The Domain of Fiction

Part 2.2 of Singapore/Malaysia Fiction

Ban Kah Choon, PhD, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore

Adapted from Post-Colonial Literatures in English, ed. Rajeev S. Patke, 1998, by George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University; Distinguished Visiting Professor, NUS, 1998-99.

Fiction has always been a more amorphous and less defineable creative process than poetry. Perhaps this is inherent in the very nature of fiction itself, mixing as it does a variety of forms, different voices as well as different media. A story, in that sense, is quite different from a poem, especially the kind written by Singapore/Malaysian writers, which tended to be lyrical moments of reflective intensity. Even obviously public poetry, like Ee Tiang Hong's or Thumboo's, tended to be lyrical rather than narrative. Fiction, on the other hand, must often create an alternative and apparently real world for the reader. In any case, most of the short story writers in Singapore and Malaysia favour a naturalistic style presenting 'a slice of life'. The emphasis is on reportage, with history being a very strong theme running through their works. There is, of course, a similarity here with the political project of the poets. Like the poets, writers of fiction saw one of their chief roles as of documenting the unfamiliar scenes of their homeland, which colonial literature had ignored. Almost from the start - and quite naturally - they incorporated the rhythms of local dialects. They had two advantages in this: firstly, the authority of English 'literariness' (which continued to plague poets even if they declare themselves independent) was never an issue. There are few recognisable literary influences that Singapore/Malaysian fiction writers admit to, since many of them wrote with the assumpion of a clean slate, without the overwhelming authority of the past. They cast their nets wide and did not have the same respect for authority which poetry often had. Secondly, the novel is, as Bakhtin points out, by nature polyglossic (see Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination). By this Bakhtin means that a novel opens up and includes a variety of speeches and different dialects/voices. A novel is thus less centred upon authority than itself a product of competing and differing voices that 'add' up to its meaning. It is this diversity of voices that in fact defines the novel, a quality that Bakhtin comes to define as heteroglossic. Anne Brewster, in her study of K.S. Maniam's The Return, has argued that heteroglossity is particular relevant to the writer struggling against the authority of colonial discourses. By its very ability to include other discourses, the authority of colonial speech is subverted or bypassed and the voice of the writer (and the colonised) becomes possible. In her study of Maniam's semi-autobiographical novel she notes,

Post-colonial autobiography as a genre takes on particular significance in this context. It is a discourse that places the post-colonial writer as the first-person subject of what had been the coloniser's language. It empowers the individual to speak on his or her own behalf where formerly he or she had been spoken for by others (Brewster, 1992, pp.177-78).

Heteroglossicity can be generally useful in our study of fiction. A novel, in particular, is often made up of different voices - or dialogues (as opposed to the singularity of a monologue). These different 'dialogues' (narrative voices or speeches) play against one another, so that the meaning of a novel comes from the interplay rather than a single point of view. While we see this most clearly in the speeches of different characters, we also realise that even when we refer to a single narrator, like the Abraham of Philip Jeyaratnam's novel, that the story is told through different 'voices', different parts of his memory, as the character moves between past and present. Abraham's identity, who he is, as well as what he becomes, is thus an amalgamation of different voices, different moments of his life. And, of course, there are the other, differing voices - his father, Rani, Krishna, and so on. We will comment at greater length on these later. What is important to realise is that the heteroglossic nature of the novel means that it is more ready to take advantage of the differences and variety of Singapore/Malaysian life that colonial discourse ignores.

Heteroglossicity fits well into the efforts of fiction writers to capture a differing reality - and from the start, they have incorporated elements of this into their works. Lee Kok Liang, whose The Mutes in the Sun (1964), is an important collection, reminds us that writers should not be weighed down by words which are by a means to an end. This is a crucial difference from the reverence and the difficulty poets had with words. For Kok Liang, words are tools and in themselves heteroglossic.

Can your hawker Ah Kow wear this finery that had been spun by Shakespeare or have you to slash and pummel it and use the fragments to cover the rough hewn cloth stitched together by Lu Hsin? You are your own tailor. Forget the rich past of the languages. Forget your ambivalent attitude in the use of languages. You are born a hybrid and you must remain one true to yourself (Lee Kok Liang, 1991, p.323).

I think you can see how skillfully Kok Liang uses such notions even in the very early story, 'Return to Malaya'. The loss of the bicycle which the story begins with, soon gives way to its central theme which has to do with the landscape of Malayan life, raising in the process other questions about loss and recovery. Kok Liang underlines this through a linguistic mapping of its inhabitants. The differing voices become an index to the life, their variety and even confusion underlining the richness and differences of Malayan life. A metaphor of this riot of traditions, languages and cultures is brought out in the tableful of periodicals at the bookstall that Ai Chye sets up at night,

rows of books stacked on a canvas by the side of a road; and he sold cheap Chinese love stories, serious Chinese classics, semipornographic periodicals, American comics and surprising translations of Nana and La Dame aux Camelias. (Fernando, 1968, p.18).

So Kok Liang takes advantage of multiplicity rather than allowing it to descend into a babel like obstacle of competing demands and issues. Speech is for him a means of filling out the landscape of his return to Malaya, as we are guided through the various muttered curses, shouts and moved from silences to noise and differing languages and dialects. In many ways, Kok Liang's story looks forward to later debates about the use of dialects and of Singlish/Manglish. However, where previously Singlish and Manglish have always been regarded with some disapproval, as merely an attempt to inject exoticism into writing, the last five years have seen the emergence of fiction using these idioms as clearly serious literary efforts. Significantly, most of these have been published abroad, provoking the occasional criticism that Singlish/Manglish continues to be used as the re-exoticisation of the Southeast Asian landscape for European tastes.

Despite such reservations, there is no doubt that within the context of literaryiness, local variations of English can play a significant role. Two important books that come to mind are Ming Cher's Spider Boys, a novel about street gangs, and Hwee Hwee Tan's Foreign Bodies, which uses football and illegal gambling as its themes. While these novels have made the use of Singlish a part of their literary discourse and, in fact, their theme, it is worthwhile to remember that other (and earlier) authors had also tried to use Singlish, including Robert Yeo and Catherine Lim. In any case, the rhythms of local accent and speech had never posed a literary obstacle to writers.

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