LITERATURE IN MALAYSIA

LITERATURE IN MALAYSIA

Malaysian literature is the collection of literary works produced in the Malay peninsula until 1963 and in Malaysia thereafter. Malaysian literature is typically written in any of the country's four main languages: Malay, English, Chinese and Tamil. It portrays various aspects of Malaysian life and comprises an important part of the culture of Malaysia. [Source: Wikipedia]

Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim and The Rescue were set in the Malay archipelago. William Somerset Maugham wrote several short stories on Malaya and Borneo in the first part of the 20th century. “Maugham's Malaysian Stories” include “The Vessel of Wrath,” “The Force of Circumstance,” “The Door of Opportunity,” “The Four Dutchmen,” “P&O” and “A Casual Affair.” “Maugham's Borneo Stories” include “The Yellow Streak,” “The Outstation,” “Before the Party,” “Flotsam and Jetsam,” “Neil Macadam” and “Virtue.”

One of Malaysia's top writer is Shahnon Ahmad. He has held the position of Malaysia's literary laureate since 1982. In 1999, he caused a stir when he wrote a book called Shit that was highly critical of the Mahathir government. Shit ended up being one of the best selling books ever in Malaysia.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Finnish Theatre Academy wrote: “The literary tradition of Malaysia bears clear marks of the country’s many-layered history. The Hindu stratum is represented by localised versions of the originally Indian epic, Ramayana. Originally it was known in the Sultanate of Malacca in a Javanese version, but later, during the Islamic period, it was rewritten as Hikayat Seri Rama, in which the main heroes are Muslims. However, in the border regions of Thailand still another version is known, related to the Thai Ramakien. Of the history chronicles the most important is the Sejarah Melayu, the history of the Malaccan Sultanate. Through international contacts several literary works and stories were adopted and adapted from India and the Arab world. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki |~|]

Early Malaysian Literature

The earliest works of Malaysian literature were transmitted orally in the absence of writing scripts. Oral literature encompasses a variety of genres of Malay folklore, such as myths, legends, folk tales, romances, epics, poetry, proverbs, origin stories and oral histories. Oral tradition thrived among the Malays, but continues to survive among the indigenous people of Malaysia, including the Orang Asli and numerous ethnic groups in Sarawak and Sabah. [Source: Wikipedia]

Early Malay literature was influenced by Indian epics, such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, which later included other traditions that now form the Malay literary heritage, such as the Hikayat Mara Karma, Hikayat Panca Tanderan and Hikayat Gul Bakawali. Malay romantic tales were also sourced from the Panji cycle of Hindu Java. There were also several forms of Malay poetry, which still remain popular until today.

For the Orang Asli, literature was and still is constituted by accounts of actual events. Different ethnic groups have different versions of the same story, although there are several recurring themes and elements in every tale. The cultural practices of the indigenous people in Sarawak are shaped in part by oral traditions. Themes like the relationship of the people to their past, particularly their ancestry, and the spirit world, including its influence on the production of food and health are the primary themes of the oral literature of various ethnic groups in Sarawak. The recitation of oral literature is often accompanied by rituals. The oral traditions of Sabah encompass folk tales and legends, such as creation myths, that have been preserved by the ethnic groups in the state. This oral literature is recited during ceremonies conducted by priestesses, who serve as ritual specialists, faith healers and spirit mediums.

By the 19th century, oral literature on the Malay peninsula was superseded by written literature. This was attributed largely in part to the introduction of Islam to the Peninsula by the 15th century and the adoption of the Jawi script. This tradition was influenced both by earlier oral traditions and Islamic literature from the Middle East. Works during this time ranged from theological literature and legal digests, to romances, moral anecdotes, popular tales of Islamic prophets and even animal tales, which were written in a number of styles ranging from religious to the Hikayat form.

The literary traditions of the Malay sultanates were distinct in that scribes were hired to record the significant events of the time. One important work of this period was Sejarah Melayu (The Malay Annals), which was written during the era of the Malacca Sultanate, rewritten in 1536 and revised in 1612. Traditional Malay poetry was used for entertainment and the recording of history and laws. There are three forms of traditional Malay poetry: the mantera, the pantun and the syair. Modern Malay poetry consists of the sajak.

