Utpal Borpujari

September 29, 2008

Indian, yet truly Malaysian

Preeta Samarasan tells Utpal Borpujari how it feels to be the first ethnic Indian Malaysian writer to be able to reach out to global audiences

K S Maniam and Rani Manicka in Malaysia, and Gopal Baratham and Philip Jeyaretnam in Singapore have earlier provided an insight into the ethnic Indian community in their countries, but their books have not been able to reach out to the larger audience outside. But Preeta Samarasan has been luckier. Her debut novel, Evening is the Whole Day (Harper Collins), has not only garnered widespread praise – the New York Times review calls it a “delicious first novel” – but also been able to reach out to India, where there has been renewed interest about ethnic Indians in Malaysia because of the recent political upheavals involving the community.

Samarasan understands the importance of it, though she is quick to point out that apart from the commonality of all of them having the community as their leitmotif, there is not much similarity among them, each following a distinct writing style. Samarasan’s evocative novel, however, is sure to create interest among Indians about ethnic Indian literature in Malaysia, which is why she is eager to point out that Indians need not be surprised when they come to know that even the present generation of ethnic Indians in her country takes equal pride in their Indian roots as in their Malaysians status.

“There’s certainly been a lot of interest from Indian and Indian-diaspora publications and communities about my book, and though I didn’t set out to be a ‘literary bridge’, I would be very happy if the book raised awareness of Malaysian and Malaysian-Indian issues in the Subcontinent,” says Samarasan, now based in France.

 

Yes, she is definitely enjoying the positive reviews her book has been getting, but does not forget to put things in perspective by mentioning her senior writers and saying, “There have been some wonderful writers of South Asian descent who were never widely read outside Malaysia, for purely circumstantial reasons.”  For example, she mentions Maniam, who she counts as an inspiration to her “all my life”.

 

Jeyaretnam’s Abraham’s Promise is known for its portrayal of the Jaffna Tamil community in Singapore, while Manicka has written about Indians in Malaysia in Rice Mother, she points out.

 

For her though, the larger question is not that of ethnicity, but that of stylistic patterns of a particular writer. “I would hesitate to group all these books in one unified stream just on the basis of the author’s ethnic origins.  I think it’s more useful to think about stylistic patterns, motivations, aesthetic influences, and once you do that you see that they are each doing very different things — so different, in fact, that I don’t even know where to position myself among them,” she says.

 

Samarasan’s novel too focuses on the Malaysian Tamil community, like those of Jeyaertnam and Manicka’s, but it has attracted widespread attention for the interesting layering she has been able to create. Seen through the eyes of a six-year-old girl, it works because it is in a sense both a whodoneit and a social narrative. With Malaysia’s post-colonial history and the multi-ethnic society as its backdrop, the novel gives the reader a wide angle view about the hopes and dreams of a family and its intrigues even as racial issues creep in.

As she says, “There’s been racial tension in Malaysia since the country’s beginnings. It’s just been less repressed lately, and has, therefore, been getting a little more international attention. Maniam has always overtly reflected the socio-political reality in his fiction, and other writers have chosen to do the same to different extents. I feel it’s impossible to write serious fiction set in Malaysia without writing about race, so I haven’t shied away from those issues in my own work. The most recent events have not yet been written about in fiction, but I do think it’s only a matter of time.”

 

The response to her first novel has left her “excited and gratified”, particularly as “so many wonderful first novels slip by unnoticed by the world at large”.  “When you’re holed up for years and years working alone on your book you have no idea if anyone out there is going to like it or ‘get’ what you’re doing, so it’s nice to see that dozens of very smart readers – even people who review serious literary fiction for a living – did get what I was doing,” she quips.

 

But something has left her perplexed, if not shocked. And that is the odious comparisons reviewers have made between her and other writers of South Asian descent, ranging from Arundhati Roy to Jhumpa Lahiri to Kiran Desai. “I mean, come on!  Roy and Lahiri are as different as night and day!  In fact, I felt quite vindicated when the New York Times compared me to Eudora Welty, and when others compared me to Dickens – finally, a comparison to a dead white man, and finally someone I was actually, consciously, influenced by,” she says.  

 

As an ethnic Indian who grew up in Malaysia and the United States, the young writer is eager to point out that Indian culture is very much alive in Malaysia. “Indians in Malaysia generally speak their mother tongue fluently, whether it’s Tamil, Malayalam, Punjabi, or Gujarati, watch Indian films and TV shows, listen to Indian music, and eat Indian food at home. Indian arts such as Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music have very wide followings in Malaysia, thanks to institutions like the Temple of Fine Arts. And we are well aware of all the famous writers of Indian descent – Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai, and others have very large followings among Malaysian readers.  The reverse may not be true in India, but I hope it will be one day,” she says.

Samarasan, who has contributed a short story to Urban Odysseys : KL, an yet-to-be-published anthology, has already started working on her second novel, also set in Malaysia.

