[LiteraCity16] Mapping Kuala Lumpur Literature

(Author: Zikri Rahman; originally published for LiteraCity Festival 2016)
“...form and symbol of an integrated social relationship: it is the seat of a temple, the market, the hall of justice, the academy of learning. Here is where human experience is transformed into viable signs, symbols, patterns of conducts, systems of order.” 
– Lewis Mumford [1]
The LiteraCity mapping project maps neither the contours of the Earth, nor the coordinates of a place. It does not want to know what already physically exists. Most importantly, the LiteraCity mapping project aims to uncover the layers of meaning – for this is how literature operates – where the project revolves around three aspects – space, the building of space and the interpretation of Kuala Lumpur’s body of literature in its process. The mapping of literature and culture’s space is thus a means to delve deeper into an alternative and counter discourse, as well as to produce an unconventional and abstract knowledge by looking into the urban community’s order.

Based on this, the map produced in the LiteraCity project is not, in and of its self, complete, but is a subjective process involving mapping itself. What is meant as subjective process is closely related to cognitive mapping, where an author’s mental mapping influences his authorship – consisting of character, plot, narrative – which brings to the formation of spaces as he imagines it, as written by Frederic Jameson, who said;
“...begin to grasp our position as individual and collective subjects and regain a capacity to act and struggle which is at present neutralized by our spatial as well as our social confusion.”[2] 
The feeling of alienation and marginalisation, especially in a city such as Kuala Lumpur, driven by neoliberal systems as a familiar backdrop, explains the production of space and the birth of social confusion. This social confusion is even more apparent when it involves phenomenon such as migration into the city, as experienced by Mat Som, the main character of Lat’s comic, also titled Mat Som. In this example, we can see how in his early days in Kuala Lumpur, he awkwardly tries to understand the rules and behaviour of the city, and how should he act to be part of the urban community.

As quoted by Jameson above, “spatial” could meant as how the process of production and a space is given its meaning. In assessing how literature can give meaning to space, meaning can exist and be imagined when there is interaction. It can be done through characters in works of literature, where they can form and extract meaning in an urban space whether actively or passively.

Following from this, Jameson then continues about “spatial” and the social confusion, and how it is derived from an individual and parts of society, collectively negotiating to dominate the narrative; its content and social make-up in defining a space in the city. This essay will then take examples from the works of literature in Kuala Lumpur. For example, how different is the perception (which can be a source for confusion) of a space between a writer and his Nation (if any), for a place such as the National Monument (Tugu Negara)?

A nation having a strong narrative authority surely chooses the opportunity to lift and advocate patriotism and nationalism through the National Monument. However, as a space, a writer outside the narrative authority can it interpret it differently in another context. The ambivalence of a space’s meaning can also be seen, where it is always open for change and deconstructed like the Pudu Jail, abolished in order to construct a shopping mall, even though in the imagination of the nation, it can be perceived as a national heritage.

A second example is how the places within literature in several poems by Zurinah Hassan are in marginalized places and locations in the city, such as the slums, the riverbanks, the streets, the rubbish that shows a side of the city which shall always be ignored by the more dominant landscape of the city. In another example, in the play My Grandmother’s Chicken Curry & ... by Charlene Rajendran, it took place in several eateries where the three characters discussed the utopian identity that reflects the nation building of Malaysia. The choice of eateries such as the cafe in Bangsar, the Chinese coffee house, the Indian restaurant in Leboh Ampang. and the Coliseum Restaurant, they are all cosmopolitan spaces in the city, which can potentially disrupt the Nation’s narrative in imagining the production of space in the city.

In literature, the meaning of social space is not fully controlled by the Nation, where the oppressed characters in the texts often have different strategies to contest the narrative authority, through what is defined as the hidden transcript.

This can be seen in A Modern Woman Called Ang Tau Mui,a play by Leow Puay Tin, where the main character works as toilet cleaner in Batu Complex. She faces not only racial discrimination, but the effects of class and gender division, a remnant of the colonial British’s administration. Ang Tau Mui protests this situation by proclaiming “... I know who I am – I don’t need an IC to prove who I am.” 

Therefore, the choice to write in a work literature is also interesting to be uncovered especially, if the work questions the marginal identity is outside the Nation’s narrative authority. For example, how a few nightclubs and whorehouses become important backdrops in urban literature. In Faisal Tehrani’s short story circa 1998 called “KL di Atas Bantal”, it clearly depicts key places such as The Sultan Abdul Samad Building as a court, which if looked closely, symbolises power at the time (and even now), especially in the question of sexual orientation and opposing political aspirations. Interestingly, the places mentioned in this short story goes in and out through the public space and imagined private space, but it was very fitting with the political climate at the time.

In addition, the characters occupying a space also paints an interesting impression especially on question of the rights of urbanization. This is clearly seen in the play by Johan Jaafar called Kotaku Oh Kotaku where the marginalized and oppressed community lived in the beautiful garden. The bravery of the characters in this script all opens the question of who actually holds the narrative in this wild urbanization process.

The discussion also touches upon what is said by Jameson on the position of the individual and a group as a subject. We can see how a space in the city opens up a subjective space – the taste, the feelings and the way of thinking – for the characters which are closely related to a collectively imagined space. From this question, we must understand the logic on how should a country be shaped, from society’s logic to the literature is consumed, such as written by Benedict Anderson, where;
“It is imagined because the member of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in minds of each lives the image of their communion.” [3]
In this case, what kind of characters and plot are imagined by the writers? Therefore, the existence or non-existence of a location or situation in a work of literature can be manifested into reality, shadow or utopia as imagined by the writer itself. To take directly from what Thongchai Winichakul, where he stated that: 
“A map merely represents something which has already exist objectively ‘there’. In the history I have described, this relationship was reversed. A map anticipated spatial reality, not vice versa.”[4] 
In a discussion of the project with Katrin Bandel, a German scholar, she brought forward ideas from the works of Benedict Anderson to analyse this phenomenon. Apart from that, she also look into Ridhwan Saidi’s novel, Amerika, which questions the reality of non-existence and the lack of discourse within society, portrayed through surreal dialogues between the main characters, Murshid Merican and Dahlia Sanni. The novel thus imagines the questions of what needs to be brought into space and what is imagined.

To further this discourse, we have to look into the symbolism of a space, how it can be further elevated, and who is capable to create it? This is where we can look into the question of ideography, political museumising and logoization in creating a discourse against the dominant narrative. Fan Yew Teng’s poem titled “Kuala Lumpur, Kuala Lumpur”, is a good example of how symbolism questions the meaning and function of a space unconventionally. Her poem which traces the gastronomic identity in the streets of Kuala Lumpur, giving a very different interpretation of an individual’s observation, not to mention by the collective memory of the community.

In this case, through this project in tracing physical spaces in the works of literature within Kuala Lumpur, it opens up a room for interpretation and a wider of definition in looking at the questions within literature, such as representation – of languages, norms, gender, class and others. By looking into the formation of a literature’s space, both urban and spatial, it can also make us further understand the questions being raised by writers in tackling the power relations and the dominant narrative, challenging our understanding beyond the concrete walls of space – within the cognitive mapping framework – a never ending continuum.

1. Mumford,L.(1986)“What Is A City?” The Lewis Mumford Reader, ed. Donald L. Miller (New York: Pantheon Books).
2. Jameson, F. (1991) Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. (London: Verso).
3. Anderson, B. (2006). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso).
4. Winichakul, T. (1994). Siam Mapped. (Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press).