Chuah Guat Eng, the first Malaysian woman to publish an English-language novel, spoke at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival to freelance writer Emma Harrison Clark about Malaysian literature, self publishing, and the expansion of consciousness.
How do we know what we know? It’s a question that has occupied Chuah Guat Eng since the age of nine years old.
Back then, she wondered if others saw the same colour green in the grass that she did. Nowadays, Guat (as she likes to be called) knows that this early question was part of her ongoing quest to discover, in her words, ‘how our physical senses, our minds and the way we use language influence the way we construct our concepts of self, reality and truth.’
Growing up in Rembau, Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia, Guat explored concepts that have engaged the minds of Mahayana philosophers since the time of Guatama Buddha and, in more recent times, by cognitive scientists in the West.
In the 50 years since then, she hasn’t stopped exploring. Scholars of Malaysian and Post Colonial Literature across the globe have studied her wide range of fictional and academic writing. Guat seems able to hold many versions of reality, without favouring one truth over another.
She loves the way that Indian epics and ancient Buddhist narratives do more than just entertain their readers. As she says, these ancient stories also ‘guide readers to an understanding of the constructed natures of our concepts of reality.’ They can leave readers with moments of clarity and realisation before challenging those realisations with the next story in the chain.
Despite her passion for Eastern thought, the structure of Guat’s second novel, Days of Change, was influenced largely by Western psychological perspectives. The narrative, she says, ‘depends to a great extent on contemporary findings about the way memory works and how human beings sometimes create their realities based on false memories.’
Her decision to self-publish followed her experience with first novel, Echoes of Silence (1994).
‘The international publishers I approached liked the part in my novel set in colonial times, but had no use for the parts set in contemporary Malaysia,’ she said.
‘To be accepted by them, I would have had to rewrite the novel to suit the tastes and interests of UK and US readers. But that wasn’t what I wanted to do; I was writing about contemporary Malaysian issues for Malaysian readers.’
She also found that local publishers were not interested in publishing local novels in English.
‘With my background in advertising, I was somewhat horrified by the low production and editing standards of the novels that had been published in the past,’ she said. ‘I felt I could do a better job of choosing the right kind of paper, font, binding, and of editing, proofreading and so on.’
Echoes of Silence was a gritty murder mystery, but the story was grounded in social and cultural commentary. Violence in the novel was based on inter-ethnic riots in May 1969.
‘The fact that the truth has never been told, and no one ever brought to justice is from my perspective, a more destructive form of violence than any other,’ Guat said.
During the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, one of the topics Guat spoke about in her sessions was the portrayal of Malaysian women in contemporary literature. Her views are pragmatic.
‘There’s quite a bit of stereotyping,’ she said. ‘This is especially marked in novels set in the historical past by ethnic Chinese authors: where characters like the beautiful, fragile, wealthy young heroine, the wicked mother-in-law or first wife, the downtrodden bondmaid or concubine, and the good-hearted servant appear regularly.’
‘On the whole, the portrayals of women by women – especially our Malays and South Asian novelists – are more believable.’
‘Wisdom, for me, means the understanding that every individual has his or her own concept of truth, his or her own story to tell; and we must somehow make space in our hearts and minds for all these concepts and stories without, however, getting caught up in them.’
Chuah Guat Eng was one of the guest speakers at the 2014 Ubud Writers & Readers Festival in Bali. We thank everyone at the URWF for their enthusiasm for LEAP+.