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:
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.

Pink is for tween Muslimahs

Update: An extended version of this post can be found at Muslimah Media Watch

It had to happen sooner or later. With Barbie and now Hannah Montana merchandise dominating the tween to early teenage market in Malaysia, products for young Muslim women in hijab are starting to appear, particularly on the bookshelves. And they look very pink.

Sayalah Puteri Raja (I'm the princess here!)

There are also whiffs of collusion with the Disney conglomerate’s marketing strategies; princesses sell. Now, I’m not the only one who thinks that princesses make one of the worst kind of role models. They’re expected to be beautiful, rescued by Prince Charming, and either acquire or inherit wealth and royal status patrilineally. But then, stories of princesses and other beautiful heroines make an obvious progression towards the Malay novel and its main theme: romance. The contemporary romance novel is pretty much the only form of Malay fiction writing popular today. So pervasive is the Malay romance novel that it’s even taught in schools as ‘Malay literature’.

I’m assuming that this is part of the mainstreaming of ‘Islamic culture’ to reach out to younger Muslim-Malaysians. It’s saying that you can be hip and with the times and still be a good Muslim. But here, to be hip is to be a sad carbon-copy of Disney princesses with blue eyes and fair-skin and colluder of Western gender stereotypes.

Other examples of ‘pink and feminine’ novels for Muslim young women:

Diari Aneesa (Aneesa's Diary)
Kotak Rahsia Ismah (Ismah's Secret Box)
40 Lukisan Hati (40 Drawings of the Heart)
Thank you, Puteriku (Thank you, My Princess)
Dia Ataupun Dia? (Her or Her?)
Dia Ataupun Dia? (Her or Her?)
Balqis dan Pukauan Si Jelita (Balqis and the Spell of the Beautiful One)
Balqis dan Pukauan Si Jelita (Balqis and the Spell of the Beautiful One)

Book review: Ombak Bukan Biru by Fatimah Busu

ombak-bukan-biru4Fatimah Busu has a gift for telling stories of social alienation. Her stories are often a provocative social critique of Malay society but are easily accessible and good for philosophical rumination. In Salam Maria, her protagonist is a misfit, a social castoff who is forced to the depths of the forest to live with those of a similar fate. In Ombak Bukan Biru (The Waves Are Not Blue, 1972, Pekan Ilmu Publications), the turmoil of class, cultural and religious differences is told from the point of view of Imrah, a young Malay teacher from Kelantan.

Emotional, though paced at breakneck speed, Ombak Bukan Biru is a joy to read. From the beginning of the novel we know that Imrah has little patience for her boyfriend’s dalliances and leaves him with a broken heart and broken gifts from happier days. But a surprise visit from the school headmistress and an English guest teacher, Cik Celine, forms a kind of emotional distraction that relieves her from the painful break-up. Unbeknownst to Imrah of course, of the greater melodrama that will unfold following this chance meeting.

Celine and Imrah quickly become close friends and share a mutual enthusiasm for traditional court dancing, the tarian lilin (candle dance). Their friendship leads to an invitation to Celine’s home in Pulau Pinang where she meets her future love, Lawrence. Their relationship is encouraged by his family and Celine, but the same could not be expected from Imrah’s family. The clash of cultures she experiences is striking; while her white family and Lawrence are welcoming and permissive, her own family is uncompromising and suspicious of others different from themselves. The Malay attitude towards inter-religious marriage she discovers is both sexist and arcane. She learns from her deeply religious father that a marriage between a Muslim woman and convert (mu’alaf) is destined to doom. Feminine persuasion cannot lead a man to an Islamic way of life the way a man can lead a woman:

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Book review: Contrary Visions – Women and Work in Malay Novels Written by Women by Christine Campbell

contrary-visions1Despite the clunky title, Contrary Visions (2004, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka) offers a rather comprehensive review of novels by Malay women written between 1940 and 1995, including a couple of early Indonesian novels thrown in for good, hazy archipelagoan measure. Alongside Virginia Hooker’s Writing a New Society: Social Change Through the Novel in Malay (2000), Campbell’s book is pioneering stuff in the field of Malay women’s writing. In it, Malaysia’s political independence from British rule in 1957 serves as the ‘Big Bang’ in the course of women’s writing from which then on became more interesting, more daring. But how much more interesting and more daring really is it?

‘Contrary visions’ is the recurring theme in this book, and is supposedly reflected in the aspirations of the female leading characters. All of the novels reviewed, from the pre-Independence Panggilan Ibunda (Call of the Motherland, 1948​) by Kamariah Saadon, to the politically conscious Anugerah (The Award, 1995) by Zaharah Nawawi, involve the issues of marriage and work – the latter either domestic or professional, and so any textual evidence of pragmatism in female characters about these issues are defined as a ‘contrary vision’ to the stifling Malay customs designed for the female sex.

