Re-Situating Literary Studies

Mellowers Café & Flat Whites with Nazry Bahrawi

In this exclusive sit-down session with Dr. Nazry Bahrawi of SUTD at the cosy Mellowers Cafe in Bugis, we explore his  multifaceted work as a critic, educator and translator. Over two cups of flat white, he shares how critical, pedagogical and creative endeavours converge in a proposal to reframe our conception of literary studies and literature in Singapore from a primarily Western/Anglo-centric one towards a greater acknowledgement and engagement with the location of Singapore in the geo-cultural spaces of Southeast Asia.

0 | Nazry and Coffee

Shall we sit at the regular tables or at the one with bean bags? Okay, bean bags. Here is your flat white. No problem. I insist. Let’s jump straight in, shall we?

1 | Nazry as Critic

In most of our cultural configurations of ‘the world’, whether it is teaching literature in Singapore from the ‘O’ to the ‘A’ Levels, or the conception and framing of literary studies inside and outside institutions, there seems to be a focus on nation-centric, Anglo-centric, and even period-centric literature. First, a clarification. With the fairly recent push for Singapore Literature or SingLit, it is important not to make SingLit the panacea to this largely Western-centric conception of literary studies which most of us are acquainted with. I believe it is a positive step, this advocacy for SingLit, yet we cannot rely on it to solve our dependency on Western literary knowledges. Instead, we need to rethink our dependency on (shall we call it something like) an “Anglo-geoculturalism” in conceiving literary studies, or literature originally written in English. In this vein, translation has been significantly discounted to date, on the assumption that it often opens up a can of worms. Yet, an increased focus on the importance of translation can bring literary studies outside of its domains of aesthetic and formalist analyses to cross disciplines, allowing texts to enter into conversation with, and comment on, the configuration of the world it re-presents. This way, I think there is an opportunity here to align literary studies with the  centralisation of Singapore as a geocultural port of exchange and encounter, much like how it is recognised such in the sphere of  trade.

Before we go further, I think it is important to note that categories function as a means of controlling knowledge in a scientistic manner. Categorising as a method is the move to reduce elements to their most irreducible unit  possible. So when I speak of the term ‘geocultural’, I am already appealing to categorisation as a method, and yet I am also co-opting this method, introducing a category that tries to resist and avoid stereotypes.

Another point of clarification: why ‘geocultural’ and not ‘geopolitical’? Geopolitics tends to constrain discussion to issues of decolonisation,  nation-state formation, post-independence and multilateral formations like ASEAN, which can end up diluting deeper connections across national boundaries. For example, the idea of Indian Ocean cultures is one which cannot fit neatly into current geopolitical formations. This is not to say that politics does not play an important role, but that we need to widen our conception of literary studies, seeing it from alternative applications and frames.

I refer here to the work of Ronit Ricci in her book Islam, Translated: Literature, Conversion, and the Arabic Cosmopolis of South and Southeast Asia to expand this point. She studied how an ancient Arabic text was translated, and adapted in South Asia and Southeast Asia communities over time. In doing so, she inadvertently  replaces an Anglophonic conception of the world with an alternative Arabophonic conception of the world. This is one where the cultures of South Asia and Southeast Asia were connected to a cosmopolis that is Arabic in origin, one that was not prompted by Anglophone developments, skipping entirely the presumably common historical trajectory of the European Enlightenment, thus suggesting  a non-Western trajectory of modernity. Such work resists the easy classification of East versus West that we are familiar with today.

Then there is the academic literary field of Comparative Literature, which attempts to study literary and cultural expressions across languages, nations and disciplines. It is a kind of international relations study of  languages and artistic traditions with an emphasis on reading and comparing texts in their original tongue. Often, comparison is practised across works of different languages, but comparison of works in one language can be practised too if they come from different cultures or nations that speak the same language. Here, the dominant debate centres around whether Comparative Literature is a Eurocentric academic practice and how we can avoid unequal representations. Of course, its connections to Translation Studies cannot be understated.

