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Independent Bookstores Are Not Dead In Malaysia

We talked to Abdul Nazir Harith Fadzilah, the founder of Tintabudi, about what his bookstore means in the Kuala Lumpur literary scene.
Abdullah Nazir Harith Fadzillah. All photos by the author

Print isn’t dead. We all know that. And we owe it to, among others, independent bookshops who relentlessly keep it alive.

Meet Abdul Nazir Harith Fadzilah, founder and co-partner of Tintabudi, an independent bookshop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Tintabudi, a combination of the words meaning "ink" and "kindness" in English, is a part of a creative ecosystem in Zhongshan Building. Their aim is to provide space for printed books, underrated writers, and of course, for people to meet and talk about their favorite books.


We spoke with Nazir, who studied engineering at RMIT University in Melbourne, about the ideas behind Tintabudi and what he thought of the Malay literary scene.

VICE Indonesia: Hi Nazir! When did you start Tintabudi?
Abdul Nazir Harith Fadzillah: We started back in April 2016. There’s me, Rohan Yung as co-partner, and Amir Kamil, also co-partner. We started in Ipoh [a city north of Kuala Lumpur]—we rented a house for the bookshop and did bed and breakfast on the side. But running a business in Ipoh wasn’t sustainable, since it’s such a small town. Long story short, we ran into Rohan Yung at an exhibition who told us about the Zhongshan Building at Kampung Attap. We moved here in August last year.

Congrats for moving here. The place looks neat! It reminds me of Pasar Santa in Jakarta, but this place has better air ventilation for sure.
[Laughs]. I’ve never been to Pasar Santa but from what I heard, yeah, in a way we’re pretty much the same. In this building you can find many different things, from a design studio, archive studio, a library, record store, et cetera. Each community brings different crowds, too, so the diversity really helps us sustain. And sometimes the communities here collaborate, too.

At the moment, in collaboration with Malaysian Design Archives, we digitize old book covers. MD is doing a research on design and book covers, while we’re simply trying to record book covers that are rare and out of print. Sometimes when we get lucky, we get a second copy—then we can sell it. Among the titles are Indonesian’s very own Chairil’s books.


What was the idea behind Tintabudi?
I think in Malaysia, especially KL, there are only few independent bookshops and spaces. You know, the small businesses that are doing good things for the community. When we came up with Tintabudi, we’re hoping to provide alternative titles for readers. If you go to a chain bookshop, you sure can find the best-selling books, but it will be hard for you to get books by new underrated writers. So we thought that we’d like to offer more options.

How do you curate the books here in Tintabudi?
Seventy percent of the books are secondhand here. In Malaysia, especially KL, it’s hard to get secondhand books in good quality. Anyway, our focus is literature, philosophy, and arts. And so far the reception is good. We met a lot of people who said they love what we’re doing. I think the fact that there aren’t enough independent bookshops [in Malaysia], especially ones with the same focus as ours, actually pushes people to look for our stuff, to go to our readings.

How’s the Malay literary scene like?
Well, most people that I know, especially in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor, consume English literature. Our Malay literature is read mostly by people who live in smaller cities. I think that’s why it’s hard for our local publishers to sustain.

Anyway, just like anywhere else, here you can pretty much spot the difference between the older generation of writers and the younger generation. What I mean by the younger generation are writers who write after the '98 reformation, for example Wam Azriq, Ridhwan Saidi, Johan Radzi, Wani Ardy, Ashikin M, et cetera, when independent movement started flourishing.


The older generation, such as Usman Awang, A Samad Said, Shannon Ahmad, Salmi Manja, et cetera, comes from rural areas, they would go to university but they still carry with them that struggle as a working class. Meanwhile the younger generation of writers are brought up into urban settings. Some of the works from this generation are good, but others I find tend to focus too much on personal struggle. The peculiar thing about them is that they’re said to be apolitical.

What constitutes as 'apolitical' in Malay literature?
That’s the tricky part. Every act of writing is political, right. But the difference is, I think, lies in the fact that the older generation has that political objectivity, that you can see their awareness on class in their works. If they support socialism, for example, or the working class, it will be apparent in their works.

It’s not that the younger generation doesn’t have a class awareness, it’s just not apparent, at least not theme-wise. They write mostly about life. But they’re more liberated in their use of language, in their forms. Also, they don’t shy away from mixing languages. They would use all bahasa pasar, English, and Malay; they’re very rich in their naturalization of the English language. Meanwhile, the older generation tend to stick with the standard Malay language. So they’re [the younger generation] not that apolitical after all. I guess they just use different tools to convey their politics.

I see. Thank you, Nazir!