. I am naturally fitted to what I do. I’ve found my place in the world,” he says.

“When I was an academic, I was always asking, well what am I going to do with myself? Now I just ask, what film am I going to make next? And how am I going to be able to make that film?”

Visit http://www.letterstothepresidentmovie.com for more information.

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Mohammed Hanif : Facing facts, fiction and fruit


Sara Veal

Mohammed Hanif has had a diverse career that many would envy: fighter pilot, political journalist, BBC correspondent, playwright, screenwriter and now bestselling author.

His 2008 debut novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes receives much critical acclaim, including being long-listed for the 2008 Man Booker prize and winning the 2009 Commonwealth Best First Book Prize.

However, when speaking at the Singapore Writers Festival earlier this month, at a Q&A and to The Jakarta Post, the Pakistani novelist seemed unaffected by his accomplishments, describing his life as “pretty dull so far”, without a hint of false modesty, while simultaneously infusing his comments and recollections with the same wry, dark humor that makes his first novel such a delight to read.

“When I was a teenager, I boasted that I wanted to make a play or a movie in Punjabi and I want to write a novel in English… As it happens, that’s how life turned out to be. You read and read, and one day you get delusional and think, I also can actually do this,” he says.

Aside from these teenage dreams, his main priority was simply to get out of his hometown, a small Pakistani village where he says life “revolved around potato crops and weddings” and “one didn’t know anything about anything” unless guests from the city left a newspaper behind. So when at 16 years old, he saw in one of these rare newspapers that the air force was recruiting fighter pilots, he decided to apply.

“It seemed a very glamorous thing… but, as soon as I got in, I realized I had left one closed community for another, one with gates and guns,” he says.

Although the army proved to be an awkward fit – “I wasn’t very good at anything, especially the things officers are supposed to do” – he endured seven years, gaining a military education and finding solace in the surprisingly well-stocked army library, reading everything from Frederick Forsyth to Dostoevsky.

When he left, as he was “only good at reading and writing”, he found himself “drifting” toward journalism.

“I had a friend who was freelancing for various magazines, and I thought he wrote pretty badly, so I thought if he could do it, I could do it too,” he says.

Based in Karachi, Hanif made his name interviewing fashion models and writing entertainment reviews. He soon branched out, when struggling actor and director friends begged him to try his hand at writing plays and scripts.

He was also approached by a small, “fiercely democratic” political magazine run by women, where he worked for around seven years as the only male journalist, marrying a colleague (and “closet actress”), until 1997, when the BBC offered him a job in London as an special Urdu correspondent.

While in London he began to take his first steps toward literary greatness. Although he admits he tends to be one of those people who’d “pick up a book and say, *this is a creative writing product’, and then put it aside”, he became interested in studying a Master’s degree at the University of East Anglia (UEA), which boasts one of the UK’s most respected creative writing programs.

“One of the things that I’d lacked in my life was that I’d never been to a proper university. The only education I’d had was at the military academy, and military academies all over the world are not known for their intellectual rigor,” he says.

UEA was especially appealing as one of his favorite novelists, Patricia Duncker (Hallucinating Foucault), taught there.

“I spoke to her for five minutes and I thought it would be nice to occasionally talk to this person and the only way to do that was if you were in that department.”

Although he claims he was much older than his classmates (late 30s to their early-mid-20s), he says he thoroughly enjoyed the university experience, from the cheap beer in the student union to the mad sorts that eternally haunted the campus, as well as the fact of being surrounded by like-minded wannabe writers, which gave him the confidence to be more open about his novelist aspirations.

“I became quite shameless, telling people I’m writing a book, so what?” he says.

The subject of this book was one he had in his mind some time: the enduring mystery of the 1988 airplane crash that killed Pakistan’s then dictator, General Zia ul Haq, along with several other top army generals and an American ambassador.

“I grew up during his time, and he was one of those typical boring dictators whose face was always stuck on the TV, this constant drone that goes on in the background,” he says.

