May 2018 mid-month Round-Up

Here we are, almost mid-way through 2018 and two days into Ramadan. One of my favourite things about Ramadan is that the government work day finishes at 2pm – you have SO much extra time in the day to do non-work things, it’s almost like having an extra day. Normally one has to squeeze all one’s leisure activities into those 5 hours between the end of the work day and bedtime – having these extra hours to oneself is literally Bonus Time.

So! 19 days into May and I’ve read 8 books, putting me at 58 for the year. Yesterday in a moment of madness I briefly contemplated trying to finish 30 books in Ramadan, but thankfully my More Reasonable Self awakened and laughed me out of it. I would like to read more this month, however, so am going to try and hit 20 books in Ramadan. In years past I’ve tried to read more Muslim books during this month, but I have a ton of TBRs to get through so I don’t know if I’ll be able to do that this year.

In any case, here are some of the books of note so far in May!

Samira Ahmed Love, Hate & Other Filters This one got a lot of hype on Twitter, but I wasn’t that interested because it seemed a little too similar to Saints and Misfits  – American-Muslim YA fiction, high school drama (I love all of these things) – but I saw it in Best Eastern a couple of weeks ago, so I picked it up. I’m glad I did, because it was a really great read and while there are some overlaps with Saints and Misfits, no more so than with any other American YA fiction. What I liked most about Love, Hate & Other Filters is that the character’s Muslimness felt a lot more familiar and knowable to me than in Saints and Misfits – Maya Aziz is a nominally practicing Muslim who doesn’t cover, but feels guilty about kissing her Muslim suitor, wearing a bathing suit, and is a little bit shocked when she sees Muslims drinking alcohol. She’s an aspiring filmmaker, and the novel itself is just very gentle coming-of-age, with the added conflict coming from Islamophobic hate crimes perpetrated against her family and herself, with the consequence that her doctor parents are worried about letting her go to another state for college. The love interests aren’t binary Bad Suitor, Good Suitor, so that’s fun. I would have loved a novel like this when I was a teenager myself and reading tons of SVH – reading about a Muslim American in that setting, with those romance and growing up tropes would have been lovely – but I think I may have now aged out of that demographic. I look forward to more from this writer.

John Price Notes from the Jungle: Teaching Abroad in an International School I was doing a google sweep of any new stuff on Bruneian lit and came across this – not new, having been published in 2009, but definitely new to me. Written by the former headmaster of JIS, it’s supposed to be an expose of sorts about teaching in international schools. It is neither scandalous nor very interesting – the narrative follows one year of headmastering in JIS, interspersed rather clunkily and awkwardly with excerpts or full reproductions of some articles Price wrote for the Brunei Times while he was their education correspondent (“I get two hundred smackers for each article! Clearly they are desperate for copy.”)

I was skeptical from the start – that title, while meant to be tongue-in-cheek, is the kind of old-fashioned, dismissive, laughing bigotry that so many older expatriates in Brunei who scoff at “political correctness” also dismiss as harmless joking. “Harmless” because it doesn’t harm them, except in the way that poor manners and lack of empathy harms one’s own sensitivity to the rightness and wrongness of things, in the long run. Much of the mild offensiveness in this memoir is in the same vein; well-intentioned but tone deaf – Price cracks jokes about international school teachers, but they at least get names, even if he mentions them in passing – Trevor, Arthur, whatever. Bruneians are “the boys in the market”, “the Chinese doctor”, “Asian students”, nameless, faceless, a blurry backdrop. Price admires Maugham and his depiction of “a strange breed of men and women who left sedate English life for an existence that was altogether more feral”. He also admires JAMES BROOKE “who, despite his swashbuckling colonial attitudes, invites our admiration”. (Reminiscent of this article about the upcoming film, in which Brooke’s entire colonial history is described as “an incredible romantic adventure” about a man who “had a dream of something different, a wilder and more vivid life”. The entire history of Brunei and Malaysia seems to be a vehicle to romanticize Brooke as adventurer.) In the same way, Price uses his “snake stories” in Brunei as cultural capital back home in Britain – the exotic made spectacle over and over and over again. He misspells Dusun, Supasave etc, but I guess these words, like Brunei, are unimportant in and of themselves – they are important only for how he can turn them into an anecdote.

