Sunday, January 07, 2007

Symbiotic Academics

I am a bit sniffy the academic study of literature. Partly it's because it sometimes seems to me a parasitic pursuit, academics chomping on what writers have written and regurgitating a version of it (often in jargon which obscurifies) for their own professional advancement. But the relationship between academic and writer can, and should be symbiotic, offering a forum for the very necessary public debate of issues that affect the writing community as a whole, and lending the discussion an authoritative weight.

At yesterday's seminar at the International Islamic University there was a lot of very necessary talking going on and I apologise in advance for this is a very potted, gappy version which doesn't do justice to the depth of discussion and research. (I really do look forward to reading the papers in full.)

Academic and poet Wong Phui Nam gave a paper called Towards a National Literature, where he argued against the assumption (by some parties) that a national literature was literature written solely in the national language (Bahasa Melayu) and pointed out that no other nation in the world had found it necessary to legislate in this way. Literature can't be a created insignia of state, he said, because if you attempt to constrain it, you will be dealing with a dead object.

Historian Professor Khoo Kay Khim of Universiti Malaya gave a fascinating potted history of the country from the sultanates and Straits Settlements to nationhood, and I learned much along the way. Think you know it all? The transfer of power on 31st August 1957 was between which two parties? (And if the Brits are in the equation, you're wrong!)

Professor Dr Kamarrudin contrasted "orientalist" and "post-colonial" readings of Hikayat Hang Tuah.

Playwright Kee Thuan Chye talked about The Need to Adress Ethnic Relations in Malaysian Literature. It was his own frustration with the political landscape in Malaysia, of course, which provided the fuel for his plays.

He said that there is a real need to talk about what's happening in the country, but Malaysians shy away from controversty and are scared of offending sensitivies, so much doesn't get discussed. In particular, ethnic relations are far from sound and there is a need to improve respect among the races. He also made the point that in this country jingoism is often mistaken for patriotism, and the real patriots are in fact those those who do something for the country.

It was sad that Dr. Chong Fah Hing of UPM was unable to attend as I would have been very interested to have heard his paper about the state of Malaysian Chinese literature - something I know absolutely nothing about. Dr. Faridah told me that she had also lined up a speaker to talk about Malaysian Literature in Tamil - but that also fell through. Next time, perhaps?

The afternoon sessions focused rather more on gender issues.

Prof. Dr Ruzy Suliza Hashim (UKM) talked about memoirs and pointed out that while the genre is in a healthy state overseas, memoirs written by Malay women are few and far between. She referred to two memoirs, one by Khatijah Sidek, the first head of the women’s wing of UMNO to demand equal rights for its members, and the other by Shamsiar Fakeh, Former Head of Communist Party Malaysia's Women's Wing. (Dr. Ruzy said that this one was banned in Malaysia - must check this out).

But where were the voices of ordinary Malaysian women, she asked?

Dr. Noritah Omar (UPM) gave a paper entitled Framing gender and Ethnicity within the Construct of 'Bangsar Malaysia' and 'National Islamic Identity' in Malaysian Literature, and then the afternoon ended with Dr. Teh Chee Seng (UTAR) talking about the need for more women's writing in Malaysia as "there is not much to read".

I think that looking at women's writing is very necessary, particularly since in this part of the world their voices are heard less frequently than men's. Dr. Chee's paper raised some very interesting questions. But I don't agree with that academia can in any sense dictate what women should write about. (He said he wanted to see more fiction addressing "women and islam, victimisation of women, and female sexuality" as evidence that women were "evolving" in their writing.)

But if the academics want to read Malaysian women's writing, they really should be looking in the blogosphere where, for many women, anonymity allows a newfound freedom of expression.

And as for the question about why women don't write more about certain issues ... well, let's just say there's a lot of harrassment of (particularly Muslim) women who might be considered in some sense to have stepped out of line in what they write. (Enough said for the moment - might take this as my own research topic later on!) Women have to feel safe before they can write openly and honestly.

Animah came along and although it was her first academic literary event, enjoyed it ans asked good questions. It was also fun meeting Dr. Faridah's students whom I will be seeing again next week as I'm running a creative writing workshop for them!

Afterthought:

Yeah, okay. Let's add some academics to the fishtank. They can help to keep it clean.

