While basking in the glow of vicarious glory, one cannot help but notice something: all these writers live outside the country. Why? Are Malaysians only able to get anything done when they leave the country? One can't help feeling that there are so many more successful Malaysians outside the country than inside.So what's your take on this?
... Is the lack of Malaysian writings the fault of our education system, then? Sure. Who hasn't heard of the many disturbing stories about our schools and the teachers? If it is, then how does one explain the writers mentioned above? Did they not attend the same local schools when they were here? Maybe they went overseas for their tertiary education, one might say. That could be it. But then how does that explain the 'failure' of those who come back from overseas after their education? No stimulus? No peers to push them on? It cannot be that we have no talent. The writers mentioned above were born here too.
I'd say first, the situation is nowhere near as bleak as Raman makes out. There is some very good local writing talent, much of it young, and some very interesting work being produced ... as anyone who has been to the Seksan readings recently can tell you. (I can tell you of others who have done my course, and others whom I know through the blogs.)
What is lacking is the follow-through, the getting manuscripts actually finished and in marketable form and then out to publishers. (And here Raman is right, I think.)
Perhaps there is a crisis of faith too ... one that I hope the success of our local-authors-made-good-overseas can help to the writing community here to overcome, by example, and by involvement. (Kudos to Beth Yahp who comes back and runs courses, to Tash who took the trouble to run workshops at the litfest, to all those who share their knowledge and experience via blogs, published articles, and writer gatherings.)
So why do these award winning authors live outside the country? I posted a reply on Raman's blog and will expand on it a bit here. Here are some of the factors I can identify, although for most authors it will be a combination of things, of course:
Some go for education (boarding school, tertiary education) and stay on for the better job opportunities or because there feels like home in a way that Malaysian doesn't.
Some stay overseas for personal reasons. Love is the great kidnapper of Malaysian talent. And if you choose to marry, it's almost impossible to get a job for your spouse/partner in this country, let alone one that pays well.
Some go initially because of the availability of creative writing courses overseas and find themselves more recognised and encouraged as writers there. (There are a couple at UEA at the moment and one recently finished.)
Some go because ... and this is the controversial one that will have me clapped in irons ... Malaysia - let's face it - has a wonderful knack of stifling creativity.
In an environment where freedom of expression is seriously curtailed, where books and films are banned and restricted, where politicians take offense at satire, where Malay filmmakers and authors are harangued for letting the race down, where folks of different races do not feel they have an equal stake in the future of the country, where gays and lesbians face discrimination, where Malay women writers who dare write their mind have their websites hacked and receive death threats ... is it any wonder that authors look for a place where they can create without fear of censure? You see, everything is connected. One very prominent Malay writer told me that his most prized possession is his passport, and he's ready to leave if the current political and social environment becomes anymore restrictive.
Some become authors because they are overseas! Tan Twan Eng's The Gift of Rain for example, is redolent with nostalgia for the country he was missing so badly while he was in South Africa. (Would the book have come out as well if homesickness were not factored into the mix?)
These authors of course publish overseas because the local market isn't big enough, and local publishers have so far proved ineffective at getting the work of local authors onto a world market. They also know that they will not be able to have a shot at most of the world's literary awards unless they live or publish overseas.
One reason that Malaysian authors are doing so well on the world stage now is that readers in the West are discovering a hunger for fiction from the Far-East. Some Malaysian authors resident in the US fit very nicely into the Asian-American fiction niche market (e.g. Tinling Choong, Shirley Lim).
One wonders anyway ... would these authors have got published here and if they had, what would have been the fate of their work?
Raman's wrong about one thing. Although The Gift of Rain was written in South Africa Tan Twan Eng was living and working (and writing!) here until April (around the time of the litfest) and had even gone into Raman's shop on occasion as a customer. He will be back next month and also is one of the authors representing Malaysia in Ubud. He ain't as overseas as you might think he is!
And anyway, should we be as hung up on hereness and thereness as Raman appears to be? Let's celebrate all Malaysian authors regardless of language, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, political stance, or place of abode. And see each other as part of the same encouraging writing community.
(Am very anxious to hear your thoughts, especially if you are one of the overseas published! Do drop Raman a comment too.)
Deepika has posted a very good piece on her blog about this issue, along with excepts from her Channel News Asia interview with Tan Twan Eng:
Just when you think the congratulatory messages should be pouring in, the insider-outsider debate is back. ... At the risk of detracting from this post, I'll add that this isn't something that's unique to Malaysian writing, take a look at Indian writing and you can count the outsiders who have made it big globally. Authors who have moved outside and decided to write about their home reality will always tell you about the pining for home, the sound of rain, the heat, the dust, the sights, smells, sounds - all of which turn into a heightened sense of reality when you are away from home.Later she quotes Twan's thoughts on being away from Malaysia when he wrote the book:
I think (being in Penang) wouldn’t have helped. I felt the emotions were stronger while I was away. The sort of longing for something which is familiar when you are sitting out there. Outside its almost a desert landscape and there you are longing for a tropical rainstorm. In Penang, it’s almost like part of your being. You are in the landscape, life has a pattern, going to the beach, walking, eating. It’s the absence that drove the book – absence in a good way.As I said, authors often write because they are away!