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ISSUE 35 : Nusantara: Signifier and Its Limitation
The Reading List Project: Interview with Kitartb, the independent bookstore in Kelantan, Malaysia
October 11th, 2017Type: Interview
Author: Wu, Chi-yu , Ezzmer Daruh, Okui Lala (採訪統籌) Editor: Rikey Tenn
Quote From: 群島資料庫Nusantara Archive
Note: The "Reading List" Project is the collaborative publication between artist WU Chi-yu and Nusantara Archinve. As the pre-text of his work, WU interviewed with two independent bookshops based in Kota Bharu, Kelantan, with the help of artist Okui Lala and cultural worker Wan Atikah. They are Ezzmer Daruh of Kitartb and Zaidi Musa of Kedai Hitam Putih. They've different styles and experiences, and both devote to the alternative practices of knowledge production. The project contains interviews published in English and Chinese, and the notes of WU in the process. They also transform into his new video works. Through the reading list recommended by Ezzmer and Zaidi and their alternative strategies, the viewers see the local reading condition and their values behind the messages they've shared.
At Kitartb, on the 3rd floor of Bazar Tok Guru; photo: Wu Chi-yu

Kitartb is an alternative bookshop, which I started in Kota Bharu since May 13th 2016. I use the term “alternative” because there are existing bookshops in Kelantan but they mostly sell books to students. From this perspective I thought of what was lacking in Kota Bharu. The relationship between books and readers, books and the public should be more intimate than that. “Alternative” means working together on more events provided by the public. To Kitartb, Kalam(註1) is the support team. If Kitartb is a house, Kalam are those living inside it. On the surface, I run and manage it, but Kalam will back it up with support.


Can you introduce us some books?

The first book would definitely be Titih because the book was published under Kitartb Ink. We created Kitartb Ink so that we could publish our own books. Titih is non-fiction and published with the support of Kalam. It casually informs people outside of Kelantan about the locale. We try to highlight our culture, history, local figures, and our sentiments towards Kelantan in Titih.

Titih published by Kitartb Ink; photo: Wu Chi-yu

Another book I really like would be… Actually it has to come in pairs. I was looking for the two books for a while. When I first arrived at Kota Bharu and decided to open Kitartb, I thought that I should find these two books. As an inhabitant in Kota Bharu, I would feel incomplete without them. These books were written by influential figures from Kelantan. Both talk about their respective history.

We would know about the 1940s if we read Melati Kota Bharu. The influence of the sultanate and royal customs was very strong back then. Its author Abdul Kadir Adabi tried to confront that tradition and refused to follow the palace customs. His book is about Melati, a royal descendent who was in love with a commoner – the person could possibly be Kadir Adabi himself. I find the language used in the book interesting. It makes me feel like I wasn’t reading something from the 1940s. It was quite modern and I couldn’t find any difficult terms. I feel as if the book was not written long ago.

The chapters in Melati Kota Bahru were written separately. The whole story was published in Al-Hikmah magazine as a series of short stories combined later on by the author of Orang Kota Bharu (People in Kota Bahru), S. Othman Kelantan. The book I mentioned above is set in the 1940s, while Orang Kota Bharu is set in the 1960s to the 1970s before the political change. Right now, the ruling party of Kelantan is the Islamic party. In the period before PAS (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia), it was quite dark in Kelantan. Despite so, it was well recorded by S. Othman Kelantan in his book. If we want to know about the brighter side of Kelantan apart from the status quo, we should still read Orang Kota Bharu because Kota Bharu had everything at that time.

The last one would be Adat Resam Melayu Kelantan (Customs and Traditions of the Kelantanese Malay). Because… I don’t think that the book will only be relevant after 20 or 30 years. The traditions once existed for giving birth, or building a house. For example, how many steps should be built in a flight of stairs. When I read it, I feel that I’m still a Malay. I mean, as a Malay I should know all this. Okay, that’s all about the books.


S. Othman Kelantan, Orang Kota Bharu; photo: Wu Chi-yu

Can we say your decision to open a bookstore in Kota Bharu is Takdir tuhan(註2)? How would you visualize it?

Takdir means fate, only after we do something will we realise that it is fated. I mentioned takdir tuhan when talking about Kitartb because I believe in it.

I had worked in a company for three years. During my last year, I felt so weak. I’d performed well, but there was still no increase in my salary, and my boss would still shout at me. During that year I came home to Kota Bharu more frequently. I felt like my soul had moved to Kota Bharu, while leaving my body in Kuala Lumpur until I moved back in December 2015. One day, my father was sitting on a couch. I have never been close to him. I told him I’d like to try something. “Like what?” He asked me, “I’d like to sell books,” I said. The answer was spontaneous. I didn’t even think about it, the answer just came out. My father asked me how could I survive with just selling books. But I told him it would be okay. While I left, he messaged me to reconsider it. My father was worrying whether I could make enough money to support my family by selling books. But I couldn’t stand my job anymore. The company didn’t need me anymore. I made my decision in 24 hours. I left my resignation letter on my boss’ table, I said goodbye to everyone. Then I went back home – to Kota Bharu – with my motorbike.

Am I serious about opening a book shop? I didn’t have much money to start. With some left over from my salary, I had no idea about the name of the shop, about what to sell, how to promote or anything. All I knew was to open a shop. It was fated that the manager of this space was looking for a tenant. I called my friends in KL and asked them to send me some books to start with. We started with books from two or three publishers. After the bookshop opened, I began to think.

