Photo courtesy Literacity
LiteraCity is a literary and cultural mapping project supported by Think City covering the five-kilometer radius from Masjid Jamek, the heart of Kuala Lumpur. The project culminated in a book with interviews, essays and photo essays by the KL literati.
One of the interviewees, poet, journalist and storyteller Melizarani T. Selva tells us why, in her perspective, urban literature is no longer confined to short stories, poems, novels and scripts, that the spirit of the city goes beyond literature. She speaks to the LiteraCity team about the city in terms of homegrown poetry.
Tell us about your work and how it meets the city.
I’ve been writing poetry for almost five years now. When I was finishing my Master’s degree, I was inspired by various texts and wrote a poem called ‘Indiantity’ (2015) where I discuss the Indian community in Malaysia, and how there is very little change in the community over the years.
This poem eventually got me into Asia’s largest TEDx event in Mumbai where I used the poem to discuss issues faced by the Malaysian Indian community, representing the voice of the minority.
In my body of work, I’ve also written several poems connected to place such as ‘To The Macha That Got Away’(2015) with references to the Klang Valley, and which reflects the problems and ideas of Kuala Lumpur. It also touches on the political landscape. Basically, I cover a whole range of issues as a journalist and a poet.
As a starting point for our interview, are there any particular literary texts that you find reflect Kuala Lumpur?
If there is one poem that affected my writing over the years it would be ‘Dance’ by Fadzillah Amin. In it there are two lovers who are very passionate about each other, but for me it’s about dance and culture, and the relationship between the two. They are close but have never met. It can be interpreted in many ways but for me there is a direct connection to the city; we cannot talk about the city as the city, it has to be about the people, the inhabitants.
This poem resonated with me more because of this connection. We may study Shakespeare’s sonnets or read Romeo and Juliet in school, but there is no relation to Malaysian life, or literature – that is why this poem is important to me.
Another piece is by Dato’ Dr. M. Shanmughalingam who wrote a poem called ‘Heir Conditioning’, which is essentially a conversation between a grandfather and his grandchild about the importance of looking after nature. It’s a very hard-hitting poem about how people have adopted money as their new God. This piece is different from what I’ve seen in Malaysian poetry and literary texts, which tend to be very mild. Contemporary poets in this country are far from being rooted in local content. We constantly want to emulate the American poet in our style of writing, which is a problem.
When I was doing my academic work, I was inspired by S. Arasaratnam. He was one of the earliest writers, maybe the only one, to cover the Indian community. If you look through anthropological literature for works about the Indian community, you will find very little. He wrote ‘The Indian in Malaysia and Singapore’ and addressed how the Indian community assimilated from being labourers to city dwellers. Things like that are rare and it was only decades after that Tan Sri Professor Khoo Kay Kim came forward to write a paper on how Indian stereotypes have been formed post-urban migration, and how words such as ‘keling’ referring to the Indian community came about.
You will also find some ideas about the ‘myth of the lazy native’ formed through the works of Syed Hussein Alatas. You can find literary works about the economy, but it’s a rare topic in poetry. This is because poets today tend to write about issues that are more personal.
I am currently working on an anthology of poems about Kuala Lumpur. It’s a little tongue-in-cheek. In the course of working on this I’m discovering that people have a hard time talking about Kuala Lumpur.
Could you elaborate on the idea of creative writing as a tool to build collective narratives or memories of the city? Have you come across works that put forth the same ideas of the city?
Yes and no. If we are to study contemporary literature, it should include rap as well. We have Altimet, with his album ‘Kotarayaku’. If you look at each line, you’ll find the perspective of a ‘budak flat’ (boy who lives in a flat), trying to survive the concrete jungle. It’s an important part of our collective literature but we put it aside because it’s rap. For me, rap is poetry. I believe Altimet’s work and other works like his are an important part of our literature because they document our city’s contemporary history.
If we look at the literature written by those in Dato’ M. Shanmughalingam or A. Samad Said’s generation, you’ll find that when they discuss the city of Kuala Lumpur, it’s all about pollution, homelessness and migration from the kampung to the city. Today, we read about how city people are trying to preserve the city for what it is. We read about over-development.
A lot of the poets who come to the spoken word event I organised, ‘If Walls Could Talk’, discuss how political decisions define the city today, or ask the even bigger question – Who is my city for? This is what contemporaries want to acknowledge now. If we look at Kuala Lumpur as a map of communities, we have to recognise that there are a lot of migrant workers. We now even have a migrant poetry workshop. Who is Kuala Lumpur for? Which facet of Kuala Lumpur are we claiming as ours? Are we aware of who builds the city, who lives in it now and are we able to call it our city?
From what we have gathered in our research, it’s very clear that the sense of geography within literary texts are also segregated according to race or culture. For example, Malay writers would reference Kampung Baru and Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, while other cultures would reference Jalan Petaling or Brickfields. Have you observed the same?
I’m aware of it from a journalistic perspective through the fieldwork I’ve done. From a reading point of view, the lines are blurry. We have a very plain and flat idea of the city. Some pockets of the city are developed and some are left underdeveloped. If we were to look at Jalan Cochrane, we would be able to see the underbelly of the city, while if we go to KLCC, all we see are expatriates. It’s very flat.
