January 17, 2011 § 3 Comments
Some musings of mine on the issue of Interlok ran in The Nut Graph today. I have reproduced it here in full:
The debate about the novel Interlok by Malaysian national laureate Abdullah Hussein continues to rage, but among a select few. The Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) wants the book to be withdrawn from the Form Five syllabus for Malay literature on the grounds that the novel contains “offensive” words and depictions of Indian Malaysians. The MIC claims that the book will offend the entire Indian Hindu community, who, according to them, no longer practise the caste system.
Coming from the MIC, this smacks a little too much of hypocrisy, because I know of Indian Malaysians who still have to battle with issues of caste within their communities and families. The issue of caste has also come under scrutiny for its implications on the internal politics of the MIC. And it’s hypocritical because the MIC itself is part of a power structure that continues to practise and propagate race-based discrimination.
Interlok may or may not be right in its depiction of the Indian Malaysian community, which is taken for granted to be monolithic when it is not. But the MIC’s claim that the book highlights issues that are no longer relevant for the Indian Malaysian community is a blatant lie. It’s also a blatant form of politicking in order to win back the Indian Malaysian vote. By fighting for the rights of Indian Malaysians through this issue, the MIC is no doubt hoping that the community will forget its complicity in promoting race politics.
There’s also hypocrisy from those who want the book to remain in the syllabus. These are people I follow on Twitter, traditional media columnists, as well as other writers and scholars quoted in media coverage of the issue. They claim that to censor or remove words from a published work of literature is to insult the author’s integrity. On one hand, I agree with this, because as a writer myself, I believe that the craft of writing must be respected.
More importantly, however, books, including works of creative expression, should be judged on their merits. Speculations as to the author’s intentions should not tilt the scale either way. Further to this point is the argument for free speech: something should not be censored, banned, or restricted simply because it offends some people’s sensitivities.
What would these same people who argue for the author’s integrity say about the tendency of the ruling coalition to ban any book that challenges its authority? 1FunnyMalaysia, perhaps?
- Education system the problem
My greater concern is how a national education system that is fundamentally structured to be racist can attempt to teach a text as problematic as Interlok.
This book, because of its content, is the kind of book that should help further, deepen, and intensify national discourse on race relations. It is a book that should be handled with maturity and critical yet intelligent interrogation. Precisely because it offends some people, it should be deconstructed and taught with sensitivity.
But how are we going to do this through a nationally constructed pedagogy that promotes half-truths and prejudiced views, which alters history, neglects critical thinking, and undervalues the role of the teacher and student? How can we fill our schools with racist, defeated teachers, hand them a racially problematic text, and expect these very same people to teach it with any degree of responsibility, compassion, or intelligence?
Some scholars argue that Interlok depicts the “social reality” of the time in which it was set, and thus should be studied as a realistic portrayal of Malaysian society during that period of time. The Malaysian Institute of Historical and Patriotism Studies says that Interlok is a “suitable novel for use of as a textbook for the literature component of the Bahasa Malaysia subject in Form Five because it is based on historical facts”. The National Writers Association (Pena) has come out strongly against the removal of the book. A memorandum has also been signed by several groups, including the Malay Consultation Council and Ikatan Persuratan Melayu.
Will these scholars say the same about Anthony Burgess’s The Malayan Trilogy, which is arguably one of the best novels about colonial-era Malaya? Burgess is equally scathing of all races, including the British. Will any Malay Malaysian politician champion for Trilogy to be taught in schools the way some of them are for Interlok?
In fact, as Sharon Bakar has pointed out, The Malayan Trilogy is not only not taught in our schools, it has also at one time or another been banned or restricted, presumably because it takes the mickey out of not just the Indians or the Chinese, but the Malays as well. I would like to hear scholars, politicians and writers come out in defence of this book for English Literature classes in Malaysia. I think all we would hear are crickets.
We uphold free speech only when it’s convenient, and argue for the integrity of artists and the free circulation of art only when it suits us. But let us not be gullible enough to assume that if Interlok is allowed to be taught in schools nationwide, we’ve won a small part of the battle. It might only be dispiriting confirmation that the national discourse favours the sensitivities and sensibilities of one particular group or race over another.
