On being like Robyn Penrose

Robyn Penrose is a newly minted lecturer in women’s studies and English literature who specialises in the ‘industrial novel’, fiction written in the mid-1800’s that reflected the values and anxieties of the British industrial revolution. She is a feminist academic with an unflagging belief in uprooting social injustice inside and outside the classroom. She joins anti-nuclear marches and strikes against cuts to university funding. Ever the empowered woman of the 1980s, she is also assertive and confident and is clear about what she wants. Somehow the ‘imposter syndrome’ endemic in higher education does not exist in her dictionary.

She is a fictional character after all and springs from David Lodge’s classic 1988 campus novel, Nice Work, in which our academic heroine is pressured by her dean into shadowing a factory manager at work in a higher education-meets-industry programme. Although a character from the Thatcherite 1980s, she is a figure of our times. As an early career researcher who came to a full-time teaching position from a fixed-term research fellowship in a prestigious research university, Robyn does not know if she can keep her job when the next national budget looms. Universities across the UK since Margaret Thatcher’s premiership have faced inexorable cuts to research, teaching, and upkeep. New appointments are frozen and people lose their jobs.

The precarious nature of academic employment, then as now, involving applying to diminishing jobs and accepting them anywhere in the country and beyond has hampered any attempts at a typical romantic or marital relationship. Robyn’s boyfriend whom she’s been with since they were undergraduates at Sussex has accepted a job a great distance away. They see each other every other weekend and the arrangement feels more like a long-distance relationship. But it works for her as she doesn’t believe in marriage and the bourgeois idea of romantic love. Her boyfriend agrees with her as he is slow to develop his own opinion. She does develop meaningful relationships with others, namely with a female colleague and fellow feminist. Though her greatest triumph is her intellectual and sexual conquest of one Vic Wilcox, the middle-aged factory manager whom she is assigned to shadow.

There are many instances in the novel which suggest that Robyn Penrose is a caricature of a feminist academic, all righteous and dominating. Her ability to transform Vic Wilcox from a boring and predictable family man life who sneers at women’s studies into an effortless enunciator of Tennyson and Saussurean semiotics is the stuff of fairy tales for academics. But she is nonetheless an admirable woman of intellectual ambition whose work is admired by established figures in the field. Who wouldn’t want to be offered a tenure-track job in an elite US university based on the strength of an unpublished book manuscript? She speaks and acts in the manner of her thinking and beliefs; unpretentiously provocative, bold, and forthright. She can talk about her sex life in the same breath as structuralism and metonymy. A sapiosexual’s idea of a really sexy pillow talk.

As a caricature, albeit lifted from the lived experience of the author who was an academic himself, Robyn Penrose ticks many of the identifiable and aspirational boxes. As a feminist academic, the boundary that separates professional and personal life is never really clear. She defines the morality that gives shape to her vocation and sexuality rather than having it imposed by others, not least prudes, anti-intellectual people, and sexist men. It makes me wonder how many women out there harbor a fantasy to be like Robyn Penrose whose mind challenges and ignites desire in the most unlikeliest of people. Because I do.

Just two foreign single women getting drunk in Paris: femininity adrift in Good Morning, Midnight (1939) and The Dud Avocado (1958)

Photo 30-06-2017, 1 41 08 PM
Source: author’s own copies 2017

Sasha Jansen and Sally Jay Gorce are the quintessential flâneuse in the birth city of the flânerie, Paris. They represent two sides of the flâneuse’s emotional inner landscape; aimless, lonely, and morally suspect on the one hand, freewheeling and liberated on the other. As single women, they defy the expectations of women in the city of love. They are elusive to love; Sally Jay is a happy bed-hopper, Sasha walks listlessly into crummy hotel rooms with shady men who promise only temporary love. They are a few decades late after the first generation of flânerie but they cannot escape the mark of marginality that comes with walking in Paris free from matrimony or responsibility as Hannah Arendt describes succinctly:

What all other cities seem to permit only reluctantly to the dregs of society – strolling, idling, flânerie – Paris streets actually invite everyone to do. Thus, ever since the Second Empire the city has been the paradise of all those who need to chase after no livelihood, pursue no career, reach no goal – the paradise, then, of bohemians, and not only of artists and writers but of all those who have gather about them because they could not be integrated either politically – being homeless or stateless – or socially. Pg. 174, Men in Dark Times

The two women are the semi-autobiographical protagonists of two novels, Sasha in Good Morning, Midnight (1939) by Jean Rhys and Sally Jay Gorce in The Dud Avocado (1958) by Elaine Dundy, who undertake events drawn from the novelists’ lives, created from a place of ‘write what you know’. Both women are not natives to the city. Sasha is English but has become estranged from her origins in England by virtue of a divorce and death of her child. In Paris, she can reinvent herself, gaining employment as a sales assistant. Like Sasha, Sally Jay seeks fame and fortune in Paris through establishing a career in film and theatre. Paris is also an escape for Sally Jay from a protective family in provincial America.

