Malaysia’s very own Katherine Hepburn – an interview with Sharon Bakar (17 October 2005)

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Introduction

I asked Sharon to participate in an an interview with me in July. However, she was extremely busy and I had to wait. Patiently, I waited (not something I’m used to doing, I might add!). This was one interview I was most keen to follow through with, not because of her celebrity status in the literary scene in Malaysia. It was for a very personal reason – from the very first time I made contact with her, she was kind to me. When I met her in person, it was at a time when I felt brave enough to venture out into the Malaysian literary scene – I had become reclusive after some extremely painful experiences (but that’s another story). It was nice to hear Sharon say that not everyone thought I was a complete failure for writing and publishing The Banana Leaf Men myself, however many mistakes there are in the novel.

So, I was determined to interview her and as you will see from this interview, I am not the only person who has benefited from her support.

It is with great pleasure, therefore, that I present to you, Sharon Bakar. (Now, you have to agree, in the photo above, there is an uncanny resemblance to Katherine Hepburn!)


Aneeta: Hi Sharon, thank you very much for agreeing to this interview.

Sharon: Thanks for inviting me.

Aneeta: Before I ask about the work you do, please tell me a little about your life. How did you, a British woman, come to live in Malaysia?

Sharon: I came out as an English teacher in 1984. I wanted to see the world and had already spent 2 years as a volunteer in Nigeria. I was initially supposed to teach here for just one year, but felt immediately at home and stayed on … and stayed on … I married Abu is 1990 while I was back in Britain doing my Master’s degree.

Aneeta: OK. Let’s start with one of your interests, teaching creative writing. Please explain why you are interested in this particular area of writing and the work that you have put into learning how to teach someone how to write.

Sharon: I’ve always loved teaching writing and encouraging creativity. Really it was why I became an English teacher in the first place! While I was working in schools I encouraged my students to write and produce their magazines with their articles and stories inside, and also to write and perform their own plays for public performance. Then a few years ago I decided that I wanted to write fiction seriously but couldn’t find a course locally. I found some excellent books and online resources that helped me to get started and eventually published. I set up an informal writing group for my friends where we tried out materials and exercises, and from this grew my idea of running public courses.

Aneeta: Have you had people benefit from what you have taught them?

Sharon: Yes, but I’m constantly surprised by the different ways in which participants benefit! Some of them find the writing class a relaxing break in the week, some much needed “me” time. Some seem to just need permission and encouragement to open up and let the words pour out, and they take to writing very naturally after that.

And then there have been individual cases which have touched me very much. One woman said that the course had given her a way out of a serious depression. Another broke into tears during a writing exercise and said “I’ve just realised why I’m here. I needed to find my own voice. And I have.” Another found that her father kept appearing on the page in different writing exercises and realised that it was time to reevaluate her relationship with him. And yet another began the course telling me “I have no imagination whatsoever. Just don’t ask me to write fiction.” Three weeks into the course she was writing absolutely crazy stuff, and as pleased as punch with herself for allowing herself to let go.

I will be very interested to see how the participants continue to develop though over the coming months. I stay in touch with them all via an e-group and organise “meet-up and write evenings” so that everyone stays enthused.

Aneeta: Whilst on this subject of teaching creative writing, I know that you have reviewed many books/journals/courses and so on. Off the top of your head, can you list down three of the most useful materials on creative writing you have come across?

Sharon: I’ll list more than 3 if you don’t mind!

Aneeta: By all means, go ahead.

Sharon: For the beginner starting off, you should read Nathalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind for inspiration; The Writer’s Book of Days by Judy Reeves is a great source of encouragement and writing prompts and Roberta Allen’s The Playful Way To Serious Writing full of enjoyable exercises to spark the imagination. For the more advanced writer I can’t recommend What If by Anne Bernays and Pamela Hunter too highly, certainly it’s the best compilation of writing exercises on the market. And if you want to shape your work for publication Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft is an essential reference.

Aneeta: I also know that you do some editing work. Please tell us the kind of works you have edited in the past and what kind of work are you looking for in the future?

Sharon: I’ve edited an anthology for Silverfishbooks and would love to do more of this kind of thing. I’ve also acted as “book doctor” to several writers, some of them are already published. I don’t have so much time for this now because I’m so busy with other things.

Aneeta: I know that you run a blog. It has a very interesting name – Bibliobibuli and and I love the caption – WOMAN BATTLES SERIOUS BOOK DEPENDENCY PROBLEM … –
Please, tell me, why did you start this? Was it what you intended it to be and how has it developed?

Sharon: The blog began as a personal one. Since I love books I couldn’t help writing about my addiction! I discovered that the thrill of blogging is really in having readers who react to what you say and engage in discussion. I now tend to write more about books and writing than I did at the beginning, with the occasional personal piece (usually something that I’ve already drafted in my notebooks) slipped in to give it a more personal flavour … and to show the world that bookaholics also have a life in the larger world.

Aneeta: Maybe you could add to that caption, WOMAN BATTLES SERIOUS BOOK DEPENDENCY AND BLOGGING PROBLEM … (said with tongue-in-cheek!)
Sharon, this is what you said on one entry and I was intrigued:

One think I’ve learned about journals, is that though you may begin with a clear idea that you are going to write about precisely this thing or that, your writing takes on a life of its own and decides where it wants to lead you. I’ll go with the flow.

Please explain this a little more.

Sharon: This is the one secret of creative writing that you need to learn if your writing is to be honest and true. Stop thinking and just let your pen lead you without trying to censor yourself. Writer Julia Cameron said it best in her book The Right to Write: too often we sit down to write and “think up a plot” when what we should be doing is listening to what’s inside us trying to get out. We should be constantly surprised by the words that appear on our page. It sounds bizarre perhaps – until you actually experience the eureka moment where it starts to work for you.

Aneeta: You have been blogging for some time now and there are many, how should I put this, thought-provoking issues. Please share three of your favourite entries and the replies and why these are so.

Sharon: I like the entries where I’ve written about the monthly readings organised by Bernice Chauly – I feel it is important to document what’s happening in the Malaysian writing scene and no-one else has been covering these events (although Nizam Zakaria has great photos on his photoblog). I’m also really happy if I can post something that inspires or helps other writers, for example the quote by Japanese haiku master Kyoshi Kobayashi or the poem air and light and time and space by Charles Bukowski. And then of course there’s all the more personal pieces – bits of my life, portraits of friends.

Aneeta: I certainly agree with this and thank you for the posts because it’s precisely because of your blog entry and Bernice’s effort in organising the readings that I decided to come out of hiding in July.

It’s obvious from your entries that you’re planning your novel. Is it OK to ask, at this stage, at what it’s about?

Sharon: Yes. It’s set in a fiction country called Malaisia, and in a fictional city called Kay-Hell. It has a large cast of characters of various races and religions and social classes. I always thought I’d write deep and serious literary fiction but this is turning out to be a fun romp!

Aneeta: Yes, I remember this. You read some of it at one of Bernice’s readings. We laughed, everyone of us! Can’t wait for the actual novel to be published.

If my readers would like to ask you more about your work and how they can seek your help, can you please tell us how to contact you?

Sharon: You can always email me at sbakar@streamyx.com

Aneeta: Well, Sharon, I think that’s all we have time for. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Sharon: Just that I’m glad that you are helping to highlight issues of interest and importance to local writers. The more we all pull together, the stronger we become.

Aneeta: Thank you. I can only try.

Sharon: You’re most welcome.


This piece may NOT be freely reprinted. Please contact editor @ howtotellagreatstory.com for reprint rights.

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