Salleh Ben Joned, a witty, fearless and charismatic poet and writer that some have called the ‘bad boy of Malaysian literature’ has died aged 79.
"It is with great sadness that the family of beloved Salleh Ben Joned informs of his passing this morning (Thursday, Oct 29 at 1.21am) from heart failure. He was experiencing breathing difficulties on Tuesday at his home in Subang Jaya and was warded at the Universiti Malaya Medical Centre," read a family statement on Salleh's Facebook page.
Salleh, renowned both for his bilingual poetry and essays, was also regarded as a non-conformist in the arts, culture and literary circles.
He was born in Melaka on July 4, 1941, enjoying a small town childhood and later studying at Malacca High School.
In 1963, the young Salleh was awarded a Colombo Plan scholarship to study English literature in Australia. He ended up spending 10 years in Australia, first in Adelaide and later in Tasmania.
At the University of Tasmania, Salleh became a student of the late James McAuley, one of Australia’s major poets.
After completing his studies in Australia, Salleh retuned to Kuala Lumpur in 1973 and joined the English Department of Universiti Malaya which he quit in 1983 to become a freelance writer.
As a published poet, Salleh had to wait until his mid-40s to see his work available widely.
His first collection of poetry, both in Bahasa Malaysia and English, Sajak-Sajak Salleh/Poems Sacred And Profane was published in 1987.
In a 2003 interview in The Star, he talked about his bilingual outlook.
“Now, so, in answer to your question about thinking and feeling, when I write a poem in Malay, I think in Malay. When I write the same poem, or rather, a poem with the same theme and structure, in English, I will think in English and feel in English. I spent 10 years in Australia. I often dream in English, as well as in Malay, of course. And after 10 years, I – you know, when people have been in self-imposed exile – I, sort of, to use the cliché, tried to recover my cultural roots,” he elaborated.
Salleh also addressed his “maverick” tag head on.
“To be quite frank, I’ve been called that, often. I have not publicly said, ‘No, I’m not.’ It’s certainly how I am perceived by some people and I think there’s some truth to it,” he said.
In the same interview, he emphasised that poetry was his main form of expression.
“I’ve dabbled in other forms of writing, like the (theatre) play Amok Of Mat Solo. I consider myself a poet first,” he mentioned.
As I Please, a collection of his work in the New Straits Times came out in 1994, and his second collection of newspaper articles Nothing Is Sacred was published in 2003.
In his articles and essays, Salleh wrote about a wide range of issues, from the question of the national language (and national literature) of Malaysia to the death of Lorca, from the dullness of Sunday afternoons in Kuala Lumpur to the (Salman) Rushdie Affair, from erotic verse to the implications of the Fall of Granada in 1492.
“Salleh is a joker and a satirist, and he can make one laugh aloud, but beneath the wit and invective is a courageous seriousness. Ridenten dicere verum quid vetat? As Horace said – or ‘Who says I can’t joke while telling the truth?’ – Salleh’s jokes are often very near the bone, as are those of the best jesters, and he probably annoys his friends as often as his critics,” wrote British novelist Dame Margaret Drabble in Salleh’s As I Please book introduction.
Salleh’s other published works include a collection of English poems Adam’s Dream, and a theatre work The Amok Of Mat Solo.
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