Tuesday, January 16, 2007

A Malaysian Literature?

Former DAP MP Sim Kwang Yang writes about all that ails local literature in his column An Examined Life in Malaysiakini (subscription needed to read the whole piece).

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.

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.
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.

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.

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.
The solution?:
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!)


Sufian said...

>>English is the only suitable medium for the birth of a great Malaysian literature.

Uhmmm, no.

Ted Mahsun said...

Sufian's right. English has too much political baggage. For Malaysian literature, the suitable medium I'd suggest would be something along the lines of Esperanto or Klingon.

Greenbottle said...

i too disagree that english should be the medium for 'malaysian' lit. malaysia must find its own 'soul' and the obvious language to express this for malaysians is malay.

the unfortunate thing now is that anything written these days in this language is so much confounded with malay jingoism and narrow malay political interests that its damn difficult to find anything that does not have any racial overtones in it.

as the article rightly said, malay can be a very beautiful language in the right hands but sadly you hardly find any writings in malay these days that are not parochial inn nature...

as i've said before, unless and until the cancer of racial based parties (mca, mic , umno in particular) is get rid off we'll never get proper integration and we can forget about a truly 'malaysian lit' ....

Sufian said...

If one says a language 'can be beautiful', make an effort to use it. Don't just bitch about it being hijacked by people.

This is interesting:

"literary works that are not produced in BM will be sidelined, because that is the social reality in Malaysia"


"perhaps English is the only suitable medium for the birth of a great Malaysian literature."


animah said...

We need to acknowledge, accept and celebrate our diversity. Writers should not be forced to write in a particular language - whether English or Malay, but should write in whatever language and style they are comfortable - even if its rojak. Do we put rules on the medium artists use? No. So why should we dicate to writers?

If a Malaysian writer is most comfortable writing in his/her mother tongue - it could be Tamil -then write in that language. The next question is how to make that piece of work accessible to non Tamil speakers/readers. Well, translate. We should be producing a pool of translators from all langauges in Malaysia into English/Malay.

We can find so many translated works of Garcia Marquez, Satre,Goethe - but what of our own local works in Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, or other languages. Do we not want to share this among ourselves and the rest of the world?

Ruhayat X said...

[begin shameful plug]

Obviously, lots of people need to buy and read Elarti magazine. AND Wilayah Kutu.

[end of shameful plug]

Lydia Teh said...

Well said, Animah. Agree with you.

animah said...

[Reference to shameful plug]
Actually Elarti (Nativity featuring Foot of Unknown Woman) is quite good actually. Actually
It is available at Silverfish and other R X approved outlets.
If you are not in Klang Valley, please contact Ruhayat X who will let you know how in his next shameless plug.

Sufian said...

Well said, Animah. Agree with you.

bibliobibuli said...

animah said everything i wanted to say too. you can't say "should" about choice of language. what is necessary is a sharing of what we write, and an acknowledgment that everyone's swimming in the same fish bowl (to continue my favourite analogy) and has bubbles of wisdom to impart to the others. am so happy to see in elarti and in the readings folks from both english and malay writing backgrounds coming together. but yes, we don't know what is happening in other language communities.

a malaysian literature to me would result in fiction that featured characters from not just a single race with walk on parts for writers of other races. without (and this is the tough part) racial stereotyping. a literature which addressed the issues here that need to be addressed and aimed principally at a malaysian readership. (it's an ideal, 'cos as Sim points out, where got readership here???)

can it happen when real integration still seems a dream? perhaps that makes writing more important!

just my bubbles.

fei said...

i think to be able to know what happens to other writing community is important. For me,a chinese educated person, I don't know much about malay and english writing scene in Malaysia, i think for the malay and tamil or english educated person are quite the same.

we have to admit that we have a language barrier here and due to the bias and stereotype we had on other community, it's hard for the writer to write something 'malaysian'. And what is 'something malaysian'?

But I think some efforts had been done, a chinese lecturer from UKM often translates work of Malay writers into chinese which published in chinese daily newspaper's lit section, I think this is one of the way for us to get to know what writers from other community writes.

After all, we are malaysian, we do have some common experiences, but how do we get ppl from different race or writer who write with different language to share their work, this is where the translation should come in. In fact, the Dewan bahasa dan Pustaka has a translation dept, but it isn't function very well in translating the work of local writer into other language.

Ruhayat X said...

"sadly you hardly find any writings in malay these days that are not parochial inn nature..."

"Writers should not be forced to write in a particular language - whether English or Malay, but should write in whatever language and style they are comfortable - even if its rojak."

"can it happen when real integration still seems a dream?"

Hello. Yoo-hoo! I'm here, right under your noses. Can you see me?

Ahem. As I was saying. Elarti and Wilayah Kutu. Now, if only someone would go out and buy the damn things by the boatload...

To those who have yet to have a copy grace their bookshelves, yes I can confirm: it's a whole lot more fun than navel-gazing. Even IF said navel is pierced.

Come on, isn't it time we moved the dialogue to something actually CONCRETE rather than just merely constructive?

That's right: I take my glove off and slap you across your collective cheeks.

Ruhayat X said...

And re: readership (or assumed lack thereof), as Khalid Jaafar said in (ahem) my interview with him*: that hundreds of thousands of Malay romance novels are flying off the shelves would indicate that the readers are indeed there. Maybe what's really missing are the rest of the textual ecosystem: quality writers, quality publishers, savvy marketeers, publishers who aren't afraid to create markets, etc.

