Can a banned author become the next Sasterawan Negara?

Faisal Tehrani’s seven books have been banned, ostensibly due to their Shia flavour.

KUALA LUMPUR: A prominent novelist and social commentator known for his unconventional writings on Malay history is under serious consideration for Sasterawan Negara, the title for the national laureate, which recognises life-long achievements in enhancing Malay literature.

Sources told FMT that several names shortlisted by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP), the body seen as the “guardian” of the national language, did not go down well with Education Minister Maszlee Malik, who is supposed to present the final names to the Agong for royal consent.

One name being bandied about has been generating increasing interest within local literary circles.

It is believed that Faisal Tehrani’s name was among dozens considered by DBP when it met earlier this year to agree on a shortlist.

But sources told FMT that with seven of his books banned for reasons linked to Malaysia’s sensitive religious authorities, the committee tasked with the selection of candidates was not “adventurous enough”.

“There is no denying Faisal’s contributions to modern Malay literature, but as a government body, DBP has to ‘play safe’,” said the source who has been involved in past selection processes for the coveted award.

In May, FMT reported that Faisal was among five candidates shortlisted by DBP for Sasterawan Negara.

The four others were Kedah-born Azmah Nordin, poet-painter Latif Mohidin, Sarawakian novelist Jong Chian Lai and writer and political critic Che Shamsudin Othman, better known as Dinsman.

It is understood that Maszlee was “not happy” with most of the names submitted to him.

“The minister feels that the names do not reflect the spirit of Sasterawan Negara, which is not only one who is involved in the development of literature but also one who takes a keen interest in current social issues,” said a source.

Of the five names given earlier, only Faisal and Dinsman appeared close to fulfilling such a criteria.

But the latter’s politically charged writings could be a stumbling block.

“What a Sasterawan Negara does after getting the award is his business, but if he or she is politically active, it could set a bad precedent,” the source said, referring to 1986 recipient A Samad Said who joined DAP in 2015.

DBP director-general Abang Sallehuddin Abang Shokeran told FMT earlier this month that a meeting would be held this week.

“We have some nominations, but we cannot finalise the process until we meet Maszlee,” he said, adding that an announcement would be made before year-end.

The Sasterawan Negara title was last announced in 2015 when poet Zurinah Hassan was named its first female recipient. Past recipients have never actually fulfilled the “apolitical” requirement, most notably Shahnon Ahmad.

Shahnon, who received the title in 1982, created a stir at the height of the political crisis following Anwar Ibrahim’s sacking in 1998, when he published his novel “SHIT”, a satire poking fun at the then-government of Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

A source said that Faisal’s writings – despite his social media postings – are more apolitical, yet bear strong political messages.

“Maszlee is more inclined to such a person, someone who is critical of society. Faisal blames established norms more than any particular political party,” said one person close to the 45-year-old writer.

Established norms are, after all, the reason for the ban imposed on his books, many of which are themed around characters and terminology close to Shia Islam – the school of thought effectively banned by Malaysia’s Islamic authorities.

Faisal has written more than 20 widely read academic papers on the subject of Malay history, as well as plays, short stories, and novels which have won him literary prizes and awards.

Some were controversial enough to be considered threats to public peace by the previous government, and the Pakatan Harapan government is in no hurry to lift the ban, presumably due to pressure from Islamic bureaucrats.

Faisal avoided talking about speculations of his chances of getting the Sasterawan award.

“I’m too shy to react to your question. I know people have been asking me,” he told FMT when met last month during a gathering with literary activists in Kuala Lumpur.

“But think about it, seven of my books are banned. Everyone knows that. And with all the things about me on social media, I am not sure if the Sasterawan award even fits me.”

Even then, Faisal’s works have admirers, including Maszlee, despite the latter’s alignment with Perlis mufti Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin who is no fan of Faisal’s Shia-flavoured works.

A recent Hari Raya greeting video by Maszlee’s team was based on a script written by Faisal.

“Still, it’s a long shot,” said a source close to Maszlee’s academic circles. “Is Maszlee ready to face the heat from bureaucrats by going for a banned author for the award?”