Despite these rage inducing moments, the most offensive thing about the memoir, which, like I said, I think is generally well-intentioned, is that it is stultifyingly boring when he starts in on his thoughts about international schools and how they should be run – none of these thoughts are particularly ground-breaking and they seem to harken back to an older, Eton-informed time.

Curtis Sittenfeld You Think It, I’ll Say It I’ve not read any of Sittenfeld’s work before, although Prep regularly makes it onto my Amazon wish list,  but this collection of short stories definitely makes me want to look at her novels. The first story is written in Hillary Clinton’s voice, about her encounters with the same female journalist over her political career. There’s another piece about a female journalist later on in the collection which is a nice comparison point. It’s a collection about chance meetings that are imbued with the kind of significance that doesn’t shape a life, but reveals character, reveals the person we want to be and the person we really are. How much pettier, and grander, we are, than the narratives we impose on our lives at the end of it all. I really really liked this collection.

Marjane Satrapi Embroideries I read the Persepolis books a long long time ago, and funnily enough I bought them a few months ago meaning to re-read them, when a friend sent me Embroideries, with this article. I liked it although felt a bit confused at one point – I wondered if the copy my friend had lent me was missing a few pages, because the narrative had jumped. But we figured out that that was the narrative style. Women discussing sex, femininity, freedom.

Fun fact: I also read an Iranian romance novel this month! More on that at a later date.

R.L. Stine The Dead Boyfriend and Give me a K-I-L-L Also from Best Eastern, these two were fun fluffy easy reads, no real chills or thrills, but was funny to see how Stine has updated his points of reference for teenage girls. Sephora makes an appearance! Also the same pick -up line appears in both books: “Let me guess your name,” teenage dude flirts. “It’s Tabitha/Cindy/something equally unlikely”. “Yes,” teenage girl flirts back. “How did you know?” And of course that’s not really her name, she’s just playing along.

Yeah, I don’t really know either. Hahaha.

On we march through May! Ramadan Kareem and if anyone can tell me what time Gerai Ramadhan closes after sungkai, I would very much appreciate it. Kuih Malaya dreamz.

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April Round-Up (On track for 2018 goal!)

In April I read 12 books, which is a pretty solid effort! More importantly, that means that at the end of the first third of 2018 I’ve read 50 books. Math tells me that that means I’m on track to hit my 150 book target for the year.

I’ve covered most of the notable reads for the month here, and I only have one more to add to that: Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You, a fiction-non-fiction novel about a woman trapped in an abusive marriage. This was a beautiful, distant read, cerebral and ruthless, a woman constantly using her intellect and education to distance herself from the physicality and illogic of what was happening in her marriage. Her ability to view what was happening to her with the perspective of an outsider, through the lens of everything she’d read and knew, was what helped her survive – her insistence on writing the narrative of her life while she was living it, was a fierce, powerful, invincible flame.

I’ve read this sentiment in a handful of other novels – as long as you can still think about how you’re going to tell the story of what is happening to you, you’re still okay. You can still survive whatever is happening. It will not break you, not utterly, not completely. Narrative as salvation, narrative as survival. I believe in this, so much.

I was held at arms length from When I Hit You, forced back but also forced to watch. The addendum at the end, a review telling us who needs to read this book, was so perfectly placed and written it almost felt like part of the book.

Expense Report for April 2018

Amazon UK: 31.8GBP

Kinokuniya Singapore: 262.25

Best Eastern Brunei: 16.8

Total: 337BND

Funnily enough, when I sat down to do this expensing, I thought I hadn’t spent that much on books this month. Perception VS Data. Sigh.

To end April, here are two pictures of my re-organized TBR piles, now down to two from what had hitherto been uncountable lumps of books scattered dustily and spider-attractingly around.

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April mid-month check-in

Just a quick mid-month check-in. So far this month I’ve read 9 books, and most of them have been pretty noteworthy, one way or another! Here are some:

Sheryl Sandberg Lean In I enjoyed it! I was aware of some of the backlash against Sandberg’s work, but she’s pretty clear at the beginning of the book exactly who she’s trying to speak to, and I think she does a pretty good job of acknowledging that her advice will not and cannot apply equally or at all to women who are disadvantaged by institutional and economic and class factors. I don’t recall her acknowledging the racial factor* very much if at all. I’m going to try to take her advice about literally sitting at the table – I do find that I’m generally more comfortable taking a literal back seat in some meetings and environments where objectively I shouldn’t.

