Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Expat Malaysian Author

Silverfish's Raman sends his congrats to Tan Twan Eng but (typically!) uses his post to hit other local writers on the head.The question he raises though is interesting and very relevant:
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.

... 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.
So what's your take on this?

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!


Poppadumdum said...

Thought-provoking and well-constructed posting! Thanks! It puts in writing so many issues facing many Malaysians, not only writers, but professionals like doctors, lawyers, nurses and teachers - does Malaysia appreciate the talent pool it has, or are the politics and politicians driving them away?

Poppadumdum said...

With a name like that, I thought it's probably just another Amy Tan!

bibliobibuli said...

*LOL* ... yeah, i remember someone else saying that!!

Anonymous said...

Tan Twan Eng did not take any creative writing classes, yet he writes rather well. He did all his studying in Malaysia before moving to South Africa to write his first novel.

bibliobibuli said...

very true. but he does read an awful lot which in the end is how most authors learn their craft.

but tash aw did the UEA course and several others have done courses as well and found them extremely useful.

bibliobibuli said...

oh but (to correct one fact) he did his masters in law in cape town

John Ling said...

I agree with what you said about the lack of freedom.

Back in 2005, I had a Q&A at MPH Midvalley. Unfortunately, I was hassled by a Malay gentleman who kept asking questions such as, "Why don't you write about May 13th?" and "Do you think the Malaysian government is practicing historical revisionism?"

I got the sense that he was trying to goad me into attacking the government. So I took the middle ground and gave neutral answers.

Later, after the Q&A, he approached me and flashed me his badge. He was apparently an officer of the Special Branch. He told me that so long as I didn't venture into writing/talking about sensitive topics, they wouldn't bother me.

It was a surreal experience. At times I wonder whether it really happened at all, or it was simply a waking nightmare.

In any case, this is just the kind of thing that can traumatize you enough not to write and publish in Malaysia.

Anonymous said...

To be an excellent writer, one must read as much as possible. Taking a creative writing course will further improve one's writing. One must also write constantly and keep on editing one's work.

John Ling said...

Oh, I neglected to mention. It still baffles me why I was picked on, because none of my stories were even set in Malaysia.

But then again, this guy could have just been some whacko pretending to be a Special Branch officer. I'm undecided about that.

bibliobibuli said...

He was apparently an officer of the Special Branch. He told me that so long as I didn't venture into writing/talking about sensitive topics, they wouldn't bother me.

that's unbelievable - even by malaysian standards!!!!!

John Ling said...

Exactly. That's why I feel like a loony even for recounting it. Suddenly, I risk becoming a character in a Kafka novel.

Anonymous said...

There's always the fear that doing something like the UEA Creative Writing course, while great for establishing contacts, will make one's writing become 'academicised' and become a case of all style and no story.

bibliobibuli said...

pretty unfounded i'd say after enjoying novels by UEA graduates and others on creative writing courses v. much. a good course doesn't prescribe writing style, but gives writers space to write and the opportunity to workshop their writing in a supportive environment.

John Ling said...

I agree. If anything, they become better storytellers.

John Ling said...

On a related note, we shouldn't get too upset if we have more successful Malaysians living abroad than living locally.

I can think of a similar situation in New Zealand. You have local filmmakers such as Martin Campbell (Casino Royale), Roger Donaldson (The Recruit), and Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) who have outgrown national confines.

Call it globalisation.

Anonymous said...

Interesting comments and issues. I really enjoyed reading them. I don't consider myself an 'expat' but rather as someone who is living in two countries and being enriched by the experience and the people I've met. Being away from KL makes me appreciate the good things there more. And, yes, Sharon, I was living in KL until April, when I left to concentrate on writing. KL has so many wonderful distractions - great bookshops, for example - that I'd find it difficult to be disciplined :-) But aiyo, I could do with a big bowl of lemak laksa now!!! :-))))

Tan Twan Eng

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msiagirl said...

Hi Sharon, great post! I really enjoyed reading it. Being away gives you a bit of distance and perspective and longing. Wasn't it James Joyce who said it was being in exile from his beloved city of Dublin which made him able to dive into it and write Ulysses... I loved what you said about love being a great kidnapper of Malaysians, big grin!

bibliobibuli said...

and there are also overseas writers who wind up in malaysia ... because of love too! should we call it a heart drain???

agree with you about distance. also the whole living between cultures thing. so many authors in one sense or another feel rootless.

twan - if i could magic you a big bowl of laksa lemak, i would! i know that this is what will lure you back! even if a malaysian's brain and/or heart are elsewhere, the stomach always remains malaysian!!

animah said...

Mr Eng, the laksa in Penarth is the best. After Johor that is.

Anonymous said...

You know me so well, Sharon! :-)
Twan Eng

YTSL said...

Out of curiosity: Are there (successful) Malaysian bumiputera authors out there? While I am a bit loath to bring up the ethnic equation/factor into things, it's interesting how quite a few Malaysian Chinese individuals -- e.g., Jimmy Choo and from the movie world: Tsai Min Liang, Michelle Yeoh and Lee Sinjie -- have felt obliged to pursue their careers abroad...

bibliobibuli said...

it's a very very relevant question and one i almost blogged. what i can say is that there is some excellent fiction bubbling under from young malay writers including some who have done or are doing creative writing MA's. these guys are good enough i think to take on the world. but i won't name names as i will make my friends go all shy shy.

bibliobibuli said...

and of course here we're talking about writers in english. many malay authors write in BM

Anonymous said...

There are popular Malay writers but they're largely under the radar because they malas nak angkat bakul sendiri (are not very interested in self-promotion) -- Rehman Rashid is one. And the other guy, I forget his name, the one that wrote about that Datuk..

Anonymous said...

Kam Raslan, that's it :)

a nom de plume said...

I'm a third culture kid type hidden immigrant (spent some time in the states, grew up thinking I was American for a while) and I hope to be a writer someday, published hopefully.

bibliobibuli said...

hope so too, nom de plume. ;-D

i think a lot of authors are in-betweenies, because they can see the cultures from outside. and because they often have to work harder to make sense of themselves.

pomonahall said...

Living in Malaysia does tend to stifle one's creativity, as does the unrelenting daily grind! (Though to be fair, the adverse effects of the daily grind on creativity can be observed in any country.) I wrote a little while I was in Malaysia, but my job kept me so busy I was running myself completely ragged almost all the time (yes, including weekends).

Now I live in another country, earning twice what I did (when converted). I work a lot less, and I have fewer responsibilities, which means more time to live and write.

Sadly (or perhaps not sadly), I write fantasy and science fiction. I wonder what the big Malaysian names in fantasy and SF are?