Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Art of Satire

At Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, I was one of the panelists for "The Art of Satire." The other two was Kam Raslan and Manuka Wijesinghe. Nury Vitacchi moderated the discussion.

Since the topic involved humor writers, the room was full. All panelists started with their five to ten minutes of monologue, on how they got their satirist voice. The discussion started afterwards.

Kam told a lot of interesting stories about Malaysian politics, including snippets from his friend's book, Malaysian Politicians Say the Darnedest Things. His first novel, Confessions of an Old Boy, is also a satire look at Malaysia.

Manuka related a witty observation about Sri Lanka's culture. One example is how their Buddhist philosophies don't seem to go along with the facts that so many people ended up dead for speaking up. Her first novel, Moonsoons and Potholes, is a satire look at Sri Lankan culture, through the eyes of its characters.

While I opened with the piece about angers, goverment and politicians (transcript below).

When the topic reached the issue about government censorship, Nury joined in by telling his experiences when he was asked to speak in front of Lee Kuan Yeuw, at that time was known as the Minister who was too serious. He was warned by the ministers' aide that, "Please don't use jokes! Not good." Nury went and told some jokes anyway. By the end of the event, the aide approached him and said, "Thank you! Great jokes! Minister Lee laughed twice!"

The audience roared in laughter. But Nury convinced them that it was a bad thing. "I did 200 jokes and he only laughed twice!" However, the media, which got the news, quickly bloated it up and described Nury as, "The man who made Lee Kuan Yeuw laughed."

"Twice," I added.

The following was my opening monologue.


I may differ from the other panelists in the forms of satire I wrote. I write humor essays and flash fiction. To some of you who’re not yet familiar with flash fiction, it’s basically a shorter than short fiction. Which is why some call it short shorts, micro, mini, or bite-sized fiction.

I read somewhere that the Chinese has a name for it as well, that literally means cigar-long stories. So the story finishes at the time the cigar burns right to the stub. This is an interesting definition. Because Hemingway once wrote a flash fiction which consists of six words. We can read it in five seconds. I’d love to see someone try smoking a cigar that fast.

So how do writers find their satirist voice?

Traditionally, writers derive their satirist voice from angers (or other deep emotions). We channel these angers as source of inspirations. Jonathan Swift, for instance, used his anger to write "A Modest Proposal," in which he proposed that the poor eat their children to fight hunger while at the same time reducing the number of poor people. Two flies at one swat.

However, we need to distinguish what kind of angers that we can channel into our satirist voice. Let’s face it, if we’re furious about the time when we got a fly in our soup, writing a satire about it won’t exactly inspire any change.

With that said, we also need a vision of change. At the very least, we could envision where the current situation will lead to a major downfall. And then, we can work on the idea.

For instance, after 1998, Indonesian people suddenly got into this euphoria of freedom and democracy. After more than thirty years getting suppressed, we suddenly found ourselves able to say almost anything. In almost any kind of ways. As long as we outnumbered our opposition. So we might feel like it was democracy. When in fact it was a bit like moderated anarchy (which is a contradiction in terms). Because everyone disagreed with each other and didn’t want to listen to each other, at all.

Political parties formed. One hundred and eighty one of them. And they kept splitting on a whim. Hence we got the Indonesian Democratic Party, the Opposition of Indonesian Democratic Party, the Opposition of the Opposition of Indonesian Democratic Party, and so on.

So at that time I wrote a flash fiction story about a male human body that reaches a new height of awareness. Suddenly, every limb got tired of listening to the brain and decided to act on their own free will, autonomously. The ears would shut down anytime they didn’t like what they hear. And they disliked everything. Especially what the mouth was saying. The left hand voiced a protest, because they claimed they did all the work, while the penis got all the pleasure. This brings a new definition of "penis envy." Even the fingers decided to go separate ways. So everything was chaotic. Nobody—-no pun intended-—listened to each other or realized their common goals or even needs. Even when they were all cornered with deprivation of food, they still wouldn’t cooperate. So in the end, the whole body died.

So, usually, the type of angers that I can use to produce satire involves government and politics. Humorist Will Rogers once said that it’s easy to write humor since you have the government do the work for you.

Government officials, for instance, make my day. Just a month ago, some of you may have noticed a particular news story. The mayor of Indramayu-—a city in West Java-—was enraged when a couple of students made an amateurish porn clip, and somehow it got distributed on the net. He immediately stated that every female student in Indramayu had to undergo a virginity test. I failed to see the logic in that. I have no idea what kind of academic achievement he wanted to endorse by building a list of virgins.

At such occassions, I usually write an open letter to mass media (or at the very least in my blog). In this case, I suggested that we fully support the Mayor decision. And to help him do it, I devised a fail-safe, comprehensive Virginity Test. By way of multiple choices.

One example question:

Suppose you got lost for days in a desert. On your last bit of strength, you found an oasis. You dragged yourself to the fresh water and drank it. How did it taste?

a. Like water.
b. Like great sex.
c. Like the virginity that I’ve been keeping.

Comprehensive and fail-safe.

I’ve sent this letter to several media, but none published it. Maybe they’re still testing it to their employees. I don't know.

Oh, and I particularly love Indonesian politicians. They say the darnedest things. Next year, Indonesia will face another period of presidential election campaigns. That will be interesting for a humor writer.

I remember that one of the 2004 presidential candidates, whom I’ll refer with the codename Double-H, once told the papers that, "If you want to know how many wives I have, just check my CV."

He put the number of his wives on his curriculum vitae.

Now why didn’t I think of that? This guy is genius. I mean, he must’ve made it to the top because of it. I’d really love to do that. Not the having many wives part. I’ve got only one. And I’m happy as it is. Primarily because she’s capable enough to kill me if I say otherwise.

What I mean is putting a large number of wives as a data in my CV. I can just imagine how these will put me into the top spot in various areas. A hostage situation, for example. A group of bank robbers've got some customers on gunpoint. They demand an impossible ransom. We obviously need somebody to negotiate with them.

This is where I step in.

"Sorry, Sir," the police in charge will try to stop me. "With all due respect, but who the hell do you think you are? This is a serious matter."

I’ll just flash my CV. "Have you seen how many wives I have? Take a good look, then. Yes, that’s right. I have twenty wives. And I’m here alive and standing. If that doesn’t make me a helluva negotiator, I don’t know what will."

But let’s return to the topic at hand. In short, what I do isn’t finding the voice. The voice itself is a result of my own reaction (or emotion) towards what happen in the world around me. What I need to do is just discerning in what kind of way I can channel these emotions. Sometimes it’s satire. Other times it may be irony or sarcasm or whatever.

And I have to emphasize that it’s not an entirely conscious decision. Sometimes you’re just compelled to do something. And as a writer, my natural reaction is writing it down.


bibliobibuli said...

hello and many thanks for linking my blog!! i am slowly getting the sessions written up but will probably only finish just before the next ubud festival. it was very nice to meet you and i enjoyed this panel discussion very much indeed.

the fool said...

Hai, Sharon! Very nice to meet you too.

Yeah, I know how you feel. So much to write, so little time.