Former Star2 editor Davin Arul remembers how the Great Malaysian Novel project brought writers out of the woodwork.
“When I joined Section 2, my brief was to introduce lighter elements to the issue-heavy section,” recalls Davin Arul, who was the editor from 1988 to 1992.
Section 2 was known for its in-depth coverage of social issues at that time, and Davin introduced new columns like Games that not only covered traditional board games but also role-playing games (RPGs) like Heroquest and Warhammer Fantasy Role Play. Former In. Tech editor A Asohan was the authority on RPGs and introduced some of his colleagues to the hobby, too.
“In mainstream media, the coverage of RPGs was unusual then, so our column was well received by enthusiasts,” says Davin, who joined The Star in 1981. With an initial team of eight journalists, he expanded the desk and focused more on entertainment as well, with coverage of the music and movie scenes.
“We didn’t tone down the issues but we balanced the content with lighter stories,” says Davin, who beefed up his section with newly trained recruits. When he left Section 2, the desk had about 20 journalists.
In 1990, Davin was roped into one of the “craziest projects” The Star had ever undertaken. The idea for the “Great Malaysian Novel” (GMN) came from June Wong, who got Davin and Executive Editor Michael Aeria involved in the project. “Basically, we came up with a group of characters and a central plot – a large powerful family with internal struggles – and we wanted the public to write the story,” says Davin.
Over six months, the big blank book travelled to major towns in Malaysia and the public was invited to write one of two paragraphs in the book. Sheaffer collaborated with The Star on the project and supplied the pens for the contributors. Each writer was credited for their work
“We would leave the book in a public area, like town halls, for a week or over a weekend and people would come in to write their stories,” says Davin. “But instead of following the plot, some people went off tangent. One guy wrote about his childhood!”
The project garnered devoted fans like the late Kenny Lim, who showed up at several stops to pen his tales, and would call Davin frequently to comment on the subsequent serialisation of the novel in the paper. “I remember seeing him in different towns and asking, ‘Eh, what are you doing here? Had your turn already!’” says Davin, chuckling. “Another friend also told me a satirical reference to the GMN was even made by the Instant Café Theatre Company in one of their shows.”
When the book finally returned to The Star HQ in PJ, there were 3,500 entries. “We thought we could just present the completed book to the National Archives or National Library, but our boss wanted us to serialise the stories in the newspaper,” says Davin. “That’s where the problem came in – the passages didn’t join and we had to find ways to bridge the passages.”
“What made this project unforgettable was the scale of it and that we pulled it off,” Davin adds. “People were talking about it and our readers felt like they were part of something.”
“I think we just need to always find things that people can connect with,” says Davin, whose past columns include Grunt ‘n’ Groan (his musings on wrestling that ran from 1999 to 2005) and Marvellous Mags (a comic book column that began in 1984 and later morphed into the still-running Worlds of Wonder) all generated huge fan bases.
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Up for any challenge: June HL Wong
Significant milestones: Lim Cheng Hoe