Disclaimer: Most of my thoughts here are speculative and in no way constitute definitive statements on the state of Bruneian literature in English. For more rigorous analyses, I can point you towards some of my academic work on Bruneian literature in particular: I have an article in the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, a book chapter in The Use and Status of English in Brunei Darussalam: A Kingdom of Unexpected Linguistic Diversity, a forthcoming chapter in a volume called Women in Postcolonial Southeast Asian Literature and another forthcoming article in a special issue of the journal World Englishes. I discuss various aspects of Bruneian literature and narrative-making in English and Malay in these publications, including representations of women, horror story tropes, and the imaginative horizons of Bruneian fiction.
I have followed with interest the development of local writing movements, including original theatrical productions such as Jongsarat by non-profit organization Seeds, and the writing jams and Spoken Word events organized by indie publishers Heartwrite. When talking to people interested in these events, it seems to me that there is a general desire for literary and artistic community, but that there is also uncertainty about positioning oneself within a genealogy of Bruneian narrative-making. Faiq Airudin puts it excellently in his post about Bruneian Creative Industries and the tendency to “firstisms”; I hope this article will be of interest to Bruneian writers and readers interested in Bruneian literary history in English.
I leave it to someone much more informed than me to write something on Bruneian theatre and local productions (which I will obviously read with great interest).
Existing Bruneian literature in English
First, a look at the numbers. I’ve compiled what I think is a fairly comprehensive list of Bruneian literature in English (a version of this list first appeared earlier this year in the Springer chapter referenced above), although I strongly suspect that there are other works that I’m not aware of.
One of my motivations for writing this article for Open Brunei is to crowdsource information on Anglophone Bruneian literature – defined in this article as literature written primarily in English, and is about Brunei or by a Bruneian. I’m hoping that if any readers know of a text that fits the criteria, you’ll let me know so that we can build a comprehensive corpus of information.
(Open Brunei team adds: Kathrina says she can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Some facts and figures
(Click the tabs below to browse the tables for Fiction, Drama, and Poetry)
|Year of publication||Title||Author||Publisher|
|2009||The Wild Men of the East||Selamat Munap||Raider Publishing|
|2010||Crosswise the Boulevard: An Extraordinary Love Saga||M. Faisal||Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka|
|2011||Four Kings||Christopher Sun||CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform|
|2013||The Forlorn Adventure||Amir Falique||Trafford Publishing|
|2014||Written in Black||KH Lim||Monsoon Books|
|2016||The Last Bastion of Ingei||Aammton Alias||Smashwords|
|Year of publication||Title||Author||Publisher|
|2014||In the spotlight: An Anthology of Bruneian plays in English||Edited by Grace VS Chin||Creative Industries Research Cluster, Universiti Brunei Darussalam|
|Year of publication||Title||Author||Publisher|
|1998||Under the Canopy and Other Poems: English Poetry in Brunei||Edited by Vaughan Rapatahana||Center for British Teachers|
|2004||Brunei River and Other Poems (Translation)||Azeez||Star Trading & Printing Sdn Bhd|
|2009||The Swan Scripts||Shai Omarali||CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform|
|2009||Young Dreams||Izzati Jamil||Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka|
|2012||Tribute to Brunei and Other Poems||John Onu Odihi||Trafford Publishing|
|2013||Streak of Colour||Winter Frostt||Trafford Publishing|
|2015||Moments of Nil||Flora Tavu||Partridge Singapore|
I’m aware that there are more texts that reference Brunei in part or whole, including at least one novel, Anthony Burgess’ Devil of a State (1961), and a few memoirs, including Rachael Ann Malai’s The Cow Jumped Over The Moon: The Strange and Extraordinary Tale of a Nervous Breakdown (2007), Jillian Lauren’s Some Girls: My Life in a Harem (2010) and Lizzie Harwood’s Xamnesia: Everything I Forgot in My Search for an Unreal Life (2015). But I don’t include non-fiction in my overview, and I’m not sure yet how to categorize Anthony Burgess’ work.
Based on the tables above:
- There have been 6 novels and 7 poetry collections written about Brunei or by a Bruneian
- There is only one anthology of scripts in English
- 12 out of 14 Anglophone Bruneian texts were written after the year 2009
- 5 of these texts were published in Brunei – 3 or 4 of these were initiated and compiled by institutions or agencies for education in Brunei (CfBT and UBD)
- 2 texts were published by the National Language and Literature Bureau (Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka)
- At least 5 of these texts were published in Singapore (3 with Trafford Publishing)
- At least 4 of these texts were self-published
From the numbers above, we can make a few interesting observations.
