NutMag – an annual zine which celebrates Penang writers – is back with its largest collection of offerings to mark its fifth anniversary.
Home Groan: A NutMag Anthology brings together 22 authors, which is more than double its usual assemblage, and three illustrators who bring to life stories, memories and everyday images of Penang.
Zine editor Anna Tan says the idea to expand the usual small-collection of stories into a full-blown anthology stemmed from wanting to mark a milestone for MYWriters Penang, the state branch of the Malaysian Writers Society (MYWriters).
“We wanted to do something to celebrate the MYWriters Penang’s and NutMag zine’s fifth year of existence. Since we’d always been doing a zine every year, why not expand it?
It turned out more difficult than we expected, working through both the pandemic and delays to this final product right at the end of the (last) year, ” says Tan.
In late December, Home Groan was launched online in a marathon 13-hour event that saw contributors take charge of 30min segments to talk about their inspirations, lives and work.
Tan says a physical launch for the book was initially planned for earlier this year in George Town but has now been put on the shelf indefinitely.
“We’d originally planned for a physical launch in late January with (arts space) Hikayat, which was pushed to early February, but which is now just ‘we’ll see if this is still feasible in the future’, ” she adds.
Stating that the team was content that the collection is out despite last year’s extraordinary conditions, Tan points at the diverse subject matters as a particular point of pride.
“I think I particularly love the variety of content that we got to read and put together. For the annual zine, we only take 10 works a year with a maximum of 2,000 lines for prose and 40 lines for poetry.
"Submissions are also only limited to those who are currently based in Penang or were born in Penang. For Home Groan, we decided to increase the limits to 5,000 words for prose and 60 lines for poetry."
Tan reveals a new category was also created for the “honorary Penangite”, for those with ties to Penang but who are no longer staying there.
Fantastical stories like Celine Wu’s Ash To Ashes set in the world’s smallest national park in Teluk Bahang and The Colour Of Glass by Tan Jie Ying stretch the reader’s imagination of physical reality while still anchored in the comforting, familiar backdrop of Penang’s jungles and nasi kandar haunts.
Meanwhile, fictional tales of a heartbroken Kuan Yin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, by Wan Phing Lim and twin ghosts by Tan in The Goddess and The Sea And Regrets, respectively, pay homage to a belief in spirits and deities still strong within Penang’s Chinese community.
The role of Penang Hokkien – a localised version of the original Fujian dialect – flows through Mama And Me, a stirring story told in vivid detail of a grandmother and child by Rachel Yeoh, while Elaine Lee Yew Mei speaks about the dialect’s ongoing decline in the non-fictional narrative Musings From The Land Of Penang One Better Lah.
The state’s mainland, often a "stepchild" in writings and general mentions in favour of the alluring island across the strait, finally manages to shine in this collection of writings.
In the charming Janaki's Journey, author Krishnaveni K.K. Panikker playfully skips around Pantai Road through a grandmother's cheeky jaunt away from her family while in my grandfather’s garden by Chee Siew Hoong, a patriarch rages against the dying of the light, determined to live out and relish the quiet pleasures of Butterworth.
Non-fictional writings in Home Groan largely shine a spotlight on growing up in the state; in the kampungs, beach fronts and inner city of Penang, interlaced with reflections on festivals, personal encounters with other-worldly apparitions and of course, special mentions on the mouth-watering hawker fare available on nearly every street corner.
Poetry also holds its own in the book with seven entries.
Among the standouts are saturday morning bak kut tehby Yong-Yu Huang, who depicts a wealth of childhood memories in a cracked claypot, NightShade’s Lament Of A Wandering Soul in which a heart longs for home and An Ode To A Former Prince by Dan Lee, whose subject matter is obscure at best, but not unenjoyable.
The stories and poems in Home Groan are interlaced with grayscale drawings by the talented X.Z., Chew Yuin-Y and Winnie Cheng.
Tan, who currently heads MYWriters, says NutMag began as a platform to promote published and unpublished writers in Penang as well as nurture those aspiring to enter the literary world.
“As a local community, we wanted to do something that would benefit writers in Penang and one of the things that came up was the lack of platform.
"Where do writers showcase their work? What if you’re writing short stories and poetry? Where do you submit them for publication?
"We’ve discovered new writers over five years – and even with regular contributors, it’s always a pleasure to read their work each year and see how they’ve grown."
Tan is also particularly pleased that this is the first publication for approximately a third of the writers in Home Groan – and they’re all excited to continue writing.
Moving forward, she hopes that writing and its development in Malaysia can be looked at in different ways to ensure young authors are set on the right training path.
“I think there needs to be more local workshops and publishing initiatives to continue challenging Malaysian writers to improve. If you look at things like sports or other competitions, there’s usually some kind of qualifying round each country goes through, and then they send their best team or representative to compete on the international stage.
"With writing, because of the lack of local opportunities, you don’t usually get that stage of growing and honing of skill – you directly submit to international publications because that’s what’s open.
Then it gets very discouraging because you don’t actually realise (before that) that you’re not exactly on a level playing field, ” she says.
In the meantime, NutMag and MYWriters Penang will continue to welcome new writers and look forward to the year ahead, despite challenges posed by the pandemic.
In their words, come "groan" with them.