Born Elaine Rita Brimberg in New York City in 1921, Elaine Dundy grew up under the thumb of her tyrannical father who forbade her to leave New York. Undeterred, she saved enough money for a trip to Paris where she hoped to start her acting career. The career was not to be as Dundy herself concedes when she then moves to London as she watched others rise to great cultural heights and, for the men she knew, become the iconic Young Angry Men of the 1950s. After the birth of her daughter Tracy (who has recently published a book on her parents) Dundy’s ambitions in film and television were finished. Then a career in writing came a-calling.

Dundy and Rhys were born into affluence and whose creative lives were significantly shaped by highly influential male literary types; Dundy by her husband the leading theatre critic of the day Kenneth Tynan and Rhys by her erstwhile lover and benefactor Ford Madox Fox. In fact, their literary careers were said to be spurred by the men. The Dud Avocado, Dundy’s first novel, was written at the behest of her husband. Typical of sexist assumptions about women’s creative abilities, he didn’t think it would amount to much beyond being written. For Tynan would be deeply resentful of Dundy’s critical success following the publication of the novel. ‘You weren’t a writer when I married you, you were an actress’ he said to her angrily. Yet appraisals from other famous men flowed in, the great comic Groucho Marx said it made him ‘laugh, scream and guffaw’. Who said women couldn’t do comedy? Gore Vidal offered his word of encouragement, “You’ve got one thing a writer needs: You’ve got your own voice. Now go” while Ernest Hemingway praised her book for having characters who “all speak differently” unlike, self-deprecatingly, his own.

When we are introduced to Sally Jay Gorce, pink-haired and dressed in an evening dress in the morning because all of her day wear is in the laundry, it is too easy to think: quirky and adorkable. Easily compared to Holly Golightly, Sally Jay embarks on a metropolitan adventure to run away from a dull American life and a mission to be an actress. Her French is good enough and she gravitates towards other elite Americans in Paris. The meaning of ‘dud avocado’ only becomes apparent in the end of the novel when [spoiler alert!], our witty heroine corrects a would-be paramour on the nature of the ‘Typical American Woman’. Full of misfired charm, he creepily described the typical American woman as having ‘a hard center with the tender meat all wrapped up in a shiny casing’ like an avocado and ‘so green – so eternally green’. Well, having a mind of her own she won’t meet his expectations then. She resigns to simply being a dud avocado as she sips her cocktail.

Good Morning, Midnight also makes a reference to the protagonist’s state of being although in Sasha’s case it is derived from a poem by fellow depressive Emily Dickinson:

Good morning, Midnight!
I’m coming home,
Day got tired of me –
How could I of him?

Sunshine was a sweet place,
I liked to stay –
But Morn didn’t want me – now –
So good night, Day!

We first meet Sasha in her crummy hotel room in Paris, a new base from which to rebuild her life. Curtains are always drawn and she needs sleeping tablets to sleep. The streets of Paris and her daily routine of regular places to eat for lunch, dine, and then have a drink provide a much needed respite. In Paris, she is ‘saved, rescued, fished-up, half-drowned, out of the deep, dark river, dry clothes, hair shampooed and set…’ (pg. 4), an image of a woman who has pulled herself out of a wreckage of a failed marriage and death of a child and struggling with mental health.

Regarded as ‘too depressing’ when it was first published, Good Morning, Midnight had been her fifth novel and precedes Rhys’s best known work, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), the radical prequel to Jane Eyre’s ‘mad woman in the attic’. Before the fame of Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys lived in obscurity but with an ambition to belong to the upper echelons of literary society. Born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams in 1890 in Dominica, a tiny Caribbean island in what was then the British West Indies, Rhys is now known primarily as a ‘postcolonial’ writer before such a term was de rigueur, before notions of class, race, and gender became an inescapable framework from which to intellectually appreciate her output.

