Wild, worldly, polyglot. Three words that capture the spirit of Malaysia’s cultural landscape. Malaysia is a country where at least four languages predominate—Malay, English, Chinese and Tamil—alongside a plethora of regional dialects, indigenous languages, and creole languages.
This cultural and linguistic plurality has been the historical reality of Malaysia long before it became a nation. The complex diversity of the Malay Peninsula has been evident since at least the fifteenth century, when the Sultanate of Malacca became one of the most thriving entrepôts in Asia, drawing merchants, scholars, and envoys from neighboring kingdoms and distant empires. Successive waves of migration from all over the Malay Archipelago, China, South Asia, and the Arab world have added yet more layers to the inextricable diversity of Malaysian society. On the island of Borneo, the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak are home to more than a hundred indigenous tribes and sub-ethnic groups, each with their own language or distinct dialect.
The Malay language itself is a living testament to the heterogeneity of its origins. The vast compendium of loanwords in Malay from Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Tamil, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, and English reveal lines of connection through maritime trade routes, culture and religion, imperialism and colonialism, migration and globalization.
Political attempts to organize and control the organic chaos of Malaysian society—particularly the widespread social engineering that followed the racial riots of May 1969—imposed reductive categories of race, religion, and language that persist to this day. The imagined community, as defined by the nation-state and perpetuated by its institutions, is a feeble reflection of the intrinsic plurality and ever-evolving complexity of Malaysian cultural life. Such political preoccupations with the construction of a “national identity” have inevitably shaped the course of Malaysian literature. While the emphasis of Malay as the national language was crucial for postcolonial nation building, the centrifugal messaging of prioritized and relegated languages created a hierarchy of importance that reinforced notions of self and other, venturing beyond language given the nexus between the former and ethnicity in the country.
In a few instances, the elevation of the Malay language resulted in deliberate erasure of regional languages. In the name of national language and cultural assimilation, in the late 1970s a corpus of works in Iban and other languages from the Bornean state of Sarawak were reportedly buried by the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (Institute of Language and Literature), the government body tasked with the development and regulation of Malay. Oral literature is a literary heritage of many groups within the Malaysian polity, especially indigenous communities. Whether this heritage is passed down and flourishes from generation to generation depends on political will and support for its continued existence.
Malay literature flourished in the 1970s and ‘80s, much of it under the auspices of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. This period saw the emergence of many writers who tested the boundaries of literary form and content. In the decades that followed, however, state bureaucratization and institutionalization increasingly alienated the younger generation of writers, many of whom have sought independent channels to publish their works. This has led to the burgeoning of an “indie” Malay literature scene since 2010, which remains vibrant today.
For all its envisioning as a language for all Malaysians, after more than half a century Malay literature is still widely considered to be written by and for Malays. A commanding presence in the public, educational, and state-funded cultural arena has not yet translated to a role in literature which transcends ethnicity. The dearth of translation between local languages in Malaysia further exacerbates insularity among literary circles and readers.
Malaysian-Chinese literary production, known as Mahua literature, often reveals an underlying crisis of belonging in the Malaysian-Chinese experience. Celebrated beyond national borders, notably in Taiwan where many of them have settled, Mahua writers have long perceived themselves as marginalized by the politics of race and language in Malaysia.
Malaysian-Tamil literature, by contrast, is less well known outside its immediate circles. Scholars note that several important anthologies of short stories have been published, but without serious translation efforts, these works are not accessible to most Malaysian readers.
Traditional print media has been a vital space to nurture and publish writers in different languages. Newspapers such as Utusan Malaysia and Berita Harian (Malay), Sin Chew Jit Poh and Nanyang Siang Pau (Chinese), Tamil Nesan and Tamil Murasu (Tamil), and Daily Express, New Sabah Times (now defunct), and Utusan Borneo (Kadazandusun) regularly publish short stories and poems by writers from their respective communities.
If writing, like other art forms, is considered a way of conversing with life itself, being a writer in Malaysia affords little material payoff to even sustain life. Writing is almost never the sole source of income for writers. Writers are respected and celebrated in the mainstream, statist realm and fervent independent circles alike; however, they are seldom considered public intellectuals, save for the National Laureates who themselves are selected only from among writers who write in the national language, which in effect means they have all been Malay.
The view on culture in society can be telling in contemplating present quandaries. The overseeing government ministry for culture in Malaysia is the Ministry of Tourism, Arts, and Culture. Culture’s place has been side by side with tourism, invariably as an adjunct to it. Culture is often perceived in the framework of performative showcases to generate tourism revenue, instead of endemic pillars to cultivating contemporary society.
One of the great tasks, then, for writers and translators in Malaysia is to challenge the categories we are expected to fit into (but never quite do), deconstruct the deep conditioning of identity politics, and forge connections across the lines that divide our fragmented society. The following conversation addresses exactly this challenge in compiling the September 2021 issue of Words Without Borders.
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Adriana: What a time to be showcasing Malaysian literature, right Pauline? For one, September is the month the country was formed fifty-eight years ago.
Pauline: And when we formulated our theme, “The Slow Burn of Inner Chaos,” the country wasn’t yet wildly thrashing in the ravages of the pandemic . . .
