Doing the Write Thing: Suffian Hakim
Ten years ago, while the world was wrapped in the hubbub that was Harry Potter, Suffian Hakim had a thought: what if Harry Potter was Malay and living in Singapore? What would his story be like?
That query ended up being a piece of fan fiction that Suffian uploaded online. The response was phenomenal, with more than 50,000 likes and shares on social media. ("I don't even have 50,000 friends on Facebook!" says Suffian.) He decided to self-publish his book, which sold out in no time.
Now, he's gone back and revisited that story for this totally new edition. "Call it the 'author's cut'," he said. It features new material, with several of the plots updated and also includes illustrations from Muhammad Izdi. Here, Suffian shares his thoughts about magic, mayhem and Milo Dinosaur.
You first started working on Harris bin Potter and the Stoned Philosopher back in 2009. What inspired you to write this parody in the first place?
Writing Harris bin Potter coincided with a sort of awakening for me: that there is a certain social, if not socioeconomic, imposition on me, which is a result of the colour of my skin and the religion and race or ethnicity that the statisticians have classified me. I didn't want to politicise my experience because I didn't have the sophistication of language or thought back then to do so in a coherent, constructive manner. So I turned to what I was more familiar with—humour.
I wanted to take existing popular culture—these stories that shaped our minds, that affected the way we talked and projected ourselves—and turn it on its head. I had conversations with my friends that go something like "what if so-and-so was Malay?" and then a maniacal fountain of jokes and situational comedy would spring from that. And these early conversations became proto-material for my stories.
Why did you decide to spoof Harry Potter in particular? Why not Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and so on?
Oh my god I spoofed ALL of them. Back in school I wrote Little Red Riding Tudung, Johor Jones, Mat Of The Rings, and then more recently I wrote Crazy Poor Malays and Three Shades of Brown.
But these were just writing exercises. I think I chose to spoof Harry Potter for my first book because there was a lot more comedy to mine from the disparity between the tropes found in Harry Potter and the worldview I developed from being a Malay-Muslim who grew up studying in a Catholic school in Singapore. And ultimately, the themes I explore in Harris bin Potter—inequality, the abuse of power, Ron being a dingus—are themes prevalent in Harry Potter. It'd be weird to talk about racial inequality while Johor Jones is avoiding booby traps as he tries to find The Lost Goreng Pisang of Sultan Jamal.
Looking back on your initial manuscript for Harris bin Potter, how has your writing style changed after 10 years?
By leaps and bounds! For me, writing has always been a form of play. I'm having fun when I'm creating these worlds and situations and characters, I'm having fun when I'm setting up jokes, I'm having fun when I'm composing events that push a character towards change or doom. Play is different when you're a child and it's different when you're 21 and it's different when you're 33.
I think I'm bouncing off the walls a lot less—both in real life and in my writing. I'm also much more interested in character work than in punch lines. But I'm still playing, I'm still having fun, just in a way that's more aligned with my current age and worldview.
The original version of Harris bin Potter had a huge following online and on social media when it first came out. Now, this new version has illustrations—which weren't in the original—and additional material. But what is the biggest “upgrade” that your fans and, of course, new readers, can look forward to?
It's a major improvement from the last one. I think when I self-published it, I had to juggle everything—marketing, logistics, edits—on top of writing the story. I'm so glad I have Epigram to support me with this one—especially my editor Eldes. It's a less convoluted story, the jokes flow better, the narrative flows better and it's really something I'm much happier with.
What are some things readers can hope to take away from this book?
At the very least, one good accidental-snort of a laugh. The book has multiple layers. It exists as a parody, as a study of the intersection between Malay and Western culture in Singapore, and as a sort of wonderwall for my own experiences as an Other, as a minority, as a Malay-Muslim. Most importantly, I hope they take away how much of an amazing illustrator Izdi is.