A short interview with Malaysian novelist Zaipah Ibrahim, writer of The Gift

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Here is a short interview with Malaysia’s debut novelist Zaipah Ibrahim who recently published a contemporary romance novel, The Gift, in America.

Standing tall among a stellar list of international writers, The Gift published by Muslim Writers Publishing USA, winds in philosophical ramifications with Islamic ideals. It may be purchased from several international online booksellers.

Zaipah who studied in the United States of America is herself a qualified English Lecturer and is presently dedicated to teaching Malaysian children English.  The writer currently runs a tutorial centre in her homestate of Trengganu; famed for its extraordinary array of cultural assortments, fascinating cuisine and scenic beachspots. The state is situated on Malaysia’s beautiful East Coast. The book cover excellently captures a similar scenery.

A previous article which introduces the novel is here.

The Gift.

Zaipah Ibrahim

ISBN 978-0-9793577-7-0

Muslim Writers Publishing, USA

Paperback 292 Pages

Price: US$14.95

A short interview with Zaipah Ibrahim by Suzan Abrams

When was the moment you knew you wanted to be a writer?

“I’ve always liked writing but never thought I would actually become a writer one day! I started penning short stories in *bahasa melayu (*the Malay language which is Malaysia’s national language) while studying in the Second Form and just to share with friends. When I chose the science stream in the Fourth Form, I stopped writing altogether. Then a year later, while in the Fifth Form, my story was chosen by a teacher who read it to the whole class. At that moment, I felt a sharp desire to pursue writing once more but didn’t.

“Later I studied computer science until I decided to switch to linguistics! It wasn’t until 1996 /1997 that I seriously got myself into writing. I was in the USA doing my M.A at that time. I was searching high and low for an Islamic romance novel to read but couldn’t find any… so I thought of writing it myself! I grabbed whatever free time I had to read books on creative writing…sort of independent learning.  Slowly I drafted a manuscript and the journey finally began for The Gift!”

Did anything or anyone special inspire you to write?

“It was more a desire to provide quality Islamic fiction, especially in the romance genre.

In Malaysia, romance novels in Bahasa Malaysia/Malay are very much influenced by Western literature in particular and this with regards to cultures and values and all…

I found very few novels in BM that reflected Islam as a way of life… in a non-preachy way that is. For me Islam owns its rituals just like any other religion would, but it is more of a faith that reflects a specific art on living a life. Unfortunately, I don’t see this act being translated/incorporated into Malay romance novels or television productions like weekly dramas and serials.”

Tell me something about family life in your hometown, Terengganu.

“I come from a big family…grew up with mom as house-wife…dad worked with the MARA shipping yard. Mom passed away years ago and dad now runs his own carpentory workshop. I was in standard 6 and 12 years old when i seriously decided to improve my English. Before that, i used to collect bad grades for the language. I had this teacher….teacher Safiah who made me love english… When I entered high school, there was a sudden tremendous improvement! Two teachers I will always remember….Madam Safiah and Madam Latifah! They offered a new meaning to the very idea of pursuing the English Language…lots of fun and possible to master!”

How was your love for literature influenced in your younger years?

“Libraries are homes for me. Morris Library (SIU-C) was a the best place in the campus! As a child my dad stressed the importance of reading (he used to say “people read books on buses, so you have no excuse to not read at home”). Slowly I picked up the habit.  I just loved reading and the school library was heaven for me.  I loved reading Aesop’s Fables (in BM) when i was 8 – 9 yrs old. Later I was a big fan of the mystery series, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys…The Famous Five…all in BM… In High School I read loads of of Sherlock Holmes in English. But the romance novel? Ah well, not until finishing high school. Only then did I start reading novels by Danielle Steel.”

What were your favourite storybooks as a child?

“As a child of course, of course it had to be the Aesop Fables….lots of lessons in morality to learn plus the happy endings and all wishes coming true.  As for those mystery novels, I loved finding out how a crime was solved! I became really fascinated by all of that.  Sherlock Holmes especially was a great character that left an important influence on me as a teenager…”

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What did you study in the States and how long were you there for?

“I did linguistics for my B.A and TESL for my M.A. I did both at Southern Illinois Univ – Carbondale.For each course of study, I spent almost 2 years. For my B.A I completed 2 years in an MUCIA program in Malaysia before going to the States.”

How did your writing develop when you were in the States?

“Completing my M.A was a lot of work, but my growing interest in writing made me strive to learn how to write. The internet too helped me explore the writing world and conduct research. When I came home I continued my research ventures at the public library in my home town.”

“I submitted the manuscript to a local (Malaysian) publisher but they were not willing to publish. Reason – a local romance novel in English would not well-received in Malaysia!”

