[NABP] Gema di Menara (Echoes from the Minaret)

Yesterday I went to White Screen Cinema in Sungai Hanching for a special screening of Brunei’s first film, Gema di Menara (1968) translated as Echoes from the Minaret, and it was amazing. The screening was arranged by a colleague, who has watched the film 3 times, and I’m already jealous. As soon as I left the cinema I wanted to watch it again. This October will be the 50th anniversary of the film, and I understand that Regal Blue will be hosting a bunch of events leading up to the anniversary.

Gema di Menara 3

The film (originally shot on 35mm and digitized by Regal Blue Productions) was commissioned or at least purpose-made for the Ministry of Religious Affairs. It opens with two official statements by a Bruneian official and then I assume the British High Commissioner at the time, who reads a Malay statement. Both of them emphasize that it’s explicitly a dakwah film, meant for the edification of Bruneian Muslims and the ummah in general. I loved this framing of the film, just because it reminds me so much of Victorian lit, in which every novel opens with a very defensive moral justification of its own existence. Art for art’s sake? No no no.

The story itself is pretty simple: it’s about three siblings, Azman, Noriah and Nordin. Azman is a Good Son (anak yang sempurna) who has been educated in the West but still follows the “teachings of Islam” (SHADES OF SITI NUR), and Noriah and Nordin are Bad Eggs. We see them for the first time dancing on the beach (Muara beach?), Nordin in a skimpy pair of bathing short-short-shorts, and Noriah sporting cat-eye glasses. Both think that Azman is an Enemy of Progress and Modernity, what with his unfortunate tendency to bring every conversation back to Religion. Their parents lament Noriah and Nordin’s waywardness, but it all comes to a head when the Father goes off to Makkah for Hajj and leaves his property in Nordin’s hands.

Observations (I will try to keep this spoiler-free, but no promises)

  1. It was so so so fascinating to see “Brunei” of the 1960s! The tactic of this movie is to warn people away from Vice by SHOWING ALL THE VICES (gambling, alcohol, zina) and it is AMAZING. You could never see any of this stuff on Bruneian TV today – the girls in swimsuits! The bared shoulders covered only by a sheet when someone is caught post-coitally lounging in bed. The GAMBLING scene. The drunk driving scene!!!
  2. The choral performance that opens the film is INCREDIBLE. You know how back in Victorian times, the sign that a girl was getting older was that she would be permitted to let down her skirts? I.e longer skirts = older? I was wondering if that applied to Malay boys in the 1960s because schoolboys wore shorts while men wore long trousers. Also, the sinjang “length” on the boys!!!! I am not exaggerating when I say they were almost belt-like in their brevity. And the performers!!! They seemed so put-upon – no smiles, just singing.
  3. I counted maybe 3 instances of someone wearing the tudong the way we do today i.e covering the entire head, no fringes or neck showing. Everyone else, even the ustazahs preaching Islam, had sort of a cursory selendang.
  4. THE ISLAM AWARENESS ROADSHOWS – everything about them. The content of the speeches, the complete lack of performativity. Sin leads to Death and Destruction.
  5. When the Father comes back from the Hajj (that whole scene at the airport with the MSA plane is incredible), he’s dressed like a Full On Sheikh, flowing white headpiece secured by a band, robes, two hard suitcases.
  6. EVERYONE wears sunglasses indoors
  7. At Nordin’s birthday party, the camera continually cuts back to these 4 wallflowers, whose only job is to bop their heads along to the music (the LIVE PERFORMANCE)
  8. RIPAS – nurses in skirts and stockings and white heels. I just found all the female costuming amazing. And an interesting commentary on just how and how much the sartorial landscape and our cultural interpretation of modesty has changed over the last 50 years.

donkey-carrot-stickAs a modern-day viewer, I found Azman’s speechifying on behalf of Islam incredibly unconvincing – Nordin’s repeated question, “But what good can Islam do for my life?” is never answered properly. Azman almost doesn’t seem to understand the question. His argument is that “Islam is correct so it must be good.” The film answers the question by saying, Sin leads to Death and Destruction – it’s a Stick answer, and the Carrot seems pretty tasteless, it’s a lack of punishment rather than an actual reward or an explanation of how living according to the tenets of Islam can make your life better, happier, more fulfilling. I mean, Azman was kind of a bore, to be quite frank. He would have turned me off virtue as well, what with his prosifying and his handlebar moustache quivering in righteous indignation all the time.

