Sunday, 11 August 2013

Carving a literary legacy

Storyteller: Dr David Kirkham, founder of the Calistro Prize, has a ‘great passionate relationship with Malaysia and literature’. — M. AZHAR ARIF/The Star

Storyteller: Dr David Kirkham, founder of the Calistro Prize, has a ‘great passionate relationship with Malaysia and literature’. — M. AZHAR ARIF/The Star

The sponsor of the Calistro literary prize for Malaysian fiction for children shares his thoughts.

HAVE you ever lost an interview?” asks Dr David Kirkham.

After he is assured that this has yet to happen, the colourful Dr Kirkham laughs and starts to regale the table with stories from a well-lived life.

Dr Kirkham is the founder and director of Britain-based management consultancy Calistro Consultants Ltd. But before Calistro, he did many other things – in fact, from clearing Shetland pony dung as a footman in Cinderella plays to serving in the British Royal Artillery for 22 years, there is little that the silver-haired 70-something Englishman has not done, we discover at a recent meeting in Kuala Lumpur.

Though the former court reporter has never written a single fiction story, his great love for the arts, the English language and literature spurred him to sponsor the Calistro Prize for Children’s and Young Adult fiction.

It is not his only link with a literary award: the seven-year-old Kirkham once studied French alongside a young lad bearing the family name McConnell. His study companion was part of the family behind the original Booker-McConnell Prize, which is now known as the Man Booker Prize.

Now, Dr Kirkham aims to keep the love for the written word alive through his own project.

While the inaugural Calistro Prize was handled by SCBWI Malaysia (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) in 2012, the Calistro Prize Committee was established as an independent body to handle the running of the competition this year.

The team is composed of those involved in books and writing as authors, book reviewers, editors, writing trainers, journalists and book buyers. Apart from a collective passion and commitment to developing children’s literature in Malaysia, their differing backgrounds also bring a wide spectrum of experience to the organisation of the Calistro Prize.

In fact, The Star once termed committee member Teoh Choon Ean – also known as Mrs Khaw – the “uncrowned queen of short stories” in July 1985. The retired educator and freelance trainer was key to the creation of the Calistro Prize, as Teoh and Dr Kirkham have been close family friends for over two decades and share a common interest in literature.

“When I became a member of SCBWI, I realised that an award for children’s literature with Malaysian content would be timely. I also knew David had a great passionate relationship with Malaysia and literature,” Teoh explains in an e-mail interview.

Dr Kirkham has been visting Malaysia for almost 30 years now and has a home here. When given the option of sponsoring an award in his name as a way of “immortalising” himself, he chose to immortalise his company’s name instead.

“I wanted to repay the kindnesses that Malaysians have shown me for the last 29 years. I also think Malaysians have a latent talent for storytelling. It is strongly built in Malaysian culture and needs to be brought out,” he says, citing examples of traditional theatre such as wayang kulit (shadow puppet theatre).

“One thing I learnt in my studies is that foreigners write better English than English people. Joseph Conrad is a famous Polish author who uses the English language differently and better,” adds the Cambridge student of English Literature.

And so, the Calistro Prize was born.

The competition saw more than 28 entries last year, which was also open to illustrated readers and picture books and in all Malaysian languages.

This year, the contest rules have been set for entries in the English language and the young adult (YA) novels category. The move to have English-only entries is to level the playing field and allow stories to be judged on imagination, storyline, and writing style. Teoh adds that the content, characters, setting and themes should be Malaysian. (See Tots To Teens below for a further explanation of rules.)

Eligibility has also been expanded to include entries from Malaysian citizens residing abroad. The winning entry this year will receive RM8,000 in cash, a medal, and a certificate. Two merit awards are also up for grabs, each with a cash prize of RM1,000, a medal and a certificate. The closing date for entries is Sept 30, 2013. An independent panel comprising three judges will select the winning entries. The judging panel will be announced in October, and the results will be announced on Dec 31, 2013.

Look out for the announcement of the judges, as the organisers hope to elect a panel of those deeply involved in books, children’s literature and reading.

During Teoh’s preparations in Singapore for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC) 2013, she found bookshops well stocked with teenage and YA titles in English. Though practically all the content was non-Malaysian, Teoh sees it as a “glass half full” situation. To her, Malaysian YA literature and content is a potential goldmine for writers with a market of young adult readers yet to be captured.

“It is about striking the right chord – like J.K. Rowling did with her Harry Potter books – and getting kids to bury their noses in thick tomes, away from their computer games and TV shows,” says Teoh, who hopes that the Calistro Prize will unearth gems that will draw youth away from flash fiction on social media.

When asked about the future of children’s and YA literature in an era where attention spans are considerably shortened, both Dr Kirkham and Teoh remain optimistic. “My grown-up sons are computer engineers and social media is a big part of their lives. Yet, they have not stopped being avid readers of thick novels. Books and Twitter-like fiction can develop parallel lives!” says Teoh of the availability of 140-character stories on the popular microblogging site.

Dr Kirkham hopes that authors can overcome the “soundbite barrier” to engage youths in this age of social media and easily digested stories. “It comes from how you write the very first sentence or paragraph of a story – you need to hook them and make them want to get to the end,” he says.

Dr Kirkham also decries how the majority of authors, playwrights and novelists patronise their young audience.

“If children don’t fully understand (your material), I don’t think that matters in the least bit. Children have enough imagination to fill in the gaps that they don’t understand themselves,” he says, noting that children are stern critics who will walk away from material that doesn’t interest them.

Hence, an award like the Calistro Prize hopes to nudge writers and readers in the right direction.

When asked if he found any story especially important to tell, Dr Kirkham says that he hopes that entrants would look at the cultural and mythical aspects of Malaysian life. “There’s an enormous history in this country and a diverse culture, so it’s got to be indigenous. It’s got to be a story that’s based on Malaysian culture, history, myth, folklore and communities because there’s a wealth of material that authors can tap into,” he says.

He urges contestants to adopt a genuine Malaysian theme instead of “putting Malaysian bits and pieces into a generic theme as scenery”.

Like Dr Kirkham, Teoh hopes to see a Malaysian theme in submitted works as the power to attract local readers lies in addressing the many relevant and prevalent themes in Malaysian society.

However, the work should not alienate foreign readers either, as YA literature dwells on many universal young adult themes occurring in these characters’ lives for the first time.

“It’s about how they cope in the Malaysian environment and with a Malaysian psyche. We have a rich cultural heritage and I see the possibilities as countless,” says Teoh.

“If you are a Malaysian and a writer, or even a writer wannabe who would love to write for young people, do give the Calistro Prize a try. You never know!” she adds.

For more information on the prize, visit

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle , Literary award , Calistro Prize , David Kirkham


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