In a Double Bind: Malaysian Women Writing in English

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Mon Jan 28 15:20:07 UTC 2008

In a Double Bind: Malaysian Women Writing in English

by Professor Dr. Zawiah Yahya

in Resonance, UKM International Bulletin
Issue 16 – July-Sept 2007, 8-9

Malaysian women writing in English have one basic problem: they are
not writing in a language of their own. With a long history of double
domination by patriarchal (read male) and imperial (read white)
ideologies, these women have yet to find their mother tongue. The
language they use is in fact derived from the codes, diction, images
and rhythm of the language of their two masters. In fact, the writing
woman's problem starts even before she makes her first ink mark on
paper. In order to express herself, she has to borrow men's verbal
tool with its subsuming masculine terms, because that is the only
language presently available.

In that language built on the ideology of male domination, the writing
woman meets the written woman, portrayed as the lesser man, already
inscribed and constructed in the very mechanism of discourse since the
beginning of time. She who writes well "writes like a man" and "thinks
like a man" because, so it seems, to write and think like a man is to
use reason, logic and intelligence. The woman's province, we are told,
is the heart, not the head. The mind, we are told, has a sex, and it
is male.

So what is a woman writer supposed to do? She has several options: she
can unsex herself like Lady Macbeth, or find a new writing tool, or
forever remain silent. Alternatively, of course, she could use the
master's tool to dismantle his house, though she ought to be careful
with her experimentation in case she ends up building an outhouse for
the master instead. Or she could punch him on the nose. If she happens
to be a liberated westward looking individual fighting for her gender
identity, her worst enemy is, however, not her master but her own
sister. The liberated Malaysian woman is caught between two competing
notions of western feminism. On the one hand, there is this homogenous
notion that ignores cultural differences, naturalizing all women's
oppressions to western models. On the other hand, there is the notion
of difference between our image as tradition-bound, domesticated, and
victimized, in contrast to the implicit self representation of western
women as modern, in control over their bodies and their sexualities
and free to make choices. Between the idea of universal sisterhood and
the humiliating portrait of the lesser woman, the Malaysian woman
might find herself falling between two stools.

This brings us to the domination of the imperial language. Here we
are, 50 years after independence from colonial rule, yet finding
ourselves still trapped in the website of western images, assumptions,
values, history, ideology and all the colonial trivia of daily life
from McDonald's to Madonna, still borrowing concepts and words from
the very culture with which we are trying to dis-identify ourselves in
order to regain our own identity.

At the same time, remember, we have to find a voice to represent
ourselves as women and to register our resentment against
misrepresentations by those who want to stereotype us; and we write
because writing is better than hitting someone on the nose.

It is not easy for a Malaysian woman to find her real voice when she
writes in English, a language rooted in the Anglo-European-American
tradition, with the built-in historical, cultural and aesthetic
assumptions of the conquering race. There is also the pressure to
prove her worth against an external, cosmopolitan standard set by the
best that had been thought and said in words published by Oxford,
Cambridge, London, New York. Yet her self-conscious use of the
language does not quite produce the kind of authenticity that makes
her heir(ess) to the tradition of Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf or
Sylvia Plath.

To create a Malaysian identity and linguistic distinctness, our
English-language writers are forced to transform this alien language
"to bear the burden of their experience" (Achebe) to "convey in a
language that is not one's own the spirit that is one's own" (Rao).
This is the conscious act of using the language of snow and daffodils
to describe a hibiscus on the equator. It is the conscious act of
emptying a sign of its cultural content and giving it a local
habitation and a name. It is variously called domesticating/nativising
the English language. And it is every bit as difficult as it sounds.

As if this is not enough, our English-language writer in Malaysia is
isolated and somewhat alienated from mainstream national agenda and is
not seen as part of the national project, even as she passionately
shares the national vision in her writings. The sense of guilt and
estrangement that comes with writing against the grain of the national
language and the national canon can be debilitating, if she allows it
to get to her.

It is not enough that for most women writers, it is almost impossible
to engage in writing as an occupation without feeling a terrible sense
of guilt for the stolen hours at the desk. Even in the best of
conditions, writing remains an exercise that will have to be
incessantly interrupted, deferred, and at all times subordinated to
family responsibilities.

However, I would like to end this outpouring of repressed feelings on
a more optimistic note, and not without reason. There are encouraging
signs of happy things to come. In the present high-tech information
and creativity-based economy and a better educated workforce that
privileges brain over brawn, it looks like the command-and-control
style of male-leadership will soon give way to the
inspire-and-communicate model typical of women. On the language front,
there appears to be an official paradigm shift on the status of
English in the policy and spirit of political pragmatism, although how
this is going to translate into a guilt-free rush for English-language
writing is anybody's guess.

All things considered, the time now seems ripe for Malaysian
English-language women writers to seize the day, get into the field,
change some rules and move the goal posts.
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