Thursday, April 29, 2010

Writing My Own

Much has been said about writing the Other. It was one of the keystones of RaceFail, and has been the cause of much angst on the part of predominantly-privileged writers who would like to write marginalized cultures without being attacked for it. For a long time, marginalized cultures have been represented by the descendants of colonizers, who benefit from the imperialism of the past and continue to be so: their writings are taken more seriously than that of a marginalized person's, they are more likely to receive a larger platform, they are more often lauded.


Years of cultural imperialism has done this to the colonized's psyche, wherein we have adopted the ways of the colonizer in order to get ahead, and part of that is to embrace the colonizer's way of thinking: the West is the bastion of enlightenment; Hollywood is the gold standard for big budget movies that attract universal audiences; Lord of the Rings and Star Wars are our fantasy and science fiction staples. We forget the Golden Age of Islam; Bollywood and HK cinema are only for Indians and Chinese; Sang Kancil is silly folklore for children. 

I learned the names of Immanuel Kant, Rosseau, and Sir Thomas More in secondary school. I cannot name similar modern philosophers from Asia. They are not taught, which led me to think they were not as important, not as good. In first year of university, my Introduction to Philosophy class textbook featured exclusively white men. A fine sampling of the thought that has shaped the Western-dominated modern world. 

So when I wrote, I wrote characters and stories informed by what I consumed. They were cheap knock-offs of medieval romance novels, Forgotten Realms stories, and Disney movies. I only ever wrote a single character who was Malaysian, and she was my secret Mary Sue and had adventures that took her into otherworldly realms, never truly part of the Malaysian landscape. 

I had never truly felt connected to the Malaysian landscape, growing up. I was too loud, too brash, too liberal. Too Westernized. I could speak perfect English without being Christian. I couldn't (and still can't) speak Chinese, which cut me off from many rites and events that marked my culture. Even my grandmother called me "ang mo", which my brother translated for me as "outlandish". I cannot even lay claim to the "Third Culture Kid" identity, because for all my up-rootedness, I was still connected to my family tree. 

Not only that, but I looked down on my peers who couldn't speak English as fluently, who spoke only Chinese, often a dialect or two. They were not as middle-class as I was. Even my English-speaking peers I didn't associate too closely with because they read no Shakespeare because he was "too hard". (My first Shakespeare play was Julius Caesar; I read it when I was nine, even though I couldn't understand it wholly.) I got angry at a teacher who marked my continuous writing essay lower than that of a classmates, whose essay was riddled with grammatical mistakes, because my writing was too small and my sentences weren't clear - they were complex sentences which I had learned to parse early on. In my mind, it was not unlike comparing my letters to lettuce.

The closest I got to writing Asian literature was writing Final Fantasy VII fanfiction. But I did not write fiction directly informed by my own multicultural country. 

The plain truth is that although I loved Malayan history, I didn't find Malaysian literature very interesting. The short stories we read in the Malay literature component were preachy and dull (although the novel we had to read was wonderful; Konserto Terakhir beat Steinbeck's The Pearl by a million miles); the sajaks were not particularly relatable; and in English, nothing I read about the Malaysian experience struck me as relevant to my life. As many outsider adolescents do, I wanted escapist fantasy, and turned to anime and manga because it was cheaper than buying novels. Contemporary fiction struck me as pretentious and too focused on fallibilities - I wanted something to affirm my strength. 

So I wrote characters who were strong. They also happened to be white, heteronormative, cisgendered, physically able-bodied, with fair skin and eyes the colour of anything other than brown. They lived in climates that had four seasons. Chimamanda Adichie noted the same of her writing in "the Danger of a Single Story," and she also sardonically notes, "All my characters were white and blue-eyed. They played in the snow. They ate apples. (Laughter) And they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out. (Laughter) Now, this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn't have snow. We ate mangoes. And we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to."

For Shatter the Silence, I reflected on the fact that I'd never written a fantasy novel with a character more like myself before, from a land like my own, with people like those I grew up with.

I came to understand that we write in order to share that which is important to us. I'm lucky in that many academic essays I've written for my degree has been of some import to me, something I could throw my 100% efforts behind. I write and participate in the social justice blogosphere because I fully believe in the causes I work for. The same goes for the stories I write.

Storytelling is meaningful. It is the medium through which we process our cultural norms, and through which we transmit cultural meaning. It means something when the only stories we consume contain only certain peoples. It tells us something, and we learn from it. It means something when the stories we create contain only certain peoples. It tells the world something, and others learn from it.

I find a vast difference between myself and white writers. White writers complain about writing cultures not their own. I worry about writing cultures that are my own. And I never understand why the former complain - white writers have been writing about other cultures for a long time. Sometimes what they produce are racial caricatures that serve the agenda of Empire. Sometimes what they produce are wonderful stories in the trappings of the cultures they use.

