HOWZABOUT A NOVEL OF CONTEMPORARY TIMES, eh? the exotic past is getting really tiring.screamed Viz in the comments to a post a couple of days ago with a request that I actually put this question to the next Malaysian author I meet.
Next thing I know, I have this eloquent response from The Gift of Rain author Tan Twan Eng:
Hello there,Very many thanks, Twan, for taking the time.
I read with interest on Sharon’s blog once again the call for a contemporary Malaysian novel, and I sometimes puzzle over what one should/can write in such a novel. What follows is merely my biased and uninformed and factually unsupported musings and nothing more substantial. And this IS a tongue-in-cheek and light-hearted piece to raise questions for myself and interested persons.
The biggest English language hit in South Africa this year is Spud,
by John van de Ruit. It’s sold about 60,000 copies and more, I was told, which is a huge number for any first book in any country. The novel is something like the diaries of less-neurotic Adrian Mole, young boy Spud’s comic boarding school adventures in a thinly-disguised Michaelhouse (a privileged boarding school, ex alumni included Wilbur Smith). You can easily guess which bodily part the nickname refers to! There's even a sequel out now. Spud has been picked up by Penguin UK for publication later this year.
This made me wonder why countries like Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and India can have novels set in contemporary and near-comtemporary times and do well in the world market. Many of Andre Brink's and J.M. Coetzee's books are set in contemporary South Africa and still can do well (although of course they do go on and on about the historical crimes of apartheid). Yet there are also a large number of South African writers whose appeal seems limited to the local market. And these novels often also have the thread of introspection i.e looking back to the past, running through them. With the success of Spud, though, it appears that readers are getting tired of political topics and want something entertaining.
I’m certain modern Malaysia is interesting to travellers and bargain-hunters and foodies and scuba divers and MM2H applicants and businessmen. But is it interesting and entertaining enough to readers around the world? Does the writing of a viable-buyable (to steal from Arundhati Roy) modern Malaysian novel first have to be paved by the existence of large numbers of novels set in the country’s past? Get the punters hooked on the old stories, lay the groundwork so they understand the historical-social contexts before reeling them in with the new? Why is UK literary agent Toby Eady (that’s Mr. Xin Ran and Mr. I–signed-Jung-Chang to you) fishing for new talent in China and not Malaysia? Do readers around the world want novels about contemporary Chinese Sex & The City tales because they understand the context from which these tales are emerging? That these Shopaholic in Shanghai stories are of relatively worldwide interest precisely because of the awareness of China’s past? Awareness created over the decades by novels about its long and troubled past? Is it because they reveal a society in rapid transition, a transition which is of interest precisely because so many novels written and read had been set in its past and so there is a link between the two?
Perhaps writing and selling the modern Malaysian novel is difficult because we’ve been lucky enough to have a relatively strife-free recent history. Conflict, we all know, makes for good reading (and, admittedly, easy writing). Look at the recent novels: The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, Half of A Yellow Sun. Is the interest in a country’s conflicted present powered by the desire to comprehend its past, by the glamour of nostalgia? I think readers – well, me in particular anyway - want to understand how a particular modern society came to be as it is today, and what better and more entertaining way than through such novels?
I sometimes compare our situation to our neighbouring countries and their literary scene, and the one country I can think of which has writers coming out with contemporary English-language novels with a ready world market is Thailand.
Thailand – and specifically Bangkok - seems able to come out with whole genre of its own, but almost all the books are written by farangs. And they seem limited to crime fiction and the expats’ experiences with go-go bar girls (yes, I AM generalising here!)... but Thailand has been in the consciousness of people around the world for a long time. And it IS a fascinating country with a personality all its own.
Perhaps one can write about social issues and politics? Say we take the Lina Joy case and write a modern novel about it? Title it "No More Joy" perhaps? Market it like those books about those oh-woe-is-me privileged Gulf Princesses (The Gulf Princess Diaries???) and books like "Not Without My Children".
And now back to you now, Viz and others.