Wednesday, January 17, 2007
A book that shouldn't be judged by its cover
Write about what you know best. If you're interested in something you don't know much about, immerse yourself in it, see it, hear it, smell it, touch it, taste it, think and feel and live and dream it. Then only should you dare to write about it.
That was the advice tendered by Buya Hamka, a real-life Indonesian writer, to Ayu, the young female protagonist of Malaysian author Adibah Amin's first novel in the English language. And readers of This End of the Rainbow (Phoenix Press, 2006) should have little doubt that not only did Ayu take it to heart but so too did Adibah (who, despite her protestations that the work is not autobiographical, clearly has much in common with her sensitive and idealistic book's sensitive and idealistic heroine).
(More than by the way, for those who are wondering why I'm addressing this long-time observer cum chronicler of Malaysian life and mores by her first name, it's not because she and I are on first name terms but, rather, because she is ethnically a Malay and, like most other Malaysian Malays, she does not have her surname. Instead, her "Amin" actually identifies who her father is/was and if I were to talk of Amin vis a vis her, it would be her father as opposed to her per se!)
Getting back to the book (whose appeal, more than by the way, I feel should plus will not be limited to Malaysians): A few pages earlier, Adibah -- who taught Bahasa Malaysia and English in secondary schools in Kuala Lumpur and (Malaysia's) Language Institute before becoming a reporter and, later still, a full-time writer -- had mentioned that Ayu was contemplating a career in teaching and writing. Also, that Ayu was quite confident that "she could be a really a good teacher." On the other hand, however:-
Her writing was something else. She knew she could not stop scribbling, but in darker moments she wondered if she had any real talent. Then she told herself that the only way to find out was to go on trying.
Readers of this tale which centers on a group of young friends in early 1950s, pre-independence Malaya(which then included Singapore, as can be seen by many of the featured characters being of the educational institution which then was known as the University of Malaya, Singapore) are fated to never find out whether Ayu went on to become a successful writer since the story draws to a close shortly after the Johorean lass and her undergraduate friends completed what was only their first year at university.
Chances are high though that they will consider the author of that which is simultaneously a mature commentary on Malaysian ethnic relations as well as charming character-driven novel as having proved over the years that she truly does have a talent for writing. And be very glad that Adibah persisted with writing a work which she latterly revealed that she had been working on -- in her own words -- "in bits and pieces" since 1952 and only recently "finally found the courage to let...see the light of day"!
In her review of This End of the Rainbow (which appeared in The Star newspaper as well as her own blog), Daphne Lee praised Adibah's book for being "warm-hearted and full of passionate, loving and sincere characters who are very believable ... probably because many are based on real people, known to the author. " This is a critique which I whole-heartedly agree with.
Something else about the work which shines through for me is how courageous its author is for: recognising that Malaysians have some ways to go still before true inter-ethnic harmony, forget cultural and natural integration, is to be achieved; openly admitting that ethnic and cultural differences do exist (but, virtually in the next breath, suggesting that they matter as much or little in the great scheme of things as other differences like that between a girl who loves to write and another who is afraid of putting her feelings on paper) ; and for committing to print the kind of frank conversations about "race" which will make many of her countrymen and -women gasp in shock at the sheer audacity and honesty of it all.
Should there be any doubt: This very readable 143-page book -- which I finished in a single sitting -- does not appear to suffer one jot from its having had the long gestation period that it did. Indeed, its evocative story struck me as being eminently pertinent for our contemporary times (even if also tinged with nostalgia for a more idealistic era); and this not least since both now as well as then, for many -- if not all -- Malaysians, the ultimate "pot of gold" on the other end of the alluded-to rainbow remains -- once more in the admirable Adibah's words -- "our shared dream of lasting harmony". One which our multi-cultural, -ethnic and -religious country surely cannot afford to, at the very least, seek to aspire towards fulfilling.