Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Stories of the Hidden People

by Zen Cho

A while ago I wrote a story so hopelessly embedded in the Malaysian context I doubted any non-Malaysian publication would take it. However, being a determined optimist, I sent it out into the world and was very pleased when Fantastique Unfettered agreed to publish it. "First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia" features in Issue 3: Prolefeed.

 The story was recently one of five finalists in the English language creative writing category of the Selangor Young Talent Awards, which recognise artistic achievement by young Malaysians. Brandon and Alexa suggested I might want to write a post about this for Fantastique Unfettered, so here I am!

The events of my story take place at a conference run by well-meaning young activists, designed to encourage discussion by community stakeholders about minority rights. Business as usual – except that they have an unexpected guest. (It's less boring than it sounds!)

As a fantasy writer my general approach is more E. Nesbit than J. R. R. Tolkien – I'm interested in the intrusion of the fantastic into the mundane, and in drawing out what might be mundane about the fantastic. Since I'm from a country where the activities of supernatural beings are reported in the news and peculiar behaviour can sometimes be chalked up to fairy abduction, writing stories about a world where magic mingles with the everyday comes naturally.

Fairy is a misnomer, of course. Malaysia is populated by the uncanny in its various forms, but none of those forms come with little wings and a cone hat. You're more likely to encounter a reanimated fetus rifling through your stuff on behalf of its sorcerous (and larcenous) master, or pick up a beautiful hitchhiker who will then proceed to devour your internal organs.

They're not all bad, of course. Orang bunian live in the jungle and seem generally benign, though certain communities' practice of playing the kompang from 2 am till dawn make them undesirable neighbours. Orang bunian are Muslims and speak Malay, or sometimes Javanese – a detail that highlights a striking characteristic of Malaysian spirits, the fact that their racial and religious make-up reflect the diversity of the country's human population.

Local deity Dato' Gong is an especially interesting example. Similar to the Lares of Ancient Rome, there are numerous Dato' Gong and they are attached to places – when you start construction of a new building on a virgin plot of land, the construction workers (if Chinese) will erect a shrine to the local Dato' Gong and pray to him before starting work. Because Malaysia is a country of the Malays, the immigrant-descended Chinese community pay their respects in a way that befits a Malay-Muslim god. You might make offerings of bunga telur, sirih pinang or halal curry, but nothing haram (forbidden) – pork and alcohol are out.

I first learnt about Dato' Gong via Malaysian writer Danny Lim's Malaysian Book of the Undead. The deity is a great illustration of the tensions that arise from the mix of cultures in Malaysia, and is one cobbled-together answer to the questions that continue to trouble us as a society – who owns the land, what responsibilities we owe each other, and at the end of the day, how does a community operate when its members come from such different places?

In my story I've tried to play with the expectations we impose not only on our human compatriots, but on the spiritous inhabitants of our country. I've tried to point up, as well, the various contrasts in modern Malaysian society as I know it – between the progressive and the traditional, the enlightened and the superstitious, the urban and the jungular. And finally, I've tried to show what I believe – that these qualities are not separate poles in opposition of each other, but points on a spectrum; that you can be progressive and old-fashioned, enlightened but ignorant, inflexible and accepting.

When writing a story about characters having an explicitly political discussion, there's always a risk that it'll come off as a heavy-handed "message" story, that you'll be perceived as pushing some moral or other. If I am pushing any moral in this story it is that people – including spirits – are not as simple as they think they are.
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 If you're interested in finding out more about Malaysian mythology, check out the following links.

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Zen Cho is a Malaysian writer living in London. Her short stories have been featured or areforthcoming in various venues including Strange Horizons, the Selangor Times, Steam-Powered II, GigaNotoSaurus and Mascara Literary Review. She blogs about food and fiction at http://qian.dreamwidth.org.