Relatedly, the media this week about WW tears has been spot on. The magnificent Luvvie has articulated it wonderfully.

Celeste Ng Little Fires Everywhere I read Ng’s first book, Everything I Never Told You, which I kind of guiltily felt I should have liked more than I actually did. It was competent and smart, but I just felt nothing for the characters – I didn’t care about them or find them very memorable. Little Fires Everywhere , about the upheaval of a small community in the 1990s after a white couple adopts a Chinese baby, was so much better! The craft is sure and polished here, I cared about and understood all the characters, and the ending is the tiniest bit cheesy but believable. So good!

ed. Azalia Zaharuddin The Tudong Anthology A collection of fiction and non-fiction by Malaysian writers about their relationship with the tudong. The quality is variable, and sometimes you can’t tell which is fiction and which is non-fiction, but it’s worth reading for some insightful articulations on the complexity of what wearing the tudong means in Malaysian society and how it’s bound up with class, race, and all that other good stuff. I was a little startled at the almost ubiquitous disdain (whether the writer was a tudong-wearer or not) for “hijabsters”.

Leila Slimani Lullaby Translated from the French, this is the story of a French couple who hire a white nanny who is almost too good to be true. Obviously this is the set up for a tense, sinister story which is quite painful to read. There’s a lot of matter-of-fact commentary on xenophobia in France, tied up with how we treat those who work in our homes but are not family; and those who society has chosen to forget – the poor, the lost, the broken. It’s a short, quick read, but it packs a punch.

Philip Pullman La Belle Sauvage (the first in the new Book of Dust Trilogy) I finished this last night and am still thinking about it! This is a worthy follow-up/equel to the His Dark Materials trilogy, and Malcolm, the hero of La Belle Sauvage is an instantly classic child hero! He is good and smart and loyal and affectionate and you root for him every step of the way. It’s so good to be back in Lyra’s Oxford, and despite being over 500 pages long, you can race through this book, it’s so brilliantly paced. The villain is a true villain; broken and ruthless and relentless and wrong, and I cannot wait for the next in the trilogy.

11 days to the end of April! To keep on track for my 150 goal this year, I should read at least 3 more books this month – I’ve got a book of essays on writing by Philip Pullman (Daemon Voices) , AJ Pearce’s Dear Mrs Bird and Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad cued up next, so hopefully all on track.

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Imagining Brunei: Sarong Party Girls and The Tudung Anthology

Brunei appears in two of the books I read this weekend – not surprisingly, both are Southeast Asian. Firstly in Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s Sarong Party Girls (very highly recommended by the way – funny and sad, there is so much depth and compassion for the loveable, determined Sarong Party Girl protagonist Jazzy as she moves through the clubs and hawker centers of Singapore in search of an ang moh Prince Charming. There is stuff on race, on feminity, on class and consumerism…it’s just so good. I don’t know enough about Singlish to comment on its authenticity here, but as an outsider it read authentic and was almost another character in the novel.).

Photo 4-8-18, 8 37 45 PM (1)

Getting a tiny bit off topic there, but I am still thinking about this novel – it’s lingering with me. Anyway, the reference in Sarong Party Girls was incredibly throwaway – Brunei is mentioned as a site of business in the same breath as Hong Kong and the Philippines. The business in question is a furniture import-export company (Court? Ashley? Haha) owned by a super rich Singaporean guy. So…a place of trade, which is interesting.

More depth in Az Karim’s The Frenchman, a short story in the Malaysian collection The Tudung Anthology edited by Azalia Zaharuddin. Karim’s author bio states that she worked as a newspaper editor in Brunei for a while, so some of this may be observational. (The passage below may have spoilers, so don’t read if you want to be spoiler-free. Sorry, I continue to not know how to hide text and toggle for reading. There will be a spoiler over sign if you scroll down real fast.)







The narrator of the story is Marya, a Malaysian journalist (and hijabi – this is a plot point, which is why I mention it) working in Brunei who is in Sri Lanka on a holiday. To assuage her guilt at the cost of the holiday, she also attends a conference, which is where she meets Jean Pierre Tschumi, a doctoral student who is giving a talk on the historical expansion of Kampong Ayer. Struck by this coincidence, she requests an interview with him. Turns out Jean Pierre has spent some time in Brunei, and been burned by a relationship with a Malay Muslim woman. He blames this in part on her practice of wearing the tudung to work but not anywhere else, leading him to believe that her faith isn’t all thaaaaat important to her. He is consequently flummoxed…FLUMMOXED when he asks her to move with him to Melbourne and she says she won’t unless he converts to Islam. Jean Pierre is furious and now thinks all women wearing tudung are hypocrites, including Marya, who he is still reluctantly attracted to.

