The lacuna: Where is the missing canon of Malaysian feminist fiction writing?

A version of this post was first published on Kakak Killjoy

The question above may seem far ahead of its time, as the influence of feminism – in whatever form of feminism we as Malaysians can recognise – has yet to have an established place in our literature. Fiction-writing has long been central to Western feminisms; many who call themselves feminists would have read or heard of The Yellow Wallpaper, Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Awakening, Fear of Flying, The Bell Jar, or inspired by the work of Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood, Nawal el-Sadawi, Audre Lorde, Ursula Le Guin, and the many US and UK-based feminist writers on the internet. But we as Malaysians enjoy Western feminist writings in a more vicarious way, as we have too few inspirational local texts to call our own. Too few to develop a semblance of a canon of Malaysian feminist writing. Even rarer still are those that address contemporary concerns.

The question that people are quick to ask is, what makes a novel or a whole body of literature feminist?

According to feminist literary theorist Cheri Register, feminist fiction should have the following qualities:

  • serves as a forum for women
  • helps to achieve cultural androgyny
  • provide role models
  • promote sisterhood, and
  • augment consciousness-raising

In literature or fiction writing, feminism comes out of the page demanding the reader to think more critically about the socio-political situation the female and male characters experience. At times, characters inspire their readers in questioning and challenging the oppressive status quo and hopefully spur readers into doing, being the same. In other words, feminist writings raises a reader’s consciousness to oppression and injustice that are regarded as common sense – “women always want to be mothers, love housework and gossip, subservient to their husbands and other men, and mustn’t be too ambitious” – “this is the way things are, always been, and will always be”

Feminist heroines in literature are rarely one-dimensional people. In fact all would often reflect the complex nature of its readers; from trail-blazing free spirits like Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables, indomitable like Celie in The Color Purple, conflicted like Mira in The Women’s Room, to uncompromising like Imrah in Ombak Bukan Biru. They attain self-actualisation without a male love interest or life-affirmation through heterosexual marriage. They are women who love education and learning and aim for the best, their sense of self are tested and questioned at every turn by sexist, racist, and classist societal norms.

In the case of Celie, Mira, and Imrah, all of whom experience difficult, intimate relationships with men and made to the end of the story unmarried, a little scarred by emotional trauma, yet fulfilled and hungry to take on life’s many challenges. Sometimes it seems as if in feminist writing the boundaries between representation and the ‘real’, entertainment and political didacticism are often blurred as most feminist literature are political and emancipatory in its implicit objective.

The dearth in feminist characterisation in Malaysian literature can be attributed to the socio-political straightjacket that threatens writers critical of the status quo into self-censorship or be censored. The few and far in between that do exist appear in the maddeningly rare portrayals of extraordinary women as adventurers, scholars, and saints in the writings of Siti Zainon Ismail and Fatimah Busu. The other possible obstacle to the lack and loss of feminist writing is Malaysia’s under-appreciated reading culture; books are not cheap and older books often do not get reprinted. People do and would want to read non- “classic” Malaysian fiction published prior to 2000. Fiction by pre-merdeka writers depicting the lives of women at the cusp of modernity by Rayuan Sukma, Kamariah Saadon, Jahlelawati, and Rokiah Abu Bakar are now largely forgotten.

Despite our massive bookshops, they’re not home to local fiction. Instead, they impose on Malaysian readers a concept of globalised reading culture whose terms and tastes are shaped by global corporate mega companies that thinks Malaysians are interested in 20th century military and war history in the western world, chick lit by and for middle-class white women, and a mass of cookbooks which require ingredients that will never be available in your nearest Giant or Carrefour supermarket.

Heavy-handed laws against artistic expression (whether official and self-imposed ones) have done little to stifle the subversive writings of Shahnon Ahmad, Salleh ben Joned, sprouting of the local LGBT short story genre, and erotic writing. But much of Malaysia’s subversive writings are and have always been dominated by men; whether it’s written by men or edited or published by men. Feminism, or its much friendlier and less subversive guise, “women’s rights and issues”, hardly makes a ripple in the local literary world that’s begging to be cool, insurrectionary, and relevant again.

