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Vol. 1 No. 1 Oct 2001

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Unsettling Ways of Exile
The Unhomely in the Poetry of Wong Phui Nam

By Eddie Tay

In “The Exile of the Mind”, Meenakshi Mukherjee identifies four categories of exiles, one of which consists of “writers or ... intellectuals who without being physically away from home remain outsiders in their own country due to certain circumstances in their history, language or education”. What Mukherjee describes is very much the condition of mental exile experienced by Wong Phui Nam. Wong’s ancestry is that of the Chinese diaspora. His identity is conflated by the fact that he is a product of a colonial education that employs the English language as a medium of instruction. As such, I would argue that he is marginalised by a dominant political ideology in Malaysia that dictates the boundaries of the nation.

The notion of the “unhomely” is a function of the poet’s exile. To be “unhomely”, according to Homi Bhabha, is to be caught in “the condition of extra-territorial and cross-cultural initiations ... [where] ... the borders between home and the world become confused”. The term “unhomely” as employed by Bhabha is not a perfect synonym for “homelessness”. While it encompasses the notion of homelessness, it also denotes a strategy of articulation in response to the condition of exile. As an agent of cross-cultural engagements, that which is unhomely in the poetry of Wong Phui Nam probes, interrogates and finally unsettles boundaries that seek to contain the nation.

There are individuals to whom the transgressing of national boundaries is a necessity. This necessity occurs when the boundaries that delineate the nation outline a national identity that is incongruent to the racial and linguistic characteristics of these individuals. The literary landscape in Malaysia is fraught with such boundaries and transgressions. One need only refer to Shirley Lim (who left Malacca after the race riots of 13 May 1969) and the late Ee Tiang Hong (who left for Perth in 1975) for examples. The latter had this to say:

The fact is that there have been many and different orders of tradition in Malaysia, each with its own distinctive roots, and several roots have tangled and intertwined for generations. It was a political decision which determined which root should be nurtured, and which pulled out.

Ee is referring to the sort of political decision that privileges one literary community over others in the name of nationalism. The Federal Constitution of Malaysia states that Malay is to be the national language of the country, and this has repercussions on literary developments in Malaysia. As Lloyd Fernando has pointed out, the works of non-Malay writers who do not write in Malay have been excluded from a body of texts recognised as “National Literature”, and are grouped under the euphemistic term “Sectional Literatures”. The use of these terms relegates literary works that are written in a language other than Malay to a secondary status. The fact that Malaysia is a multicultural society is largely obscured by the formation of a national literary canon, to the extent that in an article entitled “Towards the Development of Malaysia’s National Literature”, Mohamed Taib Osman predicts that literature written in Malay is to be “the most logical choice to provide the foundation for the further development of National Malaysian Literature”.

The boundaries that dictate the formation of a national literary canon in Malaysia are very much intact today as they were in the 1970s. In October 1999, six Indian writers applied to the Malaysian government’s literary agency, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP), in order to publish a collection of short stories entitled Seutas Rantai Loceng Suasa (A Chain with Brass Bells). Their application was rejected on grounds that they referred to the Malay language in the preface to their book as “Bahasa Malaysia” rather than “Bahasa Melayu”. In many ways, the plight of these Indian writers is worse than that of Ee Tiang Hong and Shirley Lim. Their application was rejected not because they did not write in Malay, but because they referred to the Malay language with the use of a politically incorrect term. Suffice to say, writers in Malaysia are working within a highly politicised context.

In Malaysia, as in any other countries, the affirming of a national identity and its attendant boundaries is certainly crucial to its social and economic well-being. We cannot do without boundaries of language, religion or race; national identity is created out of different matrices of such boundaries, and together, these boundaries allow us to differentiate one nation from another. However, as literary critics, when we look at literary developments in Malaysia, we cannot help but realise that the boundaries that affirm Malaysia’s national identity has the effect of privileging a particular group of writers at the expense of others. It is for this reason, among others, that Shirley Lim and Ee Tiang Hong opted out of the country.

