Supplement / November 2011 (Issue 15)

Every Book Counts: Silverfish Books (Malaysia)

by Raman Krishnan

A journalist recently asked me if I've been in the book business for fifty years. I had to laugh. It does feel like that sometimes, but no, I have been at this only since 1999. Before that, I was a construction engineer for twenty-five years—yes, fraternising with the underworld and other undesirables—until I decided: enough is enough. That's another story.

I had no idea what I was going to do after a quarter of a century of engineering, and all the associated argy-bargy. I had always been a voracious reader, fascinated by stories and the power they held. My wife said I had too many books, and I never thought I had enough—yes, it was that kind of story. Not for a moment, though, did I think I'd want to make a business of it, and I had no idea how to even if I did. It was so much a part of me that I was scarcely aware of the existence of this strange affectation. It was like breathing. Would anyone think of making a business out of breathing? I guess some would.

"You could sell your books," said my wife out of the blue while I was driving.

I was horrified. "No," I retorted, more forcefully than I intended.

"Then, I will," she shot back.

"Don't you dare, "I almost shouted and made all sorts of underworld threats.

"What makes you think I haven't already," she continued to tease me.

I was overtaken by panic, but I remained silent. She's lying, I thought repeatedly. But, what if she's not? She looked frightfully amused. I remained morose and refused to entertain her.

When we got home I went to look at my shelves as if to make sure they were all still there, while she stood by quietly.

"I was only joking," she said. I believed her; still, I continued to scrutinise the spines of my books. She thought I was crazy. I thought I was crazy.

I remained sullen in bed that night, staring at the slowly rotating ceiling fan. She turned towards me, propped her head on a palm and said, "I was only half joking. I don't know of anyone who reads more than you. So why not make it a business? Think about it." Then she turned off the lights.

When I opened Silverfish Books in June 1999, I wanted it to be different. I wanted it to be a bookshop I would like to go to. (I used to buy most of my own books from The Good Book Guide in London at considerable shipping expense because I couldn't find what I wanted in the local stores.) I wanted a shop stocked with books I'd like to read. Some well-meaning friends made comments (behind my back) about my naiveté. But I was stubborn. I insisted I was not going to stock bestsellers or business and self-help books regardless of how much business sense that made; I was not going to be one of "those" shops. Stupidity does have its advantages, though. Word spread quickly that Silverfish Books carried "unusual" titles, and we soon started getting visitors from all over the world. And, being an engineer, I embraced technology from the start: email marketing, an interactive community website and online selling, albeit at a very basic level by today's standards.

Not long after we opened shop, however, the mega-bookstores arrived in the city. With deep pockets, they could (and did) buy every book on every list, even if they knew nothing about them. Soon, the Klang Valley had a dozen mega-bookshops, and we couldn't compete with that (or with their glitz and glamour). We had to differentiate. We decided to go local, and currently we have the largest collection of Malaysian titles in English in the country. So, after twelve years we are still the bookshop with titles not available in other shops in Kuala Lumpur.

One day, not long after we opened, a customer, an American academic working in Japan, asked to see my Malaysian collection. I hadn't realised how pathetic it was until I showed it to him. Malaysian publishing in English was all but dead at the time (year 2000) after tiny growth spurts—duly trampled down by the machine—in the sixties, eighties and the nineties. It was a strange situation: English was widely spoken and read—all our major bookstores stocked nothing but Anglo-American titles—but there was hardly anyone writing in the language except for the newspapers and magazines, and that mostly about handbags and shoes. I decided to venture into publishing.

"Nobody makes money publishing in English in Malaysia," I was told by some friends. I didn't think they were wrong, but that didn't discourage me either. I worked out a quick budget. "If I manage to sell 200 copies in this tiny market, I will not lose too much money," I reckoned. I decided to do it. Money was not the main object, I reasoned (but I didn't want to lose my pants either). "I want to do it" soon became "I need to do it." I thought about it for a while—about one week—before sending out email invitations soliciting entries for a short story anthology at the end of September 2000. The call for entries was open for one month—through October. We received over 250 short stories, novel abstracts, plays, film scripts and so on, and many volunteers. I was amazed at the enthusiasm and energy. Twenty-five stories were chosen and edited in one month—November. The book, Silverfish New Writing 1, was sent to the printers in early December and was in the shops before Christmas that year.