Women’s writing is invidiously expected, like in the English publication world, to be about shopping and getting Mr. Right. It would be a particularly victorious day for disrupting our stubbornly stagnant gender politics when Malaysia has its own version of Indonesia’s sastra wangi, the deeply political, erotic, disturbing, and exhilarating genre by young women writers critical of Suharto’s authoritarian regime.

Taking a brighter view on things, the relative safe issue of “women’s rights” may remove many obstacles (such as the label of “controversy” or “immorality”) that hinder female writers from crafting complex characters and thought-provoking plots to stir a reader’s feminist consciousness. There are many socio-cultural arenas that await Malaysian feminist writing; transgender issues, disabilities, eco-feminism, food politics, and consumerism to name a few. Most feminist novels, whether staged in the present, in the distant future or in an alternate reality, are a commentary of the writer’s time. Perhaps the paucity of current feminist writing by Malaysian women is symptomatic of a complex but quiet and subtle malaise characterised by simply a lack of interest?

Recommended titles:
Novels
Jalur sinar di celah daun by Zaharah Nawawi
Pulau Renik Ungu by Siti Zainon Ismail
Salam Maria by Fatimah Busu
Ombak bukan biru by Fatimah Busu

Short stories
Polishing by Charlene Rajendran
Short message system by Mercy Thomas
Bahawa hidup itulah cintaku by Anis Sabirin

For non-Malaysian English language titles, here is a long list of recommendations.

Book review: The Rey Chow Reader

(Crossposted from Elevate Difference)

Edited by Bowman, Columbia University Press

Not many theorists would re-imagine Jane Eyre as a Maoist. However, postcolonial thinker Rey Chow does and with great aplomb. Furthermore, it’s not in the context of English literature in which Chow invokes the fictional heroine, but rather the issue of Orientalism in today’s academia. According to Chow, the Maoist Jane Eyre is a romantic and a self-styled victim that is embodied in the non-native scholar of East Asian studies who bemoans the loss of cultural “authenticity” in an increasingly globalised world. Chow’s deft and even fanciful portrayal of the latter-day Orientalist that demonstrates her creative ingenuity and unconventional analytical mind is evident throughout the collection of her essays, The Rey Chow Reader, edited by Paul Bowman.

These qualities are important in the primary themes tackled in her writings—sexuality, racism, and postcolonialism. In the post-Edward Said world, the Orientalism of yore is not only outmoded but a disgrace to the Western academic code of practice, but Chow is perceptive to detect the more subtle Orientalisms she finds still pervasive in the academy, particularly in East Asian studies in Western institutions. Not only are academics (and often highly respected icons; Julia Kristeva for one) safe from Chow’s relentless critique of latter day Orientalism, the works and words of art house film-makers Zhang Yimou and Bernado Bertolucci also go under her microscopic scrutinising gaze.

She is also self-aware of her own position in the ivory tower that she turns this gaze towards herself in an essay about her early career in academia; scholars from the former colonial frontier during the dissolution of the British empire such as herself (Chow hails from Hong Kong) were seduced by the imagined prestige of English literature that rendered Chinese writing less superior and intellectually legitimate. Chow’s essay on the postcolonial-ised scholar is a subdued call to arms for the reclamation of one’s own scholarship and by effect, cultural identity, even if one cannot readily give up the tools fashioned by the master.

It becomes clear that Chow is also deeply political. ‘Seeing is Destroying’ charts the changes in the US discourse of war since the devastating bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to today’s brutality of war made sophisticated. These historical observations are perhaps nothing new, however, her concept of the target has chilling resonance of the primordial hunt. As the target in the hunt for America’s national Other, first Japan, then the USSR, and now the shadowy figure of the Muslim terrorist, it is reduced to an object on which the trigger is on perpetual threat mode. What links ‘Seeing is Destroying’ with most of Chow’s essays is visuality and the continued technological advancements that make the act of seeing increasingly powerful and more instrumental in xenophobic and sexist control.

