"Fairytales, Representation, and History" — Interpreter of Winds Launch Review
By Izza Haziqah
On 28 June, Ethos Books launched the latest book in the orbit series: Interpreter of Winds by Fairoz Ahmad. It was held at The Arts House and hosted by literary and cultural critic Nazry Bahrawi. The two of them thoroughly discussed the notable themes of the book, with Nazry calling it a “fresh voice in anglophone Singapore”.
The hour-long session also took readers through readings from the book and a robust Q&A session. My favourite parts of the discussion were on the elements of the fairytale genre, revising societal structures throughout our history, and Fairoz’s inspiration for the book. Here are parts of the conversation that I continue to ruminate over:
What are some examples of contemporary local Singapore literature that may have inspired the book?
Interestingly, according to Fairoz, contemporary local literature was not a key influence of Interpreter of Winds, which may explain why reading the book feels extremely refreshing to the avid reader of local literature. Instead, Fairoz found ideas and insight from various sources. The exploration of the desert setting came from reading The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, who depicts the desert, as Fairoz described, “with watercolours”. Such creativity is complemented by the fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, whose advocacy for the fable structure spurred Fairoz to craft the titular story of Interpreter of Winds in the form of a fable. He quotes Gaiman, who points out how a fairytale is “the friendliest way to tell a lie in order to reach the truth”. With his debut work, Fairoz did just that—describing many universal truths as he shares his views of the Javanese culture through the ups and downs of characters in fantastical worlds.
Did any personal aspect or experience of Fairoz help to shape the stories of the book?
Fairoz’s observations as a Singaporean Malay Muslim is echoed throughout Interpreter of Winds, as its setting, characters, and culture are primarily based in Muslim tradition. This individual and communal perspective are complemented by his experiences as the co-founder of the award-winning social enterprise, Chapter W, an organization based in Jogjakarta that works closely with women and their skills in technology. The book, therefore, has snippets of Fairoz’s personal voice, as he retells his own encounters through the platform of fiction.
Stories like “The Smell of Jasmine After the Rain” was a faithful testament to an Indonesian village he had visited, while the inspiration for “The Day the Music Died” hit while he was listening to the song “American Pie” by Don McLean on a bus ride.
Fairoz is also a huge lover of the study of sociology, a subject he claims that “he cannot get out of his system”. A sociological perspective helped to inform the creation and development of his characters in their respective settings.
What’s the significance of choosing a dog and a camel as the main characters of the first story?
As the desert was a highly appealing setting for Fairoz, the camel naturally became one of the animals for him to base his story on. The camel was also a great choice as a vehicle for his companion, the dog—allowing them to complement each other well. Canine characters are often associated with values of loyalty and faithfulness; in this case, the values are taken a step further as they become a source of contention between the dog’s curiosity and obedience. As the story explores the element of rigidity and strictness in religious institutions, the dog thus also becomes a symbol for the tested—to what extent will loyalty and faithfulness challenge, or even suppress, the dog’s own personal curiosity and inquisitiveness?
As dogs are often associated with comfort and friendliness in the eyes of their human counterparts, the dog in the story plays the role of representing the reader and their curiosity. Throughout the titular story, the dog is unafraid to ask questions and bring up issues that may be contentious and controversial, as brushed off by the camel. While the camel carries the dog throughout the desert, we the readers are carried by the perspective of the dog through the world Fairoz writes about, metaphorically or otherwise.
In light of existing concerns, there is the concept that Malays are very ‘Arabised’, a phenomenon that refers to the strong and effective Arabic influence on non-Arab cultures. As the book carries elements from Arab communities present in a Malay and Javanese setting, what are Fairoz’s thoughts on this?
As Fairoz took the microphone to answer, he couldn’t help but smile to himself. He mentioned how he was very aware of this phenomenon, and thus did incorporate some of his views on it in his book. There were characters in the stories who were huge advocates of Arab culture, so much so that they compromise their native roots as Malays or Javanese individuals. However, they are often presented as characters who are ignorant and idealistic. Fairoz’s choice of representing Arabised characters in such a manner reflects how individuals who forgo their roots often do so for ignorant reasons, or they fail to realise the beauty and value of their own culture. He raised the example of the keris, an asymmetrical dagger that is also a symbol of ethnic pride and power. Using the suppression of the keris as an example, Fairoz talks of the captivating and fascinating aspects of the Malay and Javanese culture that have been suppressed due to Arabisation. Nonetheless, he looks positively at the strong possibility of shifting away from this phenomenon, as more Malays are becoming more accepting and intrigued by their own native roots.
Is there any specific method of approaching this book and its themes in order to gain the most out of it?
There is no ultimate or singular way to approach a book as we all indulge in literature differently. Fairoz stresses, however, on the importance of being open-minded when approaching a book about a seemingly unfamiliar community. He also reiterates how rewarding it is when one appreciates the fable structure in literature, as it can contribute tremendously to the universalisation of themes and experiences within the stories. Though most of Interpreter of Winds may seem exclusive or alien, the characters and themes are written with the purpose of inviting readers to dismantle their stereotypes or preconceived notions of certain communities, in Singapore and the whole world. Fairoz wants others to know that Malay Muslims are capable of laughter, love, and mistakes. By writing this book, he has managed to do just that and more.
At the end of the launch, there was a rush to get a copy of Interpreter of Winds signed by Fairoz. I felt a sense of eagerness and excitement for them to read the book. As a member of the Malay community myself, I felt content that more stories such as those in Interpreter of Winds are being published, and I felt thankful that these stories allowed diverse members of the community to be seen by Singaporeans and beyond. As Fairoz and Nazry have mentioned, literary representation is essential to debunking harmful stereotypes. If done well, as I believe Interpreter of Winds has, it can even lead to a better sense of harmony.
You may also check out the full video of the launch conversation, available on our Facebook.
About Interpreter of Winds:
Often an unnoticed caress on our faces, winds are voiceless and formless. How do we interpret them? What mysteries can we find in the whispers of winds? From a Dutch occupied Java where a witch was murdered, a dog who desires to be a Muslim, to a day in which all sense of music is lost, the mundane is aflame with the uncanny.
In these stories, Fairoz Ahmad invites you to take a closer look at ordinary objects, as they take on a life of their own and spin gossamer threads. This book is a celebration of the little charms and enchantments of our universes amidst struggles and eventual helplessness.
About Fairoz Ahmad:
Fairoz Ahmad is the co-founder of the award-winning social enterprise, Chapter W (W referring to women). The organization, based in Jogjakarta, works at the intersection of Women.Tech.Social Impact. In addition to leading Chapter W, Fairoz also lectures on research methods, community development and sociology at Temasek Polytechnic, Singapore. Fairoz is an alumni of the US State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Programme (IVLP), the premier exchange programme for emerging leaders in the social sector.
For his contributions to the community, Fairoz was awarded the National University of Singapore's Outstanding Young Alumni award in 2017. In 2018, Fairoz graduated from the University of Oxford with a Master of Public Policy degree (Distinction), under a Chevening-Oxford scholarship.