Southeast Asian Archipelago

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Southeast Asian Archipelago

Razif Bahari

The Southeast Asian novel has come to be regarded as a problematic category, and justifiably so. Questions of critically representing and talking about the Southeast Asian novel have to ineluctably negotiate a series of issues relating to insider/outsider binaries of space, perspective, voice, and representation that trouble the languages of literary creation and criticism. What constitutes a Southeast Asian novel: one written about or set in Southeast Asia, or one written by a Southeast Asian (with all the complexities that that appellation entails)? If we agree on the former, then works such as C. J. Koch's The Year of Living Dangerously (1978), Anthony Burgess's The Malayan Trilogy (1972), and Noel Barber's Tanamera: A Novel of Singapore (1981) would fall under the Southeast Asian category. It is unlikely that any one formulation will do justice to the longstanding concern about who and what should be regarded as Southeast Asian; therefore, when from time to time reference is made to the Southeast Asian novel, this is simply by way of shorthand to mark off writing by Southeast Asians—specifically from the maritime Southeast Asian nations of Indonesia, Singapore, and the Philippines, as well as Malaysia—from that by non-Southeast Asians. Two other nation-states in the region, Brunei and Timor-Leste, are not discussed in this entry as they do not have autonomous traditions in the novel.

Although a Western form, the novel in the Southeast Asian archipelago is by no means a direct and unmitigated borrowing from the West but is the product of a long and varied ancestry. The genesis of the novel in the archipelago has been traced to traditional literary forms that have existed in both local and regional literatures of the area. The history of the novel in Indonesia traces the moment of its birth to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and identifies the Javanese pakem or prose summaries of shadow-play stories, travelogues, and novelistic literature in Dutch, Chinese, and Malay languages as its literary progenitors (Quinn). In Malaysia, the novel is regarded as an extension and transformation of the hikayat (a traditional form of Malay epic written in prose and verse) that has existed since the early seventeenth century (Wahab Ali), while in the Philippines it is said to have developed from the nineteenth-century metrical romance known as the awit and corrido, moral tracts written in narrative form, and beyond these, the pasyon, or religious epic depicting the passion of Jesus Christ, in the eighteenth century as well as folk narrative traditions going back to pre-Spanish times (Kintanar).

The critical move toward local adaptation, cultural re-creation, and indigenized use of the novelistic genre cannot be ignored in any account of the genesis of the novel in Southeast Asia. Though European in origin, the novel, even early on, has shown its own practice of appropriation with recognizably “postcolonial” textual tactics of hybridized performance: the fusion of native orature and primordial mythology with the stylistic protocols of a new Western discursive genre. Indeed, the novel was shaped by the material and ideational changes associated with the rise of print technology, secular education, and contact with European sources, as much as it was, as Wahab Ali contends, a manifestation of “local response to these phenomena and how they were understood and imitated” (261).

Responding to Modernity

The idea of the modern, as contrasting or interacting with the traditional, is firmly embedded in the Southeast Asian novel. This is evidenced by early novels addressing the culture clash during the colonial period, e.g., Indonesian writers Merari Siregar's Azab dan Sengsara (1920, Torment and Misery) and Marah Roesli's Sitti Noerbaja; Malaysia's Ahmad Rashid Talu's Iakah Salmah? (1929, Is It Salmah?); and Filipino nationalist José Rizal's Noli Me Tangere (1887, Touch Me Not) and its sequel, El Filibusterismo (1891, The Filibustering). In these works, the collision of Western values with traditional ones is depicted through tracing the development and experiences of particular individual characters who personify the polarities of cultural authenticity and the rejection of traditional communalism. Extraordinary individuals set the tone of some early novels, and it is possible to see the significance and the pivotal position of the individual as a signifier of the core of ideas relating to modernity (see MODERNIS). This affirmation of individuality—in the form of exceptional individuals who stood apart from the masses and had a clearer vision: the nationalist revolutionary, the iconoclast, the educated reformer who gave voice to the hopes of those who were unable to articulate a different political future—both reflects and facilitates the transformation of other values relating to, for example, authority and community, national consciousness, and freedom of the individual.