Instead, I am interested  in whether there can be a practice of comparative literature in Southeast Asia that takes into account the character(istics) of the region. Here , we cannot fully divorce ourselves from the discipline of Area Studies, which is premised on the idea that the world is divided into ‘stereotypical’ regions for research, and that the point is to understand the features of local cultures and knowledge. My preferred version of Area Studies does not overlook and forget existing power relations. In fact, it must avoid enacting an ‘othering’ gaze or position in its comparative work.

Let us take a brief digression on Southeast Asian geopolitics first. One way we can divide Southeast Asia is to use the two categories of maritime Southeast Asia (ocean cultures) and landlocked Southeast Asia (Hindu-Buddhist cultures). Here the locality, more than the politics, cannot be neatly divorced. We can observe how traders who  came through the Malacca Straits navigated monsoon winds and often used to stay in their port towns  of choice  until the monsoon wind changes (effectively, they stay around for about 3 to 6 months per visit). With this kind of short-term residence in Batavia, Singapore, Malacca, we see inter-marriages happen between  male foreign traders and  local women. Peranakan culture started that way. Chinese traders came, married locally, making  the first matriarch of their lineage a Malay woman. Overtime, their culture evolves as they decide to settle. Religion also changes along with that. For example, there is now the co-existence of Confucian-Taoist traditions with Christianity.

So how does all of these leave an impact on literature or literary studies in this region? Or of a comparative literature practice in Southeast Asia? I posit here that a sense of greater situatedness in literary studies would be productive. This bleeds into wider conversations about the place and purpose of literary studies. By re-injecting a sense of place and history, and the cultures that developed as part of Southeast Asia being this  meeting of many cultures, we can observe the development of many literary forms. For example, you have the art of travel writing (rihlah) from Arabic writing which started as biographical journals and turned to travel novels when it arrives in Southeast Asia (perantau). Another question comes up here: if the Arabs moved to Southeast Asia, then why hadn’t the Malays of the region travelled outwards and spread their literary forms elsewhere? It is likely that because the Malay Archipelago is itself already a maritime region, there is a cultural sense that you don’t need to go beyond the Archipelago because you would already be travelling between worlds within this world. In perantau literature, you see, for instance, literary accounts of travels that transpire between Malacca-Singapore-Kelantan as these were recorded by Munshi Abdullah, who is hailed  to be the father of modern Malay literature. The man was very much an admirer of Sir Stamford Raffles and was quite the Anglophile. As a polylinguist, his most controversial work was to translate the Bible into Malay, but it was his love for the English language that drove him to do that rather than any form of intended blasphemy. Elsewhere, in terms of modernising the rihla, you have the writings of Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian writer who won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature. You can use lens of comparative literature to account for the shifts across his realist and fantastical phases of writing. You can compare literature across the two  forms of Bahasa languages, namely, Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia in the way the Indonesian literary critic Maman Mahayana has done. Singapore falls squarely within this region, and so it would be productive to compare writings across these two cultures in this geocultural fashion.

So we can trace how cultures develop in Southeast Asia, a region that takes in many major cultures and then reproduces them as its own. Literary forms also develop in this manner and in the reverse. You have the pantun being reinscribed as the pantoum in France. The Indonesian artist Eddy Susanto had outlined the similarities between narratives of the princely character Panji, expressed through shadow puppetry (wayang kulit) and those of the Japanese character Genji, also a prince whose story has been expressed as an opera performance. You see, there is room for comparative literature to be productive in this part of the world: if you look at Europe, you tend to focus on Abrahamic Faith-centric cultures, but here you can compare between maritime Southeast Asia and landlocked Southeast Asia, and between the array of cultures between them.

I am reminded of a quote by the Singapore playwright Kuo Pao Kun about cultures and trees: something akin to the idea that if you go beneath the canopy of trees, into the soil, you can see their  roots entwine, sharing the same nutrients. It is often used to describe the commonality of  Singapore’s organic multiculturalism, but I reckon this may be extended to describe maritime Southeast Asia? I sense here a previously unseen  link between Pao Kun and Franco Moretti’s work as a world literature scholar in Graphs, Maps, Trees too but maybe that’s another conversation to be had within the field of world literature.




