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Doing the Write Thing: Arif Rafhan

Doing the Write Thing: Arif Rafhan

Arif Rafhan is a Malaysian comic artist, pre-production visualiser, mural artist, and educator. Needless to say, his resume is extensive, having worked on a multitude of projects with both local and international clients such as Cartoon Network and Sony Animation Pictures. Since 2018, he's worked with the cartoonist, Lat, as an inker for several projects. 

Reality Bitchslap was inspired by his travels with his group of friends from college. The sights they encountered during their trip shocked and drastically changed their mindset, so much so that Arif decided to record his experiences in a graphic novel.

It was first published in Malay in Malaysia as Pelempang Realiti. Later, it was picked up by Epigram Books for an international audience. Although it was originally written in English, Arif still had to rework some of the text as some of the details needed an explanation "for relevance purposes". And now, the fruit of his labour is finally available over here.

We spoke to Arif about Reality Bitchslap, and how he hopes it may change readers' perceptions about the world as well.

What is Reality Bitchslap about?
This book is a love letter to my friends from college. Our trip together around Southeast Asia was so profound to us; it shaped us and moulded our perspectives toward our fellow Southeast Asians that made me think of documenting our experiences in a comic one day. About 15 years later, I managed to do it. When we were in college, we were idealists, naive, young and stupid. We thought we learned everything from books and the Internet. I was an IT graduate and I saw the birth of the Internet. The excitement of "information at your fingertips" was so new that I almost forgot it was nothing compared to the face-to-face value we experienced along the trip. It was a turning point for me, my thoughts, my perspectives and mindset and this book is all about that.

What was the inspiration behind this book? What made you want to document the events that happened in this graphic novel?
I love road movies. I love stories that started with a person turning into a better person at the end of the movie. That journey is so compelling that I wanted to make a similar story and looking back, our trips to these countries are the perfect story to tell. I also like the idea of addressing heavy issues using comedy and light humour. I must reiterate that 99 per cent of the story in this book is legit and I am simply documenting it based on facts, with a little narrative modification. However, the people, the reactions and the emotions in the book are real and honest. Reality Bitchslap is me being naked emotionally at that time of age.

What was the most memorable incident or lesson you took away from your road trip? 
The child prostitutes. I was aware of the issue when I went there, but seeing it with my own eyes made my stomach churn, and I felt sick seconds after I witnessed it. I feel sorry for them and tried to understand the whole situation; and yet I haven't fully fathomed the whole thing. To me, it was about the future—the future of these poor young kids and it was destroyed by these sick tourists with money. Even looking back after all these years, having kids of my own, I still feel sick in the stomach thinking about it. 

What can readers take away from this book?
Everybody hustles. Our experiences at the brothel, the keroncong practice place, the tuk-tuk and few other places made me realise that people are hustling just to survive. It's not for fame or financial glory. They need it for a pack of rice. I have since made an effort to shed every inch of my prejudice and judgement towards anyone after this trip as I learnt that human beings' basic desire is to survive. It was a humbling experience and a big reality bitchslap to my face: a young graduate who was about to explore the world, so to speak, and who realised that not all people are born equal and we've got to understand that the environment, upbringing and socio-economy made them do what they do—even if it looks negative from our perspectives.

Would you go on another epic road trip with your boys again? If so, where would you go and when?
We did! We are still friends today. We travel together sometimes—though not the whole F4 set—and this time we go with our families. We love experiencing foreign worlds and this time we would like to share it with our kids: make them learn how other people eat, play and live. Of course, these trips are PG-12, but the objectives are still the same: to experience other cultures and livelihood. One of our friends' fathers did ask us the same question: "Why don't you go for a guys trip like the old days and make a sequel?".
We simply answered: "We are done with what we wanted to do in our younger days. Now we want to do it with our kids."
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