Hanif says he was intrigued that nobody in Pakistan ever seemed interested in finding out who might have done the deed, despite the obvious suspiciousness of the incident.

“More than the murder mystery, I think that kind of attitude, that sort of *he’s dead, good riddance, let’s get on with our lives’ – that attitude intrigued me more than the mystery itself.”

Writing the book was a 30-month process that involved much scribbling in cafes and pubs, wrestling with his “short-attention span” and a sticky Internet research incident on an American army website where he accidentally implied that he was planning a terrorist attack.

“I had registered myself as Mohammed, and said *Can someone tell me the preflight checks for the *Hercules C130, the plane General Zia died in*? I mean, I didn’t think of it at all… within 10 minutes there was so much abuse; I was sitting in my house, thinking what the hell have I done?… That cured me of any more research.”

Once it was completed, he says he managed to get it published in the UK by lying.

“I contacted *the agent* and said *I met you last year’. Which I hadn’t. But we were in the same building, so we could have, and if I’d had the guts, I could have gone up to her and said hello. So I said last year, we met, now I’ve finished my book, could you read it? So she said, yeah, send it.”

Evidently, she liked what she read, as she found him publishers in the UK, USA and Canada.

However, getting published in Pakistan was another story. Hanif says he sent it to four publishers without any luck, with most admitting the book’s subjects – foolish dictators, homosexual romance – were too controversial.

“The publishers were scared… and they were wrong. They are small businesses, why would I expect somebody to risk their livelihood for a trifling little novel? So that is understandable. But they all want to publish my second book!” he says, adding that the novel topped the bestseller lists in Pakistan for more than a year.

Hanif, who returned to Karachi last year with his wife and son, notes that the tense political situation in Pakistan was probably why his book failed to ignite much controversy, as the publishers had feared.

“By the time the book came out, Pakistan had such huge problems that nobody was going to worry about a book.”

While he dismisses the fact the international media often places Pakistan at the top of “most-dangerous countries” lists – “If you were going to make a list by popular consensus of the top 10 most dangerous countries then probably most people would include the USA” – he says his homeland is in a lot of trouble, facing similar problems to Indonesia, just “multiplied by 10”: too many years of military rule; a dynastic approach to democracy (thanks to the systematic martyrdom of the Bhuttos); and increasing Islam extremism, none of which he feels reflects popular attitudes.

“It’s always been a Muslim country, and there’s never been any real problems before… whether you wanted to go to the mosque or get smashed in the evening… it’s all your own business… the state and the society was open enough for both to exist side by side.”

He adds democracy in Pakistan has yet to have a chance to develop and flourish.

“In 62 years we’ve only had one parliament which completed its run… even that ended in tragedy.”

But while he’s a cynic by nature, he retains a basic optimism that things will improve, saying he would have no justification for remaining in the country if he didn’t.

In the meantime, he’s working on his second novel, a “civilian” love story set in Pakistan.

Although the focus is once again Pakistan, Hanif says he remains open to all genres, topics and settings.

“There’s always outer space!”

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Raising his voice


Sara Veal

Thai writer Chart Korbjitti is the epitome of serenity, with a warm smile and measured, lyrical manner of speaking.

You’d never guess the harsh social ordeals he subjects some of his characters to, such as a good-hearted man who is slowly driven to alcoholism by the mistaken harsh judgment of his fellow villagers,in The Judgment (1981), or a father who is driven to commit the unthinkable against those he loves out of financial desperation, in No Way Out (1980).

“One reader asked why I was so mean to the main character [in The Judgment], how could I do what I did to him? I said, see, if you think that is cruel, then don’t do it to anyone,” he says, adding many readers have told him that his words have taught them to rethink their own actions.

The Thai author was speaking at the 13th biennial Singapore Writers’ Festival 2009 last weekend, where he gave his fans an opportunity to discuss his work and joined fellow Southeast Asian literary greats in discussions on the future of Southeast Asian literature.