Chow’s tentacle-like approach to a diversity of disciplines that probes into every crevice of detail promises a thrilling experience and an inspiration to younger scholars of postcolonialism like myself. Perhaps the level of microscopic detail that Chow magnifies throughout her merciless analyses on Orientalism in film and her idiosyncrantic salad-bowl approach to theory may not appeal to everyone, but Chow has certainly created a fan in me.

Book review: The Material of Knowledge: Feminist Disclosures

By Susan Hekman, Indiana University Press

This is a book for the post post-modernist thinker. Written by professor of political science, Susan Hekman, The Material of Knowledge: Feminist Disclosures seeks to alleviate the theorist’s conundrum with the material consequences in the event of natural disasters and destruction. Many theorists today are curiously silent on tsunamis, terrorist attacks, and earthquakes and Hekman sees this as a problem of post-modern thinking.

Philosophy from the second half of the twentieth century onwards has been largely preoccupied with what is called ‘the linguistic turn’—an understanding that all reality is only perceivable through language. Also known as linguistic constructionism, the trend fails at taking into account the tangible elements of concepts and theory. A new way to theory-making or ‘settlement’ is in order and feminist theory is, argues Hekman, at the forefront of this breakthrough. And this is because no other system of thought is invested heavily on the experiences of oppression often imprinted on the body the way feminist theory is. However, the body alone is not enough to represent ‘matter’.

Hekman argues that non-human matter have agency too in that they are not always predictable and in that regard, somehow have a ‘life of its own’. This makes the relationship between human and non-human all the more interesting if a little unsettling. To illuminate the mechanics of this relationship, Hekman adopts Andrew Pickering’s unglamorously-named concept of the mangle; things get mangled up when humans and non-human agents meet, producing inevitably messy outcomes. Hekman sees the mangle at work in the disaster of Hurricane Katrina and the prenatal sonogram. Both display the way different discourses (poverty and abortion) work with and against non-human elements (dangerous weather conditions and medical apparatus). The mangle represents an important link between the abstract realm of ideas and the world ‘out there’.

The underlying argument throughout Hekman’s thesis is, if crudely put, that philosophers are out of touch with reality. However, Hekman does not challenge the circumstances that grant philosophers the privilege to talk about society and yet seem to not be able to incorporate “real life” into their work. The critique of lofty intellectualism remains frustratingly absent here. While the mangle is undoubtedly a useful concept to understanding material destruction, Hekman makes a bold (if rather morbid) leap in suggesting that feminist theoretical approach to the body holds the key to new ways of understanding death and destruction of epic proportions.

The Material of Knowledge is a slow-burning demonstration of Hekman’s linear thinking towards the new ‘settlement’. As a proposal for a new theoretical tool to approaching pain and material devastation, Hekman’s book leaves the reader with more questions than answers. To begin with, the concept of the mangle seems to absolve itself of refinement both by virtue of semantics and theoretical characteristic, and I am left wondering whether Hekman had backed herself into a theoretical corner where to understand material destruction is cook up an analytical mess.

This evokes a level of pessimism and an assumption that multiple elements of living and non-living persuasions affect each other on a more or less equal playing field; an event is simply a web of things and lives thrown in together, which leaves one to ask: where are we in Hekman’s new settlement? Where is human agency in the midst of mangled discourses and wordlessness of fear and pain? It would be difficult to recommend Hekman’s latest book for the uninitiated in post-structuralism and post-modernism as this slim tome can be a slog for even the well-versed. The Material of Knowledge: Feminist Disclosures does however inspire optimistic thoughts about the role of feminism in contemporary philosophy and the slow march of theory towards grasping reality.

Forbidden Love: Indonesian LGBT book covers

The following are just a few of the many books I will have to plough through this summer.

