[LiteraCity 2016] Perceiving Urban Literature

(Author: Zikri Rahman; originally published for LiteraCity Festival 2016)

From the depths of imagination and actual places traced by writers and theirs characters in literature, the city of Kuala Lumpur becomes alive, and will forever be so, with more 110 works of literature speaking of the city and everything in between. However, understanding Kuala Lumpur through its works of literature it is not as easy undertaking as other big cities worldwide. In James Joyce’s Dubliners about the city Dublin and Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy about Cairo, the manifestation of cities in both novels are considered to be the greatest in literature. Their novels are gracefully written, exploring every nook and corner of the city, from its architecture to every souls of its inhabitants. Both novels are now considered authoritative and part of the literary canon.

Fortunately for us, there is still room to freely and innocently explore Kuala Lumpur’s literature without the weight of a literary canon or authoritative work, in order to grasp and discover what the city of Kuala Lumpur means. Thus we are able to openly and moderately appreciate the city through various works of literature.

As stated in previous essays, the LiteraCity project covers only limited genre, which are novels, short stories, scripts, drama and poetry published in the Malay and English language. The works highlighted are also those from 1970s until 2015. Combined, these factors might limit us to fully grasp Kuala Lumpur’s literature. But nevertheless, the LiteraCity project is a rare and significant attempt to document the works of literature, especially through the method of cultural mapping. In this essay, we will discuss elements of urban literature by highlighting the works with Kuala Lumpur as a backdrop.

What is urban literature and when did the transition from rural-based literature to urban literature occur? And why is it defined from the 1970s and not before? And finally, how are aesthetic values portrayed in urban literature? These are the main questions that are tackled in this essay, by referring to examples from literature to support our discussion.

In our opinion, urban literature in the city will continue to exist as long as there is a process of urbanization in Kuala Lumpur. External influences such as government policies, particularly the New Economic Policy (NEP) introduced in 1971, is seen in the city’s development has directly influenced urban literature. As an economic policy, the NEP has also affected the very social fabric of society in the name of development, through the country’s transition from an agriculturally- based country to an industrialized country in the coming decades.

However, literature also has its own autonomous space and is not necessarily written to address issues or certain impacts according to the country’s narrative. In fact, it is more advanced in some respect, by imagining the abstract possibilities and circumstances in city’s spaces. For example, in Abdullah Hussain novel, Kuala Lumpur Kita Punya, Adnan, one of the main characters suggested there should be built a Garden of Love (Taman Asmara) for the city’s inhabitants to express themselves.[1] Additionally, Johan Jaafar’s play Kotaku Oh Kotaku also interacts directly with issues such as the right to the city by creating a place like a garden (Taman Bunga), to discuss the eviction in the slums (Setinggan Dukalara).

Urban literature also depicts the society’s structure, where there is high demand for human labor to be concentrated in the city, particularly in the manufacturing and services sector, demanding drastic and mass migration from rural to urban area. Thus, migration is one of the main backgrounds in Kuala Lumpur’s literature, where themes of alienation, class and economic inequalities, and the merging of cultures became more apparent in literature. The appearance of slums, the homeless and urban poor, is a manifestation of the failure of economic policies to efficiently handle this transition, where they are all recorded in urban literature.

And so, when exactly did the transition from rural-based literature to urban literature happen? Surely, it is not as drastic the economic polices carried out. In fact, if we carefully observe and compare several works across time, it was a gradual transition. In earlier urban literature, the characters have not yet grasped or breathed the city’s elements. This stems from feelings of alienation, lacking a sense of belonging or a community, and of one’s rights when living in the city.
It is only later in urban literature that we are able to see how the works feel closer and rooted in the city. The characters no longer see the city through the lens of alienation, but continue to live and breathe as part of the city. If traditional literature can be distinguished from modern literature through the first person pronoun, I, addressing himself as a subject instead of an object, thus this is how urban literature and rural-based literature can be separated, where the characters perceive the city as subject of desire, thus opening up room for cultures to interact, merge and exchange with each other.

This is evident if we compare the character Mat Som in Lat’s graphic novel of the same title and Murshid Merican from the novel Amerika written by Ridhwan Saidi. There are similarities between both characters, where both can be categorized as part of the precariat, those who work but have no stable income. In this alienation, we can see how Mat Som found solace with his friend from the village and has a close relationship with his family. For Murshid Merican however, the alienation he experienced was something he enjoyed consciously; perhaps because he grew up right in the city. However, alienation is always felt when trying to integrate with society, as experienced by Guna Uncle in the short story “Rukun Tetangga” by Preeta Samarasan, who in the end, is perceived strange by the urban folk.

If we compare the subjectivity of experiences as above, only then we can observe the transition from the rural-based literature to urban literature. Of course, there is no absolute definition of urban literature, because aside from the cities and the rural areas, there also the influence of globalization and postmodernism, capable of either bridging or widening the gap between the cities and rural areas. This is evidenced from the city’s hunger for development. Today, with the rise of the internet, the birth and development of cultures in both rural areas and cities is allowed beyond physical space. Moreover, it follows from how behavior, language, and culture is shaped through daily interactions in the city – involving issues such as gender, class, and the rights to the city.