Unlike Ee and Lim, Wong Phui Nam has chosen to remain in Malaysia. His exile, to recall the words of Mukherjee, is the exile of the mind. Wong has to contend with political boundaries that define him as an outsider within his own country and his poems reflect a sense of despair over the prevailing political and cultural conditions in Malaysia. The following poem, the fourth in the sequence “Nocturnes and Bagatelles”, describes the situation of the non-Malay writer as a result of political boundaries that are imposed on him:

How long must I bend
in this uncertainty
I in my thought like flowers
toward every uncertain light,
how long must I labour
working from every bud
which folds within its calyx my emptiness
toward each spoor of rain
that I in my separateness
should move toward
full flowering of the human
that my words may quicken
with the grief and laughter
of every alien heart.

Wong must contend with the fact that political boundaries put in place in Malaysia outline a national self that is incongruent to the permutations of his racial and linguistic identity. Instead of affirming a secure home ground on which Wong can base his poetry, these boundaries work towards excluding him from the national literary canon. As such, he must deal with the uncertainty that arises from this alienation. We must remember that Wong’s exile is that of a cultural displacement, rather than that of a geographical dislocation. His strategy of articulation arises from this cultural displacement, and he creates cross-cultural connections in his poetry so as to affirm the hybrid nature of his identity. This strategy can be best described as unhomely, as what Wong calls in one of his poems as the “symptoms of [a] particular hell”.

It is the dialogue between cultures that propels the poetry of Wong Phui Nam. For Wong, a Chinese Malaysian writing in English, identity can only be described by recovering aspects of self that is found outside of his immediate political and national boundaries. As such, it is only by transgressing national boundaries and at the same time negotiating between different cultures that Wong recovers aspects of his identity that have been rendered unfamiliar.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Wong’s poetry engages Chinese classical poetry as a way of clarifying and affirming his identity as a Chinese Malaysian. One sees this in the way he adapts the poems of Tu Fu, Li Po and T’ao Yuan-Ming into English. Wong is concerned with negotiating the permutations of Chinese and Malaysian cultures on the level of language. He is anxious to point out that the poems cannot be viewed as translations per se, but rather as adaptations of Chinese classical poetry into English so as to articulate “the Malaysian condition in ways [he] could not manage in [his] own verse”. “Yet do not believe / we do not have our kings,” Wong reminds us,

do not believe
we take them lightly either.
We have our ways of submission
although, one having died,
our water does not turn bitter,
only the clerks glad of one day off.

Wong’s engagement with Chinese culture cannot be described as nostalgic. It is by no means an attempt at recovering a lost Chinese origin. Even if such a thing exists today, it is irrelevant to Wong’s immediate social conditions. Wong is a Chinese Malaysian, not a Chinese writing in China. What is important is that the engagement has the effect of dialogue, such that his Malaysian identity can be conflated with his racial identity. This is nowhere more apparent than in “Home Thoughts”, his rendition of one of Li Po’s most famous of poems:

At my bed’s feet my room ignites,
white with the moon’s loneliness.
And I feel outside, the cold, incendiary
in the hard frost upon the ground.
I am full of the moon, on looking up,
hanging large above the window,
and in my dark, I meet, on looking down,
my fierce unsatisfied longing to be home.

The last line of the poem is particularly intriguing: the persona professes his “fierce unsatisfied longing to be home” – but where is home? The theme of Li Po’s poem takes on a particular resonance when we see it in the light of Wong’s predicament. For Li Po, it is entirely possible to imagine the home in his country as a cultural site of repose. Yet this is not so in the case of Wong, who lives in a country where the national boundaries have rendered the literary terrain inhospitable. Wong is not at home even in his home country. “This then is a country where one cannot wish / to be” he tells us, “The spirit not given its features / festers in the flesh”. For the “unhomely”, home is to be perpetually deferred, and it is only by paying homage to Li Po that Wong finds a temporary site of repose.

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QLRS Vol. 1 No. 1 Oct 2001


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  Other Essay in this Issue

In Search of the Lotus Land
Tan Hwee Hwee gets spiritual.

Related Links

Ways of Exile
External link to Skoob Books.

Selected bibliography of Malaysian authors
External link.

A commonwealth of writers?
Kee Thuan Chye on divisiveness in Malaysian literature.
External link.


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