 

(An abridged version was carried in Sakaal Times, www.sakaaltimes.com, 20-09-2008)

 

And the complete interview with Preeta Samarasan:

 

 

Malaysian literature is not well known in  India . Do you think your provenance would make you the literary bridge between the two countries?

There’s certainly been a lot of interest from Indian and Indian-diaspora publications and communities.  I didn’t set out to be a “literary bridge,” but would be very happy if the book raised awareness of Malaysian and Malaysian-Indian issues in the subcontinent.

 

Is there a specific stream of ethnic Indian literature in  Malaysia ?

 

There have been some wonderful writers of South Asian descent who were never widely read outside Malaysia, for purely circumstantial reasons.  First and foremost I must mention the great K.S. Maniam, whose writing about the Indian community in Malaysia has been an inspiration to me all my life.  Nearby in Singapore there are people like Gopal Baratham and Philip Jeyaretnam — the latter’s Abraham’s Promise paints a quietly lyrical portrait of the Jaffna Tamil community in Singapore at a time when the country was facing huge questions of national identity and self-definition.  More recently, Rani Manicka has written about Indians in Malaysia in Rice Mother.  Nevertheless, I would hesitate to group all these books in one unified “stream” just on the basis of the author’s ethnic origins.  I think it’s more useful to think about stylistic patterns, motivations, aesthetic influences, and once you do that you see that they are each doing very different things — so different, in fact, that I don’t even know where to position myself among them.  The only thing we have in common is that we have all written about Tamils in Southeast Asia.

Were you confident of your novel getting the accolades as it is doing now?

 

I didn’t know what to expect.  It’s my first novel, and one sees so many wonderful first novels slip by unnoticed by the world at large; so much of fame depends on luck, on your book coming out in the right place and the right time.  So I didn’t have any particular expectations, but I kept my fingers crossed.  I will say that I wish it were getting more attention in certain places, particularly the UK.

 

For a first-time novelist, how has been the experience? And the comparisons to the likes of Kiran Desai and the gushing reviews?

 

On the whole it has been exciting and gratifying; the reviews from big, reputable publications have all been overwhelmingly positive.  When you’re holed up for years and years working alone on your book you have no idea if anyone out there is going to like it or “get” what you’re doing, so it’s nice to see that dozens of very smart readers — even people who review serious literary fiction for a living — did get what I was doing.  Along with that, there is also an element of shock, of course, at having to go out into the world and talk about myself and my work so much; most writers are introverts (that’s precisely why we choose writing as our form of communication, after all!), so that can be difficult.  But I am mostly grateful that people are reading my book and responding to it, so I am happy to deal with whatever that brings.  As for the comparisons — I think, again, the temptation is to compare writers of South Asian descent to other writers of South Asian descent.  I’ve been compared to every well-known female writer of colour out there.  I don’t mind, but I’m sure all of us think it’s a bit silly after a point — how can I be like ALL those women, when they are so different from each other?!?  On this side I have someone comparing me to Arundhati Roy, and on that side someone else comparing me to Jhumpa Lahiri — I mean, come on!  They are as different as night and day!  So I felt quite vindicated when the New York Times compared me to Eudora Welty, and when others compared me to Dickens — finally, a comparison to a dead white man, and finally someone I *was* actually, consciously, influenced by.  It’s sad that *that’s* what it took to make me feel like I’d finally arrived, but that is the case; I felt that finally someone had read the book for what it was and not just another book by An Indian Writer.

The ethnic Indian community was in news sometime back because of its tensions with the government. Do the socio-political and ethnicity issues get reflected in the ethnic literature?

 

There’s been racial tension in Malaysia since the country’s beginnings; it’s just been less repressed lately, and has therefore been getting a little more international attention.  K.S. Maniam, whom I mention above, has always overtly reflected the socio-political reality in his fiction, and other writers have chosen to do the same to different extents.  I feel it’s impossible to write serious fiction set in Malaysia without writing about race, so I haven’t shied away from those issues in my own work.  The most recent events (such as the HINDRAF riots) have not yet been written about in fiction, but I do think it’s only a matter of time.

 

Your novel had an earlier version that won an award. How different was that version from the one we have seen, and what necessitated the two versions?

 

There’ve been a lot more than two versions!  The version that won the Hopwood Award at the University of Michigan was not the first version; I had already revised it four or five times, changing big things — like the structure — each time.  But it was still evolving; it was part of my thesis for my Masters in Creative Writing, so I was changing it as I went along and learned more about myself as a writer.  When it won the award it was a novel-in-progress; it didn’t have an ending yet.  It was also at least twice as long as the novel now published.  But after I graduated and sold the novel, I revised it at least twice more with my editor.  This is all quite normal; most novels are revised at least that many times before publication.  You revise because you figure out the story you want to tell as you go along, but also to refine the language and the structure; and finally you revise when you have a dependable reader (such as an editor) because that person helps you to see how the novel is being read by an external pair of eyes.

How much time it took for you to do the research on the issues relating to community?