The emphasis on characterization is thus expressive of the novelist's general orientation to the extent to which the traditional has been permeated by the modern. It must be said, of course, that the novel is hardly a neutral medium in this regard. As a Western literary form, the novel was shaped by the material and ideational changes associated with the rise of capitalism and Western form of education which privileged the individual over society. Yet in the hands of pioneering Southeast Asian novelists such as Rizal, Merari, and Ahmad, it proved adaptable enough to the needs of presenting a different consciousness. The tendency to acclaim characters that are pulled both ways—seen as representative of the masses, adhering in large part to traditional ideas and values and often rooted in village life or at least retaining rural ties, on the one hand; on the other, as fierce critics of their indigenous culture and defiant of tradition, cosmopolitan and unconventional, whose outlook is shaped by being brought up in the capital cities of Europe and being given a privileged education—became a stock-in-trade for these early novels. The elevation of the individual, however, need not involve any wholesale rejection of tradition-bound social practices and customary law or a continued communal consciousness. Though the rise of individualism in Southeast Asia seems to suggest an openness to modernity, the novelistic response to other forms of modernity has been more divided and has involved considerable hesitancy and ambivalence (Teeuw).

The city is a symbol of the modern, counterpoised to the village with its old-established rhythms and customs, and the dichotomy between the two is evident, for example, in Singaporeans Lim Boon Keng's Tragedies of Eastern Life (1927), Goh Poh Seng's If We Dream Too Long (1972), Filipino F. Sionil Jose's My Brother, My Executioner (1973), Indonesian Toha Mohtar's Pulang (1958, Homeward), and Malaysians A. Samad Said's Salina (1961, Salina) and Shahnon Ahmad's Rentong (1965, Rope of Ash). In these novels, the city is represented as the zone of contact between the old Southeast Asia and the world outside, as the hub of those processes of change concerned with revolution, commodity, and cultural exchange, or as the primary site of infection of the barren, exploitative, and depersonalized nature of modern life. Rural enclaves, on the other hand, remain a storehouse of indigenous spiritual sensibilities and traditional communalism. Recognition of the city as a fact of contemporary Southeast Asian life does not necessarily involve an emotional acceptance; in fact many of the narratives are resistant. Time and time again, as in the novels of Jose and Shahnon, we find a preference for the individual who has clung to his or her cultural roots, who is at home or yearns to be at home in the village, and whose strength is derived from connectedness with the past. If there is some duality in a character's makeup—elements of the traditional and elements of the modern, of the simple and the sophisticated, of the country and the city—invariably it is the former that are privileged.

The question of Southeast Asia's response to modernity, of how and in what ways a merger could be negotiated between the traditional and the modern, though incidental to the novels' main themes, continues to play out in East Kalimantan author Korrie Layun Rampan's Api, Awan, Asap (1998, Fire, Cloud, Smoke), Filipino Bienvenido Santos's The Praying Man (1982), Malaysian Abdul Talib Mohd Hassan's Saga (1976, Saga), and Singaporean Isa Kamari's Memeluk Gerhana (2007, Embrace the Eclipse). The picture that emerges from these novels is not so much a portrait of development as a collage of the conditions of urban life, deracination, displacement, breakdown of traditional values and social units, the human dislocation of structural change. Yet their more enduring value lies in their implicit endorsement of a modern future while at the same time insisting that the past must not be discarded, forced out by the juggernaut of modern technology and processes. The traditional and the modern are not seen as binary opposites but as shading into each other, even organically linked. Nor are they seen as separated in time but as existing contemporaneously. The clash between the indigenous and the foreign worlds is present, but so is the idea that modernization does not mean Westernization, nor should it take place under the tutelage of the West.

The literary response to modernity in Southeast Asian novels is arguably historically and culturally conditioned, though history and culture themselves are not separate and self-contained worlds. Clearly, over time socioeconomic developments intersect with culture. The emergence of the novel in Southeast Asia was, after all, itself the result of developments in education and technology and changing social relationships. It is certainly true that the evolution of the novel in Southeast Asia was responsive to the processes of social and economic change that had taken root. As a result of, e.g., the spread of globalization, the movement of people across national boundaries, and the wider circulation of ideas about modernity and development, the Southeast Asian novel has come increasingly to reckon with the individual grappling with this phenomenon. Instead of characters being the embodiment of their societies, we see them moving between different social worlds, usually struggling to arrive at some accommodation between them. The diasporic writings of Tash Aw, Shirley Lim, Fiona Cheong, Dewi Anggraeni, and Bienvenido Santos, for example, are representative of this dilemma, which brings to our attention individuals situated in the crossfire of cultural exchange, and hence emplaces debates about the negotiation of difference.

