SoE Research Talk Series: Documenting an Emerging Literary Tradition

On the 21st of March, Professor Malachi Edwin Vethamani, the professor of Modern English Literature from the School of English, presented a talk on how he developed a bibliography of Malaysian Literature in English. The talk aimed to allow students to have a better view of how a bibliography is developed and the significant amount of effort that is put into documenting literary works.

The research began in the year of 1980 and has been going on for 20 years. Professor Malachi first published his bibliography in 2001 (Petaling Jaya: Sasbadi Press). After publishing his first bibliography, he then continued with the research to document newly published books. Professor Malachi claimed that once a bibliography is published, it is then outdated.

 

A bibliography becomes outdated the day they are published. That’s why I have to continue the research.

–  Professor Malachi

 

As a literary tradition, Malaysian writing in English is almost six decades old and has since been an integrated part of Malaysian culture, though not much light was shed on it back in the past. Early writings were from the undergraduates in the University of Malaya in Singapore — publications in The Cauldron and later The New Cauldron in the 1950s. (You can read about them here!) Currently, there are both established writers and emerging writers contributing to this literary tradition.

 

Prof Malachi presenting his findings during the talk

Prof Malachi presenting his findings during the talk

 

Now, here’s a question: how is this literary tradition documented and how is it sustained? In order to sustain this important culture, documenting literary tradition plays a major role; therefore, these two coexist and coincide. However, the main rationale of documenting literary works is to create a historical database. This database will provide scholars and researchers in the field with easier access to details of literary publications. Furthermore, the content presented in a bibliography is not inferred from individuals but libraries , which makes the bibliography a factual and unbiased publication.

The fact that a bibliography is merely a database for scholars and researchers raises a concern: will people actually buy it? Professor Malachi explained that when he was searching for his book on the Internet, he found out that quite a number of copies have been bought; and this served as a motivation for him to publish the second edition of the bibliography with updated literary works.

 

While doing some vanity searches on Google when I typed out my bibliography, I was surprised that a few universities actually bought it!

– Professor Malachi

 

In order to understand the genesis of literary tradition, we must first know how English is developed. English, particularly the aspect of literature, is developed through creative writing. In 1982, an article on creative writing, entitled “Native-speakers English for the third world today?”, written by Irene Wong, was published and she mentioned that in the 1990s, creative writing will die because of the wide use of colloquial English, which has not much of uniqueness to contribute to creative writing (check out the details of her article here). In addition to that, the Malaysian government was against writing in English as only forms of expression in Bahasa Malaysia (Malay Language) or mother tongues were allowed. All of these factors contributed to the notion that “creative writing will die in the future” but looking at the situation now, it isn’t entirely true. In fact, creative writing has its fair share of ground in Malaysian culture.

Now, let us define Malaysian Literature in English (MLE). For the purpose of the bibliography written by Professor Malachi, MLE encompasses writings in English by Malaysians, Malaysian-born writers who are now naturalised citizens of others countries but still writing about Malaysia and also writers who reside in Malaysia though not Malaysian-born and have a preoccupation with Malaysia. However, MLE does not include the writings by colonials and transient expatriates who write about Malaysia.

What supports the growth of a literary tradition? First of all, publication is the most important factor. Without the publication of literary works, to sustain a literary tradition is practically impossible. Furthermore, the publications have to be easily accessible. If books are published in rather obscure universities, they will be very hard to access and hence possibly lose the opportunity of being documented. Secondly, the publication of research on literary works and writers supports the growth of a literary tradition. As an incentive, awards and recognition for literary publications such as the Booker Prize, Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (check out our article on literary awards here! ) etc. help support the growth of a literary tradition.

However, in Malaysia, the government refuses to have these awards because they do not recognise works published in English. In 1980, Shirley Lim was the first Malaysian to win the Commonwealth Prize but her book was not published in Malaysia; it was published in Singapore. If her book were to be published in Malaysia, she would not have gotten the chance to be awarded the prize.

In order to ensure all literary works are documented, we have to consider the case of translated works. Translated works are done by either Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (Institute of Language and Literature) or the Malaysian National Institute of Translation. Aside from that, some are also done by the authors themselves. In the process of translation, new ideas, items and characteristics are brought into the work and this proves that translated works themselves are indeed works of literature and therefore have to be documented as well.

Professor Malachi discovered an interesting fact when documenting translated works. He found out that in terms of local publications, Malay books are sometimes translated into English but never the reverse–this is a controversy that needs to examined and studied in order to fully understand its implication. Perhaps it may be because of the fact that the Malaysian government has never been very supportive of English publications and hence translating English works into Malay may show signs of acceptance. Also, it may be explained by the unwillingness to condone the publicisation of Western culture.

Since there is a vast amount of literary works out there, in order to ease the documentation process, works are organised and categorised under four main popular genres: poetry, short story, novel and drama. The less popular genres such as memoir, essay, autobiography, etc. are hard to be documented and included due to the lack of manpower, though the National University of Singapore has a bibliography for critical essays.

 

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An example of how literary works are documented and presented in a bibliography

 

Looking at the future of documenting literary works, it should be an ongoing tradition in order to stay alive. Professor Malachi claimed that more researchers are needed as there are only a handful of Malaysian bibliographers. With the invention of modern technology such as the Internet, developing a bibliography is much easier compared to the past and thus allowing the possible inclusion of other genres.

 

There is only a few of us who care about what other people are writing. Other people claim that they have more things to care about.

– Professor Malachi

 

After the talk, there was a Q&A session where the audience got to ask Professor Malachi any questions pertaining to the talk. One of the audience members asked a particularly interesting question: “Do you also include books that are banned?” Professor Malachi answered that banned literary works are not included but he mentioned that banning a book is ultimately an irrational act because by banning a book, publicity for the book is gained. For instance, Malaysian Queers is banned in Malaysia due to the controversial content presented in the book but it is available for purchase on Amazon.com. Therefore, the government is indirectly helping the book to gain publicity.

As a summary, developing a bibliography of Malaysian Literature in English requires a significant amount of time and effort. Therefore, more help is needed to ensure its sustainability.

 

By Kelvin Wong

 

Samawiyah is majoring in English with Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, and is either sleeping right now or trying hard not to. She firmly believes that your path is your own and you ought to travel it in whatever manner you please.

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