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Identity: A Cautionary Tale

  • August 16, 2004

By Zedeck Siew

“Lorna Tee is handling my fee,” I told the good people at Silverfish Books. Lorna was one of the festival organisers, and knew two facts: I couldn’t afford the 300 ringgit on my own, and Kakiseni is paying a hundred ringgit less than that for this article. So I attended the Citigroup Kuala Lumpur Literary Festival 2004 (29th July – 1st August) for free. I now feel obliged to write something.

This is from Riza Ali’s ‘Letter of Lament to our National Laureates’, published in the New Straits Times on August 2nd:

Bapak Muhammad, Bapak Othman, thank you for gracing Thursday’s “Dialogue with National Laureates”. There were barely 15 of us. I sat in the front, searching for signs but your faces were inscrutable. What images did you see in the empty seats? Or have you, even amid the gaiety of an international literary festival, resigned yourself to empty space – a space that refuses to be impregnated with your words. Or is it that your language is no longer public, intimate and beloved?

Bapak Muhammad is, of course, National Laureate Professor Muhamad Haji Salleh, who, in his plenary address, cites rojak as the primary metaphor for Malaysia, pointing to the multifarious origins of integral elements in our society: our muhibbah make-up, the Malay language.

He continues: “In describing our unique and diverse Malaysian life, I find the Malay language more suited. Durian and petai, for example.” These have negative connotations in English but take on agreeable, almost mystic airs in Bahasa Malaysia, it seems. “More Malaysian writers should join in on writing in Malay; only then can we establish a truly Malaysian Canon.”

He is working within the conference theme: Evolving Faces: Identities and the printed page. The conference sessions were held mornings at the Renaissance Hotel. Later I consult a Malay-English dictionary to affirm that durian and petai have no English equivalents. It is odd that Haji Salleh should speak of the Malaysian Canon in a future sense; I think we already have a literary tradition, and I think it’s entirely our own, whatever roots we may have in colonialism. Surely he can’t deny it? It includes his work.

And the work of Lloyd Fernando, who was late for the session; whose entrance Haji Salleh acknowledges and for whom he repeats the opening of his speech. Such deference to a venerable Malaysian writer who wrote in English.

I am an eighteen-year-old writer wannabe. I was fifteen when Silverfish published my story in their first New Writings anthology. Now, I would disinherit my story if I could, move on: write more stories; publish them, maybe? So I was at the festival: to brown-nose real writers, to witness discourse on the culture of literature, to study the craft of writing. I know a little, and can afford to know a little more.

I do know that we’ve had an identity crisis for a long time. I hear France agonises about French Identity every summer. Malaysia, being close to the equator, is summer all the time.

For most Malaysians, fortunately, we have the State to tell us what Malaysia means: in these three days, we are a tropical paradise getaway for famous writers. We’ll present them with the Malaysian literati, since they may actually be more interested to meet these creatures than watch Dikir Barat. This is why Tourism Minister Datuk Dr. Leo Michael Toyad opened the festival.

Anyway, that’s what the conference is about: Identity. Not Malaysian identity in particular; just a nebulous, platonic Identity. Scanning abstracts of the thirty-one papers being presented, I found:

3 touched Malay-language literature;

5 touched English-language literature;

6 dealt with Singaporean art;

6 concerned themselves with identity directly, regional or not;

1 expounded on Byron and Mary Shelley;

10 made love to post-colonialism, 4 with India specifically;

1 was a tribute to Edward Said;

1 described Singaporean gay literature, and;

3 spoke of women.

Several overlapped, thematically.

My initial conclusion was: this conference has a schizophrenic bent, or, at least, a severe case of identity crisis. Now, this is fine with me. Any human entity is constantly in this uncertain place; you’d take that as a fact. Discourse, intellectual or otherwise, doesn’t offer certainties, since it is impossible; instead, discourse describes the flux and comes to terms with it. It’s great that the KL International Literary Festival conference reflects an inherent state of the human psyche. Unfortunately, not being human, the conference has no excuse to be what it was: sporadic in scope and shallow in depth. Observe:

I am sitting in a room, listening to Mr. Choo, Simon read part of his paper: How do we write what we eat? Capturing identity and the senses through an anthropology of food. Food “evokes memories connecting places and people separated by time and space,” like many other things in certain conditions, but Mr. Choo promises to dive “the fields of phenomenology, sensory and visual anthropology,” in his study. Wow, big words, I told myself, maybe I’ll learn what they mean. I don’t.

