Preeta Samarasan, author of Evening is the Whole Day is a “new” Malaysian author who is deservedly going places. She was interviewed by MPH’s Quill magazine, and the wonderful Sharon Bakar at Bibliobibuli has posted the interview in two parts: Part one and part two, an interview absolutely worth reading, and not just by Malaysians.
Preeta has some exceptionally wise things to say about writing and the Malaysian scene, for a start. I look forward to meeting her in person one day.
As an individual I related to the question on whether it is necessary to leave the country to become a Malaysian novelist of note.
Preeta replies, ‘I think writers are people who identify as outsiders whether or not they have the opportunity to leave physically. Frequently, they identify as outsiders from childhood…’ which I think applies to me, a feeling that was exacerbated by my living almost my whole life in places that did not remotely resemble the place where I grew up.
She adds, and this is something I have been saying for ages and is the main reason I opted out of mainstream literature into genre: ‘But one thing would probably been different (if she hadn’t left Malaysia) : I don’t think I would’ve been brave enough to say these things as loudly as I’m saying them now. Like most Malaysians, I had lots of unexamined fears when I lived in the country. Fears of the government, fears of What People Will Think — between those two, it’s hard to say which is the greater set of fears! I think of my expatriate status as a luxury that allows me to say what I want without these fears.‘
I can remember the moment when I learned the power of What People Will Think in the Malaysian context. It was shortly after I arrived in Malaysia in the early 70s. My husband was abroad, so a friend invited me to stay for a week or two in her remote Kelantanese kampung up near Jelawat. (The hospitality of these people – none of whom had much money – was extraordinary; I have rarely felt as welcomed by strangers as I was in that village.)
Anyway, to get to my point: the houses there used cheap cotton prints for curtains – the kind of material that only has a pattern on one side. They hung these curtains with the pattern facing outwards. It was more important that the house look good from the outside, than that it looked good for you, the owner, living on the inside.
To live in Malaysia and to write an honest book about Malaysia and Malaysians takes enormous courage.