Agent of truth or window-dressing: the aims and functions of historical setting in Malaysian fiction



The following was an essay I wrote for my Masters in English Studies back in 2013 (I think it was).


‘WHAT IS there to write about? Shopping malls? Seriously, I can’t think of anything to write about.’

The above was Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng’s response to the question of whether he would ever write a novel set in contemporary Malaysia.

Tan, who is based in Cape Town, South Africa, implies that history is the only resource for interesting stories about Malaysia and Malaysians. He has, to date, written two novels: The Gift of Rain and The Garden of Evening Mists. Most of the action in the former takes place just prior to and during the Japanese occupation of Malaya, while Evening Mists is set during the Emergency, with flashbacks to the Japanese occupation.

How true is this belief? Is a historical setting the only recourse for Malaysian authors who wish to engage with their reading public? While it offers political and social contexts from which to explore themes and issues that might prove interesting and important to readers, might it also be used as a way of emphasising certain elements in order to pander to Western tastes, perceptions and expectations of an exotic Asia?

In this essay I will explore the role of history in Tan’s The Gift of Rain and Lloyd Fernando’s Green is the Colour, showing the difference between using the past to help us analyse our current states and preoccupations (Tripathy) and simply as a vehicle by which ‘exotically foreign goods’ are delivered (Holden, Global, 50) to the West.
Let me start by examining Fernando’s reasons for giving Green is the Colour a distinctly historical setting. Like Fernando’s first novel, Scorpion OrchidGreen takes ‘a hard look at the realities of the Malaysian situation’ and the ‘inexpressible’ and ‘inexplicable racial dilemma confronting the country’ (Fadilah Merican, 119). Scorpion is set in 1950s Singapore, while Green’s setting is Kuala Lumpur, during the time directly after the May 1969 riots. The incident is one that needs little exposition in Malaysia and, considering the fact that Fernando had lived through the riots (he was 43 at the time), and also that the book was published just six years after Operation Lalang, a political crackdown ‘on opposition leaders and social activists’ as a result of  ‘mounting political tensions’ with ‘strong racial overtones’ (Aliran), Fernando’s choice of setting is an alarming one, clearly motivated, as David Lim, says for its ‘emotive powers’ (‘Unity’ 143).

According to Quayum, Fernando’s ‘choice of setting reveals the author’s concern about the future of Malaysia and its destiny as a nation’ (168). It is his way of searching for the answer to the ultimate question’ ‘How can Malaysia with its plurality and multiplicity find unity?’ (168)

Fernando, in ‘Truth in Fiction’, said, ‘I believe no Malaysian writer can claim to be writing with truth if he does not carry, woven into his fiction, the reality of relationships between the races, and its unavoidable undertow of threatened violence’ (221). This statement indicates his intention: to write with truth, and so, to explore the realities of race relations in Malaysia.

Furthermore, the ‘reality’ Fernando depicts in Green is the Colour is not just of the time during which the story is set – it is a ‘reality’ that would have had resonance during the time leading up to Operation Lalang, it would have resonated in the year of the book’s publication, and indeed, it still resonates today, in a country that continues to be ‘deeply divided along the lines of race’ (Noor, 68).

Why then did Fernando not use a contemporary setting for Green? According to Merican, the author’s aim was to give more ‘clarity to issues’. She cites an interview with the author in which he explains that ‘if you set [the book] in a contemporary period, you cannot separate the important from the ephemeral’ (120).

Thus, in his portrayal of the state of the nation during and immediately after May 13, 1969 Fernando acts as an ‘‘imaginative historian’’ (Bellow, cited by Quayum, 168), ‘reliving and reconstructing a particular  phase of national history by animating his personal fractured memories of it with imagination’. What is depicted reflects ‘the fissures’ (Wong, 85) that have existed and continue to exist in Malaysia’s multiracial society, raising questions that continue to be asked by Malaysians today – about whom Malaysia belongs to and the non-Malay’s place in Malaysian society (Lim, ‘Unity’ 143).

May 13 as a setting also poses questions about the cause of the incident, challenging official accounts that cite racial plurality as the root cause of the violence (Lim, ‘Unity’ 145) and probing the reasons for self-censorship and public collusion in hiding the truth: ‘There is so much that is explosively divisive, so much that is corrupt, so much public chicanery that is covered over by mute public assent …’ (Fernando, 224)

Once again, these are questions that reflect present-day preoccupations, especially in the light of the recent Bersih Rally and the resulting conspiracy theories about the government’s portrayal of the peaceful demonstration as a violent protest.

Just as Green implies that May 13 was ‘mediated by the powerful figures of the Penaung’ (Lim, 145) and that racial discord was an excuse used by authority figures to ‘manipulate events to their advantage’ (Lim, 145), so does this bring to mind ongoing efforts to use race to divide Malaysians (Nair, ‘No Weapons Left’). Just as Fernando’s characters might be ‘pawns in a political game’ (Lim, 145), so might we be.

