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  • Izzuddin Ramli

The Hopeful Future of the Malay Novel

Updated: Jul 4, 2022

“Orang Melayu kempunan kasih sayang” (Malay people lack love), that both high culture and popular Malay romance novels are so popular in local bookstores.

National laureate A. Samad Said with his musician son, Az Samad.
National laureate A. Samad Said with his musician son, Az Samad. Photo by GTLF.

Time and again, I lose myself in the maze of shelves at the bookstore.

At one of the remaining major bookstores in Penang, I cruise – as usual – from South-East Asian to English literature, bypassing the home and cooking section and doing a fly-by at the comics before ending up at Malaysiana.

The books are well arranged, and the colourful spines and front covers catch my eye. I hardly ever pay any attention to this particular section, but I grab a title off the shelf anyway – Terlanjur Mencintaimu (Unintended Love). It is a glossy, pale blue book with randomly arranged pictures of sunflowers. Standing next to it is Saat Hadirnya Cinta Dia, sharing similar characteristics with the former, but fancier.

Somehow they remind me of home. These are the kinds of books that my mother used to – rather surreptitiously – immerse herself in back then, while making sure that I grew up according to Malay ideals. The Malay romance novel – whose contents are full of sexual lust, myriad conflicts and love-fuelled struggle for domination – was off-limits to underage kids.

Comparable to the mushrooming “indie” pulp fiction, Malay romance novels remarkably occupy a large space on the shelf, outnumbering English classics and non-fiction titles.

Muhammad Haji Salleh.
Muhammad Haji Salleh. Photo by Izzuddin Ramli.

The Development of Malay Literature

My curiosity of what makes Malay novels – particularly romance fiction – popular for so many decades brings me to the doorsteps of pundits as well as novelists.

But first, a quick history: the first Malay novel, according to general belief, was Hikayat Faridah Hanum, an adaptation of an Egyptian novel published by Syed Sheikh Al-Hadi in 1925. It is the subject of an ongoing contestation – Hikayat Panglima Nikosa is said to be the earliest text, published in north-western Borneo in 1876.

The Malay novel is, however, relatively new: “The old, artistic and aesthetic oral tradition in Malay society was the main influence on Malay novel writing. Subtly, this tradition survives in Malay society – especially in literary writing,” says Muhammad Haji Salleh, the national literary laureate whom I met up with over a cup of coffee in Ipoh.

This characteristic is reflected in the works of Anwar Ridhwan and the late Shahnon Ahmad – both also national laureates.

Shahnon, who began writing in the 1950s, had always maintained his voice as a narrator, while Anwar, writing one generation after Shahnon, narrates the story of a narrator. His first novel, Hari-hari Terakhir Seorang Seniman (The Last Days of an Artist), depicts the life of a penglipurlara (traditional storyteller) just before World War II, who wanders from one village to another – a period when the form of “people’s media” was threatened by war, changing lifestyles and the introduction of the radio.

As with other works of literature, Malay novels, too, speak for their times. During both pre-colonial and colonial periods, the struggle for political domination, which often led to lethal conflicts, was inevitable in a region filled with myriad ethnic groups and religions.

The anxiety of “disappearing from this world”, made explicit time and again in writings and speeches, strengthened the sense of identity among the Malays. Authors and narrators, who had been, for some time, political and religious leaders themselves, called for self-determination and liberation from colonial hands.

In his two most well-known works, Putera Gunung Tahan (The Prince of Mount Tahan) and Anak Mat Lela Gila (The Son of Crazy Mat Lela) – published in 1938 and 1966 respectively – Ishak Haji Muhammad, better known as Pak Sako, glorified Malay culture by comparing it to English culture, which to him lacked quality. Both satirical novels were critiques of the British. There were also writers who were influenced by British propaganda, and who had written about the Japanese in an unfriendly way.

“Malay novels touch on so many issues,” says associate professor Dr Rahimah Abdul Hamid, a literary expert at Universiti Sains Malaysia. “The themes keep on changing, depending on the concerns of the society the authors live in. Malay novels spoke of nationalism when there was an urge for the Malays to free themselves from colonial powers. Al-Hadi and Ahmad Rasyid Talu in his novel Iakah Salmah (Is that Salmah?) called for women’s emancipation. The same goes for other themes such as national unity and even romance.

“Even now, politics remains the dominant theme. When a novel speaks about society, it can’t discard politics. Malaysians talk about politics most of the time – like A. Samad Said, who comments on political issues in this country with his sharp and spectacular writings,” says Rahimah.

Through love stories, authors of Malay novels voiced the calamities caused by war, demanded complete social change or spoke of inequality, discrimination and poverty on behalf of Malay peasants. In the 1930s Hamka described the discrimination against mixed-race persons in Minang society at the time, as well as the subservient role of women through the failed love story of the main characters of Tenggelamnya Kapal van der Wijck (The Sinking of the van der Wijck), Zainuddin and Hayati.