Born in 1954 into a merchant family in Samu Sakhon, a province near Bangkok, Chart is one of the most respected and successful living writers in Thailand, renowned for his innovative and fresh prose style and courage in depicting Thai society exactly the way he sees it.

He has won several awards, most notably the SEA Write Award twice in 1981 (The Judgment) and 1994 (Time), and in 2004 was named a National Artist in Literature by the Thai Offi ce of the National Culture Commission, for his exceptional contributions to the arts

Many of his works have been translated in up to nine languages, including English, Indonesian and Japanese, and he is the most-read Thai writer outside Thailand, a rare feat considering the dearth of Thai literature in translation. The Judgment, arguably his most popular novel, was adapted into a fi lm in 2004.

He first dreamed of becoming a writer when he was a 14-year-old schoolboy; he began writing short stories based on his own childhood experiences, in a notebook he carried everywhere, immediately fi nding a fan base: “Every morning when I came to school, friends would ask me to read those stories,” he says.

In 1969, when he was 15, he published his fi rst short story, “Nak Rian Nak Leng”, in a school publication at Wat Pathum Khong Kha School.

After graduation, although he knew he wanted to focus on writing, it did not seem he would be able support himself with the kind of writing he was interested in.

“To survive in this world, you have to write the way the market wants you to. For me this is a waste of time,” he says, referring to commercial writing for advertising and magazines.

“So I thought if I really had to work for money, I’d rather work in other areas, not the one I loved, so I began to sell leather bags in the market, which earned me a lot of money, and was not tiring work. At night, when I didn’t have to work on the leather bags, I still read and wrote.”

His talents did not remain unnoticed for long, and he was eventually able to support himself without compromising his ideals – or making leather bags.

In 1979, a short story he published in Lok Nangsue magazine won the prestigious Cho Karaket story award, and two years later, the enthusiastic response to The Judgment assured his rise to literary prominence.

Chart says his socialism was fi rst sparked in his late teens, after reading newspapers, and further ignited by youth uprisings, especially the Oct. 6, 1976, massacre in Bangkok, in which the military and police brutally cracked down on protesting university students, leading to 46 reported deaths.

This prompted him to openly criticize the situation through his writing.

“When I see that my government does something I don’t think is right, I will raise my voice against it,” he says.

These days, he feels that Thailand needs to become more selfsuffi cient, noting the country often suffers badly in times of global economic crisis because of its overreliance on tourism and imports.

“It’s time we built our own small houses, from our own materials, so we can live in them forever, until we have enough money to expand.”

However, he downplays his lifelong bold critique of Thai society and politics, saying it is simply a writer’s responsibility.

“Writers are just a part of society, we are not above anyone, we are just like bus drivers and janitors, and we have our own duties in society. Our duty is to write and express what we think.

He says that he has little to fear or lose, because he can use his art as his shield, unlike journalists, who are usually arrested for speaking out.

“Art can protect us. For example, if I want to criticize someone but I do it in an artistic way, that person might laugh at my criticism,” he says, adding he has even sent booklets to Thai prime ministers.

Beyond political commentary, Chart says he is fascinated by how people in society treat each other, which is evident in his careful, intense character studies that reveal universal truths about prejudice and hopelessness.

Chart admits that his combination of critical and commercial success is unusual in Thailand.

“There are two kinds of writers in Thailand. The fi rst are those who write for magazines, mostly women’s magazines, and they can survive quite well. They can even send their kids to study abroad.

“But the other kinds of writers are those who write seriously, about social issues and heavier matters, and the market for this is very small, so it’s harder to survive. Most of them can only survive for six or seven years, then they usually have to give up and do something else. It might take them up to fi ve years to sell 2,000 copies of their books, if they were lucky.”

He is especially qualifi ed to comment on the habits of the Thai reading public, as well as the international market, as he runs his own publishing house Samnakphim Hon (Howling Books), which publishes all his works.

“There is a problem with transmission of Thai authors outside their own country… plus, here, those who read these kinds *socio-political* of novels are rare… and in my country, not many people read, so how can we expect those few who read to read stories like mine?”