Animal Folk tales

Animal fables are often used to explain certain natural phenomena. Other times, they are simple moral tales. In almost all instances, the animals in these stories possess the ability to speak, reason and think like humans, similar to Aesop's Fables. The kancil or mouse-deer serves as the main character in a number of the stories. The Malays regard this humble animal in the highest esteem due to its ability to overcome obstacles and defeat adversaries despite of its rather small and benign appearance. The mouse-deer appears in the state herald of Malacca and even plays a part in the legend of Malacca's founding. [Source: Wikipedia]

Below are listed some of the common fables as well as their approximate title translations: 1) Kisah Sang Kancil dengan Buaya - The tale of the mouse-deer and the crocodile; 2) Kisah Sang Kancil dengan Monyet - The tale of the mouse-deer and the monkey; 3) Kisah Sang Kancil dengan Harimau - The tale of the mouse-deer and the tiger; 4) Kisah Sang Kancil dengan Sang Sempoh - The tale of the mouse-deer and the bison; 5) Kisah Anjing dengan Bayang-bayang - The dog and the shadow; 6) Kisah Burung Gagak dan Merak - The crow and the peacock; 7) Kisah Burung Gagak yang Haus - The thirsty crow; 8) Kisah Labah-labah Emas - The golden spider; 9) Kisah Labah-labah dengan Burung Merpati - The spider and the pigeon; 10) Kisah Kerengga dengan Pemburu - The fire-ant and the hunter; 11) Kisah Burung Murai - The mockingbird; 12) Kisah Burung Kakak Tua - The cockatoo

Mouse Deer Stories

Mouse Deer is small, and many animals want to eat him—but first they have to catch him! A favorite trickster of Indonesia and Malaysia, it must be quick and smart to stay alive. That is why the Indonesians and Malaysians have made Mouse Deer their favorite trickster. Any of their boys or girls can tell you tales about him. [Source: Aaron Shepard, aaronshep.com

The mouse deer, or chevrotain, is about the size of a large rabbit. Found in India, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, it weighs only three pounds and stands a foot high at the shoulder and lives in tropical rain forest subsisting of nuts, leaves, buds, seeds, fungi and fruit that have fallen from above or are found on the forest floor.

Mouse deer are not a true deer. They are relatives of pigs and have characteristics normally associated with other animals. Like pigs they have four toes on each foot. Like musk deer they have tusks instead of antlers. Like camels they have a three stomach compartments instead of the usual four found in most deer. Their “tusks” are two enlarged teeth, one on either side of the upper jaw.

David Attenborough wrote: “Deer move through the forest browsing in an unhurried confident way. In contrast the chevrotain feed quickly, collecting fallen fruit and leaves from low bushes and digest them immediately. They then retire to a secluded hiding place and then use a technique that, it seems, they were the first to pioneer. They ruminate. Clumps of their hastly gathered meals are retrieved from a front compartment in their stomach where they had been stored and brought back up the throat to be given a second more intensive chewing with the back teeth. With that done, the chevrotain swallows the lump again. This time it continues through the first chamber of the stomach and into a second where it is fermented into a broth. It is a technique that today is used by many species of grazing mammals.”

Mouse Deer and Tiger

One upon a time, there was a mouse deer living in a forest. Although he was small, he wasn’t afraid of the other bigger animals who wanted to eat him. He was so smart; he always managed to ditch them. One day, a tiger was wandering around for food. He hadn’t been eating for days. He was really hungry. While he was walking in the forest, he saw Mouse Deer. The tiger wanted to eat him. Tiger slowly ducked, crawled, approaching Mouse Deer, then…”Gotcha!” said Tiger. He caught Mouse Deer. “Hello, Mouse Deer! I’m really hungry right now. You’ll be my lunch!” said Tiger. [Source: aditya indonesianfolktale.blogspot, April 21, 2010 <^>]

