Readings@Tanjong: Experiential Waves of Stories and Poetry

By Miriam Devaprasana

February 2024 FOR ART'S SAKE
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READINGS@TANJONG was established in 2023 as a bimonthly reading event featuring literary works by Penang writers. Produced by Dabble Dabble Jer Collective (DDJ.Co) in partnership with the Malaysian Writers Society, Readings@Tanjong or R@T for short, presents itself as a platform to engage the wider community, fostering interest to read literary works by emerging and established writers in Penang, as well as raising the profile of literature in the wider arts ecosystem.

Early Days

Back in 2016, I was part of a group called Say It Like You Mean It (SILYMI), an accessible outlet where amateur poets and musicians got to hone their performance skills and learn the art of composing and writing poetry. To develop these skills further, SILYMI organised public performances, which included open mic nights at ChinaHouse and Kim Haus. Spearheaded by the passionate leadership of Danny Mahes, better known by his stage name, Ksatriya, and photographer, writer and poet, Mark Walker, SILYMI eventually performed at George Town Festival (“12 Stories” in 2017) before growing their reach to the mainland with “Butterworth Also Can” (also known as Buttercan), in collaboration with Think City, to bring together the fractured art community on the mainland.

Being a part of SILYMI was transformative to my journey of growing as a writer and poet, especially because it felt good to be a part of a supporting community armed with a desire to see each other succeed in their individual and collective endeavours. Open mic nights were opportunities to present works and have audiences engage and respond to them—a vital way to explore presenting and performing methods. SILYMI remained an organic movement in the arts scene until the end of 2017 (or early 2018), when “all good things must come to an end”. The “good thing” lived on, however, through many of us who have continued to pursue our crafts, including Wilson Khor W.H., zine author and publisher under The Working Desk, and Garu Rumon, who went on to spearhead the stand-up comedy scene in Penang.

When I first started writing and observing the arts scene in Penang in 2021, I realised that while some of the arts communities had grown to have comparatively sustainable platforms and followings (like visual arts and music), the literary community stood out as perhaps the more marginalised arts community in an increasingly fractured and fragile arts ecosystem.

Curious about these observations, I met with Anna Tan, author, founder of Teaspoon Publishing and President of the Malaysian Writers Society, to discuss the issues at hand and explore practical solutions. We reflected on Readings@Seksan, which holds live literature events in KL every month and the possibility of using literary genres and/or themes to structure the events. We also wanted to include a segment for conversation with the writers so that audiences would have the opportunity to ask questions, respond to the read work, and share thoughts and perspectives.

I then approached Kenny Ng, the project executive of Penang Art District (PAD) and pitched the programme. I was very encouraged when they agreed to provide the much-needed support. This struck us as an important measure that bridges the literary community, especially emerging writers and poets, to the larger body of artists and creatives, thereby providing greater networking opportunities and spotlighting local writers and poets.

Besides, stories and storytelling are uniquely intertwined with cultural heritage and collective memory in George Town, hence the name Readings@Tanjong, with the term Tanjong in reference to one of the earlier names of George Town—Tanjong Penaga.

A night of frights and hair-raising stories during R@T's "Are You Afraid of the Dark" on 28 October 2023.

Developing the Literary Circle

Since its inaugural session in April 2023, R@T has had six events, including being a part of the Penang Harmony Celebrations by HARMONICO, the Malaysian Writers Festival and the Butterworth Fringe Festival. Through these platforms, R@T has hosted writers and poets with various genres and thematic explorations, lending to diverse conversations and perspectives on how stories can be written, told and shaped by culture, heritage, history and fantasy.

Miriam recounting her ghostly dorm experience at Universiti Sains Malaysia.

While R@T has had a fruitful journey so far, it is not without its challenges, one of which is the lack of writers who consistently put out new works. This means that there is only a small pool to tap into, unlike the nature of writing and publishing that we see in KL, for example. Another difficulty is the range of engagement within the literary circle, with some being very enthusiastic about exploring the space and experimenting with different performance styles, and others being hesitant to interact with the concept or framework R@T seeks to establish. It has also been interesting to observe how support is felt and seen within the wider arts communities, as well as the expectations on performances and the standards that come with it. To help develop the latter, DDJ.Co is looking at integrating workshops or masterclasses on performing skills for the benefit of the writers, especially when it comes to live storytelling events, which we also seek to expand in the coming years.

Has R@T managed to achieve the goals it set out to accomplish? I believe it has, and it stands as a remarkable journey of carving out space for stories and poetry, a space to linger and spark meaningful conversations among and between writers and listeners. It has been particularly fulfilling to watch younger audience members engage with the writers and form friendships through the platform, as well as see how R@T brings emerging and established writers together, further developing a sense of community within the circle.

Dee May from Plates Magazine and friend enjoying the of stories told during R@T.

In 2024, we expect to hold more live-reading events in place, opening it up to writers from all over to be a part of the lineup. More importantly, we are exploring ways to connect with local colleges and universities to make R@T accessible to students who want to grow as writers and/or poets who want to observe what is being written and discussed in the contemporary Malaysian writing scene. We want R@T to be a more inclusive space, with connections to literary groups across languages and with writers on the mainland. This way, R@T can become a platform that features diverse voices and opinions, contributing new and original works to Malaysian literature driven by a shared love of stories and poetry.

Participants and audience during R@T’s Showcase Special at COEX@KilangBesi.

Miriam Devaprasana

is a dabbler of creative expressions and a budding researcher rooted in sensitivity, vulnerability, faith and human connection. Check out more of her writing on mdev16.wordpress.com.


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