The bookman who embraced Penang
Penang’s street of harmony – Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling – has a new place of worship, where joss sticks and prayer mats are exchanged for the mesmerising smell of freshly opened books. Most importantly, all ethnic groups are welcome.
Perched at the corner of a busy intersection on Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, Gerakbudaya’s clever logo depicts an open book whose pages are curled as if they are about to fly. A very apt depiction, because it is here that any Penangite can come to enrich themselves with books and culture.
Related to the homonymous Petaling Jaya imprint but also fiercely independent, Gerakbudaya’s wheel is held by Gareth Richards, a former university lecturer, cinema d’essai connoisseur and international cultural wrestler. In November, I decided to pay him a visit at the bookstore from where he runs his editorial empire, and ask him a few questions about the book business in Penang and the status of Malaysia’s publishing industry today.
You opened shop about six months ago, an independent bookshop in an age of corporate franchise chains. Also, apparently, Malaysians don’t read. Why did you decide to start your book venture, and how has it gone so far?
At the heart of the project to set up an independent bookshop was an immovable desire to share my great love of books and reading with as many like-minded people as possible. When I decided to dip my toes into the bookselling waters, I was acutely conscious of three potential impediments which are both general to the book trade and specific to the Malaysian context: firstly, (young) Malaysians don’t read; secondly, if they do read, they want the convenience or techie allure of a tablet or a Kindle e-reader; and thirdly, if they do want to read an actual book, they can easily order online from Amazon or other mainstream bookshops.
Well, some (young) Malaysians do read. And it’s part of our long-term project to encourage more of this. Reading habits are not static. New imprints have arrived on the scene – say, for instance, Fixi – and have encouraged new readership in quite radical new ways, especially for fiction of different genres. But the second and third reasons are worrying – and, of course, they’re linked. Amazon is busy pushing for more and more concessions from publishers in what some people are calling “assisted suicide” for the book industry. Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, is not a shining knight delivering what every consumer wants. He simply wants to put everyone selling physical books out of a job. So, in short, the act of opening our little bookshop is a small manoeuvre in a guerrilla war. This is a kind of business fascism, the modus operandi of monopoly capitalism.
But we also had several things going for us as well. A huge advantage is the location of the shop – beneath my editorial offices and right in the heart of George Town’s World Heritage Site. This means that we’re easy to find and also have a high proportion of walk-in customers. Perhaps even more important, we offer an engaging point of difference – something that no other bookshop provides. And I think we’ve succeeded. We can never compete on the economies of scale – we’re simply too small. But we can compete in terms of the quality of the titles we sell and by promoting the idea that we stock books that you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else.
The books we stock are both a product of and help shape new debates about history, culture, economic development, social relations and so on. We have an excellent range of titles on South-East Asia because I think Malaysians don’t know their neighbours well enough. And then there is the selection of titles on literary fiction from around the world – with a strong emphasis on Asian writing, including the multiple diasporas. Finally, we carry books in Malay and Chinese as well as English.
This year we are hoping to launch a book club/reading group (targeting young people in particular) as well as sponsor more literary events of our own. We firmly believe there is a place for independent booksellers in Penang – it is simply a question of finding that place.
You are a busy English-language editor for both Malaysian and international publishers. Is the standard of the Malaysian English language book market at level?
I started Impress Creative & Editorial – my small arts-related company – in 2009, and the core activity is editorial work for writers and publishers. We now have three editors and we deal with manuscripts in English, Malay and Chinese.
The scope of editorial work is far wider than most people understand it to be. At the most basic level, we do a lot of copyediting, proofreading and indexing – the baseline tasks that are about ensuring that a manuscript is technically correct in terms of language and facts, and polished in terms of coherence, consistency and readability. But we’re not always appreciated – not even by the writers themselves. And some publishers tend to think of editors as a meddling luxury they can’t afford.
Another important aspect of the editor’s work is to identify talent and commission work by recommending a writer to a particular publisher. Sometimes this means working as a counsellor or therapist, because dishing out criticism of a work can be a sensitive business. And sometimes the role is also that of protector and midwife – ensuring the safe delivery of something precious and unique.
Far more interesting is developmental editing work, an ongoing relationship between writers and their editors, which entails working through ideas and drafts over an extended period. It’s also about a personal relationship.
As far as the quality of language is concerned, it’s a major issue in Malaysia – and not just English, but also Malay and vernaculars. Because of the selfevident shortcomings of the education system, the general level of technical competence has deteriorated. This mediocrity then manifests itself in areas of public discourse such as political debate or journalism – both of which are diabolical, to put it frankly. This is true even of a generation of academics in their 30s and 40s. So, unfortunately, a lot of time and effort are expended in simply making a manuscript correct from a technical point of view.
But another problem I’ve encountered, especially with academic texts that form the majority of our work, is that many scholars simply have no literary or more general cultural hinterland beyond their own subject specialism. Scholars pay little attention to issues of language and style, to imagery and allusion, as they seem to think that they only write for other likeminded scholars. They are not engaged public intellectuals who speak to a wider general public.
This is where developmental editing can work best. The very best scholars have this ability – and I’ve had the privilege of working with some of them. In South-East Asian studies I can think of Benedict Anderson, Victor King or Donna Amoroso. My hope is that we can help a new generation of writers – whether academics or otherwise – take language seriously, to take care of their work as we try to take care of them.
Of all places, you based your “empire” in Penang. Why?
I was born in Singapore “before the separation” and with an aunt who lived in Butterworth, Penang has been part of my childhood memories because of that. I relocated to Penang permanently about four years ago, having lived in KL because of my work at Universiti Malaya. As a physical space I like George Town for its compactness and for living purposes; it can never become one of Asia’s alienating metropolises. And I like the island for the richness of its natural environment – the hilly interior and the shorelines, places that have always attracted me. More than this, Penang is a microcosm of new creativity of which we’re obviously a part. I like its deeply rooted historical cosmopolitanism – the ways that global flows of people and ideas have congregated here; the ways that different routes helped to create different roots that comingle in interesting ways.
Of course no cultural activity in George Town can escape the double-edged consequences of its inscription in 2008 as a Unesco World Heritage Site. This resulted in greater awareness of the significance of George Town’s built heritage and, far more importantly, the life of the long-standing communities who, I think, consider the status as a mixture of blessing and curse.
I’m less interested in conservation – especially if this means privileging the business of heritage which often leads to a completely skewed and, frankly, alienating type of development – and am far more engaged in how new urban spaces can presage ways of changing life and changing society. I’m much taken by the ideas of a great writer – Henri Lefebvre – and especially his notion of “the right to the city”. What he meant by this was the assertion of the right of ordinary people to make and remake our cities and themselves through the exercise of collective and democratic power. I believe that ideas – and books as one of the most important carriers of those ideas – have a central role to play in this transformation. It seems to me that Penang in general and George Town in particular offer tremendous potential for the realisation of these possibilities.