Mouse Deer didn’t want to be his lunch. He tried to be calm. He looked around and saw some buffalo’s dung. He had an idea. “I’m sorry, Tiger. I can’t be your lunch now. The King has ordered me to guard his cake,” said Mouse Deer calmly. “His cake?” said Tiger curiously. “Yes, there it is. It’s very delicious. The King doesn’t want anyone else to eat it, so he ordered me to guard it,” Mouse Deer pointed the buffalo’s dung. “Can I taste it?” Tiger asked. “Of course you can’t. The King would be very angry,” said Mouse Deer refused. “Just one little bite, Mouse Deer! The King will never know,” said Tiger. “Well, okay, Tiger. But first let me run far away, so the King won’t blame me,” said Mouse Deer. “All right, Mouse deer. You can go now.” Mouse Deer ran quickly out of sight. Tiger then took a big mouthful of the ‘cake’. “Phoooey!” He spit it out. “Yuck, that’s not cake. That’s buffalo’s dung.” <^>

Tiger ran through the forest. He caught up with Mouse Deer.“Mouse Deer, you tricked me. But now you will be my lunch.” Mouse Deer looked around and saw a wasp nest in a tree.“I’m sorry, Tiger. I can’t be your lunch now. The King has ordered me to guard his drum,” said Mouse Deer calmly. “His drum?” said Tiger curiously. “Yes, there it is. It has the best sound in the world. The King doesn’t want anyone else to hit it,” Mouse Deer pointed the wasp nest. “Can I hit the King’s drum?” Tiger asked. “Of course you can’t. The King would be very angry,” said Mouse Deer refused. “Just one little hit, Mouse Deer! The King will never know,” said Tiger. ”Well, all right, Tiger. But first let me run far away, so the King won’t blame me,” said Mouse Deer. “All right, Mouse Deer. You can go now.” Mouse Deer ran quickly out of sight. Tiger then reached up and hit the wasp nest. Bzzzzzzz…! “Ouch…ouch! That’s not a drum. That a wasp nests!” Tiger ran away. But the wasps keep following him. He came to the river. He jumped in and stayed underwater as long as he could. At last the wasps went away. Then he jumped out. <^>

He ran through the forest till he found Mouse Deer.“Mouse Deer, you tricked me again. But now you will be my lunch.” Mouse Deer looked around and saw a cobra. The snake was coiled asleep on the ground.“I’m sorry, Tiger. I can’t be your lunch now. The King has ordered me to guard his belt,” said Mouse Deer calmly. “His belt?” said Tiger curiously. “Yes. There it is. It’s the best belt in the world. The King doesn’t want anyone else to wear it,” Mouse Deer pointed the cobra. “Can I wear it?” Tiger asked. “Of course you can’t. The King would be very angry,” said Mouse Deer refused. “Just for one moment, Mouse Deer! The King will never know,” said Tiger. ”Well, all right, Tiger. But first let me run far away, so the King won’t blame me,” said Mouse Deer. “All right, Mouse Deer. You can go now.” Mouse Deer ran quickly out of sight. Tiger then took the snake and started to warp it around himself. The cobra woke up. It squeezed Tiger and bit him. SSssssstt!“Oouch! Ow! Ooow! That’s not a belt! That’s a cobra! Help! Mouse Deer! Help!” But Mouse Deer was already far away. He laughed aloud. Mouse Deer was safe from Tiger now. <^>

Malaysian Ghost Stories

Malays, as with other Southeast Asians, have always taken great interest in stories of ghosts and spirits. It must be stressed that due to the animistic root of Malay folklore, these ghosts are seen as sharing the plane of existence with humans and are not always considered evil. However, when the delicate line that separates the boundaries of existence is crossed, or a transgression of living spaces occurs, a conflict ensues that may result in disturbances such as possessions.

The Malay word for ghost is hantu. However, this word also covers all sorts of demons, goblins and undead creatures and are thought to have real physical bodies, instead of just apparitions or spectres. The most famous of these is the pontianak or matianak, the ghost of a female stillborn child which lures men in the form of a beautiful woman.