2 | Nazry as Educator

I teach several kinds of applied humanities courses at SUTD (Singapore University of Technology and Design). I think this idea can be a disciplinary interjection in the teaching of literature in Singapore on a larger scale. In an institution like SUTD which  has liberal arts inclinations, and which proposes a different kind of pedagogy, there arises the opportunity to position and even challenge literary folks to make ourselves relevant in a primarily STEM environment. Technically, we are already speaking to a skeptical audience who are  probably not going to engage much with literary studies on their own.

What I notice most about Singapore’s technocratic education is that we have a propensity for solution-centric thinking. So the value of learning literature is that it can be pitched against this over-enthusiastic need to propose solutions to problems. In literary studies, we spend more time dwelling on problems, sometimes too much, but I believe this  mulling over is an important venture to guard us against  the perils of technological determinism. We literary folks, even humanities folks, can be a kind of wet blanket, but  an essential blanket, to get people to take a step back and rethink their positions on technology and progress. This point is very pertinent to me working within the traditional setting of a university. It has inadvertently and pleasantly convinced me that  literary studies can have worldly implication.

Originally, I begin with the idea that literature can promote empathy in terms of application to STEM students. But I quickly I realise that this has a limited appeal. Instead the key takeaway from literary studies for STEM students is that it engages them at the level and language of design. We are, after all, speaking to designers, architects, engineers. The key to make literary studies relevant to them is therefore through the idea of design: so I begun exploring how texts were designed, how readers reacted to the design of the texts, how the design of the literary marketplace matters in the promotion and reception of texts.

I teach two elective modules at the SUTD. The first is  titled Multicultural Archipelago in History and Story, which I co-teach with a colleague. We assess our students not via academic essays but through exams, placing emphasis on having the students articulate concepts. There are two parts to their exam: a short answer that gets them to explain a concept, and a longer essay where they are asked to critically reflect on of the assigned texts on the module. Basically we are looking at the Archipelago as region that processes many different cultures. We replace the common adjective ‘Malay’ with ‘Multicultural’, with the intention of provoking a deeper cross-cultural engagement between our students and the texts. This is not to deny the Malay character of the region but rather to avoid an essentialist view of Malay culture for our students.

The other module I teach is The Word and the World, which is an introduction to literary theory. The title itself stems from my emphasis of applying literary studies (‘The Word’) to its context (‘The World’). In terms of assessment, I get students to produce a piece of creative work that is inspired by a cultural event that they attended. This gets them to get out into the real world and attend cultural events, to reflect on what people are discussing and engaging on, and finally to express this reflection in a form that they would not normally use. So students can produce anything from a piece of drawing, to a podcast, a poem or any form of creative project they would like to suggest. It is a form of paraphrasing we are getting them to do by changing the form of their response, which entrenches their understanding of knowledge by having students reproduce the knowledge in their own way and form of understanding.

What has been surprising for me while teaching at SUTD is that engineers can read and are willing to read as long as you hit the right buttons — in this case, that button is the language of design. They do love and appreciate literature and are not stereotypically formulaic in their thinking, but their initial interest in literature has to be coaxed out of them, which requires engaging them first on their turf, because for most of these students, their initial experience of humanities is, mostly, economics, which is closer to a social science subject as it is taught here. But that is how economics is categorised in junior colleges. Sure, it can be done at the ‘A’ Levels in a humanities sort of way but this is still far off from doing something like literature.


3 | Nazry as Translator

Speaking of paraphrasing, we can see this as a form of translating. A literary translator like myself is engaged with the task of connecting two points, to highlight literatures that people would not normally read in their own language or culture. Also, it is important to note that a translator does not need to agree with everything the author whom s/he translates. Translators and writers need not be like-minded, and can disagree as long as there is an acknowledgement of that in the translator’s note. Personally, I prefer to do this in the form of an afterword or an epilogue, rather than an introduction at the start of a text. To me, if a translator writes an introduction as a sort of prologue to the text then s/he has already coloured the mind of the reader. I prefer to have people think of translation issues on hindsight.