Apart from recording its own time, literature also inadvertently defines its own period. In this case, through researching literature from the 1970s until today, we can see how literature opens the room for imagination in the country’s historic moments, especially in a city such as Kuala Lumpur. The 1970s was when the National Cultural Policy was introduced to look into the several possibilities to build a single national culture.

During this period, the literary scene in Malaysia painted many different narratives, and urban literature, with its diversity and complexity of its inhabitants, becomes a space to contest each narrative. This is evident in works like Green is the Colour by Lloyd Fernando (1993) and the novel Perhaps in Paradise by Ellina Abdul Majid, where the main characters confront the events of 13th May 1969. In fact, we can also see an interesting take of the event’s aftermath in the poems of Usman Awang. Arts thus becomes informal recording of history.[2]

In addition to the transition from rural-based literature to urban literature, we also need to look the aesthetic values expressed in a number of literary works. Among them is city’s fast-paced cycle, and how does it affect the writers and their writings. The different perceptions of time are also shown in “Pertemuan”, a short story by Usman Awang, where the meeting of characters and the events in this short story has neither a beginning nor an ending. Altogether, it is a reflection of life in the city, where there might be hundreds of people chanced upon in the streets, but they will never directly impact our lives. This is clearly depicted in A. Samad Ismail’s novel, Sutinah, about the ebbs and flow of the city especially with regards to the superficial relationships and interactions with its inhabitants.

Among the aesthetics values in urban literature, is the language used, for example in the immediateness of dialogues or conversations between the city’s characters. There is also the urban slang used, a mixture of several dialects and borrowings from other languages, a representation of various communities and nationalities in the city. In fact, the urban slang is always subject to change by adapting more languages depending on the level of migration in the future. In this case, the dominance of a particular language and its words used the urban slang, captures the relationships between people, for example, in terms of power relations.

In addition, the aesthetics of literature can also include the aesthetics of architecture. This can be seen in the poems of Zurinah Hassan, T. Alias Taib and Fan Yew Teng, we can observe the city’s landscape, giving each work its aesthetic value. Through the many places in the city described, we are able to see the symbolism and metaphors formed, and this is more apparent if the city becomes a metaphor itself. This is because a city’s architecture is itself a reflection of a Nation’s position in relation to power, between the governor and the governed. This is clearly illustrated by the author Ridhwan Saidi in his novel Amerika, where the Kuala Lumpur Tower is depicted as “menara gatal”, spying on every corner of the city and its inhabitants.

In urban literature, there is often a scene where the characters are shown wandering in and about the city. Like the characters, the writer himself can continue to be attached to the city, such as A. Samad Said, where we can often bump into him in places such as the National Mosque and shopping centers around Kuala Lumpur. This wandering is as Roland Barthes wrote, “...we speak our city, the city where we are, simply by living in it, by wandering through it, by looking at it.”[3] In this case, it affects how literature is written, leaving the readers perplexed in figuring out the story, written in fragments or as a riddle.

In urban literature, the places written about is not merely a regurgitation of facts and trivia as with history or geography. Instead, it is how we observe, analyze and see what it represents. For a writer to choose a place and repeat it several times in his work, is not a coincidence but rather a confirmation that the place is a representation for something else. For example, in Charlene Rajendran’s play, My Grandmother’s Chicken Curry & .., through the five restaurant visited is a metaphor for cosmopolitan ideas. In addition, the places written in Faisal Tehrani’s short story titled “KL di Atas Bantal” affirms the same thing.[4] Surely, if we look realism portrayed in these works, it does not mean that they are any more realist than non-realist works. However, it is an indication of how society views and respond to something at a certain time and place.

With regards to this matter, it must be realized that Kuala Lumpur is a post- colonial city. The portrayal of landmarks and places in a literary work is not just written loosely, but because they can be medium for criticism and discussion, opening up the ultimate question – for what and whose purpose are we participating in this race for development? It is not strange sight for a for a third world country today, with its abundant earth resources, to build large shopping malls and tall skyscrapers. We can at once see that it is meant to shape the city’s identity to transition from a developing country to a developed country. However, this infatuation to compete or to outdo more developed countries merely gives the illusion and superficiality of being developed, begging the question – what does being developed means?

Thus, the aesthetics in urban literature look far beyond the issues of identity. It is a decolonization process of a set of diverse behaviors and social formation in the city manifested in the banality of everyday routines. What is meant by the decolonization process is how its citizens struggle between the modern and the traditional way of life, as well as the clashing of superstitious and rational belief in facing life in the city.

To conclude this essay, in order to understand a city, we need to continually assess the transition from rural-based literature to urban literature and whether the city’s aesthetical values depict life in the city. In order to contemplate the literature’s transition through the city, it is apt to quote a semi-cynical statement from Amerika; 
“Malaysian people have yet walked and become civilized enough to drive a car.”
1 “If I become the Prime Minister, rather than furnishing the city with flowery gardens such as this, I’d rather open have a Garden of Love, where only those with a partner can enter. Everyone entering there has to surrender all their weapons to the police at its entrance”, trans., page 79, Kuala Lumpur Kita Punya, Abdullah Hussein.
2 This is emphasized in the LiteraCity interview with A. Samad Said.
3 Barthes, R. Urban Semiology, ed. Neil Leach (New York: Routledge).

4 These are discussed further in the essay “Mapping Kuala Lumpur Literature” on the way a space is perceived.