How do I visualize takdir tuhan? I think it was even fated that I decided to use a name with a Turkish element – combining the word “Kitab” and “art” to form “Kitartb”. Names are very important to me. After we name a thing, we cannot call it something else. You are a Buddhist; you also have your kitab (which means “book” in Malay). In my religion, I also have my kitab. Kitab is our guidance. When we feel lost, we will return to it. I did not know how long the name would last. These are takdir tuhan. Actually you can’t visualise it. But I can say, the name, Kitartb, is takdir tuhan. If I am doubtful about anything, the answer will be in Luh Mahfuz. Luh mahfuz is the book written in the name of God. That is its name. I’m not sure about its status as a book. But we call it Luh Mahfuz(註3), which means it’s fated and already written.

After I believed that I needed to live with Kitartb, I encouraged myself and made others believe in it too. It turned out my friends also believed that this is what we need in Kota Bharu. Kitartb is a way for us to regenerate the spirit to read and write. It is also about how to create friendship and harmony in Kota Bharu.

photo: Wu Chi-yu

How did the concept “Kopi susu kurang manis, tambah gula” (adding sugar to make coffee with milk even sweeter) influence the inception of Diskopi (coffee session)?

“Kopi Susu” was my childhood song. In the first three months, I was still in the phase of wondering. I spent three or four months to settle down and to question myself about how to keep it going. One day, I came back after meeting a friend who had just returned from Australia. She said, “You cannot just sell books. You must create friendships to attract the public. What’s the difference between your shop and other bookstores? They sell books too. Apart from the books that you sell, what’s the difference?”

My friend suggested me to create an event. One of the very catchy songs from the 1960s came into my mind – the “Susu kurang manis” part – which goes like, “Kopi susu kurang manis tambah gula”. Kopi susu (coffee with milk) is already sweet. Why do you have to add more sugar? It means that the kopi susu you made was tasteless. Kota Bharu is like the kopi susu. It has its own life, but it still lacks some “flavour”. We thought of the name “Diskopi” after our first meeting. I named it “coffee session”, highlighting the concept of “Kopi susu kurang manis tambah gula”. It became a triggering point for the gathering. Only Atikah, one of the five attendants, understood what I was talking about. Maybe Atikah had tasted nice coffee in Penang. That’s why she could understand. We needed some activities; we also needed a book to grasp the periods after the 1940s, 1990s and 2000s. These are the goals of Diskopi. Through Diskopi, I also initiated Kalam.

“Kopi susu kurang manis” was our forgotten culture. When we were talking in Kalam that our culture was submerged by politics. The same thing is being mentioned in Orang Kota Bharu by Kadir Adabi. In the 1940s, the culture focused too much on the royalty, while in the 1970s, our culture was hijacked by politics. It is said in the book about Cik Siti Wan Kembang(註4),

There was no stealing; there was no fighting in this state back then, because everyone was busy playing gasing (Kelantan’s spinning top) and wau (Kelantan’s kite).” When I say “we need to busy ourselves with culture,

It means that we won’t get involved in other things. We should not put a halt to our culture. Even if an Islamic party rules, it does not necessarily have to interfere with the local culture. The culture is our “kopi susu”. We cannot have it less sweet, because that is our life.

The traditional wakafs near Masjid Kampung Laut; photo: Wu Chi-yu

The zine Titih also came from Takdir tuhan, as well as “kopi susu kurang manis” that was just formerly mentioned. How do we enflavour our kopi susu again? We need sugar. Not the sugar found in the store, but the sugar of the culture. Before we decided on the word “titih”, we spent three or four months brainstorming for the most suitable title. Before that, we only knew that we wanted to make a zine. We were not sure about our target readers or what to begin with. So we suggested three Kelantanese words.

Titih has been on my mind since I came back here — a concept I wanted to use and add to our kopi susu as sugar. It’s about culture. In my mind, if I were to write a novel, I’d like to refer to all the forgotten, hidden culture due to politics, the culture we’ve lost. But I can’t make it by myself. I need more people. Others want to talk about their culture, too. We have essays on our history, our hometown, our local figures in our villages that others have ignored. When one shares the stories, others will come to know about them too. It will revitalize Kelantan.

Wakaf (in the cover of Titih) is about how the elders tell stories. What we had the most in the past were the wakaf. They were usually built on a strategic corner, for example, near a four-corner junction. “Where are we meeting this evening?”, “Let’s meet at the wakaf.” It became like a port for all. And that was where they would share stories. “Oh, you’ve been to Mecca?”, “You just came back from college?” That’s how it was.

I took a photo of the wakaf. To complete Titih, I think we needed something to show where it started. “Titih” is similar to the concept of the “wakaf”. Nasaie did the design. I told him, to include the wakaf. Titih vol. 1 is more about history, about our origin. Since the meaning of Titih is searching about origins. Maybe when we talk about the future, it wouldn’t be called “titih”. Titih is not about what’s going to happen in the following 20 to 30 years. It may develop with different titles, in a different volume. Through collaboration, we will create a more harmonious Kelantan, with people who love to read and write.

That’s the future I have in my mind to this day. Right now, Kota Bharu is a BRI, “Bandar Raya Islam”. I would like to change the ‘I’ in it into “L(iterature)” — BRL — a “city of literature”.

[1] “Kitab” means book, and “Kalam” means pen. Kalam is the editing team and the authors of Titih.
[2] Takdir tuhan, One of the 6 pillars of Iman in Islam is to believe in Qard & Qadar (predestination). Muslim believes that the destiny is fated since the very beginning. To believe in takdir tuhan is to believe in Qard & Qadar.
[3] Luh Mahfuz; as muslims we are not certain if Luh Mahfuz is a book or it isn’t. Talking about fate, we always refer that it is “written in Luh Mahfuz”. Hence many people regard Luh Mahfuz as a book.
[4] Cik Siti Wan Kembang was local female figure. She was believed as the ruler in Kelantan in the 16th century.
See Also
The Method of Projection: Notes of Misreading on Kota Bharu Video Documentary ,Wu Chi-yu