Malaysian literary event Readings turns 15. We interviewed Sharon Bakar who has been curating it for the past 13 years

By Mohani Niza

(Main picture by Tina Isaacs)

In 2005, Malaysian novelist, poet and educator Bernice Chauly created a literary event called Readings where local and international writers alike could read aloud their works, thus promoting literature to the public. However, two years into running the event, Bernice had to take care of her mum who was dying of cancer. She then passed the baton to British expatriate and creative writing teacher Sharon Bakar who has been the event’s curator ever since.

Meanwhile, Bernice has pursued other things. A popular fixture in the Malaysian literary scene, Penang-born Bernice was the former festival director of the George Town Literary Festival (GTLF) from 2011 to 2018. GTLF won the Literary Festival Award at the 2018 London Book Fair’s International Excellence Awards. Bernice also wrote a touching tribute to the late Malaysian poet and novelist extraordinaire K.S. Maniam who passed away recently.

Readings is held every one Saturday of the month in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur. It is situated in a bungalow called Seksan Gallery (designed by the landscape architect Ng Sek San) in the neighbourhood of Bangsar. The atmosphere there is always friendly and comfortable with both accomplished writers and newbies reading their works aloud. Aside from listening to works and works-in-progress, people come here for mingling too and also for the charming cakes and finger-food passed around in lovely Tupperwares.

Famed Malaysian writer Bernice Chauly started Readings in 2005. Picture by Daniel Adams.

Readings recently celebrated its 15th birthday in February. One person who read her work that particular Saturday include columnist Dina Zaman. She read her work ‘Rainstorm’ which was originally published in her book ‘King of the Sea’ (Silverfish Books, 2012).

Dina told The Culture Review Mag: “Readings has been part of my career. It’s a good place for writers to listen, participate and make friends. I’ve seen some of the audience become true writers like Saras Manickam and that’s brilliant. This crowd encourages you, and for that, I am thankful to be part of it.”

Saras who had read her works ‘Charan’ and ‘My Mother Pattu’ at previous sessions of Readings, told The Culture Review Mag: “Readings is a space where our voices and our work get to be heard. It’s a space of camaraderie and friendship – hanging out with friends so to speak. It was the first place ever where I read my stories and heard their voices.” (‘My Mother Pattu’ was the winner of the Asian category of the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Award).

So, what is the story behind Readings? We recently sat down with Sharon Bakar to know more.

How was the 15th birthday celebration of Readings on the 29th of February recently? Can you brief us who weren’t there?

As you can see from the photos, Seksan Gallery space was packed out and we even had to add some mats on the floor. Besides the regular crowd we also were so happy to be reunited with many folks who have read over the years. It was a party, so besides the readings, we also had a trivia quiz with giveaway goody bags of books and four birthday cakes donated by various kind folks, and Bernice and I blew out the candles.

Sharon Bakar (right) welcoming the crowd while columnist Dina Zaman waits to read her work. Picture by Danny Sek Han Foo.

How did the idea to start Readings come about?

Bernice Chauly started Readings. Actually, it began in Darling Muse Gallery in Bangsar, when the owner, Yusuf Majid asked Bernice Chauly if she would organize an event in his space.  It was immediately successful because local writers needed a gathering like this. Bernice decided to change the venue shortly afterwards as Yusuf wanted to begin charging admission and Bernice felt it should be kept free. Ng Seksan has given the event its beautiful home ever since.

I started helping Bernice when she took on another event, Ceritaku at No Black Tie, and took over completely when she needed to take a break because her mum had cancer. I thought it would just be a temporary thing and called myself the foster-mum of Readings, but I’ve been running it ever since.

What are the vision and goals of Readings?

The aim of both Readings@Seksan is to encourage writers by giving them a platform for them to read their work and socialize.  This is particularly important I think, because writing is a very solitary occupation and it’s helpful for them to have the chance to test works in progress on a live audience.

The events help to generate a wider interest in local writing and give newly published authors and opportunity to sell copies of their books, and for everyone to network. Some creative partnerships have indeed been forged at Readings.

I also hope to give the audience an afternoon of enjoyable and not to mention free entertainment. I think there is a real sense of community created by these gatherings, and I love the way that everyone is so supportive of the work of others. One of the “rules” of the gathering is that no-one, no matter how famous or critically acclaimed is allowed to be the “star” – everyone gets the same billing and the same amount of time.   

There is always a mixture of the established and newbie, fiction and non-fiction, poetry and prose, published and not yet published, in Malay and in English. We also like to throw in some music and performance when we can for variety – after all, we can get textually constipated!

Seksan Gallery overflowing with guests. Flanking Sharon are writers Lawrence Pettener (black shirt, left), Saras Manickam (white blouse, behind Sharon) and Tina Isaacs (black shirt, right). Picture by Danny Sek Han Foo.

