Gu Hongming, Arena Wati, Usman Awung, Abdullah Hussain, Tash Aw, Preeta Samarasan, Rani Manicka, Shamini Flint. The roll call says it all: over the last few decades, Malaysian fiction has well and truly arrived on the world stage. Many critics have identified its unique tropes, sentiments and imagery. But fewer critics have examined those Western novelists who have taken Malaysia – and especially its political, military and colonial history – as subject matter.
The earliest books had a fixation with piracy. G.A. Henty’s In the Hands of the Malays (1905) tells of a dashing Dutch lieutenant who escapes from the clutches of a bloodthirsty buccaneer known only as ‘The Sea Tiger’. Although he sold 25 million books in his lifetime, Henty has since been castigated for his pro-imperialist stance and racist depictions of pretty much anyone not English. By contrast, in The Tigers of Mompracem (1900) by the Italian writer Emilio Salgari, the heroes are Malay pirates resisting the oppression of European empire builders. In a sequel, the protagonist Sandokan squares up to such real-life figures as James Brooke, the first White Raja of Sarawak.
It was around this time that Joseph Conrad was drawing inspiration from the region. Almayer’s Folly: A Story of an Eastern River (1895) concerns a Dutch merchant who sets up a disastrous trading venture in Borneo. In Lord Jim (1900), a young British seaman becomes a white raja, defending the orang asli from an evil chieftain. Although Conrad’s work is way more cerebral than Henty’s penny dreadful pot-boilers, the two men shared a fervent faith in the imperial project that is hard to swallow today. They were, after all, products of their time and place of origin.
Some years later, British expats such as Jessie A. Davidson, were penning such novels as Dawn: A Romance of Malaya (1926) about plantation life and colonial skulduggery. A granddaughter of Francis Light, founder of Penang, Davidson died an untimely death in 1928. The Straits Times reported that her passing ‘leaves a gap in the ranks of those few novelists who have chosen Malaya for their theme.’ Similarly, The Soul of Malaya (1930) by Henri Fauconnier focuses on the exploits of two morally-dubious Frenchmen trying to make their fortune with a Klang Valley rubber plantation. The novel won the Goncourt Award, France’s equivalent of the Booker Prize.
After 1940, World War II comes to dominate Western novels set in Malaysia. The wife of an agriculture official, Agnes Newton Keith was living in Sandakan when the Japanese invaded. Her novel Three Came Home (1947) was based on her traumatic experiences in an internment camp. On a similar tip, Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice is about a British secretary who survives the Japanese occupation of KL thanks largely to her integration with local tribeswomen. After the war, she donates her inheritance to a well-building project for her hostesses: ‘a gift by women, for women’.
Before stirring controversy with A Clockwork Orange (1962), Anthony Burgess taught at the prestigious Malay College during the Emergency. His Malayan Trilogy (1956-9) begins with Time for a Tiger (1956), the tale of a love triangle of colonials who get embroiled with Chinese terrorists. Learning fluent Malay and embeding himself in the culture, Burgess aimed to become the Western authority on British Malaya, as Rudyard Kipling had been on India and George Orwell had been on Burma.
In recent years, Western authors have tended to put a new spin on the old themes. The American author C. S. Godshalk began writing Kalimantaan: A Novel (1998) while living and working on the peninsula. Although ostensibly concerned with the life and times of James Brookes, Kalimantaan transcends the historical novel genre with its experimental fusion of factual research, mythology and the fantastical imaginings of its characters.
More recently, The Eloquence of Desire (2010) by Amanda Sington-Williams revisited the Emergency, using it as a backdrop to the emotional self-destruction of a British colonial family.
No matter how much Malaysian society changes, it seems that Western novelists like to return to the same events and personalities: pirates, James Brookes, the Emergency, the plantations, World War II, etc. Does there have to be this time lag? How long will it be before mat sellahs start setting their novels in, say, the sectarian tumult of 1969 or the prosperity years of the New Development Plan? Only time will tell.
First published in The Expat December 2011.