They say that writing is a lonely profession. Imagine a writer, and most people will probably imagine a lone person sitting at desk, a flask of coffee (or alcohol!) at his or her side, writing sentences long into the night.
Lawyer Syamsuriatina Ishak (who writes under the pen name Tina Isaacs), however, discovered it didn’t always have to be that way. While she was doing her Masters of Fine Arts in Tampa, Florida, she found herself a part of a warm and welcoming writing community, with various readings, gatherings and events always going on.
Upon returning to Malaysia, Isaacs decided to do the same thing for the thriving local writing scene. She started attending Readings, a monthly reading event organised by editor Sharon Bakar.
“In the middle of that year, 2014, I talked to some of the writers involved, and said, why don’t we band together? We should have a discussion group, a society of some kind,” recalled Isaacs.
In October 2014, Isaacs set up the Malaysian Writers Community group on Facebook. The group was warmly received, and today, it has over 5,700 members.
“We wanted to make this as inclusive as possible. Stretch the net as far as we could,” Isaacs said.
Writing has always been second nature for the bubbly Isaacs, who was an avid reader as a child. She credits the skill with helping her at her day job of litigation lawyer.
“Being a litigation lawyer means you have to frame a client’s story for the reception of a judge. So I’m actually used to it as part of my job, it’s professional storytelling!” said Isaacs.
Isaacs has published 10 works of short fiction so far in several anthologies and literary magazines, including Fixi Novo’s Cyberpunk Malaysia and Hungry in Ipoh and, Insignia’s Asian Fantasy Stories. In 2015, her short story Dash won the runner-up prize in the D.K. Dutt Memorial Award for Literary Excellence.
In 2016, she and fellow writer Gina Yap established the Malaysian Writer’s Society, a group for the professional advancement of Malaysian writers, writing locally or abroad. The society organises various local writing events, most notably the annual MyWritersFest, a month-long, nationwide festival every October that celebrates local writing.
“I think that in the last two years alone, we have seen so many new short story writers come on board. We have seen people who haven’t published novels publish before, publish their first ones. The numbers of people taking part in short story competitions have gone up. And I like to think that the Malaysian Writers Society has contributed to that,” Isaacs said.
According to her, the country was blessed with a lot of talented writers. However, for a vibrant literary scene to be on par with other developed nations, more support and encouragement had to be given. Local writers should be helped out financially, and given opportunities to be funded and trained abroad.
Writing, she said, was still not taken very seriously here, a perception which has to change.
“We need to develop the writing talent in Malaysia. We need to change the mindset that Malaysian writing is not good enough. The English-reading public, for example, do not mind spending hundreds of dollars in book sales. But they balk at buying a book from a local author. And they haven’t begun reading it yet! We need to change the perception that only the best comes from overseas,” Isaacs said.