Poetry in Kuala Lumpur reflects this. There’s also a lot of influence from the older generation of poets. We have to see their perspective in order to understand why they wrote what they wrote. For example, Professor Lim Swee Tin writes a lot about nature because he is in love with nature and is alarmed at how the city is causing damage to the natural environment.
It’s different when we look at contemporary poets. Poets today write about how the city should be and not how it is right now. So topically, this is a subject that poets and writers have yet to broach, and you won’t necessarily find it in a book. You’ll need to look further, beyond literary text, and include graffiti art and fine arts. In literary circles there tends to be a love-hate relationship with the city and we have yet to articulate what the city is becoming.
In Kuala Lumpur, some aspects are developing rapidly but not others. Creatively, we are suffering. What are we supposed to do? Go to Pasar Seni and get inspired? It’s not going to happen!
You mentioned that certain aspects of contemporary life are being cut out of our literature, especially with regard to urban migration and urbanisation. What prominent works have you observed which touch on these themes?
There is this one poet, Rosaly Puthucheary who wrote about the May 13 riots. Many works have touched on urban themes in one way or another, but it’s more important to understand the timeline from the 70s till today and consider the creative framework and background of these writers. A lot of them come from very different views and have varied perspectives of the city. What I tend to notice is that it’s always the perspective of an outsider looking in.
When Amir Muhammad, the owner of publishing house, Fixi, sent out open calls for stories on the city and the struggle of the people – I have a feeling that the creative communities didn’t really know what to make of the city. Take the topic of urbanisation? Is it good or is it bad? I don’t think this was addressed in the anthologies.
In Kuala Lumpur, what I have noticed is that most writers are emotional about the yesteryears. We are so focused on preserving Kuala Lumpur as a piece of heritage but we are not looking internally at ourselves. Take the Vivekananda Temple issue, where people get emotional about the idea of its demolition, when in reality they walk down that street every day and don’t pay it much attention.
I notice the trend coming out of the anthologies that have been published about Kuala Lumpur is that most writers take it from emotional and cultural standpoints. There is very little talk about where we are now. Poets back then used to write from all angles. Poets today write in one direction. When they get on stage and they have like three minutes, you can see how they rush to attack the topic from one angle. When we talk about the city, we no longer talk about the flat land but about the people who come and make something out of it today.
Balan Moses wrote two books about Brickfields, based on his idea of what Brickfields should be, when Brickfields is so much more than that. Again, it is the bias of the writer involved even though it’s not a factual book but a memoir.
“You’ll need to look further, beyond literary text, and include graffiti art and fine arts. In literary circles there tends to be a love-hate relationship with the city and we have yet to articulate what the city is becoming.” – Melizarani T. Selva
What about literature that looks at the city as a foundation for identity?
What I discovered while writing my thesis about the Indian identity is that it is divided into two, and I discovered a third subset in the course of my research.
The main subjects of my research are of the slightly older generation who have been more ‘Indian’ than ‘Malaysian’ in their lifetime. This is the pre-Merdeka generation, and includes those who grew up in very traditional circles based outside of Kuala Lumpur.
Next, we also looked at those who were born in the city who were struggling to become Malaysian. Here, the question is “Why can’t I be Malaysian and not Indian Malaysian or Malaysian Indian?”
The third segment, which is very interesting, is a subset that I never expected to find. This is the set of people who actually want to abolish the above ideas of identity and be simply known as ‘global citizens’. They are of the view that they are part of the diaspora of the Indian community around the world. There are 28 million Malaysians (as of 2017) and only seven percent are Indian. However, they take the point that the total Indian diaspora comprises billions and are scattered in 206 nations around the world. So their question is “Why should I limit myself by anchoring my identity to one country?”
The majority of the Indian community here in Malaysia is Tamil. There is a book written by Andrew C. Willford entitled ‘Cage of Freedom: Tamil identity and the Ethnic Fetish in Malaysia’ (2007) about the Tamil community in Malaysia. The book captures how the community struggles to identify itself in a landscape that is always at odds with them.
If we are to talk about the community, we need to do some research on how many of the Indian community actually live within the borders of the city and how many live outside but work in the city. This makes a difference because the question of “Where can I put a roof over my head?” is very real. It is why when most poets speak of the city it is always out of despair and nostalgia, because when people move into the city, they lose the close-knit community feeling of their hometowns and kampungs.
Language is another key factor that we have to look at which will link back to literature and the arts. This because it relates to how a writer or poet speaks about their community through their work. “How can I talk about my community if I cannot write it in their language?” When I wrote ‘Indiantity’, that was my main issue. I spoke to my community directly. “I do not know enough Tamil to speak to you but I need you to know this. I need to know what you are doing.” This is not just a Malaysian problem but a problem everywhere.
This is why if we are to talk about literature in Kuala Lumpur, we have to determine what is Kuala Lumpur’s language? What is the mother tongue of Kuala Lumpur? Is it still Malay?
We need to look at it from different levels of society, and the level of business. We have to look at the majority of the city. Is it only made up of the people who live or work in skyscrapers? Is it full of street vendors? Who builds the city? Who speaks to whom in the city?
This story was originally published in ‘Literacity: Kuala Lumpur Literary Fragments and was edited for the now-defunct Think City Channel.