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A Malay poem for Black History Month

Since it’s Black History Month in Britain, I’d like to feature an unlikely poem by Malaysia’s greatest poet and dramatist, Usman Awang (1929-2001). Written in 1971, ‘Suara Blues’ (Voices of the Blues) is a critique of Western hegemony and racism. It is also a kind of clarion call for the return to ‘the centre’, the origin, the age of pre-colonisation, which was a popular theme in postcolonial writing at the time.

In Malay (English translation after the jump):

Suara Blues

Kemilau hitamnya paling indah
Disinar bulan di cahaya matahari
Ribuan sayap hitam
Di awan
Membayangi sebuah istana
Ribuan bayang hitam
Suara hitam
… dan murka hitam

Dicanang ke seluruh negeri
Mana pemburu mana penembak terpandai
Gugurkan sayap-sayap hitam.
Kerana hitam
Hanya kerana hitamnya.
Tiada tangan mencampakkan kacang
Tiada jari menaburkan jagung
Lapar, lapar yang hitam.

Burung hitam
Telah mereka dengar gema
Genta malam
Trompet hitam, jauh
Jauh di sana di Afrika
Adalah mereka saudara-saudara tercinta
Suara Blues

berazam berombak berkurung berteriak
perhambaan dari pembinaan tamadun
dari air mata tulang-tulang putih mereka
hanya kerana hitam, ya kerana hitamnya
lapar yang hitam, nasib yang hitam.

Dan kini di sini tanah air setengah hitam
Pasukan-pasukan penembak Diraja
Kemilau senapang ciptaan manusia tamadun
Jauh, jauh datangnya = Made in USA, Made in England

Mana seronok menjadi juara tembak
Pertandingan Kejohanan Pesta Gemilang
Berebutan sesamanya, berebutan seperti orang lapar,
Menjatuhkan sayap hitam.

Warna yang dibenci
Rupa yang dibenci
Suara yang dibenci

Bayang hitam yang dikasihi


Terbanglah cepat ke hutan
Ada gunung ada bukit ada sungai jernih
Adalah teman setia
Tiada keseorangan, tiada keseorangan
Di sini terhimpun seribu kekuatan.
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Ramadhan book club: Salam Maria

Since it’s Ramadhan I thought it might be quite appropriate that I have a special religious feature in my feminist/Malay lit blog. So in today’s post I’d like bring to your attention a little known novel by Fatimah Busu, ‘Salam Maria‘ (or Hail Mary) published in 2004. Unfortunately it’s in Malay, and almost impossible to purchase even in Malaysia as many big-name book shops don’t stock it. But don’t let these be stumbling blocks to discovering the beauty in ‘Salam Maria’. In Fatimah Busu’s allegory, the central character, Maria Zaitun, becomes a religious leader of a community for social outcasts who live in a rain forest called Hutan Beringin.

Though a devout Muslim, Maria Zaitun is ostracised by members of her village for refusing to conform to patriarchal ideals of womanhood. Even the village imam chases her out of the mosque in her time of spiritual need. It is however, a group of women: old, poor, and disabled, who offer her sanctuary in their humble home in Hutan Beringin. Her highly charitable and non-judgemental nature towards rape and incest victims gains the reverence of the forest’s inhabitants. Maria Zaitun is not just a spiritual leader, she is also an entrepreneur: she is the one who encourages these women to start a small cottage industry, sewing and selling specially-embroidered telekung or praying attire for Muslim women in the urban centres. This helps provide them with some form of financial independence and security.

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The peeping tom and adulterer: some themes Malays like

Dia melekapkan mata kanannya ke lubang paku tiga inci itu dengan hati berdebar-debar. Nafasnya terhenti sejenak bila melihat tubuh putih gebu yang sedang basah berkemban sahaja. Dadanya terdedah. Sharifah membuka ikat kain kembannya. Kain kuyup itu dikirai-kirai. Rambutnya yang lebat hitam terhurai lepas hingga ke paras pinggang berbuai-buai lemah. Badan putih melepak begitu lembut. Begitu memberahikan.

(An excerpt from ‘Tembelang’ by Yahya Samah, 1966)

I’m writing a brief and casual analysis of the similar themes employed by Yahya Samah’s novel ‘Tembelang’ and U-Wei Shaari in his 1993 film “Perempuan, Isteri, dan …”. The two themes in both bodies of work: voyeurism and the cheating wife, seem effective enough to show how preoccupied Malaysians are about certain aspects of sex and sexuality. I must point out by saying that both voyeurism and adultery are not social deviations exclusive to Malays, but what strikes me as uniquely Malay is the “berkemban” scene in ‘Tembelang’ and in “Perempuan…”.

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