Despite these challenges, Chart remains invested in the future of Thai literature and feels it is best he continues to lead by example.

“What I can do is to keep improving my writing, so that young writers can look at my work and have hope for themselves.”

For the past three years, he has been working on a novel about a 50-year-old man who is refl ecting on his life, which he says will be a “little autobiographical”. He does not know yet when it will be completed, promising only that it would be done within “this life of mine”.

Chart observes that in life, there are usually two kinds of work; the first allows one to feed themselves and those they are responsible for, while the second supports one’s spiritual life. He counts himself as especially fortunate as in his case; the two kinds of work are the same.

“That’s what I call happiness in life. Of course, if I continued my leather handbag business, I’d have a lot more money – but I’m happy with the choice I’ve made.”


Thang Chana (The Road to Victory; 1979)
Chon Trok (The Blind Road; 1980); published in English in 2003 as No Way Out
Khamphiphaksa (1981); published in English in 1995 as The Judgment
Rueang Thamada (An Ordinary Story; 1983)
Mit Pracham Tua (The Personal Knife; 1984)
Ma Nao Loi Nam (A Rotten Dog is Floating About; 1987)
Phan Ma Ba (1988); published in English in 2002 as Mad Dogs & Co.
Nakhon Mai Pen Rai (Don’t Bother City; 1989)
Wela (1993); published in English in 2000 as Time
Banthuek: Banthuek Rueang Rao Rai Sara Khong Chiwit (essays; 1996)
Raingan Thueng Phanathan Nayok Ratthamontri (Report to the Prime Minister; 1996)
Lom Long (Seduced; 2000)
Ple Yuan Tai Ton Nun (2003), collected articles from Si San magazine 1999-2003
Borikan Rap Nuat Na (2005)

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Huib Akihary: The Best of Both Worlds


Sara Veal

In 1983, following a five-day voyage from Jakarta, Huib Akihary stood at the boat’s bow at sunrise, watching the two points of the Bay of Ambon grow and gradually encircle him, welcoming him to his father’s homeland.

When the boat finally arrived in Ambon, the then 29-year-old waited for the other passengers to disembark, as he had told his aunt he would be the last one off the boat.

“Then four police officers came to the boat and they were asking for me. I said, *I haven’t done anything, just visiting my family’,” Akihary says.

“*No, no problem,’ they said. *Just your aunt has asked us to get you off the boat.’ So I was escorted by them and met my aunt for the first time . then she told me that my uncles, cousins and nephews were also there . There were more than 40 people standing there, some of whom had traveled two days to Ambon.”

This auspicious reception signaled an important step in Akihary’s lifelong journey to understand his Moluccan heritage, leading him to become an expert on Indonesia and Holland’s mutual architectural history, and culminating in his appointment as director of Museum Maluku, in the Netherlands, in March this year.

Akihary was born and raised in Holland by a Dutch mother and a Moluccan father. Although he grew up outside the Moluccan diasporic community, he was always interested in his father’s culture and roots.

“My thinking and reasoning are Dutch, yet my feelings and emotions are Moluccan. Adat *tradition*, family matters, music, food and helping each other as much as possible are basic Moluccan cultural values and are very much part of my personal life. I try to incorporate that in my Western way of thinking and find a balance in both,” he says.

Akihary has two teenage sons, with whom he says he shares Moluccan culture via literature, film, music and cuisine.

“I present it to them and they can choose by themselves if they want to absorb it or not,” he says.

“In my case, if I have the name Akihary, I have to know where it comes from.”

The name Akihary is well-known in Ambon and increasingly representative of Moluccans overseas. Akihary says many of his relatives in both Indonesia and the Netherlands are highly involved in their immediate community and the wider Moluccan diaspora, as businesspeople, teachers, solicitors and ministers. His cousin Monica Akihary is the lead singer of Boi Akih, a world jazz ensemble that performs Moluccan songs.

