Giving Words to Growing Pains

Home Groan: A NutMag Anthology


Anna Tan.

PENANG’S LOCAL WRITING scene is celebrated in Home Groan: A NutMag Anthology, compiled and edited by Anna Tan. The short stories, non-fiction essays and poems in the collection showcase a diversity of creative work aimed at a wider audience of readers.

A former Chevening scholar, Anna hosted write-ins at Luma on Lebuh Pantai before the litany of acronymous Movement Control Orders put paid to that. She is currently president of the Malaysian Writers Society, and heads the Penang branch, which publishes and distributes the annual zine NutMag.

Anna obviously has a penchant for puns. I ask her whether there is a deeper meaning to the book title, not expecting to learn that the inspiration involved my native Ireland. “The idea of Home Groan came after Dublin Worldcon (the World Science Fiction Convention) in August 2019, and my trip to Ireland,” explains Anna. “I was in Galway and saw an anthology of short stories about the place written by local writers, with stories divided by area/suburb. I wanted to model what I'd been calling ‘Our Fifth Anniversary Anthology’ of NutMag after that.

“That's when the ‘home grown’ emphasis came about. I was at the same time also thinking of growing pains, and groaning, since everyone on my Facebook feed seemed to be complaining about the state of Malaysia and Penang, etc. What happened to Malaysia Baru? What happened to Vision 2020? Fixi Novo was already planning a 2020 anthology, so we obviously couldn't use that theme.”

What impelled Anna to go for a broad range of content, rather than focus on a traditional format for a collection of stories or essays? “Two of the core founding members of the Penang branch of the Malaysian Writers Society – Wilson Khor and Mark Walker – are primarily poets. So how could we NOT include poetry?”

Nestled between the stories and essays, Home Groan features six poems, some with a very local flavour, most notably Chee Siew Hoong’s polyglottal elegy My Grandfather’s Garden, which tells of a man who:

sembang with his kaki
at the kopitiam for breakfast over
kopi kau, nui kah tauyiu, and loti khiap
jalan-jalan in the pasar
sipek lau-juak and
check-check the newest obat from the beh-io lang

On a not entirely dissimilar theme, Red Beanie’s Ah Wang Café treats the reader to:

Towering Milo dinosaurs
Bengali toasts
With different spreads And fresh eggs
With sunset yolks
From kampung chickens

“We've always been open to all three types of writing (stories, essays and poetry) in NutMag,” says Anna. “Though we usually hardly ever receive any essay submissions, I made a stronger push this year for them, because I feel that Penangites have a lot to say about their hometown and state, and I wanted to give them the opportunity to do so. Besides, the theme lent itself to personal reflection.”

Both mainland and insular Penang are featured in Home Groan, with stories and essays spanning decades as well as geography. Those looking for stories of times past, will find evocations of an era when the pace of life was slower. But even in the contemporary pieces, Penang’s enduring and precious natural environment, if somewhat threatened and sullied, is a theme that crops up again and again.

Sukanya Dhanarajan’s essay The Mysterious Attraction of Penang even has a prescient mention of Penang’s iconic ferry, a part of the local patrimony recently lost, but that was still in service when she wrote the piece.

Elsewhere, Yee Heng Yeh’s poem Scene at Sungai Burung Estuary tells of a sunset:

tucked on the map
between the teeth of mangrove swamps,
coming out to greet us
from behind a gathering of fishing boats.

I ask Anna about the criteria for choosing the contributors. “We had three categories this year: Firstly, Penang-based writers, and most of our authors are in this category; secondly, Penang-born diaspora, several of whom are featured; and lastly, honorary Penangites, those who consider Penang their hometown, in some way or another, but aren't based here anymore.”

Malaysia’s publishing scene is undergoing something of a crisis, struggling to keep up with a rapidly changing demographic and competing with the easy distractions of social media. Rather than being produced via the traditional route, Home Groan was crowdfunded and published by the Malaysian Writers Society.

Anna explains a bit of the process, the reasons she chose it, and how successful it has proven to be: “The NutMag zines have always been self-funded, instead of society-funded. Our first zine in 2016 was funded by Say It Like You Mean It and we made enough from the sales to fund the next issue and so on. But obviously the economies of scale in printing a 40-page, photostat-quality zine is vastly different from producing an actual book. So, I brought it to the Malaysian Writers Society committee. The society's previous anthology Emerging Malaysian Writers 2018 was also crowdfunded, with the shortfall covered by Society funds, so we decided to use the same method, since we didn't manage to secure the grants I’d applied for. I decided to do it manually, instead of going through a crowdfunding platform, to save on the 10% fee. Overall, we raised a little over RM5,000, which was about 57% of our target.”

Under present conditions, a physical book launch poses obvious difficulties. Anna got around this by organising a soft launch for the soft copy in late December instead, a new type of activity that has challenges of its own.

“It was a mixed success,” admits Anna. “It helped to build some hype around the book, but at the same time it also began to feel a little like an echo chamber, because most of the people interacting were the authors of the book.”

The print version of Home Groan will be launched in February at Hikayat on Lebuh Pantai and will be available for sale there and from the Gerakbudaya branch on Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling.

The ebook version of Home Groan is available online from Google Play at: 

Marc de Faoite is a freelance writer and editor based in Penang. Originally from Dublin, he has lived in Malaysia since 2007.

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