What have been some of the major obstacles in running Readings?

The main problem is always getting the line-up. Some months it is hard to find enough writers to read so I make sure I check out the local bookstores to find what new books have been published, and check my Facebook stream to find out who is writing what so I have an idea who to invite. At other times friends and other writers often recommend someone, and I’m grateful for that.

I also need to make sure that there is variety and balance in the programme so that the audience will feel the event is worth their time.  I like to include unpublished new writers but I also try to have more established authors in the same line-up. In a typical line-up you might have a poet, a non-fiction writer or journalist, a short story writer with a work in an anthology, a novelist promoting their book, and possibly a singer-songwriter.

It’s often impossible to fix the line-up until a few days before because of folks not wanting to commit until the last moment or changing their mind. I have been let down at the last minute several times by readers.

The one problem we haven’t had for the past 15 years is the venue, thanks to landscape architect Ng Seksan who lets us use his lovely gallery space beneath his office. We owe him the biggest debt of gratitude.

What are some of the famous authors, especially international ones, that have been featured at Readings?

Perhaps the most famous overseas writers we’ve had are best-selling author (Apple Tree Yard) Louise Doughty and poet Roger Robinson (winner of the TS Eliot Prize), who appeared in our International Readings which was held at Central Market in conjunction with The British Council in 2007.  We’ve also hosted author Kunal Basu, whose novella The Japanese Wife was turned into a novel.

Of course, we have also featured our overseas published Malaysian writers including Tan Twan Eng, Tash Aw, Preeta Samarasan, Shamini Flint and Zen Cho.  Our locally-based Malaysian literary legends have also supported the event.  Just recently, the late K.S. Maniam and Muhammed Haji Salleh read, for example. But honestly, the event is intended to give equal weight and billing to every writer who appears, and that’s important in growing a writing community.

Can you elaborate a bit about the community that forms Readings?

It’s an incredibly diverse group of people that comes to our events.  Many are writers, but many more members of the audience are just regular supporters.  All ages, races, nationalities and walks of life are represented. We pride ourselves on being a very friendly event without snobbishness.

Cakes to celebrate the day! Picture by Danny Sek Han Foo.

Aside from gaining exposure to an appreciative audience, in what ways in your view is Readings a good platform for writers and art practitioners in general?

There is I suppose also the online publicity that surrounds the event, with photos on Facebook and Instagram, and videos on YouTube.  There have also been 3 collections of writing that have come out of Readings, the latest of which was Everything About Us (2016), and I hope to work on another one soon. Many of the writers featured are published here for the first time.

It’s an incredibly diverse group of people that comes to our events.  Many are writers, but many more members of the audience are just regular supporters.  All ages, races, nationalities and walks of life are represented. We pride ourselves on being a very friendly event without snobbishness.

Sharon Bakar, curator of Readings

Many would say that Readings has made an impact on the Malaysian literacy scene. Do you agree?

It helps to build a sense of community among writers in the Klang Valley and beyond, and creates an awareness of the work that everyone is doing.  Friendships are built, and sometimes collaborations formed. Hearing the words of others encourages new writers to push their own boundaries, and often to write more bravely. It’s a space where freedom of speech is valued, and individual difference is celebrated. Indeed it has value beyond the literary aspect; how many events in Malaysia bring together folks of all races and backgrounds in the spirit of openness and acceptance?

What have been some of the most pivotal or interesting moments of Readings?

I have been moved to both laughter and tears on numerous occasions, and always feel so grateful that these folks have chosen to share their words, and sometimes their music, with us all.

I remember one very successful author of erotica (judging by her Amazon sales figures) who read right up to the juicy bit and then tiptoed away. I remember the performance poet who arrived with her pet python coiled around her handbag; the vegan chef who read the introduction to her new cookbook and brought along delicious samples of her cooking; the actor (later member-of-parliament) who performed a hilarious puppet play with books; the illustrator who painted a canvas live while his friend read from the graphic novel they had produced. There have been lots of moments of magic.

In a typical line-up you might have a poet, a non-fiction writer or journalist, a short story writer with a work in an anthology, a novelist promoting their book, and possibly a singer-songwriter.

Sharon Bakar, curator of Readings

How do you manage to sustain Readings for 13 long years?

The fact that we have reached this 15-year milestone has very much taken me by surprise.  Usually I just think about the event month to month without thinking of a longer-term goal.  I feel it is important that we keep going, especially as writers are all the time contacting me and asking if they can read.

What’s next for Readings? Another 15 years or more perhaps?

I will be nearly 80 by then!  If I can find someone who is prepared to take this on when I run out of energy, then perhaps. For now, I’ll just keep going as long as I can.