Change begins with small acts. The title of my blog is taken from Paul Gilroy's powerful slim volume packing a resounding counter-cultural critical punch.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Book Review : Sister Swing

by Carmen Nge

Sister Swing is a robust and enticing piece of fiction. Even though its author has claimed American citizenship, this novel has deep Malaysian roots that refuse to wither. It takes us on multiple journeys of escape and enlightenment, single and shared road trips of Malaysian-American encounters that shape our understanding of growing up woman, different, intelligent, stifled.

In this second and most recent novel, Shirley Lim allows three Wing sisters—Swee, Yen and Peik—to tell their own stories of growing up in the shadow of a tycoon elderly father and his first wife and family. This first phase of their narration, firmly ensconced within a Malaysian environment, is resplendent with familiar sights and smells: “hot curry puffs and fried noodles” at recess time in school; bean curd “looking just like duck-breasts, beef-balls, red meat, pork cutlets, chicken livers, gizzards” at a funeral.

The three girls learn English in school, trying on foreign-sounding words that intrigue and empower: “School was full of eye-words, coloring pictures not in Malacca. Words sprouted vines, branched into pages, rustled in forests of books in which I hid all day.”

Sisters Swee and Peik are adroit with their English, and Swee particularly so. Like all post-colonial subjects well-versed in the colonial mother tongue, it seemed inevitable that the sisters would leave the cocoon of their childhood for greener pastures in the English-speaking West.

Swee chooses America, although we never find out why. Running away from arranged marriages and conservative traditions, she puts her incisive intellect to good use even as she embraces solitude and social uncertainty in an alien country. An illicit affair with a married Puerto Rican professor ends her New York adventures and she returns home only to leave again, this time bound for the West coast and California with her elder sister Yen in tow.

Unlike Swee, Yen lives in the realm of the senses and the sensual. She simultaneously embraces her new home and all its excesses without losing the pragmatism and wits derived from growing up Malaysian. Narrating in Manglish, Yen boldly announces her difference through inconsistent grammar and awkwardly constructed sentences. But never once does she berate herself for this linguistic deficiency, preferring instead to claim it with pride and gusto.

The two sisters take in an America that is a far cry from the liberal, intellectual bastion of the East Coast. Beer guzzling Vietnam veterans, fervently patriotic Harley Davidson aficionados, biker chicks and white supremacist groups—these are the characters who people the second half of Shirley Lim’s novel.

Later on, when youngest sister, Peik, comes to California toting a bible and preaching the Gospel, we are introduced to a non-white majority who zealously redeem their low-paid, illegal immigrant existence by attending service at the Mission of Eternal Light. Parishioners from Central America, the West Indies, East and Southeast Asia break bread with their Malaysian spiritual leaders, partaking in a ritual that unites them in voracious eating.

Sister Swing is a novel that slowly sucks its readers into an American milieu that is both familiar yet strange. We desire to fathom why a white supremacist would want to fall in love with a Malaysian woman but we also understand how a Vietnam veteran could so greedily devour sticks of satay with relish.

This is a novel about appetites sexual, physical, emotional and ultimately, linguistic. Some appetites have to be nurtured because they fragile, some are transformed in the interest of survival, and others are denied in an effort to be sane. But throughout the narratives of the three sisters, one appetite remains rich and riotous— the appetite for words, for linguistic mastery, for poetic succor and for literary empowerment.


This review was first published in Off The Edge magazine, June 2006 issue.

Shirley Lim : Interview

by Carmen Nge

Malaysians have a habit of applauding our own when they make it big overseas or strike it rich. Tash Aw, our recent shining star in the publishing firmament is proof that people take notice when huge sums of money are involved.

But what about writers who labour to critical acclaim but modest financial fanfare? What of those who quietly put pen to paper at a time when there was no well-oiled publicity machine to speak of, no chain bookstores with long distribution arms, no agenda to champion English language as our new mother tongue? Malaysian women writers in English are particularly prone to the disease of neglect.

Janet Lim, Hillary Tham, Chuah Guat Eng—these are some of the names that have been quietly erased from our literary history, names occasionally resuscitated but their re-emergence never sustained.

Shirley Lim, a Malacca-born writer now residing in the United States, is someone who resists such erasure through hardwork and dedication to her craft. Having carved a name and niche for herself as a respected Asian-American poet-novelist for the past thirty years, Lim’s writing has been anthologized and won awards. She is currently a professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara and juggles writing, teaching and speaking engagements all over the world. Lim is also working on a new book of poetry and a young adult novel for Singaporean secondary school children, as well as editing essays for an academic project.