“We all share a mutual interest in our Moluccan culture and traditions wherever we live,” he says. “As Monica and I play an important role in spreading and conserving Moluccan culture, our family supports us in every way.”

Since his first visit to Indonesia in 1983, he has returned several times: in 1984 to research his thesis on the history of architecture of the city of Batavia between 1870 and 1942; in 1988 for a seminar on Indonesia and Holland’s mutual architectural heritage; and in 1990 to conduct a five-year inventory of all the Portuguese and Dutch fortifications in the Moluccas, a project cancelled in 1991 for political reasons.

Last month, the Moluccan governor and diplomatic community invited Akihary, in his capacity as Museum Maluku director, to Ambon to organize a musical theater project, Paku Coklat, performed by the Moluccan Music Theatre Ensemble, and reportedly a sell-out success.

His position as director of Museum Maluku is one he has strived for since graduating as an art historian from the University of Amsterdam in 1986, the same year the museum was founded.

“I was involved with the museum since the start, as an adviser, as a member of committees and as chairman of the foundation of Friends of the Museum. In the 90s I was asked to organize a few exhibitions,” he says.

“Under my direction and in close cooperation with the newly appointed curator Dr. Jet Bakels, a very experienced museum worker, the Museum Maluku will focus on a broader audience, broader than simply the Moluccan community in the Netherlands.”

He says partners will include institutes and individuals worldwide that study Moluccan culture, such as the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC, government departments in Moluccan province and Moluccan cultural societies in Jakarta.

“It’s important to join hands and strengthen the cultural identity of Moluccans wherever they live,” he says, adding there are significant communities in California and Jakarta.

“I have a very active role now in preserving, discovering, documenting, registering and describing Moluccan culture… In short, safeguarding it for those who live abroad.”

Although his focus is on Moluccan heritage, his doctoral research on Batavia means he is knowledgeable about Jakarta’s architectural treasures, citing the city as a modern marvel, as well as a major example of Indonesian and Dutch mutual heritage.

“When you drive through Jakarta at night it’s beautiful, with all the lights and all the high-rise buildings,” he says.

“At present, these buildings, as well as shopping malls and complexes, have an international style. The interesting question is if modern Indonesian architecture and urban planning will find ways and means to develop its own Indonesian identity.”

A unique Indonesian identity, he says, remains evident in the architectural remnants of Jakarta’s past.

“The layout of Jakarta still shows the history of its growth since 1600, such as the town near Pasar Ikan with its Dutch layout of streets and canals *Kali Besar*,” he says.

“This is why it makes me sad when I see that they are destroying a building without knowing its meaning or historical value.”

So far, Akihary feels his greatest professional achievements have been his publications on Dutch colonial architecture in Indonesia, which he says have helped Indonesian architects in their urban planning, as well as architectural exhibitions he has participated in, such as at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

“But by far I am most proud of and feel very privileged to have the chance to work on and to promote the Moluccan culture as the new director of Museum Maluku in close cooperation with Moluccans worldwide. It’s very rewarding in many ways.”

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Trudy Jacobsen: Looking for Lost Goddesses


Sara Veal

The low status of Cambodian women today is in stark contrast with the purported power of their past counterparts, but according to Dr Trudy Jacobsen, Cambodia’s goddesses were never lost – historians had simply been looking for them in the wrong places.

Jacobsen, author of Lost Goddesses, attempts to solve the mystery of how the change in women’s status came about, by analyzing the denial of female power in Khmer history from the early 3rd century until the present.

The 35-year-old Australian national is the newly appointed assistant professor in mainland Southeast Asian history at Northern Illinois University (NIU) in the US. This follows positions at Australia’s Monash University and Griffith University, the Swedish School for Advanced Asia-Pacific Studies and the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

Jacobsen’s debut book is based on her PhD thesis, which came about when she discovered very little had been written about the history of women in Cambodia. The topic was personal to Jacobsen, as she regards Cambodia, where she spent most of her teenage years, as home.