A: Where the people’s suffering is made all the worse by the cruel callousness of the power wielders.
P: Precisely. But while our theme has been thrown into sharper relief by the current situation, it was always pertinent. The convergence of pandemic and political crisis has intensified a latent condition that has haunted Malaysian life for a long time.
A: The sense of slipping slowly into chaos is an everyday reality here. And for two generally socially aware, albeit privileged, Malaysians to say this, it has to be more than just unfettered navel gazing, no?
P: Life in Malaysia is enriching, infuriating, and full of inner contradictions. The great diversity of our people is something to be celebrated, while the social-political realities we inhabit are often marked by fragmentation and antipathy. Our collective and individual selves bear silent wounds—not so much fault lines of outright conflict, but almost imperceptible fractures that crack a little deeper each day, until we find ourselves overcome by a kind of paralysis. Our desperate attempts to break through the numbness can lead to instances of madness, violence, or amok.
A: We’re more than the travel industry’s “Malaysia Truly Asia” for sure. From the outside, observers might think the divisions in our society are clear and immutable. However, as these works showcase, the sepia can co-exist with the sinister, the demons we fight might not be the commonly-assumed, and life is a balancing act between mundane realities and radical subversion.
P: In the six works in translation we have gathered here, one senses a seething anguish that gnaws away from inside. The slow burn of inner chaos is especially evident in the works of fiction by Fatimah Busu, Ho Sok Fong, Alis Padasian, and M. Navin. It’s interesting to see how this indefinable turmoil manifests across fiction in three languages, and across generations of Malaysian writers. The story by Fatimah Busu that we have included here is a fascinating portrayal of some of the inner contradictions of Malay society. Written in 1977, it explores desire and sexuality, the impulses of individual freedom, predatory male behavior, and the inability to escape traditional social mores. Busu herself is considered a somewhat controversial figure in mainstream literary circles, for her strong views and acute portrayal of social realities and problems, particularly those faced by Malay women outside the urban centers.
A: We conceptualized our theme as a way to reframe the idea of Malaysia as a cheery land of multiculturalism—which can become listless and even oppressive in its demarcation of celebrated from relegated cultures—and to assert the complexity of our society that often makes life here verge toward chaos. With this in mind, I wonder what are the demons that bedevil us? The macabre, even grotesque, scenes in Fatimah Busu and Alis Padasian’s works make me think about our theme. Are the unfortunate newborn and the red-eyed monster simply metaphors? To an extent yes, of Pat’s whirlwind romance and presumed abandonment by her lover, and Bubin’s family’s travails, as people also abandoned, this time by a father. And how about the notion of children bearing the brunt of their parents’ shortcomings? Pat leaves her baby at the mercy of the roving monkeys, unable to care for it (due to shame? financial inability?), while Sulitah’s plans to return to work are scuppered when she becomes pregnant with her third child. Do children force parents to sacrifice their dreams, or do they become the pallbearers of these broken dreams and neglect? The theme of intergenerational trauma resounds.
P: There is certainly an underlying feeling of inherited trauma here, and of the past stalking the present. M. Navin’s story conjures the notorious figure of Mona Fandey, a singer turned "witch doctor” who was involved in one of the most high profile and gruesome murders of the 1990s. Malaysian readers of a certain generation won’t be able to read that story without being haunted by her presence. This sense of crime lurking in the background is also palpable in Ho Sok Fong’s story. Yet, as the works here reveal, nothing is black and white in Malaysia. While we at times feel besieged by dark and ominous forces, life here is also saturated with playfulness and sensuality—elemental characteristics that find expression in the two poems featured here. “Poem in June” by T. Alias Taib encapsulates so well the sensibility of nakal (naughtiness) that is an intrinsic part of the Malay cultural genius: “. . . isn’t dirt the realm of your love?” I think, too, of Jack Malik’s poem that reaches into the earth to reinvigorate body and spirit: “here, where roots spring. uprooting. Blood-blossoms.”
A: Yes! I find sensuality and love integral to the Malay language. But there’s no shaking away this sense of slow degeneration, of writers using haunting specters which actually stand in for material hardship, which becomes especially pertinent given the times. Can you hear the crushing of people’s hopes, dreams, and guarantees of where their next meal will come from? I wish there were more certainty that literature speaks truth to power and can be a force for dismantling.
P: The complex problems of race, class, and gender are palpable in our literature. But what I find fascinating, too, is how the protagonists in our stories are never simply victims. Even in seemingly hopeless situations, we find ways to respond through everyday forms of resistance. In a society where dominant narratives are shaped by ideological forces, writing itself can be an act of resistance. In a wild cultural landscape that has been subjected to decades of imposed categories of identity and language, literary translation subverts ossified structures of “national literature” while affirming our intrinsic plurality and untamable semangat (life force).
A: And this collection of six works, translated from Malay, Chinese, and Tamil, is emblematic of this plurality.
P: And in so doing, these works reveal the underlying tensions and lurking disquiet of Malaysian life, and offer insight into how Malaysian writers make sense of the chaos.
© 2021 Pauline Fan and Adriana Nordin Manan. All rights reserved.