A white creole who schooled in Cambridge where she was an alleged victim of racism, Rhys lived a life troubled by alcohol abuse and financial difficulty. Biographers and critics have noted with surprise that Rhys was able to gather the discipline to write fine books despite her chaotic life without emphasising that many men in literature lived similarly precarious lives. That Rhys was a woman, somehow not white enough, a single mother, and that she clung to men for monetary support (a biographical detail that seems to suggest feminist failure) meant that her literary output seemed improbable and against the odds. Like many women after her up to this contemporary moment, her novels mirrored her life. As writers of semi-autobiographical fiction, they enjoy the privilege of (re)writing the self yet cursed by voyeuristic prurience of readers who seek out thinly-veiled self-confessionals of troubled women.

Paris eventually gets the better of Sally Jay who, by the end of the novel, grows to despise the city after she loses her passport and failing to make a breakthrough in film or stage; ‘God, how I hated Paris. Paris was one big flea bag. Everything in Paris moved if you looked at it long enough’ (pg. 234). She had indeed looked at it long enough and decides to pack up and return home where she becomes a librarian and meets her happy-ever-after lover. But Sasha Jansen does not leave Paris, not least physically. She exits the buoyant promise and ebullience of the city and retreats psychologically into herself and submits yet to another man who will dominate and perhaps rape her. In fact in the closing pages of the novel, we are not certain that an actual man has come for her in her hotel bedroom or the ghost of past lovers who haunt her desolate inner chamber.

Despite her preferred theme of downtrodden women, Rhys, who died in 1979, currently enjoys a feminist literary legacy and fame that came too late for her, as she notes with irritation following the success of Wide Sargasso Sea. The Dud Avocado would live on to be a modern fairy tale for single women long after Kenneth Tynan threatened to divorce Dundy if she wrote another book. She continued to write and divorced him in 1964, Dundy writes victoriously in the 2007 republication of the novel one year before her death in 2008. The two novels represent something about women who have not only the privilege to travel abroad but also the relative freedom to become the protagonist – and indeed antagonist – of their life story. Women writers draw from their own lives – as much as men do though they are accused less often of this literary misdemeanor – because writing allows the rewriting of one’s life story when things do not turn out the way we want to.

Mummy issues: the reproduction of motherhood in Elena Ferrante’s Troubling Love

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‘The heritage of motherhood’ (1904) by Gertrude Käsebier. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The mother-daughter relationship can be the greatest cause of vexation in a woman’s life. This is a platitude no doubt and a sweeping generalisation as many are lucky to have a really splendid mother-daughter relationship. Happy or not, it is characterised by maternal projections of hope, insecurities, anxiety, and disappointments. A mother conceives not just a daughter but undertakes a vicarious project of constructing a Mini-Me whilst must heroically come to terms with the fact that the daughter is a unique individual. Mothering is thus a projection and project that plays out in proximity and across great distances through hugs and long-distance calls.

A daughter’s greatest fear is that they become their mother. Turning into one’s mother confirms a woman’s destiny and annihilates the notion of self-determination and individuality. All women will be become their mothers, thus all women are the same. In Elena Ferrante’s first novel Troubling Love (1996, Original title in Italian, L’amore Molesto), Delia is every daughter who must resist visible signs of becoming one’s mother, as this particular passage demonstrates:

Now that [my mother] was dead, someone had scraped away her hair and had disfigured her face to fit my body. It had happened after years in which, out of hatred, out of fear, I had wanted to eliminate every root I had in her, even the deepest: her gestures, the inflections of her voice, her way of taking a glass or drinking from a cup, her method of putting on a skirt, as if it were a dress, the arrangement of the objects in her kitchen, in her drawers, how she did her most intimate washing, her taste in food, her dislikes, her enthusiasms, and the language, the city, the rhythms of her breath. All of it remade, so that I could become me and detach myself from her.

On the other hand I hadn’t wanted or been able to root anyone in me. Soon I would lose even the possibility of having children. No human being would ever detach itself from me with the anguish which I had detached myself from her, only because I had never been able to attach myself to her definitely

Ferrante, 64-65

Delia seeks the truth behind the unexplained death of her mother, Amalia. In an attempt to solve the mystery behind Amalia’s death – presumably by drowning – Delia unlocks repressed memories of a childhood scarred by domestic violence and leery male neighbours. Her detective work involves not just discovering startling clues that shed light on her mother’s death but also a woman’s life suppressed by domesticity.

