A firebrand. A raconteur. A rebel with a cause. All have been used to describe the late Malaysian poet-writer Salleh Ben Joned (1941-2020).
But what about Salleh Ben Joned, the man who lived as passionately as he loved?
In the newly-released memoir/poetry and prose collection Salleh Ben Joned – Truth, Beauty, Amok And Belonging, Salleh’s eldest daughter Anna Salleh attempts to piece together the stories, impressions and artefacts he left behind to curate a collage telling his life’s story and literary journey.
The book, launched at the George Town Literary Festival 2023 over the weekend, chronicles key life events in Salleh’s life that shaped him and his work, from how he fell in love with poetry as a young boy from Bukit Rambai, Melaka (who later went to study at Malacca High School) and his formative years in Australia as a rebellious university student in 1963 (under a Colombo Plan scholarship) to finding his footing back in Malaysia in 1973 after a family tragedy, and the years he dedicated to his craft as a poet, essayist and public intellectual (including the 1987 release of his seminal work Sajak-Sajak Saleh – Poems Sacred And Profane) and his impact on Malaysia’s literary scene.
“Growing up, I was more like a small-person ‘buddy’ to my dad,” says Anna, a journalist, singer and guitarist who is based in Sydney, Australia.
“Sometimes it felt I was more like a ‘soul-mate’ than a daughter,” she adds.
Though Anna was in Australia and Salleh in Malaysia for the most part, the distance was merely physical – the two kept in constant correspondence through letters and phone calls (and occasionally audio missives recorded on cassette tapes). To Anna, Salleh was just “abah”.
“For most of my life, I was never really aware of the impact of his work. But in my 40s, I became aware that he had contributed something quite unique and important to Malaysian culture,” she shares.
Anna’s natural curiosity and experience as a journalist and editor for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) spurred her to dig deeper, which led to a decade-long pursuit in an attempt to understand her father and his impact.
“I started interviewing him and others who knew him, read academic papers that discussed his work and spoke to younger writers, poets and artists influenced by him. I read and re-read the countless letters we exchanged,” says Anna, who is back in Malaysia to launch her book, published by Maya Press.
Unfortunately, Salleh became Anna’s research subject at a time when he was losing the ability to read, write and converse, largely due to the treatments he had undertaken for depression.
“Sadly, when I needed to talk to him most, he was unable to. Still, the letters between us and my interviews with people who knew him intimately filled in the gaps.”
Anna’s efforts ultimately culminated in a two-part podcast series for the ABC, which was released in September 2020 just before Salleh died, and now the new book.
From the outside looking in
“For most of his life, my father’s work was largely underappreciated,” says Anna.
“His first book of poetry, Sajak-Sajak Saleh, received no attention from the Malay-language world and he was never officially recognised for his work.”
She adds that this was probably due to the reputation he had garnered for doing unpredictable things, such as peeing in public at an art exhibition as part of a well thought-out intellectual critique.
If you’re curious to learn more about Salleh’s most infamous stunt: “Read the book,” Anna advises.
“Salleh challenged the dominant view about what a Malay should or could be. So because he was shunned by his Malay brethren, he moved away from writing in Bahasa Malaysia and wrote exclusively in English. This was not out of choice, but because that’s the language he felt his ideas would be read in,” she adds.
In the way Salleh felt like someone on the outside looking in when it came to the Bahasa Malaysia-language literary world, Anna has also felt the same while working on the book.
“Despite being his eldest daughter and my connections with Malaysia, I still feel very much an outsider to the world I’m writing about,” admits Anna, who initiated the Salleh Ben Joned Literary Legacy Project.
“I wrote the book while based in Australia, with only occasional research trips back to Malaysia, so having my half-siblings Adam and Hawa Salleh in Malaysia and Singapore to help manage our father’s archives, as well as the support of a great editorial team, was essential.”
