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21 Aug 2009

Getting “Body 2 Body: A Malaysian Queer Anthology” to press

“Lame” submissions, pushy contributors, secret identities… Amir Muhammad, publisher of Body 2 Body: A Malaysian Queer Anthology, shares the challenges of getting the first book of its kind in Malaysia to press.

Body 2 Body: A Malaysian Queer Anthology is available online on Amazon.com.
Body 2 Body: A Malaysian Queer Anthology, the first book of its kind to be launched in Malaysia, sold some 260 copies at its launch last weekend at Seksualiti Merdeka - the second sexuality rights festival to be held in Kuala Lumpur.

Edited by Jerome Kugan and Pang Khee Teik, the 240-page book – a collection of 23 fiction and non-fiction essays – tells of “Malaysian queer experiences, including gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, with stories ranging from coming out to coming home, breaking up to breaking down, changing sex to changing heart.”

Body 2 Body will be launched in Singapore on Aug 22 as part of Indignation festivities, Singapore’s month-long pride season. Kugan, Pang and three of the contributors’ Ann Lee, Brian Gomez and O Thiam Chin will be at the launch to talk about the book.

Amir Muhammad of Matahari Books, the book’s publisher, reveals that the project had been in the making since 2003 but didn’t get off the ground until 2008 after a second Call for Entries was made, and the challenges he and the two editors faced including the lack of submissions, “lame” submissions from contributors who insist on being anonymous, and deciding to demonstrate not just sexual diversity but also linguistic diversity.

A false start in 2003

Writer-filmmaker-publisher Amir Muhammad of Matahari Books
Amir: The germ of this idea actually began in 2003 when two friends of mine, Jerome Kugan and Pang Khee Teik, started an Internet mailing-list (yes, kids, this was before Facebook groups!) devoted to the idea of publishing a local gay anthology. There was a lot of discussion on the group but not many people discussed the actual anthology! When it came to submissions, the book (which didn’t have a confirmed title then) received 15 but the editors decided that most were too lame. The anthology never happened.

Fast forward five years, and the country had changed. Well, the three of us had changed, at any rate. In 2003 I was making little documentaries; Jerome and Pang shared the same Brickfields flat (with two other free spirits). In 2008, I was now publishing books; although Jerome and Pang no longer lived in the same place, they now worked together, thus providing the opportunity for even more mischief.

I floated the idea of resurrecting such an anthology by sending out a fresh Call for Entries. Jerome was quite skeptical at first, saying we won’t get many entries, and that most of them would be lame. But I said we should give it a shot and see if we had a book on our hands.

So in November 2008, we sent out a Call for Entries. It appeared only online, through blogs such as mine and Sharon Bakar’s, and of course on Facebook. The only print publication to give it publicity was KLue. I decided to stick to the deadline and not give extensions. We were pleasantly surprised that we received 59 entries. Since I wanted each of the editors to have a story in there (because they write so well!), we can say it’s 61 entries.

What were we looking for? Our Call for Entries included these lines:
Writings should depict queer or alternative sexuality in Malaysia, or of Malaysian queers' experience in the world.
Possible Genre: fiction, true-life accounts, essays, memoir, excerpts from novel or play. We do not accept verse.
Queer includes gay, lesbian, bisexual, transvestite, transgendered, intersexed.
Writers can be Malaysian or non-Malaysians. Writers can be queer or straight.
Writers should use their actual names. A pen name is allowed when the writer has been publicly associated with that name.

Why QUEER was chosen over GLBTQ for the book’s title
Amir: The word ‘queer’ was chosen because it’s catchier than the politically correct GLBTQ, which stands for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transsexual and Queer. We figured that most Malaysians probably didn’t even know what LRT [Light Rail Transit] stood for, so we couldn’t expect them to recognise GLBTQ.

Someone complained about the word ‘queer’ in her blog, saying that the book will then perpetuate the idea of ‘weirdness’. We encouraged her to write an essay about this for the book itself, and she agreed but never submitted. But this is an expected hazard for any anthology.

