THE WRITING LIFE ... Muhammad HAJI SALLEH
JEWEL OF THE VERBAL ARTS
Malaysia’s National Laureate MUHAMMAD HAJI SALLEH recounts the evolution of modern literature to TAN MAY LEE
IF YOU STUDIED ENGLISH LITERATURE for SPM (Malaysia’s equivalent of the British O Levels), you might have come across the poetry of Muhammad Haji Salleh. Unlike the English fascination with daffodils and autumn leaves dancing in the breeze, Muhammad’s reflections of padi fields and serene kampung [village] life would appear out of the usual round of things, yet at the heart of it, completely familiar, even nostalgic. He writes on Malaysian life and also champions the Malay language.
Currently, he is with the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies at Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang. He recently completed a translation of Hikayat Hang Tuah (The Legends of Hang Tuah) and the Anthology of Classical Malay Literature and hopes to publish three books he is editing in 2010. He also writes two monthly columns in the literary and cultural journals of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP). His has been a lifelong dedication to the arts; and because of that Muhammad has played a significant role in developing the Malaysian literary landscape.
You have been a writer throughout your life. Has your writing journey taught you more about yourself?
Literature is at the heart of a culture, and a person without a culture has neither heart nor soul, however profitable or efficient their factories may be. They may turn out to be the machines they manage. Language is wonderful, and poetry is the jewel of the verbal arts. Writing is a talent that is given to everyone, and every nation has its own words for its own particular experiences. Personally, I, too, am part of a bigger community and language. But I think I can contribute to them in my small way.
As Malaysia’s National Laureate, you are often invited to become a Fellow at universities around the world. Do you enjoy these appointments?
I have been invited as a Fellow a few times, at universities in Berkeley, Michigan, Kyoto and Harvard. These are exclusive time when I can research and write without other demands. I get to meet and listen to renowned scholars, and camp in the best libraries.
As a poet, I get to meet famous authors and offer my perspective on issues. I often give talks and poetry readings during these stints. It helps put Malaysian literature on the map.
How often do you travel?
Quite often. Frequently to take up fellowships, embark on research, present papers and sometimes not-so-successful holidays. My life cycle is only two weeks long. After this period I must get out and go somewhere, if not overseas then to Kedah, southern Thailand or back to my house in Kajang, the town that smells of satay.
I notice that many internationally-acclaimed Malaysian authors (Tash Aw, Rani Manicka, Preeta Samarasan, Tan Twan Eng and Chiew-Siah Tei) are based overseas. Should Malaysian writers try to stay in their homeland or would you encourage them to explore so as to be observers outside looking in?
I do both: live overseas for periods of time, then return home. It’s a shared world now. Themes, languages and styles are shared. It matters not where a writer lives. Nobel laureate J.M.G. le Clézio lived in Africa, Europe and other places.
What are your best memories of places in Malaysia that have inspired your writing?
My memory is historical and also personal. For the historical, I dig deep into old texts like the Malay Annals, Hikayat Hang Tuah (The Legend of Hang Tuah), pantuns (Malay poems) and proverbs.
The personal ones mostly come from my youth in Penang—in Sungai Acheh, Bukit Mertajam and Seberang Perai. However my travels to Belum in Perak, Kuala Tembeling in Pahang, Semporna in Sabah, and Perhentian and Redang Islands are just as beautiful. I like nature in its most pristine state—these give me an exhilaration and poetic inspiration. There is a proverb: “If you want know about human beings, go deep into the forest.”
As a lecturer, you are used to presenting talks on literature to large audiences. When it comes to your own poetry, which can be quite personal, how much do you enjoy performing them? You once mentioned in another interview that you were a shy person and that’s why you were drawn to poetry. Today, poetry appears to be one of the most outspoken forms of literature. What are your views on this?
My poems have two faces: the quiet internal one with a personal face and fare, and also the external and public one. These represent the two sides of my own life. I do enjoy reading to an appreciative audience. Sadly, these types of audiences are quite rare in Malaysia. People tend to be engaging in extended conversation or political discussions when poets are reading here. My poems are fragile, and so are my moods for reading poetry. I am often distracted by these parallel presentations by members of my audience. And I go home quite depressed.
Some people today have it in their heads that they should write for money and not out of passion. Where does this mindset come from?
Unfortunately, we have been taught that the end result of education is money, and money is the stuff and matter of life. This is indeed tragic; we should make literature and the arts compulsory before all our future generations become wage slaves and moneybags. Our education system has created a few generations of unimaginative and quite illiterate young people—somehow the essence of life and education are missed but the junk and the rubbish are the ones that people go for.