“My Cambodian friends say I have a foreign face but a Cambodian heart,” she says, adding a fortuneteller even claimed she had been a Cambodian monk in a previous life.

Because her parents work in development, Jacobsen has grown up all over the world, including Sulawesi, where she spent her early childhood. She first came to Cambodia in 1988, when it reopened to the international community.

Her globetrotting widened her linguistic repertoire. In addition to Khmer, she understands French, Indonesian, Russian, Sanskrit and Pali, which has aided her historical detective work, particularly in reexamining sources.

“For Lost Goddesses, I was able to go back through all of the records, Sanskrit, Pali, Old Khmer, French archival records, the Cambodian media, print media and newsreels from the 1960s, books, so-called traditional literature and actually see where women featured.”

What she found was that women’s voices had been left out of Khmer history because Western historians often misinterpreted power in the Khmer context.

“In the West we have this idea that you have to be politically powerful if you are indeed to have power,” she says. “In Cambodia, the unseen *domestic, spiritual* world is as important as the seen world.”

Jacobsen’s willingness to challenge received history means she is no stranger to controversy.

In 2006, she wrote an article “Kampuchea Krom: The facts behind the friction” published in The Phnom Penh Post, in which she argued that the usual reasons Cambodians give for hating the Vietnamese were invalid according to 18th-century Cambodian chronicles.

Her assertions prompted hate mail and death threats from Cambodians in Australia and the USA.

“I received emails saying things like *we may live in Long Beach but we know that your house is the one with the two red pots outside’. which was true!” she says.

She attributes the extreme response to the sensitivity of people in diaspora regarding their country of origin, and to the Khmer culture in which critical thinking is anathema.

“Critical thinking is anti-Buddhism; you don’t struggle against your lot in life,” she says. “Also, the education system as implemented by the French in the colonial period hasn’t changed, and we can’t talk about education under the Khmer Rouge. . These regimes have one thing in common: Don’t question us.”

So she aims to stimulate critical thinking among her Cambodian students, especially on a nation-building course she teaches as part of a summer program organized by the US-based Council on International Educational Exchange and the Center for Khmer Studies in Siem Reap.

Jacobsen also believes historical knowledge can contribute to Cambodia’s development, as “there are so many conflicts and contemporary issues that have their roots in the past that a greater understanding of the past can only elicit better solutions”.

And solutions are needed, she believes. Although there has been much development in Cambodia in the past 20 years, she points out it has not significantly benefited rural Cambodians, particularly in terms of education, because of problems with the judiciary and unsustainable development programs that lack cultural understanding.

“In Cambodia, nobody is ever free as an individual; everyone is at the mercy of their patron, their client. The individual is not the smallest social unit, the family is,” she says.

“That makes a big difference when you’re trying to impose Western ideas such as feminism and democracy on a culture like this, because in the West those ideas come from 200 years of post-Enlightenment rationale and reasoning.”

She adds that expatriates in Cambodia often risk adding to problems, especially if seduced by a lifestyle with many luxuries and few consequences.

“If some foreigners were more accountable for their actions or had a better sense of morality about what they were doing here, perhaps Cambodians would see that it’s not OK to keep perpetuating corruption and these standards,” she says, noting as an example the contradiction of people working in anti-trafficking visiting prostitutes.

For these reasons, she is excited about joining NIU, as the institution aims to use in-depth knowledge of the region to implement sustainable programs. Sending students to Southeast Asia to learn languages there, rather than being expensively trained in the USA, is one of the primary steps.

She is also excited about a new project: A book on sexual contracts in Myanmar and Cambodia.

While her focus will be less on women and more on social practices such as sex trafficking, she plans to continue unveiling the hidden histories of people not traditionally considered important, such as prostitutes, rather than the so-called “great men” like Pol Pot.

“It’s a lot harder to do that, of course, because there were no records kept about them, but if you’re a good historian, you can often read between the lines and find history for people that have been forgotten for years,” she says.

“These are actually the people that make up Cambodia. Not the people at the top, but the people at the bottom.”

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