But as Delia makes discoveries of her mother’s identity she never knew, she finds that that they mirror her own repressed desires to be the kind of woman Amalia was. Delia is a disheveled comic strip artist, unmarried but clearly not so young anymore; unlike the glamour of old age eclipsed by the self-abnegating image of Amalia the mother. Amalia had also abandoned a violent marriage and sought to reconstruct herself in middle age as a lover and wearer of sexy underwear. Delia tracks Amalia’s decrepit lover Caserta down, determined to get to the bottom of a possible foul play. However, her confrontation with Caserta would undo the barricade of sexual repression and fantasy that distorted her childhood memories. Who is Caserta in Amalia’s life but simply an unconsummated admirer rather than lover, as it turns out. Still, Delia as a child was jealous and protective of male attention towards her mother. She would tell her father of an imagined affair between her mother and Caserta and unknowingly unleash patriarchal rage. Like the children in The Go-Between and Atonement, Delia would grow up living with the consequences of interfering with the emotional life of adults. It seemed as if Delia would atone by continuing the life of Amalia by being Amalia.

In her classic text, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (1978), Nancy Chodorow argues that ‘mothering’ is more than a biological reality and continuation of practices after childbirth. Even without biological mothers performing the act of mothering, women in general take up the role in poorly paid or unpaid capacity.

Responding to Freud, Chodorow develops a feminist analysis of psychosocial development and how women become mothers. All babies perceive their mothers as their ‘external ego’ because they have yet to develop their own individuality separate from their primary caregiver. But as they grow into maturity, separation and the development of the ‘self’ set in in different ways for boys and girls. For boys, Freud postulates the necessity of the Oedipal drama and the threat of castration by the father to result in the psychic rejection of the mother. Rather than fearing castration, daughters already see themselves as castrated like their mother. Thus without the threat of castration and urgent need for separation, daughters maintain an undifferentiated connection with their mother, going as far as duplicating ‘many features of their mothers’ psychotic symptoms’ (Chodorow 1978: 100).

In his symbolic penis-baby equation, Freud would see a woman’s desire to be mothers as a substitute for the phallus, resolving her penis envy. Suggesting a more powerful psychic bond between mothers and daughters, Chodorow goes on to say children do want to unite with their mothers and return to that place of safety and bliss:

Children wish to remain with their mother, and expect that she will never have different interests from them; yet they define their development in terms of growing away from her. In the face of their dependence, lack of certainty of her emotional permanence, fear of merging, and overwhelming love and attachment, a mother looms large and powerful

Chodorow, 82

Mothers in Elena Ferrante’s novels are torn in opposing directions; by their asexual domestic calling and raw feminine sexual desire. Somewhere in between this polarity the mother (in Days of Abandonment) at first fumbles, then confidently carves a space for herself to be both mother and sexual being. Mothers die in Ferrante’s work; the death of mothers results in the reconciliation between mother and daughter (My Brilliant Friend) and awakening of a daughter’s femininity (Troubling Love). I do not need to rehearse the tedious assumptions that Ferrante’s novels are somehow mined from her own life. The themes of the ‘personal’ – motherhood, female friendships, divorce – are said to be depicted with such realness that Ferrante could only write from her own life and that of course Ferrante is a woman, a guess that was shattered in 2016 by the expose of Ferrante’s identity.

What is it about Ferrante’s novels, of her incessant focus on the feminine domestic sphere, that pull in millions of readers? As Margaret Drabble states, there is something quite retro and Second Wavey about her novels. I would also add that there are strong hetero psychosocial dynamics of the private sphere that the novels contend with. And yet, they remain as fresh as the morning dew because the vexed question of the feminine, gender inequalities, and male dominance remains unresolved and returns the next day, like the morning dew that greets us.

