Writing Amok: On Leaving Malaysia to Find It Again
You write what you read. And I grew up reading English books by Enid Blyton, CS Lewis, and JRR Tolkien. Then I found David Eddings, David Gemmell, and Raymond E. Feist. After that came Robin Hobb, and most recently, Brandon Sanderson. (This is obscuring a lot of other writers that I read and love, but hey I’m trying to make a point, I think.)
When you look at the history of traditionally-published English SFF (science fiction and fantasy), it’s predominantly white, and very, very Eurocentric—in fact, one of most popular settings is medieval England/Europe. They centre around knights and swords defending good, white kingdoms against the exotic oriental or barbaric, dark-skinned other. So when I started writing, that’s what bled through, at least, in those that I specifically crafted a setting for. Many times, I just never really described what they looked like or where they were, using the kind of ambiguous names and descriptions that can be found in metropolitan, urban-ish centres worldwide.
In my original envisioning of the Terang Sultanate, Maha followed stereotypical Eurocentric medieval fantasy settings and conventions, Impian had Southeast Asian influences, and Suci represented their confluence. But the more I worked on Amok, the more I found myself moving away from that, creating instead a united Terang—with all three city-states of Maha, Suci, and Impian based on the Malaccan sultanate. And then I took a step away from portraying the enemy kingdom of Bayangan as the quasi-White-other, giving Terang and Bayangan similar cultural roots.
One reason was to simply reflect the politics of the original story—Samson and Delilah took place in an era of war between Israel and the Philistines, where the enmity between them was, at face value, due to differences of beliefs and religious practices. Having both Terang and Bayangan come from the same roots focused the conflict on the faith aspects of the novel instead of issues of race and ethnicity.
Another was the conversations that I was listening to in the wider SFF Anglosphere—as well as the YA spheres—while I was doing my MA in Creative Writing in London. People were hungry for diversity. They wanted other cultures—their cultures—reflected in their SFF novels. They were tired of the “pale, male, and stale”. And so was I.
But one other driving factor was the fact that living away from home, where I was normal, was making me question my identity. Weird isn’t it, how leaving your roots sometimes drives you back to it? In London, especially on campus, I found the need to clarify—both to the British and to the Chinese—that no, I’m not actually Chinese (though technically I am, ethnically), I’m Malaysian. It felt like an important distinction. It came with explanations, sometimes almost a form of apology. No, I don’t speak Mandarin—I failed a whole year of classes and never went back again. Uh, actually, English is my first language because that’s what I grew up speaking at home. I do/eat this thing and I always thought it’s Chinese but you mean it’s not? Welp, I guess it’s Malaysian.
When one speaks of “own voices”, it’s usually a very simple “minority ethnicity/identity” in white-majority country. As a Chinese diaspora in a non-White culture (writing in English), this presented a dichotomy of being. I had the choice to centre the narrative around either my Chinese or Malaysian heritage—which of these would fit as my “own voice”? Which one really reflects me? My ethnic background or my nationality? At the point of writing Amok, my identification was, and still continues to be, very much more of “Malaysian” over that of “Chinese”. When living in London, I didn’t magically become a Chinese diaspora in the UK. I was very much a Malaysian diaspora in the UK. And that was the sticking point in choosing this specific Southeast Asian culture (quasi-Malaccan sultanate) and language (Malay) as the base for my worldbuilding. The word amok itself came to the English language by the way of the Malay word, amuk.
Stories help us make sense of our world. Seeing ourselves, our cultures, in fiction helps us remember that our cultures, our backgrounds have worth. The way we do things and why we do them may be different, but they’re not inherently wrong, bad, or less valuable. We exist and we are valid.
As English speakers, we’ve learnt to read and identify with default-white characters and cultures because that was what was available to us. It can’t be denied that they opened many new worlds to us through their stories. Now it’s our turn to return the favour.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Tan grew up in Malaysia, the country that is not Singapore. She is interested in Malay/Nusantara and Chinese legends and folklore in exploring the intersection of language, culture, and faith.
Anna has an MA in Creative Writing: The Novel under a Chevening scholarship and is the President of the Malaysian Writers Society. She can be found tweeting as @natzers and forgetting to update annatsp.com.
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