There is so much to do with this film – the plot, the cinematography, its place in Bruneian cultural history. I’m going to start digging into what’s already been written about it, and will link up any interesting finds – I can’t wait! In the meantime, here are some pictures of White Screen Cinema, which is so so interesting – I can’t believe there’s an arthouse cinema in my neck of the woods, and that the studio has been there for like 15 years. I literally drive by this studio all the time and have never once thought it was anything other than a regular house.

I would love to hear your thoughts, or any interesting leads or knowledge you have on this film!

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Mid-month check-in: March

At the halfway-ish point in March, I have read 6 books, of which were really good!

Marie Brennan A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent I was sold on this when the blurb described it as a cross between Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series, both of which I love. Lady scholar is determined to scholar despite patriarchy, and to scholar flamboyantly. Set in a sort of steampunk-ish, Victorian England-ish but fictional world, the conceit is that this is a memoir by a renowned scholar in her old age, writing about her early days, before she became the internationally famous dragon scholar she is today. She is outrageous and outspoken now; this first in the series takes us through her early days, before she came into herself. I’d add for fans of Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree and maybe even Sherry Thomas’ Lady Sherlock series – if you like strong, academic heroines (my fictional weakness) this might be for you. Light and fantastic, I’m a few chapters into the second in the series now.

ed. Nick Haramis, illustrations by Joanna Avillez Courage is Contagious: And Other Reasons to be Grateful for Michelle Obama A collection of tributes and essays to and about the former FLOTUS – some chapters made me tear up. I found the fact that Lena Dunham wrote the foreword a bit off-putting, but otherwise I really enjoyed this dissection of what Michelle Obama meant to so many.

“When you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. You reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.” – Michelle Obama. Words to live by.

“No president in recent memory has done more for women than Barack Obama. But it wasn’t just his policies that sent a message–it was his marriage to a brilliant woman every bit his equal, and the two fabulous daughters they’ve raised together…A president who reveres his wife, not by placing her on a pedestal but by seeing her as a complex human being.” – Cecile Richards. Who doesn’t want to be revered and loved in this way?

“I love explaining to [my daughter] that Michelle went to Princeton first, and then Harvard Law, that she was a successful attorney and university dean before becoming first lady.” – Charlamagne tha God.

Zen Cho Spirits Abroad loved this collection of short stories about the supernatural in Malaysia, and with Malaysians abroad. The title, I felt, referred both to supernatural entities wandering around, and to the displaced Malaysians in disapora, whether they were studying overseas or had moved there. Some stories were whimsical, some were darker, some were sorrowful, some were romantic but they all had a thread of Southeast Asian pragmatism and humour running through them. This is the collection I wanted to read growing up, when I wanted to see Southeast Asian-ness, Bruneian-ness, made manifest on the page, given weight and heft, recognizable and familiar but still touched lightly, deftly, as if our Asian-ness is not all that we are, on the page. Without gimmicks, but with that magic of fiction. Some of the stories I loved:

The Many Deaths of Hang Jebat (legend questioned, made contemporary, rewritten)

The House of Aunts (Pontianak falls in love with human (Muslim) boy, and tells him he can’t share her nuggets because they’re not halal. This immortal line: “They’re not not-halal because they’re made of pork. They’re not halal because they’re made of human.” To which he responds: “If you don’t want to share your nugget, say lah. Why so shy to admit you’re greedy?”)

From One Day Travelcard to Fairyland This line is the best description of English bus heat I’ve ever read: “The air outside the airport had been cold beyond belief, but the bus had been warm – not an honest sticky heat, but a stultifying man-made warmth that smelled of dusty upholstery.”

The Mystery of the Suet Swain – a Malaysian girl in England has a Malaysian stalker from the community. This is one of the most feminist stories in the collection, and it was hugely hugely satisfying to read an articulation of the ingrained sexism of Asian courtship.

The stalkee, Belinda, at first feels guilty about being stalked: “I should have said yes to somebody,” gulped Belinda. “One of the eleven boys. I should have said I’d go out with one of them. But I didn’t like them that way. I didn’t ask them to like me also.”

“Who said you did?”

“Feels like I’m being punished,” sobbed Belinda, “Because I didn’t say yes to any of them. Bullet was sent to punish me.”