Living as though dead: the dark power of Natsume Sōseki’s Kokoro

The intertwining themes of living dishonorably and dying honorably form the linchpin of Natsume Sōseki’s dark and desolate landmark 1914 novel, Kokoro (Heart). Consumed by guilt of possibly causing his best friend’s suicide in decades prior, the unnamed protagonist Sensei (or literally, ‘Teacher’) takes his own life ‘for the spirit of the Meiji’. In Kokoro, the novel’s ending and of life itself is the real story. Deaths of historical ‘real’ people suddenly make a deus ex machina appearance in the novel’s climax. The death of the Meiji emperor in 1912 results in a domino effect of other deaths. It was a signal to Sensei that he too should die, taking the Meiji era and its conflicting values with him. Following the emperor’s death, his military chief, General Nogi would in turn take his own life in an archaic way that would be the stuff of Western Orientalist images of Japanese peculiarity. In his imperial sati, General Nogi replaced his Western-style military uniform with a samurai armour and committed the act of seppuku, a type of ritual disembowelment, in front of the Meiji emperor’s portrait. In ‘following his master’, General Nogi had accomplished junshi, an honourable death.

Scholars of modern Japanese literature have debated and speculated on the more plausible reasons why the Meiji man, Sensei, committed suicide. Was it for dishonorable reasons (modern individualist selfishness) or honorable ones (to follow one’s master in death)? By Westernised and contemporary sensibilities, suicide, however abysmal its symbolic power, provokes disapproval in the living. In fact, the ‘incomprehensibility’ of suicide in Kokoro is the crux of discussions I have conducted in my Sunday classes on World Literature in the past three years with my Masters students. The genius of Kokoro is how the internal conflict of the central character, Sensei, would mirror those of his own generation who were raised during the Meiji Restoration of unfettered uptake of all things modern and European. As a Meiji man himself, born a year before the beginning of the Meiji era, Sōseki argued that Japan was shocked into change and struggled to reconcile with the human effects of a nation in rapid transition:

“People say that Japan was awakened thirty years ago, but it was awakened by a fire-bell and jumped out of bed. It was not a genuine awakening but a totally confused one. Japan has tried to absorb Western culture in a hurry and as a result has not had time to digest it. Japan must be truly awakened as regards to literature, politics, business, and all other areas” (Sōseki, 16 March 1902)

Living an unsatisfactory life and suffering are the recurring cornerstones that furnish the subtextual conflict of what it means to be a Meiji man – torn in different directions by the allure and promise of modernity and the anchor of tradition. Sensei is the classical Meiji man: highly educated and comfortable with making friends white people. He even drinks black tea. His demeanour piques the interest of a young man, also nameless, who in his first person narrative will be the only interlocutor to Sensei’s internal suffering. They develop a deep friendship built on abstract discussions on loneliness that plagues the zeitgeist:

“You see, loneliness is the price we have to pay for being born in this modern age, so full of freedom, independence, and our own egotistical selves”

Sensei had contemplated long about death but would not confide in his wife the cause of his depression. He was convinced that the suicide of his best friend is morally attributed to his cunning acquisition of the woman they both desired and whom Sensei would later marry but could not cherish in a loving relationship. The tragedies in his young adult life and lifelong guilt would arise from the constraints of tradition (of not talking about love with peers and confronting the object of one’s desires) yet mired by the modern appeal of individualistic competition and acquisition. Like a sleepwalking zombie immune to the zest of life, he resolved to continue ‘living as though dead’. Plunged into such psychological suffering, there is really no difference between living and being dead.

The final reveal – an announcement that Sensei has finally decided to die – arrives in a long letter addressed to his young friend. In it Sensei divulges his painful childhood, the powerful bond between him and his best friend, the tragic lead-up to the latter’s death, and how he must live with the pain of guilt for the rest of his life. There are hints that the death of the Meiji emperor and the ritual suicide of General Nogi may have capitulated his suicidal ideation. When the young man finishes reading the letter, its author will be dead. There is an open-endedness in both narrative arc and morality in the novel’s ending that signaled something new and modernist for Japanese readers of the early 20th century. The novel closes with the end of Sensei’s letter in the young man’s hands, contemporaneous with the reader of the novel who speculates on what the young protagonist will do next. Will the spirit of the Meiji era claim the young man as its next victim?

Literary discussion on suicide in literature tends to bring the writer’s suicide into focus. But in the case of Natsume Sōseki, he was no Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, or even Yukio Mishima. Kokoro would be his darkest novel after books lighter in mood; I am a Cat (1905) and Botchan (1906). Trained to be one Japan’s first university lecturers and scholars of Shakespeare and English literature, Sōseki became disillusioned with academia within a few years of teaching. Sōseki turned instead to journalism and became the country’s first professional novelist. His rise as a literary giant was forged alongside the emergence of the modern Japanese literati, the bundan and kokubungaku, Japanese literature as an academic discipline. Salons took place in the homes of much respected authors and patrons of the arts. Sōseki himself held court in such salons in his own home.

