Friday, September 13, 2013

What is truer than truth?

Title stolen from Isabel Allende in this video.

The following two videos underscore how story telling goes beyond mere entertainment. In the ancient days of my motherland, we have the penglipur lara, the storyteller, who travel from village to village, sharing stories, news and relating historical myths of the ancient kings. Their stories gave wings to the imagination of the ordinary folks and their arrival was much anticipated.

Technology and globalisation have changed the way stories are narrated. The penglipur lara may be dead for hundreds of years, but his stories continue to be told in different media. This is the power of stories: it evolves, are adapted and become incorporated into another narrative. In a way, stories are immortalised beyond the lives of the tellers.

But have we ever examined the origins of the stories we consume? Who delivered them? What was their intention? Were their sources right? What inspired them?

Herein lies the danger of the single story narrative.

I will admit to being guilty of the same thing. You tend to swallow what was told to you, especially as children. I am sure that many of us grew up with all kinds of stories about the "other" people. People who don't look like us, don't behave or pray (if they pray!) like we do, don't think like we do. Some of it is relatively harmless (or not); like mothers of the old admonishing wayward children to behave or "The benggali* will come and catch you!"

The more malevolent were like, "If you have to choose between killing a snake and a (insert ethnic/religious group of suspicion), it is better to kill the ethnic/religious person." This is about dehumanising the other person, making them alien and difficult to identify with. It would also make it easier to denigrate them, and to look down on them.

I am struck by her words about how the people in power made the definitive story and this could be used to dispossess the people, hijacking their history and culture. When a story is repeated over and over again, somehow it gained the veneer of truth and became accepted as a fact. This is some particularly profound for me, as my ethnic group is often painted as lazy, lacking initiative and always looking for a shortcut to solve problems. This perspective of our former colonial masters was countered by the eminent humanities scholar Syed Hussein Alatas in his book The Myth of the Lazy Native (which I will admit to having yet to read). But this idea of Malays being lackadaisical, etc has been so tightly woven in the nation's narrative, that it is difficult to disentangle. And like a self-fulfilling prophecy, we make it come true.

Like Ms. Adichie, the stories I write in my head (and occasionally pen down) often feature people from other countries because I have been steeped in American and Western culture, thanks to a steady diet of books, music, television and films.


While Ms. Adichie felt that Asian and African and South American and other non-white writers should be working towards developing narratives that is a contrast from the Western world view, Ms. Shafak felt that the manifestation of identity need not be utterly personal, so one could write from the viewpoint of people who is not oneself. 

To her, the most important thing is that the story need to be informative and well researched, written to evoke emotions and perhaps, create connections and empathy. One must not be limited to one's nationality, gender and sexuality. It is a very liberating thought, but I do believe that one should be free to tell the stories that speaks to one. However, it does seem that white authors get more leeway than non-white authors, who are expected to write only about their own culture and experiences.

Ninot Aziz, a celebrated Malaysian author, is reviving the hikayat, the folk tales and legends of  the Nusantara. Although the stories are sourced from Malay folk tales, she believes that the cosmopolitan nature of the stories transcends any cultural dichotomy and will speak to us regardless of our background.

Her book, Hikayat - From the Ancient Malay Kingdoms is up for the Anugerah Buku Perpustakaan Negara Malaysia - RTM. Please vote for her here. The author name is Ninot Aziz and the ISBN number of the book is 978-967-61-2540-80.

Here's to more excellent stories coming out of Malaysia!

* corruption of the word Bengali (someone from the state of Bengal in India). Usually the Sikh or other Bengal ethnic man who wore a turban and was an itinerant merchant of cloth and other household items during the pre and post Independent Malaya.

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