Archive | March 3, 2013

The long dark tea-time of the soul of the Asian SFF writer, or, Highlander syndrome

3 Mar

I wrote this little intro to my list of Malaysian SFF writers in English, but decided to cut it out of the post itself so as not to distract from the list. I’m throwing it up ‘cos I really think this is a thing!

I’ve noticed before that what I might call Highlander syndrome is pervasive among Malaysian English-language genre writers (and to an extent, English-language genre writers from other Asian countries as well). I’ve only noticed this syndrome among writers in English, presumably because if you are writing in English you would’ve been brought up on books by Westerners — local writers in other languages appear to be more aware of their contexts and communities. (Also, I’m personally most familiar with the English-language writing scene. Once in a while I buy a Malay book and spend about six months getting through it. This is not the sort of experience which would qualify me to speak to the concerns of Malay-language writers.)

I call it Highlander syndrome because “there can be only one”. It’s this sense of being singular in writing science fiction and fantasy, accompanied by a sense that nobody is interested in your work because it is genre, that local publishers will ignore you for that reason, and the only stuff people will read in the region is self-help books or literary fiction (now that’s a blockbuster genre in the making – literary self-help. I suppose that’s what Alain Botton writes!).

My personal belief is that the reason one feels that way is not because there is no one else writing SFF in the local scene, or because there really is such enormous resistance to SFF from the reading public. Admittedly my friends and acquaintances are a self-selecting sample, but I don’t know a single Malaysian who would refuse to read a book on the grounds that it was genre. Everyone I knew at school liked the Hong Kong TVB adaptation of Journey to the West, and if monkey gods born out of rock who travel by cloud and visit the underworld as easily as the supermarket don’t count as fantasy to you, then you must be very hard to satisfy!

The reasons for Highlander syndrome are probably various, but IMO include:

  • the issue I noted above about reading books by Westerners mostly (since that’s what’s available in English);
  • the common geek experience of being the only person one knew growing up who got more excited over hobbits and spaceships than boybands. This is often ameliorated in the West when one grows up and finds out about cons and that sort of thing, but it’s slightly more difficult in Malaysia just because the community is smaller;
  • the fact that the Asian writers best-known in the West are writers of literary fiction (and the best-known writers of Asian SFF are Westerners!); and
  • perhaps most of all — the fact that often when you are a writer it is easy to feel that your whole life is one long sad story of no1curr. That’s a feeling every writer has, and isn’t particular to Asian genre writers.

I’m not denying that there’s a line of thinking that SFF doesn’t quite measure up to literary fiction in terms of literary value, mind you. I’m just not convinced that this mind-set is so much more ingrained in Malaysia than it is elsewhere. Admittedly there aren’t any dedicated venues for English-language SFF in Malaysia, but there aren’t that many venues for English-language fiction in Malaysia full-stop. English-language writing in Malaysia is still developing, and I’m personally very optimistic about it.