There were also many editorial and design challenges in putting together a book that is bi-lingual and cross-cultural, while also incorporating poetry, different types of prose by different authors and hundreds of images.
Holding up a physical copy of the book, Anna tells us, “It’s incredible that this long and complex journey has finally crystalised into a physical object. Fans and newcomers alike can expect very rich pickings, so I hope the book can become an accessible introduction to the world view and public life of Salleh Ben Joned. It’s a good starting point for many curious minds looking to explore the many facets of my father’s work.”
A legacy and a rage
How does one encapsulate a life as well-lived as Salleh’s in the few short words you’re allowed for the title of a book?
Anna explains how she settled on Salleh Ben Joned – Truth, Beauty, Amok And Belonging: “The ‘Truth, Beauty’ bit is a nod to John Keats, as Salleh was a fan of English literature, but it also refers to the fact that Salleh spoke his truth with both brutal honesty and unbelievable beauty.”
“‘Amok’ is a phenomenon that fascinated Salleh. In viewing Malay culture through a worldly lens, he deconstructed and reframed amok as a way of saying ‘no’ to things that were not right in the world. And while Salleh always liked to quote Groucho Marx and say he refused to join ‘any club that would have him as a member’, deep down I feel he searched for ‘belonging’ to a tribe that could accept his unconventional ways. I muse in the book that perhaps he has found that in the hearts and minds of many of the younger generation.”
Salleh’s admirers fondly refer to him by his initials, SBJ. Among them is contemporary poet Jack Malik, who wrote the main essay featured in Dewan Sastera’s recent tribute to Salleh and penned the introduction for Buku Fixi’s 2022 reprint of Sajak-Sajak Saleh.
“I discovered SBJ through my artist collective, Projek Rabak. His works influenced me by showing how sexy and elegant Bahasa Malaysia language can be. Ever since then, I knew I wanted to build my tradition around his poetics,” shares Jack.
“SBJ’s works are immaculate. His Bahasa Malaysia pieces truly reflect an Adiguru (Grand Master) that has mastered his craft and language. Sadly, I still feel he is only celebrated by non-literary creatives.”
Having had the opportunity to meet Salleh in person in 2019, Jack says that Salleh’s passing should be a lesson for all creatives in Malaysia.
“We need to be better. We have to be better. What we can do – as fellow creatives – is to be big-hearted enough to always speak about one another. Artists need to be surrounded by voices, not echoes. Find the courage to be critical, but never spiteful,” says Jack.
Syafiq Syazim, who directed the first-ever staging of Salleh’s only play script, The Amok Of Mat Solo, at Aswara in Kuala Lumpur last month, only learned about Salleh and his works when news of his death dominated local media.
In some of their tributes, the press outlets dubbed him Malaysia’s “uncrowned poet laureate”.
“I wish I had the chance to get to know Salleh earlier because there are many questions I would like to ask him. I’ve never encountered a poet who writes as sharp and audacious poems as SBJ. What puzzles me is why I never knew about his existence from the beginning, even before news of his death,” says Syafiq.
“I think it’s important for us – be it those in government, the arts, academia and society in general – to discuss the issue of censorship, as it often ‘erases’ artists who are very critical of society. If these voices are silenced, we will lose figures like Salleh Ben Joned again,” he urges.
Ruzy Hashim, a retired professor of Malaysian literature in English at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), shares that Salleh’s works have previously been included in the syllabus for the STPM Literature in English paper.
Published by Maya Press, the now out-of-print Spirit Of The Keris: A Selection Of Malaysian Short Stories And Poems included Salleh’s poems such as Ria, Malchin Testament and several others.
“SBJ’s works have always been popular with university students, as his works talked about important issues, such as pretensions in high society, facets of love, peculiarities of language and many more,” says Ruzy.
“It’s difficult to find another writer as complex and witty with a great sense of dark humour as SBJ.”
Salleh Ben Joned – Truth, Beauty, Amok And Belonging is now available in good bookstores. More info here.