IOANNIS Gatsiounis is a freelance journalist from New York who has lived in Kuala Lumpur for the last six years. He has written about Malaysia and the region for publications such as Forbes, Newsweek, the International Herald Tribune and The Wall Street Journal Asia. Stretching his writer’s muscle, Gatsiounis recently wrote 10 short fictional stories that were published as a book, Velvet & Cinder Blocks, which was launched on 16 Oct 2009. The stories deal with the search for identity by characters in a post-9/11 world.
Gatsiounis’s first book was Beyond the Veneer, a non-fiction account of Malaysia’s search for direction following the Barisan Nasional’s loss of a two-thirds majority in Parliament in the March 2008 general election. As a foreign journalist who has lived here for some years, he says he’s learnt to care about what happens to Malaysia. He tells The Nut Graph in an exclusive interview on 21 Oct 2009 in Kuala Lumpur that the country has the resources to excel, but whether it will or not is left to be seen.
TNG: Why and how are the 9/11 attacks pivotal to the stories and characters [in your new book]?
Gatsiounis: After 9/11, the media and global commentators tended to focus on the fallout rather one-dimensionally. They didn’t get to know characters and the forces responsible for shifts in civilisation that occurred post 9/11. I felt there was something missing in the narrative, that people’s lives were missing, and I wanted to explore that through characters.
What can journalists do to cultivate imagination if they want to make that transition from reporting to writing fiction?
It’s important to start from the position of what’s possible as opposed to limitations. Here we tend to start the creative process from a sense of limitation, whether that’s imposed from above, like the government telling us that we can’t talk about this or that. That’s a very stifling, crippling place to start. Let the imagination go, be comfortable with your own imagination, and then you can distinguish what will work in a story or not.
As someone who has lived and worked in both east and west, do you find that first world politics is more about value systems, while third world politics is more about identity?
I don’t subscribe to such a theory. I think there’s a lot of overlap between east and west, and that’s something I’ve tried to communicate in this book, like in the last story The Guesthouse, and likewise in Above the Merciless Waterline. I think that post 9/11, we got out of touch with these commonalities. We gravitated to superficial symbols and certain emotions which blinded us to other emotions.
In The Guesthouse, [the character] Basel develops a relationship with Si, the narrator. It starts off based on commonalities, before the media’s scripted ideology pulls them apart and they go separate ways.
In the Fairly Current Show, you observed how Malaysia is developed economically but not socially. Since you’ve lived here a number of years, what do you think it would take for people to develop socially?
First, I think it’s important that we begin to understand the true meaning of development. There’s a tendency here to simplistically equate it to economic development. More is required, like civic duties and taking an interest in politics.
I so often hear people say that they’re not interested in politics. As if by ignoring politics, politics will have no bearing on my life. Politics shapes society, the way we think and interact. And in a democratic though authoritarian-leaning society like Malaysia, politics has a very decisive role to play.
In that interview, you also used the collective “we” a lot, and even now. Why is that?
I identify with Malaysia, it’s a huge part of my life. And I do see commonality with people here. Intended or otherwise, I feel that in a way, it’s become my struggle, too. Don’t misunderstand that, it’s ultimately for Malaysians to choose how they’re going to govern themselves, but I do want what’s best for the country.
Malaysia is at the crossroads of development, and few countries in the region straddle that bridge. Malaysia has the resources to become a shining star, and seeing that, I was curious as to what it was going to do with those resources. I concern myself with the places that I live [in]. There are people who say, “Butt out, this is not your country.” But if someone wants to comment about the US, I’m not going to say, “Butt out.” Because there are lessons to be learnt from sources both local and foreign.
The longer I’ve lived in Malaysia, the more involved I’ve become. There’s a line in The Guesthouse where the narrator is commenting on backpackers, that they stick around long enough not to involve themselves in a country. Which, in a way, is really not to care about a country. To become involved is, to some degree, to care.
Let’s talk about the writer’s life. We’ve talked about cultivating imagination, but besides that, what other advice do you have for journalists who might want to delve into fiction writing?
It won’t happen unless you sit down and begin to write. Fiction can be daunting in that there are so many possibilities. But however daunting, you need to write that first draft, edit it, shave away the excess, and you’ll find your way. You need to make time for it.
But I’ll also say that one shouldn’t shy away from feelings. I wrote this collection of stories knowing that certain people were going to make certain associations with my personal life. But I found that if I was too concerned about protecting my image and my privacy, there would be no stories.
Writing for western publications, do you find editors want your stories about Malaysia or Southeast Asia to be from a certain perspective? I ask this because some of our leaders are fond of saying that the western media enjoys putting the country in a bad light.
Such leaders should take responsibility for their own actions. Some people don’t know Malaysia, so the first acquaintance they make with the country is when a pop group is banned because their concert is sponsored by a beer company, so Malay [Muslims] can’t go to that. Do they expect the western media not to respond to that? I mean, that is a news story. When the government cracks down on peaceful protesters in front of Masjid Jamek with chemical-laced water, do they expect the media not to report that?
But no, editors have not asked me to frame my story in any particular way. There is no puppet master in the west who wants to conspire against Malaysia. Sometimes the media on both sides get it wrong, but there’s no great conspiracy.
Velver & Cinder Blocks is published by ZI Publications, and is available in most major bookstores.
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