Write Brain

Published on 26 March 2017

Effectively bilingual, author/poet Isa Kamari says writing in Malay has always been a choice.


“I was born in Kampung Tawakal, a Malay village amidst a Chinese cemetery in the Bukit Brown area. I lived there till I was 13, when I enrolled in Raffles Institution,” reveals Isa Kamari, a prominent figure in Singapore’s Malay literary scene. “Living in a kampong helped to sharpen my sensitivity, in the sense that I became more observant. Even now, I don’t drive. I take public transport. That’s my space to observe people, ponder and think creatively.”

A recipient of the S.E.A Write Award (2006), the Cultural Medallion (2007), and the Anugerah Tun Seri Lanang (2009), Isa is an architect by training and the first non-full-time artist to receive the Cultural Medallion. The father of two still holds a full-time job as a deputy director with the Land Transport Authority, and does most of his writing at night.

Proficient in English and Malay, Isa writes in Malay by choice. “Culturally, I think in Malay. English is more my working language,” he explains. “I only begin to write when I feel disturbed by an issue. It’s only after I have done my research and formed a position on it that I decide if it’s something I want to share with others. In that sense, writing is very close to me. I grow with my writing.”

To date, he has published 10 novels (nine of which are in Malay), two collections of short stories, two collections of poetry and a stage play. His works have not only been translated into English — among them, The Tower (originally Menara) by Alfian Sa’at and Intercession (originally Tawassul) by Sukmawati Sirat and edited by Alvin Pang — but also into Turkish, Urdu, Indonesian and Mandarin.

His latest novel, Tweet (2016), is his first foray into English literature. “I knew from the start Tweet would be in English. I felt an urgency to share this thought process with a wider audience,” he says. “But now that I know I can write in English too, it’s a new dilemma for me.”

Isa feels the key is a clear sense of audience. “If it’s for the Malay community, it should be in Malay. If it’s for a wider audience, then the challenge would be to remain true to my Malay feelings and thoughts, and express that in English.”

Isa also has a passion few know about: he is an avid collector of the Kris (a Malay/Indonesian dagger with a wavy-edged blade). He started his collection three years ago and currently owns over 50 heritage pieces from around the region. Perhaps that will inspire another novel down the road?

Apart from being an award-winning author, Isa Kamari is also an avid collector of the keris (a Malay/Indonesian dagger with a wavy-edged blade) and showed us his vast collection. We visit his home to find out more about his keris collection and why he is so captivated by them. Read about it here.

To find out more, visit www.isa-kamari.blogspot.sg

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