Nothing Nice to Say? Say It Anyway

First published on 13th January, 2013 in The Star

REGULAR readers of this column will be familiar with my rants about badly-written and poorly-illustrated Malaysian children’s books. An acquaintance said to me that I have never written a good review of a local children’s book. His definition of “good review” was one that was totally positive. He said, “You say you want to promote local writers and encourage them to produce children’s books with Malaysian content, but you contradict yourself by constantly criticising what is locally published.”

Can support only be shown through glowing reviews? I’ve been told that a well-known Malaysian columnist doesn’t review local lit because it just doesn’t make the grade and he doesn’t think he should be wasting column inches on work that is merely good enough by Malaysian standards (I didn’t read the column so I’m not sure how accurate this is).I read local literature because I’m interested in all literature and I love reading. I remember being a kid, reading The Five Find-Outers and changing all the characters’ names to Malaysian ones. I wanted to read stories about other Malaysian children having exciting adventures and I want my children (and all Malaysian children) to be able to do that.

As an editor and a writer, I want to see the local publishing industry grow, and blossom. I want to see effort made to produce good books of all genres. Yes, I support and encourage local publishers and writers. I don’t often write glowing reviews but I don’t think that’s the only way to show support. In fact, I don’t think it helps anyone much if a glowing review is written merely for its own sake. I don’t believe in misleading the public, publishers or writers. If something isn’t good enough, I believe in saying so and saying why I don’t think it’s good enough.

I believe that support must take the form of honest, objective, constructive comments. Of course praise must be given where praise is due. If a story is well-plotted, if the characters ring true, if the writing is lively and engaging, I will say so, but if I don’t buy the ending, if the dialogue is stilted and the illustrations are clumsy, I’ll point it out too. Publishers (and authors) will often call a balanced review a bad one. They focus on the criticism and ignore the praise. This is because they are afraid that readers will do the same and then refrain from buying the book. I suppose this does happen, but I feel that those in the book business should realise that they can use constructive criticism to their advantage: These are the areas that could be worked on; this is what needs improving; you’ve got this right, carry on!

As for “good enough by Malaysian standards”, unfortunately this usually means that the work is mediocre at best. Isn’t it terrible that mediocrity is supposedly good enough for us? We should be aiming for good, by anyone’s standards, but I do see a problem with that benchmark too.

British and American standards are what we tend to use as a yardstick, especially for literature written in English. However, I feel that we should do less of this because a Malaysian writing in English is a very different animal from a Brit or an American writing in English. I feel that it’s not just about the language used. Sure, the same words are employed but how they are used is very different. This is not just a matter of style, not just about being able to tell Jane Austen’s phrasing from Mark Twain’s,  Ian McEwan’s from John Irving’s. It’s a matter of an author’s history, culture, and community. It’s about the other languages she speaks, the way she uses English in her everyday life, and the way it’s used by those around her.

I think Malaysian writers have yet to develop their own ways of telling stories. We are a confused bunch. Most of us write in a language that we did not grow up speaking, but are unable to write in the language that we are most comfortable communicating in. With no or few reference points of our own, we have been forced to look West for examples of stories told in English. We try to mimic the West’s ways of telling, but it doesn’t quite fit our stories, which need a Malaysian way of telling that has yet to be developed because our various hang-ups prevent us from using English with confidence; making it our own, and bending it to our will and purpose.

English is my first language but I do not speak it wholly “by the book” because I am a Malaysian who went to a national school and I have friends whose first language is not English. I grew up reading English and American authors who are all dead. As a result, I have, in the past, made the Malaysian characters in my Malaysian stories say things like, “That’s a beastly thing to do, Mei” and “Golly, you don’t say! How horrid for you, Samy”. Now when I write dialogue, I have to make a conscious effort not to reproduce syntax I learnt from reading Austen, and Willa Cather, and Elizabeth Bowen. I try to write the way I speak English and the way the people around me speak it. It’s not easy as the written form must be a modified version of the spoken and yet sound as natural and believable when read aloud.

When I read local literature I have to remind myself that the authors are telling Malaysian stories and that they need to tell it their own way, not the way of Maurice Sendak or Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton or Laura Ingalls Wilder. Often I suspect the authors don’t know what their own ways of telling are, but I feel they will figure it out, with time and practice.

We’re a young country and our written literature (in English) isn’t even a little mewling baby: it’s a silent, but quite alive embryo that we need to nourish and nurture into a fully-fledged young creature that we can then continue to nourish and nurture to vibrant maturity. It’s going to take time and effort – concerted effort that includes doing (writing and reading) and sharing (more writing and reading) and discussing (reviewing, critiquing), all in good faith and with the best of intentions.

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