See Separate Article GHOSTS, FOLK BELIEFS AND SUPERSTITIONS IN MALAYSIA

Malaysian Fairy Tales (Kisah Dongeng)

Kisah dongeng are a loose collection of bedtime stories, fables and myths that involves human or non-human characters, often with superhuman powers along with talking animals, and an unearthly setting. In this category, the story of Puteri Gunung Ledang, Bawang Putih Bawang Merah and Batu Belah Batu Bertangkup is well known by the Malays. All three have been made into movies, albeit with differing interpretations and settings. [Source: Wikipedia]

Characters with human-likeness abound in these stories. They are collectively referred to as orang halus meaning the "refined folk" or "soft folk" (often erroneously translated as "elves"). Most are invisible to the average human. They include: 1) Orang Bunian: "hidden people" or "whistling people"; a race of exceptional beauty and grace; 2) Orang ketot: humans with short stature, similar to dwarves; 3) Orang kenit: small humans, often possessing magic powers; ) Gergasi: giants or ogres; 4) Gedembai or Kelembai: an ogre who has the power to turn things to stone.; 5) Duyong: mermaids, having the lower body of a fish and a woman's upper body; 6) Bidadari: beautiful heavenly nymphs.

Lycanthropic humans take the form of an animal. The transformation may be at will or under particular circumstance, such as changing at nightfall. They are collectively called jadi-jadian. Among these are: 1) Harimau jadian or harimau akuan: were-tiger, were-leopard or were-panther; 2) Ular tedung jadian: were-cobra; 4) Lembu jadian: were-bull

Mythical birds: 1) Geroda: a species of bird large enough to carry an elephant in its talons; 2) Jentayu or Chatayu: the bird who tried in vain to save Sita Dewi from Rawana; 3) Cenderawasih: bird-of-paradise, sometimes said to resemble the golden oriole. Guards a sacred jewel in kayangan (heaven).

Beastly creatures, but not necessarily evil: 1) Na-ga: a dragon, depicted as snake-like or similar to the Chinese dragon. Said to inhabit caves and watery areas; 2) Raja udang or Naga udang: a very large prawn or lobster-like creature; 3) Hantu Belangkas: a gigantic king-crab that attacks people at sea; 4) Jadi: a type of seagoat with the upper body parts of a goat and a lower part of a fish; 5) Singalaut: merlions, with the body of a fish and the head of a lion.

Later folk stories adopted elements from the Islamic world, of Middle Eastern origin but having arrived by way of South Asia through Indian Muslims and the Arabs. They differ somewhat from their Arabian counterparts due to the fact that what Malays now refer to as angels or demons were originally animistic spirits and deities: 1) Jin: djinn; 2) Syaitan: used in Malay as a generic word for demon; 3) Pari-pari or peri: fairies; 4) Malaikat: angels; 5) Iblis: Satan.

The Harmony Silk Factory

In a review of “The Harmony Silk Factory,” Alfred Hickling wrote in The Guardian, “Tash Aw's mercurial debut novel opens with the enigmatic anti-hero dead and his disaffected son determined to stamp on the grave. We learn how Johnny Lim - a natural whiz with machines - stabbed an English mine owner in Malaya during the second world war, went on the run, and established himself as a local legend in the featureless Kinta valley. Prized for his ingenuity and natural powers of persuasion, Lim becomes the protégé of elderly textile magnate Tiger Tan, whose business activities provide a front for the squads of communist guerrillas camped in the mountains to resist the Japanese occupation. Lim rapidly succeeds Tan as terrorist-in-chief, marries the daughter of the richest man in the valley, and sells out his comrades to the head of the Japanese secret police, a scholarly psychopath named Mamoru Kunichika. [Source: Alfred Hickling, The Guardian, March 26, 2005 /*/]

“You wouldn't expect a character to come back from an assassination like that. But Aw's purpose, after devoting the first third of the novel to the vitriolic posthumous account outlined above, is to spend the rest of the book devising a complex, contradictory case for the rehabilitation of Johnny Lim. The second narrator to speak is Lim's deceased wife Snow, through the medium of a journal she kept detailing a bizarre honeymoon conducted in the company of three chaperones: a sybaritic mine-owner called Honey; a seedy aesthete known as Wormwood; and the smooth Japanese devil Kunichika. /*/

“At the behest of the bride's parents, this peculiar party set off on a badly organised journey to a remote set of islands, and almost perished in a violent tropical storm. In this feverishly Conradian segment, Snow is shown to be increasingly attracted to the charms of the Japanese police chief, while Lim licks his wounds with his new crony, the flamboyantly operatic Wormwood. In the final section of the book we witness the same events again, this time filtered through the memories of a now elderly Wormwood, ensconced in an Oriental old people's home. This sexually ambivalent, cape-wearing opera-lover seemed to detect in Johnny a guileless innocence that none of the others noticed, and plans to plant a paradisal garden in honour of his friend. /*/

