Interview with Tunku Halim

by on Nov 2, 2009 in Interviews | 0 comments

By Charles Tan

Tunku Halim is a Malaysian-born writer of horror, science fiction, and fantasy. He’s seen two novels published, four collections of short stories, and runs a popular blog at tunkuhalim.wordpress.com

You mentioned in an interview that you don’t like the term horror. How would you describe your own writing?

I don’t particularly like the term horror for my own writing because it creates an expectation on the readers’ part that the writing will scare them. If you’re a horror writer, then you necessarily have to write scary stories. It puts a box around you. I prefer the term “dark fantasy”, for then the expectation of having to induce fear in the reader is removed. My writing is dark and often involves the supernatural element. Often, as in my two novels Dark Demon Rising and Vermillion Eye, it is aimed to be scary but sometimes, as in my novella Juriah’s Song, it is not. So the term “horror” is restrictive, whereas “dark fantasy”, which I’m glad to say lacks a precise definition, is expansive and allows a particular story and its characters to lead the author down whatever dark path they choose.

What was the road to publication like? What was the most difficult hurdle you had to overcome before you could become a professional author?

I was fortunate that I already had a non-fiction book published and therefore had already built a good relationship with my publisher. But even then they were reluctant, as they specialised in non-fiction. The greatest hurdle is self-belief. You ask yourself if you’re really good enough to make writing a full-time occupation. Do you even dare call yourself a writer? The other hurdle is the change of mental state, for what was once a hobby now becomes work. As a full-time writer, it’s important to have interests outside of writing.

If I’m not mistaken, you currently live and work in Australia, in addition to having travelled elsewhere. How has this experience shaped your writing? How does it feel to live elsewhere, yet still be rooted in Malaysia?

I feel that living outside Malaysia is vital to my role as a writer. Being away from home gives me the mental distance to write about it. All the small things we take for granted in Malaysia become magnified when you’re in a different environment. One analogy is that it’s easy to write a letter home to your mother if you’re overseas but very difficult if she’s in the room next door. Working in Australia also gives me the isolation I need to write. Malaysia is a very social place, and I’ve lots of friends and family there, so it’s a difficult place to isolate yourself.

In your opinion, what makes Malaysian fiction unique, at least compared to other Western countries?

It really is Malaysia’s multiethnic diversity that makes it unique. It is not only the intermingling of the different races, but its fusion, the creation of a distinctive culture that makes it so interesting. For example, the phrase “Eh boss, pass me your handphone, lah!” although it is in the English language, contains words derived from Indian, Chinese and Malay cultures. This is something that Western fiction cannot offer.

Your fiction will be appearing in international publications like The Apex Book of World SF and Exotic Gothic 3. How did you end up writing for these publications?

I was actually approached by the editors to write for each publication. In both cases, they were looking for stories outside North America and Europe. This is a great thing and is a natural development, for the world has become a smaller place. I’m glad to be able to share our Malaysian “gothic” experience with a wider readership.

How would you describe the speculative fiction field in Malaysia?

I’ll have to admit that it’s a bit poor. Even with the huge number of Malaysian and Singaporean horror books available, many of these are aimed at the teenage market and take the form of reportage rather than creating great stories. They seem to be written for profit rather than for the sake of the craft of writing. Not much has been written in the realms of fantasy and science fiction. Perhaps this is because of our Malaysian obsession with horror. There is much material to mine in the fantasy genre, for the Malay Annals, written in the 15th century, contains many fantasy-like tales.

You mentioned that horror is popular in Malaysia but science fiction and fantasy not so much. That’s similarly the case here in the Philippines. Do you have any theories as to why that’s the case?

I think it’s because scary stories are rooted deep in our past. Fear is a primeval thing, sitting deep in our brains. And when you combine that with the myths and legends of our Asian culture, which are full of ghosts, demons, witches, and vampires, then the result is quite potent. Our parents have always told children horror stories, usually to stop them from doing something or going somewhere dangerous. For Asians, fantasy and science fiction are relatively modern genres. Horror stories, though, are as old as our ancient jungles.

In your opinion, what makes Malaysia unique and a rich source of inspiration for fiction?

Malaysia has a truly interesting history where so many cultures have met and continue to meet. Its cultural richness and vibrancy make it a wonderful source of fiction. For a writer of speculative fiction, Malaysia provides a lot of material, for it is a country which is full of superstition, with each culture having its own ghosts, spirits, and demons.

What made you decide to write in English?

That’s an easy one. I’ve spent many of my school years studying in the UK. My written Malay is therefore not particularly good. I hope to one day have some of my books translated into Malay.

In your opinion, why is the international scene not very aware of fiction of third-world countries such as Malaysia? Who are the writers we should be reading?

I think a lot of the problem is marketing and availability. The other issue is language. Luckily Malaysia, because of our colonial past, has many writers who write in English. Many, like Tash Aw and Tan Twan Eng, are also educated overseas and are able to compete with Western writers and write for that particular market. The same can’t be said for Thailand or Indonesia. Even the famous Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer had to have his works translated into English before his writing was recognised internationally. Whilst we should be delighted that Malaysian writers are making it on the world stage, we should not neglect our older writers like K.S. Maniam, Lee Kok Liang, and A. Samad Ismail, for these are the writers who will give us a sense of time and place.

You’ve also managed to leverage the Internet for your own promotion, whether it’s blogs or podcasts. How is the Internet changing the publishing scene?

The effect of the Internet is dramatic. It means that anyone can become a publisher. Anyone can have a web page, a blog, an e-book, or even twitter a novel. Of course, there is nothing like having a physical book in your hands. But even the effect on traditional publishers has been enormous. From production to marketing to distribution, every aspect of publishing has been affected.

You’ve written short stories, novels, non-fiction, and even a children’s book. How adaptable are you when transitioning from one format to another?

Writing fiction and non-fiction does require use of different parts of the brain. I find it refreshing moving from one to the other, and so changing formats is quite an easy thing to do. The difficulty is focusing on one book at a time!

You’ve also used self-publishing to publish your own books. How is self-publishing a viable platform for authors?

I self-published History of Malaysia—A Children’s Encyclopedia only because I wanted to retain complete control of how the book would ultimately look. Self-publishing is not something I would normally recommend to authors. That’s because when you self-publish, you become a businessperson. You’ll need to have or build business skills and spend time on your publication. This takes you away from writing. Also, self-publishing is expensive.

Lastly, for international readers, could you tell us more about your own fiction and where we can find/obtain it?

I would try MPH online (http://www.mph.com.my), Amazon, and other online shops. My books may also be available at some specialist bookshops and perhaps the local library network.

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