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.

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11 Responses to “The long dark tea-time of the soul of the Asian SFF writer, or, Highlander syndrome”

  1. Fadz Johanabas March 3, 2013 at 1:55 pm #

    I love this post, because it’s true. All these years, I never knew that we even had a community of Malaysian writers writing in English. Silverfish books gave some hope, but it was too exclusive. The writers it publishes are the ones it nurtures. Even then, these writers in general don’t write speculative fiction (a ghost story or two, but Malaysians and Singaporeans can consider ghost stories as mainstream).

    When I started publishing, I kept Googling “Malaysian English writers/authors”, which led me to AM Muffaz & Ika Koeck. When it led me to Sharon Bakar’s blog, I discovered that we do indeed have a thriving community.

    Who knows, maybe one day soon we’ll even have SF conventions here in Malaysia.

    Here’s to hoping.

    • Zen March 3, 2013 at 3:57 pm #

      “Even then, these writers in general don’t write speculative fiction (a ghost story or two, but Malaysians and Singaporeans can consider ghost stories as mainstream).”

      I think this is interesting because I agree with you that ghost stories are pretty much mainstream in M’sia/S’pore, but perhaps this indicates that genre is — or should be — less of a red-headed stepchild in Southeast Asia. Why shouldn’t speculative fiction have a different status in SEAsia, similar to the way magical realism isn’t classified as distinct from e.g. literary fiction in South America? I listed SFF writers because there’s currently something of a movement for non-US/UK SFF writers to group together and build a community — which I am totally in favour of — but at the same time is it a good idea to define Malaysian writing by reference to Western conventions?

      “Who knows, maybe one day soon we’ll even have SF conventions here in Malaysia.”

      We kind of do! A few years ago they joined up 24-Hour Comics Day with a SFF festival — it was held at the Curve/Cineleisure. There weren’t, like, panels or anything, but people cosplayed as Star Trek characters. XD

      (There’s also an anime convention, of course, but I know conventional Western SFF fandom tends to turn its nose up at anime/manga, though a lot of it is speculative in nature. Their loss!)

  2. dashcooray March 4, 2013 at 12:08 pm #

    Thank you so much for this enlightening post. I never knew I suffered from Highlander syndrome until now.
    It is the same here, being a Fantasy writer and Sri Lankan, also having to be the only fantasy writing Sri Lankan I know and having to face a lot of raised eyebrows when I explain I’m a writer.

    • Zen March 4, 2013 at 1:41 pm #

      I hope you find writing buddies eventually! It can be hard to find your community. I feel I’ve more or less got one now — a community made up of old friends, non-US/UK SFF writers and Malaysian writers — but this sense of my place in a larger context of writers was hard-won.

      SFF writer Mary Ann Mohanraj is Sri Lankan-American, I believe, and I think Nin Harris, whom I mentioned in my previous posts on Malaysian SFF writers, has Sri Lankan heritage as well: http://zencho.org/malaysian-science-fiction-fantasy-writers-in-english/. Though it’s not quite the same, of course. Good luck!

  3. Nin May 12, 2013 at 1:31 pm #

    The Highlander Syndrome (ha, I love this and may quote you at some point) is prevalent everywhere, actually. It’s sad because I think Malaysian creatives should support each other and amongst my students I am doing my best to inculcate the idea of a creative community and a “together we’re strong” ethos as opposed to feeling spe-shul and singular. I blame the after-effects of colonialism for this, and to a certain extent, global hegemony. Because we’re ( a general “we”, not necessarily me) made to feel we have to compete for elusive spots and therefore must perpetuate that myth in order to make it. Pretty much like the patriarchal glass ceiling. I’m glad more of us are trying to smash this rhetoric, and are moving away from the perceived centers. As for me, I languish in my own little corner here, obscure. But! Thanks for the mention muchly :) People tend to forget I’m (1) Malaysian (2) SF/F. A lot! So I’m quite touched to be remembered.

    • Zen May 12, 2013 at 3:57 pm #

      Because we’re ( a general “we”, not necessarily me) made to feel we have to compete for elusive spots and therefore must perpetuate that myth in order to make it.