At 61 Shirley Lim is exceptionally bubbly and brimming with energy. She was recently in Kuala Lumpur to promote her latest novel and to lecture about Malaysian women writing in English to university students. Lim spoke to Off the Edge in a lengthy interview which covered a range of topics from writing in Manglish about strong women to Malaysia’s English language education policy over the years.

Carmen Nge: Where did you get the inspiration for your new book, Sister Swing?

Shirley Lim: In fact, I had written a first novel, Joss and Gold, but I hadn’t published it yet and I was stuck. It wasn’t quite finished and I didn’t know how to finish it. And I received, out of the blue, a grant. A lot of money. They paid my airfare from Hong Kong, where I had gone as a Chair Professor to Hedgebrook, on Whidbey Island [off the coast of Washington State] and they give me a month’s residency. A writer’s-in-residence. There were 6 cottages for 6 writers; we didn’t have to cook—we had 5 chefs for the 6 of us. And all we had to do was to write. So in that one month, I decided, since I was stuck with the first novel, that I would write a second one.

The first novel took me a long time and part of it was that I was learning how to write a novel. And I felt by that point, although I was stuck with the first one, that I wanted to just write a second one because I had already learnt how to write a novel. I took an old story that had won an Asiaweek short story competition in 1982 but that story has been anthologized all over the place. For some reason, it got a lot of attention and so it has been anthologized in Canada, in the United States and stuff. And so I thought this story has got legs. People around the world like it so there must be something in it.

And the story is about 3 daughters in Malacca who have a patriarchal father and they are the daughters of his second wife and so he leaves his first wife in Singapore and every weekend he goes to Malacca and it ends with the murder of the father by the oldest girl. It’s a short story. So I thought, all right I’ll begin with these 3 sisters and see what I can do with it. And so I rewrote that short story as a first chapter and of course it’s completely changed.

I said let me rewrite this short story and use it as a novel and as you can see, I radically rewrote it and one of the challenges I set myself was to write a funny novel. Someone said to me, ‘You know Shirley all your poems are so sad. Your writing is all really sad and tragic but when we meet you, you’re telling jokes, you’re laughing. You know, you’re really a funny person--it never appears in your writing. So I thought, Ok, This is the part of myself I’m going to put in the book.

But at the same time, I am very concerned about this serious issue. The issue of how to grow up woman in a world that makes it difficult for women to get their human rights and to become autonomous. For me that’s been a constant issue. So the issue of women in a patriarchal society—wherever you go: United States, Malacca, Singapore.

And then, the issue of race, which, obviously being originally from Malaysia, it’s an enormous issue for me. But, now that I’m an American, an American citizen, I can deal with issues of race that are not Malaysian issues. So, in some ways you can look at them as displacement of topics and themes that have been close to me as a Malaysian. But also they’re not displacement because race issues are central to the social evolution of the American state and society. And since I’ve been teaching Asian American literature, I am quite cognizant of what Asian American writers have been writing and not writing. And I know that there’s a huge gap in the representation of race issues other than white and Asian.

Most of the Asian American texts you read, when there are race issues, it’s white versus Asian. It’s sort of assimilation tension but I know that in present U.S. it’s Asian versus black or brown versus Asian. So there’s a lot of inter-ethnic tensions and racist problems, just not white versus Asian. Of course, that’s also a central topic for me, the white versus Asian, but I deal with other representations of race problems in the United States because I see that as a gap in Asian American writing. Another gap is representations of religion.

For some reason, Asian American literature has not really dealt with religion as a theme. The Christian movement is very very strong with Asian American communities—the Korean church, the Filipino charismatic church, born again Christians. So I make the youngest daughter a fervent Christian, who goes with her father-in-law, a pastor, to Los Angeles and works in a church there.

So, what I was trying to do was also, as a Asian American writer, dealing with themes that are important to Asian American communities but that have not been so widely represented or popularly represented. So, they are original themes, I hope. But as a Malaysian writer, what I was struggling with was to use Manglish because the characters are from Malaysia.

When we meet them, the 3 sisters are between the ages of 16 to about 20. At the end of the novel, 3 years apart and they are between the ages of 19 to 22. And those are the ages when young people come to sexual awakening so I had to deal with the sexual development and maturation, and I did it—I thought—quite openly, while trying to avoid being pornographic. So, it’s a little bit of a negotiation there, how to portray sexuality without being so graphic that it borders on the pornographic. But mostly the eldest sister is the one who is very sensuous and is sexually alert. And she’s not the bright one. The bright one is the second sister.

