Sunday, May 7, 2017

Speech by Tan Sri Johan Jaaffar at the launch of  

by Puteri Fateh Arina Merican

at the Sultan Azlan Shah Law Faculty Building,

University of Malaya,

on Saturday, 6 May 2017

Puteri Fateh Arina Merican Megat Suffian Merican, or Arina, is no ordinary 17-year-old.

She is not only talented and creative but she has a point to prove, a mission to pursue and a commitment to undertake. Her writing is the totem pole of her aspirations. She speaks about herself – her joys, anxieties, frustrations, love even. In her own words, “I have had unrequited loves, loneliness, despair, discrimination, isolation, and un-faulty situations.”

She writes about people who have affected her in one way or another.

As well as of events that had an impact upon her.

A student of literature would try to ‘appropriate’ her works in the context of a larger universe of the written word. Probably placing her work within a construct, a genre, or even a new microcosm of literary realm.

It matters little what one’s conception of this collection of poems and prose is. What matters is the content, the creativity that makes up Paracosm.

I scrambled formy dictionary when I first heard the title of this collection. Not that I have not come across the word before, but coming from a young poet and writer is something else. What does the word mean to her? I was curious.

‘Paracosm’ is no ordinary word. In fact, it is a big word.

If William Shakespeare were to be still alive today, he, like me, would be checking his vocabulary too. I doubt if ‘paracosm’ would be one of the words in the vocabulary that he possessed. He was said to have coined 1,500 new words, but the last time I checked, ‘paracosm’ is not one of them.

To put it in perspective, in all his 37 plays, he used 27,870 different words. According to The Complete Works of Shakespeare, in all, he used a total of 936,443 words.

In April 2009, the one millionth English word entered the dictionary. Come to think of it, Shakespeare’s arsenal of 27,870 words made him like a primary schoolboy, vocabulary-wise. The total number of English words is now 35 times more than his total vocabulary 400 years ago. Yet he is considered one of the greatest writers the world has ever known.  

With the author
Arina’s choice of word for her book title is rather incredible. Even Microsoft Word auto-corrects every time I spell ‘paracosm’. Hey, you guys at Microsoft, listen up, you need to upgrade, seriously!

So, thanks to Arina, ‘paracosm’ is to be part of the lexicon here in this country. Remember our former prime minister who was labelled by another prime minister as “recalcitrant”? The word caught fire. I hope this one will too, popularised by Arina no less.

‘Paracosm’ is one of the more than a million words registered in the English language, albeit least used, even least understood. After consulting Wikipedia and checking my Oxford English Dictionary (OED), I found out that ‘paracosm’ is a detailed imaginary world.

Let me plunder the definition from Wikipedia: “Paracosms are thought generally to originate in childhood…. The creator of a paracosm has a complex and deeply felt relationship with this subjective universe, which may incorporate real-world or imaginary characters and conventions.” I can continue with the definition but whatever for? This is not a discourse on etymology or the origin of words.

Now you have an idea of what runs in this young lady’s mind. One sophisticated, hugely creative, monstrously fertile mind that tags her childhood dreams and imagination, developing them into lengthy structured phrases, using moments and experiences as her psychological references, weaving words into a tapestry of expressions. What we are reading is the manifestation of an immensely imaginative intellect.

Her words trickle down effortlessly, woven with style and finesse, emptying into our consciousness, at times burrowing into our guilt and self pity, at other times with thudding awareness of the dark reality around her and us. At her age, she is a shining example of what a young mind can do creatively.

Arina is good at words. Very good, in fact.

Words matter. Going through 180 pages of text and illustrations, I can fully understand why she chose Paracosm as the title of her book.

Datin Sharifah Mariam Syed Mansor Al-Idrus, in her illuminating Foreword in the book, likens Arina to the Cambodian writer, Lang Leav. With best-selling titles such as Love and Misadventure and Lullabies, Lang Leav has been hailed as a voice of the young, her works being described as “between the whimsical and the woeful, expressing a complexity beneath its childish facade.”

