The Free-Spirited Bookstore

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TAPE spoke to Aisamuddin Md Asri, co-founder of local independent publisher Lejen Press, on the challenges they face as a bookstore in a youthful locale with an increasingly digital population.

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Outside a seemingly unassuming shop along Jalan SS15/8b, a line of small Malaysian flags hung above the door across its facade, flapping at every windy breeze. Next to the door, on the five-foot walkway, stood a little blackboard easel with the following written in chalk. “Quote of the day: Make good choices”.

This is I AM LEJEN, the flagship bookstore of local and independent publisher Lejen Press. Established in 2011 at SS15, the bookstore mainly carries publications in Malay, with only a handful in English. Its founder, Aisamuddin Md Asri, began his career as an engineer, but his love for reading and writing eventually saw him take on this path as a writer and publisher.

“I like to read a lot since sekolah rendah (primary school),” recalled Aisamuddin. Growing up in a remote village in Pahang, sources of entertainment were scarce. “However, my father was a teacher, and he has the access key to the school library.” Hence, during weekends, a young Aisamuddin would spend his afternoon in the library reading, before going outdoors to play in the evening. This cultivated his reading habit from a young age.

As he became older, Aisamuddin began writing short stories adapted from his daily life, which covered the period from his time as a child in kindergarten to adulthood. He posted these stories at his blog under the pseudonym Aisa Linglung. The blog gained popularity, which prompted him to compile the “best of” stories into a blook (a printed book with contents from an online blog). Titled “Sperma Cinta”, the blook was printed in limited copies and was only available at certain events, but its popularity led to it being sold out. That was the stepping stone to Aisamuddin quitting his job and establishing Lejen Press with his friend, Shahrul Naim.

Subsequently, Aisamuddin met another young author, Nomy Nozwir, who wrote the novel “Awek Chuck Taylor” under the pseudonym Nami Cob Nobbler. Lejen Press published this novel in 2011, and it quickly became a phenomenon in the independent publishing scene. Today, Lejen Press carries around 120 titles, with most of them authored by first-time writers. It also carries some works by well-known authors from Indonesia under another publisher, Gramedia. As part of the arrangement, some titles from Lejen Press are also translated into Bahasa Indonesia, granting its writers more publicity and exposure in the neighboring market.

Lejen Press’ books are different from the other local publishers because they are written in colloquial Malay language – the linguistic style used for casual, everyday conversation – rather than the more formal Malay language. This became the distinctive house style of Lejen Press’ collection, one example being “Awek Chuck Taylor”, which was written in a combination of street slang and text messages1. The majority of Lejen Press’ collection consists of fiction, specifically a new form of pulp fiction that tackles topics like social criticism, poetry, and taboo subjects in the local context such as communism and sexual promiscuity1. The genre’s rise in popularity can be attributed to the desire for escapism among young Muslim Malaysians in the form of literature. Besides fiction, Lejen Press also publishes travelogs. “We bring our comic artist to a place, like Sylvia Chin to Pusing, Perak, on a trip,” explained Aisamuddin, “and when she returns, she will use her illustration to narrate her travel experience. We collaborate with tourism to promote a place.” Aisamuddin believes that this form of publication would make a more authentic and genuine souvenir for tourists, instead of the generic keychains and fridge magnets.

Why was SS15 chosen as the location of this bookstore? “Because it fits the house style of our books,” replied Aisamuddin. “Our customers range from age 17 to the late 20s and mid 30s – mainly young adults.” The presence of numerous private higher education learning institutes also matched their targeted audience. In fact, the bookstore used to open until midnight to fit the nocturnal crowds of SS15. “Back in 2011, Sundays (at SS15) were quite empty, easy to find parking,” Aisamuddin said. The opening of the LRT station in 2016 allowed more people to access the area, but also worsened the parking situation there. Since the LRT station does not have any parking, many train users would park their car along the nearby shops, which are just a stone’s throw away, before taking the train. The bookstore has since adjusted its opening hours until 10:30pm for the staff to catch the last train.

Home to a melting pot of students, SS15 is known for having a unique identity with its counter-culture, hipster and trend setting atmosphere, thus explaining the rationale behind Aisamuddin’s decision to select the place. However, it is commonly understood that reading is not exactly popular among Malaysian youth. When asked about the readership among the youth today, Aisamuddin sighed, “sadly yes, we have to admit that Malaysians don’t like to read much, especially in the digital age today. They spend more time with their smartphones.”

In response, Lejen Press has diversified into the online sphere by setting up iamlejen.com, a curated news site, under Lejen Press Digital. As an online social entertainment website catering to the lifestyle of Malaysian youth, iamlejen.com covers news, current affairs, global issues, and more. “We have a team to take care of the write-up and editorial. There are around 10 articles on a daily basis,” said Aisamuddin, “we play our part to cultivate the habit and encourage them (youth) to read. Publishing articles on iamlejen.com can at least encourage followers to read them.” While its books are written in a colloquial style, online contents are written in a more proper format. “For our articles in Malay, we make sure that the grammar and sentence structures are correct, even if the topic is something more casual like celebrity gossip,” explained Aisamuddin. “At least for those who are trying to learn Bahasa Malaysia, if they access iamlejen.com, they will be reading good articles with proper language.”