You appear a prolific writer with initially two self-published educational books, a second novel almost ready and a third with notes on the go.  How did such an event as writing The Gift 10 years ago come about?

“As I mentioned earlier, I badly wanted to read an Islamic romance novel.  I read ‘Cinta Madinah’ by a local writer. It stayed close to the philosophical and religious ideals I was looking for but produced in the Malay language. I told myself to go ahead with The Gift! So, I gathered experiences from my life and of others I saw around me…Saleha, a main character, was my main focus at first and then came the others… Ani, Imran and Syakirah…all these characters suddenly became real to me.

“Due to a heavy teaching workload at college, I couldn’t really focus on writing but I never stopped. I guessed that was the reason why it took me so long to finish, rewrite, polish etc…around 2003 I submitted the manuscript to a local (Malaysian) publisher but they were not willing to publish. Reason – a local romance novel in English would not well-received in Malaysia!

“I held on to the manuscript and began writing my second novel. The same thing happened to the second manuscript – no takers to those I submitted to in Malaysia because I wrote it in English! It was after ‘meeting’ Widad (Linda of Muslim Writers Publishing in the States) that The Gift finally began its publication journey.  Still, on having observed my first novel now being  published in America, a Malaysian publisher stepped forward to announce that they were willing to publish the second manuscript.”

How was your everyday writing discipline?

“I wrote The Gift in my bedroom.  Didn’t matter whether it was in Malaysia or in Carbondale! But I have a habit of keeping a little notebook with me and I write down any scenes or ideas that come to mind wherever I go. So, when I sat down to write The Gift, all the little notes were with me.

“I would spend at least an hour a day on the manuscript once I managed a complete draft of the novel. I usually make up my mind on the ending right from the beginning. However, the beginning might change as the story proceeds.

How did you then start to properly organise your writing for even other pieces of work?

“Once I settled on a theme I would start keeping little notes. Right now I have a bunch of them for my third novel….I wrote a short note in my blog about this (www.polariswriter.blogspot.com). Once I have enough notes, I would sit down to fix all the pieces together. It’s fun, really!Then I will write a draft….the big picture I call it. The plots come along as I begin writing later on. A lot of editing/polishing as the chapters build.

“I do have moods. That’s why it’s important to carry that little book.  Sometimes I just sit down and type away with the notes beside me! Otherwise, I write reams of pages in longhand before anything else.

Name a favourite book for the present time.

“I like tafseer (Commentary of the Quran) by the late Prof Hamka.”

And what are you reading at the moment?

“Dont Be Sad by Aaidh Al-Qarnee. The English version of ‘La Tahzan’. A super book and very inspiring.”

What was a precious page or moment or chapter for you personally with regards to your own tale of The Gift?

“Pages 202- 203 (Saleha and Imran before their wedding) and page 254 (Syira and Imran on the subject of trust).”

While writing The Gift, how vividly did the characters occupy your headspace?

“I practically lived with them. Laughed and cried with them. I was really sad when Saleha died. I felt so much for Imran’s loss and wanted Syira to be there for him though they were still strangers in some ways. Love and trust were still missing at that point. And yes I did miss them when I finished that last chapter especially Saleha!.”

Did your finished manuscript alter or inspire your individuality in any way?

“There are some things in life – good and bad experiences- that can be translated and shared in the form of fiction. After all there are always lessons to learn with every big/little episode in life. A novel is no different.”

Who are your favourite Malaysian authors?

“For fiction, I enjoy Abu Hassan Morad’s talent. He wrote ‘Cinta Madinah’.”

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How do you feel about Malaysian fiction in English, making it in the world?

“I wish for more Malaysian fiction to be written in English thus getting international readership. But, the writers must have a clear vision why he/he wants to do this. For me, being a Muslim, I feel it’s a duty almost to make use of what little writing skills I possess to contribute to the production of quality Islamic fiction. So far, my friends – both Muslims and non-Muslims – have enjoyed reading ‘The Gift’. Also, never give up! Believe in what you write! One reader in the UK was happy to read The Gift because she just loved the story about Malaysians written by a Malaysian!

How important currently are friends for intellectual pursuits?

“Writer friends help boost my spirit to write esp. when I go through writer’s block. Yes, I do have a few specifically in the Muslim Writers Group though we are all busy with other non-writing tasks at the moment.  Generally, I tend to stay the solitary writer although I love getting comments from anyone in the writing world anywhere at all.”

Would you see having experienced the dire writing process yourself that being published internationally is different from being published locally?

“Yes! I get more worldwide feedback. It’s also interesting how people living outside Malaysia appreciate not just the story but the places and cultures presented in the novel.”

Credit: Clip art of Sherlock Holmes, courtesy of Gnurf.Net.
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