The trouble is this: Assuming that the readers are out there, what we need then are a horde of writers writing. But for them to write there needs to be a flank of publishers willing to publish with as little as possible censorship. But for publishers to take such a gamble, the distribution channel needs to be efficient and wide enough for them to ensure that they can make money off their ventures. And for the distributors to be convinced to take on these lofty projects, the reading market needs to be there...

See the problem? We can go on with this loop ad infinium, and lo and behold, 20 years from now nothing will have changed. Not an inch. My now 1-year old niece will probably still be bitching about the exact same things when she's 21 (if she reads).

No good "Malaysian" books to read? Well, come out with your own then. Not enough translated books out there? Well, translate it yourself then. Not enough writers out there? Well, set up writing classes like Sharon does then. DO the parts that you can DO, and it will all be alright. Trust me, self-empowerment is better than depending on the Malay Mail hotline everytime our drains back up.

Okay. I'll go take my pills now.

*Read it all in Elarti magazine!

Ruhayat X said...

And one more thing...

Hehehe I got away from my minders, didn't I...

"Malaysian" literature? Who gives a crap?

Was Marquez thinking of creating Latin American literature when he wrote? Was Kundera thinking of creating Eastern European literature? Or Achebe African? Or Mahfouz Arabic? Or... you get the picture.

How terribly orientalist of us natives.

Stop thinking about creating literature, and we might do just that, in the end.

Anonymous said...

it is naive to think that just because malay romance novels are flying off the shelves, there are readers out there who would appreciate the kinds of books this forum talks about (in that i mean ones that add value to one's self/worldview). you must differentiate between why this particular group read and what they read, dont lump them together with all readers. these books are mills and boons at best. i am not a proponent of 'at least it gets them reading', this group hardly graduates to more substantial material, if they are not reading they are watching akademi fantasi, or at best sappy telenovelas. what does that say then that malaysian readers only read self improvement / get rich or melodramatic , puppy love stories? we've got some way to go still...

Sufian said...

Dear anonymous,

bitch-bitch-bitch-bitch {do a study} bitch-bitch-bitch some more.

Jesus Christ!

animah said...

Ruhayat X, Your Khalid Jaafar interview was too short. It was riveting and should have gone on for at least another 4 pages.

Ruhayat X said...

Oooh. How terribly elitist. So people who read Novel Remaja Melayu are not able to upgrade their mental skills to meet the tewwibly intewwectual demands of the "serious" books, nor do they have the desire to?

Hm. I should still be reading Hardy Boys books, in that case.

I dunno. If you ask me, I think it's attitudes like this that prevents them from venturing out in the first place.

Ruhayat X said...


maybe so but, uh, that's all he said, actually. I'm out of practice lah.

Ruhayat X said...

On another note, yes, I'd be desperately interested to feature writings translated from the Chinese and Tamil (into either English or Malay) in the next issue of Elarti.


Mail it to: projek.elarti [at] gmail dot com


The Great Swifty said...

"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."

Pretty much what I was saying at KL Writer's Circle back then.

Madcap Machinist said...

Malaysians write Malaysian in any language. Let the academics sort it out. Let the politicians talk talk talk it out. Readers are born every minute, and they should call it whatever they want.

Who will put 'it' in their hands?

bibliobibuli said...

"malaysian" literature, ruhayat? yes, we go back to what wong phui nam said the other day - about how you cannot legislate a "national" literature into existence

but i'd like to see writing by other language communities made accessible. elarti would be a great avenue for it ...

what you said about what we need ruhayat is so true. intend to pick this up in another blog post ...

Ruhayat X said...

I blame the Renaissance, as usual. With a little help from Darwinism and its handy pocket manual on how to survive in the genepool. The exaltation of the Individual and individual rights, leading to the Industrial Revolution to satisfy pent up lustful desires of newly empowered and enriched individuals, eventually creating a tremendous sense of dislocation and disorientation due to the mechanical natures of production imposed on hundreds of millions of souls, fortified by the sense of alienation erected by artificial national boundaries that freedom demands, prevents some people from thinking in a wider context and seeking out safe pockets that permit easy definition thereby enabling them to quickly "know" who they are. We all just want to feel a sense of belonging, after all.

I'm only half serious.

I say write what you feel like writing and in the language that is either comfortable or attractive to you. Let the academics and reviewers sort it out, post event. Even within the context of this forum, pocketable terms such as "Indian" (Malayalam? Singhalese? Classical? Modern? Hindu? Indo-Islamic?) or "African" (West? Central? South? Afro-Islamic? Afro-Christian?) literature, I find ridiculous and not very useful.

Here's an idea: why not just call it Literature and leave it at that?

Ruhayat X said...

I mean, unless we've been taking the Government's TDC pills, what is really so different about the Malaysian experience? Underneath the details, the themes are more or less the same as everywhere else. In fact, the thing that always strikes me about travelling to other countries is just how similar we all are.

Humanity, despite the apparent illusion of progress, really hasn't come that far in the last 4,000 years. If I hadn't taken my pills this morning, I'd even say we're moving backwards all the time.

fei said...


Can you give me your contact number or email? Maybe i can try to linked you guys with some of the chinese writers I know.
my email: shauafui@gmail.com

Ruhayat X said...

Hi Fei. Have e-mailed you.

bibliobibuli said...

mr x - there is reason in your words and poetry in the saying of them. please articlise this and elarti it for my reading pleasure.

Anonymous said...

I love literature. Period.
It's like a cat clawing hard.
Chasing a ball of yarn.
Get entangled.
That's MLIE.

So cool!

I Love Huzir Sulaiman, please write more!