March 27, 2010 § 2 Comments
Right after I finished Brian Gomez’s Devil’s Place I felt a little breathless and had to check to see if my hair was still in place (i.e. not electrocuted-frizzy but just regular humid-frizzy). The whole experience of Devil’s Place felt like a ride in a Bas Mini (way back in the day, holler if you remember them.) Granted, I only rode the Bas Mini probably twice in my life, bourgeois middle-class bitch that I am, yet the experience never leaves you; it lives on in shell-shocked memory. In the Bas Mini, you never know where to turn, lest your nose be buried in some unsavoury armpit or your nether regions rubbing against someone else’s unsavoury nether regions. (Wait, some of you may cry. How is that different from current buses? Bas… Ceria, for instance? Well, not much kids.) You never know if you will actually end up at your destination; whether you’d reach it alive or dead. Riding a Bas Mini is an existentialist experience; you ponder the futility of life even as you continue to live it.
In that same way, Gomez’s book, filled as it is with alcohol, botched blowjobs, piss, shit, and puke, practically flies by – your hands keep turning the pages even if you’re not aware that you’re doing it. On the one hand, that’s a good thing. It’s getting harder to find a book that sucks you in with a story these days, even if this story is a pastiche of shoot-‘em-up episodes cribbed from action movies. It’s an action book, if there’s such a thing, and one waits for the day when Amir Muhammad buys the rights to transfer it into the film. I’m sure it’ll make a very entertaining and relevant Malaysian movie, one that’ll bring in every damn race to the cinema, because this book is very muhibbah – very 1Malaysia, if you will allow me (only doing my national duty to spread the brand) – and every damn race is represented in here.
No, forgive me. The other lain-lain’s are not represented here, but there are Thai people, and American ones, so I mean, it’s not bad la!
But on the other hand, the flipside of can’t-stop- turning-the-pages is that you’re not exactly paying attention to the language (although his language is impeccable, it’s largely serviceable – I rarely stopped to swoon over the sentences), and you don’t really care THAT much about the characters although you’re rooting for the good guys to win. That’s probably one of my biggest problems with the book. I cared just enough for the characters to want to know if they remained alive or not, and to know how the story turned out for most of them. But beyond that, I wasn’t really invested in their respective life stories – mainly because we’re not told much about their lives anyhow. Some would like to say to me, “That’s the point of a crime book, stupid,” and I would say, yes… but make me care, la, dumbo! (No, nor Brian Gomez, I’m not calling him a dumbo. I’m calling the person who called me stupid a dumbo.)
Home-grown Malaysian products always make me hyper-anxious and none more so than its books. Fine, we can have Milo-tin cars and palm-oil chocolate, but our books MUST be good. To that end I admit that I hold Malaysian books to an unreasonably high standard, and more often than not I’m probably unfair to local authors as a result. But I can’t help it. Each time, before I begin a book written by a Malaysian, I feel almost nauseous – is it going to be good? Is it going to suck? How can I deal with my guilt if it sucks? You can’t really blame me; I’m still recovering from The Rice Mother. But I also feel compelled to love books by Malaysian authors, and because this stresses me out, I end up unreasonably hating certain books more than I should because of all that guilt. It’s all very complicated.
I really wanted to uninhibitedly love Devil’s Place. I didn’t, but there is still plenty that I liked. Brian Gomez is a very confident writer, and you know you’re in capable hands from the very first chapter. There’s no mincing about here. And I can’t help but compare it to a movie, even though it’s probably been said many times (well, one time that I know of – by Amir Muhammad, here) but that’s because it does get its stylistic inspiration from pop-culture, and pulp crime novels. So this book is no slow meandering walk through the exotic rice paddy fields, or a playful romp through the leafy green villages of small-town Malaysia.