Making Sense of the Past

The Southeast Asian novel's characteristic concern with the past must be contextualized against the history of colonialism in the archipelago. For a century or more Southeast Asians had played little part in shaping the dominant ideas about themselves and the archipelago. Colonial evaluations had deeply permeated Asian consciousness—European literature, historical accounts, and political thought of the time rendered the natives as peoples without significant intellectual or cultural attainment. They were told they had no history. Given this imposed heritage, the Southeast Asian novel became an instrument of correction and a means of self-affirmation (Hooker; Martinez-Sicat). From its earliest days, the novel has been seen as a way of recovering a sense of self, expressing the hopes of decolonization, and imagining alternative futures. For reasons both of personal emancipation and social responsibility, Southeast Asian writers took upon themselves the task of undermining European representations of their respective peoples and establishing new ones. Led by writers such as Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, and Mochtar Lubis in Indonesia; Lazaro Francisco, F. Sionil Jose, and Nick Joaquin in the Philippines; Ishak Haji Muhammad, Lee Kok Liang, and Lloyd Fernando in Malaysia; and Harun Aminurrashid in Singapore, the novelists became historians, anthropologists, and sociologists, as well as fabulists, in order to reclaim a national identity.

The nub of the novel's engagement with the past lies in the novelist's presentation of history as a space within which to search for meaning, open up new ways of seeing and patterning, and posit suggestive connections between then and now. This may be done by revisiting the past in the form of conventional realistic fiction—as is the case in Utuy Tatang Sontani's Tambera (1949), Harun Aminurrashid's Panglima Awang (1958, Commander Awang), Abdul Kadir Adabi's Acuman Mahkota (1988, Lure of the Crown), and Edilberto K. Tiempo's More than Conquerors (1964). Alternatively, it may take the form of presenting the past through symbols, cultural fragments, or personal remembrances conveyed as metafiction, pastiche, parody, irony, and other such characteristics associated with the postmodern—as in Y. B. Mangunwijaya's Durga/Umayi (1991), Eka Kurniawan's Cantik itu Luka (2002, Beauty Is a Wound), Faisal Tehrani's 1515 (2003), and Eric Gamalinda's Empire of Memory (1992) (see PARODY).

Characteristically, there is a felt need among some Southeast Asian novelists to draw on the past and show how it infuses the present, certain in their belief that narrative could propose an alternative social world to those which had existed or which now exist. On a postcolonial account, the process of retelling the colonial encounter from a counter-hegemonic standpoint undermines the constructs of Western universalism and creates a space within which previously subordinate peoples of the archipelago can take control of their own destinies (Razif). The reinterpretation of the past is crucial to Pramoedya Ananta Toer's purposes in his novels Bumi Manusia (1980, This earth of mankind), Anak Semua Bangsa (1980, Child of all nations), Jejak Langkah (1985, Footsteps), and Rumah Kaca (1988, House of glass), collectively known as the Buru Tetralogy. Pramoedya depicts the past both directly through authorial commentary and by means of the remembrances and reflection of his characters. In Bumi Manusia, for example, Minke's narration is interspersed with accounts (in the form of retelling, letters, and court testimony) by other characters modeled after figures from fin- de-siècle East Indies history, which gives a kind of interconnected fragments of narration within narrations of Indonesia's colonial history, much of it sharpened by recollections of his own involvement in the struggle both against Dutch colonialism and Javanese feudalism. Pramoedya's narrative starkly depicts the dangers of representing the past in the kind of essentialized terms that could be appropriated by a new imperium as bad as the old. His twin targets are feudalism and colonialism, and the one tends to reinforce the other. He is also concerned with highlighting elements of Indonesian culture received through history which he believes must be swept away if Indonesians are ever to be free. More than any other Indonesian writer, he sees the past as a mixed inheritance that can be deployed in very different ways. In this respect, Pramoedya's tetralogy is revelatory.