There is an equally eloquent piece in the book by Puan Hajah Anismah M Noh that introduces who Arina really is. She is in fact the principal of the college where Arina studied for some years. We couldn’t agree more when Anismah writes that Arina is an articulate young lady who has had a flair for writing since she was seven.
I shall not be a spoiler;I shall not dwell too much on the content. Let the anthology intrigue and enthral you.  

Perhaps Love and Misadventure is Lang Leav’s ‘paracosm’.But Lang Leav, born in a refugee camp in Thailand, went through a different path in life; her travails and challenges are different. Arina was born into a reasonably well-to-do family, an established and well-known one at that.

Arina is as good a story teller as she is a poet. And she paints too – all the illustrations in the book are hers, except two. The combination of literary works and paintings is special. Not since the time of Anak Alam, the artists’ movement of the 1970s, has any attempt been made to utilise the forms effectively as had Arina in this book.

The likes of Latiff Mohiddin, Mustapa Haji Ibrahim and Dzulkifli Dahlan, to name a few, had enlivened the world of literary and artistic expressions back  then with  different forms, two platforms, each one complementing the other. Back then, they used the term “manifestasi dua seni” or a manifestation of two arts.

This is another area that triggers my interestin Arina’s works.

Perhaps this is a work in progress, an experiment on the part of Arina, testing the water if you like, for she is still young although full of vigor.

Being 17 isn’t easy. I have three daughters who have gone through that stage in life. I am no expert on the millennials, I must confess. But parenting is becoming increasingly more challenging than ever before. Arina represents a new generation of today’s youngsters who are reshaping society, lifestyle, consumption and even politics.

They are changing the feel and look of nations. They are getting their voices heard, loud and clear. They are sounding their positions without fear and favour. They are the children of the globalised world in the true sense. In her Preface, Arina writes, “We have evolved, we are separated from the previous generations and it is time for a new age.”

Her poems and prose manifest that world of the young. A world that parents like us might even find hard to understand. We are not talking about generational gaps anymore; we are talking about major shifts in the dynamics of the relationship between ‘Them’ and ‘Us’.

But, unlike many others, Arina has chosen her own path with certainty. She has made up her mind to be a lawyer, like her parents, but not just an ordinary lawyer, a human rights lawyer. A good choice, Arina. But writing and lawyering seldom mix. A lawyer’s ‘brief’ can be as lengthy as 40-odd pages, and I hope that her literary talent will not be compromised by the discipline in that vocation. Good lawyers seldom make good writers (sorry about that)!
We are not talking about clarity of thought, argumentative style or rhetoric here.Lawyers are good at that, but we need more in the literary word – aesthetics, beauty and finesse. Above all, a purpose to exalt, to soothe, to educate, to make the world a better place.

There is something special about this book, her words and expressions. They are uniquely Arina. While educationalists and editors are concerned about the new forms emerging in social media, Arina is perfecting her language.

Out there, thanks to SMS, WhatsApp and other applications, there is an emergence of an “aberrant world of abbreviations, numerals and pictorial icons.”  It has become the Wild West of communication.

Language is being rewritten, restructured and rearranged in a way that no sane linguist would approve. The written word is undergoing “major shifts in forms and functions.” What we are witnessing is the evolution in cyberspace and social media of some kind of linguistic centaur  - part speech, part writing; half human, half beast – that is seriously undermining ‘formal language’ and, in fact, affecting all major languages.

Thank God, we have Arina. Words are still words. Words excite. Words are alive. Written words can be verbose. Yes, they are structured, formal and expository. They can be abstract and lofty too. But that’s the beauty of words. The beauty of literature.