It’s a madcap Bas Mini ride through the heart of urban Klang Valley. But like a Bas Mini ride, though, it does adhere to a route and the book largely works on a “yea, I can sort of see this happening in KL” scale because it has an internal logical structure, a linear narrative that takes you from Point A to Point B through with detours thrown in, but with a purpose. Sort of like the Bas Mini stopping smack dab in the middle of Federal Highway to allow someone to disembark.
For this reason, I will say that Brian Gomez is a mini Malaysian literary god. This is the first local book (that I’ve read) that has attempted to represent modern Kay-Ell for all that it really is, as opposed as all that it could be through the perspective of hazy nostalgia or poetic literary license. He has a knack for dialogue, a gift for being able to infuse the tragic or plain horrific with a delicious sense of absurdity, and a strong scent for local flavours in all its variety and putridity. Within the first few pages I seriously thought I was in Waikiki Bar, PJ, and had to look around to remind myself I was actually at home and not to say “fuck” out loud lest my mom heard me.
But it’s difficult to actually talk about what the story is all about – it’s essential not to give things away, because part of the charm of the story is not knowing what madcap farce/tragedy might ensue next even if you feel like you’ve been down this road before. Suffice to say that the a basic rundown of the key characters are listed on the back cover, and there are terrorists involved, as well as pub musicians, pub owners, Thai prostitutes, taxi drivers, singers, murderous politicians, murderous ex-girlfriends, thoughtful mothers, incompetent policemen, dead people, Hawaiian shirts, as well as locks, guns, fire, conspiracy theories, and nasi lemak.
There are moments where I laughed out loud. There are instantly recognisable comic characters and situations; for example, unfailingly foolish reporter Joe Maniam’s penchant for alliterated, pun-ny headings for his pieces is a gently derisive poke at our local newspaper headlines.
Or consider Gomez’s spot-on observation about pub phenomenon in KL: “O’Reilly’s Pub was an Irish bar in Bangsar that had almost exclusively white and Indian patrons,” he writes in one of the earlier chapters. Later on in the book, he observes that “Mat Sallehs, especially the English, tend to see Irish bars around the world as sovereign British ground. Sort of like an embassy that serves alcohol. [...] Indians, who have always felt a kinship with the Irish, due to their common love of alcohol, also claimed the Irish bars as their own.” He continues several paragraphs later: “Many fights had broken out over the years, but today everyone at O’Reilly’s, the Mat Sallehs and the Indians, were united in bewilderment. There was a Chinese man at the bar.”
Another moment of hilarity that all Malaysians will recognise with pride is the scene where the police try to elicit some useful information about a taxi by calling the taxi company. You can already see it coming. Detective Azmi calls, explains the situation, asks for the name of the taxi owner and his address, and the female voice replies, “ ‘Taxi on the way, 15 minutes. You wait outside now.’ ” After explaining to the operator again what he wanted, he waits and tries again: “Do you have the name and address?” and gets the reply, “Taxi on the way. You go outside now.”
There is also Gomez’s relentless eye for the ridiculous and the willingly stupid and ignorant – the aforementioned Joe Maniam and his goon buddies, Arun and Siva, both perpetually drunk and unfailingly at Joe’s beck and call (because he buys them drinks). Or the fact that some politicians ARE evil, and some terrorists ARE bloody crazy.
This book is also very much fuelled by testosterone. Virtually every important character is a guy, except for one – the Thai prostitute. There are two other women who make small appearances; one is a bitchy ex-girlfriend, the other a devoted mother. So there you have it, the women of Malaysia: prostitute, bitch, mother. But to be fair, even though his book is populated by males they are largely also bumbling idiots, and even the ones who aren’t do make stupid choices and screw things up. And the only character who does have a shred of dignity is the prostitute, Ning, but you can’t get much from her except when written from her point-of-view; otherwise, she barely speaks English. However, so much of this book’s premise hinges on things that go wrong that maybe it’s a compliment to women in general that they play such a small role in it.