Additionally, Lejen Press also has contents at their YouTube channel, LejenTV, Facebook and Instagram pages. In a video segment called “Sembang Lejen” (sembang means chatting),  they would invite guests over to talk about various topics like depression, sexual harassment, or current issues, such as the Foodpanda riders protest2, in which they invited an actual rider to discuss his point of view. Besides generating greater interaction with the youth through these content, online media has given Lejen Press an additional avenue to advertise new publications, book reviews, and promotion. In a way, the more pragmatic and proper online media complements the liberal style and freedom enjoyed by the publication side of the business, evident in their house style. “For publication, more freedom is given for the products to be sellable, which will create a rolling publication for other books,” said Aisamuddin. “If the books are not sellable, new talents will not get their chance.”

This freedom, however, comes with a price. Some books published by Lejen Press are considered controversial by local standards, especially with its provoking titles and cover design. While some youth have regarded them as cool fashion accessories, Aisamuddin has experienced some complications with the authorities before. One example given by him is the book, “Babi” (pig in Bahasa Malaysia), by Azwar Kamaruzaman. Babi is considered “haram”, or forbidden, in the Muslim society. “The word in our society is a taboo,” said Aisamuddin, “usually alludes to jahat, mencarut (bad, obscene). The author of this book was only 18 years old at that time when he came out with this manuscript and working title, asking us if  it was ok. After reading it, we decided that it was ok. We proceeded because the story made sense to the title. Many claimed that we intentionally used the word for the title to attract attention, but if you read the story until the end, it will make sense why “Babi” is the title.”

Lejen Press also worked with freelance designers to create the cover artwork for its publications. For Babi, the story is about Leman, a kind and innocent kid, but who is actually a child born out of wedlock. As a result, he was called various derogatory nicknames, including babi. The book described Leman’s journey towards forgiveness, searching for his identity, and falling in love with someone who did not mind the circumstances of his birth. “The white background represents the main character, who has a pure heart. But it was stained with the words in black. The book is about Leman’s character trying to clean away the nickname, hence the washed-out effect,” explained Aisamuddin. “At the end of the story, there is a second meaning of why it is called “Babi”. The cover design is an idea from the designer, but it needs to be justified. Kena baca dulu. Jangan kutuk demi kutuk (need to read the story first, and not criticize just for the sake of it).” Lejen Press allows their authors and designers the creative freedom rarely granted in mainstream publication. “The things we do will attract criticism from society,” he said. “But the thing is, have they read the book? Don’t judge a book by its cover. This is just a way for us to express our art.”

In September 2018, Kuala Lumpur was named the World Book Capital for the year 2020 by UNESCO3. What does Aisamuddin think of this, and what does it mean for the book industry? “I was really surprised,” he replied. “Because Malaysia is not a reading country, and we are not even on track to claim that we are a reading country. But since we are already awarded the title, we need to have the effort from the government, publishers, and other boards to create momentum for the reading culture.” Notable major cities that were previously World Book Capitals include Madrid, Spain (2001), New Delhi, India (2003), Amsterdam, the Netherlands (2008), Buenos Aires, Argentina (2011), Bangkok, Thailand (2013), Incheon, South Korea (2015), and most recently, Athens, Greece (2018). “If you look at previous countries,” Aisamuddin added, “they fully deserve the title. They read when taking the train, and at public locations, they have a book with them. So it was quite a surprise that we got this.”

Reports have discovered that Malaysians are actually among the top spenders on books in the world, but they are not necessarily the most well read4. Is that something that has gone right or wrong? Aisamuddin believes that it is a good thing. “The first step in encouraging people to read – the hardest – is to convince people to spend,” he said. “At least, our first step, we have succeeded in convincing people to spend on books. We can’t control or set when they start to read. Sometimes some books will just lie around the house, but if the time is right, people will start reading them.”

Moving forward, Aisamuddin hopes to continue Lejen Press’ work in publication and continue bringing in new talents and authors. At the same time, he would also like to balance what they are doing on their digital side and continue engaging with customers online. “More or less like a hybrid publication house that combines the digital and physical,” he chimed.

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One of the best ways to learn about a new country is to read books by local authors. From the Lejen Press collection, Aisamuddin recommends books by A.B. Hashim – “Five Thieving bastards”, “Timid”, and “Angus, himself”, all in English.

I AM LEJEN Shop is located at No.12-1, Jalan SS15/8B, SS15 Subang Jaya, 47500 Selangor. Their online store is https://lejen.my/

 

1. Chen, M.Y. (2015) Malaysians Seek Escape in Pulp Fiction as Government’s Grip Tightens, The New York Times, 30 May 2015. Source

2. Azzman Abdul Jamal & Nisa Azaman (2019) More than 200 Foodpanda riders protest over new payment scheme, New Straits Times, 30 September 2019. Source

3. UNESCO names KL World Book Capital (2018), The Star Online, 21 September 2018. Source

4. Hassandarvish, M. (2019) Malaysians among the world’s top spenders on books, but not the most read, Malay Mail, 30 April 2019. Source