Datin Diana Yeong’s Welcome Speech at “Literature as a Guide to Human Nature”
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away … were there ever words more magical than these? Those ten little words are the signal that children from the youngest years learn to take as a cue to sit up and listen, for a story is about to begin. Since time immemorial, narrative has been the cultural currency of the human species, a training ground and stimulus for memory, imagination and cognitive thinking. The stories we are told and tell about ourselves and others form the aural heritage and guidebook to navigating the complex and choppy waters of our own society, other cultures and the world at large. It has been said that storytelling is the key to the success of the human species, as shared narratives encourage cooperation, collaboration and empathy and boosts knowledge and intelligence. So enduring is the power of narrative that The Epic of Gilgamesh which dates back 4,000 years to ancient Mesopotamia, the Tale of Genji, written by a Japanese noblewoman in the 11th century, and the 400 year old plays of Shakespeare are still printed, read and discussed today, all over the world, and despite the changing tides of time they still have much to tell us about who we are and why we do what we do.
Ladies and gentlemen, datuk-datuk and datin-datin, a very good afternoon to all of you. Let me extend a very warm welcome to all of you, and thank you for being here at DiverseCity the KL International Arts Festival 2018’s exploration of Literature as a Guide to Human Nature. I’m Diana Yeong. In 2013, I started a Facebook group in hopes of getting to know some other Malaysian book lovers, and inadvertently created a community that is today about 8000 members strong, with regular online and offline activities and about 200 unique posts, 1,500 comments, and 4,000 reactions on a weekly basis. This humble little Facebook group, known as the KL Book Appreciation Club, became a virtual home for many Malaysian readers of every stripe, a space to debate our love-hate relationships with Fitzwilliam Darcy, Anna Karenina and Edward Cullen, to thrash out our feelings about The Garden of Evening Mists, American Gods or the Heart of Darkness, and even where we can wax lyrical about the ins and outs of print books versus e-books, hardcovers versus paperbacks, and whether deckle edges make or break a book. KLBAC, as it is affectionately known, has grown beyond an impersonal facebook group, and in fact we’ve spawned multiple other niche communities, as well as some very real-life friendships which have formed out of this mutual appreciation for what has been sometimes called ‘hallucinating vividly while staring at marked pieces of tree bark’.
I was deeply honoured when Datin Sunita invited me to come give the introductory address for this illustrious event. I jumped at the chance to represent the book lovers of Malaysia at one of the rare occasions where public displays of emotional reaction to fictional characters and events would not be considered a sign of mental problems. As I’m sure the readers in this room can relate to, being a Malaysian bookworm can be an isolating experience, as we’re surrounded by a society who in the main, consider reading to be an antisocial and even snobbish activity. It has long been the dream of Malaysian book lovers for literature to be accorded the cultural significance that art, performance and music enjoy, and Diversecity’s efforts to that end must be applauded. We look forward to more exciting events like these, so eventually we’ll outgrow the statistic that says that only 3% of Malaysians read books* on a regular basis. Too many Malaysians still consider reading to be a strictly academic pursuit, and one that offers few benefits for the common man. I hope DiverseCity will continue to organize excellent programs such as these, and in so doing, help the culture of book appreciation to grow and spread to as many Malaysians as possible.
So without further ado, allow me to introduce the distinguished panel of speakers we have with us today. David T.K. Wong worked in journalism, public service and international trading, and if that wasn’t impressive enough, in his retirement he’s become one of Hong Kong’s most preeminent writers. He has to date written four collections of short stories and two novels. Some of his stories earned him a number of awards, and have been published or broadcasted all over the world. David is now a Malaysian resident and is currently working on the third volume of his family memoirs, dealing with his experiences as a civil servant in the Hong Kong government. Please join me in welcoming David to our panel today.
Tiffany Atkinson is a Professor of Creative Writing and convenor of the MA in Creative Writing in Poetry at the University of East Anglia. She is the author of three award winning poetry collections and the editor of a theoretical textbook and has strong research interests in the medical humanities. She is currently working on a poetic sequence exploring representations of pain, illness and recovery – work that won the 2014 Medicine Unboxed Prize – as well as a series of critical essays about “the poetics of embarrassment”. Put your hands together if you, like me, are excited to hear from Tiffany today.
Malim Ghozali is no stranger to many of us in Malaysia, as his four novels, 5 short story collections and seven volumes of poetry have won many awards and prizes both nationally and internationally. In 2016 his novel, “Tree of Sorrow” was listed among the 160 best novels and nominated for the IMPAC Dublin International Book Award. Also in 2016 his short story collection, Langit Tidak Berbintang di Ulu Slim (Starless Sky in Ulu Slim) won the MASTERA (South East Asia Literary Council) Award and his poem, “The Game of Rodeo” won First Prize in the poetry competition organized by the 36th World Congress of Poets in Prague. We are honoured to hear from Malim today.
Last but not least, we have Terrence Netto as the panel moderator today. Terence Netto has been a journalist for over four decades, carving a niche at the intersection where philosophy, literature and politics meet. He is drawn to the craft for the opportunity it affords in giving permanence and universality to fleeting and immediate impressions. Most recently Terrence has turned his talents towards political analysis and has just put out his first book, Anatomy of an Electoral Tsunami, a collection of commentaries on our recent general elections here in Malaysia. Let’s give a warm welcome to Terence!
And now, I’ll leave you in Terence’s able hands, as he leads us in the discussion of today’s topic: Literature as a guide to human nature.
** In 2013, Datin Diana Yeong was looking for some bibliophiles to adopt the books her children had outgrown. Hence, she formed KL Book Exchange Club (KLBEC), a Facebook group for selling and buying books online. Two years after the inception of KLBEC, the community had expanded by great leaps and bounds.
Giving in to the members’ demand for a book club, Diana created another Facebook group where members could discuss everything related to books. Thus, the KL Book Appreciation Club (KLBAC) was born.
KLBAC holds in-person monthly book discussions. On Facebook, the administrators prompt members to recommend books of various genres to other members. These admins also run a weekly author spotlight where readers can discuss the works of the featured author. On top of that, KLBAC does reading challenges, bookmark exchanges and book chains. Recently, they created Readers of KL, a public Instagram profile aimed at encouraging others to read in public more often.
*25th July 2018 – New Straits Times, Boosting the reading habit, quoting UNESCO report – The Adult and Youth Literacy: National Regional and Global Trends report published in 2016.