Is it a book I would recommend? Yes. I think underneath the layers of misfired shoot-outs, misplaced identities, and misunderstood intentions, Gomez captures a lot of culturally relevant issues that will have most Malaysians snickering, but possibly with a heavy heart. It’s not all flippant cynicism, though, because Gomez seems to be saying that even if things are generally fucked-up, and powers-that-be rarely have our interests at heart, we should count on each other – regular citizens – to help each other out of our everyday misery. Or even out of non-everyday, seemingly catastrophic miseries. The police might try to pull batik over your eyes, or your elected ministers might try to kill you, but you just never know when a taxi driver might show you the way out of a dead-end.
February 27, 2010 § 3 Comments
Reading Lloyd Fernando’s Green is the Colour is like being in a dream, or rather a sort of slow-moving, languid nightmare where you know the end is going to come slowly, but when it comes it’s not going to be good. That’s not an indication of the book, but an indication of the world within the book, a world that seems all too familiar until you realise that it’s the world of Malaysia, circa 2010. As the book is meant to reflect the state of the nation after the May 13, 1969 events and state of emergency, this is a horribly depressing realisation, but if I’m honest with myself, not a surprising one.
As a MyKad-carrying Malaysian, it is rather deplorable that Green is the Colour was written in 1993 and I am reading it for the first time in February 2010. It’s worse when you think about the fact that I was an English major, and should have taken a keener interest in the literature that was being produced in Malaysia, and within Southeast Asia. (So let’s not think about this too much.) Lloyd Fernando is a Singaporean, technically, but that’s a minor quibble surely, considering that this region is practically founded upon interreligious and interethnic mingling.
But national purity is just what gets the knickers of fundamental nationalists in a twist. And the issues and concerns of nationalism is a fundamental thread that runs through the entire book, casting shadows over matters of race, religion, colonialism, independence, identity, and love (specifically love between ‘outsiders’, love for the Other).
Malaysia is a jittery nation post-May 13, and all its insecurities and fears are refracted through the thoughts and behaviour of the main characters: Siti Sara, a Malay sociology professor, Yun Ming, a Chinese civil servant, and Dahlan, a Malay bleeding-heart lawyer and activist, and to lesser degrees Gita, an Indian who is Siti Sara’s friend and colleague, as well as the uglier personas like Panglima and Omar, Sita Sara’s misguided husband.
Central to the story is Siti Sara’s burgeoning love affair with Yun Ming, who is married to a woman he seemed to have stopped loving a long time ago. In this case, the words ‘love affair’ really does suggest all that is hidden, illicit, and reckless, because in the highly volatile aftermath of the recent racial riots in Malaysia, a sexual relationship between a Chinese individual and a Malay one is not only taboo, but downright dangerous.
The only Malaysia we’re given in this book is a depressed, divided one (the only Malaysia most of us have ever known?); not merely along racial and class lines, but also ideological ones – simple barriers that nevertheless create chasms that appear insurmountable, even among people who were formerly good friends (Yun Ming and Dahlan). In the aftermath of colonisation, nations need to carve out individual identities. Green is the Colour typically exemplifies the inherent confusion that lies in a nation-building project – chiefly among the ‘ordinary’ citizens, the ones not vested with political power. It brings to mind Benedict Anderson’s definition of nations as imagined communities (the entire book, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism is an illuminating, original read, but this short excerpt provides a quick distillation of his key theses). There is a definite need for a sense of ‘comradeship’ among the disparate ethnic groups residing in Malaysia; but it’s a haphazard sense of comradeship, enforced by the government and accepted by the citizens themselves, but it’s more akin to sticking band-aids over a broken, bleeding leg instead of performing the much-needed surgery.
But, as Fernando tries to show, there is a real sense of terror in the nation’s psyche after the recent racial riots, and the general consensus is to refrain from “making things worse.” To drum home the point, this phrase is uttered within the first three pages of the book by Yun Ming, the placating, by-the-book civil servant, as he tells Dahlan during a cultural concert organised by the Department of Unity to lay low and leave off from ruffling the feathers of the Department’s Secretary-General. Dahlan, along with Siti Sara, wears his emotions close to his skin, so much so that he’s unable to leave the band-aid of pseudo-unity on for any length of time without chafing against the friction of the ‘fake’ Malaysia versus the real Malaysia.