Cinta Terlarang – Sebuah Novel Untuk Dewasa (Forbidden Love – A Novel For Adults) by Andre Aciman. Synopsis (translated from Indonesian by yours truly):

Elio, a young Italian man, has fallen head over heals for Oliver, his American guest over the summer. Disturbed by his “unnatural” feelings for Oliver, Elio tries hard to ignore them. Despite having extraordinary good looks, being popular with ladies and a great conversationalist on the topic of books, Elio prefers being a bit of a loner. Unbelievably, however, Oliver reciprocates but soon returns home to marry a woman. Betrayed, Elio cuts all ties with his summer fling but deep within his heart, his love for Oliver isn’t that easy to extinguish. He spends year after year trying to convince himself that their love wans’t just a summer fling.

“Cinta Itu Tidak Dosa”- Sketsa Perjalanan Cinta Terlarang, Kumpulan Puisi (“Love Is Not a Sin” – Sketches of Forbidden Love, A Collection of Poems) by Y.F.Nata

Perempuan Semusim – Kisah Nyata Metamorfosa Lesbian ke Heteroseksual (A Woman for a Season – The True Story of a Metamorphosis from Lesbian to a Heterosexual Woman) by Amitri Dinar Sari.

Mairil – Sepenggal Kisah Biru di Pesentren (Mairil – An X-rated Story in a Islamic School) by Syarifuddin

Gemblak – Tragedi Cinta Budak Homoseks (Gemblak – The Tragic Love of a Homosexual Slave) by Enang Rok Ajat Asura.

Beri Aku Dunia – Banci Juga Manusia (Give Me a World – Transsexuals Are Also People) by Andy Stevenio

‘Cinta Terlarang’ is certainly a theme here. Now we have Cinta terlarang, Cinta Terindah – Sebuah Novel (Forbidden Love, The Most Beautiful Love – A Novel) by L. Benako Aksara.

Privilege: A Reader

Edited by Michael Kimmel and Abby L. Ferber
Westview Press

A historian once said that the more one can know about something, the more you can control it. Michel Foucault was specifically talking about the control of psychiatric patients, prison inmates, and people’s sex lives, but we can certainly extend his thoughts to a plethora of other examples. What Foucault did not say, however, was how exposing and learning about power and dominance can lead to their dismantling.

After more than two decades since his passing, the inheritors of Foucault’s ideas make an appearance in a handsome new book that explores the invisible power of privilege; namely the privilege of being White, heterosexual, and middle class in America. Privilege: A Reader is a collection of essays compiled and edited by Michael Kimmel and Abby L. Ferber, both scholarly experts in masculinities and ethnic studies respectively. The book takes on a welcoming and accessible feel with essays that come a personal place, many written from a first-person perspective by heavyweights like Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, and Tim Wise.

Some, like Allan Bérubé’s experience as a gay rights activist brings to light the complications of being White in anti-racist gay rights movement. Not being White, I found Bérubé’s angst about pointing out the Whiteness of influential gay groups in the U.S. an eyeopener. For White people, it seems, it was convenient to remain racially invisible and to depend on the unspoken rules about keeping that Whiteness unchecked. Awkward silences, defensiveness, and hostility form the repertoire of White discomfort when the racial gaze is turned to Whiteness.

In Michael A. Messner’s piece on “Becoming 100 Percent Straight,” he raises questions that heterosexual people rarely ask: how do we know for sure we’re straight? And what made us straight? Messner’s question is interwoven in a study of his own sexuality that touches on his memories as a young man who was infatuated with a male classmate and friend. In repressing this infatuation, he belittles and rejects his friend—a process Messner calls the heterosexualisation of his masculinity.

With every chapter I am reminded of the discomfort the topic of privilege raises and how important that it should remain unsettling. I learn that Black men and working class White people, as privileged groups, are highly contested categories in the face of institutional racism and poverty. And dishearteningly, I discover that the gateway to social mobility undermined by the unearned privilege of being accepted to Ivy League colleges by virtue of having parents who are alumni.