The whole process of getting entries involved a bit of drama that, when looking back now, had the tinge of slapstick. Three of the writers in particular kept bugging me online, literally on a daily basis, to find out two things: when the selection would be made, and whether the book was going to be banned. For the first question, I kept giving the same date; and for the second, I said that I lacked a crystal ball. Despite their eagerness, these were the three men who kept expressing reservations about appearing in such a book, and kept threatening to withdraw, and then changing their minds. Talk about drama queens!

Luckily for my mental health, the editors (from whom the identities of the writers were kept a secret) decided that the entries sent by these three were too lame for inclusion. There’s a moral in there somewhere, I guess.

No anonymous contributors, please!
Amir: By insisting on no pseudonyms, this anthology actually received a much better response than the earlier, aborted 2003 one, which had indeed allowed anonymity. Perhaps the 2008 political tsunami had made Malaysians braver? Or perhaps the era of Pak Lah [a commonly used term when referring to former PM Abdullah Badawi] did herald a new openness? Or maybe it’s just a happy coincidence.

Insisting on real (or at least identifiable) names helped to separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were. When we floated the Call for Entries in a gay personals site, the thread had hundreds of comments. Many of them were by people who wanted to submit, but under a fake name. We told them that we would make an exception only if the entry was particularly strong. Guess what? Not a single entry was sent.

But then again, we weren’t seeking a book BY gay writers. (“Don’t worry,” I told a blogger friend, “we won’t check your credentials.”) The pieces could be written by anybody, as long as they related to queers and queer issues.

I was disappointed that we didn’t get many essays. The few that we received were in the ‘coming out of the closet’ subgenre but in whiny, corny form; we felt like shoving the writers back in the closet, where they could do some reading to improve their prose.

Not just sexual diversity but also linguistic diversity
Amir: A minor but thematically significant point: we decided, while editing, not to italicise non-English words. So you can read about 'pondan' [a Malay term to mean a gay or effeminate man] and 'pengkid' [origins unknown but typically taken to mean butch lesbian], for example, without having their ‘foreignness’ shoved in your face. I think it’s important because this isn’t merely an English book but a Malaysian English one. And also to show that it’s about time we accepted that we have difference (or to use the Tourism Malaysia word, ‘diversity’) in our midst, whether sexual or linguistic!

This is the first anthology of its kind in Malaysia. Homosexual sex is, according to the Penal Code, illegal. And although transvestites and transsexuals are very much part of the Malaysian fabric, discussions about them are deemed taboo, thus allowing discrimination to fester.

This collection of 23 pieces (19 fiction, 3 essays, and one really strange mock-essay) perhaps isn’t going to change any laws or even many perceptions. At the time of writing this, it wouldn’t even have been launched, so I have no idea how people will take to it. But it’s a worthwhile idea whose time had come, and what better way to find out than by doing it?

Any anthology is a mixed bag: so you get the raw and the cooked, the rough and the smooth, the cat and the canary. But we think it’s a fun package. There’s merriment, murder, mutton curry and even massage – but not actually of the ‘body 2 body’ type. Perhaps some things should be kept off the printed page, after all.

Body 2 Body: A Malaysian Queer Anthology will be launched in Singapore on Sat, Aug 22, 3pm @ 72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road. The event is by invitation only. Please register by sending an email with the subject head “body2body” to pluadmin@gmail.comBody 2 Body: A Malaysian Queer Anthology is available online on Amazon.com.

Reader's Comments

1. 2009-08-22 04:46  
will this be like...avaliable for public like SQ21 which said can be found in e national libary???
2. 2009-08-28 23:33  
I bought the book at the launch. It makes for interesting reading. I didn't know about the call for entries, or I might have submitted a story. Anyway, the book is available in Borders and Times book store (Pavilion & Bangsar). It's indeed a book whose time has come!
Comment #3 was deleted by an administrator on 2009-09-04 01:28

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