Writing in English is a very controversial act in Malaysia and Singapore. In her article "Voices from the Hinterland" (World Literature Written in English 28.1) Shirley Geok Lin Lim tells us that many people in these countries view English "as a non-native language . . . incapable of providing traditional Asian cultural values" (145). English has been considered the language of the oppressors (British) and, therefore, not suitable to expressing the experience of people in these two countries. Such a bias has caused some critics to distrust writings in English, a concern has been expressed since the 1950s, and continues even now. But many of the writers today are fluent in English, and Lim believes that their writing is representative of modern Asian writing. She states that Malaysian/Singapore writers in English are not only using Indian or Chinese symbolism and Hindu or Buddhist/Confucian ideas, they "are at the same time involved with examining Malaysian experience and depicting their societies on authentically native ground" (147). English has become a part of their experience. The question becomes not whether authors should be writing in English, but whether they can do it well.
Some critics worry, however, that writing in English further marginalizes women writers in these countries. To be accepted as a "legitimate" writer a woman not only has to adopt the accepted forms of writing in a male-controlled world, but also adopt a more Westernized style of literature and woman's place within that body of work: "Asian women writers in the twentieth century were and continue to be marginalized first by gender in socio-political structures that have no functions for women except as nurturers (nurses, teachers, lovers, mothers, what is called the helping professions). They are marginalized also, in nations where national identity has been forcibly equated with a national language policy, by their choice of writing in English" (Lim 1990, 154). Most of the English writers will also have been schooled in Western literature, again further alienating these women from their own culture. Within such a restricted realm, a woman is not able to find "herself" nor can she relate her experience to her readers. But Lim believes that the act of writing is revolutionary by itself, and that women can overcome the marginalization imposed by both society and writing in a second tongue. Since there are so few stories written by Asian women of their own experiences, the most important act a woman can do is to write and tell her story as honestly as possible. With the writing comes the liberation.
So, too, are there questions about the translation of stories into another language. While the majority of the fictions listed in this bibliography were originally written in English, some have been translated from the Chinese, Tamil, or Malay. Translations offer their own set of questions including the translator's prejudices and the inability to find adequate phrases in the new language. But whatever concerns may accompany these stories, the writers have given us an instructive and memorable look at the lives of women in Malaysia and Singapore, and we come to see not only the differences but the similarities in our lives.
Shirley Geok Lin Lim. "Semiotics, Experience and the Material Self: An Inquiry Into the Subject of the Contemporary Asian Woman Writer." Women's Studies 18 (1990): 153-75.
Shirley Geok Lin Lim. "Voices from the Hinterland: Plurality and Identity in the National Literatures in English from Malaysia and Singapore." World Literature Written in English 28.1 (1988): 145-53.
A columnist for New Strait Times and translator. She has written several novels.
--. "Night of Reckoning." Anthology of Contemporary Malaysian Literature. Muhammad Haji Salleh, ed. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa Dan Puskaka, Ministry of Education, 1988. 53-60.
--. "A Certain Cry. …