“Aw makes a credible job of modulating the varying tones of voice by which the smiling villain of the first part comes to be seen as the weeping cuckold of the third. But unreliable narration is a tired old trope now, and the reader is left to make up his or her own mind whether the obfuscation and contradictions inherent in this three-cornered portrait of Johnny Lim are a product of the book's maddening inconsistency, or its mysterious appeal. /*/

“I hesitate to use such stereotypical formulations as "the fathomless, inscrutable East" in trying to evaluate the strange, evasive quality of Lim; but as Aw has no such qualms I might as well go ahead. Snow makes reference to her husband's "blank, inscrutable expression"; Kunichika agrees that "he is inscrutable, that's for sure"; while Wormwood recalls how Lim would habitually "return to his barricaded silence, locking me out of his world. The unfathomable, inscrutable East, I thought. I was cut adrift from the shores of understanding." /*/

There were long passages of Aw's narrative where I felt quite a long way adrift of the shores of understanding myself. He writes with what seems like effortless fluidity, yet the dazzling haze of the construction seems ultimately designed to deflect attention from the fact that it frequently demands patient re-reading without really deserving it. It is left to the binding image of silk to hold everything together. The process of the book seems to be encapsulated in Snow's description of a passage of music in which "the notes seemed to weave in and out of each other, no longer discernible, like a length of shot silk held up close to your eyes"; while Wormwood offers the observation of shifting memories being like "sensations that the years have layered on top of the initial emptiness, like sheet after sheet of silk covering a bare table". Like a bolt of raw silk, Tash Aw's debut can be a little rough and transparent in places. But perhaps one ought to accept the inconsistencies as integral to the effect.” /*/

Book: The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash Aw (Fourth Estate, 2005)

Evening Is the Whole Day

In a review of “Evening Is the Whole Day,” Allegra Goodman wrote in the New York Times,” Preeta Samarasan’s delicious first novel, set in Malaysia in 1980, provides such a feast. We enter the big blue house just outside the town of Ipoh, the home of Raju, a rich Indian lawyer whose difficult mother, Paati, has just died, and his unhappy wife, Vasanthi, and their children. Their brilliant, melancholy Uma has just flown away to Columbia University, leaving her 11-year-old brother, Suresh, and 6-year-old sister, Aasha, a girl with a poetic and sometimes dangerous imagination. Deftly switching points of view, and flitting backward and forward in time, Samarasan constructs a narrative that opens outward even as it deepens, revealing the wounds and secrets within each character. We meet the family’s neighbors, friends and servants, notably their maid, Chellam. We learn about Raju’s brother, known to the children as Uncle Ballroom for his peripatetic career as a dancer in Europe. We even meet the ghosts: the phantom of a young girl drowned by the mistress of the house’s original owner, Mr. McDougall, and the ghost of Raju’s irascible mother, who dies shortly before the novel begins, under tragic, shameful circumstances we gradually come to understand. This is not a claustrophobic family drama but a continually unfolding mystery, in which the reader follows each character down dark, winding passageways into hidden rooms, walled gardens and beyond to view a complex society in which Malay, Indian and Chinese coexist and chafe against one another after the end of British colonial rule. [Source: Allegra Goodman, New York Times, July 27, 2008 >*<]

“Petal by petal, this novel unfolds the family’s layered history. We learn that when she was young and beautiful, Vasanthi toiled like a young Cinderella, taking care of her siblings after her mother was suddenly transformed into an ascetic who renounced worldly pleasures and prayed all day in her room. Raju saved her from her hard life, bringing her to the blue house where she does not, however, live happily ever after. We learn of Suresh’s birth in the midst of the race riots of 1969. We learn the heartbreaking tale of Chellam the maidservant, sometimes called Chellamservant by the children. Vasanthi tells her to save her wages to buy eyeglasses, and Chellam buys a notebook to chart her savings, which her alcoholic father steals to spend at the toddy shop. Her life at the house consists of one humiliation and misunderstanding after another. She’s less than a person to the children, a laughingstock to the neighbors and even to the traveling idiot-soothsayer. >*<

