Perhaps you read his acclaimed novel The Return in secondary school. Maybe you watched his plays, The Cord or The Sandpit: Womensis, which were first performed in 1984 and 1988 respectively. Or perhaps you went through one of his short stories or poems, many of which are still widely studied today. However you discovered legendary local author K.S. Maniam, chances are his works left an impression on you. The man, after all, is one of Malaysia’s most distinguished writers, whose writing has shaped this country’s literature for many years.
Last week, local literary lovers, academics and writers gathered in Kuala Lumpur to celebrate his legacy at “K.S. Maniam’s Writing: A Celebration”. Organised by the University of Nottingham’s School of English and Maya Press, last Saturday’s event was graced by many of Malaysia’s noted arts practitioners, as well as the 77-year-old Maniam himself.
“Lately, K.S. has not been keeping very well,” said University of Nottingham Prof Malachi Edwin Vethamani, one of the speakers at the event.
“So we wanted to have this special time to talk to him while he’s still willing to meet people. And most importantly, we felt he needed to be celebrated. He’s been writing for over 50 years, and his works are definitely worthy of recognition.
“It’s our way of saying thank you to him. We don’t see this as an end of a career. We want to give him a boost to continue writing.”
Born in Bedong, Kedah, Maniam (whose given name is Subramaniam Krishnan) started writing in his early teens. Apart from the books and plays mentioned earlier, Maniam also wrote In A Far Country (1993) and Between Lives (2003).
The Return (1981) was taught in literature class in some Malaysian secondary schools for five years.
Among the awards Maniam has received is the first prize for The Loved Flaw: Stories From Malaysia in a New Straits Times–McDonald’s short story contest (1987) and for Haunting The Tiger: Contemporary Stories From Malaysia in the New Straits Times–Shell contest (1990).
In 2000, Maniam became the inaugural recipient of India’s Raja Rao Award for outstanding contribution to the literature of the South Asian diaspora.
According to Prof Vethamani, part of the author’s appeal is how his works feature Malaysian Indians yet touch on the plight of all Malaysians. He wrote about what it meant to be Malaysian, with themes of belonging, identity and tension that still continue to be relevant today.
Excerpts from many of these and other works were read out at Saturday’s event. Playwright Leow Puay Tin read excerpts from The Return, while author Bernice Chauly recited the poems Loneliness and The Truly Privileged. Also featured was an excerpt from The Cord by actor and academic Dr S. Subramony, and a dramatic monologue from The Sandpit: Womensis by actor Anne James.
Speeches were delivered, as well as messages from people who could not be present.
“From his short story Haunting The Tiger to Between Lives, not to mention his other stories and plays, he has created an interior view of a life, not only his but, to a more or less extent, that of all Malaysians who, except the unthinking, are steeped in the reality of having to cope with these issues.
“It is this that makes him Malaysia’s most important novelist,” said poet Wong Phui Nam in an acerbic speech that poked fun at the notion that a local literary work had to be accepted overseas to be deemed “successful”.
“He fired an early cannon in the struggle for a Malaysian claim in global literature, and I, like so many others following after, thank him for his novels, stories and dramas that continue to light our way forward as writers who write in English, even as we may live in a polyglot universe,” was author Shirley Geok-Lin Lim’s message.
“I want to take this opportunity to wish Maniam this: May your pen be always wet with ideas. Or is it may your computer be always healthy and your spell checker always work! Hope you all will have fun times reminiscing about and honouring a proud son of Bedong,” said author and National Literature Laureate Prof Muhammad Haji Salleh in his message.
And what did the man himself think of the event?
“I feel great. Because they’re doing this in my own lifetime, isn’t it, and not after I’m gone. It’s a kind of double honour, that they recognised me while I’m still around,” Maniam said with a smile.
When it was his turn to speak, Maniam entertained with his quick wit, particularly during a session with Prof Vethamani when he shared experiences from his life and work.
Asked which work had been the most challenging to write, Maniam had no hesitation is picking In A Far Country thanks to its sensitive themes.
He also revealed he has not been writing recently, as he has been ill. There probably would not be any works any time soon, he said, until he recovers.
Of course, we had to ask: What advice would he give aspiring Malaysian authors?
“If they feel they have the writing spirit in them, never give up, go on writing. If they feel after a while that this spirit is not there, then they should do other things,” said Maniam.