What are our kids reading?

 I enjoy reading literature. The works of writers like Naguib Mahfouz, George Orwell, and José Saramago, to name a few, populate my time and my personal library.

Literature, I discovered, taught me about humanity. In Orwell’s 1984, I learned the true value of individuality, and the struggle to not allow those with power to take it away from us. In Mahfouz’s magnum opus The Cairo Trilogy, I learned the complexity of human emotions, family, and community. Literature, through prose and eloquent writing, opened my perspective on a visceral level that is often lacking when it comes to non-fiction.

But what it also left me with, were impressions of culture – expressed and subtly illustrated through these pieces of literature. What I read became an opportunity for me to learn more about others across lands and time, on a human level that also made me appreciate their context. What I gleaned about Egyptian culture, I read in Mahfouz’s brilliant and effortless representation of early 1900s Cairenes: their religious-culture, conservatism, and contradiction.

Expressions and representations that are so human that its connected me to them in a kindred way. I must confess, the literature that I’ve read since young are primarily in English – my Malay-language choices were limited.

I was bad at identifying the good ones, and I had no friend to guide me past the shelves of romance novels and into what one would call classical Malaysian, Malay-language literature. Which brings me to the compulsory pieces of Malay-language literature I’ve read in school while I was a teenager.

I graduated from secondary school in 2007. By the end of my five years before young adulthood, I had read Meniti Kaca, Pahlawan Pasir Salak, Panas Salju, Bukit Kepong and Konserto Terakhir, in respective order. These were the key literature texts for Komsas, Bahasa Malaysia’s literature component. The novels, I remember, were engaging. The historically-inspired ones? Not so much.

The list of books from 2000 up to 2020 seems to sorely miss an ethnically-rich element. Apart from a handful of titles such as Tirani, Renyah or Sukar Membawa Tuah — titles whose narrative is from either an East Malaysian or Orang Asli lens, there is little to be said about other ethnicities, apart from the obligatory role of supporting characters.

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies... The man who never reads lives only one” was what George R.R. Martin wrote in A Dance with Dragons, the fifth instalment in his A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy book series. Most of you might be more familiar instead with the adapted television title, Game of Thrones. (I have yet to start watching it — sorry, fans!).

This quote rings true because reading literature requires a level of empathy and reflection to inhabit the (fictional or otherwise) life of the character and their worldview — whether you agree with them or not.

The key reading texts for Komsas, if most of the authors’ names and contextual plot of the literature are any indication — lack diversity. An example would be the Form 5 (2001-2010) Julia that tells the story of a troubled girl who is sent away to Australia by her parents to study in an Islamic college, in hopes that it would shape her into a more moral individual.

Aside from the plot involving the untimely death of her parents and the eventual challenges of running a family business, the novel ends with her close Chinese friend (and implied romantic interest), Jun, revealing that he was a Muslim all along, and they end up getting married.

To be fair to the selection of novels, there are lessons to be learned from each of them. My distilling of Julia’s characterisation and the plot does not do the author and his work justice. But my point still stands: our students are reading mainly from the perspective of a monocultural lens.

We need more literature told through the lens of other ethnicities within Malaysia. I find it difficult to believe that Malaysia lacks writers who produce good literature from the Indian or Chinese community.

If it’s written in their own language, why not translate them into Bahasa Malaysia? And if there are no writers from those respective communities — perhaps there’s a bit of soul searching that needs to be done in incentivising Malaysians to express their stories through literature.

Even if students are only reading the books (or its cliff notes) to get a passing grade, novels are an opportunity to introduce our impressionable students to the various cultural contexts of the non-Bumiputera, and for that matter, East Malaysians.

Since Komsas’ introduction in 2000, Malaysian students have been reading literature through the cultural lens of Malay writers, who’ve introduced them to the cultural nuances and contexts of the community weaved into their writing. National understanding, however, is not a one-way street.

We have much to also learn about the lives and cultural contexts of our neighbours. Maybe one of the ways is through the literature we have our children read. Maybe, and I hope that by the time my child goes to secondary school and brings back home their Komsas novel, it would have the name of a Chinese or Indian author on it.


This article has been published in The Malay Mail Online and The Malaysian Insight.


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