“This is what comes of being religious,” Sham told her. “You all think everything that happens is because God wants to teach you something or other. Sometimes things just happen lah.”

The Earth Spirit’s Favorite Anecdote – this was just hilarious. Toyols and all.

The four generations of Chang E – a woman moves to the Moon. Each generation changes, evolves, adapts in the timeless ways that all humans do when they inhabit a new land.

“Here is a secret Chang E knew, though her mother didn’t.

Past a certain point, you stop being able to go home. At this point, when you have got this far from where you were from, the thread snaps. The narrative breaks. And you are forced, pastless, motherless, selfless, to invent yourself anew.

At a certain point, this stops being sad–but who knows if any human has ever reached that point?”

I have bought two other Zen Cho novels.

And not a new read, but a re-read, so I didn’t include it in my book count: Margaret Atwood The Handmaid’s Tale for Feminist Book Club. I liked this so much more than I did the first time I read it ten years ago – and it’s scary how much more contemporary it feels today.

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.

Modesty is invisibility, said Aunt Lydia. Never forget it. To be seen – to be seen – is to be – her voice trembled – penetrated. 

Ordinary is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary. 

In other news, March has been an expensive month, bookwise! Expense report to come.

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February Round-Up – zombies and mermaids and dragons oh my

Tried my hardest to come back from a pretty poor start to the month, but I did not manage to break into the double digits in February, tapping out at 9 books. I am halfway through Zen Cho’s Spirits Abroad, a collection of short, supernatural, hilarious stories set in Malaysia (which I am loving, and which was recommended by a good friend) and I was hoping this would be the read that tipped me into 10, but I didn’t quite manage it.

Never mind! Onwards and upwards, and what with 10 days off and dealing with packing and other leaving-a-country logistics (bills must be settled, goodbyes must be said to people and places, gifts must be procured, and I like to budget in some dreamy wandering time), I’m okay with having read two books a week instead of three in Feb. March, you’re gonna be my comeback month! I have declared it!

And to help with that, this week I shipped off three boxes of minty new books to Brunei, which I look forward to diving into when I get back!

Some fun reads in Feb:

C.L Lynch Chemistry A humorous feminist rewriting of Twilight, where the heroine is plus-sized and prickly and the hero is a pasty and respectful zombie, and the parents are reasonable people all around – I liked this better than I thought I would, because the heroine isn’t just a self-righteous send-up of Bella, but a complex, flawed and very insecure and teenager-y character. There seems to be a sequel, and I’m interested enough to look into getting it.

Imogen Hermes Gowar The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock In Georgian London, a merchant’s ship is sold by its captain for a mermaid; the merchant, one Mr Hancock, doesn’t quite know what to do with this mermaid and how to recoup the loss of his ship. Enter: prostitutes and brothels, mixed-race and black history in London, some quietly tender prose about lost children and grief and the loneliness of routine, the awakening of Mr Hancock and the grim but also gay precariousness of just being female in that era. This was such a surprising read for me, to the very end – the novel kept evolving and twisting, and the ending was entirely convincing (although the pacing was a tiny bit off).

Julian Barnes The Only Story Tonally, this had the same musing, slowly unfurling feel as The Sense of an Ending – a young man falls defiantly in love with an unsuitable woman at 19; through the years he realizes how this unsuitability has shaped him, destroyed him, made him. This was an uncomfortable read, a read that made me squirm, and cringe – for the young man, and for the people around him. I didn’t like it; but it was a good book. (The only Barnes novel I’ve loved has been Arthur and George; I’m struggling now through a re-read of England, England)

E Nesbit The Book of Dragons and The Larka collection of light, funny children’s stories about dragons; and the only adult novel from the author of The Railway Children, Five Children and It and The Treasure Seekers that I’ve read.

Expense Report for Feb 2018

Number of books bought: 9

Amazon UK: 6.32 GBP (~11.55BND)

Maruzen Kyoto: 16,565 yen (~204.76BND)

Tokyo Tower Records: 1800 yen (~22.25BND)

Total Expenses: 238.56BND (approx 26.5BND per book)

That’s actually tremendously expensive per book, so I’m a little horrified, but it seems to be about right for new English language fiction in Japan.


Happy March!

