Book review: Contrary Visions – Women and Work in Malay Novels Written by Women by Christine Campbell

contrary-visions1Despite the clunky title, Contrary Visions (2004, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka) offers a rather comprehensive review of novels by Malay women written between 1940 and 1995, including a couple of early Indonesian novels thrown in for good, hazy archipelagoan measure. Alongside Virginia Hooker’s Writing a New Society: Social Change Through the Novel in Malay (2000), Campbell’s book is pioneering stuff in the field of Malay women’s writing. In it, Malaysia’s political independence from British rule in 1957 serves as the ‘Big Bang’ in the course of women’s writing from which then on became more interesting, more daring. But how much more interesting and more daring really is it?

‘Contrary visions’ is the recurring theme in this book, and is supposedly reflected in the aspirations of the female leading characters. All of the novels reviewed, from the pre-Independence Panggilan Ibunda (Call of the Motherland, 1948​) by Kamariah Saadon, to the politically conscious Anugerah (The Award, 1995) by Zaharah Nawawi, involve the issues of marriage and work – the latter either domestic or professional, and so any textual evidence of pragmatism in female characters about these issues are defined as a ‘contrary vision’ to the stifling Malay customs designed for the female sex.

Marriage and work, however, often proves to be a deadly mix – a stumbling block to complete female emancipation, as attested to devastating effect in Rosmini Shaari’s Isteri (Wives, 1988), Salmi Manja’s Dari Mana Punai Melayang (From Where the Doves Fly, 1965), and Khadijah Hashim’s Bila dan Di Mana (When and Where, 1981). Oftentimes, female characters are left torn between high-flying careers and masculine demands of subserviency. Men, it seems, adore only the myth of the great female warrior Sri Kandi, but can’t stand the idea of marrying one.

Rather depressingly, the spirit of feminism is by and large dead in Malay women’s writing. When it does appear, it is personified in flawed secondary characters, never the heroine. In Salmi Manja’s Hari Mana Bulan Mana (What Day What Month, 1960), earnest feminist Zamilah “ruins her own life” by marrying Amir, who later reveals his lecherous side. Equally ‘feminist’ is Ismon, who takes advantage of women who fall under his pro-women spell. In keeping with Malay literary conventions, leading female characters, whether they’re housewives, news reporters, students or politico-wannabes, would generally present themselves as ideologically ambiguous crypto-feminists, strapped with their arsenals of choice: good manners and a hell lot of patience.

As if the Malay female consciousness had suddenly jolted a couple of light years forward, one novel presented at the end of Contrary Visions stands out from the rest. Zaidah in Siti Zainon Ismail’s Pulau Renik Ungu (The Island of the Purple Renik Flower, 1995) is an anthropologist, artist, poet, and traveller on a quest to unearth her father’s hidden war-time activities in Borneo. During her search, she becomes romantically-linked with three men of different ethnicities, but marries an English historian in the end. While she is clearly quite progressive about her love life and career choices, she remains self-conscious about her position as a Malay woman in more banal situations, like diving into the Sarawak river from a boat.

She would have liked to swim straight away but her thoughts about it were immediately dismissed due to the presence of Malays on the boat.

Dia inginkan segera mandi di kolam renang*. Tapi keinginan itu dilupakan sahaja kerana kebanyakan penumpang di kapal adalah orang Melayu.

A mystery and love story and travelogue all in one, juxtaposed with Sarawak’s postcolonial impact on the individuals of the novel, Pulau Renik Ungu offers some hope of a shift towards a more progressive representation of women in Malay literature, albeit miles away from the sexual stratospheres of Indonesia’s sastra wangi.

For a literary culture largely unknown and inaccessible outside Malaysia, Campbell’s book is an invaluable introduction to Malay women’s writing for readers in English, but it leaves plenty to be desired. From the get-go, Campbell’s choice of rejecting feminist theory as her framework for analysis is fraught with problems. Her reasons seem petty and under-researched:

Contrary Visions is not expressed in terms of the latest fiery and provocative Western feminist theories, because such an approach may conceal cultural aspects of the Malay novel. Furthermore, Malay literary critics might find them to be unacceptable, unsuitable or unnecessary in the Malay world.

By ignoring ‘Western’ feminist framework for literary analysis, Campbell implies the notion of gender and sexual difference in Malay women. From that standpoint, she dares calling the evidently sexually-restrained (read: prudish) and family-oriented (read: traditional) woman a ‘Malaysian feminist’. This, of course, is in contrast to her position as a modern woman with freedom over her body and sexuality.

Other than the critical offerings of Ungku Maimunah Mohd. Tahir and Maggie Humm to name a few, Campbell’s book is an unconvincing exercise in literary criticism. By abandoning postcolonial theory, Foucault, and even the rather androcentric psychoanalysis, for example, the book lacks depth and insight in its analysis. Despite mentioning the usefulness of deconstruction in textual analysis, Campbell insists on pondering whether a character is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. By doing this, she reduces the female characters to two-dimensional cardboard pieces who are actually mostly idealised versions of the writers themselves. On the whole, this book is not recommended for recreational perusing, because it really is quite boring. Perhaps most damaging to the quality of the book is the awkward and lifeless style of writing, riddled with many typos. In short, suitable only for stuffy academics who don’t give a damn.

*Note: kolam renang can be translated as ‘swimming pool’. But it isn’t explained in the text why the river is described as such, which is a little odd.

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