Ms. Ng, LH delivered her presentation prior to this; Evolving Spaces: Identity Under Construction came complete with aerial photographs of Kuala Lumpur and pictures of One Utama. Her abstract is an excuse, proposing like it does: ‘that a space, like any written story or fact, is also a complex system of representation open to many interpretations’. ‘Written story’ does not surface at all: it is a paper on how corporate branding and development affect the architecture of a city. ‘The highway from KLIA is lined with billboards,” she comments at one point. Billboards are print media, but I’m not sure they qualify as literature.

In response to Ms. Ng, a woman gets up, approaches the microphone, apologises for her Malay accent, and embarks on a entirely unnecessary defence of government policy regarding urban development, dragging Taiping (“favourite of Colonials”) and Kuala Terengganu (“favourite of Americans”) along, saying programmed gems such as “KL has to be developed to increase Malaysia’s profile in the international eye,” and “Putrajaya (modelled after Canberra) has been built to prevent more development in KL.”

At which point I leave the room. Through the doors, I hear a loud round of applause for that woman’s soliloquy. On day three, I decided to give the conference a miss.

A depressing fact stays, though: government policy is responsible for these Ms. Putrajayas. Malaysian literature is very much like Ms. Ng’s paper. According to the State, our literature is not the written story; it is billboards lining the highway from the airport, where tourists land. Perhaps if Malaysian book-production steps up in scope and profit, it’d finally be taken seriously by the government.

We aren’t surprised at the insecurity of Malaysian writers, and fifteen people turning up to meet our National Laureates.

The afternoons of the festival were forums and readings. I wasn’t among the fifteen to see Bapak Muhammad, because I was watching Rehman Rashid talk about writing. It was the first time I’d ever seen him. “Just write,” he said; the difficulties are no excuse. It was wisdom for a Malaysian writer wannabe, but odd, coming from Rehman Rashid. His widely read novel A Malaysian Journey was published 12 years ago. I hear he blows up if anyone asks him about his next book. He, I decided, would serve me as a cautionary tale.

And listening to 27-year-old Alfian Sa’at describe the difficulties of expression in Singapore: ‘The idea of Singapore opening up is just repackaging – branding,” he said. Both Malaysia and Singapore got new Prime Ministers this year. “What changes did we get? Bar-top dancing?” Malaysia got its tourism and arts-and-culture ministries separated; a significant difference.

This was what I identified with: writers talking about their concerns. Ken Wiwa and the exploitation of his people in Nigeria; Oscar Hijuelos and representing the lives of Latin Americans – real identities; instead of listening to substandard academic papers that drop ‘story’ or ‘written word’ so they can display at a conference about Identity. After all, literature has been grappling with itself and humankind before there were PhDs.

But when British writer Paul Bailey began reading from An Immaculate Mistake, his autobiography in narrative, simple prose, I realised I was a simply a person with an aversion to big words. Hearing Mr. Bailey narrate his mother’s reaction to him playing a woman in a school play was what I was really after. It justified the time I spent at the Renaissance; it was what I’d come for in the first place, this being a literary festival: to listen to writers tell stories. Simply because I identify with characters better than I do ideas.

Paul has since left for London, with a binder-full of Alfian Sa’at’s works in search of a publisher. Lorna commented, Sunday night, tired and on the road home: “If that works it would be the single best thing this festival would have done.”

To National Laureate Professor Muhammad Haji Salleh: I’m going to try for a part in your ‘truly Malaysian Canon’. And I’m going to write in English. We shall see.

First Published: 16.08.2004 on Kakiseni