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Ink in their veins



Chats with three of this year's awardees reveal the stories behind the storytellers

This year's SEAWrite awardees are a mixed bunch. They're poets, novelists, short story writers and sometimes all three. They also work in fields outside writing, from engineering to chemistry to journalism. They deal with the demands of raising families - and some with the demands of restrictive governments.

The one common denominator, however, seems to be a need to write, to create, to provide some benefit and enjoyment for their readers.

HAJAH NORSIAH BINTI ABDUL GAPAR

Her time in Thailand is short and packed with receptions and get-togethers, yet Hajah Norsiah Binti Abdul Gapar, 57, settles in a sofa in the Authors' Lounge of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel showing a relaxed charm that belies all her commitments.

"I'm just a storyteller," says the SEAWrite awardee from Brunei self-deprecatingly.

Her storytelling, however, has a purpose. Writing in English or in her native Malay, she's covered various topics in a multitude of forms - short stories, novels, radio and television scripts, stage plays and poems.

She's also won numerous awards in her own country, and one of her novels is used as a textbook in secondary schools.

In between the writing, she's a chemist, having earned her Master's Degree in Clinical Chemistry from London University. Now retired, she has four children and three grandchildren.

She certainly has had a lot of experience with commitments.

Writing, she says, started out as a hobby (again with that self-deprecation), but it has been a hobby with a serious side.

In her retirement, she says she wants to write even more. One topic she'd like to cover is her religion, Islam. "Perhaps I can help readers understand my beliefs," she says gently.

Suddenly, she looks at her watch. "I'm so sorry, but I must leave," she says.

And then, she's gone, leaving behind her the expectation that whatever path her writing takes, she'll follow it with grace and gentle feeling.

ABDON BALDE, Jr

Just when you think you know Abdon Balde, Jr, he says something that takes you in an entirely different direction. The SEAWrite awardee from the Philippines has not spent his entire life writing.

Now 63, after 33 years in a private construction company, he retired with the plan to continue writing.

"I've wanted to write since I was 14 years old," he says, but then he adds (almost impishly), "but my first love was painting."

Through his imagination, his oils took on a life of their own, full of beautifully painted eyeballs with lots of snakes.

"I finally realised that no way would anyone buy my work to hang in their living room," he laughs.

His creations disturbed his wife so much that she asked him to find another outlet for his creativity.

"So I began concentrating on my writing."

Balde writes in three languages. For technical expositions, he uses English. For his short stories and novels on corruption, he uses Tagalog, the Filipino national language.

To reach out to younger generations, he writes in Bikol, the language of the central region where he grew up and still lives. For young people, he writes of the legends of his people but gives the old tales a modern twist.

"I call them 'magic realism'," he says.

He's written a novel a year - eight up to now, and more to come.

Who knows? He might even start painting again.

CHIA HWEE PHENG

The SEAWrite awardee from Singapore, Chia Hwee Pheng, has chosen a difficult and challenging road in his writing career.

He's now 52, but since he was 17 or 18, he's been perfecting the art of short short stories, less than 2,000 words each - and all in Mandarin.

"I give it the name 'minifiction'," he smiles.

Writing under the pseudonym Xi Ni Er, he's published a collection of essays, four collections of fiction and three collections of poetry. The winner of numerous national awards, he is currently the president of Singapore Association of Writers.

Here's the amazing part. Chia is not retired. He holds a full-time job as a mechanical engineer in the private sector. In his work, he, like Balde, writes his technical reports in English.

He's also married with two children.

How does he find the time to write?

"I work at night," he says, writing by hand before he enters his work into the computer.

Talk about handling commitments.

 


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