There are some Malaysian topics and issues that need to be written about and not just in the form of essays and articles, but as stories that allow for thorough exploration and interrogation as can only be done through fiction. Hanna Alkaf’s The Weight of Our Sky is such a story, as is The Accidental Malay by Karina Robles Bahrin. It’s no accident that both novels centre matters of race that all Malaysians are familiar with, in one way or another. Hanna’s book is set during the infamous May 13 race riots of 1969. Karina’s is about a woman who is raised Chinese but discovers that her mother is Malay.
Race is a hot topic here; never far from the minds of Malaysians; it’s ever present in our day-to-day lives, and it’s also a topic that we are leery of discussing, especially in public, especially in (racially) mixed company. Karina’s novel is not just about (the Malay) race, but about religion, specifically Islam. In Malaysia, the two could be said to be one and the same as there is no separating being Malay from being Muslim. We’ve all heard of people referred to as having ‘masuk Melayu’ when in fact they have ‘masuk Islam’, i.e., converted. This is because there is no such thing, in Malaysia, as a Malay who is not Muslim. Therefore, you might as well have converted to being Malay if you embrace Islam as your religion. Furthermore, when a non-Muslim converts it is usually because of marriage to a Malay. So, when my children’s Malay classmates ask them what race they are and then add, ‘Kristian?’ their confusion is understandable since, in their own lives, there is no division between the two.
It is probably only a Malaysian who is Malay and Muslim (at least on paper) who could have written what Karina has. I’m not sure if any non-Malay would be brave enough to challenge the logic and fairness of what amounts to forced conversion, even automatic conversion, both of which are normalised in this country. Even as I type this, I wonder if it’s wise of me to write these sentences (perhaps it’s just as well that no one reads my blog), but being Malay does not actually ensure that Karina will escape scrutiny from the powers that be; it doesn’t mean that the Home Office will leave her book alone. Well, at least, Accidental Malay is published by Singapore-based Epigram Books (the novel is the latest winner of the Epigram Prize), which should, hopefully, limit the extent of the Malaysian authorities’ jurisdiction over its distribution.
Karina has always been an exceptional writer, with a wry sense of humour and a refreshingly practical view of romantic liaisons. When she submitted two short stories for a collection of folktale retellings (Malaysian Tales: Retold and Remixed) I curated and edited more than ten years ago, I had no choice but to include both – distinctively different reimaginings of the legend of Puteri Saadong. Like Accidental Malay’s protagonist Jasmine Leong, Karina’s Princesses were intelligent, headstrong women who knew exactly what they wanted out of life. As for Karina’s writing in her Epigram-Prize-winning novel, it remains as crisp and confident as I remember finding it in 2009.
One has to admire the unfussy, clear, and bold approach taken by the author when broaching the sensitive topic of religious conversion in Malaysia. There is no beating around the bush, no heavy-handed use of euphemisms and other figures of speech. In Accidental Malay, a spade is called a spade; and pork is front-and-centre, no-holds-barred babi. After all, Jasmine Leong, whose mother turns out to be Malay and whose father was a Chinese man who converted to Islam, is the heir to a bak kwa (caramelised dried pork) empire. Jasmine also has a lover (Iskandar, nama glamour Alex) who is a non-practising Malay-Muslim. Not only does Iskandar get Jasmine pregnant, he also gamely stands aside when Jasmine decides to move on with a Chinese businessman and raise her child outside Malaysia, as a non-Muslim. Now if that doesn’t get any number of hijab in a knot, I don’t know what will.
One grouse I have is that, by making her main characters monied, liberal, progressive individuals, Karina offers everyone escape routes denied to the average Malaysian. So, Jasmine has the luxury of applying for Dominican citizenship for herself and her daughter; she gets to relocate in Hong Kong when she’s ready; her ex-lover is happy to be a some-time dad who doesn’t insist his offspring be raised a good Muslimah. Most significantly, Jasmine doesn’t have to make the terrible choice between conversion and walking away from love. By having her end her relationship with Iskandar and then fall in love with the handsome Kuan Yew (really, Karina?), the author might have denied her readers the pleasure of a more complex and heart breaking storyline: What if Jasmine had continued to be deeply in love with Iskandar? What if she had felt that it was important for the father of her child to be a constant presence in its life? What if Iskandar had begged her to stay? What if she had stayed and, after several years of being a Muslim wife and mother, she had decided that she couldn’t continue to lie to herself and everyone around her, and had decided to leave? Or, what if Jasmine had converted and then found that she really did believe? And what if her daughter, thirty years down the road, was told the whole story and resented never being allowed a choice in religion? Or, what if Jasmine had no bak kwa empire, but just a small-time hawker stall selling char siu and siew yoke, while Iskandar was the security guard at the primary school down the road?
Jasmine Leong’s story is just one of many scenarios involving love affairs/marriage between Malaysian non-Muslims and Muslims, and which also raise questions about the lack of religious freedom for Malaysian Malays. I hope that other Malaysian authors will, in time, feel able to explore these problematic topics as they occur in different situations and to people from various walks of lives, without fear of repercussions of any sort. Ideally, it should not be a case of our authors being ‘brave enough’ to write about these things. Ideally, they should be free to write about whatever they want. Even if that perfect time has not arrived (yet), thank goodness for Karina who has written The Accidental Malay as though it has.