And as in a number of Malaysian families, intelligence is usually associated with good command of English and lack of intelligence with an inability to speak standard English. So I have Yen, the oldest sister, speak in Manglish. And then there are some chapters that are in her voice, the entire chapter. So, it isn’t just dialogue but interior speech and narrative voice. And I really struggle with that because I have split audiences.

My major audience, I think, is Asian American and Asian Americans have never heard Manglish except a tiny minority. And I know when they see that language on the page, that dialectical pidgin English, they will not be able to hear it. But if I were to rewrite that in standard English, then I lose that elusive quality, which is Yen. You know, this easygoing, crazy, bit of a lunatic, naïve young girl who speaks in Manglish. So, I really had to write and rewrite and rewrite over and over again in order to get what I call, in some ways, a compromised stylistics. A stylistics that is generally standard English but with enough examples of Manglish that you know that it is a different form of speech. It is a different speech act and therefore it comes from a different language sensibility. So that was a major struggle for me.

CN: About the issue of language, do you find that no matter how marginalized Asian Americans may find themselves, that there is a way to enter into a dialogue about national identity because of a common language [i.e. American English]?

SL: Absolutely. Absolutely. But there has been, recently, a rethinking of what is American literature. An elite university like Harvard—you have to be at Harvard to do this—has started a center of rethinking American literature as multilingual American literature. A top scholar called Werner Sollors has come up with this thesis that you cannot think about a multicultural American literature if it’s all in English. It is not multicultural because it’s all in English. If you want multicultural then it has to be multilingual.

So in this center, he has scholars who work on Polish writing coming out of the United States, out of Spanish writing, out of Hungarian writing, Chinese, Japanese… of course you might want to translate them because not all of us have 20 languages at our fingertips. So although we may be able to read Chinese and English, we may not be able to read Polish or Hungarian. But all these literatures are what we mean by multicultural American lit.

I think he has a good opening position but he is bound to failure because the rate of loss of home language is very rapid. Within one generation, the children have lost the language of their parents. And they will write in English and they will read in English. So in some ways, his notion of multicultural American literature is first-generation. You know, one thinks of immigrants. And the huge core of multicultural American literature is in English by English writers and speakers who are still involved somehow in the retention or the recuperation or the re-memorizing of an original sending culture.

But why would children want to be bilingual, let’s say, in Hungarian, when they might want to learn Chinese instead and become globally competitive. So, you can have a Hungarian American student saying, ‘Well, English is my mother tongue, I have to learn another language, and I’m gonna learn Chinese.’ See there’s no guarantees that that young person will learn the “mother tongue.”

In Singapore of course there is a compulsory mother tongue policy, just as in some ways there is in Malaysia to some extent. But America is not like that. There is no compulsory mother tongue policy. There is always free choice, except for English because English is the medium of education, the institutional language. The erasure of the “mother tongue”, which of course is a very suspect term, begins very early in the United States.

CN: Do you find that this is a good thing because it does help people all speak the same language and there is a general understanding of each other because of language?

SL: Nothing is an unalloyed good. So, in terms of nation building, the loss of that original “mother tongue” and the assimilation into American society, being an English speaker, really is a harvested development, both for the individual and for the nation because it facilitates entry, it helps with assimilation. It’s possible for the child of an immigrant family to become a president of the United States and American, speaking English. If you were to have this mother tongue policy, it might be impossible because the child might be fluent in Hungarian and just halting in English because not all children can be fluently bilingual.

Of course you look at some European nations and you see that it has happened. In Switzerland for example, almost the entire population is bilingual. English is rapidly becoming the EU language so many Europeans now are becoming trilingual. If they are Swiss they might be German, Italian speakers and also have to speak English. But those nations have been around for a long time.

Language is always an iffy issue but a language under which an entire “national society” can find itself exchanging and communicating with each other is absolutely necessary, I would say that. Absolutely necessary.

CN: So what do you think of the recent move by the [Malaysian] government to push for more English in Math and Science, and to have more local graduates be more proficient in English. The big grouse of the government is that local graduates’ English is not up to par.

SL: By why should the government complain about it? That’s the consequence of government policy, isn’t it? I mean, it’s kind of ironic that the government, for a fairly long time, has deliberately downgraded the teaching and the learning of English and now the government complains that it has a whole citizenry that cannot speak English. In fact, the government should be very pleased that the citizenry has been submissive to government wishes and this is what the government has produced.