How else can you explain this:

Angels of heaven
The horn has been blown
The beacon has been lit
Bring forth your sword and shield
We will not let Devil see the daylight
Because in this war of faith
We will rise in glory
And rise in victory.
(Kingdom of Heaven)

Or this:

Why does the world hate me?
Is it my intention?
Or God’s destiny?
I am surrounded by lies and judgement
I feel trapped
Like an experimental specimen

And this:

Here in the woods
There resides old trees
Old trees of longing
And of new beginning
(The Old Elder Tree)
And this one is my favourite:
I miss you my lullaby
So I sing it to myself
Every night
But each time I close my eyes
I envy that you have
Reached paradise
Sleep well, my brother
Do not awake from your peaceful slumber
Because we will see each other again
Not in this world
But another
(Sleep Well, My Brother)

Arina is so gifted.

I am smitten by Paracosm.

You have a huge fan in me!
With DS Azman Ujang, chairman of BERNAMA

Let me share my personal experience of many decades honing my Bahasa Malaysia and English. Brought up in a village some 27 kilometers from the nearest town, I learned English the hard way. No one spoke the language at home or in the village. I went to an English school with just three words of the language, “Yes”, “No” and “Thank You.” The Englishman from Yorkshire,who was our class teacher,roared on my first day at school, “Anyone who speaks any other language in class will be fined 5 cents.” Back in 1960, I didn’t bring money to school. Understandably I was mute for three months.

I was fortunate to learn English by reciting nursery rhymes, singing gospel songs, acting in plays – in short,learning to read and write in English the old way. I can never forget my early schooling at Peserian Primary English School.

I was grateful to have gone to Peserian Primary English School, then Sekolah Menengah Semerah and later High School Muar.And it  was at this university (the University of Malaya) that I learned the ways of the world while improving both my Bahasa Malaysia and English. I was grateful for that as my job at Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP), and later as a journalist, required a reasonably good command of both languages.

I was an editor of national newspaper in the 90s and many years later Chairman of the largest media group in the country – Media Prima Berhad.

The last 50 years too I was involved in culture and arts – I wrote plays, acted in them and directed some of them too. The book,Jejak Seni Johan Jaaffar: Dari Pentas Bangsawan Ke Media Prima Berhad, published by DBP this year is my artistic journey of 50 years.

Arina was at Tunku Kurshiah College (TKC), where she nurtured her interest in all things literary. I guess TKC can make or break you for the poems penned during her last years at TKC are sweet and boisterous, but at times dark and forbidding! Arina has a long way to go. But something has not changed. Then and now, words matter to us. As an editor I have to bring clarity to pieces meant for publication. As a journalist I  have to bring news with clarity and simplicity to be understood by the reading public.

As a poet Arina uses words to convey her feelings and her sketches and paintings to conceptualise her emotions.

It was in Afghanistan, at the Kunar Province to be exact, in the spring of 1989 that I met an old man. He was oblivious to the dangers around him. His notion of security was placing boxes of ammunition around him.

And I met this boy, Mir Muhammad, 14 at the time, three years older than Arina today. He was a boy soldier. He looked older than his age. He didn’t go to school like many others. But he was smart, inquisitive and alert. He asked lots of questions when we were there. He couldn’t understand what I was doing in the middle of the Afghan War. Bringing stories to the outside world was beyond his comprehension.

I was touched by Mir’s stories.

As much as Arina was moved by the images of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy found dead on the beach while fleeing his war-torn country.But I am not a poet like Arina. I wish I can write about Mir in poetry form.

I am not sure what has happened to Mir since I met him. He would have been 42 if he’s still alive. But Mir changed my perspective about life. About humanity. About wars.

I am sure Aylan Kurdi and many others had a profound impact on Arina as a writer.

I am honored to be here and to celebrate with you the achievements of this young lady.

She wrote this at the beginning of her book: “Allah, this year, I ask for nothing more than to make Mummy very proud of me, please Allah. I would give everything – even my soul to you to help me accomplish this.

Arina, you have certainly made your Mummy proud.

We are all very happy for you.

Dengan lafaz Bismillah…. Dengan ini…I hereby launch Paracosm by the extremely talented Puteri Fateh Arina Merican.

Thank you. 

With the author (in black), DS Azman Ujang (2nd from the right)
& Datuk Dr Yaakub the grandfather (extreme right)

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