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A novel published originally in serialised form in the Asahi Shimbun, Kokoro’s preoccupations with suffering and alienation would mirror the life and career of the author himself. The introspective quality of Sōseki’s scholarly work on ‘literature’ parallels the psychological if elliptical preoccupations in Kokoro. In 1900, Soseki left his young family for a two year visit in London to study English literature. His sojourn to the West became both a personal and intellectual discovery of the Japanese self in relation to the Western world. While studying in University College London, he became depressed and oppressed by the alienation of a new arrival unfamiliar with a foreign world. His diminutive stature added to the exoticised reception by the English people he met who were perhaps themselves did not know what to make of a bookish Asian man on an intellectual mission.

He returned to Japan to continue to wrestle with the theory of literature in an approach that would be best called proto postcolonial. However, Sōseki had undertaken a scholarly project of discussing the production of modern Japanese literature that he was himself party to when the theory of ‘literature’ itself was still alien to his contemporaries and readers. In the first decade of the 20th century, his intellectual project was, as Kojin Karatani puts it, ‘a flower that bloomed out of season and therefore left no seed.’ The writing of Kokoro was precipitated by episodes of illness and a brush with death. Soseki suffered from a chronic stomach illness then nearly died from cerebral anaemia; events that jolted him into considering the “living experience with death”

What continues to haunt me is how simultaneously universal and truly of its time Kokoro is. It offers readers unfamiliar with modern Japanese literature a fresh respect for the introspective pause in everyday life to consider changing times and attitudes. Such an introspective pause is ever more necessary now when attention deficits plague so many. But Sōseki offers a pessimistic view on social change and the human cost to live up to expectations that change demands. Though the long-lasting effect of Kokoro is its meditation on life, death, and suffering that erases the boundary that separates the two. Rather than a void and antithesis of all that we can understand and experience, death visits upon the living and leaves its indelible mark on the body and mind.

My first book: Gender and Islam in Indonesian Cinema

I feel pleased and humbled to announce the publication of my first book, Gender and Islam in Indonesian Cinema (2017 Palgrave Macmillan. Chapters can purchased separately here) based on my field research between 2011 and 2012 in Jakarta and Yogyakarta where I was privileged to interview film directors, film producers, festival organisers, film critics and enthusiasts in the Indonesian film industry. I have made many wonderful friends in the process who became colleagues in a rather niche and important field of Southeast Asian cinemas and cultural production. It was written up as my PhD thesis supervised by Dr. Ben Murtagh and examined by Dr. Felicia Hughes-Freeland and Dr. Yvonne Michalik.

The rise of the modern female subject in modern Malay literature in the 1960s

The following is an excerpt from an early version of my book chapter on modernity and the ‘new woman’ in 60s Malay literature. It’ll be discussed at my public talk this Saturday in Silverfish Books, Kuala Lumpur:

Source: https://sweeling1995mediaculture.wordpress.com/

Extant literature in both Malay and English makes it rather clear that there appears to be a divide in the literary preoccupation of male and female fiction writers with regards to the depiction of women. Under the penmanship of Malay male writers, female characters are depicted as the playthings and subordinates of men. Women writers of modern Malay fiction writing, on the other hand, were confined to the vague notion of “women’s issues” (Maimunah, 1986). For Rosnah (2003: 35), there has been a gradual shift in the focus of women’s novels between the 1930s to 1970s from the instrumental importance of education for women to the life experiences and the soul (kejiwaan) of women. This is a rather extensive span of time that elides the many transformative historical moments for women, such as women’s participation in nationalist struggle, rise in women’s employment and increased recognition of women’s contributions in the public sphere. In her rather reductive assessment of the portrayal of women by Malay fiction writers, Ungku Maimunah states that female characters can be neatly divided into “positive” and “negative” representations. While the “positive” or “negative” portrayals of women are not explicitly defined, one is led to assume that they comprise of binary oppositions of faithful and self-abnegating women on one hand and on the other hand, openly sexual and morally ambiguous women in the context of a modernising new nation.