You could say that translators tend to translate into the language they feel more connected to. So in my case, I would consider myself connecting better with English given that  I translate from Bahasa Melayu to English. At some point I would like to do the reverse, to translate English texts into Bahasa Melayu, but for now I find that I am more expressive in English. An idea I have been toying with is to translate Nietzschean ideas in his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra into Malay, but I have to consider the tabooness of the idea, this notion of ‘God is Dead’ and how it could be received by a staunchly Islamic crowd. It may not be the most palatable idea to be rendered into Bahasa Melayu.

The first time I wrote an afterword for a translation was for a play by the 1988 Cultural Medallion winner Almahdi Al-Haj Ibrahim, or better known as Nadiputra. The play is called Muzika Lorong Buangkok based on the last kampung in Singapore. The second time I wrote an afterword was for my translation of a collection of short stories by Mohamed Latiff Mohamed (2013 Cultural Medallion winner) titled Lost Nostalgia which will was launched at Singapore Writers’ Festival this year. For my next project, I’m intending to translate Hikayat Faridah Hanom, or Chronicles of Faridah Hanom, hailed as the first Malay novel in the region (circa early 20th Century) written by a Muslim of Arab descent based in Singapore named Syed Sheykh  Al-Hadi. He had reformist ideas about  Islam that challenged  the traditional practices of Islam at the time. Although the story is totally set in Egypt, it is still considered to be a Malay novel written by an Arab based here in the Malay world. This is interesting from the perspective of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that holds how the structure of language that you learn shapes the way you think. In what ways had Al-Hadi writing in Bahasa Melayu makes a Middle Eastern tale Malay? Complicating things further, here is a novel written by a man writing about a woman. It is interesting to think of Al-Hadi from a feminist lens.

I guess my philosophy of translation is that it is a creative work in its own right and that there is no such thing as an original in the purest sense of the word. Southeast Asia is itself can be said to be a translated region, or a region prone to translation where people encounter foreign cultures like Arabic and European, transform them and reproduce them  to suit their contexts. This is not just limited to language alone. It is in fact a philosophical outlook on life which seems to affect both Arab-centric and Anglo-centric cultures that have entered the region. In literary studies we tend to figure influence mostly as a one-sided move stemming from Anglo-centric literature. Perhaps this could be the reason why even with our geopolitics, we tend to neglect our own historical geoculture. We think we can gain economic riches by becoming more intimate with the West, and we believe we become better too if we inherit and inhabit literary traditions from Anglo-centric traditions. But in the age of rising Asia, this is something we can afford to give pause and give greater consideration.

A funny comment to finish off. When people  asked me what my religion is, I would say Literature, with a capital L, the concept of it. I believe in the value of embracing a literary outlook of life and what that can bring to an individual. Sure, it is not a theistic religion, but in the mental acrobatics accorded by the unconventionality of literary works, there is for me a sense of faith that encapsulates the entirety of human wisdom, which in a way is also what religions aspire to do.

DR. NAZRY BAHRAWI is a faculty member at the Singapore University of Technology and Design specialising in the study of world literature, translation studies as well as Islam and culture between the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Trained in comparative literature under the tutelage of the translation theorist Susan Bassnett, Nazry has also translated several creative works from Bahasa Melayu into English, including Nadiputra’s play Muzika Lorong Buang Kok (2012) and Mohamed Latiff Mohamed’s collection of short stories, Lost Nostalgia (2017). He is the associate editor of the UK-based journal Critical Muslim, and former interview editor for Asymptote. His socio-cultural commentaries have been published in international news agencies like The Guardian, Al-Jazeera, South China Morning Post, and Today.

Photo credit: Nazry Bahrawi


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