By Loo Jia Wen
“I have a bit of a split personality,” says Shahnon Ahmad (January 13th, 1933; full name: Datuk Haji Shahnon bin Ahmad) in Amir Muhammad’s ‘Raising A Stink’ (Asiaweek; May 7th 1999). “People look at me and see a pious man, but there’s a repressed side which comes out in my writing. That’s when I don’t censor myself. I let it all out.”
In this same article, Amir calls Shahnon Ahmad the ‘Malaysian literary lion’. Literary lion or vagrant National Laureate — depending on your sensibilities on scatological discourse — our subject needs little introduction. A formidable talent and piercing intellect who is not afraid to say it as he sees it, Shahnon earned his reputation through works like the novels Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan and Rentong, several Literary Prizes — and, most notoriously, the political satire Shit.
A Teacher and Scholar
Shahnon Ahmad was born in Banggul Derdap, Sik, Kedah. After graduating from Alor Setar’s Maktab Sultan Abdul Hamid, he began teaching at Kuala Terengganu’s Grammar English School in 1954.
From 1955 to 1956 Shahnon served as an army officer stationed in Port Dickson, but returned to teaching, holding posts at several schools until 1967. In 1968, Shahnon moved to Canberra, Australia and served as a Research Officer at the Australian National University (ANU). Here, he took the opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree, which he received in 1971.
Returning to Malaysia, Shahnon lectured at the Maktab Perguruan Sultan Idris, in Tanjong Malim, before being offered a lecturer’s position at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) in 1974. It was at USM that he earned a bachelor’s in Literature, in 1975. Shahnon was elected Dean to the USM Humanities Department in 1979, elected Professor of Literature in June 1980, awarded a full professorship in 1982, and elected Director of the university’s Islamic Centre soon after.
Shahnon’s early short stories, novels, essays and criticism are cynical examinations of various Malaysian issues – unafraid of taboo, he even wrote about sex.
After two novels, Rentong and Terdedah, he published Ranjau Sepanjang Malam (No Harvest but a Thorn). The novel cemented his fame, and was so widely acclaimed that it became compulsory reading for Form 6 literature students for several years; the work received a film adaptation in 1983.
Shahnon, in a preface to GATRA, a poetry anthology, wrote that ‘We are Malays, in a battle to assert our identity through literature’. He examines the Malay predicament in Rentong (Rope of Ash), a sympathetic picture of impoverished rural-folk in his hometown of Banggul Derdap, that emphasized the urgent need for development, and described the plight of farmers as not entirely the fault of the government — an opinion that differentiated him from a generation of ASAS 50 writers. While the farmers of Rentong sought ways to earn an honest living, they were wholly resigned to Allah: pestilence or relief, it was all divine will.
Shahnon has written over 30 novels. Works like Protes focus on the divine, while others, like Menteri and Perdana discuss Malay politics — all in the author’s signature, laid-back style: a combination of original metaphors, Kedah dialect and repetition.
In 1970, Shahnon published the novel Srengenge. A work that Malaysia’s Literary Prize Panel declared Novel of the Year, Srengenge was an effort to synthesize traditional belief and modern psychology. Shahnon’s short stories — in the anthologies Anjing-Anjing, Debu Merah, and Selesai Sudah; also in group anthologies — have also earned him several Literary Prizes.
Later on in his writing career, Shahnon turned his attention to polemics about Islam, most notably in discussion with Kassim Ahmad about Islamic literature, as published in several issues of Dewan Sastera in 1984.
Shahnon published Shit in 1999. A marked departure from his previous work, Shit was an open criticism of the political climate at the time, with Shahnon lashing out in unbridled language, at the circumstances surrounding the sacking of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, and that year’s general elections.
Somewhat unusually, Shahnon survived the controversy, and still continues to write his mind.
Awards and Recognition
1970: Novel of the Year, for Srengenge
1974: Hadiah Karya Sastera (Literary Prize) for essays and criticism
1975: Elected panellist to the Literary Prize Board
1976: Pejuang Sastera (Literary Pioneer) award
1982: Anugerah Sastera Negara (National Literature Award)
1983: Elected Panel Judge to the Literary Prize Board
1980: A Datuk-ship from the Kedah sultanate
1993: Professor Emeritus, Universiti Sains Malaysia
Loo Jia Wen is a freelance copywriter and graphic designer based in Kuala Lumpur. She also paints, potters, and writes about her travels. She hopes to be a food writer when she grows up.
This biography is an edited translation from Biografi Penulis Wajah (Third Edition), published by the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.
First Published: 02.03.2007 on Kakiseni