- Firstly, there has been an exponential increase in the production of Bruneian literature in English since 2009 – that is, in the last 7 years. I have no idea what happened in 2009 to trigger this sudden output. I can hazard a hypothesis about the growing blogging culture in Brunei during that period and its relationship with an increased community of writers in English, but it would be speculative at best.
- Secondly, Bruneian literature in English has, by and large, been published outside of Brunei, with a strong bias towards self-published works. In the global community, there is less of a stigma associated with self-publishing than there used to be; self-publishing and vanity publishing are no longer interchangeable concepts. Partly this has come from a changing business model, influenced by such factors as the proliferation of e-books, the widespread appeal of fanfiction, cheap modes of production etc.
- Thirdly, the most obvious fact of all – there is quantitatively very little Bruneian literature in English. I’ve identified 14 texts above. Correspondingly there is a much more established corpus of Bruneian literature in Malay. Bruneian literature in Malay has a much older tradition than in English (although it is by no means objectively very old – the first Bruneian novel, “Bendahara Menjadi Sultan” was published in 1951, followed by a novel in 1952 and then one in 1981. Prior to this, Syair Rakis, an epic poem widely considered the first modern literary text in Brunei, was published in 1847).
- Fourthly, there have been no published novels in English by a Bruneian female. Two females, Izzati Jamil and Flora Tavu, have published poetry collections; the only anthology of scripts in English was compiled and edited by Grace VS Chin. However, all the novels have been written by men.
I initially wanted to do some ethnographic work on the ethnicities, ages and other demographic properties of the writers, but I decided not to wade into that pool just yet. I think there’s a lot of stuff to mine there, but it should probably be done more rigorously and sensitively than is possible in this article.
Bruneian-ness as represented in Bruneian novels
For me, one of the interesting things about Anglophone Bruneian literature is the way that Brunei and MIB are represented.
Choice of Language
In some ways, one of my colleagues argues that the very use of English to write fiction remains a subversive choice, that resists the national imperative to prioritize Malay. Given how widely bilingual Bruneians are, I would posit instead that for many Bruneians, it is simply a pragmatic choice. I would agree however that possessing a good command of English has a cultural capital that is still tied to our relationship with the West, and with England in particular. In other words, because of our history as a former British protectorate, and the close relationship we continue to have with the UK, a good command of English is still something covetable.
This ideological relationship with the West may also have something to do with how Anglophone Bruneian novels are written. I suspect that Bruneian literature in English tends to mimic Western models and genres of literature. The Western settings and details are replaced with Bruneian ones, but otherwise the novels stick fairly close to the forms and content of Western literature, instead of exploring what a uniquely Bruneian literature in English might look like.
Ideologies and Themes
Due to all of these interesting implications in the use of language, I might have expected the values and ideology of Bruneian literature written in English to critique traditional Bruneian values and ideologies.
Instead, what I found was that the ideology and values in the Anglophone Bruneian novels I read were surprisingly conservative and traditional. This was particularly the case in Amir Falique’s The Forlorn Adventure, a time-travel novel about the first Bruneian astronaut who goes into space in 2014, and due to a series of events and cryogenic freeze, wakes up 500 years later. During the course of his code-breaking adventure, the protagonist, A’jon, visits the Brunei of 2550 and attempts to save the world from destruction.
Sci-fi novels as a genre tend to have a lot of resistant social commentary. The exploration of alternative dimensions, worlds, societies, often acts as an allegory or metaphor or analogy to critique the status quo. However, in The Forlorn Adventure, the exploration of time travel functions not to critique the status quo, but to reinforce it.
In the Brunei of the future, the symbols which have survived are symbols of national identity – the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien mosque dominates an otherwise urban landscape of high speed transportation, the lush tropical rainforest has become a global tourist attraction, and the monarchy remains intact, with the Sultan of 2550 a direct descendant of the current Sultan. A shopkeeper with a (cringingly represented) Chinese accent emphasizes that racial boundaries are still intact. A’jon’s host is a Malay man who demonstrates his worldliness with his collection of Western paraphernalia. The values of Melayu Islam Beraja have survived (if not evolved) in the 500+ years since A’jon’s own time, clearly staking out its immutability as a timeless ideology.
Written in Black has a different approach to the idea of Bruneian-ness, which, while also largely uncritical, offers an interesting insight into the icons and symbols which have been earmarked as constituting a particular Bruneian culture.
