Imagining and Injecting Malaysiana Into Fantasy Fiction

By Anna Tan

November 2022 FEATURE
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Covers for Amok and The Tale of the Hostage Prince.

PART OF THE reason many of us desire to visit western countries is because they have been presented to us as magical, wonderful places in literature. The way and tone in which places and cultures are described often make a huge difference in how we view them. Things unfamiliar to us, when written in a positive light, suddenly become desirable, exotic even.

Likewise, when they are written about in a disparaging or disdainful tone, we internalise that as well. 

Unfortunately, many Malaysians grew up with English literature from the Anglosphere. This means that we come to see ourselves among those “other cultures” that are looked at with suspicion. Most times, this othering is not intentional. It is just a side effect of the writer’s centring – their expressing of what is important to them and how they view the world around them. 

So having grown up on a diet of books by Enid Blyton, CS Lewis and Jane Austen, I travelled to places that were inscribed in my imagination as literary holy grails when I ended up in London for my MA in Creative Writing.

Did I find these places to be worth visiting?

I enjoyed sites directly related to writers and writing, like Oxford because of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, or Stratford-Upon-Avon because of William Shakespeare. But other than that, all the castles, cathedrals and quaint old villages touted as “must-sees” started to run together after a while as eh, sama je (the same). 

The Eagle and Child, the pub where the Inklings, which included CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, met regularly and had discussions about writing and literature.

You can probably visit the entire city of Bath in a day, with the two main historical attractions being the Roman Baths and the Jane Austen Centre. To be fair, the Bath Cathedral is really pretty, though I have trouble differentiating which stained glass window pictures are from the Bath Cathedral, and which are from…all the other cathedrals I visited.

 And yet, because the enchanting British landscape has been thoroughly established in our minds through fiction, we fork out thousands of ringgit just to visit what is, in actual fact, rural kampungs (villages).

If Cotswolds with its “beautiful scenery and quaint English villages” can be a major tourist attraction, why can’t Balik Pulau with its paddy fields and durian plantations be that in our minds?

Bath is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but so are George Town and Melaka. And I must add that the Sarawak Cultural Village in Kuching is a fantastic place to visit, on par with the cultural villages you can find overseas. 

So the question is this: are our imaginations still so influenced by colonial viewpoints and the biases of the Anglosphere that we perceive our culture as less attractive? Or can we learn to treasure our history and literary traditions enough to highlight them to ourselves, and globally? 

Understanding this was key to a shift in my writing: We romanticise a lot of places overseas because the books make them sound special. 

I mean, growing up, I thought liquorice was a nice sweet until I actually tried it.

My undying love for cream tea was birthed from growing up on British books. 

From Europe to Nusantara

Living in London for a little over a year made me think a lot about cultural norms, places and why my writing was following a Eurocentric fantasy model. What do I know about being British?

I mulled over setting my story in a historical (but magical) Malaysia instead of another medieval-type fantasy setting. After all, it is not as if Malaysia just magically emerged after our independence. We have our histories. We have our empires and our epics, our dongengs and hikayats. Why not write about them? Why not reimagine them?

And so I rewrote my novel, placing it in a magical Nusantara, the Malay archipelago.

Some of the changes were surface-level. Things like using Sejarah Melayu-type titles – Sultan, Bendahara, Temenggung, Laksamana – instead of their English equivalents. Mentioning local food like rice, curry and roti canai instead of roast chicken and potatoes; emphasising familial ties and saving face instead of individualism. 

But the landscape of the world itself changed too. I replaced my totally-random desert with rainforests and divided Terang and Bayangan, the warring kingdoms, by a strait. I also deliberately bypassed the usual fantasy coding of “white is good” and “other skin colours are bad” by making them emerge from a similar cultural background – focusing the conflict on their differences in beliefs instead. 

The final piece to fall into place was the renaming of their magical strength from the Nordic idea of the Berserker, to an English word that was adopted from Malay, Amok.

Centring Malaysia in My Work

Because the Anglosphere is the obvious target for books written in English, the tendency is for non-Western writers to still curate for the Western market. It could mean making the protagonist or the setting White – or ambiguous enough to be White.

Part of the way a culture is centred in writing is by deciding who you are writing for and why. Throughout my MA, one conversation that came up over and over again was that of being true to your voice. And as my brilliant friend, Jonathan Pizarro, said, “I’m aware there’s a chip on my shoulder in there, when I am corrected for my language. Maybe I am being overly sensitive. But it feels to me that what it is, is an invalidation of where I am from.”

This changed the way I write. My earlier works, Coexist and Dongeng, are unsure of where they are meant to be. Oh, we start in Britain and in Kuala Lumpur, but the main idea was to escape, to leave the real world for the fairy world. Amok and The Tale of the Hostage Prince, as well as my upcoming book, Absolution, are very much rooted to look and sound like Malaysia (or at least a version of it). 

A Dearth of English Language Fantasy in Malaysia

In Western literature, fantasy encompasses everything from fairy tales and folklore to mythology and epics. The works of Tolkien and his contemporaries in the 1950s were about forging an identity of Britishness, reimagining folklore and crafting epics into a sort of single-origin point of mythology. Today, a myriad of fantasy stories are still set in London.

What then of us? Fantasy as a genre is not unknown to us. You know it in your bones as Sang Kancil and Hang Tuah, pontianak and hantu. Where should our fantasy be based? In Kuala Lumpur as our capital? In Melaka as our historical beginnings? What about the various sultanates from Kedah to Temasek that fed into the founding of Melaka? If King Arthur is Britain's main mythical historical figure, with many versions of his story, who then is ours? Parameswara? Hang Tuah? Or someone else we were never taught about in school?

As we struggle to craft a national identity for ourselves, maybe it’s time to reimagine a new mythology for what it means to be Malaysian, one that’s rooted in the fantastic literature of our past.

Anna Tan

writes fantasy stories and fairy tales, and has short stories included in various anthologies. She helps people publish books at Teaspoon Publishing, which includes yelling at HTML for epub reasons. She is also the editor for Penang Art District and NutMag, an annual zine published for and by MYWriters Penang.