Sequestered within the “positive” and “negative”, I would argue, are elements of the modern female subject; highly-educated, urban and urbane, modern, aspirational, outspoken and worldly. The new woman in modern Malay literature is not passive and docile as the archetypal tragic woman in fiction by female novelists in the 1940s and 1950s (Rosnah. 2003: 37). She has experienced Western culture and lifestyles directly or remotely and is confident about the moral compatibility of Western and indigenous values. The modern female subject appropriates the possibilities of modernity for her own ends in a world that is shrinking and increasingly interconnected. Innovative narrative techniques found in the fiction of Malay women writers of the period, such as the literary autobiography and stream of consciousness foreground the female literary voice onto the page and public sphere.

The meaning of the ‘modern’ woman is problematised here to bring to bear the Eurocentric baggage of the word ‘modernity.’ Modernity has been associated with the linear narrative of progress that mirrors the development of ideas and industrialisation in Western Europe. It follows a culturally specific historical and intellectual trajectory with origins in the Enlightenment. At the same time, modernity is embodied (Appadurai, 1996) and a sensorial experience (Berman 1983), albeit an uneven one. In studies on British and American culture between 1890s and 1910s, the “new woman” demonstrates a number of bare similarities with the new woman identified in modern Malay fiction of the 1960s:

Defined by her commitment to various types of independence, the stereotypical American New Woman was college educated and believed in women’s right to work in professions traditionally reserved for men; she often sought a public role in occupations that would putatively improve society (Rich 2009: 1)

That the new woman would only emerge in the 1960’s Malaya is not an indication of a delayed modernity in which the Eurocentric historicism of “first in the West, and then elsewhere” is reproduced (Chakrabarty 2009: 6). Instead, the new woman of Malaya is a social phenomenon and literary construct of non-Western modernities. The notion of ‘multiple modernities’ is adopted here to examine the ways in which modernising societies undergo “structural differentiation” in which arenas such as family life, modern education, and mass communication for example are defined and organised differently (Eisenstadt 2000: 1-2). The new Malay woman’s embodiment of modernity is a critique of Eurocentric historicism which constructs passive ex-colonial subjects whose modernity is a pale fabrication of the West.

In the fiction by Malay women writers, there is an embrace of certain institutions of modernity – mass education, urbanisation and female participation in the public sphere for instance. However, there is also a moral suspicion about the dangers of ‘Westernisation’ that underpin many aspects of modernity. The revival of Malay nationalism in the 1960s found expression in the literary arena, primarily through institutional efforts to elevate the status of the Malay language and culture. Several novels of this period would become the ‘canon’ of modern Malay literature and develop a discursive space for the reflection of the meaning of progress for a new nation. However, women writers were excluded, formally and otherwise, from the ‘canon’ by their male peers, literary scholars and historians despite their significant contributions. Women members of Angkatan Sasterawan or ASAS 50 (Generation of Writers, a national association for Malayan writers), Kamariah Saadon and Jahlelawati, have been forgotten by scholars of modern Malay literature. The contributions of another group, Angkatan Sastrawanis, are also buried as a footnote in the history of Malay literature (Campbell 2004: 82). Thus, to argue that that women in Malaya were de facto emancipated during this period would be an overstatement..

Tensions that oscillate between postcolonial optimism and anxiety vis-à-vis modernity were deeply felt in the booming literary scene in 1960s Malaya. Having gained political independence in 1957, Malaysia entered a rich cultural decade of the 1960s defined by the consumption of Western popular culture and the adoption of Western aesthetics in local literature, filmmaking, popular music, and fashion. However, the moral landscape of postcolonial cosmopolitanism is typically refracted through a sexualised representation of women’s bodies in modern Malay literature during this period. Anis Sabirin’s critique of modern Malay novels by male writers in Jenis Perwatakan Wanita links the anxiety of Western-style “individualism” and “materialism” with the degradation of women. The scene of sexualised modernity is set in Jenis Perwatakan Wanita in the night clubs, massage parlours and B.B. Park, a shopping arcade in Kuala Lumpur (1969: 130). Sabirin comments on the rise of the erotic novel in the Malay fiction scene, comprising of both high and lower brow books by male novelists such as Shahnon Ahmad, A. Samad Said, Alias Ali, and Malungun, to name a few.

