Sunday January 13, 2013
Local literature needs well-intentioned analysis
TOTS TO TEENS
By DAPHNE LEE
Malaysiaís written literature in English is still embryonic, in need of much nourishment Ė and some of that feeding must include well-intentioned critical analysis.
REGULAR readers of this column will be familiar with my rants about badly written and poorly illustrated Malaysian childrenís books. An acquaintance said to me that I have never written a good review of a local childrenís book. His definition of ďgood reviewĒ was one that was totally positive. He said, ďYou say you want to promote local writers and encourage them to produce childrenís books with Malaysian content, but you contradict yourself by constantly criticising what is locally published.Ē
Can support only be shown through glowing reviews? Iíve been told that a well-known Malaysian columnist doesnít review local lit because it just doesnít make the grade and he doesnít think he should be wasting column inches on work that is merely good enough by Malaysian standards (I didnít read the column so Iím not sure how accurate this is).
I read local literature because Iím interested in all literature and I love reading. I remember being a kid, reading Enid Blytonís The Five Find-Outers and changing all the charactersí names to Malaysian ones. I wanted to read stories about other Malaysian children having exciting adventures and I want my children (and all Malaysian children) to be able to do that.
As an editor and a writer, I want to see the local publishing industry grow and blossom. I want to see effort made to produce good books of all genres. Yes, I support and encourage local publishers and writers. I donít often write glowing reviews but I donít think thatís the only way to show support. In fact, I donít think it helps anyone much if a glowing review is written merely for its own sake. I donít believe in misleading the public, publishers or writers. If something isnít good enough, I believe in saying so and saying why I donít think itís good enough.
I believe that support must take the form of honest, objective, constructive comments. Of course, praise must be given where praise is due. If a story is well-plotted, if the characters ring true, if the writing is lively and engaging, I will say so, but if I donít buy the ending, if the dialogue is stilted and the illustrations are clumsy, Iíll point that out too. Publishers (and authors) will often call a balanced review a bad one. They focus on the criticism and ignore the praise. This is because they are afraid that readers will do the same and then refrain from buying the book. I suppose this does happen, but I feel that those in the book business should realise that they can use constructive criticism to their advantage: These are the areas that could be worked on; this is what needs improving; youíve got this right, carry on!
As for ďgood enough by Malaysian standardsĒ, unfortunately this usually means that the work is mediocre at best. Isnít it terrible that mediocrity is supposedly good enough for us? We should be aiming for good, by anyoneís standards, but I do see a problem with that benchmark too.
British and American standards are what we tend to use as a yardstick, especially for literature written in English. However, I feel that we should do less of this because a Malaysian writing in English is a very different animal from a Brit or an American writing in English. I feel that itís not just about the language used. Sure, the same words are employed but how they are used is very different. This is not just a matter of style, not just about being able to tell Jane Austenís phrasing from Mark Twainís, Ian McEwanís from John Irvingís.
Itís a matter of an authorís history, culture, and community. Itís about the other languages she speaks, the way she uses English in her everyday life, and the way itís used by those around her.
I think Malaysian writers have yet to develop their own ways of telling stories. We are a confused bunch. Most of us write in a language that we did not grow up speaking, but are unable to write in the language that we are most comfortable communicating in. With no or few reference points of our own, we have been forced to look West for examples of stories told in English. We try to mimic the Westís ways of telling, but it doesnít quite fit our stories, which need a Malaysian way of telling that has yet to be developed because our various hang-ups prevent us from using English with confidence; from making it our own, and bending it to our will and purpose.
English is my first language but I do not speak it wholly ďby the bookĒ because I am a Malaysian who went to a national school and I have friends whose first language is not English. I grew up reading English and American authors who are all dead. As a result, I have in the past made the Malaysian characters in my Malaysian stories say things like, ďThatís a beastly thing to do, MeiĒ and ďGolly, you donít say! How horrid for you, SamyĒ.
Now when I try to write dialogue, I have to make a conscious effort not to reproduce syntax I learnt from reading Austen, and Willa Cather and Elizabeth Bowen. I try to write the way I speak English and the way the people around me speak it. Itís not easy, as the written form must be a modified version of the spoken and yet sound as natural and believable when read aloud.
When I read local literature I have to remind myself that the authors are telling Malaysian stories and that they need to tell it their own way, not the way used by Maurice Sendak or Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton or Laura Ingalls Wilder. Often I suspect the authors donít know what their own ways of telling are but I feel they will figure it out, with time and practice.
Weíre a young country and our written literature (in English) isnít even a little mewling baby: itís a silent, but quite alive embryo that we need to nourish and nurture into a fully-fledged young creature that we can then continue to nourish and nurture to vibrant maturity.
Itís going to take time and effort Ė concerted effort that includes doing (writing and reading) and sharing (more writing and reading) and discussing (reviewing, critiquing), all in good faith and with the best of intentions.
Daphne Lee reads to wonder and wander, be amazed and amused, horrified and heartened and inspired and comforted. She wishes more people will try it too. Send e-mails to email@example.com and check out her blog at daphne.blogs.com/books.