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.

A Reader's Manifesto: literary darlings actually suck at writing

I was at a bookshop one day, and a friend and I spotted a table piled with stacks of award-winning books. My friend, who worked in a bookstore, leaned close to me and whispered, as if she was about to say something really naughty: "I think they're really boring."

Oh vey, yes. You don't get much argument from me about this.

I've long held the suspicion that a lot (not all) of  "literary" books are rather ... crap. Of course, you don't say this out loud in the company of the cultural/literary intelligensia, who not only dig these books but breathe it, quoting passages like how evangelists quote passages from the Bible.

Okay, I jest. But there's always been this "understanding" that literary books are "better", "finer" and of a higher standard than "genre" fiction, and if you don't "get" literary fiction, that means you're not intelligent or "deep" enough to appreciate them. This silly belief always gets on my nerves.

First: who created this silly divide between "literary" and "genre" fiction anyway? Why can't we just call them fiction? Why are some type of books - science fiction and fantasy being one - given so little respect? Why are some books elevated to stratospheric levels despite being unreadable and dull?

Second: If readers can't understand nor get through your book, doesn't that mean that you've failed as a storyteller? Why then sniff at them, your audience, and say that they're just too stupid to appreciate it? This, by the way was what Toni Morisson did when Oprah remarked that she had a tough time understanding a lot of what Morisson wrote.

Morrison's reply was: "That, my dear, is called reading."

BR Myers (who I will talk about very soon) begs to differ: "Sorry, my dear Toni, but it's actually called bad writing," he says in his 2001 essay, A Reader's Manifesto.

If you've suffered through bad novels disguised as prize-winning literature, this is a very comforting and validating essay to read. (He expanded his essay into a book too.)

Myers says that the American literary fiction scene is dominated by "sentence cults" who are more enamoured with stylistically "unique" sentences (to him - horrible sentences) than a good story.

Here are some tough words from Myers:

Everything written in self-conscious, writerly prose, on the other hand, is now considered to be "literary fiction"—not necessarily good literary fiction, mind you, but always worthier of respectful attention than even the best-written thriller or romance. It is these works that receive full-page critiques, often one in the Sunday book-review section and another in the same newspaper during the week. It is these works, and these works only, that make the annual short lists of award committees. The "literary" writer need not be an intellectual one.

Many critically acclaimed novels today are no more than mediocre "genre" stories told in a conformist amalgam of approved "literary" styles.

This is what the cultural elite wants us to believe: if our writers don't make sense, or bore us to tears, that can only mean that we aren't worthy of them.

The literary fiction scene is suffering from a case of "Emperor's New Clothes", with the emperor being the overrated literary darlings of the day, the reviewers and publishers the syncophantic courtiers and people like BR Myers the little kid who dared to tell it as it is: The Emperor has no clothes!

Sad to say, the "disease" that Myers talks of is also here in Malaysia. (In an interview with the Atlantic, he says that this is actually an international phenomenon.)

I've picked up short story compilations like MPH's Urban Odysseys, and to put it very bluntly, I found most of the stories in it abysmally boring. One managed to seriously offend me in its first sentence. I also picked up Shih-Li Kow's Ripples, and found that although the short stories were beautifully crafted they left me empty and unsatisfied. We're told that these are the best of the best, but why am I not convinced?

Judging from my rant, I won't blame you if you: a) want to throw a shoe at me for my philistine ways b) think I don't know what I'm talking about b) think that I've not read literary fiction in my life.

The truth is I have a very eclectic reading palette: I read what some may consider "serious" fiction authors (Su Tong, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Orwell, Katherine Mansfield, Guy de Maupassant and Rudyard Kipling are among my favourite authors), and I also read "genre" fiction - crime (Michael Connelly wins!), fantasy (cheers to Robin Hobb) and science fiction (Marion Zimmer Bradley!). Non-fiction forms a large part of my library as well (I seem to gravitate towards books about food shortages, economic turmoil and ecological disasters). I also read the entire works of Shakespeare by the time I graduated university, thanks to my fantastic literature lecturer.

The point of the list is that I think, as a reader, I can be a pretty good judge on what's a good story. And sadly, a lot of literary fiction bore me to tears.

The point is: If you think a book is bad, it's probably because it really sucks.