“Where the novel works best, each tale opens into the next, revealing a bit more about complex characters and their actions. Within the intricate archways of her plot, Samarasan sets out a garden of sensual delights. Often using little Aasha as her wide-eyed guide, she conjures an intensely beautiful world of jewels and dust motes and cooking smells and death. On the day Paati dies, Aasha sees a black butterfly “with trailing teardrop tails,” its wings edged with “tiny flashes of cobalt blue.” Gazing at her mother’s sapphire pendant, she sees “a whole world unto itself; holding it is like flying, or swimming, or drowning without fear. A magical drowning, a welcome falling towards an ocean bed of mermaid castles.” Samarasan has a gift for selecting just the right detail: the stains on a rattan chair, revealing Paati’s long invalidism; the copy of “The Wind in the Willows” that Aasha reads as if to temper the tropical heat. Samarasan has a marvelous ear as well, capturing the cadences of the family’s hybrid English. Vasanthi rants about the departing Chellam: “Look at her. ... Just look at her. Dares to wear the shirt I gave her after all the havoc she’s caused. ... No bloody shame. Month after month I packed up and gave her your Appa’s shirts. Courthouse shirts, man, Arrow brand, nice soft cotton, all new-new. In which other house servants wear that type of quality clothes?” >*<

“At times, however, the narrative falters or challenges credulity. The choreography of Paati’s death in the bath is slow and labored. It’s hard to believe that Aasha, who sees so much, never approaches to interfere or call for help. Trying to save Uma from suspicion, Aasha lies later on about what happened, in a twist reminiscent of Briony Tallis’s deception in Ian McEwan’s “Atonement,” and with similarly fateful consequences. While Samarasan beautifully illuminates the motivations behind Aasha’s lie, she is less generous in analyzing Uma’s violent anger or her long silent funk. Uma is the prime actor in the plot, but the least satisfactory character.We feel much more for Chellam the maidservant — not just because we pity her but because we enter farther into her thoughts. By contrast, the eventual revelation of Raju’s own dark secret seems forced, and his wife’s surprise is hard to credit. >*<

“Some subplots simply wither on the vine. What happened to Vasanthi’s ascetic mother and cruel father? Raju’s investigations and trials of various crimes of passion feel incidental, scraps of information lacking resonance. Anomalies and odd shifts distract the reader. Raju is supposed to lack a sense of smell as a young man, which proves a blessing when he courts Vasanthi in a house stinking from her mother’s chamber pot. (Strangely, he can still enjoy the taste of food, though generally those who can’t smell can’t taste, either.) Years later, standing in the market, Raju suddenly recovers, his nostrils “coming alive, sighing, swooning, singing, the hairs in them doing a joyous dance, cilia rousing themselves as though from a witch’s spell” when he encounters “the char kuay teow lady’s breath, sharp and salty, like other people’s descriptions of the sea.” >*<

“But even if the seams don’t match perfectly, Samarasan’s fabric is gorgeous. Her ambitious spiraling plot, her richly embroidered prose, her sense of place, and her psychological acuity are stunning. Readers, responding to the setting, will immediately compare her to Kiran Desai. I think Samarasan’s dialogue and description are reminiscent of Eudora Welty, another woman who knew how to write about family and race and class and secrets and heat.” >*<

Book: “Evening Is the Whole Day” by Preeta Samarasan ( Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008]

1971 Novel “Interlok” Stirs Ethnic, Political Waters in Malaysia

Dustin Roasa wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “When Abdullah Hussain released his novel "Interlok" in 1971, the author could not have known the impact it would have on this Muslim-majority country. Few at the time read the Malay-language book, which portrays the interlocking lives of ethnic Malay, Chinese and Indian families in pre-independence British Malaya. But four decades later, the book became a sensation. It has galvanized the country's Indians — a mostly poor minority that is traditionally known for political passivity — after they objected to its portrayal of Indian characters. This has altered the political landscape in advance of upcoming national elections, expected to be the most competitive in years.[Source: Dustin Roasa, Los Angeles Times, April 8, 2012 **]