It should be noted that the historical setting of Green is the Colour is one that marks the novel as very much a Malaysian product. As stated earlier, the date May 13 is one most adult Malaysians are familiar with. Unlike, for example, the Japanese occupation of Malaya, it is not part of a larger, international event (World War 2) and is not likely to have much purchase with Western readers. Then again, Fernando has stressed that he does not write with a Western audience in mind, using techniques that he admits might ‘alienate’ non-Malaysians (Merican, 120). Thus, Fernando does not explain to the May 1969 riots, nor does he elaborate on any references to anything specifically Malaysian, including local names , for example, ‘ceramah’ and ‘bomoh’ (Fernando, 102, 108). Like US-based Malaysian author Preeta Samarasan, Fernando obviously believes that ‘it is time [Malaysian] authors to tell stories in their own idiom’ (Tripathi, 100)

This is in contrast to Tan Twan Eng who is unabashed about ‘pandering’ to ‘Western tastes’ (Bakar, ‘Rich in Imagery and Action’) and careful to make clear all local terminology and references, even introducing local practices, for example the Hungry Ghosts Month (Tan, 138), into the narrative with no apparent reason apart from to add colour to it.

Fernando’s ultimate goal in writing Green is the Colour  –  ‘to portray the truth’ (Fernando, 221) – is an honourable one, as noble as the reason for his choice of setting – to give ‘clarity to issues’ (Merican, 121), but Tan’s motives are more pedestrian. He says that The Gift of Rain was a result of the ‘homesickness’ (Bakar, ‘Rich in Imagery and Action’) he felt while living in South Africa. As for the book’s historical context, as shown by the statement at the beginning of this essay, a contemporary setting was obviously not an option for Tan whose choice was also encouraged by a combination of a personal interest in colonial history, in particular the history of Penang (his birthplace), and a dream about a young Chinese emperor (Bakar).

Clearly, Tan’s intention in writing The Gift of Rain is not to comment on Malaysian politics or social issues, contemporary or otherwise. There is little attempt to ‘engage with the local’ in the manner that is associated with postcolonial fictive narratives. Unlike, GreenThe Gift of Rain does not have a multi-racial cast of characters (Holden, ‘Global’ 54). The book’s protagonist, Philip Hutton, is half-British (this detail perhaps reflecting the fact that the author has one eye on a Western audience), and while there are some stereotypes in Tan’s depiction of his Asian characters, his British ones are generally ‘complex and rounded’ (Holden, ‘Global’ 55) and sympathetic, leaving ‘notions of British honour and gentlemanliness untouched’ (Holden, ‘Communities’ 27) and encouraging, as Dirlik, cited by Holden, ‘fond memories’ (‘Communities’ 27) of British rule.

Furthermore, the novel’s main themes of love and loss, loyalty and betrayal are universal and do not immediately bring to mind specific Malaysian problems. There is, therefore, no attempt to ‘to recast … history as a redefinable present rather than an irrevocable interpreted past’ (Bonnici, 18). In other words, Malaysians reading The Gift of Rain are not implicitly or explicitly invited to reflect on questions that affect the nation.

It is not my contention that Malaysian novelists are obliged to ‘address national questions’ (Holden, ‘Global’ 52) in or through their work. However, it is unfortunate when the historical setting of Malaysian work of fiction seems to indulge a Western appetite for the foreign and exotic.

It is of course arguable that a contemporary setting would be as exotic as a historical one if it is set in Malaysia, a country that is unfamiliar and strange to most Western readers. However, I feel that a historical setting allows for more cultural embellishments simply because it will not feature any of the trappings of contemporary society – for example, the ubiquitous Macdonald’s and Starbucks outlets – and other signs of a world that has succumbed to the cultural hegemony of the West.

The Gift of Rain is quite frank about its use of exoticism to appeal to foreign readers. Its back-cover blurb says ‘With masterful and gorgeous narrative, replete with exotic [my italics] and captivating images, sounds and aromas – of rain swept beaches, remote mountain temples, pungent spice warehouses, opulent colonial ballrooms and fetid rainforests – Tan Twan Eng tells a story of love, barbaric cruelty, betrayal and steadfast courage.’

Beaches, temples, spices, rainforests – these are surely words you would find splashed all over a travel brochure aimed at luring Western tourists to the fabulous and mysterious East. Moreover, Tan has said that he is sensitive to his role as a ‘guide’ as ‘outsiders know little’ of Malaysia (‘Books Live’). With such an audience in mind, an audience who ‘has little knowledge of the social, historical, and cultural context’ of his text, it is perhaps expected that Tan should resort to exoticism’ and the ‘recycling of stereotypes’ (Holden, ‘Communities’ 26). This is in contrast to Fernando’s writing, ‘‘for us’’ (Merican, 117), and not a Western audience.