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Mid-month February round-up

…is more like a shamefaced few lines. As I did last February, I started binge-watching a show, and although it’s nowhere near as time-consuming as Goblin was, This Is Us still took up about five hours over the weekend (and I have another 7 episodes in Season 1 to go!). As always with TV and film, I am so so late to this party – but it’s so good! It manages to balance emotion with humour really really deftly, so it never gets too heart-wrenchingly painful to watch, so you don’t sort of dread watching it (this was my problem with Grey’s Anatomy, and why I loved the earlier seasons of House so much). The tonal balance is lovely, and I love the storylines about living as a fat person in America, the racial stuff is handled really well, the happy families are so lovely and happy and troubled but still overall…good, and I love Randall – how cheerful and good and nerdy he is.  I covet all of Mandy Moore’s dresses, so pretty!

Additionally, I did my annualish ski trip last week, and after each day of skiing, all I wanted to do was onsen and eat hearty hot food. (This was the first time I actually came close to injuring myself while skiing too! Had a magnificent wipe-out on the first day, snapping my left knee one way and my ski the other. This left my knee sore and weak, meaning I overcompensated on my right leg the next day while boarding and my right ankle became strained. So on the third day both legs were pretty busted.) So my Kindle went basically untouched for a whole week. I read a little on one train ride, getting through a fair portion of Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, but I think my ability to read on moving vehicles is decreasing rapidly.)

So, with 9 days left to the month, I have read a sad total of 3 books! Two were notable:

Vivan Shaw Strange Practice The first in a series about Dr Greta Helsing, who treats the undead in London – zombies, ghouls, vampires. The second is coming out later in the year, and I’ve already earmarked it. Strong cast of characters, good human element to a supernatural premise, and London – buses and Sainsburys and all.

ed. Tracy Chevalier Reader, I Married Him A collection of short stories in response to Charlotte Bronte’s iconic line in Jane Eyre by well-known writers, including Susan Hill, Emma Donoghue, Elif Shafak, Lionel Shriver. As a child, I hated Jane Eyre, thinking her mousy and passive; as an adult, I understood and therefore liked her better; after reading Wide Sargasso Sea, I swung around – I still liked Jane, but I liked the rewriting of Jane Eyre better, I liked the reclamation and articulation of the dark, unspoken, inhumane and unhuman undercurrents that British gothicism and Romanticism were built on, better. So my favourite stories in this collection were the ones which called out Rochester’s cruelty, Bertha Mason’s mistreatment, the political and racial dynamics which undergirded Jane’s ability to be both complicit with and innocent of the injustices of the world she moved in. Some of these stories were only faintly connected to Jane Eyre, which I also liked – what speaks to us as readers in a novel may not be anything directly from the novel itself, but a breath from a novel, the space it takes up in our literary world.

As with any collection, there were some stories which didn’t work for me at all.

Last year I read 12 books in Feb, and the year before 17, so if I want to get anywhere close to that this year, I have to hustle through another 9 books in the next 9 days. Doable? Doubtful, but I do have several really interesting reads on the go, so we’ll see!

February, you short and cold and treacherous and wonderful month.

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Fave Feminist Reads from 2017 book club

I have a new article for The Scoop out here, if you’re interested!

Round up for mid-month Feb coming soon – I bought my first physical books of the year! (But havent read very much, haha).

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January Round-Up (Ebooks Everywhere)

In January 2018, I read 12 books*. A few salient numbers and notes:

  1. All of them were ebooks**. (I switched from Amazon US to Amazon UK about halfway through the month because I needed to read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine for Feminist Book Club, and the US site didn’t have the Kindle edition. The mechanisms behind digital releases in different countries are beyond me, but then I am also baffled by HOW Amazon knows what country I’m in and therefore which books “are not available for your country”. ***)
  2. A female to male ratio of 1:2 – for every 1 male writer I read, I read 2 female writers, this month.
  3. Expense Report: USD52.08 (Amazon US) and GBP86.96 (Amazon UK), which at today’s exchange rate, tops out at approximately BND230 for January. For 29 books, this means that I’m paying approx BND7.93 per book. Which is a reasonable cost per book, I think.

Books of Note since the mid-month round-up (not necessarily recommendations)

Gail Honeyman Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine  Feminist Book Club’s first read of the year! This was surprisingly twisty, very very readable, and made humanity seem mundanely, pragmatically lovely.