“During a year-long national debate, punctuated by death threats and breathless news coverage, the book reopened the old but familiar wounds of ethnicity. "It's one of the only books that has tried to address the complexities of ethnicity in Malaysia," said Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, head of the Institute of Ethnic Studies at the National University of Malaysia. The debate's contours resemble the American culture wars of the 1990s, complete with competing religious and ethnic grievances and accusations that elites have exploited race for political gain. **

"Interlok" shot from obscurity to prominence in late 2010, when the Ministry of Education placed it on the syllabus of public high schools in the Kuala Lumpur area. The story, set in the first half of the 20th century, follows three characters — Seman, Chin Huat and Maniam — as their lives eventually intertwine during British colonization, the Japanese occupation and independence. In one passage, the book describes the migration of Indians from the southern subcontinent, where some were members of the pariah caste. Parents of Indian students who read the book were outraged by the use of the word "pariah" and descriptions of Indian characters as black-skinned. **

"The book is designed to indoctrinate Indian children that they are immigrants in this country, that they should be grateful to the Malays for letting them stay," said Thasleem Mohamed Ibrahim, who became an organizer of the anti-"Interlok" movement, which has collected 50,000 signatures demanding that the novel be removed from the syllabus. As the protest movement gathered steam, gaining support from Chinese and Malay groups, the government began to backtrack. It created an amended version before finally agreeing to remove the book entirely for the 2012 school year. Activists celebrated the victory as a milestone in Indian political consciousness. "In the past, we have not been able to see issues like this to completion. But this time, we completed the mission," said N.S. Krishna, a videographer who created short films about the issue for YouTube. **

“Still, not everyone was pleased. "Today you stop the book and tomorrow what are you going to stop?" asked Indian author and academic Ambigapathy Pandian. "The Indian community should be mature enough to accept these criticisms." Others noted that sensitive words such as pariah were in use during the period in which the book is set, and that the characters' attitudes toward race are historically accurate. **

“Abdullah Hussain, a 92-year-old Malay who is confined to a wheelchair, remains puzzled by the controversy over this one of more than two dozen novels he has written. After breaking down in tears during an interview with a prominent newspaper, he has largely withdrawn from public life. In an email exchange, he maintained that his book was not insensitive to Indians, and that its characters were based on real people and extensive research. "They politicized my book," he wrote. **

"Parah," a play about the "Interlok" controversy, recently drew full houses in Kuala Lumpur. "Parah's" director, Jo Kukathas, said that though art was in danger of becoming a battleground for competing ethnic agendas, artists still had an obligation to use their work to bridge the country's divides. In the play, the main characters — a group of Indian, Chinese and Malay friends — do what real-life Malaysia seemed incapable of: find common ground through a four-decade-old novel about the country's sometimes fractured, but ultimately interlocking, groups. **

Kampung Boy

Lat's Kampung Boy series is favorite of millions of readers in Southeast Asia. With masterful economy worthy of Charles Schultz, Lat recounts the life of Mat, a Muslim boy growing up in rural Malaysia in the 1950s: his adventures and mischief-making, fishing trips, religious education, and work on his family's rubber plantation. Meanwhile, the traditional way of life in his village (or kampung) is steadily disappearing, with tin mines and factory jobs increasingly overtaking the village's agricultural way of life. When Mat himself leaves for boarding school, he can only hope that his familiar kampung will still be there when he returns. The first in a delightful series, Kampung Boy is hilarious and affectionate, with brilliant, super-expressive artwork that opens a window into a world that has now nearly vanished.

Mohammad Nor Khalid is a well known, beloved, and celebrated Malaysian cartoonist also known simply at Lat. He began his drawing career at age nine, was first published at thirteen, and in 1979 released his first autobiography in Malaysia, Kampung Boy. One of the most beloved cartoonists in Southeast Asia, Lat has received numerous awards, including, in 1994, the prestigious Malaysian honorific title Datuk. Most recently he was honored by the Malaysian Press Institute with their Special Jury Award, given to "those who have contributed significantly to journalism and society and have become an institution in their own right." Kampung Boy is his first book to be published in the U.S.