Women in the writings of these men, Anis argues, both destroy and are destructive to themselves and others (Perempuan sudah menjadi barang yang rosak dan merosakkan (1969: 132)). Her focus on these “destructive” women falls witheringly on the popular character of the urban prostitute found in high and lowbrow literature. Anis is just as critical of the “good” village girl idealised in modern Malay literature. For Anis, the symbolic innocence of the village girl belies an ignorance “untested” by experience and worldliness (1969: 133-134). In her essay “Peranan Wanita Baru” (“The Role of the New Woman”), Anis argues that women are caught in contradictory roles in modern society. No longer expected to be stay-at-home wives and mothers, women are expected to be just as educated and career-oriented as men. The new woman, however, embraces the dilemmas of modern life. Intelligent and employable in male-dominated professions, she is also desirable on her own terms and has sexual agency. She will not be tolerated being treated as a second-class citizen and demands that she is given the same opportunities as men (1969: 7-8).

While prominent, mainly male, writers were producing didactic fiction in the service of national development and elevating the status of the Malay language in the 1960s, female writers seized the new opportunities opened up to women to explore the limits of femininity and complex psychological and social narratives. But it is misguided to suggest that the narrative direction taken by women writers of the period qua women is an inward and exclusively domestic one in contrast to the outward projection of narratives concerning the nation by male writers. The 1960 novel Hari Mana Bulan Mana (Which Day Which Month) is a groundbreaking example of the expansion of a woman’s personal world and its relationship with other women in the public sphere. Sal, the lead character of Hari Mana Bulan Mana, is a newspaper reporter in Singapore prior to its separation from Malaya and the epitome of the “new” woman (Campbell 2004: 109, 112) who uses her role as a working woman in journalism to bring public attention to the plight of female victims of abuse and their abject poverty. Although not explicitly feminist, Sal’s consciousness about the status of women in modern Malaya also opens her eyes to the oppression suffered by her feminist activist friend, Zamilah.

The texts discussed in this chapter are a reflection of a rapidly changing society. Class-based and communal conflict in 1964 and 1969 indicate the cracks of a new nation. Despair and dissatisfaction arising from the yawning economic gap between the majority of poor Malays in the village and the minority of wealthier Malays in the urban centres are visible in modern Malay fiction of the period. Moral distinctions are also made between the “Westernised” Malay and the hapless rural Malay. Affluent, Westernised Malays are portrayed as out of touch with the vast majority of the nation’s people (rakyat). Remote from modernity, rural Malays who work the land suffer from community conflict and the cruel hand of nature’s onslaughts (Hooker 2000).

Reference:

Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity at large: cultural dimensions of globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minneasota Press.

Berman, Marshall. 1983. All that is solid melts into air: the experience of modernity. London: Verso.

Campbell, Christine. 2004. Contrary visions: Women and work in Malay novels written by women. Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka: Kuala Lumpur.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2009. Provincialising Europe: postcolonial thought and historical difference. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Eisenstadt, Shmuel Noah. 2000. “Multiple modernities.” Daedalus 129(1): 1-29.

Hooker, Virginia Matheson. 2000. Writing a new society: social change through the novel in Malay. New South Wales: Allen and Unwin.

Katz. Tamar. 2000. Impressionist subjects: gender, interiority, and modernist fiction in England. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Rich, Charlotte J. 2009. Transcending the new woman: multiethnic narratives in the progressive Era. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Rosnah Baharuddin. 2003. Wacana wanita Melayu dan sastera. Bangi: Penerbit UKM.

Sabirin, Anis. 1969. Peranan Wanita Baru. Kuala Lumpur: Penerbitan Utusan Malaysia.

Ungku Maimunah Mohd. Tahir. 1986. Women fiction writers and images of women in modern Malay literature. Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia. 1(2), 155-171.

Public talk: Women writers on gender and sexuality in 60’s Malay literature

I will be giving a public talk this coming Saturday, 30th April 2016 (5-7 pm), in Silverfish Books in Kuala Lumpur based on a forthcoming book chapter entitled ‘The New Malay Woman: The rise of modern female subject and transnational encounters in postcolonial Malay literature.’

Source: Silverfish Books

Synopsis of my talk:

The new Malay woman in modern Malay literature emerged during a period of unflattering and sexualised representations of female characters in the Malay literary canon and low brow fiction by male writers of the 1960s. By contrast, the emancipated new Malay woman, a creation of women writers, is a departure from her literary predecessors and contemporaries of passive, self-sacrificing domestic women. She is a product of early postcolonial modernisation and other institutional policies to elevate the Malay community in Malaya. The new Malay woman in Malay literature was created by women at a specific time in Malaysian history and was instrumental in promoting the advancement of Malay society in the 1960s.

More details on the talk here.