By Ann Lee
For any history of Malaysian literature, it is remiss not to consider the pioneering work of Lloyd Fernando (1926-2008) — author, academic, and eloquent champion of Malaysian literature.
At the landmark 1971 Cultural Congress that defined Malaysian literature into “national” and “sectional”, Lloyd spoke (in Malay) about his hopes for the future direction of the country’s culture and literature. He also edited the country’s first two anthologies of Malaysian playwriting in English, New Drama One and New Drama Two (1972, University of Malaya) and wrote the introductory essays which served to place then-new writing in relation to contemporary Malaysian society and Commonwealth literature. His earlier essays, many already published in journals, were compiled in a book called Cultures in Conflict (1982) where, amongst other original observations, Lloyd pointed to the “detribalisation anxiety” common in Malaysian writers, who focus on their own ethnicity and language as if each were in their own exile. He advocated a “necessary bilingualism” that would enable Malaysian writers to get out of their own skin. He encouraged many writers by analysing their work critically, and often actively championed authors such as Muhammad Haji Salleh (later Sasterawan Negara Malaysia) and Wong Phui Nam (poet and, now, also playwright) for the ways they went beyond writing for their own kind.
Lloyd became an author himself when he started writing in the late 1970s, first with Scorpion Orchid (1976), and later, Green is the Colour (1993), now regular study texts for international scholars of Asian and Southeast Asian culture and literature. Scorpion Orchid was also adapted for the stage in 1995, in a production directed by Krishen Jit and Lok Meng Chue at the Singapore Festival of the Arts. Both books (the first written in an arguably modernist style, experimenting with language), deal with individuals coping with “national birth” in the 1950s, and the impact of the largely Kuala Lumpur-based riots in 1969. At least for one Malaysian writer and critic, Edward Dorall, the descriptions in Green is the Colour, “exactly recounted (the) terrifying experience … through those awful months.” The younger Amir Muhammad recommended Lloyd’s writing for the way it seeks to “strip the Englishness from English to find a uniquely Malaysian prose voice.”
Lloyd Fernando was born in Sri Lanka. At the age of 12, his family emigrated to Singapore. When World War 2 broke out shortly after, Lloyd was forced to stop school, and learned instead to become a trishaw rider and apprentice mechanic so as to support the family. (His father was killed during the bombing.)
After the war, Lloyd went back to school, and by 1959 had graduated from the University of Singapore with double honours in English and Philosophy. A year later, he joined the University of Malaya, where he was “eventually” elevated (as the Silverfish Books author notes state) to Professor and Head of English until his retirement in 1979 — just short of a 20-year tenure.
Lloyd’s attendance at theatre plays during the 1980s and 1990s was a familiar and welcome sight. Even when he became ill by a stroke — his mobility aided by a wheelchair and the consummate care of Marie, his wife — Fernando lent his graceful presence as special guest at the launch of Krishen Jit: An Uncommon Position (Selected Writings) (edited by Kathy Rowland). It was indeed moving when Lloyd, at the launch, expressed sadly but assertively that he had run out of time.
Learned analysis of Malaysian literature is rare, but Lloyd Fernando’s work provides valuable historical reference, detail and originality for present and future students of Malaysian, Asian and world literature.
Much love and peace of mind is wished for his wife, Marie, daughters Eve and Sunetra, and extended family.
First Published: 29.02.2008 on Kakiseni