My father (or grandfather) collected Robert van Gulik's Judge Dee comic strips over a period of several years - I discovered them when I was nine, and devoured them hungrily because they were well-written, and beautifully illustrated. Judge Dee was more important to me than Sherlock Holmes, and the stories were written by a Dutchman, an Orientalist no less, who studied the Ming Dynasty closely. (So no, I do not hate on all Orientalists as a general rule.) However, it must be noted that Robert van Gulik was still an European. The translation of Monkey King my grandfather owned was also done by an European. Many books I read on Asia as a child were written, translated or otherwise published by Europeans or Americans.

This is significant, because it led me to believe that only Westerners had enough education to be able to produce these wonderful creative works in this day and age. What creativity my own people had was tossed aside for industrialism and our time had passed. Compounded with the fact that English was (and is!) my first  language, and none of my family could read Chinese and thus could not teach me, I was cut off from the literary traditions of my own peoples and thus had no idea what literary accomplishments my own community had. So I studied and assimilated Western culture. If I was going to be called ang mo, I might as well be one, or so I thought.

The thing is, as much as I assimilate, I'll never actually be ang mo, and the longer I live in a land of ang mos, the more I realize that I don't really want to be one. Coming from a country with racial strife that insists on the common humanity of all its peoples, I realized that I'm different. And I'm okay with that.

So I got it into my head to revel in my difference and starting trying to write not the Other, but My Own.

And you know what I found?

I could not do so easily. Not without feeling the culture in which I grew up was more alien to me than North American pop culture. I had to think about the tonal inflections of the peoples I grew up with - how they differed from each other. I had to think about how we would say certain things, that would never be said in English. The way I viewed the world was through the Western lens, and I struggled to understand how non-Westerners would see any given situation.

I don't think many white North Americans understand to what extent white privilege and cultural imperialism has a hold on previously colonized countries. White privilege can pass itself off as colorism in many areas (my country included), cultural imperialism is more insidious. Often, I see Malaysian politicians rail against "Western values," without realizing what they are railing against are quite common across countries, East and West. They do not see how our education system is entrenched in the colonial past. They do not realize that our petty racialized squabbles are leftovers from colonialism. They don't see how Western culture is bleeding into our stories, through our bookstores, how our consumerist culture is burgeoning as we are taught to value economic growth over human labour.

When it is time to talk about the world I come from, the world which I am supposed to know, and I cannot. Because even within the world I come from, I have a very specific experience (upper-middle-class Malaysian Chinese) which is quite unlike the experience another Malaysian might have. It makes communication difficult and messy, and it builds barriers.

So when I see white writers, or those taking the side of white writers, complaining about not being "given permission" to write about another culture, I have to wonder, what kind of arrogance does one need to have to even ask for that right to do so without criticism? I want to know, because I envy that shameless self-confidence, to the extent that it becomes a demand for minority writers to shut up and just keep writing on the hopes of being published. I want to know, because I want that same shield of ego to help me set aside my own anxiety, my own fear, of writing that which I should know since it is in my blood and skin.

When a foreign authour writes with another culture, zie is writing with a specific cultural lens, viewing that Other culture. When I write my own culture, I write with several cultural lenses.

Neither perspective is clear-cut and without problems.

Nor should they be. 

3 comments:

  1. this post is amazing and is one i really identify with. English is my first langauge as well. when i was younger i was proud that my English sounded perfect. it's only now that i'm making a conscious effort to learn Yoruba. most of the stories i wrote when i was younger had white characters just like Chimamanda's and now that i'm making an effort to write about characters that are like me i'm facing a lot of difficulties. and i initially thought it'd be easy.

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  2. I was a English-medium educated Bangladeshi woman who turned herself into a Bangladeshi nationalist spitfire, who, when mocked for her western-accented Bangla, fought tooth and nail to regain her heritage, wrote songs with English lyrics but Bengali themes and melodies (myspace.com/sajiasultana). Bangladeshis have felt inferior to Malaysians and other countries that industrialized and gained wealth while we sunk into poverty, but now I think Bangladeshi cultural nationalists made the right choice to be socialist and nurturing of arts and the spirit - and not just because industrialization has turned out to be a crock and it seems the maternalist anarchism of the Grameen-bank type NGOs may very well turn out to be the wave of the future. The only real regret I have about Bangladeshi cultural nationalism is that it appropriated Hindu culture, and in return offered some but not enough protection; and aboriginal voices have been all but silenced in the nationalist discourse of the last two centuries.

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  3. this. absolutely. especially

    "When it is time to talk about the world I come from, the world which I am supposed to know, and I cannot. Because even within the world I come from, I have a very specific experience (upper-middle-class Malaysian Chinese) which is quite unlike the experience another Malaysian might have. It makes communication difficult and messy, and it builds barriers."

    whenever i talk to friends overseas, or when they visit... it just isn't a real-er reflection of more people. i always feel incredibly disconnected from this malaysian passport, and usually take to playing the "global citizen" card instead.

    thanks for this post.

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