Sunday 19 May 2024
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The first thing that hits you about writer/activist Alina Rastam’s latest poetry compilation, All the Beloveds, is its inherent sadness. I was moved almost to tears at many of the pieces as her lyrical prose deconstructs pain, sadness, separation and loss. Yet, in an odd way, I emerged at the end of the book filled with some sort of peace. It’s like a gaping wound which has been healed, but not before it’s been treated with some pain first.

You can see why the thought of meeting Alina can raise some questions as to what she would be like in person — the quintessentially intense, creative type perhaps, with thick eyeliner and black clothes, and she would live in a home that rarely sees sunlight.

The reality, as is usually the case, is nothing of the sort. Alina meets me in her mother’s well-appointed home in Bukit Travers, Kuala Lumpur, an urban oasis with beautifully manicured gardens and a gleaming blue swimming pool in one corner. Alina herself is all smiles as she welcomes me and The Edge photographer Mohd Izwan Mohd Nazam into her house, taking us on a quick tour of the gardens that impress us deeply. No question about there being a conducive place to write here. I have yet to glimpse the intensity or sadness I was expecting, but as the adage goes — still waters often run very deep.

Alina is a writer first and foremost — she is a former journalist with the New Straits Times and an occasional columnist for Off The Edge and theSun — but has also been involved in the local social justice movement, working predominantly in the areas of women’s liberties and sexuality rights. She was the editor of The Rape Report: An Overview of Rape in Malaysia, Malaysia’s report to the UN on the Convention of Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and Young Women Speak Out, a book of writings by young Malaysian women published by the All Women’s Action Society (AWAM).

Her social consciousness comes from a personal interest and her talent for writing is from a sound education — she learnt how to enjoy literature in her early schooling years in Australia, something Alina says she is grateful for everyday. Her social commentary is thus dual-pronged: it is beautifully written, yet conveys relevant, important points. Poetry, she says, was a natural progression for her.

In 2007, she published her first book, Diver & Other Poems, which touched on aspects of love and the human yearning for connection. All The Beloveds takes off from the themes and preoccupations of Diver and enacts a search for meaning and resolution through private grief and sorrow, the moments of deep love and illumination, and the sudden experiences of grace that are part of our daily lives.

“Actually, both books have similar themes,” Alina muses, when I ask her what inspired All the Beloveds. “Except that this one deals with loss. In the last two years, I have lost a lot of people who are important to me, and the poetry was really to help me process my grief. I know, it’s a painful book and not an easy read.”

According to Alina, the book was never meant to be published and was a means for her to manage her own grief. Later on, when she realised that it had given her so much peace, she decided she wanted to share it.

“The feeling of pain is very human. Everyone has gone through some sort of loss in their lifetime, and many people can relate to it. As children, death is something far off and foreign. But as an adult, the pain of loss affects us even more as we also learn to love more. Looking at it now, I think the book represents a very human form of writing… it addresses a universal theme, so anyone, anywhere can read it and understand it,” she says.

Death and loss are obvious themes in Alina’s work for All the Beloveds, as seen in particularly poignant pieces that attempt to verbalise the anguish one feels of being left behind, and how it must feel for the departed who have to go.

In the poem Going Under, Alina writes “I am gone: hold the dream of my life for me; play for me a distant lullaby; wake at night and call my name. We save ourselves. Forgive these vacant eyes, the absent touch. I shall see you. I shall see you again.”

She paints a vivid picture of what grief is like in Lessons with a Listening Child: “A hut, in a most desolate place, circled by nothingness. There is a hook on the door: on it you must hang all that you brought with you.” This particular piece has a Gibranesque take to it, presented in a Q&A format similar to the way The Prophet is written.

There is joy and hope in the pieces as well. In A Silver Moment has my bookmark inserted permanently in it. “In a silver moment you are with me. Nothing needs to be said. In our hearts, a deep joy. I fall away. I fall away from myself; I fall through you to find myself in me. In your eyes, your answering soul. Around us, eternity.”

We are not a particularly literary society, and poetry occupies an even more niche market — how sure was Alina that her books would be accepted? “It’s time we revised some of our stereotypes about that,” Alina remarks. “A lot of people actually bought Diver, in fact, more than I anticipated. I was surprised; I was thinking, people here actually read poetry? In which case, it was even more of a reason for me to want to publish a second book.”

In actual fact, poetry exists within our cultural heritage in a huge way. The syair, for example, is a glorious form of creative expression, while the pantun hedges on the quick-mindedness and ability to create meaningful rhymes on the spot. However, these literary traditions are taught only in schools and almost cease to exist in the context of our day-to-day consumption of art and culture. We have done precious little to exploit poetry in contemporary literature, something that affects Alina deeply.

To that end, she is planning on compiling a contemporary poetry anthology, which she says is sorely lacking. With All the Beloveds done and dusted, she is already beginning work on this new project and is in search for works to be featured.

All the Beloveds is available at all major bookstores nationwide for RM35 a copy. For more information or to contribute to Alina’s upcoming poetry anthology, contact her directly at [email protected].

This article appeared on the Live it! page, The Edge Financial Daily, May 19, 2009.

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