Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Uma's Obsession

One after my own heart, Umapagan Ampikaipakan admits to a shameless book addiction in today's New Straits Times. Uma, you may remember from some time back is on the trail of the Great Malaysian Novel and believes he may be a step closer :
Recently, I found such joy in Preeta Samarasan’s Evening is the Whole Day. A novel I had hastily purchased, at Heathrow Airport, while rushing to my departure gate. I knew nothing about it except that it had a pretty cover — orange and yellow and green and turquoise — I could not help but want it. It was only later, once I had settled comfortably into my seat, safely buckled in, when I realised that it was, in fact, written by a Malaysian.

Now I don’t know about you, but each time I pick up something by a Malaysian author, I am both excited and apprehensive. I hope for the best but expect the worst. Because when you ’ve had your heart broken as many a time as I have, you eventually learn to be a little cautious.

A caution that proved to be entirely unnecessary when it came to Samarasan’s effort. I finished it in one sitting.

Her rich and beautiful prose had me enthralled for most of the 13 hours that it took for me to get home.
But what, he asks, about the great Malaysian novelist?
I was looking at the biographies of some of our authors who have recently received wide and critical acclaim only to discover that they live in France, Glasgow, London and Cape Town. I began to wonder why they seemed to be everywhere else. To be anywhere but here.

Maybe it’s because what they do is so under-appreciated over here.

Maybe it’s because they had to leave the suffocating surroundings of their youth to be able to produce something so deep and unclouded.

Because for the grass to be greener on this side, you have to be on that side.

Then again, maybe it’s because we feel more Malaysian when we are abroad. We feel special. We feel unique. We feel one of a kind. So much so, that we gain more of ourselves when we are overseas than we ever do when we are at home.

Maybe it’s true what Theroux says, that “enlightenment will always involve the poetry of departures”.
I gave this matter some thought too, a while back.


glenda larke said...

I think I said this elsewhere on this blog too...I feel it has a lot to do with the constraints of culture and society here. You can't be a "great" novelist until you can be subjective about your characters and your setting - even if you are not.

For example, a pious Muslim writer can still write a great novel, but they have to be objective enough to recognise that other people have valid reasons (to them) for, let's say, being an apostate, or skipping prayers, or similar. An evil person doesn't think of themselves as evil, even if his name is Hitler. You can still love your country or religion or your people, but you have to recognise that parts of it/them absolutely stink.

A writer has to be able to shrug off the constraints of his culture and religion enough to recognise this, and to see deal with it in their writing.

This kind of objectivity (even as you may be subjective about your themes) is a lot easier to achieve overseas than here. And you get much more support and encouragement there. Here Ma Chik Ina would have hysterics, or Uncle Yong would ban you from his house, or the religious authorities will investigate your piety quotient, or Uncle Samy would call you a slut/sodomite/crazy.

Which is why I write fantasy, not the great non-Malaysian-wife-of-local novel. I don't want to be run out of the country/upset the in-laws I happen to love dearly/end up with demonstrations at my door. It was a conscious decision, a trade off. Do I regret it? No, not really. I have recognition in my field and I still have friends... :-)

Sashi said...

Just wanted to say - I too bought Preeta Samarasan's book on a whim (need to stock up on my income tax deductibles, ya know) and loved it. Very Malaysiany style hidden in layers of beautiful English imagery.

Amir said...

Ah, but living overseas won't enable you to write, publish and distribute this book, would it now? I really want it but can't afford a 'gift' of RM999.99 :(