Building Meaning With Words: Architect And Author

Land Transport Authority architect Isa Kamari tells why his pursuit of writing is intertwined with his profession.
Building Meaning With Words

The long ride on bus 67 every morning to work is a routine that Isa Kamari never tires of – and it’s not just because he works at the Land Transport Authority (LTA).

What he sees on his daily commute is often inspiration for his creative writing: “I take this time to observe people on public transport and understand human behaviour.”

Isa, 55, is the author of award-winning Malay novels, short stories, poems and plays, many of which have been translated into multiple languages.

Much of his writing draws from his childhood experience and identity as a Singaporean Malay and Muslim. His novel 1819 looks at the founding of modern Singapore through a Malay perspective, while Rawa shines a light on the displaced Orang Seletar and A Song of the Wind evokes the kampong nostalgia of growing up in fast-developing Singapore.

This year, the winner of the prestigious Southeast Asian Write Award and the Singapore Cultural Medallion wrote his first book in English, Tweet, which he hopes will be published by early 2016.

How does he achieve all that? When Isa was in his first public sector job at the Housing & Development Board, in the 1980s, the chief architect then had told him: “To create art, you need to create with focus.” Isa took the advice to heart, working late into the night on his art.

Today he leads a team of designers in the LTA’s Architecture Division, overseeing the design of MRT stations and commuter amenities. His varied pursuits might paint him as a modern-day Renaissance man, but Isa says writing and building are not so different.

“Both architecture and writing delve into the realm of meaning,” says Isa. “We try to project meaning [in what we build]… An MRT station must read as an MRT station.”

In his search for meaning when writing, he looks to history as well as the possibilities of the future. One of his more experimental works, Intercession, explores the crossroads of science and religion. Another novel, The Tower, has the narrator, an architect, reflecting on alienation in modern life as he climbs 100 storeys up his latest skyscraper.

And in both his passion and profession, Isa strives for aesthetics and structure. “In building there ought to be some art,” he says, “and in writing there must be underlying ideas to support the work, even though it might not be apparent.”

Learn more about Isa Kamari’s works on Goodreads.

    Nov 9, 2015
    Siti Maziah Masramli
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