[Review] Two Books of Malaysian Poetry: Complicated Lives and Malchin Testament

{Written by Goh Cheng Fai Zach, this review is part of Issue 39 (March 2018) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Malachi Edwin Vethamani (author), Complicated Lives, Maya Press, 2016. 112 pgs.
Malachi Edwin Vethamani (editor), Malchin Testament: Malaysian Poems, Maya Press, 2017. 386 pgs.

Malachi Edwin Vethamani.jpg

Malaysian literature in English, which started developing in the 1940s after the Japanese Occupation of the Second World War, has continued to survive and thrive, even after Malaya (later Malaysia) gained independence from the British in 1957 and despite the loss of the status of English in Malaysian culture in the 1960s. In the sixty years that have followed, Malaysian writers have continued to produce literary works in English, with some Malaysian writers winning international accolades and global recognition. Malaysian poetry in English, unfortunately, has sometimes been overlooked, but two recent collections provide a good introduction to the subject for general readers, as well as for students and scholars.

Complicated Lives is a collection of poetry written by Malachi Edwin Vethamani, a professor of Malaysian literature in English. It features eight-two poems and is divided into three sections: “Rising Complications,” “Lives Complicated” and “Complicating Lives.” In its pages, the collection addresses a wide range of themes, particularly family, passion, estrangement, wrongdoing, doubt and desire. It explores both the comforting familiarity of familial love (in the first half of “Rising Complications”) and the unbearable emptiness caused by its absence (“Siblings Severed,” “Lover’s Lament”), as well as the realisation that change may happen in an instant, without warning or notice. Love and loss are but two sides of the same coin. Equal parts comforting and pessimistic, Vethamani’s poems deal with the joys of finding a loved one (“Nothing Prepares You for Love”), lack of fidelity (“Cheating Ways,” “Adultery”) and the pain that separation brings (“The First Parting,” “Between My Heart and Lips,” “Missing You”).

There are also poems dedicated to Vethamani’s memories of living in Brickfields, a neighbourhood in Kuala Lumpur also known as Little India. The collection expresses a simultaneous Tamil and Malaysian sensibility, and one can almost feel the author’s ambivalence towards writing in English, especially in his poem “The Return,” in which he writes:

Between my brain and my bowels
my heart lies unsure
of what was left in England
and what has returned home

In their exploration of identity, love and loss, the poems in Complicated Lives are a welcome contribution to the growing body of Malaysian poetry written in English.

***

The second book in this review was compiled in the sixtieth year of Malaysian independence. This post-colonial collection is an amalgamation of works from old (early literary journals and anthologies) and new (online and digital) sources. It is edited by Vethamani, who explains that it’s title, Malchin Testament, comes from Salleh Ben Joned’s poem of the same name, (which is included in the volume), and is a reflection of “how Malaysian have made the English language their own.” This can be clearly seen in poems like Salleh Ben Joned’s “Malchin Testament,” Antares Maitreya’s “Aisodonolah” and Cecil Rajendra’s “Nite of de Iguana,” parts of which may seem like gibberish to non-Malaysian / Singaporean readers:

Aisodonolah
Aitelyu ah, every year laif getting harder,                                                   Not like lastaim so
seemple one.                                                                  You remember ornot dat taim we all in skool                                                  Honda Cub five hundred dollar can buy.                                                         Now how much oridi? Five tausend over!                                                        Becos of INGFLATION wat, dey say…

These poems reflect a larger trend in post-colonial poetry: using language which might be incomprehensible to people outside a culture, but which can be understood clearly by someone with the background and linguistic capability to decipher the poems.

The works of fifty-seven Malaysian poets are compiled in this volume, which is perhaps an attempt at representing a broad cross-section of Malaysian society. In the introduction to the book, Vethamani provides a brief overview of the history of English language poetry in Malaysia. He splits the writers into those who wrote in earlier generations (such as Ee Tiang Hong, Wang Gungwu, Wong Phui Nam, Muhammad Haji Salleh, Omad Mohd Noor and Ghulam Sarwar Yousof) and those from the next generation of poets of the 1960s (such as Shirley Lim, Hilary Tham, Siew Yue Killingley, Lee Geok Lan and Cecil Rajendra). He then goes to describe how, following the National Language Act of 1963/67 which emphasised writing literature in the national language, Bahasa Malaysia, there was a lull in English writing in the 1970s. During this period, writers such as Shirley Lim and Ee Tiang Hong left Malaysia, partly because of the language policies that sidelined all non-Malay literature as non-national or sectional. However, writing in English picked up again in the 80s and 90s, with writers such as Salleh Ben Joned and Bernice Chauly joining the fray.

Vethamani then lists previous anthologies of Malaysian poetry, remarking on the challenges of getting poems published. In the next paragraph, however, he states more optimistically that “poets of the younger generations have more opportunities for them to publish.” Finally, he reiterates some of the “main preoccupations of Malaysian poets,” which include “issues related to socio-political concerns like identity, exile, race, relationships, language and sense of belonging.” Of course, there are many other themes that run through the collection as well, including family, religion, the weather, growing up and living in both urban and rural parts of Malaysia in different time periods.

The poems are arranged alphabetically (sorted by poet’s names), rather than thematically or chronologically. Without a date, there is no context on who the poet is, or when they were writing and publishing. And, unfortunately, the short introduction fails to provide the proper context for readers who are not familiar with Malaysian literary history. This lack of context diminishes the effectiveness of the collection as an anthology. While the poetry in the volume can be seen as the “branches” that came from the same “node,” from which we can trace the development of Malaysian literature in English (as described by Merican et al), without any context, with the exception that all the poems are “Malaysian,” this collection confronts the reader with the richness and diversity of sixty years’ worth of work. The size and diversity of the volume, when coupled with the lack of thematic focus, perhaps makes it more useful as a textbook or anthology of Malaysian poetry than a book that can be read for leisure. For example, it could prove a useful tool for teaching Malaysian Literature in English, especially if paired with another book, such as Merican et al’s Voices of Many Worlds (or Vethamani’s own A Bibliography of Malaysian Literature in English), which provide students and general readers with a better sense of context.

Work Cited

Fadillah Merican, Ruzy Suliza Hashim, Ganakumaran Subramaniam & Raihanah Mohd. Mydin. Voices of Many Worlds: Malaysian Literature in English. Shah Alam: Times Editions, 2004.

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Zach Profile Pic.jpg

Goh Cheng Fai Zach was born in Ipoh, Malaysia, where he lived all his life before moving to Penang to study English Language and Literature at Universiti Sains Malaysia, where he received his BA. He then completed his MPhil at the University of Hong Kong, researching the representations of trauma and memory of the Japanese Occupation in 21st century Malaysian novels in English. Zach is currently a PhD student at the Department of Humanities and Creative Writing at Hong Kong Baptist University, and his research interests include Malaysian, Singaporean and Hong Kong literatures in English, as well as the literary representations of Chinese tea culture in overseas Chinese communities.

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