Are we more than the sum of our stories? Amir Muhammad speaks to The Citymaker about his role as a judge and the publisher of the KISAH Futures storytelling competition, his first forays into reading science fiction and dystopian tales and why he should be on TikTok.
Time travel, vaccine-creating superheroes, heroic frontliners and delivery guys, plus a hearty dose of AI-coated Orwellian surveillance tales are just some of the themes that were explored in the almost 700 stories in Think City’s disruptive storytelling competition KISAH Futures. Created in partnership with UNDP Accelerator Labs, Universiti Malaya’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and MIGHT, the competition set out to explore how ordinary Malaysians imagine the future of their towns and cities could unfold.
While the link between storytelling and creating better cities might not be an obvious one, it plays to the role of storytelling in folklore and the idea that stories – ranging from gossip to exaggerations of our own derring-do in social situations – are central to human existence. By asking our storytellers to imagine the cities they will live in in the future we are able to tap into not only the expectations of a generation, but the power of their own imagination and ingenuity in overcoming society’s ills.
With the top 50 stories (25 English, 25 Bahasa Malaysia) set to be released in an anthology curated by Buku FIXI, the publishing imprint specialising in contemporary Malaysian fiction, founded by filmmaker Amir Muhammad, we spoke to the legendary Malaysian director about his role judging the competition, compiling and editing the stories for publication. We also asked him for his thoughts on why we continue to write stories down in this digital age and wondered why he isn’t on TikTok.
How did you get involved with the KISAH Futures competition?
Amir Muhammad: I got involved when, a few months ago, I was approached by Maya Tan and also Benjamin Ong, from Think City and UNDP respectively, to say they wanted to do this project [and] they would like for it to have a printed book component. They approached me as a publisher to ask if I was interested. We’ve done many anthologies, but it’s different from other anthologies in the sense that it won’t be sold. It will just be given out for free.
As a storyteller in both print and film, why do you think that storytelling is such an important part of human culture?
Amir Muhammad: That’s an existential question! Well, I believe that we are the sum of our stories. What we think of as the nation, what we think of as a sculpture, what we think of as history; these all just stories we tell ourselves. The need to narrate. The need to imagine. The need to prophesize. All these are actually part of being human.
As you edit those stories, what are they telling you about the people that wrote them?
Amir Muhammad: I’m only judging it based on the top 25 [in each category]. Overall, they seem very pessimistic, very gloomy [laughs]. I think it’s because when people see the theme is COVID and things like that, they imagine a worst-case scenario. So, it has a kind of a dystopian feel as a whole.
Yes, there seems to be a marked difference in tone between the English language and Bahasa Malaysia entries…
Amir Muhammad: There was more humour in the Malay ones. The English ones were quite grim [laughs]. Maybe because of the things they read? I think sci-fi, speculative fiction, that kind of thing is more common in English.
What surprised me was that a lot of them assume that the government is very efficient: you wonder what country they are talking about [laughs]? A lot of them seem to assume that there will be all these very drastic clampdown measures to do with curfews – worse than what we have now – but everything is handled so efficiently. So, I wonder how long these people have lived in Malaysia to give them that kind of weird impression. It would probably make more sense in China or Singapore, where you can control things better. There were very few entries that acknowledged that rules will just be broken all the time. People get tired, people get corrupt, if they weren’t already.
You were saying that maybe it reflects what people read? In a lot of dystopian fiction there is an omnipotent power, a Big Brother figure that controls everything.
Amir Muhammad: Yes, I think so. So, maybe it’s based more on what they read than what they experience, which is opening up Facebook posts and seeing very large Christmas parties by people who don’t look the least bit guilty [laughs]. Which is, I think, much closer to the reality than the idea that the government knows everything you’re doing, and you have to hide from them somehow.
What about that power of stories themselves? What are the differences that you’ve found between writing as a storyteller and as a film maker?