 

The only actual “research” I did — if we’re using the standard definition of that word — was about the 1969 race riots, because I didn’t want to rely on anecdotes and memories there.  There’s been very little written about those riots, though, so that research didn’t take long.  The rest of my so-called research was not research at all — after all, I did grow up in Malaysia as part of the Indian community myself, and I go back at least once a year.  I have a very good memory for stories I hear from my family and friends, so I have a lot of raw material at my disposal at any given time, waiting to be used as inspiration for my fiction.  All it takes is being a good listener every day of your life; I’m sure many other writers will tell you the same thing.

Your novel reflects some of the complexities of the society in which the Malays, the Chinese and the Indians coexist. Have these complexities been explored by other authors too?

 

It’s impossible to write serious fiction set in Malaysia without addressing race to some extent.  Any story you tell will bring up these everyday complexities, even if they remain in the background.  Since English-language fiction from Malaysia tends to be by Chinese or Indian writers, there’s all the more reason for that fiction to raise these issues, because both those communities are minorities who experience these complexities in a very direct way.  That said, apart from K.S. Maniam, other writers have not necessarily chosen ethnic identity/ethnic tensions as their focus.  This is partly because a great deal of their work is set in pre-independence Malaya, when people had other concerns (war, the Japanese occupation, etc.) and ethnic/religious divisions did not matter as much.

Do you think your novel came out at the right moment in time, when interest in the ethnic Indian community in  Malaysia is quite high in many parts of the world, and particularly  India , because of the political upheaval?

 

Yes, it probably did; I could not have planned this timing, but there is at least a *little* more interest in Malaysia nowadays than there’s been in the past.

 

As an ethnic Indian from  Malaysia , do you think the cultural and literary exchanges between  India and  Malaysia have been adequate?

 

I’m ashamed to say I don’t know all that much about the cultural and literary exchanges between the two countries, but I can say from experience that Indian culture is very much alive in Malaysia.  Indians in Malaysia generally speak their mother tongue fluently (whether it’s Tamil, Malayalam, Punjabi, or Gujarati), watch Indian films and TV shows (we get a lot of TV dramas and talent shows from India), listen to Indian music, and eat Indian food at home.  Indian arts such as Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music have very wide followings in Malaysia, thanks to institutions like the Temple of Fine Arts, which I think does promote artistic exchange between the two countries.  And we’re well aware of all the famous writers of Indian descent; Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai, and others all have very large followings among Malaysian readers.  The reverse may not be true in India, but I hope it will be one day.

 

Have you been to  India ? Any family roots you have maintained there?

I’ve been to India twice, both times for friends’ weddings.  Afterwards I travelled, the first time in the South (Tamil Nadu and Kerala) and the second time in the North (Mumbai, Delhi, Agra, Rajasthan).  We do have relatives there, on my father’s side — I remember them visiting Malaysia when I was a child — but unfortunately my immediate family has not kept in touch with them at all, so I didn’t see them when I went.

 

 What sort of image  India has amongst young ethnic Indian Malaysians who have not visited  India ? Apart from Bollywood/Tamil cinema, what other cultural connections they have with  India ?

 

I think the cultural connections are very strong.  Compared to, say, ethnic Indians in the US or UK, ethnic Indians in Malaysia have a much stronger sense of their Indian identity, while also feeling definitely Malaysian.  We know we are not exactly the same as Indians in India, but on the whole the Malaysian model of nation-building has not permitted the “melting-pot” phenomenon that you see in the West; Malays, Chinese, and Indians have maintained their separate identities.  Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is hard to say, but it’s certainly surprising for Americans to realise that my family may have lived in Malaysia for 100 years, but we still feel quite Indian, whereas in the equivalent amount of time, immigrants to the US retain very little of their original culture. As to what sort of image India has in Malaysia — it’s impossible to generalise.  I think if you had asked the question 20 years ago, many people would still have thought of India as a dirty, backward place, but at the same time they thought Indian education was far superior to Malaysian education; for example, we were always told that Indian children started school much earlier, were much better students, much better at maths. and science, etc. etc.  Now, more and more, Malaysian Indians are aware (and proud) of India’s economic and technological progress, of the IT boom and the accompanying lifestyle changes.  At the same time, one still can’t discount the impact that Bollywood and Tamil cinema continue to have on local perceptions of India.  Those who have never been to India might still form their impressions from the film and TV images.

Can you share some information about your earlier writings, particularly Urban Odysseys: KL Stories?

Urban Odysseys doesn’t include any earlier writings.  It’s an anthology that hasn’t been published yet, but when it does come out (probably next year), it will include one short story that I wrote after my novel had been published.  Only one published story preceded the publication of the novel; it won the Asian American Writers’ Workshop/Hyphen Magazine Short Story Award in 2007.  The story is called “Our House Stands in a City of Flowers” and is about a wealthy Indian household and a poor family squatting at the bottom of their compound.

 

After “Evening is…” what’s next on line?

 

I am working on a second novel, also set in Malaysia, about a Utopian community in the 1970s.  I am also writing short stories and essays, a few of which have already been published in literary journals in the US and elsewhere.

 

 

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