Room for growth
I OFTEN tell the Malaysians who attend my creative writing classes to write about Malaysians and to give their stories a Malaysian setting. To me, not writing about ourselves is a wasted opportunity.
There is not much Malaysian literature in English and I feel that fiction about Malaysians and Malaysia should, by and large, be written by us. We can’t expect others not to tell our stories but we must do so as well.
When a foreigner writes a Malaysian story, the focus shifts. And I feel the same about Malaysian stories published by international publishing houses.
In the latter case, the books are being written with a foreign audience in mind. The authors (and publishers) might feel compelled to over-explain some things, play up others. In the former case, foreigners naturally don’t think and feel the same as Malaysians. They don’t have the same insight or concerns or baggage so it’s not possible for them to create convincing Malaysian characters.
When I read a Malaysian story written by a non-Malaysian (be it Frank Swettenham or W. Somerset Maugham, Anthony Burgess or Paul Callan) I feel that they are telling their version of things and it makes me wish that there were more Malaysian versions to redress the balance. As Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe said, “Although the work of redressing which needs to be done may appear too daunting, I believe it is not one day too soon to begin.”
Marc de Faoite is originally from Ireland. He now lives in Langkawi. Tropical Madness is his first collection of short stories, but he has been published before, in various anthologies, including Sini Sana: Travels In Malaysia, Fish Eats Lion, and Love In Penang. De Faoite’s stories feature, according to the back cover blurb of Tropical Madness, “gritty back streets” and “remote rubber estates”, “fishing boats” and “ancient rainforests”, “dark magic”, “transsexuals”, and “sex slaves” – just what readers in search of “exotic Asia” want, and also in keeping with Fixi Novo’s pulp fiction focus.
They are interesting as stories go – de Faoite provides plenty of stirring details, dutifully ticking all the sense boxes, but these don’t reveal enough about his characters, whom I feel are at the heart of his tales and whose psyches are not adequately explored. Their lives are all dramatic turns of events, ending with shocking twists or portentous statements, but the gaudy surface smear of violence, deception, lust and greed give only an impression of shape and depth.
These are actors playing the parts de Faoite has written for them. He tells you what they are and how they feel, and you respond because his narratives are evocative and engaging.
However, I didn’t feel any emotional connection. What lies in the depths of these hearts, what secret motives spur them on or hold them back – I caught fleeting glimpses of these things, but I didn’t feel them, because de Faoite does not let the reader get close enough. Perhaps because he’s not close enough himself.
It goes back to the difficulty in understanding what it’s like to be a Malaysian, in imagining what is it’s like to feel and believe certain things, and think in certain ways. This is expected, but as the stories attempt to portray the lives of Malaysians and their struggles, one expects a more thorough exploration of the beliefs, practices and attitudes depicted.
At least the author writes with empathy – his characters may be playing roles, but these are flesh-and-blood, living-and-breathing parts that the author has imagined quite clearly albeit somewhat shallowly.
De Faoite simply needs to do some burrowing, through their messy guts and down to their throbbing hearts and bare bones. He needs not just to imagine his characters’ pain, their desires, fears and joys, but feel all these emotions enough to translate them into words that don’t just produce a passing thrill but create a lasting impression.
Malaysia has been, for some time now, de Faoite’s home. I would say that he should not be seen as an outsider but considered part of the local community of writers who must carry out the aforementioned work of redressing.
In de Faoite’s case, there is really the advantage of having lived on both sides of the divide. His experiences as an expatriate could be fodder for stories that, because he is now resident and has, presumably, deeper insights into Malaysian life, could avoid the condescension and flippancy that are a feature of the work of many Western authors writing about Asia and Asians.
Actually, I wonder at the absence of this point of view in this collection – might de Faoite have feared coming across as patronising? I think this danger is avoidable if a writer is aware of it, and approaches a story sympathetically and honestly.
I look forward to more stories from de Faoite. I look forward to seeing him grow as an author, especially in terms of one who writes about the people he has chosen to live among.