We sit down with the author of “Harris bin Potter and the Stoned Philosopher” to discuss his Harry Potter parody and chosen career path as a writer.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you would’ve probably chanced upon a Harry Potter parody that’s circulating the World Wide Web faster and more rapidly than a forest fire.
Titled Harris bin Potter and the Stoned Philosopher, it was written by 30-year-old Suffian Hakim who is as quirky as he is brilliant. Here, the former screenwriter for popular TV show The Noose talks about his first book and aspirations to be a multifaceted writer.
When did you first discover your knack and love for storytelling?
The first time I felt validated as a writer was in primary four; my school submitted my story for a national essay competition. The topic was “Dream”, and everyone else wrote about what they wanted to be when they grow up, be it an astronaut, a police officer or a doctor.
Since young, my compositions were always about something out of the ordinary, so I wrote about this dream where I got chased off a cliff before falling into another dream. I just thought that story was way more fun to write. It was quite a validating moment, especially for a 10-year-old.
I also wrote a skit for a school competition during my time at St. Joseph’s Institution. I told a story about how the planets were arguing and didn’t pay any attention to the sun, so it switched itself off and everything went into disarray. When that skit won first place, I realised just how much I loved writing and wanted to make something out of it.
You were a screenwriter for “The Noose”. How did you get your lucky break in Singapore’s media industry?
After I failed my ‘A’ Levels – there were just too many distractions in Junior College, I guess – I went to Ngee Ann Polytechnic (NP) to study Mass Comm.
That led to me writing scripts for Random Island. It was a sketch comedy series starring Mike Kasem, Fakkah Fuzz, Matilda De Silva, Chua EnLai and other known names from The Noose. Working on that production was a great experience, even if it was short-lived.
You’ve exercised many different writing muscles as a media professional. Why is that important to you?
I dabble in different writing formats because I don’t want to be a one-trick pony. I also love the art of the written word, be it for TV, social media, advertising or a lifestyle magazine.
Looking at the bigger picture, I actually have a list of things I want to achieve in this lifetime. I want to write my very first tv show (which I’ve done), write my first book (which I’ve also done) and write my first major film.
I want to be an established writer, but I have to make sure that I also pay the bills while chasing the dream. That’s why I’m very proactive in pursuing every writing project that I can seize. In life, you can’t be what you want to be without shamelessly asking for opportunities.
Considering your many undertakings, how do you stay on track and true to the creative soul of a storyteller?
I diverted from the writing path when I went to Saint Andrew’s Junior College. Instead of studying literature as originally planned, I succumbed to peer pressure and studied maths, chemistry and economics. While I did enjoy my electives, I ended up failing my ‘A’ Levels.
It was only during National Service (NS) that I reconnected with writing. It was like an old friend whom I’ve not met for a long time; we naturally became close again. I finally got back to writing stories that I wanted to tell; stories that were not lip service for someone else.
The first story I wrote was called “Attack of the Giant Killer Underwear”. It was about a batch of dirty underwear that got exposed to toxic radiation and grew to an enormous size. They gained sentience and travelled to Singapore, wreaking havoc along the way.
It was a fantastic exercise of my imagination, and I wrote it when I was supposed to be watching out for possible enemy movement during guard duty in Taiwan. It became the first story I ever published on my blog before I even wrote Harris bin Potter.
How did you conceive the idea to do a Harry Potter parody?
I actually wrote the first chapter of Harris bin Potter during a media management lecture at poly. I had a Harry Potter book hidden between my lecture notes, and I started writing purely out of boredom.
When I published it on my blog, it blew up. My friends shared it with their friends, and they in turn shared it with other friends. People were telling me that they loved it, and I just thought that was insane. The feedback I got really motivated me to write the subsequent chapters.
You finished writing “Harris bin Potter” through a crowdfunding project. Guide us through that fascinating process.
