Yasmin How You Know?


Almost 4 years after Yasmin Ahmad’s untimely departure, Yasmin How You Know? uncovers the legacy of the storyteller behind films such as Sepet and Gubra and distills it into the form of a book. This is no easy task, but the editors have succeeded in translating and preserving Yasmin’s sensibility within this book. As “a collection of her pesan-pesan (messages)”, the book presents a collage of images and words that enact forms of remembering.

The first contains blog entries, personal poems and photographs previously unpublished, and transcripts of speeches and commercials. Alongside that, we have loved one’s impressions of Yasmin:  her words of wisdom and their observations of her life. These two forms of material merge to foreground the way Yasmin will be remembered: a storyteller with a passion for justice and equality, one whose silence spoke louder than her words.

The book’s opening image of Yasmin – eyes closed, lips pouting,  upturned nose a picture of defiance against a world governed by rules and restrictions – is also a response to the second half of the title, “How you know?”, which holds in tension two opposing and complementary perspectives. On the one hand, it evokes the awe that her wisdom inspired. On the other, its status as a question reinforces the fact that the source of Yasmin’s “knowledge” often came by following the lead of her heart and instincts instead of the mind and intellect, and hence thwarts our attempts to place it within the realms of the knowable.

However, it soon becomes clear that Yasmin’s mantra does not consist merely of living life through the swing of one’s emotions, but of countering malice with love, overcoming bitterness with joy, diffusing pride with gentleness and humility. Forgiving your critics when they are intent on tearing you down. Kissing a selfish woman who refuses to give up her space for others. As she puts it, “Why waste your energy on vengeance when you get so much back with love?” (49)

Much has been made of the coverless form of the book, which was intentionally designed to look as if the body of the book itself was torn from its cover. Besides embodying Yasmin’s notion of perfection as being made up of many imperfections put together, the appearance of the book hints at the editors’ certainty that the legacy of Yasmin’s life will exceed the frame of this book.

Many of the quotes in the book further reveal her mastery of a language that, coupled with her incisive sense of humour that render even the absurd wholly logical, seem to bend and yield to her will. Yasmin was also well-known for pricking holes through the veneer of those who took themselves and their ideas too seriously, particularly academics. For instance, she once suggested that Nestlé name their hoisin seafood sauce the “Saddam Hoisin sauce” (66).

Credit also goes to the editors of Yasmin How You Know? for arranging the textual and visual material in this text in such a thoughtful way that it succeeds in reflecting the carefulness with which she weaved and handled those two mediums in her work. The juxtaposition of images and stories in the text often undercut and supplement each other, giving us a panoramic vision of the way Yasmin stamped her mark on everything.

Finally, in demonstration of her astute vision, the book leaves us with the script of a TV commercial on 1Malaysia that Yasmin wrote just before her death. It is ironic that it took an advertising expert to teach us that the most effective form of advertising emerges when it is detached from the aggressive strategies that mark the branding and marketing exercise that the 1Malaysia campaign has become, and instead, cuts right to the heart of the issue.

The book ends on a perfect note with a tribute by Dr Jemilah Mahmood, founder of Mercy Malaysia, and a close confidante of Yasmin’s, giving weight to the light-hearted tone that pulsed through the rest of the book. In it, she reveals the extent of Yasmin’s vulnerability, often hidden and deepened at the same time by the inner strength that it took to live out a sustained vision of compassion and hope. She wrote:

At the time of her death, many people mourned her passing. But I cried when I read the tributes.

Because many did not know of the tears she shed. What hurt her most was the insinuation that she had “given up” her religion and had a skewed view of Islam just because she loved dogs, and was brave enough to portray different faiths in her films. (192)

If the rest of the book made me feel as if I still had access to Yasmin’s voice, that the stories of Yasmin managed to momentarily unwrite her death, then it is this final story that drives home the finality of her death, making our loss in the wake of her absence even more pronounced.

Yasmin How You Know? Leo Burnett-Arc Malaysia, 2012.

Rebecca Lim hails from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and is currently a postgraduate student in literature at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. She is working on a project that explores the power of storytelling to redeem communities ruined by different forms of social violence.

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