By Azra Farzana Shuib
Writers writing in isolation – a situation not uncommon in Malaysia. While we have so many wordsmiths deserving the spotlight, still they choose to write behind the curtains. Are we lacking the stages or the audience? Where will our local literature go then? How far can it strive to achieve its zenith?
Such issues were addressed during the ASIATIC Symposium hosted by Monash University Malaysia recently. For the benefit of information, ASIATIC is the IIUM Journal of English Language and Literature, a key online journal on Asian literatures and cultures. The symposium, jointly organised by the School of Arts and Social Sciences (SASS) of Monash University and the Department of English Language and Literature, Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences (KIRKHS) of IIUM, sought to examine the state of Malaysian literary writings.
Under the theme “The State of Malaysian Literature in the Twenty-First Century”, distinguished speakers assessed the challenges of different aspects of Malaysian literature while laying out new directions.
The Acting Dean of KIRKHS, Prof. Dr. Mohammad Abdul Quayum Abdus Salam, who is also the Founding Editor and Chief Editor of ASIATIC, was an important figure in realising the symposium, working hand-in-hand with the Deputy Head of School (Research) of SASS, Assoc. Prof. Andrew Ng Hock Soon.
“The academic forum was not only focused on one body of writing, but all writings by Malaysian writers – in English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil,” Prof. Abdul Quayum explained.
According to Prof. Abdul Quayum, one of the main challenges for Malaysian literature is the lack of maximum attention that it deserves. While it is quintessential that nation-building is focused on economic development, mere emphasis on economy is not adequate. In order to let literature, which is arguably, yet understandably, the soul of any culture flourish, potboilers must have avenues to grow.
“We shouldn’t be overly critical. Our local writers are doing quite well, but the opportunities are not there,” he said.
“If you are a new writer, and you have a manuscript, a collection of poetry, or a novel, I don’t think we have enough publishers to take the risk of publishing the book. And a writer would obviously depend on the publisher. That is the major challenge we have – when a writer does not have a publisher, there wouldn’t be any incentive to write another book.”
However, it must be noted that throughout the years, the situation has somewhat improved. With new publishers willing to help out young writers, such as Silverfish Books and Buku Fixi, opportunities are still out there.
“We have a number of publishers willing to publish now. Previously, there was none. The environment has improved but it’s not enough. We need more magazines and journals, more imprinted collection of poetry, but do we have enough opportunities to publish all that? The avenues are our concern,” Prof. Abdul Quayum stressed.
Transnationalism among Malaysian writers
Of particular interest during the symposium was the discussion on how quite a number of Malaysian writers have been writing about Malaysia, from outside of the country. Famous writers like Shirley Lim, Tash Aw and Preeta Samarasan became the focus of the theme. These writers write from bustling metropolitans like the U.S, Singapore and China, among others.
“Ironically, the centre of Malaysian literature has moved away from Malaysia,” Prof. Abdul Quayum pointed out.
“And some of these writers have received prestigious awards. It’s not that they are not good writers, but for whatever reasons, they have left the country. The good news is, they are still writing about Malaysia,”
Prof. Abdul Quayum stated that among solutions that can remedy the situation, or at least prevent future talents from leaving is to provide enough facilities, publication opportunities as well as the freedom to write and express ideas, including critical ones. However, more research on the factors behind transnationalism issue among Malaysian writers is still needed.
“Do they leave because of better payment elsewhere? Or are there any other circumstances involved? We have to look for the reasons why, as we can’t simply put all these writers in one basket.”
He continued, “But the best way to attract them or prevent them from leaving is to provide enough facilities with the right opportunities. For writers, their aspiration is to write, not to be rich. Their goal is to publish their books, and that’s it – they want to fulfil their dreams.”
What’s in it for us?
One might ask, what is the importance of the ASIATIC Symposium to IIUM students, especially to those who aspire to become writers?
It has been brought to light that when talking about Malaysian literature, approaches would be culturally diverse. People would speak from their home country’s perspective. Therefore, it is benefiting that they would know the state and challenges of Malaysian literature to gain a deeper understanding about the people, culture and the history in it.
The symposium, gathered valuable insights from the leading critiques of Malaysian literature. Among them being Prof. Harry Aveling of Monash University Australia, Assoc. Prof. Susan Phillip of Universiti Malaya, and Dr. Angus Whitehead of Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, just to name a few.
Prof. Abdul Quayum made it a point that as the Acting Dean of the Kulliyyah, he is more than happy to work in his capacity to help the students in providing opportunities that will realise their dreams in whatever they do.
“We need to put ourselves on the map. I would want the world to know the literature activities in IIUM,” he declared.
As an advice to the students, he suggested to them to consult with him should they need any more platforms to enhance their skills.
“I’ll share one thing about the students – they are too modest,” he smiled.
“They are talented, but they would not show their works. Whenever I ask “who wants to be a writer?” in class, only a few would raise their hands, though they really want to become writers. It’s self-defeating.”
“Don’t be afraid to tell the world what you want to achieve. Once you tell the world, more importantly you will tell yourself. And self-declaration is the most important thing to do in order to succeed,” he added.
A man of his words, he had been dreaming his dream before realising it.
“40 years ago, I knew I wanted to become a lecturer, and here I am,” he said.
And future legendary writers of IIUM should do that too.***