Kimmel and Ferber’s book takes us on a journey of self-reflection, of deconstructing the power of invisibility, and asks us some difficult questions about our many roles in maintaining oppression. But it does not try leave us beset with racial or class guilt. Rather, it invites us to pursue, both on a theoretical and practical level, ways of recognising the overlapping nature of social privileges and overcoming differences in the name of solidarity against oppressions.

Though Privilege: A Reader could be a more comprehensive, far-reaching catalogue of dominance, both insidious and overt, if it had taken on board the narrative of privilege from other non-White experiences and interrogated what being able-bodied and cisgendered mean. The absence of trans, disabled, Asian, and Native American voices speaks, ironically, of Kimmel’s and Ferber’s privilege of omitting these important experiences that are key to dismantling the edifice of privilege.

I praise Privilege: A Reader nonetheless, for its courage to speak from a place that prefers to remain silent, for raising attention to things that want to stay hidden, and its overall critique of life’s many taken for granted experiences and “common sense.” I’m sure Foucault would be proud of that.

Book review: Women of colour and feminism

First published at Feminist Review. (Thanks Mandy!)


If many postmodern feminists would have it, colour or“race” wouldn’t be of primary concern in theorising oppression; a woman would be seen as much more than her race, class, and sexuality. In other words, every woman’s experience of oppression is nuanced, different. And if the postmodern approach is hugely popular and trounces other feminist methods of studying oppression, Women of Color and Feminism by Maythee Rojas would be rendered obsolete.

But it hasn’t, and that’s because we cannot get past race and the “assumptions based on our physical features [that] invariably work against our attempts at self-actualisation.” Thus the only way to gain some control over our lives as non-White women is by claiming politically-charged identities. In this, Rojas means ‘Women of Colour’.

Rojas expresses surprise that her students, who are mostly people of colour, do not identify with the term, but she doesn’t have to investigate too deeply to discover why: women of colour, as a group and in its use as terminology, have long been marginalised within academia. Learning about “Others” is reduced to courses on multiculturalism, and everywhere else, people are expected to be perceived as simply people. Rojas does not suggest, however, that the term is a loaded one, or one that has the political potency that feminist also has. Typically associated with the Black civil rights movement, “colored” can sound outdated and exclusive, and it’s unsurprising that not many, especially outside the cabal of feminist academia, take it up.

Women of Color and Feminism is interspersed with profiles of women and historical vignettes that readers are made to understand as inspirations for feminist consciousness in different ethnic communities in the United States. One cannot help but note a sense of tragedy that overhangs each profile. Anna Mae Pictau-Acquash, Saartjie Baartman, Korean camptown women, and Josefa Loaiza are all women whose lives have been marked by and remembered for the brutality inflicted on them because of the way they looked and where they came from.

Disco diva Donna Summers makes an unexpected appearance as the subject of Rojas’ analysis on the sexuality of women of colour. Known for her risque lyrics and sexy media persona, Summers’ 1970s career is projected as a kind of yardstick for how much women of colour, particularly Black women, have gained following the sexual revolution in the 1960s. It’s far from a ‘happily ever after’ of sexual autonomy and empowerment, Rojas notes, as everything the disco singer represented—in her music and image—was hugely complicit in reinforcing heterosexist ‘love’ and resurrecting the ghost of the Black Jezebel.

Rojas also covers a range of issues pertaining to the struggles of women of colour that are not usually associated with mainstream feminism. This includes reproductive rights as the right to remain fertile, as women of colour have been known to be sterilised against their will for numerous racist reasons, and the rights of incarcerated women to better health care in prison, protection from abuse behind bars, and better rehabilitation programmes.