Perhaps it is partly due to what Muhammad jokingly puts as, “Orang Melayu kempunan kasih sayang” (Malay people lack love), that both high culture and popular Malay romance novels are so popular in local bookstores.

“After the war, especially in the 1950s, with the influence of Writer’s Movement ’50 (Angkatan Sasterawan 50, Asas ‘50), the main concern of writers of the time was to develop a Malay society away from poverty.

“The writers found a sense of individuality in their literary works, both in prose and poetry. It was a period when people were looking for the meaning in being an individual. The sense of a free and independent self, in some ways, gave birth to Malay romance novels,” says Muhammad.

In the course of their development, romantic elements, more often than not, flow through Malay novels. As universal as it is, love has become an important theme not only in Malay literary repertoires, where one would find Uda & Dara, but also in Arabic and English cultural contexts, where “Laila and Majnun”, as well as Romeo and Juliet, have always been presented as symbols of true and ideal love.

But in all consciousness, Malay romance novels should be separated into high-culture romance and the popular, money-driven ones, labelled by mainstream writers as “novel picisan” (dime novel) – poor quality writings which lack literary value.

“The most general categories for Malay novels are, firstly, high culture; the other one would be popular culture. Works written by the national laureates fall under the first category whereas Malay romance novels are dubbed as popular novels,” says Rahimah.

Regina Ibrahim.
Regina Ibrahim. Photo by Izzuddin Ramli.

Compared to popular Malay novels, which are business-centric and possess fleeting mass appeal, high culture literature pays attention to aesthetics and fine language, yet engages readers in important themes happening within society.

The widely translated Malay novel, Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan (No Harvest But A Thorn) by Shahnon, for instance, has been a main reference for discussions about poverty in the Malay peasant community.

“Authors speak on behalf of their societies. Look at A. Samad Said’s Hujan Pagi (Morning Rain), which points to a period when the media exhibited the boldness of speaking to the authorities. Today, the tables have turned: the media now speaks for the authorities,” says Rahimah.

The Suffocation of Sentience

Everything that is suppressed has the tendency of turning into a ticking time bomb.

Being a poet and proponent of literary education and Malay language, Muhammad senses that the science-focused education system in all levels is the reason why society is gradually looking to literature, bringing forth many new readers and writers who, surprisingly, have no literary background. Until now, the arts and literature are still negotiating spaces not only in schools and universities, but also in the wider public domain.

“There is a huge gap in our souls. We are deprived of aesthetic, spiritual and ethical values, which science cannot provide us with. Physics and geography, for instance, cannot teach us about love and humility,” he says.

However, the intensifying sense of individualism, moral policing and book banning in the Malay cultural milieu have now become extensive. Between 1971 and 2017 the Home Ministry banned at least 1,695 books, including Malay language novels such as Legenda Mona Gersang (The Legend of the Sultry Mona) by Mahmud Mahyudin and Korban Cinta Palsu (The Prey of Fake Love) by Iza Sharizad in 1984.

Rahimah recalls how Dr Mahathir Mohamad, during his first premiership in 1998, responded to the publication of SHIT, the bestselling notorious novel of Shahnon. The political satire, written in openly taboo language, was an expression of his disgust of the political scenario in Malaysia at that time.

Surprisingly, when people urged him to ban the novel, Mahathir refused, learning from Tunku Abdul Rahman who had once banned his The Malay Dilemma. For Rahimah, as she puts it, “the ugly is the beautiful”. In the present day, local Malay language authors such as Faisal Tehrani are facing the same issue.

In a cafe in George Town, I sit with Regina Ibrahim, a Penang-based “indie” fiction writer who has authored a number of novels and shorts, including the bestselling Perjalanan (Journey). Listening to her story about the development of Malay novel writing, particularly among young independent Malay authors, was fascinating: for her, the change is not particularly obvious in terms of style, despite the growing quantity of Malay language novels published each year.

“Young Malay authors generally practice self-censorship and are afraid to expose their thoughts, trapped as they are within old frameworks,” says Regina. The linguistic originality and moral questions of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange partly inspired her to claim that “literature is a space for you to be ‘true.’” As she writes real life events – particularly on sexuality and to inform parents and children of other issues that are unheard of – the freedom of expression is non-negotiable.

Having said that, the number of new authors in the country is on the rise, thanks to vibrant literary festivals and publishing houses – both of which promote literature and connect established and emerging writers. The number of Malay novels written by women is increasing too.

In Malaysia and Indonesia, young writers are building networks and influences, getting more creative with wordplay and everyday issues – indicating that there is still hope for Malay literature, particularly novel writing, to survive in the future.

And maybe one day, we will be able to read a Malay novel that puts a benchmark on what good literature is.

*This article was first published in Penang Monthly, November 2018.


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