Let’s be real, Jean Pierre is a total jerk, and I have issues with the fact that the story is called The Frenchman when really – why is he even the focus? And the interracial relationship – hmm. Well, I HAD just read Sarong Party Girls, which very poignantly pointed out the problematic discourses sometimes at play about/in such relationships. Still, I was absolutely fascinated by these articulations of Bruneian tudung culture, where the wearing and taking off of it is in some ways more fluid than in other Muslim communities.






SPOILER OVER (Unless you read the following passages out of context)

Shots of some of the relevant passages!

The hunt for imaginings of Brunei continues.

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[NABP] A few miscellanous things

  1. I wrote an article for the Kyoto Review about the development of Bruneian narratives, which was generously edited by scholar and friend Keryn Ibrahim. If you’re interested, you can find it here.
  2. I picked up everything in the local authors section in Nollybook at the airport, read these three on the flight out, and really liked the CuboiArt collection – I found it funny and often incisive. I have the second collection as well, and am looking forward to discussing it with friends – the depictions of gender, and class, particularly. You may remember this cartoon which appeared the Borneo Bulletin last year, which caused a lot of outrage in my friend groups about what it implied about gender roles in the household.
  3. Book haul! From the ever-reliable Kinokuniya in ION. Get some chairs in there, though, Kino. Photo 4-1-18, 6 18 19 PM
  4. I travel a moderate amount, alone and with company, and I have often thought what an incredible blessing it is not just to be able to go away, but to have a peaceful, lovely and loving home to come back to; half the joy in going away is in coming back again. Photo 3-31-18, 6 51 06 PM
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March Round-Up

I’m hoping to finish another book on the flight tonight (I’ve got Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In locked and loaded), but I feel that may be optimistic. So I’m going to check-in now:

At the end of March, I’ve read 16 books. It’s been a pretty good set of reads, also! Since the mid-month, here are some of the notable reads:

Alexandra Christo To Kill a Kingdom YA version of The Little Mermaid, reimagined with murderous sirens and mermaid-killing Prince Charmings. I really enjoyed this and the mythology got nice and twisty; I wasn’t convinced by the heroine’s redemption arc, but it was a quick, fun read with sparky, complex protagonists who were all doing their best with the brokenness they had been given.

Marie Brennan Tropic of Serpents The sequel to A Natural History of Dragons wasn’t quite as fun for me as the first novel – there was toooo much world-building and not enough plot and character. I’ll probably give the third in the series a go before giving up on this.

Zen Cho The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo Looved Spirits Abroad and this novella about a Chinese Malaysian writer of book reviews in 1920s London was just more pragmatic, wistful deliciousness.

Alicia Malone Backwards and In Heels: The Past, Present and Future of Women Working in Film This month’s Feminist Book Club read was a history of women in Hollywood. This was interesting to me as a primer on the subject – short sections, snappily worded – but the Kindle version was really weirdly formatted, and I would have liked photos to accompany the text, especially of women whose looks were a big part of the personas they played professionally. I don’t know how interesting this would be to people already versed on the subject – it was kind of broad strokes stuff, but I enjoyed it. The fact that sticks with me is that Rita Hayworth lasered off her hairline and dyed her hair red to move as far away from her Hispanic looks as possible.

Lucy Sykes and Jo Piazza Fitness Junkie A send-up of the health industry, cross-fit, kale juice, hot yoga and all, through the story of a fashion mogul who’s told to lose 30 pounds or else. It was fun, entertaining, body positive (mostly).

Helon Habila The Chibok Girls A short journalistic account of the Boko Haram kidnappings – this was terse and restrained and angry and necessary.

March Expense Report

Books Actually 120BND

Book Depository 168.42BND

Amazon UK 92.35GBP ~ 170BND

Total: 458.42BND over 29 books which is about 15.8BND per book – not cheap, but not monstrously expensive. A few academic texts from Book Depo drove the amount up (averaging about 42BND each). That’s still a lot of money to spend on books in a month though. (I am trying very hard not to judge myself right now.)

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[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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