The lacuna: Where is the missing canon of Malaysian feminist fiction writing?

A version of this post was first published on Kakak Killjoy

The question above may seem far ahead of its time, as the influence of feminism – in whatever form of feminism we as Malaysians can recognise – has yet to have an established place in our literature. Fiction-writing has long been central to Western feminisms; many who call themselves feminists would have read or heard of The Yellow Wallpaper, Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Awakening, Fear of Flying, The Bell Jar, or inspired by the work of Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood, Nawal el-Sadawi, Audre Lorde, Ursula Le Guin, and the many US and UK-based feminist writers on the internet. But we as Malaysians enjoy Western feminist writings in a more vicarious way, as we have too few inspirational local texts to call our own. Too few to develop a semblance of a canon of Malaysian feminist writing. Even rarer still are those that address contemporary concerns.

The question that people are quick to ask is, what makes a novel or a whole body of literature feminist?

According to feminist literary theorist Cheri Register, feminist fiction should have the following qualities:

  • serves as a forum for women
  • helps to achieve cultural androgyny
  • provide role models
  • promote sisterhood, and
  • augment consciousness-raising

In literature or fiction writing, feminism comes out of the page demanding the reader to think more critically about the socio-political situation the female and male characters experience. At times, characters inspire their readers in questioning and challenging the oppressive status quo and hopefully spur readers into doing, being the same. In other words, feminist writings raises a reader’s consciousness to oppression and injustice that are regarded as common sense – “women always want to be mothers, love housework and gossip, subservient to their husbands and other men, and mustn’t be too ambitious” – “this is the way things are, always been, and will always be”

Feminist heroines in literature are rarely one-dimensional people. In fact all would often reflect the complex nature of its readers; from trail-blazing free spirits like Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables, indomitable like Celie in The Color Purple, conflicted like Mira in The Women’s Room, to uncompromising like Imrah in Ombak Bukan Biru. They attain self-actualisation without a male love interest or life-affirmation through heterosexual marriage. They are women who love education and learning and aim for the best, their sense of self are tested and questioned at every turn by sexist, racist, and classist societal norms.

In the case of Celie, Mira, and Imrah, all of whom experience difficult, intimate relationships with men and made to the end of the story unmarried, a little scarred by emotional trauma, yet fulfilled and hungry to take on life’s many challenges. Sometimes it seems as if in feminist writing the boundaries between representation and the ‘real’, entertainment and political didacticism are often blurred as most feminist literature are political and emancipatory in its implicit objective.

The dearth in feminist characterisation in Malaysian literature can be attributed to the socio-political straightjacket that threatens writers critical of the status quo into self-censorship or be censored. The few and far in between that do exist appear in the maddeningly rare portrayals of extraordinary women as adventurers, scholars, and saints in the writings of Siti Zainon Ismail and Fatimah Busu. The other possible obstacle to the lack and loss of feminist writing is Malaysia’s under-appreciated reading culture; books are not cheap and older books often do not get reprinted. People do and would want to read non- “classic” Malaysian fiction published prior to 2000. Fiction by pre-merdeka writers depicting the lives of women at the cusp of modernity by Rayuan Sukma, Kamariah Saadon, Jahlelawati, and Rokiah Abu Bakar are now largely forgotten.

Despite our massive bookshops, they’re not home to local fiction. Instead, they impose on Malaysian readers a concept of globalised reading culture whose terms and tastes are shaped by global corporate mega companies that thinks Malaysians are interested in 20th century military and war history in the western world, chick lit by and for middle-class white women, and a mass of cookbooks which require ingredients that will never be available in your nearest Giant or Carrefour supermarket.

Heavy-handed laws against artistic expression (whether official and self-imposed ones) have done little to stifle the subversive writings of Shahnon Ahmad, Salleh ben Joned, sprouting of the local LGBT short story genre, and erotic writing. But much of Malaysia’s subversive writings are and have always been dominated by men; whether it’s written by men or edited or published by men. Feminism, or its much friendlier and less subversive guise, “women’s rights and issues”, hardly makes a ripple in the local literary world that’s begging to be cool, insurrectionary, and relevant again.

Women’s writing is invidiously expected, like in the English publication world, to be about shopping and getting Mr. Right. It would be a particularly victorious day for disrupting our stubbornly stagnant gender politics when Malaysia has its own version of Indonesia’s sastra wangi, the deeply political, erotic, disturbing, and exhilarating genre by young women writers critical of Suharto’s authoritarian regime.

Taking a brighter view on things, the relative safe issue of “women’s rights” may remove many obstacles (such as the label of “controversy” or “immorality”) that hinder female writers from crafting complex characters and thought-provoking plots to stir a reader’s feminist consciousness. There are many socio-cultural arenas that await Malaysian feminist writing; transgender issues, disabilities, eco-feminism, food politics, and consumerism to name a few. Most feminist novels, whether staged in the present, in the distant future or in an alternate reality, are a commentary of the writer’s time. Perhaps the paucity of current feminist writing by Malaysian women is symptomatic of a complex but quiet and subtle malaise characterised by simply a lack of interest?

Recommended titles:
Novels
Jalur sinar di celah daun by Zaharah Nawawi
Pulau Renik Ungu by Siti Zainon Ismail
Salam Maria by Fatimah Busu
Ombak bukan biru by Fatimah Busu

Short stories
Polishing by Charlene Rajendran
Short message system by Mercy Thomas
Bahawa hidup itulah cintaku by Anis Sabirin

For non-Malaysian English language titles, here is a long list of recommendations.

One thought on “The lacuna: Where is the missing canon of Malaysian feminist fiction writing?

  1. Hii, I’m a postgraduate student from USM Penang. I’m mastering Literature studies. I’m doing some research on Malaysian feminist writers n Malaysian feminism. I read your article n its pretty impressive. It would b grateful to write with u. As your concern for Malay women writers at least u have a few, I’m concern there’s no Indian feminist writer at all in Malaysia …. Actually I don’t want to put it that way as I prefer to say less women in Malaysia writes on feminism. Don’t want to narrow the search by categorizing according to race. Hope to hear from u soon. By, the way I’m writing blog nkvani.blogspot.com

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