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