WELL LIT.: Literary border crossings

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A new cross-border collaboration between Malaysia and Singapore leaves our literary correspondent, Umapagan Ampikaipakan, both underwhelmed and uncertain

Melangkau Jambatan Kedua: Cerpen Terpilih Dari Malaysia & Singapura (Beyond the 2nd Link: Selected Short Fiction From Malaysia & SIngapore)
by Institut Terjemahan & Buku Malaysia (ITBM) and National Arts Council Singapore
241 pages
 

THE book I have in my hand is something of a grand idea. A published collection of short stories by 12 up and coming writers from both sides of the border — six from Malaysia and six from Singapore — both in English and Bahasa Malaysia. A collaboration between our two national establishments: the Institute Terjemahan & Buku Malaysia (formerly ITNM) and National Arts Council Singapore.

The book I have in my hand is something of a noble effort. One that seeks to highlight three very important, but long ignored, aspects of our literature: our shared histories, our storytelling tradition, and our multilingual tradition. But most importantly, it is symbolic of a new cooperation.

The title says it all really. Beyond the Second Link. Successfully invoking an image of the shiny and the new, of the modern, of the quick, of the efficient.

Urging us to forget that old Causeway, to forget those water pipes and relentless traffic, to move past our petty differences and misplaced sense of superiority over one another. That Second Link, that new link, and everything it symbolises, is a call to seek out a new relationship between our two nations.

I have always believed that a literary cooperation between Malaysia and Singapore is absolutely crucial in progressing the form. We are practically one people, we stem from the same roots, and yet we know so little about the other’s

lives. We know so little about how our shared political and literary heritage has diverged over the years. So much so that we have forgotten how important such knowledge is to keep the conversation between us going.

Which brings us naturally to the bilingual nature of this book. For alternating these stories between English and Bahasa Malaysia is crucial. But not, as one would imagine, for the usual reasons.

It isn’t, as Edith Grossman explains, “to explore through literature the thoughts and feelings of people from another society or another time,” or “to savour the transformation of the foreign into the familiar,” or even to “live outside our own skins.” Translation, in this case, serves instead, as a reminder. Of just how much we have in common.

Alas, while this little book succeeds conceptually —  even philosophically —  it is altogether underwhelming as a  literary collection. Like so many of these compilations, the stories contained within are a mixed bag. They aren’t necessarily terrible but they aren’t entirely inspiring either. They just are. And therein lies the problem. For such an interesting and important experiment, it is let down by its lack of exceptionalism.

The stories in this collection fall short on a number of levels. First of all, they do not subscribe to that old adage of show and not tell. And by that virtue — or lack of — they come across as being somewhat didactic. They seem so focussed on a message, on a moral, that they neglect that all important notion of a plot. And while there are some stand out stories (Rebecca Ilham’s Dialog Subuh, Sa’eda Buang’s Ke Puncak Pun Tidak and  Nazmi Yaakub’s Cinta Sungai Kelantan), the vast majority of them aren’t very memorable. I found myself moving from one story to another, from language to language, feeling neither moved nor motivated.

The short story is quite possibly the hardest of fictions to pull off. With little time and even less space, the writer needs to somehow build rapport — with the story, with the characters, with the readers. Short stories should be a momentary excursion, an escape from the everyday, quick and pleasurable, fulfilling and lingering. It is a tall order. But I do not feel it too much to ask.

Melangkau Jambatan Kedua: Cerpen Terpilih Dari Malaysia & Singapura is a book that has me torn between judging something by virtue of its merits and supporting that all important notion of the artist’s right to fail. Which is why, all I can leave you with is this simple statement. This may not be a great collection, but it is nevertheless an important one.

 


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