Now, if the government is complaining, the government should be very apologetic. And should really deeply apologize to the young generation that it has failed policies and should then transparently rethink how these policies fail and how to create more successful policies. It’s not as if the citizenry has deliberately worked to disappoint the government. In fact, the citizenry has deliberately worked to please the government.

Well, to be less facetious, the world has changed since the 60s and 70s but changed in ways that are very predictable. With modern technology, the world has become much more integrated. And even in a way that’s shocking to the United States, economies have become globalized, so national boundaries no longer protect national economies. And capitalism is the system that always works through the bottom line. If you cannot create profit, you cannot survive as a business. It’s as simple as that. With outsourcing, with a borderless world, with the way in which communications work through the internet—with the immediacy of financial processes—every society, if it wants to survive economically and not just become a subsistence basket-case, has to become part of a globalized system of production.

This globalized system—at this moment anyway—operate through the English language heavily. There are some people who predict that Chinese will replace it. I disagree and I disagree because the Chinese language is so difficult to learn. Maybe bilingual Chinese-English will replace simple monolingual English. I don’t know. But I think English will always be there because as a language, in some ways, it’s really quite simple.

It has an alphabet that is easy to learn, it has a vocabulary lists that can cross over and it has been an omnivorous language that has appropriated terms from Malay, terms from Arab, terms from Indian. So, in that way one might call English an imperializing language except it’s an imperializing language that does not take the wealth back to the mother colony. Any one can go to this language and by utilizing it, become himself or herself, if he wants to, an imperial subject.

This doesn’t mean that I think that we should all be imperialist but that the English language is accessible to anyone who will learn. And when you learn it and use it, it is not to the advantage of a mother colony. You can learn it and use it to the advantage of your own family and your own national community. And of course this is what has happened in India.

30 years ago I heard this argument—in fact coming out from Malaysia sometime—well, look at India, it was a British colony for umpteen years and only 2% of the huge Indian population was part of an English-speaking community. Would India be where it is now, finally having a thriving economy, if it wasn’t for the use of English? All this discussion now about India finally being able to compete, being the place of outsourcing, telecommunication, medical care and everything else, can only happen to a population to whom English is also a language of communication.

So where were all those naysayers in the 80s, saying there is no use for English in India anymore because only 2% of the population uses it? Compared to what is happening now when Indian parents are dying for their children to learn English. Not because they think English is an imperial language, because English is the tool by which their children can become economically empowered. I’d like all those naysayers to learning English, even as a second language, to be called to account now for all the people who are younger who cannot be employed. You know, let them be responsible. And of course, this is not only in Malaysia, it was in India, it was in lots of decolonizing states.

CN: In a way would you say that the project of a national language—because we are a small country and English is the lingua franca—has backfired?

SL: No, no. Not at all. It is not the project of the national language that has backfired but the way in which the project was implemented. To create a sense of Malaysian-ness, specifically in a society that is both indigenous and immigrant, arguably—I’m not saying it’s for sure—but arguably, having Bahasa [Malaysia] as the national language would serve as the unifying identity formation dynamic. But to implement that national language project in such a way as to make the citizenry monolingual is where the problem is. Today we all know that we all can’t just be national subjects, we have to be national and global subjects. The one thing they said about the human species is its flexibility, how nimble it is. This is what Lee Kuan Yew says all the time and which is repeated in Singapore all the time: Change or die. Really, it’s change or die.

Let’s say you’re making shoes and suddenly, shoes are made more cheaply in Vietnam, and you still continue to make shoes but nobody wants to buy your shoes, you’ll die. You have to say, ‘OK. I cannot make shoes as cheaply as in Vietnam. Let me make something else that the world wants.’

So, humanity as a species has evolved and can only succeed on flexibility: the ability to seize opportunity, to be nimble and flexible. And that is why for our children, we want them to be educated so that they can be flexible. So that they’re capable of looking at change and not freezing like a deer in the headlights of a car and be smashed to bits—look at change and to enjoy it, rather than to look at change and to fear it.

CN: Let’s switch gears a little. For some reason, we don’t tend to produce a lot of young Malaysian novelists…

SL: Do we produce young Malaysian poets, young Malaysian dramatists? So actually we don’t produce young Malaysian writers.

CN: Yes. Do you find it endemic that we don’t privilege creative arts or writing, or do you think our education system has failed in that respect? Or are we just too busy chasing after development status and this [creative arts] is considered peripheral to an education?

SL: I don’t know that I can speculate on some of these causes but let me talk about what I’ve observed. You have a lot of students interested in journalism and it seems to me that journalism and the professions that are associated with journalism are growing in popularity. In many of the Western world, some of the best writing comes out of journalists. I mean, you look at, even earlier, Ernest Hemingway was a journalist.

