The Salleh ben Joned (1941–2020) I knew

Salleh ben Joned at Silverfish Books 1999

(This post is dedicated to Anna Salleh.)

The photo of him was taken during a reading by a group of poets from Singapore in Oct 1999. (See the slideshow and more photos here: https://silverfishbooks.com/pages/community-1). See that energy in the eyes simply waiting to leap forth!

After that picture was taken I didn’t see him for almost  2 years. I did wonder about it, but I didn’t know him well enough to inquire. (Friends told me, later, about his bout with depression, and when I heard how they had eventually zapped his brains, I cringed. 

He returned after that (I had moved to Bangsar Baru by then) and would spend quite a bit of time at the shop. He asked if we’d be interested in reissuing “Poems Sacred and Profane”. I agreed, provided he obtained a release from his previous publisher. Sometime later, he told me how no one would publish his play, “The Amok of Mat Solo” due to its ‘controversial’ subject matter. I said I’d look at it, which I did, and it became SBJ’s second book under the Silverfish Books imprint. 

“Adam’s Dream” was his third book under Silverfish Books and his last we published in 2007. He’d show up at Silverfish books almost every day, ostensibly for a place to write without distractions. But he never managed to do much work, struggling as he was to focus. He’d be restless and frustrated the entire time. I had to eventually conclude that it was due to his treatment. Some part of memory had been erased in that “zap”. 

He once told me how he was “struggling with just one word for the past 3 months”. At one level, I admired what an exacting artist he was; on another, it hurt to think what they had taken away from him, permanently. What a cruel irony: to keep him alive they took away the only thing he lived for. He was, simultaneously, a helpless child and a frustrated grown man, groping the air for words that would never come, who’d never be able to say what he wanted to say. Nobody seemed to understand, not that they didn’t love or care. They simply couldn’t. He simply orbited a different sun.

I asked to see the book he was writing. (By this time, he had begun to confide in me a little; maybe because I was patient, maybe because he saw I understood his pain, which I did. Also, I saw his genius.)

I found “Adam’s Dream” fascinating and disturbing. It was intensely and uncomfortably personal, although a little incomplete. Perhaps missing that elusive “one word” he was looking for. It was brilliant, nevertheless. I found “Imagining My Maria As an Adult Woman” a most painful poem to read (since I knew a little of Salleh’s history). I also realised that there was absolutely no chance he was going to find that elusive “one word”; when they had fried his brains, they had done it real good.

I told Salleh, “It’s brilliant, let’s publish it.”

When he was not writing, Salleh would tell me many stories. He told me about his column in the New Straits Times called “As I Please’ that reached quite new level of brilliance and notoriety (and not just because of the part about urinating on Piyadasa’s painting at an exhibition). He said he was only able to write the column only “because Kadir Jasin allowed it”. He didn’t think anyone else would have let him stretch the limits so far. (When I met the Kadir Jasin sometime later (I’m trying to remember where) and the conversation led to SBJ, he said, “He was such an ugly man!”, but not without a touch of admiration.)

Salleh Ben Joned was an intensely proud Malay, although he hated what they had done to his race. He felt that Malays could achieve anything they wanted to, if only freed from the intense domestication. He wanted to traumatise the Malays, to shake them out of (what he saw as) their slumber. I guess the jury is still out on that one.

Salleh’s first introduction to the English language was when he was 13, in the “remove class” in school. (Yes, they had such a system in those days, student who attended vernacular schools, that is Malay, Chinese and Tamil, had to spend one year in the “remove class” to learn English before they could join others in Form 1. Yet, he became a world class poet in English. He wrote equally well in Malay. My favourite poem is “Malayaku” from “Poem’s Sacred and Profane” (Dedicated to Lat.) Here is a short extract:

Aku Amat rindukan:

         Tanjong Penawar
         Kampong Seronok
         Rantau Abang
         Janda Baik
         …
         …
         …

Aku lamas dan layu di tengan-tengah

         Petaling Jaya
         Damansara jaya
         Desa jaya
         Ampang Jaya
         …
         …

Yes, how hopelessly unimaginative we have become.

One of his favourite stories was about how he was called an “Abo” and thrown out of a pub in Tasmania for reciting aloud a poem by AD Hope. (‘Australia’ (1939)

And her five cities, like teeming sores,
Each drains her: a vast parasite robber-state
Where second-hand Europeans pullulate
Timidly on the edge of alien shores.

(The pub patrons thought, however, that he had written the poem to mock them!) Yes, he could recite poems off the cuff.

Salleh ben Joned’s mentor in Australia was James McAuley, the architect of the infamous Ern Mally affair (or Earn Malley hoax) in the Angry Penguins a (modernist art and literary movement in Australia), which was fictionalised by Peter Carey in “His Illegal Self”. (Parts of the story was in Malaysia.)

Would that explain Salleh Ben Joned a little better?

(Anna, thank you for prodding me to write something about SBJ. I hope there’s something here that you didn’t know before. As I said before, I did love your dad.)


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  • Jaafar on

    Thanks Raman. We will miss SBJ – of the old , before the zap. For a bloke like me , who studied downunder , Salleh was a hero who showed the aussies that turning words into phrases is for all.


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