According to Kirkus: In a charming story of a young boy's life, Lat recounts his childhood living in a small village (or kampung) in Malaysia. Beginning in his infancy, the reader experiences Lat's life up to his later boyhood, when he leaves his family and familiarity to attend boarding school. In addition to sharing his memories, Lat pays close attention to the social mores and nuances of his culture, offering the reader a glimpse into a foreign life. A sweetly naturalistic memoir, this non-traditional graphic novel breaks free of the conventional boxy panel layout to richly extend the black and white illustrations over the pages, with most pages containing a single scene. The art is highly detailed, letting the reader linger over each page, enjoying the feel of experiencing life in another country. Besides offering up a smart cohesion of careful text with meticulous illustration, Lat offers his readers a unique perspective in his scenes; when drawing himself as a young boy, his settings are oversized and exaggerated, showing the reader that even in a small kampung, life can still loom large for a child. Intriguing and edifying, Lat's memoir is an endearing look at a foreign adolescence. [Source: Kirkus, August 2006]

According to Publisher's Weekly: “Malaysian comics creator Lat makes his American debut with this down-to-earth account of childhood in a Southeast Asian kampung, or village. His black-and-white text resembles a chronological sketchbook, with stilt-houses and jungle plants inked on each page, and handwritten text explaining events and customs. Impatient readers might wish for a glossary or map: "I was born in a kampung in the heart of the world's largest tin-mining district-the Kinta Valley in Perak," says the narrator, and leaves it at that. But most will enjoy the protagonist's casual chronicle of rites of passage such as a hair-shaving ceremony ("adat cukur kepala"), lessons in the Koran at age six, the Bersunat (circumcision) ceremony at age 10, and a trip to the movies circa 1960. From the window of his house, he sees a rubber plantation and hears the "distant roaring sound... of a tin dredge." Later, Constable Mat Saman, a Barney Fife-like zealot toting an automatic rifle, chases villagers who pan the river for saleable tin scraps. Lat's adults have narrow chests and slouch pelvis-first, while mischievous children canoe, dive and fish in the river. This first in a projected series ends on a to-be-continued note, with the narrator leaving for boarding school and already homesick for the kampung. Lat's loose, laid-back stories of Muslim family life and school should appeal to Marjane Satrapi fans; with humor and affection, Lat makes the exotic kampung feel familiar. All ages. [Source: Publisher's Weekly, August 7, 2006]

A Review in Booklist reads: Malaysian cartoonist Lat uses the graphic novel format to share the story of his childhood in a small village, or kampung. From his birth and adventures as a toddler to the enlargements of his world as he attends classes in the village, makes friends, and, finally, departs for a prestigious city boarding school, this autobiography is warm, authentic, and wholly engaging. Lat depicts small children-including himself-as mostly mop-topped, toothy, bare-bottomed or sarong-draped-while the important adults in his life appear in billowing trousers or dramatic spectacles. Everything is wonderfully detailed in his scribbly black-and-white sketches; each page is crammed with heavy inked action scenes, which are explained in simple but eloquent prose. Some passages recall past behavior; others focus on cultural events and surroundings-a wedding, a rubber plantation, Lat's circumcision ("It took place on a banana trunk. In two minutes it was over...just like an ant bite!"). Filled with humor and affection, the book is a delight; readers will enjoy it not only as an introduction to a well-known Southeast Asian artist but also a story of boyhood that encompasses both universals and the specifics of a time and place. [Source: Booklist, September 2006]

According to VOYA: “This outstanding graphic novel chronicles the early adventures of Mat, a conventional Muslim boy, and his family and friends. Mat is an exuberant and expressive character much adored by his affectionate family and the often-hilarious villagers. His high-spirited escapades with his friends, his sober religious education with the cane-wielding Tuan Syed, the moderate and sometimes scary customs of daily life, his maturation and occasional trouble at home, and eventually his eye-opening life at boarding school all portray a traditional life that has since nearly vanished. Lat reminds readers on every page of the energy and delight of childhood. The book breathes life into the themes of loyalty, ecology, family values, and societal customs. It pits the fading rural traditions of the Malaysian jungle village dependent upon rubber and agriculture in the 1950s against the quickly developing outside world. [Source: VOYA, September 2006]

Book: Kampung Boy by Lat (Macmillan, 2006)

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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