A coming-of-age story of a Chinese boy modeled on Huckleberry Finn, in an attempt to bring his brother home for their grandfather’s funeral, Jonathan Lee goes on a series of adventures through Brunei. He encounters a poklen community, a sad shopkeeper (I feel like shopkeepers perhaps are a big theme in Bruneian literature) with voodoo dolls, and generally taking the reader on a ride through the “exotica” of Brunei. That poklens, bomohs and landscape come to stand in for Bruneian culture is an interesting comment on what is normative, what is exotic and novel, and the discourse of counter-cultures in Brunei.
In the anthology In the Spotlight, Brunei is represented in these plays as a place of limits and restrictions, which are seen as something to be preserved rather than defied. While deviant and transgressive behaviour is allowed to exist beyond the borders of Brunei, in the plays the transgressors willingly exile themselves. This behaviour suggests that while the transgressors are unable to stop their “deviant” behaviour, they nonetheless recognise the “deviance” of their behaviour, and still subscribe to the morality and ideology which codifies their behaviour as such. Their self-imposed exile also denotes their continuing loyalty to the values of the nation-state and their commitment to upholding this ideology.
For more of my thoughts on it and its place in the Bruneian canon, you can read the article I co-wrote with a colleague for the Journal of Commonwealth Literature (referenced in the Preamble).
In conclusion, Bruneian-ness in Anglophone Bruneian novels, it seems to me, subscribe to a reinforcement of national markers and narratives of identity. 1
1. There’s still a lack of critical mass in Bruneian literature, both in English and to a lesser but still notable extent, in Malay. It’s definitely difficult as a scholar to work with such a paucity of texts. I suspect that as a writer, with so little literary heritage (in English) to draw on, the representative responsibility of writing an imagined Brunei is partly why novels have drawn on Western models. In Written in Black’s “Disclaimer”, KH Lim writes,
This is a work of fiction. Although many of the places, situations and people in the story are inspired by my own personal experiences while growing up in Brunei, most of the location names are made up and this book is not meant to be regarded as autobiographical in any way, nor is it meant to be taken as a definitive description of day-to-day Bruneian life.To the reader interested in learning more about Brunei, there is plenty of information available on the web for your perusal. Or better yet, you could go over and see for yourself.
So many interesting things to parse in this disclaimer! I’ll just pick this out – there is a clear acknowledgement of something scholars of minority literature have long known: for minority writers or writers who write about places or people which have known little literary exposure, they will (fairly or unfairly) encounter expectations of representation. There is huge pressure not only for representation, but to wholly and comprehensively represent their infinite multiplicities and facets of reality. This expectation disappears only when there are enough voices and varieties of voices, reaching a level of quantity and visibility so that no single voice is expected to carry the weight of the whole.
2. There is a desperate need to develop and continue developing a culture of critique and conversation. Art thrives on scholarship, on readership, on critique and review and attention – art can resist, defy, refuse all these things, but it is always in conversation with it. Art that is only in conversation with itself, that does not push back against other minds and modes, will struggle to go anywhere. (I hope this will prove impetus for Hazirah to write a sequel to her excellent thoughts on a culture of critique in Brunei.)
3. Is increasing the quantity and quality of Bruneian literature in English dependent, to some extent, on government support? I’m skeptical and also a little wary about this, but it’s worth discussing. It’s a question that often comes up in policy-making about the arts in the ASEAN and regional context.
There are so many more things that could be said or studied about Bruneian literature in English, creative communities in Brunei, and so on. I’m particularly interested in the material modes of production of texts; ideological work being done, the linguistic properties of Bruneian fiction, especially its bilingualism, and representations of religion. Increasingly, I’m also interested in the form that creative communities in Brunei have taken, and the function they serve in the Bruneian creative ecosystem. 2 I would love to hear from any readers on any or all of these.
I also want to acknowledge digital media and platforms and the important work sites like Songket Alliance and Mode Seram do in creating and encouraging a bulk and body of work by Bruneian writers. The prevalent trend of self-publishing and publishing Bruneian literature in English overseas suggests to me that “traditional” publishing in Brunei may not be the future of Bruneian narratives, for a variety of reasons that I won’t go into here (mostly because they’re highly speculative). I’m definitely excited to see the results of the recent Open Call for submissions on Bruneian identity by Heartwrite.
What are your thoughts?
- What do you think has contributed to increase in the production of Bruneian literature in English since 2009?
- Have you read the novels mentioned – The Forlorn Adventure or Written in Black – and how do you think they represented Bruneian-ness?
- Finally, do you know of any Bruneian texts written primarily in English, and is about Brunei or by a Bruneian not mentioned? Please contact the author with the details!
Add your comment below!