Stephanie Garber Caraval This was disappointing. Two sisters, abusive father, dream of running away to see the magical Caraval, a sort of enchanted circus that appears once a year. At this enchanted circus, the winner for the year gets a wish, and the sisters want that wish. The premise is interesting, and the novel got a ton of hype, but I couldn’t really root for the protagonist (too wimpy and fearful for too long), and it felt a little paint by the numbers. The feistier sister, Tella, is going to get her own book I think? That one seems way more interesting, but I don’t think I’ll be looking out for it, particularly.

A.J. Finn The Woman in the Window Classic thriller, with a lot of nods to Hitchcock and film noir – woman looks out her window into neighbour’s house, sees something she shouldn’t, suspense ensues. Pick it up if you’re looking for an easy, reliable thrill – there were at least two things that surprised me, although some of it was a little predictable. (And I am the kind of reader/viewer who is very easily surprised).

*Jan 2016 – 10 books, Jan 2017 – 22 books

**In other news, I had some visitors from Brunei this month and they kindly brought over 5 novels from my TBR stack back home! Yay! Will try to get through all of them in February, so as not to waste their efforts.


***Thanks to some mild paranoia about digital surveillance, I finally found a use for the washi tape I’ve been hoarding! I.e I’ve taped over my laptop’s webcam. Thanks, Peanuts Washi tape!

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Mid-month Round Up for January!

Exactly halfway through the first month of 2018, and I have really enjoyed looking at other people’s reading resolutions and goals on Twitter and IG! Have scoped out some excellent looking prospects, and am really interested in how other people are tracking their reads!

I’ve been reading mostly electronic so far this year – mostly because that’s the only stuff thats available to me here in Kyoto. I brought a few hard copies with me, and bought a few in Bangkok, but finished them in Dec. I do have a few visitors coming in a couple of weeks, so am asking them to bring over a random few from my TBR pile back home, but for now, am depending on Kindle.

At the halfway point, I have read 5 books. Of interest:

  • Michael Pollan The Omnivore’s Dilemma This was recommended by a hike buddy, and I really enjoyed it. The chapter on corn got a little sciencey in bits, but it was nice to be reminded of the steps you can take to consume meat ethically. WE ARE ALL MADE OF CORN, APPARENTLY.
  • Carmen Maria Machado Her Body & Other Parties Angela Carter redux. This collection is best read as a collection, with an underlying insistence on female access to a particular interpretation of the world (the women in the stories hear things, see things, that others don’t); a reclamation of the female body through violence (it is often through acts of violence that the feminine interpret their own bodies and selves); and the world as under siege (there are plagues, diseases, infections and contagions). It is overwhelmingly a world on the edge of implosion; communities and masses are viewed as suspect, infected. One or two of the stories seemed incomplete to me, not fully conceptualized or fleshed out. I wouldn’t call this book very readable – the prose was nice but not gripping or gorgeous. But the premises of the individual stories were interesting.
  • Reni Eddo-Lodge Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race This book arose out of a 2014 blog post by Eddo-Lodge, and I found it really interesting, particularly because it’s British rather than American. I feel like I’ve read a lot of stuff on race by American writers, and it was eye-opening to read about the history of race relations in the UK. As Eddo-Lodge points out in the book, “until I went actively digging for black British histories, I didn’t know them”, whereas the American history of race relations is sort of globally imbedded by now – Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, etc. A lot of the discourse here will be familiar, but the British context was new to me, and as someone who considers the UK, however problematically, a second home (I love and loathe it; it has shaped me and spat at me; I am comfortable and alien there; it is a part of me I am still coming to terms with) this was a great read. There were some incidents that bore more explanation, but overall a firm thumbs up. (Also, as of 2016, 70% of university professors in England were still white men. Bleurgh. I need to find out the stats for UBD.)

I’m actually halfway through Susan Hill’s The Travelling Bag and Other Ghostly Stories, but had to stop because it was getting a little too creepy. I don’t foresee myself picking this up again till I’m in a braver/more reckless mood!

Book Expenses so far

Amazon US Total: USD52.08 (BND68.96)

Amazon UK Total: GBP16.44 (BND29.87)

Total in BND: 98.83

So far, no money dropped in Japanese bookstores, although my Japanese Amazon Prime is definitely getting a workout.


Onwards through the rest of the month!

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