Amir Muhammad: Pragmatically, you can get away with a lot more in writing. Because you don’t have to worry about budget: you can write that the world blew up and you don’t have to worry about how dumb that would look if you don’t have a proper VFX budget [laughs]. Also, [there’s] less possibility of censorship because books don’t have the same kind of censorship mechanism that films have. Which is not to say they don’t have controls at all, but it’s a lot easier to get away with things. So, I think that’s the main difference; with books you can let your imagination go wild, whereas, with films, it’s dictated by money and also by sensation, basically.
You mention budget in relation to making films. But there’s also the fact that we live in a digital age. Most people have access to a phone with a high-resolution video camera. So why do you think words, writing and books are still so popular when those visual forms, moving image, is now so easy to capture?
Amir Muhammad: A lot of these original stories and concepts came out of books, even though, not so many people would have read the books compared to [those who] saw the mini-series version. There’s one currently trending on Netflix, what’s it called? Bridgetown, or something? I don’t know anything about it, but apparently, it’s based on a series of books. So, I think it starts from that: the books as a kind of basis.
But as a kind of creative endeavour, it still has a hold. People do still write down what they think. I don’t know why. Maybe in the future it’ll be more visual, TikTok-based maybe. For now, I think people find relief and find a kind of affirmation, you know, when they write something, and people agree, and people quote them. I don’t know if that’s so easily replicable in a visual realm, which would enable a different kind of intelligence. I mean, it’s related, the ability to communicate, it’s all related, but to persuade somebody in a visual form, rather than just giving one impression: ‘Oh, this is pretty. This is ugly.’ To persuade someone to come around to your way of thinking. That’s talking just as a polemical device. [In] storytelling, you can have something more detailed and things can unfold at a more gradual pace. Which suits many types of stories better? I don’t know. Things will change very quickly. Like I have no idea how to use TikTok. The edits look amazing. Apparently, it’s very easy. Maybe I should try. People pick it up quickly, so it’s something very instinctive.
There’s a growing trend for novelists, especially science fiction and fantasy writers to be retained as part of the future planning efforts of big corporations. In Sweden, a journalist and author called Per Grankvist has been hired as the Chief Storyteller for a government sustainability initiative called Viable Cities…
Amir Muhammad: It’s funny, because I’m only now, at my advanced age, I’m only now reading my first science fiction novel. I’ve never read science fiction before. I just assumed it’s something very difficult and very boring. So. I’m now reading Ursula K. Le Guin for the first time. After seeing many videos of her being interviewed on YouTube because I need to be reassured that she’s a normal person and that she makes sense as a human before I read [laughs]. And I think her thing is always science fiction is never about the future. It’s about your anxieties about the present.
I didn’t know about sci-fi writers being employed as storytellers, but I think that goes to a lot of the TED talks we see, where it’s always about a story. There’s a CEO in sports shoes, telling his life story. And it always starts with something like: “My grandmother told me that blah, blah, blah…and now I’m a billionaire.” So, I think people are hooked on the idea that there’s a kind of a logical progression to things. And that this progression is told in the form of a story with a payoff. Maybe it’s just the human way of packaging history, because history is probably totally random, but we need to feel that it’s the culmination of something very logical, because otherwise, what the hell are we doing? It’s a kind of a myth we hold on to, that it all makes sense because, of course, it’s supposed to be like this. What else could it be?
How would you like to see KISAH Futures developing as a competition in the future?
Amir Muhammad: Hopefully, we don’t have to wait for the next pandemic [laughs]. I think the urge to tell stories, and the urge to spread stories, is something quite primal in us. There should be more platforms. [It should] not be seen as something intimidating. Many people, when they think of the idea of a book or a short story, it’s something weird, something you need to be of a certain IQ level to be able to appreciate. It should be something that people read without thinking that they’re consuming something. It’s just something that comes naturally. So, there should be many, many more platforms. And that’s why I admire about many initiatives in other countries, neighboring countries; they go out of their way to look for their own stories, and to share these stories. There’s much less of it happening here. Maybe it’s more for the private sector to take up. We can’t rely on government institutions all the time.
Stay tuned to our social feeds for details about the launch of the KISAH Futures anthology. For information about the competition and the 50 featured authors, head to https://thinkcity.com.my/UNDPKisah/