Today, there’re lots and lots of journalists who produce very very good books. So, I think that specifically in the writing profession—journalism, advertising and even to some extent, in teaching—there is a promise, for a new generation, at least of English-language writers because I can’t speak about the other languages.

In the past, there’s been active government discouragement of English language writing. So, of course, the consequence of that active discouragement is that there’s been very little English language writing per se. We humans are not stupid. We go where we can succeed. If, as a Malaysian, you’re told that English language writing is dead—as has been said openly, over and over again by Malaysian intellectuals and leaders—then of course you don’t want your children to do it and the children themselves don’t want to do it. Who wants to be attached to a stinking corpse? But unfortunately that stinking corpse is not a stinking corpse. That stinking corpse now is the globe.

I think Malaysians are smart enough to say: this was a false message, this is the reality of the 21st century in the world today, and so I do see that more and more Malaysians will become actively engaged with writing, whether they will write poems or scripts, film scripts, but they will do more writing. And I must say for those who write, the writer’s itch is very very strong. You might spend all your time writing advertising copy but the desire to do more than advertising copy is there. So, I’m not despairing. [chuckles]

CN: Creative writing in the U.S., it’s not a big field like English literature, is it?

SL: Oooh, you’ll be surprised. The latest Modern Language Association newsletter—the Modern Language Association is the largest association for university professors of English in the country, over 10,000 members—the new president wrote a newsletter saying that she looked at the last job market and there were many many more ads for creative writing teachers at the universities than there were for professors teaching 20th century literature courses.

Why is this? Because the young people in the United States want to do creative writing. They enjoy it, it’s part of their development of self and identity and expressiveness. That is where they begin to look at language from the place of the producer, rather than from the place of just the student who is told what to think.

American students are very resistant to being passive learners. You may give them an A but if you put them in a class where there is very passive learning, they’ll still give you a very bad grade. They don’t grade you highly as a teacher if you don’t engage them, if you bore them, if you just give them the answers and they repeat it back to you. They want to be stimulated, they want to be provoked, they want to be made to think and speak. And so, creative writing does that. It asks for the students to voice themselves.

So right now, in many of the universities, creative writing courses are among the fastest growing registration in the English departments. English departments one day might go the way of Classics. You know, the Classics departments were the departments in 19th century U.S. education. Nowadays fewer and fewer students want to study Milton, even Shakespeare. Keats, Dryden… forget Dryden right? I’m not saying forget Dryden myself because I love Dryden’s poetry. But in a higher educational system where students are permitted choice, they’re no longer forced. So you have to do Milton but you have a choice between Milton and creative writing. Guess what percentage of students will take Milton and what percentage will take creative writing? So the creative writing field in universities is the fastest growing field I would say.

CN: Do you see active learning as part and parcel of creative writing then?

SL: Oh yes. How can you write creatively if you are passive? The word ‘creation’ is an active verb. To create something means an act of making. You can’t make something passive. Passive is passive consumption—you ingest, you absorb passively, right? To create is to do something.

And this I tell my creative writing students because my classes are jammed—I have 50, 60 wanting to come in for a class of 20—and I tell them if you think this is going to be fun and games and it’s easy going, I’m gonna leave now. But of course all of them don’t leave. But it’s a lot and they often complain that they have to write a lot and they’ve never had to write so much. But I tell them it’s like playing tennis. If you want to be a good tennis player, you have to be out there hitting the ball over the net. You can’t be a good tennis player just by reading a book or watching it on TV. You have to be out there doing the practice and that’s the same with creative writing.

CN: What would you say are important components to being a writer?

SL: There’re a number of them. One is the ability to be solitary. Even if a writer has lots of friends and goes out drinking every night, sitting down to write alone is a solitary act. You’ve got no choice. The other, I think… you have to have a very good imagination. You can’t write if you don’t have a good imagination. There’s all that there is to it. Some people are very good writers but their imaginations are dead, they’re flat.

And thirdly, you have to have a very good command of the language. Whether it’s English or Chinese or Malay, in some ways, language has to be the writer, the writer has to be the language. You have to feel the language in your body, in your ear, you have to hear it. Language is not instrumental when you do creative writing. Language becomes what you want to achieve. It becomes your muse. It becomes your goal. It’s not so much you want to tell the story but you want that language so that the story can be told.

There’s lot of other things that are involved but I think maybe those are some of the major things.

This interview was first published in Off The Edge, June 2006 issue.