Yun Ming’s concern for Dahlan’s outspokenness on issues that are deemed ‘sensitive’ is the greatest irony of the book, because it’s the sensitive who are willing to speak out against what’s sensitive, or in the case of Siti Sara, internalise much of its contradictions and suffer from a sense of displaced individuality, a kind of vertigo of the self that sends long-cherished beliefs and principles into a tragic freefall. But Yun Ming’s concern for Dahlan goes deeper than mere defensiveness – he cares about his old friend, and knows that the very people who applaud Dahlan will be the very ones who run back to the comforts of their own lives when the time comes to pay a price for one’s words:
“He supposed it was a great thing to be able to do what Dahlan did and was doing. The pseudo-intellectuals would gather around him and admire his active commitment. It was in the best traditions of liberalism. If he was arrested, they would put the hat around for his defence. If there was no trial they would murmur in the luxury of their living-rooms at night. None of them would look further to ask, Are not Dahlan’s opponents committed, too? Is not Dahlan wrong just to bring an idea in without asking how it should be brought in for people of different cultures?”
In Yun Ming, we have a character who toes the line not because he’s unthinking or unfeeling, but simply because he sees no other alternative. In that passage above, his ruminations are justified. But there is no one with whom Dahlan and the likes can engage in dialogue. It’s an either/or mentality that is pervasive in a time when discussion, empathy, and structural analysis would have better served the people.
But as Fernando shows through the characters of the vile Panglima, and to a lesser degree in Omar, Siti Sara’s husband, the quickest route to national identity is also the easiest way – a hearkening back to how things were before the British came, as though pre-colonised Malaya was a pure landscape of a single ethnic group, practising only one type of religion.
Omar, who while he was a student in America with Siti Sara, enjoyed the privileges of an ‘imperial’ education, now finds the only solution is to retreat into close-mindedness – and one gets the sense that this is both of out of a sense of fear of the unknown (what will Malaysia turn out to be?) and out of falling into the rut of listening to, and subscribing, to only one small, narrow view of the world. This is evident in one of the conversations he has with his wife:
“He said, ‘We’ll be all right. First we must purify and strengthen ourselves, then nothing can touch us. We’ll be all right.’
This was a manner he had begun to cultivate: rage was overcome by remembering that all obstacles would be removed, everything could be explained, everything fell into place in the vision he had and would impart to others when the time was ripe.”
When Siti Sara tries to tell him that, “Many ordinary people show respect and understanding. We should do the same to them,” Omar responds with the disappointing, all-too-often heard refrain of, “It’s their duty. They came here as strangers, they must show their understanding of the situation.”
The “they” naturally refers to the non-Malays, and it’s in interest of the colonialist legacy as well as the ideology of the fundamentalist nationalist that this myth of the ‘strangers’ must continue to be perpetuated. Memories are short and selective for the likes of Omar; this way, they can continue to assert that there is ‘one’ way of doing things as defined by the one group of people who are the originators, the deserving, the first sons of the land.
But, typically, the first sons of the land rarely stop to ask who came before, and the insult to our collective intelligence if we keep asking, over and over again, “Who came first?”
It’s clear where Fernando stands on this issue, because the characters of Omar and Panglima, epitomising small-minded chauvinism of the worst sort, are also the most despicable characters. They view other people as disposable or potentially-useful ‘property,’ and as such it figures that Omar would be the type to rape his wife and brook no dissent from her while valuing her physical attributes that mark her out as ‘different-looking’ from the ordinary Malay woman:
“He was proud that she was his wife. There she was, lighter-skinned than even many Chinese, the nose in profile straight but not unduly prominent like Indian noses, and a complexion that reddened slightly in the right places.”
He sees her as a collection of pleasing physical attributes that are the negation of those belonging to other races – complexion ‘lighter-skinned than even many Chinese,’ nose ‘not unduly prominent like Indian noses.’
