Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Malaysian Novel Time Warp

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,

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".
Very many thanks, Twan, for taking the time.

And now back to you now, Viz and others.


Glenda Larke said...

I am going to say something that will probably get an enraged response, and lots of examples of exceptions...!

I think one of the problems many Malaysian writers have is that they don't have the maturity - or perhaps the courage - to be totally honest, to write a novel which looks at modern Malaysian as it is, rather than the way we would like it to be, or the way we want ourselves to be viewed by outsiders. e.g. Can a Muslim be really, really objective about their religion? And if they can't, can they write a deeply perceptive novel about, let's say, a character who is a bad Muslim or a non-Muslim? Can we view our characters as people, and not representatives of their race or religion? (I am oversimplifying here for lack of space).

And there's another difficulty. I have in my 40 years in this country been constantly amazed about how little one race knows about the minutae of the lives and perceptions of people of other races. The truth is that if you put a person of another major race down in another major racial group, then the dynamic changes because it is a minefield out there. People talk differently. And often the outside person misses clues of behaviour, language, stance...I have seen it happen again and again with jaw-dropping astonishment.

I guess I am fortunate because I came in from outside and everything was new, so I took nothing for granted. I am not one of the major races, and I mix a lot - so I see both sides and people are often more open in front of me. I do have a major disadvantage, though, because I only speak Malay and English, so I am sure I miss a lot too.

So a Malaysian writer has many disadvantages to overcome. English may not be their first language. And if they are going to write the Great Malaysian Novel that takes the world by storm, they have to know their compatriots, be more objective in their perceptions of themselves and others, of their religion and race, even if the book itself is going to be emotionally charged. They have to have courage, because they could well be vilified by their own kind.

I admire anyone who tries. And one day soon, I believe there will indeed be a great Malaysian novel and a Malaysian writer - who lives here - with a totally contemporary novel vying for the Man-Booker.

Go for it.

bibliobibuli said...

your observation about changing dynamics is very interesting ... we certainly see a different malaysia as racial outsiders who move between groups, glenda.

agree with you ... don't think a contemporary novel could be written by someone who doesn't have that overview ...

and the courage of course

i am hopeful though ...

wonder if the braver could be writers are the guys who are busy making films or writing for theatre?

Greenbottle said...

mere mention of "lina joy" makes my mind ...goes CLICK...(you won't be pleased of what i think of this woman and her issues) but i'll refrain from being my obnoxious self for today...i've misbehaved enough here lately .

quite agree with glanda clarke's comment about malaysian writers aren't mature enough...it's an unavoidable consequence of our failure to be properly integrated. ..there are great writings in malay, and probably in tamil or chinese too but none that capture the whole mix which everybody/malaysians can be proud of...not in these languages or in english...

Anonymous said...

Well said, Glenda!

KayKay said...

An interesting response from Tan Twan Eng. As a voracious devourer of crime fiction, I think a contemporary Malaysian novel set to the tropes of this genre is long over due. Like any major metropolis, KL has its' own dark and dystopian underworld of sleaze, crime and depravity. Transexuals,mat rempits, massage parlours, triads, crooked businessmen,shady political dealings; we have 'em all. It's a rich and fertile area to be mined(Xeus' Dark City tales have barely scratched this grimy surface).The most successful crime fiction writers give you a sense of place and time along with a slice of history to anchor their tales in a real and contemporary setting. Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch books is practically a guided tour through the urban sprawl of Los Angeles, James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux novels evoke the sweaty miasma of the Louisiana bayous and its troubled racial history while George Pelecanos's Derek Strange books take you deep inside the underworld of Washington DC.
One needn't journey to the past to evoke a sense of exotica. It's right here and right now. A writer needs merely take a walk on the dark side..

Anonymous said...

I think exoticism, nostalgia and the love of all things past has a lot to do with Escapism, which is hardly a bad thing, if they can - in turn - relieve us of the burdens of the average everyday.
Having said that, I would be extremely thrilled If I could just sink my teeth into a novel about, lets say, the goings on at the back ends of Jalan Alor or somewhere deep in the recesses of Sungai Wang Plaza ala 'Dirty Pretty Things' (which is a film, of course).

enar arshad said...

i read "the space between us" about an indian maid in india.yet the story is so simple and it could happen anywhere including malaysia.yes i do wonder sometimes if ever a person is about to write the contemporary malaysian novel, wonder what the story is like.there are a lot of love stories tho in BM .

bibliobibuli said...

kaykay - this is your mission!!!!! give up the day job and get writing!!

sharanya said...

This is a very well-written piece by Tan Twan Eng. It makes logical sense, but I can also see how courageous writers can overcome the fact that there is no background for readers. Take for example Indian writers. Most of the critically-acclaimed ones do pack their books with complex, dense history, even when they are set in more recent times (e.g. Roy - 1969/early 1990s). Good writing should both transfer and transcend, on its own merit.

I know someone who is writing the most important contemporary Malaysiana book so far. I can't wait for that person to publish it.

Argus Lou said...

Extremely interesting and engaging topic. Tan Twan Eng, Glenda, KayKay and others have raised lucid and thought-provoking points.

I can imagine a youngish Malay writer writing about a Malay man falling in love with a woman of another religion and race. They want to get married but she says no way is she going to convert. How are they going to get around this? Move to Australia? We see what members of both their families say, how their emotions run the gamut, what kind of heat the friction and dilemma kindles. Some contemporary social and religious issues, history and cultural perspectives can go into the novel without being too tedious.
Would this be interesting to a reader, say, in the UK?

Anonymous said...

I appreciate Twan Eng's piece; I think it brings to light many concerns that plague writers who hope to make a living out of (gasp!) writing books. Or a semblance of a living. ;)

I may be naive here, but let me just go out and say it: if you have a story to tell, tell it. Worrying about market economics of the publishing world *before* having written that story is a sure-fire way, I think, to kill that story. I am well-aware that selling your books is a good way to, say, gain an audience. *grin* However, I think that the selling/marketing aspect of it should only be considered after the creation of the product... To worry about whether or not a particular story will be of interest to someone in another country is irrelevant at the time of writing.

And I think it's impossible to write a novel about contemporary Malaysia without in some way referencing its history, whether explicitly or subtly.

I agree too with Glenda - I'm sure courage is the issue here. I don't doubt there are plenty of talented, inspired Malaysian writers... I suspect a lot of the drafts and manuscripts of possible Great Malaysian Novels are hanging around desk drawers and cupboards, afraid to see the light of day and the ISA and the politicians' hand-wringing over "isu-isu sensitif." Because if you're going to be honest about this country, REALLY honest... there's no way to escape it.

Poppadumdum said...

Glenda's comments are interesting...

Poppadumdum said...

Although I think many writers don't consciously think of their 'market' when they write, it still lies there at the back of their minds, in the things they feel they have to explicate, clarify or leave out in creating a believable setting/character for their novels. And I think Tan Twan Eng was not talking merely of the viability of writing a contemporary Malaysian novel, but also making it sell-able outside Malaysia...

bibliobibuli said...

i'd agree that you should write for yourself first ... but if you want your novel to see light of day and not just sit in the drawer you have to make decisions about who your readers are and where you are going to try to publish.

argus lou - go on and write it - sounds a great plot

Anonymous said...

Well Glenda, can anyone be ? when push comes to shove everyone wants to defend their dreams, even to the extent of fudging the real truth a little (or a lot sometimes.) This is not limited to citizens of any country.