Female writers in the Malaysian literary scene occupy an odd space.
On the one hand, they have made sizeable contributions to the national body of literature – Adibah Amin and Shirley Geok-lin Lim immediately come to mind. More recently, authors like Rani Manicka, Preeta Samarasan, Yangsze Choo and Zen Cho have also made names for themselves internationally and, in some ways, redefined what Malaysian writing can be.
This, however, does not exempt them from facing the same hurdles Malaysian women in other fields do: stereotypical views of what women can and can’t do, expectations that they put home and family first, cultural and social expectations, and unequal access to opportunities and resources.
The explosion of indie publishing over the last decade, however, has been creating space for writers of diverse voices, including women. Female writers have also been at the forefront of many literary endeavours in Malaysia: Bernice Chauly spearheads the annual George Town Literary Festival; Sharon Bakar runs the monthly Readings event (which she co-founded with Chauly); the recently-formed Malaysian Writers Society, meanwhile, was made possible by Tina Isaacs and Gina Yap Lai Yoong.
In conjunction with Star Media Group’s month-long celebration of women, the WOW-Women Do Wonders campaign, we spoke to eight Malaysian female writers from a variety of backgrounds, genres and writing styles.
Their thoughts on what it means to be a woman writing in Malaysia today paints a picture not just of the challenges and contradictions of their profession, but also its great potential.
What do you write about?
Bernice Chauly: I write truths; things that are sticky, uncomfortable, things that are forbidden, dark. But I would like to think that it is also a thing of beauty. A great deal of thought and research goes into a new book – especially for the bigger books. The poetry is personal and political, yes, but the novel, as I have discovered, is a wonderful and terrifying thing. It’s new terrain, new territory and I feel like an explorer. It’s thrilling, but such hard work.
Hanna Alkaf: I’d like to think of myself as a writer with a conscience. I believe stories shape the world we live in, so as a writer, it’s both a privilege and a responsibility to use my words to draw attention to or magnify experiences we don’t see or voices that have trouble being heard.
Gina Yap Lai Yoong: I am very much a storyteller at heart. I’d describe myself as a dreamer who writes to tell stories that inspire others to discover themselves and lead meaningful lives.
Does being a woman influence your writing?
Chauly: My world view, my place in the world is that of a woman, an artist, a single mother. It has given me patience, perseverance and a large measure of stubbornness and tenacity. Writing takes time, tremendous discipline, and I realised that when you have small children it is impossible to write anything longer than a poem or a short story at a time.
It’s taken me this long to write a novel – my children are now 20 and 15. Sometimes you have to wait, and wait, until the time is right. For me, that time is now. The memoir took two and a half years to write, the novel, five.
Hanna: In fiction, I find myself casting a critical eye over my work. Do I perpetuate stereotypes and tired tropes of wilting damsels in distress? Am I projecting my characters as weak, submissive women? Are there ways I can and should be turning expectations of femininity on their heads? In nonfiction, I strive for diverse repre-sentation for anything I produce.
Rumaizah Abu Bakar: As a travel writer, it widens my ability to do research and cross borders. People are less guarded when facing a woman, especially in conservative societies, so they tend to share more freely.
Lynn Dayana: I can be the voice for women. Shout out loud through words about things that are always kept secret due to the unwritten rules of society. Writing helps me break norms, to portray women as strong-willed, independent and resourceful.
Nadia Khan: I don’t feel that it does. People often say women are more in touch with their emotions, but I’ve read many male writers who emote very well through their work too. I’ve had quite a number of people tell me that I write like a man – and I still don’t know what that means!
How are female writers situated within the Malaysian literary scene?
Chauly: I wish there were more female poets, more women writing literature, I think there’s a lot of fear that is associated with what is sayable, and what is not.
Writing is also hard work, and most women I know work too hard, so writing is often an afterthought for many. You can’t write when you’re exhausted, when you’ve worked three jobs and have to take care of your kids.
Women need money and a room of their own, and most women don’t have that luxury. I’ve had four writing residences over the past five years, it’s the only way I could work and write undisturbed. Having the freedom to write is a luxury. That’s why residencies are crucial.
Chuah Guat Eng: Readers and critics have a tendency to judge my work by their own ideals of womanhood. I’m often told, for instance, that my prose is “elegant” or “lucid” – adjectives that seem to be reserved for women writers.
A woman scholar noted reproachfully that the women in my stories seem too dependent on men to get them out of difficult situations. Another woman told me off for describing a young woman standing naked in front of her mirror; she thought it was unbecoming of me, a woman, to write such things.
Julya Oui: In this gender-specific world, it is about expectations. A woman is expected to write chick-lit and other lovey-dovey stories, while a man can write just about anything. Though this is fast changing, the remnants of such expectations still hover.
Yap: That would depend on the genre or language of choice. In the Bahasa Malaysia writing scene, most romance/cookbook/travelogue writers are females while most thriller/religion/sci-fi writers are males. In the English writing scene, I find more female writers write fiction while male writers write nonfiction.
I am among the few female writers who write BM crime thrillers. How does that affect my position in the local scene? For one, everyone who writes that genre in that language knows me.
Is there a difference in the writings of local male and female writers?
Chuah: When it comes to local English novels, yes. Men are more likely to write action-oriented novels, most of which are easily classifiable by genre: political, historical, crime and detection, adventure, thriller, horror and so on. Their novels nearly always have male central characters, whose actions take place outside the home.
Women are more likely to write less easily classifiable and therefore more complex stories with female central characters, whose actions and activities revolve around the home, the family, and the neighbourhood.
What is interesting, however, is that these differences are largely circumstantial and “skin-deep”. Below the surface, our novelists, regardless of gender, raise and address a common set of concerns and issues in the context of a culturally diverse society undergoing socio-political and economic change.
Oui: I used to think so but times have changed tremendously. The local scene is picking up pace fast and breaking all the rules. The way I see it, Malaysian writers have the best of the Eastern and Western influences with a wonderful mix of writing styles and voices, cultures and diversities. The well-written and researched works always make it hard to differentiate the gender of the writer.
Lynn: In the Malay literary scene, love stories are dominated by women whereas thrillers and horror are written more by men.
Nadia: I don’t think there is. Different writers have different styles, regardless of their gender. If people generalise and say women write more poetry, men write more nonfiction, then that just means they haven’t read enough local work.