In conclusion, I maintain that, in Green is the Colour, Lloyd Fernando uses history as an agent of truth. The period immediately following the May 13 riots is used to pin point what has proven to be Malaysia’s chief strength, as well as most serious weakness: its ethnic, religious and cultural diversity. By exploring, through the narrative, all the dangers and conflicts faced by those who lived through that time, readers are compelled to draw parallels between what Fernando has created and what they experience in real life Malaysia. In this way, he portrays ‘what is true in our lives’ by correcting ‘refractions that have been caused by history’ (Merican, 221) that is to say the passage of time, re-telling and memory.

Fernando knew that openness in dealing with racial problems in Malaysia would ‘reveal disturbing facets in the pluralism of our society’. However, he stressed that ‘true exploration of aspects of the individual or national pysche’ would only be possible if these ‘secret terrors’ were faced (225).

‘In the end,’ said Fernando, ‘there is only one way to write, and that is honestly, truly, and fearlessly’ (225).

This honesty, truth and fearlessness is absent from The Gift of Rain, which, although written with competence and panache, lacks the purpose that is so apparent in Green.

Fernando said that ‘the act of writing is exhibitionist’ and that the need to be noticed might tempt authors to write in the way they think ‘the public’ wants (224). I feel that this is the case with Tan’s writing in The Gift of Rain, in which history is used as ‘surface adornment’ (Kee, 33) and not because it reveals the ‘true meaning of a literary text’ (Bookstove).

Tan Twan Eng
Lloyd Fernando
Works Cited

Bakar, Sharon. ‘Rich in Imagery and Action.’ The Star, 25 Feb. 2007. The Star Online. n.

pag. Web. 26 July 2012.

Bonnici, Thomas. ‘The Contemporary Post-Colonial Novel in English.’ Acta Scientiarum.

Human and Social Sciences 26 (1) (2004), 1-20.

Fernando, Lloyd. ‘Truth in Fiction.’ Voices of Many Worlds: Malaysian Literature in 

English. Ed. Edwin Thumboo. Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1991. 220-225.

—. Green is the Colour. Kuala Lumpur: Silverfish Books, 1993. Print.

Holden, Philip. ‘Communities and Conceptual Limits: Exploring Malaysian Literature in English.’ Asiatic 3(2) (2009), 54-68. Print.

—. ‘Global Malaysian Novels: Prospects and Possibilities.’ Kajian Malaysia 30

(1) (2012), 47-59. Web. 21 July 2012.

Kee, Thuan Chye. ‘In Search of Good Penang Fiction.’ Penang Economic Monthly. May.

2010. Penang Economic Monthly Online. n.pag. Web. 29 July 2012.

Lim, David C. L. ‘Unity Lost? Reframing Ethnic Relations in Lloyd Fernando’s Green is the 

Colour.’ Journal of Postcolonial Writing 46 (2) (2010): 138-150.

Merican, Fadilah. ‘Lloyd Fernando.’ Voices of Many Worlds: Malaysian Literature in 

English. Ed. Fadilah Merican, et al. Selangor: Times Editions, 2004. 115-127,

Nair, Moaz. ‘No weapons left, ailing Umno exploits non-Malay PM issue to alarm innocent

Malays.’ Malaysia Chronicle. 2012. n.pag. Web. 31 July 2012.

Noor, F. A. (2009). What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You Vol. 1). Kuala Lumpur: Mata Hari.

Quayum, M. ‘Shaping a New National Destony with Dialogic Vision: Fernando’s Green is 

the Colour.’ Malaysian Literature in English: A Critical Reader. Ed. M.A. Quayum and P. Wicks. Petaling Jaya: Pearson, 2001. 168-173.

Tan, Twan Eng. The Gift of Rain. London: Myrmidon, 2007. Print.

Tipathi, Salil. ‘Two Countries, One System: Fiction in Malaysia and Singapore.’ Global 

Asia: A Journal of the East Asia Foundation 3(4) (2008), 96-103. Web. 28 July 2012.

Wong, Soak Koon. ‘Unveiling Malaysian Modernity and Ethnicity: Lloyd Ferbabdo’s Green 

is the Colour.’ Risking Malaysia: Culture, Politics, Identity. Ed. Maznah Mohamad and Wong Soak Koon. Bangi: UKM Press, 2001. 73-90.

‘How Important is Context in Determining the Meaning(s) of a Literary Text?’ Bookstove. n.p. n.d. n.pag. Web. 29 July 2012.

‘Operation Lalang Revisited.’Aliran.n.d. n.pag. Web. 31 July 2012.

‘Profile: Tan Twan Eng, Author of The Gift of Rain.’ Books Live. (2007) n.p. n.pag. Web. 29 July 2012.


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