      This is really insightful! I think you’re right, and that there are these competing forces at work — on the one hand we crave community; on the other hand there is this sense that there only needs to be ONE of us. Who needs more than one writer of Malaysian SFF? If there were too many the novelty would soon wear off, etc. etc. So there’s this pressure to perpetuate the idea that we are singular. And I wonder whether the very common insistence that we do not get enough support from our countries/communities of origin has some of its source in our fear of losing out in the West — who doesn’t like to be told, “You’re the only one who appreciates me”? (Not, of course, that any of this is necessarily conscious or intentional — and it’s true there isn’t a huge amount of support for the arts locally, but I think most artists, apart from a favoured minority, never get as much recognition or validation as they would like, even in countries where the arts scene is more developed.)

      Anyway, you are very welcome — and let me know if you know or know of anybody who should be on the list and isn’t!

      • Nin May 13, 2013 at 5:56 am #

        I won’t deny that as a teen growing up, I did have a bit of a “precious little snowflake” thing going on, but that does tend to happen to those of us who are outliers, whether it’s because we’re hybrid, or unfortunate enough to have been brought up speaking English, or because of our IQ — but as a teen in Sungai Petani I was hardly the only person writing fantasy in-between classes. I may have instigated some of that ;) but there were actual good writers in my class. I think most of them stopped writing after they “grew up” though. Which is a pity. Malaysia has so many SFF nerds, I’m confident we can be our own self-sustaining market at some point. I mean, I always bump into the nerds, seriously.

        Perceptions have to change though. I think you’ve mentioned almost everyone I know of. There are a couple others, I think but I have forgotten their names. Will get back to you once I remember anyone else. Also, are we just considering Malaysians born in Malaysia? If not, don’t forget Tessa Kum who has been affiliated with Weird Tales because she’s an AWESOME writer, and she’s half-Malaysian. I’m deeply introverted, but your post(s) have me a bit sheepish that I have not gone out to actually find/engage with the local writing communities. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa. Maybe introversion is part of this issue? I suspect I’m not the only local SFF writer who has this particular personality disposition.

        • Zen May 20, 2013 at 11:25 pm #

          You grew up in SP? So cool! That’s my mom’s kampung. I don’t know it super well actually because when we go we only ever hang out in my grandma’s living room or kitchen.

          I knew a lot of precious snowflake teens, haha, and was one myself. It probably just comes with being a teenager.

          I think arguably Malaysia already is a self-sustaining SFF market, just not in English? I confess I don’t know much about Malay-language publishing but wouldn’t be surprised if you could make a living out of it. (You’d be able to try crossing over to Indonesia as well, which’d embiggen your market.) But yeah, I know what you mean about being surrounded by Malaysian nerds!

          I consider everybody Malaysian who identifies as Malaysian. (I mean, there are probably limits to my inclusiveness, but “Malaysian” is not so attractive an appellation that I’ve yet been tested!) I’ll add Tessa Kum to the list — thanks!

  4. Nin May 12, 2013 at 1:35 pm #

    PS: I’ve muttered elsewhere that it would be awesome if there was an SF/F con for SEA readers and writers. I’m sure one day it will happen. There’s plenty of us now.

  5. Horlix June 17, 2013 at 4:37 am #

    I’m not a professional writer or anything but I grew up on a diet of books, and found that scifi/fantasy and especially sf/f crossovers are my preferred genre of reading. Like any other reader I eventually started making up these stories in my head. One day a realization hit me, you call it HIghlander syndrome.

    I look at my stories and I see nothing which indicates the culture I belong to (malaysian). I confess in the first short stories I wrote all the protagonists were white people, I was unconsciously doing what I hated to see in western media.

    • Zen June 17, 2013 at 8:12 pm #

      I’m not sure if I’d call that Highlander syndrome as such, though it’s probably related/caused by the same things? The Highlander thing is more, like, I see a lot of M’sian geeks seeming to think they are the ONLY ONE OF THEIR KIND. Which, you know, geeks in general tend to feel! But Asians especially, perhaps. I don’t think that’s true.

      I also wrote white protagonists primarily when I first started writing. You learn from what you read — but hopefully you can learn better later!

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