Azwan Ismail: Not a Revolutionary in the Abstract

“I’m always interested in the idea of the sacred and profane. I’m a very spiritual and sexual person. Liberating my spirituality, by being irreligious, and my sexuality, by coming out, empowered me more.”

Azwan Ismail is an engineer, poet and editor in Kuala Lumpur. He came to my attention last year when his It Gets Better video appeared on YouTube. Immediately after uploading it, Azwan found himself in the center of a media firestorm that resulted in death threats. Because of his tremendous courage, named him a Gay Rights Hero of 2010. He edited Orang Macam Kita (People Like Us), the first-ever Malay-language LGBT anthology (Matahari Books, 2010).

After pursuing him for several months, I finally received and accepted his poem “Keluhan Ghairah” (Lamentation of Lust) for inclusion in Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion & Spirituality (Sibling Rivalry Press). And it took a few more months of convincing to receive his accompanying video (# 30) and final video on

Lamentation of Lust (Keluhan Ghairah) from Kevin Simmonds on Vimeo.

Azwan continues spearheading groundbreaking work in Malaysia for LGBT people and this brief interview marks his most in-depth interview in English.

How did it feel to be stalked by me for this anthology and for the video?

It’s a bit of pain in the ass, of course. But no pain, no orgasm! Besides, I’m an editor too. So I’ve been in your situation before. I know how it feels.

You were just doing your job. It shows how professional you are (and less professional some contributors are!). But you know, some writers/poets live and work in different situations. I can always trust people who are dedicated to their job, including editors and publishers who chase their writers. It’s the same in my life as an engineer. Some of my superiors and clients are tough guys too.

There’s a whip in your Collective Brightness poem “Keluhan Ghairah” (Lamentation of Lust). Why?

I’m always interested in the idea of the sacred and profane. I’m a very spiritual and sexual person. Liberating my spirituality, by being irreligious, and my sexuality, by coming out, empowered me more. A whip is like a metaphor of an ideology or a belief that has been forced on me, in the S&M sense. From the painful experience comes delight. The delight being the discovery of other sets of ideology and belief that truly explained who I really am.

Actually, whipping is kind of hardcore for me. I prefer just a bit of spanking. (Smile)

In “Lamentation of Lust” you mention angels. Are there people in this world who look at how we — LGBTIQ — love, and envy us?

I’m referring to the angels in heaven as portrayed in the religious scriptures by conservative believers. These are the holier-than-thou angels, those who consider themselves, and others who go to heaven, the “preferred ones” who deserve the “heavenly reward.”

I believe there are straight people in this world who are jealous of us. “Us” means the empowered and proud LGBTs. But if we are weak and feel inferior to them, we will envy them instead.

Did you expect such a response from your It Gets Better video?

At first, I kind of expected there would be some people reacting negatively to the video. However, I didn’t expect the response would be so extreme, including the video going viral and the negative coverage in the local media, especially the mainstream Malay newspapers. Knowing my picture was in the news, as bad news, made me so uncomfortable. named you a Gay Rights Hero of 2010. What did and does that mean to you?

It caught me by surprise. I feel so appreciated. I thought I did very little to receive such an honour. But I know what I did was a huge step and a brave initiative. That’s why I did it in the first place. I knew there would be no other person representing Malay Muslims, especially speaking in Malay, who would volunteer to do the video. Knowing that Malay Muslims comprise the majority of LGBT people in Malaysia, I felt I had to do it, especially since I’d just co-edited and published Orang Macam Kita (People Like Us), the first Malay LGBT anthology. People had started to associate me with the LGBT movement.

Being called a hero is such a huge deal. It carries a lot of responsibilities. I just continue with what I started. Doing LGBT-related activism works. Now I have bigger focus: the Malay Muslim LGBTs. I also want to do more writing.

What’s it like for queer young people in Malaysia?

Many of them think being gay is only a phase in their life. They regard homosexuality as a sin, something that they should leave behind one day. Conservative cultural upbringing and religious teachings are to be blamed.

But there are also those who feel empowered with their sexuality, especially with positive portrayals of LGBTs in the media. They are exposed to various materials on LGBTs including those on the Internet. Knowledge is really the key to empowerment.

Share two to three works from your recent anthology that you’d most like a Western audience to read.

This year, one of my poems has been published in a local anthology called Readings from Readings: New Malaysian Writing. I used to read this previously unpublished poem at local literary events, including the series ‘Readings’ which is usually held at a gallery in Kuala Lumpur. The title of the Malay poem is “Misteri Zakar.” My poet friend, Shahril Nizam, has translated it into English, calling it “The Dick Mystery.” Only the Malay version made it into the book, though. The poem is actually about the self-discovery journey of my sexuality. However, the English version sounds cheekier than the Malay one. It’s more like a cruising adventure! It’s an audience favourite. They love both versions.

Dick Mystery

Azwan Ismail

(trans. by Shahril Nizam)

Late one evening
My willy went missing
A walkout — it staged
For not getting laid

I fainted from fright
Throughout the whole night
Aggrieved by the prick
Of losing my dick

But by daybreak
My dick came back
Exhausted and spent
Bedraggled and bent

I questioned my willy
Then It answered freely
That it fell head first into a dark hole
And drowned in ecstasy

I pried a little more
To even out the score:
Which anonymous cranny
Or was it a fanny?

There was no reply
From my wily willy
It fell asleep quick
A satisfied dick

(Published in Readings from Readings: New Malaysian Anthology, Edited by Bernice Chauly & Sharon Bakar, 2010)

The short story I wrote in Orang Macam Kita (People Like Us) is about coming-of-age. It’s my first story that has ever been published. It’s a very honest and, in some parts, very sexual story. It’s called “Tiada Sesalan” (No Regret).

Do you believe in a higher power?

Yes. Because there are times in my life that I feel so low, small and powerless, I think there must be something bigger and more powerful out there. People just call it with different names. Like God, Allah, Jesus, whatever.

How does it feel to be included in Collective Brightness?

Knowing it’s a huge project, with so many poets involved, I really feel excited. I don’t think I have seen something like it before. Can’t wait to have my copy.

If I walked the streets in Kuala Lumpur with my partner, what should I expect the general reaction to be?

As long as you and your partner are not doing anything affectionate like holding hands, hugging, or kissing, it is still fine. You can even dress over the top, including cross-dressing. You just need to be at the right places though. It’s a modern and urban society but still largely conservative. Some people might appear nice in front of you but they can act differently behind your back.

Things might be worse in small towns and rural areas outside of Kuala Lumpur.

When I visit Kuala Lumpur, can I stay with you?

I don’t think my apartment would be comfortable for you. I really want to say yes, but at the moment my apartment is a mess with books and magazines lying around everywhere. I have to organise my place first. It’s not close to the city centre, too. But don’t worry, I will try to entertain you the best that I can. The LGBT, literary and art scene here is lively. You should come!

Any plans to visit the US?

I really don’t know. Travelling to the US is not cheap, but I’m dying to visit [San Francisco]. I’ve never been. It’s a Mecca of LGBT culture! I really want to visit City Lights too. I worship Allen Ginsberg.