The limitations I find in Rojas’ already expansive account is the omission of feminist work by women of colour whose goals are integrated within mainstream feminism’s agenda. This is important, especially in her final chapter on transnational feminism in which she stresses the key to feminism’s dynamism is the need for common links with other feminists to be established on a continual basis—not just with other women of colour, but with white women too. Women of Color and Feminism makes it clear that under the pressure of silence and marginalisation, more and more women of colour feel compelled to create narratives that represent their unique experiences through whatever means possible. Visual art, stand-up comedy, and blogs are the new, life-affirming sources of inspirations for feminists of colour, and not Rojas’ flawed selection of women of colour’s tragic lives.

Ramadhan book club: Our Stories, Our Lives

Originally published at Muslimah Media Watch, with thanks to The Policy Press.


Our Stories, Our Lives is an anthology of a diverse group of women in Bradford, England, offering a glimpse into their lives and their issues with reconciling their Muslim identities with being British. With the media’s daily onslaught on the image of Muslims and assumptions about so-called conflicting alliances (Islam and the West), a “proud British Muslim” would sound like an oxymoron to many. But it isn’t, and talking to many Muslims in Britain will tell you just that.

The book–edited by Wahida Shaffi–is based on an oral history project called OurLives (also coordinated by Shaffi) and presents stories of 20 women between the ages 14 to 80, and their thoughts on being female and Muslim in Britain. Perhaps what makes it more interesting is that all stories are told against a geographical backdrop that has been historically colored by immigration and racial tensions. As the epicenter of the Rushdie affair in the 1980s, Bradford became a shorthand for the fragile relationship the country has with its Muslim population that will last for decades.

Though as inspiring as most positive portrayals of Muslim women in the media, this is not the Muslim Women Power List that has been making its publicity rounds the last few months. Rather, these are women a lot like your mother, grandmother, daughter, and friends. Their stories are so deeply personal that you sometimes think you’re reading a private journal dripping with confessions and secrets. Far removed from the overarching debates about the hijab and burqa that seek to define Muslim womanhood are real women who struggle with their faith while balancing their careers and private life.

The most touching story in the book is Syima Merali’s dilemma of choosing between having to serve alcohol in her restaurant or suffer financially. Wearing the hijab and selling alcohol became a testing time for Merali, made more difficult by castigation that her earnings are haram. The compromise she makes  echoes the many difficult compromises practicing Muslims make in a secular, predominantly non-Muslim country.

Another piece I found inspiring is Elana Davis’ “Music ‘n’ Motherhood”, in which she talks candidly about raising three sons the Islamic way single-handedly and teaching street dancing in college. As a young convert who wears her Islamic identity proudly, Davis’ represents a face of Islam in Britain that now exists on the margins of history: Black Muslims have been in Britain since the 16th century and black conversion to Islam has been a growing phenomenon in the last two decades. Also a hijabi, does Davis find her street dancing and love for hip hop in contradiction with her religious identity? No, she says.

“Someone told me actually that I shouldn’t wear my scarf because I teach dance. I think if you listen to what everybody’s got to say, you will get confused, as at the end of the day, I became a Muslim for myself. I’ll learn myself, and if I do something wrong, that is something that I’m going to have to deal with, with God – nobody else”

There are several stories of unflinching patriotism from women who came to Britain to find a land of opportunity and freedom to dress and express their religious and cultural identities however they please. Some found their British identity a refuge from the personal limitations placed by tradition and ancestral culture. While most British Muslims are expected to be two-dimensional characters defined by ethnicity and religion, women like Sensei Mumtaz Khan, whose job as a ju-jujitsu teacher appears to trump her Islamic and Afghan identities. For Khan, ju-jitsu forms a core component of her life as she remains, contentiously, a cultural Muslim.

Our Stories, Our Lives allows the voices of Muslim women to be heard rather than be silenced and spoken for (often through the mouthpiece of the media and community leaders, who are always men). But the ever-expanding body of research and books on British Muslims shows that much more is needed to feed the political and public interest in an extremely visible but misunderstood religious minority. It also indicates that there is little informal communication bridging different ethnic and religious groups here, and no end to the mystification of Muslim women in sight.