It is 2018 and I am in Penang as an attendee of the Georgetown Literary Festival, in the audience of a panel discussion among emerging Malaysian writers. A young writer, no more than seventeen, stands up behind me and asks for some advice on her writing.
She asks (and I paraphrase): “What can I do to write my characters to feel more local? It is very easy to write about John and Jane in any given scenario but is there a way to (believably) write Ahmad and Aishah without resorting to local clichés and political tropes?”
I was as eager as everyone else in the room to witness a discussion on such a practical issue for creative writing in Malaysia. It was an easy enough question to sympathise with. But, to my dismay, the answer given was as evasive as it was admonishing: “Just be honest with yourself.”
After thinking about this for a year (or three) I’ve decided to collect my thoughts here as a rebuttal to this image of an honest Malaysian writer.
Implicit in the solution of “Just be honest with yourself” is the assumption that a genuine Malaysian locality (as opposed to a dishonest flat cliché or trope) can be written into the work to a matter of degree, and to offer an honest self is the best policy for doing so.
But then can everyone with an honest self write genuine Malaysian literature? Or can only certain Malaysian writers produce authentic Malaysian literature on the basis that they do so honestly, without existential self-deception?
Honesty can imply a foregoing of unwarranted excess —personal interests, public personas, finance, fame, or otherwise— to unmask a true, innocent, uncompromised, virginal nature. What is the virginal state of the Malaysian writer anyway? Honestly!
This event was one of many I bore witness to that attempt to wrestle with questions of cultural authenticity, appropriation, and degrees of cultural differentiation. Upon reflection, I’m realising now that young Malaysian writers share the same basic concern as many established Malaysian critics in thinking about what is Malaysian writing, and what isn’t.
Established Malaysian critics have long emphasised a distinction between two kinds of authors.
First, there are authors who are grounded to an established line of literary work tied to particular themes of locality. These are authors that they argue to be within our local tradition.
Second, there are authors who are either free from such ties to any locality or visibly strung to other completely different sets of concerns. These are authors that they argue to be outside our local tradition.
John and Jane do not ostensibly share the same concerns and experiences as Ahmad and Aishah, and so they lie on opposing sides of the literary border. Dishonesty is a transgression of this border. Dishonesty is cause for suspicion: Where are you from? No, where are you really from?
Wong Phui Nam claims that the very being of a Malaysian writer in English is a paradox, and by virtue of our use of the English language we are always already cut off from a native tradition. Malaysian writing in English, he says, cannot add to, modify or reshape a native or national tradition, and neither can a national tradition be said to shape one’s writing in English.
Furthermore, the English tradition, by which he means the cultural orbit of the West, is, and more importantly, should be, alien to us. He claims that it is this paradoxical existence that defines his first generation of Malaysian writers who “have to start from the condition of being culturally naked.”
These writers are destined to languish in the self-realisation of their own inescapable linguistic prison. The Anglophone writer cannot belong to an English tradition, nor a native tradition, nor a national tradition. The Anglophone writer can only “fight against” and “steal” from other traditions in order to exist. The Anglophone writer has no birth-right; they have no culture that belongs to them. This, according to Wong Phui Nam, is the virginal state of the Malaysian writer.
He takes this diagnosis a step further however, when he distances himself to future generations of Anglophone writers. He says: “After my generation, writers lose touch with the stark realities of our situation… Most achieve surface cleverness in their writing, following fashions as they develop in the west.” They write only about “vacuous political stuff” that is “often about ‘safe’ topics external to the country itself”.
His terminal condemnation is that “much of it is not art; it is agitprop, pure and simple.” The solution is a return to the virginal state of the Malaysian Anglophone writer, who is defined by a realisation that he or she “does not have a present here, let alone a future,” to somehow produce stronger writers who at the very least, he says, have something to call their own: integrity.
In 2009, at a writer’s festival in Singapore, Wong Phui Nam declares Malaysian writing in English to be dead. In the same year, the acclaimed novelist Tash Aw publishes his second novel Map of the Invisible World to critical reception in London.
Likewise, the late Professor Lloyd Fernando dismisses those who are naively strung by western literary fads as “lesser writers” sustained by “a kind of cocktail party internationalism.” For him, there are really only two choices for the Malaysian writer in regards to tradition.
The writer can go back to the native tradition of their “parent” culture, in which case the writer is to be forever haunted by “unquiet dreams” of an imagined homeland.
Or, the writer can “respond from his inmost being” to this country and “institute a break from his past” in order to write Malaysian literature as national literature.
I published a scholarly paper recently about Lloyd Fernando’s project to resolve the four main literary traditions in Malaysia — Malay, Chinese, Tamil, and English, that are in juxtaposition to each other. In 1971, Fernando supported the new National Cultural Policy (NCP) that defined what was and wasn’t considered Malaysian literature.
The Malay tradition, he argues, has all the “basic qualifications” for becoming the national literature: it is a rich tradition that has the “weight and authority of history”, it is rooted firmly in the consciousness of the people, and it is remarkably hospitable to writers of other races. Furthermore, an allegiance to a national tradition will encourage a “commitment to place and the same common humanity” that will reflect the total Malaysian experience.
The NCP results in Malaysian literature being split into two official categories: national literature, which is literature written in Malay, and sectional literature, which is literature written in any other language in use in Malaysia that conforms to the national interest. A brief glance at JKKN’s website today shows us that these principles have survived largely intact.
And so what is the fate of an honest Malaysian writer today? Must we disavow a cultural belonging and claim nothing but our integrity? To be without an anchor, without horizon, stateless, rootless — a race of colourless angels?
Or on the other hand, does the honest Malaysian writer anchor themselves onto a national consciousness? To be Malaysian in a shared multi-cultural sense in order to honestly reflect a total Malaysian experience? On both counts, to write John and Jane is a slanderous act, so far removed from any model of an authentic writer, dishonesty paraded in a European mask — vacuous internationalism. On both counts, to write Ahmad and Aishah is a political act, which is conditional upon a national policy or a birth-right — writing as an exercise in state-patriotism.
If this is what being an authentic Malaysian writer means, then count me out. We are all already dishonest writers anyway. We will find our freedom as frauds.
It may be apt then, to end this article with a conclusion adapted from the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges’ advice on what it means to write as a local. Applying it to our situation, we may replace “Argentine” with “Malaysian” so it reads:
Therefore we must not be afraid; we must believe that the universe is our birthright and try out every subject; we cannot confine ourselves to what is Malaysian in order to be Malaysian. Either it is our inevitable destiny to be Malaysian, in which case we will be Malaysian whatever we do, or being Malaysian is merely a mask. If we lose ourselves to the voluntary dream called artistic creation, we will be Malaysian and we will be, as well, good and adequate writers.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Eksentrika.