He talks about the divided nature of the Malaysian literary community:
The obvious problem is with the very existence of anything that we can recognise as Malaysian literature. Obviously, there is a body of Malay literature, especially that promoted by the Dewan Pustaka dan Bahasa. All the Chinese newspapers give plenty of space for aspiring writers to develop their talents. I am sure the Indian community also have some literary activity. But do we have a Malaysian literature - for all Malaysians?He points to a lack of a readership for the local product, rather than a lack of local talent, as being at the heart of the problem. He also mentions Chinese novelists who have gone on to find more fertile ground in Taiwan (and I would so love to know more about them).
Can we blame the political climate for the lack of literature? No, he says:
Something is wanting in our national soul. ... It is all too easy to point to the politics of race and the ensuing repressive climate that stifles the freedom needed for artistic creativity. There is some thing in that. Ours is a much politicised society. When Eric Hobsbawm’s “official nationalism” has invaded and permeated all the public space of the individual at all social and cultural levels, the creative impulse that must spring forth from the nadir of individuality must die a slow death.He gives the example of writers in the Soviet Union during the communist era - the regime was oppressive, but great literature flourished underground. We have nothing like that level of oppression, and produce much less.
On the other hand though, contradictions and adversities are the raw materials of which great novels and poems are made. The ridiculous contradictions of racial unease were given a humorous treatment by Anthony Burgess in his Malayan Trilogy, even if he was also not impervious to racial stereotyping. From the perspective of Edward Said’s post-colonial critique, Burgess was also guilty of telling his story from the colonizer’s point of view. But at least, you can credit Burgess for giving a more human face to the Malayan ‘natives’ than Conrad or Maugham had ever done.
Beside, literature seeks to uncover the truth. Or at least literary endeavour tries to unravel the enigmatic nature of truth. Sometimes, artists must address themselves to the power-that-be. Often, the voices that tell that important story are more powerful than the power that tries to silence them.
I think that what he says next really hits the mark:
At the end of the day, I think our failure in producing any Malaysian literary classics can be attributed to our failure at building one nation out of a culturally and linguistically diverse population.The solution?:
It would be very hard for any aspiring writer to escape from the walls of his ethnic prison. The object of his concern is largely limited to his life-experience within his ethnic enclave. His theme, narrative, and the tonality of his treatment are almost bound to be ethnic biased.
Even if the writer wants to step out of his ethnic circle, and venture into the Malaysian form of life that crosses ethnic boundaries, he would be deterred by a whole host of racial and religious sensitivities. There is little room for experimentation. Even when no mistake has been committed, the poor writer may have to confront an angry mob at his front gate demanding his head as punishment for his perceived or imagined insults against certain race or religion.
Of course, there is the problem of language.
I also know of Chinese writers who are trying to write in Bahasa Malaysia. BM is a beautiful language in the right hand, but it has been deadened by politico-bureaucratic usage. The national language is so politicised that people of non-Malay descent will harbour great resistance in using this language for purposes other than official communication .... In any case, literary works that are not produced in BM will be sidelined, because that is the social reality in Malaysia.
Given the splintered nature of our Malaysian linguistic universe, perhaps English is the only suitable medium for the birth of a great Malaysian literature.And he suggests Malaysiakini hold a writing contest, not at all a bad idea.
But I would say that perhaps one of the most pressing needs is for dialogue. There are, as Sim says, different writing communities who do not know what other writers are doing, and surely the time has come to address that?
(Many thanks to Terri for pointing out this article to me!)