Related Posts

On the literary stuff:

Dreamer Idiot Tackles Post-Colonialism (31/1/06)

On Kee Thuan Chye:

Kee Principles (17/9/05)
What You Already Know (13/9/06)
Origins and Originals (19/9/06)
Swordfish for Surrey (4/11/06)

On Wong Phui Nam

English as Colonial Leftover (20/8/06)

13 comments:

Subashini said...

oh my god... i knew i would miss this, and i did! i had the date vaguely at the back of my mind...

do you if most of these papers are yet to published, sharon? and if so, in which academic journal(s)?

thanks for the comments, though... it would be wonderful to be able to read the papers in full at some point.

bibliobibuli said...

yes, i believe the papers will be collected and published. will let you know more later. (faridah i'm sure will drop by here and let us know how things are going). i also need to read the full papers - there was a lot to take it and time-constraints meant that in several cases the presentation was just a taster for the full paper.

as faridah said yesterday - we need more of this kind of dialogue. i personally think we could also do it in a less formal way.

i am getting an academic itch ...

Eliza said...

Dear Sharon, you would be a lovely professor of literature, am sure! thank you for highlighting what happened at the forum - I welcome the fact that a few academics realise that not a lot of Malay women write about their lives and experiences, even in fiction. There are a lot of stories of Indian and Chinese women, but not (yet) on or by Malaysian women. I agree that academics shouldn't dictate what women should write - and I would welcome fresh narratives on the Muslim female, the Malaysian Muslim female, who is not "victim" but who faces her own challenges, nevertheless.

bibliobibuli said...

and you are one of the ones to write 'em dear eliza - you are articulate and aware ... you're poised on the brink, i can feel it

Madcap Machinist said...

ack! typo in bold!

:-P~

bibliobibuli said...

well spotted mr. proofreader

a free packet of fish food

Yvonne Foong said...

Eliza: I'd send my kids to Sharon for english and literature classes if she takes them when time comes. :p

Sharon: Yes, women should write more beyond the blogosphere, but that's not the problem here as you aptly put it. Women need to feel secure in writing. Free writing and creative expression should be socially acceptable, even the people have to understand that opinions are what they are, and should not be quick to take things personally. That's why many prefer to keep things to themselves.

Rob Spence said...

Sharon - loved "obscurifies" - a new word to me.

As an academic, I take the point about the wilful obscurity. I always quote the Nobel prize winning scientist Peter Medawar to my students, many of whom seem to think that obscurity is de rigeur in an academic essay:“No-one who has something original or important to say will willingly run the risk of being misunderstood: people who write obscurely are either unskilled in writing or up to mischief.”

dreamer idiot said...

Glad that you had a good time at the conference. :)

One or two papers sounds fishily recycled from the one I attended 2 years ago.

Greenbottle said...

"Playwright Kee Thuan Chye talked about The Need to Adress Ethnic Relations in Malaysian Literature. It was his own frustration with the political landscape in Malaysia, of course, which provided the fuel for his plays.

He said that there is a real need to talk about what's happening in the country, but Malaysians shy away from controversty and are scared of offending sensitivies, so much doesn't get discussed. In particular, ethnic relations are far from sound and there is a need to improve respect among the races. He also made the point that in this country jingoism is often mistaken for patriotism, and the real patriots are in fact those those who do something for the country."

....very well said!

i personally think that the cancer that afflicts malaysia is this unfortunate existence and rule by parties based on race. I think parties such as umno, mca, mic and all the rest that are solely based on racial line should be BANNED (or at least should not be supported by good thinking and morally upright people). this is the single most important factor which prevent proper integration and mutual respect and trust among races.

"national" literature will never be achieved in a climate of mistrust on the one hand & jingoism on the other and as a result there will always be this unconcious need to always be politically correct which will stifle truly good literature....

bibliobibuli said...

yvonne - i run away from teaching kids now yvonne ... had a lot of it in a previous life ...

and yes you're right about many women keeping things to thmeselves

DI - interesting! we must compare notes

rob - yes, "obscures" is too mild a term, isn't it? you're absolutely right in your advice to students. if you can't be clear, get off the podium!! and speakers should practice public speaking skills too - how to make a paper interesting and deliver it in an entertaining manner. the B.Ed course i taught had a public speaking component and i think it was extremely useful training ... and that many academics here could benefit from something like that.

greenbottle - well said.

Chet said...

Believe it or not, I used to be a teaching assistant as a grad student in UC San Diego. For one of the classes - Intro to Film Studies - I actually marked assignments and students would come and argue why I should give them a better grade. They'd go "Actually, what I meant to say here ... " and I'd cut them short and say "Well, why didn't you say so in the assignment? If you have to explain after the assignment, that means you didn't do a good job and weren't clear at all in the first place."

bibliobibuli said...

quite right, chet