The Issue of Language

There has been some debate about how far Southeast Asian novels in English are representative of the totality of Southeast Asian fiction, and also about whether they are less “authentic” than novels written in Bahasa Indonesia, Malay, Tagalog, or other indigenous languages. A fundamental site of contention concerns the nature and politics of language as resistance. The case for writing in the vernacular is framed in terms of resistance to the outside, commonality on the inside. By embracing a sense of relatedness, recognizing some elements of a shared past, and espousing values taken to be characteristically autochthonous—which writing in the indigenous language is perceived as epitomizing—the vernacular novel serves as a renewed instrument of affirmation against an imposed imperialist tradition and the colonial language that is its medium. In part this draws on the belief that the liberation from colonial domination presupposes liberation from the colonial language. There is also the stigma attached to the English language in the post-independence era as a neo-imperialist global language and that it is the language of a Western educated elite (see NATIONAL, REGIONAL).

The problematic status of English in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore can be traced to their respective colonial legacies. Indonesia, which, as Benedict Anderson observes, was the only major exception in the overall imposition of the colonial language as the language of state in the colonial empires, never had a native modern literature in Dutch. The Dutch did not institutionalize the language of the metropole in its colony. On the contrary, Dutch colonial language policy has been one of racist segregation. The natives of the East Indies were forbidden to use the Dutch language for fear that—to use the words of a Dutch teacher of the time—Dutch education was “likely to increase the misdeeds of the natives. They will be less obedient because they are more acquainted with the norms and the way of life of the white man” (Ahmat, 76). Instead, Malay (the lingua franca of traders throughout the archipelago since as early as the seventh century) was adopted by the natives as the new national language and later, in 1928, named Bahasa Indonesia, or “the language of Indonesia.” It was this language that was developed and became the primary literary medium in Indonesia.

The English language occupies an ambivalent place in Malaysia. Introduced by British colonial presence at the turn of the nineteenth century, English represented, for a long time, the language of the ex-colonizer, and is even now regarded as the language of Western capitalism. Though it is seen in its omnipresence as the international language of modernity, it was subsumed by the Malay language (nationalistically renamed Bahasa Malaysia, or “Malaysian language”) which was, and still is, privileged by the state narratives as a key element in constituting Malaysian-ness in the postcolonial era (after 1957). One line of thinking that promotes the ideal of a postcolonial Malaysian consciousness derives primarily from a kind of reverse discrimination in the literary sphere, broadly coterminous with policies in the political and sociocultural domains. This is the demand that Malaysian writing should have a Malaysian (read: Malay) content, a Malay(sian) form, and be judged by distinctively Malay(sian) criteria. In addition, it is sometimes argued that for a work to come within the canon of Malaysian literature it must be written by a Malay, be committed to a political vision—even a particular ethnocentric vision—of Malaysia's future, and be written in the Malay language. This privileging of Bahasa Malaysia creates, as Quayum intimates, a “prevailing cleavage between Malaysia's national literature, written in the national language of Bahasa Malaysia, and those dubbed as ’sectional literatures,’ written in its minority languages such as Chinese, Tamil and English” (1960, 2). It is emblematic of this cleavage that the recipients of the Anugerah Sasterawan Negara (National Literary Laureate award), conferred by the Malaysian government since 1981, have all been Malays writing in the Malay language. The hostile political attitude toward English, regarded as an “alien” language, “rooted neither in the soul nor in the soil” (Quayum, xii), bore serious implications for Malaysian writers like K. S. Maniam, Lloyd Fernando, and Lee Kok Liang, whose choice of English as their medium of expression meant, ipso facto, that their work would never be admitted into the Malaysian literary canon. Such views, although extreme, suggest a tendency in Malay(sian) texts to cultivate the distinctively Malay-(sian) and insulate the Malay(sian) experience from its intra- and inter-national milieus.