Panglima, the Political Secretary to the Minister of Home Affairs, does not know of his true origins, although we are told that he came from “humble origins in a derelict corner of Rangoon,” his father found dead along the banks of Irrawaddy River with a knife in his throat when Panglima was very young, thus rendering him under the care of his father’s common law wife. It’s telling that Panglima recalls nothing much of his father, and refers to his caretaker simply as, “The Karen woman was his father’s common law wife; perhaps his father was Karen too.” He ran away a few days after his father was buried, and worked in a brothel.
Probably due to this lack of self, he grows up to be a vicious man who gets his kicks from violent sex with underaged prostitutes and girls, and most of all, from wielding absolute authority over everyone else. It seems almost fitting that he works for the Home Ministry, then, and that he gained his nickname of ‘Panglima’ due to his very public enthusiasm for “the revival of religious values and of the cultural decay which the West had spread to the countries of South East Asia.” Predictably, he leers over Siti Sara’s jeans-clad form even as he rails against the evils of body-hugging Western clothing.
When Panglima speaks to Siti Sara’s father, the Lebai Hanafiah, a gentle and compassionate religious teacher, on the immodest attire of the young women, her father tells him that in many other countries, women wear much less, but are still principled and moral. Panglima’s response: “In some countries they are caned. They are much better after that.” Fast forward to what the Home Minister says in 2010 with regards to three young women who were caned for having ‘illicit sex,’ and one can’t help but feel despair while reading that passage, or the entire book, for that matter. Panglima’s final act of defilement, directed towards Siti Sara, hinges purely on power and thwarted lust.
Green is the Colour is a hugely important Malaysian novel that every Malaysian should read. If, like me, you fear as if you’re coming to it ‘too late,’ you’ll be glad to know that it’s not too late, in fact, maybe you’re even being premature, because it seems we have regressed instead of moving forward. The fears and alienation of Malaysians post-May 13, 1969 are exactly the same as the fears and alienation of the Malaysians post-May 13, 1969 in 2010.
It’s an important book for the themes and ideas that rise to the surface of practically every page, but it’s far from a perfect book precisely because the characters are mere vehicles for the different viewpoints and ideas. Certain characters play a key role, but hang about vaguely at the periphery – Gita, for instance, and even Dahlan. Fernando has a tendency to switch from a factual style of writing that reads like reportage to sudden oblique and twisty ramblings when in the mind of one of the characters, notably Siti Sara, and this doesn’t quite flow and progress the way it should – sometimes it’s merely jarring and shakes the reader out of the pages for a bit, and one’s left stumbling about for one’s bearings. For that reason I couldn’t quite get lost in the book the way I would have liked to – in long, uninterrupted stretches of time – I could only manage a few pages each time before putting it down for a bit, and then picking it up again.
As far as characters go, only Siti Sara is truly fleshed-out (even that, only in comparison to the other characters), and because of this, her meandering stream-of-consciousness musings towards the final chapters are chilling, desultory, and portentous; the reader is left with a very strong feeling that nothing is as is should be, and all is wrong and potentially devastating if we keep going along the same path as we always have. Most important is the Foucauldian sense of the post-colonial Malaysian society where power is looming over you from seemingly everywhere and yet from nowhere in particular, the idea that you should watch yourself because everyone else is, leaving one with no choice to but to put on several masks, adopt several facades; one to suit each ethnic group or person you’re with at the time. Except for a select few who dare to probe their own prejudices, and die as a result, or go mad, or become simply numb, this foundation of assorted masks and disguises is the frail and shaky one upon which the country is building is postcolonial identity:
“Nobody could get May sixty-nine right, she thought. It was hopeless to pretend you could be objective about it. Speaking even to someone close to you, you were careful for fear the person might unwittingly quote you on others. If a third person was present, it was worse, you spoke for that person’s benefit. If he was Malay, you spoke one way, Chinese another way, Indian another. Even if he wasn’t listening. In the end the spun tissue, like an unsightly scab, became your vision of what happened: the wound beneath continued to run pus.”
Green is the colour, says Lloyd Fernando, but there’s nothing lovely about it.