It all started with an Australian man named Guy Vincent. He used to work for a publishing house in Singapore before creating an online crowdfunding platform called Publishizer. When a mutual friend introduced us in 2013, he asked me to be part of his first book project – I thought why not.
The book began as a collection of Harry Potter jokes, but I soon realised that it had to go deeper than satire. Barry Trotter and the Unnecessary Sequel already existed, so I needed to write something that was different from the other parodies that were out there.
I ended up doing two rewrites before I was finally happy. The crowdfunding campaign was a success because people could preview and keep track of my writing progress. We ended up doing our first print run in December 2015.
The humour in the book is heavily laced with local Malay slangs. Were you worried that it might not have mainstream appeal?
When I first wrote it, I was writing for a small audience. Nobody did Malay parodies, and I was fascinated by how popular western culture does not sit well with many Malay traditions and practices. I thought that the weird dichotomy between the two was interesting to explore.
But to answer your question – yes, it was a definite concern. I didn’t want to limit my audience; that’s why I’ve included footnotes to explain the various colloquial words and concepts. When Guy, this ang moh dude, said that he loved it and found it hilarious, I felt very reassured.
There’s great demand for the book in 2017. Why is there a sudden interest in it now, three years after its first print run?
The spike came in February, but I have no way of pinpointing the exact reason for this sudden surge in interest, even after looking at my blog’s analytics.
Suddenly, popular local sites like Mothership.sg were picking it up. Random people I didn’t even know were reaching out to me. I’m not sure who is responsible for making my blog post viral, but if you’re reading this by any chance, I just want to say thank you!
How have you taken advantage of this sudden surge in interest?
I did a second print run, and Anthony Koh of Booktique said I should get them ready for Buy SingLit, which is one of the biggest book fairs promoting local literature. So I did, and I think part of me is still recovering from that mad scramble to get the books ready in time for that.
I only managed to get the printed copies the night before the fair, and I couldn’t have done it without the help of my friend, agent and manager Shelby; she gets an honourable mention at this juncture.
What are your plans for the future?
Next up is bringing the book to Malaysia. I don’t want to go in blind, so my cousins who live there are linking me up with potential local publishers. Where Singapore is concerned, I plan to make the book as widely available as possible, now that I’ve spread enough awareness.
I’m also in the process of writing my second book. It will be called “The Minorities” because I’ve wanted to explore the semantics of the term beyond just the racial or ethnic definition we’ve come to associate with the word. I’ll be working on it these next few months, so it should be out end of the year.
Your next book sounds relatively serious. Are you worried it might alienate readers who only identify you as a comedic writer?
I do enjoy humour, but I also enjoy the deeper, greyer side of existence too. People might assume this shift in tone is my attempt at being a more serious writer, but how people perceive me is entirely up to them; I just know that I have many stories I want to tell.
This is why Eric Cantona – former captain of Manchester United – is my role model. He is the Renaissance man. After his football career ended, he coached, went into theatre, starred in movies and became an ambassador for brands. He went above and beyond his talents and forged new ones.
His philosophy was that we as human beings exist in a spectrum. You cannot be defined by that one thing, the same way I cannot be defined as only one type of writer. There are times to play beautiful football, and there are times to throw a kungfu kick.
Any advice for aspiring writers out there?
I recently caught up with an old friend from poly. We talked about how he used to do really stupid things like going to school pantsless, in just a shirt and boxers and leather shoes, and he’d just sing to people randomly. He’s a radio DJ now, and has taken fledgling steps towards becoming a singer.
He was always accused of being an attention seeker, and to be honest, anyone who’s looking to start a career in anything that requires a form of expression – be it as an actor or writer or musician – will be accused of the same thing.
Don’t let them get you down. As long as you know that you’re experimenting with different forms of expressions to see if something works for you – and with that information, create something better than what you may already have – keep at it.
Ultimately, all these silly things that you do will evolve into entertainment, magic and stories that will move people. So don’t be afraid and continue to express yourself the way you want to.
Interview by: Arman Shah