What I am about to express is by no means revolutionary, nor is it particularly new in any form or iteration. Nevertheless, it is in my foray into the ranks of a maturing generation, a faltering yet hopeful movement parallel to the similar political developments of my country, that my voice is endued with a most vital and visceral necessity. I have no arrogant intention for my message to be a satisfactory answer to the present affliction surrounding the literary future of Malaysia and its national identity; I do not have the capability for such a task. Rather, however, it is to bring the Malaysian condition into relief to its somnolent people, as a member of the nation’s youth, that I wield my waking words. It is only then that the possibility of ambition can breathe.
Along with a passion for the aesthetic expression through language, the desire to explore the depiction of human life in its full authenticity and, through that, my own self as well has been the force behind my venture into the world of literature. Still in a tender age as both a writer and a reader, toward the foregoing aims of mine I have more questions than answers: whether man is just the quintessence of dust or something more than the sordid sum of his misfortunes, I do not know. I have little understanding about myself as an individual or a part of mankind, and can only slowly pipette from the ocean of human narratives to obtain an accreting answer. Yet, when it comes to the national dimension of my character I am at a complete loss; it is only at a recent time that I have found myself confronted with the question: What does it mean to be Malaysian?
Exposed to an environment where nationality becomes one’s primary mode of representation, the absence of knowledge regarding my Malaysian self comes to an apparent manifestation. My pen comes to a halt if I am to reflect upon the collective experience and consciousness of my country at any given point of its past; my tongue can only withdraw in shame in my failure to detail a shared identity between my compatriots. It would be an utmost insult to reduce the Malaysian psyche into a mere cursory description of the linguistic peculiarities or culinary habits of its community. The identity of a nation comprises the ever-developing reflection of the spirit of its people, and a system from which its community defines who they are in relation to their country. The contours of a nation’s identity are continually constructed, challenged, then reinvented through the vehement individual expressions of its people: it is from the sincere polyphony of a community that the melodic name of a nation is composed. A country ceases to be without narratives. But what are the narratives of Malaysia?
I have no recollection nor knowledge of the voices of Malaysia’s past. In my complacency as an inhabitant of my country, deafened by the shallow monotony of harmonious multiculturalism imposed by the government on the elusive Bangsa Malaysia, I have not taken anything more than a passing glance at my national roots beyond the stem of ethnicity. Taking pride in a superficial comprehension of the omissions and alterations in the presentation of my nation’s history, I refused to go further and gave my laziness the name of cynicism. In this inert state, I have not paid heed to the sincere narratives of my countrymen belonging to the present or the past. Literature under the national education was no more than a static memorization component, not unlike the periodic table of elements, relegated to an afterthought under the teaching of language on a mere functional basis. The importance of the works covered to the literary tradition and, more significantly, the identity of Malaysia was never elucidated upon, either due to the convenience of such dismissal or the poor and heavily restricted selection. Even when I began to develop an interest in the field of letters, I have not devoted any particular attention to the works of my nation as I wallowed in my false apprehension of an unproblematized Malaysian-ness. My knowledge of my country is thereby a hodgepodge of scattered events preceding my birth, a litany of names of the deceased, and a defective memory of twenty years lived, faulty because of my willful slumber. It is a mutilated history that has no narrative, no imagination, and no soul; but it is also the only history known to me, and many of my peers too, as I have been slow to listen to the literary voices of my countrymen that have recorded the pulse of my nation. To my motherland, I am an estranged child.
Without the authentic writings of a nation’s people, as its inhabitants, who is it that can tell us who we are? I am not capable of an apathetic movement to dismiss the boundaries of my nation; for the better or worse, I am unable to uproot my experiences from my land any further. I am also not one of those people who, casting the other dimensions of their existence aside, can find comfort in their ethnicity alone. Regardless of my knowledge of my Chinese identity, before I understand the domain of my nationality I cannot discourse upon the meaning of being Malaysian Chinese. Be it due to a cold indifference or a zealous overdetermination of ethnicity, the narrative negotiation of the Malaysian identity by its people is stifled at best. Poet Wong Phui Nam writes out perhaps the most incisive and truthful observation of the naked Malaysian psyche:
Of being bereft of any memory longer than a personal and family one, neither of which, by its nature, goes very far into the past. It is a condition of not knowing any tradition which has survived to the present from long ages past.
We are a sleeping people, always shifting from one memory of the present to another in our phantasmagoric dreams, unable to wake up and remember the past in its entirety.
A Nation Bereft of a National Literature
Malaysia has little to no national literature. This is not to impugn the literary works of my great fellow countrymen of the older generation such as Wong Phui Nam, Ee Tiang Hong, K.S. Maniam, Muhammad Haji Salleh, and Shirley Geok-lin Lim, or the more contemporary writings by authors such as Tash Aw, Tan Twan Eng, Ng Kim Chew, Li Zi Shu, and Faisal Tehrani, that have emerged despite the unconducive circumstances. My statement is not made in hateful rebellion. However, for the literature of a country to be considered national, it must not only be an honest reflection of the realities of its community but imprint itself in the hearts and minds of its people as well, achieving an emblematic status akin to the national anthem or flag of one’s country, as Haruki Murakami notes, and ultimately seeping into the shared sensibility of the populace. If a country is unwilling to recognize the unfeigned voices of its people, the works cannot speak their merit.
