By DAPHNE LEE
In this week’s column I’m going to write about the way I feel about Malaysians writing stories that are not Malaysian. My feelings have undergone a minor change in the last year or so.
Sometime in 2014 I met an aspiring Malaysian author who told me that he was working on a novel. He said that he’d decided to set the novel in London and that his characters were all white and English. He also told me that he was going to use a Western-sounding pseudonym.
“But why?” I asked him. “Have you lived in England even?”
No, he hadn’t. He had been born and raised and studied in Malaysia.
“Why not write about Malaysians? Why not set your story in a country you know well?”
His reasons included a belief that it would be easier for his work to be accepted if, as a writer, he took on a white persona and if his book reflected white culture.
I was quite ticked off with his reasoning. Also, it seemed preposterous to me to think that a Malaysian would try to create believable white characters and depict places that he hadn’t even visited as a tourist. Surely it made more sense to write about whom and what he knew.
Quite apart from feeling that an author ought to strive to be as accurate as possible in his portrayal of characters and places, I also believed that Malaysian writers should grab the chance to write about Malaysians and Malaysia. I do still feel that if you’ve lived in Malaysia for any stretch of time, you will surely have a Malaysian story to tell.
But then, what exactly is a Malaysian story?
The answer seemed clear to me when I didn’t think too much about it, but a discussion at a Facebook group I joined early this year gave me pause. The group, which focuses on African fantasy and sci-fi, started discussing the definition of African literature. This made me think about the ways we might define Malaysian lit, and made me question how I expected Malaysian writers to write only about Malaysian characters, settings and themes.
If a Malaysian writer writes about an English girl living in post-apocalyptic Hampstead, wouldn’t the book still be Malaysian by dint of its author’s nationality?
This question provoked yet another: does a book have to be labelled according to nationality or ethnicity? Does a writer? As Booker prize winner Ben Okri said, “Literature doesn’t have a country”.
So why is it (still) so important to me that Malaysian writers write about Malaysia?
Well, I have worked out that it has to do with there being so few published Malaysian stories in the first place. Never mind stuff that’s available internationally, Malaysian readers aren’t exposed to as much Malaysian fiction as they are to British and American fiction. We are swamped with books from the West, and, for various reasons that I won’t go into today, we notice and choose to read these books instead of Malaysian books.
Therefore, I think it’s important that we write more Malaysian stories. We need to flood the market with Malaysian stories – all kinds of Malaysian stories. There are already so many books about all sorts of white people living in the West, and so few about any sort of Malaysians living anywhere in Malaysia that it seems like a no-brainer.
You know that hash tag #weneeddiversebooks? True. And this includes more diverse Malaysian books, here in Malaysia, as well as on the world stage. There is a myriad of Malaysian stories to tell, and Malaysian writers should be encouraged and allowed to tell them. We should, I feel, also want to tell these stories, and we should not be told which Malaysian stories are or aren’t worthy of notice.
Malaysian fiction, at the moment, seems to only be interesting to the West if it presents aspects of our culture, our history, our being that is already familiar to them. The second world war, the Japanese occupation, the threat of communism, these topics are not entirely alien and, so, are acceptable. Apart from that, Amy Tan has given Western readers a taste for Chinese tragedies so a Malaysian-Chinese story might pass muster, but if you write about pontianak or toyol you had better pad it in a nice, rich Regency setting.
I said that I’d changed my mind somewhat about Malaysians writing stories that aren’t Malaysian. Yes. If, as a Malaysian writer, you have a story that can be set nowhere else but in the seaside town of Eastbourne in East Sussex; if you are haunted by the tale of 63-year-old, newly-widowed Dorothy Selmes who has decided that the only way to face life without her husband is to starve and freeze herself to death, then by all means write it.
As a writer, your ethnicity or nationality should not, ultimately, dictate what you write about. Simply, be true to yourself. Tell the stories that excite you, that move you, that make you laugh and weep, and that keep you up at night; write about the characters who worry you, who nag you incessantly, demanding to be heard.
Research is important, though. If you’ve ever cringed at a white author getting something Malaysian wrong, you know that getting it right is important and respectful. You owe it to yourself, and Elsie.
Daphne Lee is still recovering from the pleasure of reading Zen Cho’s Sorcerer To The Crown (Macmillan), and is eyeing the Kindle edition of Cho’s Roaring 20s romance novella, The Perilous Life Of Jade Yeo.