The joy of life and education, too, is no longer around—what’s left are heavy, unwieldy schoolbags and drudgery. We need to teach our young that it is all right to think and have an opinion, and evaluate their own situations without quoting the newspapers or the ministers. To reverse this mindset, we have to reverse our education goals and systems. I am pushing for literature to be taught to all students—as they do in Japanese, Chinese, Korean and English schools all around the world.
You have obviously witnessed the development of Malaysian literature over the decades. How has it evolved?
I think Malaysian literature is evolving slower than Indonesian or Filipino literature. We tend to shove it to the sidelines of Malaysian life. Luckily, there are some good talents like Wong Phui Nam, Baha Zain and Latiff Mohidin. There are also young non-Malay writers, especially from Sabah and Sarawak, besides those from the Peninsula. They are foregrounding their own communal experiences which have been under wraps for a long time. This is good. They also bring to the national language unique qualities of their own languages or dialects. Multicultural Malaysian literature is alive and kicking.
For awhile, you consciously chose to write primarily in Malay. Do you find that the level of Bahasa Malaysia is dropping or improving? Now that English, Chinese and French have taken over as the global languages of communication, what do you foresee as the future of the Malay language?
I took a long time to come to that decision of writing in Malay. We are all trustees of the language of our ancestors or of our country. English, though now an international language, was a colonial one that allowed little space for Malay to grow or maintain the prestige it had throughout the Malay Archipelago for almost two millennia. During the colonial years I was told that only English was the language of knowledge. But Malaysian language has a long history, from the times and kingdoms of the Srivijaya, Malacca and Acheh.
Generally, I think the Malay language is now more sophisticated; however, this sophistication is limited to a few people. The general public is not very sensitive to the beauty of the language or its uniqueness and see it only as a means of (rough) communication. This is a worrying scenario. But there is a study that says in 30 years, Malay (and Indonesian) will share the fourth place among the languages of the world with Hindi and Arab in terms of the number of speakers. With Malay returning to schools now, we may still catch up with the other languages.
What literary aspect of Malay do people tend to miss out on that stops them from appreciating the language more? For someone new to Malay literature, what should they start reading?
People tend to come to the language with huge prejudices, not least created by English. This is the biggest hurdle. If one lets oneself go, one would find the collective genius of the pantun and the proverbs. The pantun is used in at least 40 languages worldwide, and our proverbs are as wise as any. One can start with the short stories of Keris Mas and the poems of Usman Awang. Then venture into the more international styles of Baha Zain and Latiff Mohidin.
As a bilingual writer, what can you convey in Malay that you can’t effectively do in English and vice versa?
A nation’s dream, and nostalgia in a language that smells of childhood, passage and growing up. The smell of flowers don’t seem to be the same if you use their English terms—somehow frangipani is not cempaka, water lily is not seroja. How do you describe the heavenly smell of the petai or the durian if other people insist that they are smelly or have an odour of cottage cheese? Many culture-specific words like keris, Peranakan, mee udang or laksa barely bring over their shape or looks but not their connotations and cultural meanings. Then the music of Malay is different from that of English—it’s more gentle, more emotive and decorous. You must have music and decorum to give your poems a fuller life in Malay.
Just curious—have you always wanted to be a writer?
My father told me that as a young boy I wanted to be a teacher. But I never wanted to be a headmaster, politician or businessman. In those days, there weren’t many choices. So I became a teacher, and stayed as one for almost 45 years! This is a job where you work for others—a generation’s future. When you are successful you can feel it at the end of the class or lecture. There is more light shining in the students’ eyes.
I never had idols to emulate in the 1950s. But when I was in the upper secondary school, I realised that being a writer could be quite glamorous—you are studied for your ideas, language and style. It was in England in the 1960s that I read the works of famous writers like T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden and Dylan Thomas. Somehow their dreams of writing as a career were unsullied by expectations of money. So I read their works and biographies, and wanted to be like them.
Literature now also depends on its marketability. In your opinion, will literature be consumed by commercialism one day?
It is being devoured by predatory capitalism now. The really good works that don’t follow the tastes (oftentimes superficial) do not sell well, and those that sell well do so often not because of their ideas or verbal quality. People like Kenzaburō Ōe, who writes about special children, are resigned to the idea that good literature will not die, but will only circulate among the chosen few.
Reproduced from the Singapore Writers Festival 2009 issue of Quill magazine