After three decades of anti-English policies and propaganda in the country, the language was still alive, if not thriving, and there were still at least several hundred people keen to express themselves in it. A good deal of the euphoria was certainly due to the success of Indian writers in Anglo-American markets at the time. Personally, I had reservations about that. I was already getting more than a little jaded with that type of writing: it was exotic, clichéd and market driven. It pandered to a certain readership by reinforcing a stereotype. I was beginning to find it offensive.

It was fashionable at the time to scoff at books in translations, especially after what Salman Rushdie wrote about them in the Vintage Book of Indian Writing (1998). Curious, I read several Indian writers in translation starting with Sivasankaran Pillai, M. T. Vasudevan Nair, A. R. Ananda Moorthy, Asoka Mitran and the like, and I was stunned by the stories they told. I was already reading many European and Japanese (not to mention South American) writers at the time, and was fascinated by the power of storytelling and the creation of myths and histories. I had grown somewhat annoyed by the Anglo-American genre called "literary" that implied that books were to be read for the language and not merely for the story, as if the latter was a somewhat vulgar affectation, an indulgence. I was convinced it was nothing more than cynical marketing, and not a very good one at that.

English, for most Malaysians, is a second, third or even the fourth language. As such, almost every English book written by a Malaysian is a "translation" of sorts. What language did the writer think in? Which form of Manglish?

The term Manglish is an over-simplification. Let's take Malay Manglish which is a Malay form of English. Basically it uses English words within a Malay structure and rhythm. Then, we have Chinese Manglish, which is further subdivided into Hokkien and Cantonese versions and many more. So Manglish is not one but many languages and few understand all its different versions.

Most of the manuscripts we receive are in some form of Manglish (more or less). So the challenge is to edit the works using standard English while still keeping the flavour. (There are exceptions.)

We learned quite early that writers with good English language skills are not necessarily good storytellers and vice versa. But, by then, I had put a foot in my mouth by saying that there was no reason for a Malaysian living in the country not to become a world class writer. (At the time, several Malaysians, all living overseas, were being published by leading houses.) I thought about it and thought about what was required to be done. Malaysia has thousands of stories in many languages, all very Malaysian and all very authentic, and I wanted to record as many as I could. So I sent out the message, "Don't worry about your language skills. If you have a good story (and I am able to understand what you are saying), I'll work with you." That's how I started the Silverfish Writing Programme, the writers' and poets' forums and established the publishing focus.

Contemporary English writing in Malaysia is only beginning to stir. Much is happening, but there is so much more to be done. There is courage to push boundaries and a hunger to learn. The current movement is only ten years old and will continue to evolve before a clearer identity emerges. For now, there appears to be a trend towards less parochialism and more multiculturalism. Interestingly, it is not only the younger writers who have become active. Many older citizens appear to have decided to disregard the shackles (and sacred cows) and are producing interesting work.

Malaysian writers today are less conscious of the baggage from the past. It used to be that Malay writers only dealt with Malay issues, the Chinese with Chinese and likewise the Tamils and the rest. This type of writer still exists, but many now simply tell stories with an attitude that is almost colour blind, that crosses boundaries easily. This is a huge step for a country like Malaysia.

I shall not be, falsely, modest about it. Silverfish is still the most "influential" (and "important") voice in Malaysian writing in English. We constantly push boundaries and we are quick (but cautious) with new technology: several of our titles are now sold as e-book downloads for the Kindle, Nook and other devices. Our success has spawned many new publishing houses that we do not look upon as competition. We welcome them and we are happy to have them in the publishing fraternity, doing important work and contributing towards Malaysian literature in English. In a way, this validates our work and our vision. (Many of them have, in the past, worked with Silverfish Books. We hope to do more projects with them in future.)

At Silverfish Books, we approach publishing the old-fashioned way. Every book is important, and good enough is never good enough. Every book is a designer product. We are interested in the authentic Malaysian experience, the story, the history.

We are interested in the crossroads where literature meets history.

Tenth Anniversary

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