In the Philippines, English became the medium of instruction in schools and communication among the populace when the Philippine Commonwealth became an American colony (1901—41). It subsumed Filipino, the national language (based on Tagalog, a dialect spoken by those who live in the capital city, Manila, and its immediate surrounds), in terms of prevalence. Though there is a strong tradition of novels written in the major vernaculars such as Tagalog, Hiligaynon, Cebuano, and Illocano—e.g., the early Tagalog novels of Lope K. Santos, such as Banaag at Sikat (1901, From Early Dawn to First Light), hailed as a milestone in the development of the socially conscious Tagalog novel, and Faustino Aguilar's broadside of the clergy's hypocrisy in Busabos ng Palad (1909, Slaves of Circumstance), Tagalog itself is often seen as a hegemonic construct of the nation-state, privileging those who reside in the seat of economic and political power in the capital. Consequently, as Philip Holden argues, “English remained, partly because speakers of regional languages in the Philippines preferred the neutrality of English to what they perceived as the hegemony of Tagalog-based Filipino” (161). There has been some debate about how far this body of literature in English is representative of the totality of Filipino fiction, and also about whether it is less “authentic” than novels written in Tagalog, Illocano, or other indigenous languages. While these issues cannot be pursued here, it is useful to note that fiction written in the regional languages exceeds that in English in the Philippines. Novelists whose writings in English have been awarded the Magsaysay Award—Asia's equivalent of the Nobel Prize—for literature, include Nick Joaquin, F. Sionil Jose, and Bienvenido Lumbera. Works by a younger generation of novelists writing in English who have achieved prominence, such as Charlson Ong, Krip Yuson, Jose Dalisay, Vicente Groyon, and Dean Francis Alfar, also deserve a mention here.

The existence of important novelists writing in the ethnic vernacular languages in Singapore—the likes of Isa Kamari, Suratman Markasan, Rohani Din, and Peter Augustine Goh (Malay); Soon Ai-Ling, Yeng Pway Ngon, Huai Ying, and Wong Meng Voon (Mandarin); and Ma Elangkannan, Rama Kannabiran, Mu Su Kurusamy, and S. S. Sharma (Tamil)—seems to dislodge the notion that Singaporean writing is dominated by fiction in English, and in fact fosters an appreciation of the nation's vibrant, multiple cultural constitution. Despite ethnic literature's unique status as a repository for the otherwise forgotten and neglected realms of inwardness, sensuousness, cultural mooring, historicity, memory, and ethnic solidarity, there are valid concerns expressed by the writers themselves of the difficulties they faced in achieving recognition locally and at large, winning readerships and wider publication, and funding their own labors. Indeed, the fractured community of its writers is exemplary of the general experience of neglect, prejudice, lack of sustainable audience, and the short shrift given to them by international publishers experienced by writers writing in the local vernaculars. In part, this can be attributed to the language situation in Singapore, where English has become an entrenched lingua franca used by its multiethnic society of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and other communities. This is due to the colonial policy pertaining to the use of English, first adopted by the East India Company and later direct British colonial rule, as well as the post-independence government's introduction of English-medium education since the 1980s. Though English is officially promoted as “a language facilitating trade and technological development,” and invested with a sense of social prestige—an attitude that stems from the fact that, historically, the English language (with its colonial origin) has functioned as a tool of power, domination, and elitist identity—it is not considered a language of “cultural belonging” (Holden, 161). In fact, an early generation of English-language writers struggled with their elite status. On the one hand, they were “identified with a colonialist heritage,” being seen and indeed seeing themselves at times as “working in a second tongue, alien from Asian identity,” and yet they also strove, through English, to connect with Asian literary traditions (Lim, 2002, 48). A policy of bilingualism introduced in schools from the 1960s—which privileges English as the “first language,” and the study of Chinese (Mandarin), Malay, or Tamil, now termed mother tongues, and deemed crucial to the preservation of “traditional values,” as a “second language”—has produced a new crop of writers more proficient in English than their own mother tongues. The works of contemporary Singapore writers such as Catherine Lim, Suchen Christine Lim, Philip Jeyaretnam, and Hwee Hwee Tan, while exposing the dead ends and the circularities of this postcolonial condition, and touching so profoundly upon many of the salient contemporary artistic and political issues—issues of identity and indifference, self and other, alterity and conformity, public and private—is thus best described as a kind of “postmodern realism” of present-day Singapore.


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