Malaysian author, poet Wong Phui Nam dies

Malaysian author, poet Wong Phui Nam dies

The prolific and award-winning poet was a pioneer of Malaysian literature whose work is studied in curriculums until today

MALAYSIAN author and poet Wong Phui Nam passed away at 10.50pm last night, according to a member of the family. He was 87 years old.

He has been laid to rest earlier today, following Muslim rites.

Wong was a leading voice in Southeast Asian literature and remained active until his death, working with young writers to cultivate Malaysian poetry. He was married to Khatijah and leaves behind three sons and a daughter.

Wong was born on September 20, 1935, in Kuala Lumpur. He received his early education at the Batu Road School and later at the Victoria Institution.

In university, he took up economics and would work primarily in development finance and merchant banking upon graduation. Best known for his poetry, he first began writing during his youth in the 1950s during pre-independence.

Wong Phui Nam and wife Khatijah. – Pic courtesy Wong Phui Nam

An economics student at University of Malaya in Singapore (now National University of Singapore), his interest in poetry started upon reading Edwin Thumboo’s Rib of Earth, a volume of poems published by Lloyd Fernando.

Deeply taken by the collection, he realised it was possible to be a Malayan writer, and to take writing as a serious vocation. His friendship with other aspiring writers – most prominently, Tan Han Hoe and Oliver Seet – would go on to define the beginnings of a Malayan literature in English.

It builds on the work of authors like Thumboo, Wang Gungwu, Beda Lim, Lim Thean Soon and Hedwig Anuar. Wong became a leading voice in The New Cauldron, a literary magazine founded by students of Raffles College (which later became the University of Malaya).

He co-edited Litmus One and 30 Poems, both anthologies of university verse, and published an apprentice work, Toccata on Ochre Sheaves.

Wong’s collection of work during the 1960s first appeared in Bunga Emas, an anthology of Malayan writing published in the United Kingdom in 1964 (Ed. T. Wignesan).

It was subsequently collected in book form and published as How the Hills Are Distant in 1968 by Tenggara (Department of English, University of Malaya). A hiatus of almost 30 years would follow.

He returned to the scene with his second volume Remembering Grandma and Other Rumours published by the English Department, National University of Singapore in 1989.

He would follow with more volumes of poetry which include Ways of Exile, Against the Wilderness, An Acre of Day’s Glass, and The Hidden Papyrus of Hen-taui.

Beyond his work in poetry, he has also written several plays and works of translations. His play-in-verse, Anike, inspired by the classic Greek tragedy of Antigone, was staged by Cape Poetics in Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Johor in 2007.

Tributes from local authors are already pouring in.

Malachi Edwin Vethamani, poet and Emeritus Professor at University of Nottingham Malaysia, said, “Wong Phui Nam’s demise signals the passing of one of the greatest Malayan poets who wrote in English and continued to be an important voice in Malaysian poetry in English.

Wong with Malachi Edwin Vethamani. He remained active until his death, working with young writers to cultivate Malaysian poetry. – Pic courtesy of Malachi Edwin Vethamani

“In recent years, he was actively involved with young Malaysian poets. He was a judge for a national poetry competition in 2021 and was one of the selectors of poems written by young Malaysians below 35 years.

“He took time to write advice to young Malaysian poets and he even met them and encouraged them to write poetry. He was deeply concerned for Malaysian poetry in English and wanted to see it develop with new young voices with fresh ideas.”

Daryl Lim Wei Jie, a poet and author, wrote in a Facebook post, “he was a true original in Malaysian English poetry, and his brilliance was unmatched. Yet he was always still humble and seeking to learn, never satisfied with his writing, and understanding of poetics.

Wong with his son, Qi Razali. He leaves behind a vast body of work that will be studied for generations to come. – Pic courtesy of Malachi Edwin Vethamani

“One fond memory I have of him is the two of us eating durians by the roadside in Geylang in Singapore, when he visited some years back. He was living nearby, at a relative’s place, and as we were walking around, he suddenly asked, ‘Do you like durians? There is a stall nearby’.

“As we devoured the durians – there was a look of pure joy on his face – the oddness of our friendship, between two people born 55 years apart, struck me. Our shared love of poetry and writing (and durians!) somehow erased these distinctions. I am deeply glad to have been his friend, and to have met him just before the end.”

Dr Shivani Sivagurunathan, head of School of English at University of Nottingham, described his work as an “expression to the loneliness, fragmentation and disconnection experienced by so many of us, especially diasporic communities.”

source – The Vibes

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