It should come as no surprise, sadly, that the literary culture in Malaysia is stunted given the past government’s suppression of history. A nation that cannot be true to its people will not let its people be true to their nation. In the government’s contrivance of a hegemonic narrative of cohesion that any artistic work deviating from its kumbaya image is disregarded or silenced, the sources for the authentic images of the national identity of Malaysia are mostly lost. As a consequence, a largely unliterary society of indolent complacency is born. The official Malaysian policy that has thus far only prioritized the writings in the Malay language as the sole constituent of Malaysian national literature, refusing to acknowledge the postcolonial multilingual reality of the country, where its expansive literary works have already taken on a vibrant profusion of tongues, becomes a further limitation as well. In a milieu where artistic expression is alienated by its government and ignored by its community, it is difficult for Malaysian literature to become Malaysian national literature.
In my exploration of the literature of neighboring countries, I have been most struck by José Rizal’s magnum opus Noli Me Tangere—one of the most celebrated novels of the Philippines. Not only is the work a stirring and critical depiction of the lamentable friarocracy of colonial Philippines and the diverse forms of consciousness of its native people, from the noble and valiant Elias to the ostentatious and self-denying Doña Consolación, but a poetic presence that has seeped into the imagination of its people and become a genuine source of a common national sensibility as well, regardless of the political expediency the novel might have provided for the Philippine government. Although this is not to say that the modern Filipino identity is without its challenges or ambiguities, the Filipino community is able to identify a once-shared heritage and narrative through the literary tradition that it has so esteemed and cherished, in contrary to the Malaysian situation. Devoid of the knowledge of its past, a nation cannot account for its present or speak of its future. It is safe to say that there are no works of Malaysia that hold as much symbolic value to all of its people as the national works of other countries to theirs, such as the aforementioned Noli Me Tangere of the Philippines or Lu Xun’s Diary of A Madman of China. Though valuable early works of the Malay literary tradition, namely the writings of the hikayat form, and colonial pieces do certainly exist, without the recognition of its people, they cannot fulfill their potential as a breathing piece of history. And while it is also true that the narratives of a country include more than just its works of literature, with other forms of art such as the performative and visual in mind, the artistic milieu of Malaysia that has only allowed a monolithic image aligning to its governing party’s political interests prevents any alternative expressions from emerging as well.
Perhaps some may inform me that I have been asking the wrong questions in the first place. With its relatively young age in the great stage of nations and an ethnically and linguistically divided population, it may be claimed that there was never a body of works or a single narrative that could speak for all Malaysians. However, my insistence for the nation’s literary awareness would not change. Maybe it is true that the history of Malaysian literature has hitherto been a corpus of fragments. Nevertheless, if we refuse to pick up the divided pieces by acknowledging their veritable presence and reality, we cannot even begin a discourse on our nation’s identity, much less take concrete action. The literary situation of Malaysia lies in sharp juxtaposition against that of the United States, a country no less diverse in culture. While the latter nation of immigrants has no one strand of literary tradition that can fully speak for its ever-changing identity, its huge and variegated body of work that ranges from the slave narratives to the American immigrant novel, along with a society that actively recognizes these works, all come together to shape the American identity as a constant process rather than a static thing. More than the diversity of language, the general reluctance and negligence of Malaysians to even glance at the works of their nation, even those belonging to their linguistic groups, contributes to the ambiguity of the state of Malaysian identity today.
The Malaysian literary situation, though grim, is not entirely destitute of hope. With a surge of political change, it may be cautiously anticipated that the new administration’s attitude toward the literary voices of its people may lead to a positive direction, recognizing literature as a long-ignored front for the construction of national identity. It is also to my knowledge that more and more of my peers are acknowledging the new writers of Malaysia, most prominently the works of Tan Twan Eng, Tash Aw, and Preeta Samarasan. The goal for Malaysia to be a literary society is still quite distant, however. If the solution for the Malaysian literary situation were as simple as a bugle call for its people to read and its budding writers to be more conscious of the nation’s realities, the predicament would never have existed in the first place. The notion of Malaysian literature itself is under heavy contestation, as mentioned earlier, with ardent arguments objecting to the inclusion of any literature produced outside of the Malay language into the national canon. It is a matter of intricate complexity that I am unable to comment upon by reason of my present lack of knowledge.
My current expression is thereby nothing more than a bugle call; however, it is with the hope that this bugle call may stir some of my nation’s people that I exhibit my crude ignorance to the world, beginning with my alma mater, to which I am heavily indebted. It is my subsequent task as a student of letters in this distant land of America to learn more about and from the voices of my country, an aspiration all the more ironic in view of its birth in my physical displacement. Till then, I am unable to do anything more.
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