Monday, August 22, 2005

Write In English? Don't be so Disloyal!

Does the fact that writers choose to write in English show a basic disloyalty to the national language? And is this anyway a tired old debate with little relevance?

I'm sitting on the sidelines and letting others kick up dust, since I'm a Mat Salleh and a post-colonial hangover anyway. (And besides, how many more problems does the local writing scene need? I mean really, why add guilt to the heaps of practical problems writers face getting their words out there?)

All of this of course springs from responses on my entry the other day about Nisah Harun's article about recognition for local writers. I'm really glad that Rem ("The Naked Climatologist!" - how sexy is that?) and Clarissa Lee dropped by to add eloquent and thoughtful responses. Please do go and read.

I dug up a couple more interesting takes on the same issue - both from the archives of Kakiseni. The first is from a 2001 interview with local playwright Kee Thuan Chye:
Kakiseni: What problems do you have as a writer of fictive or creative work? Is there mental and intellectual space to thrive as a creative writer within the Malaysian 'space'?

Kee: I'd say the biggest problem would be you're not encouraged in this country if you write in English. Now, it's better. There's more acceptance. (But) I have sometimes felt I was not doing the right thing still continuing to write in English - in what was considered the colonialist language.

I began writing during the time when there was (a sense of) 'nationalistic fervour', and I felt that I was not patriotic enough. You felt guilty that you were not writing in the national language. As a child who grew up in English, with Malay being taught as a language, people of my generation didn't take it (Bahasa) seriously enough. (However) it would've been foolhardy to try to write in Malay. I would never have cut it if I had written in Malay.

National literature was considered to be Malay literature. Other literatures were considered sectional, or 'other' literature. As a person who writes in English, I felt very marginalised - not accepted, not recognised. And even till this day, writing in English is still not fully recognised. That should not be the case. The person writing it is still Malaysian. The concerns are still Malaysian concerns. The ethos could be very Malaysian too.

The second is an article by Zedeck Siew about his impressions of the KL Litfest last year where Identity was one of the main themes:
Zedeck concludes (good for him!) by saying:
To National Laureate Professor Muhammad Haji Salleh: I'm going to try for a part in your truly Malaysian Canon. And I'm going to write in English.

The trouble with the debate about which language to write in is that you can continue arguing yourself round in circles while nothing much changes. And what really is the dilemma? We need excellent writing in both English and Malay. And all writers, no matter what language they choose, should be cheering each other on.


John Ling said...

Well said!

To invoke an old cliche: A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.

In the same way, great writing by Malaysians, regardless of language, will always shine. =)

The Visitor said...

erm, my script is in English, and I'm getting it translated into Chinese. the film will eventually be in either Mandarin or Cantonese.

i am not sure how this is relevant to the discussion here.

i think i better get to sleep early tonite.

Anna said...

Anna test

porty said...

Well, there's a Malaysian work for you. Written in English by a Malay man, and translated into Chinese :)

Oh, and BTW Anna, I think your test succeeded :)

Anna l'Italiana said...

Language has reached a political stance, in Malaysia. It is also a political question in Belgium: French or Dutch? Eheh, English comes in .. between to solve the dilemma (in Malaysia among Belgians of both parties)! If you use words to convey your thoughts or feelings, you must use the language you feel most comfortable with(in). Beware of your mind taking over your heart. Analizing and rationalizing are two different ways of bringing forward your message. Be honest, be honest, be honest - unless you are confused - if you are not honest you thrive by manipulation...

annyss said...

Being a Malaysian, you can't afford to be an island by only chosing Malay Language. Malaysians should be profieient in English as well as their mother tongue. As we approach towards globalisation, we can't deny the importance of both language.

Personally, I don't believe in any form of dichotomy, be it Malay writers vs. English writers or fiction writers vs. non-fiction writers.

I believe that once you are a writer, that's it you are a writer. Period. And equal respect should be given to the writers.

I wonder if by writing this note, I'm becoming more disloyal towards my own people :)

-Nisah Haron-
p/s : Sharon, thank you for posting this issue, also appreciate the overwhelming response.

bibliobibuli said...

Thanks too Nisah. You've filled me in on a great deal and highlighted some very relevant issues.

Archive Of Learning said...

Hi again all, especially to Nisah and Sharon,

Perhaps I should qualify my earlier response to say that I am speaking from the point of view of a person who strives to write in more than one language, to be comfortable in more than one language, and to appropriate these languages into my textual (verbal?) world. (:

As of now, I have only succeeded in English, and recently again (after a hiatus), in Malay (though I have a long way to go for the former, and an even longer way to go for the latter).

I couldn't find Dewan Sastera at some magazine shops in Alamanda Mall, Putrajaya, which I went to during lunch. Hopefully some other bookshops in PJ/KL still have the august issue. Am interested to see what they have to say in a "Merdeka" issue. Failing all that, I suppose DBP should be selling past issues?


annyss said...

Clarissa and others who wish to have a copy of Dewan Sastera,

You might want to try Kedai Buku Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka at Jalan Dewan Bahasa (opposite MAA building - near the intersection of Jalan Loke Yew and Jalan Hang Tuah). The bookshop is also open on weekends.

If you still can't get it, send a cheque of RM7 (postage inclusive) together with your complete name and address also phone number to :

350, Kg. Jiboi Baru, Ampangan, 70400 Seremban, Negeri Sembilan.

For other Malay Literature books, kindly visit my webstore at

Thank you.

-Nisah Haron-
p/s : Sorry, Sharon for using your comment box for a little promotion. Hehehehe :)

bibliobibuli said...

Boleh lah, Nisah. I also saw copies in the mamak newsagents in Lucky garden.

Rem said...

Well put. The problem with some Malaysians (or should I say most?): they are obsessively trying to redefine 'patriotism' more than what it should be. Yes, we (read as 'Malaysian') must respect BM as our official/national language. But that doesn't mean we have to undermine the need for other languages. Overestimating the significance of BM and underestimating the importance of English: are equally dangerous. Remember, "Bahasa Jiwa Bangsa" - and, it's not "Bahasa Melayu Jiwa Bangsa".

BM, English and any other languages can perfectly co-exist. It's not that you HAVE TO CHOOSE only one. But yes, linguistic-talent is a natural gift. As far as 'the art of writing' is concerned, I believe that we can't choose what language we are/will be best at (It's just like singing. Yes, we can choose to learn singing - technically. But being able to sing pleasantly - we can't help this!). Everyone will eventually find his/her own most comfortable niche: so be it. Why couldn't we respect people for that?

Quoting: "I'm really glad that Rem ("The Naked Climatologist!" - how sexy is that?....)"

I would be blushing for the next couple of weeks!