Penang takes pride in having produced an endless string of intellectuals. But when it comes to good fictional writing – a genre that expresses not only literary maturity but also philosophical profundity – we certainly come out short. Why is this so? Is it a question of language, post-colonial lack of confidence, or cultural superficiality? The late Lee Kok Liang is still the best we have had.
Why has penang not produced a writer of note for more than two decades? The last Penangite who could be considered of literary standing was Lee Kok Liang. He died in 1992, not long after bringing out his last major work, Death of a Ceremony and Other Short Stories. Since then, who have we got?
This question came to me while I was judging the Commonwealth Writers Prize earlier this year. This annual competition comes in two categories – Best Book and Best First Book. In the former category, among the entries were novels by the likes of Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee, Peter Carey (who has won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Booker Prize twice), Thomas Keneally (famous for Schindler’s Ark, which became the Steven Spielberg movie, Schindler’s List) and David Malouf.
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