Identity Politics and Malaysian Literature

Sometimes I think that the Malaysia literati should just take a chill pill. Much like kiasu parents who believe that their children should only read books that contribute to their academic success, they are often fretting over the type of literature being written and consumed by Malaysians.

I was reading Daphne Lee's post, Reading Local Lit, in which she said: "In Malaysia, those of us who do love to read have certainly had our tastes and expectations (of what a story/book should be like) shaped by Western mainstream writers/ critics/ literature. This affects the fate of local literature, especially how it is perceived and if it is read."

I can't think how I might define Malaysian literature without referring to styles established in Europe and North America. Malaysian writers, especially those whose medium is English, have European narrative traditions hanging over their heads, so to speak, and it's hard not to be intimidated, influenced (bullied) and judged by these traditions. Readers are in a similar position. Even our exposure to African and Asian literature is controlled by what is available in the West, and translated by American and British publishers.

Here's my take: Rather than think of Western literature as an all-consuming, pulversing force, I think of it as a gem, a wonderful contribution from one part of humanity to another.

The Malaysian literati are far too anxious to establish Malaysia's cultural identity in fiction, and I think it's a bad idea to force the issue on writers and readers.

In the TED talk, The Politics of Fiction, Turkish author Elif Shafak said: "Stories lose their magic when they become more than a story."

She spoke about a time when a literary critic questioned why she only included one Turkish character in one of her novels, and the character's a male on top of that.

"He wanted to see the manifestation of my identity. He was looking for a Turkish woman in the book because I happen to be one." Identity politics are affecting how stories are being circulated, read and reviewed, she said.

"Many authors feel this pressure, but non-Western authors feel it more heavily. If you're a woman writer from the Muslim world like me, then you are expected to write stories about Muslim women and preferably the unhappy stories of unhappy Muslim women. You are expected to write informative, poignant, and characteristic stories and leave the experimental and avant garde stories to your Western colleagues."

Turkish author Elif urged writers to transcend identity and cultural politics. And I agree with that so much that I want to shout it from rooftops. Identity politics is such a disease in Malaysia; it affects every facet of our lives, don't let it infect our literature too. Writers should transcend that, not play along.

Furthermore, Malaysians have grown up being told what is acceptable for us to talk, write, tweet, watch or read. The last thing we need is for the Malaysian literati to lecture writers and readers on what's acceptable/better to consume!

No, Malaysian writers do not need to write about Malaysian characters leading Malaysian lives on Malaysian soil. Nor do Malaysian readers have the obligation to.

Writers should write what's in their hearts, whether it be bodice rippers, space operas or an experimental literary work that would make New York Times book reviewers swoon in ecstasy.

If you still insist on fretting abou something, then fret about this: We need to instil the freedom and joy that reading and writing brings and leave identity politics where it belongs: In a newspaper gathering mushrooms somewhere.

What we need to do is to give budding Malaysian creatives the freedom to explore what piques their interest and give them the tools to pursue it. Unfortunately, there are not many creative writing classes in Malaysia, and they're often dominated by folks who often tell you that your work is only deemed worthy if it's written in a certain style/genre/setting.

I really believe that once Malaysian creatives embrace this freedom, stories with our unique cultural identity will emerge naturally.

Meanwhile, kick back with a John Grisham or a Dan Brown and don't bloody feel guilty about it.