Thursday, August 15, 2013


continuation of part one posted on 10.8.13

(A draft of speech/paper  to be delivered  at: An International Conference, The Asian Heritage Forum: The Legacy of Women Intellectuals of Asia organized by Institute of Thai Studies and Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University, 10-11 September 2013).

What you see in front of you today is a survivor. There are more who  have started but failed to overcome the obstacles against them. My own true story is a clear indication of   the unequal opportunity for education.  My grandmother’s worries of my roaming about around the compound only show the belief  that  girls should not be alone by herself.  She gave some clear instruction that I should be accompanied and I lost my privacy. My habit of spending too much time with books did not make them happy. They said why don't I spend more time improving my skill on cooking and sowing so that they can be proud of me. 

The customary and domestic obligations and the burdens of child bearing and rearing are well known   factors that suppress artistic talents.  I too have the experience of having to stay home with my little toddlers during which it was impossible to produce anything of literary standard. Later, when I managed to break away  I  sum up those  depressing situations in  a short story entitled Catatan Di Meja Makan ( Writing on the Dining Table) first published in   1983 in our national newspaper. The short story  is an example of how personal experiences are put to literature.The protagonist is named Hamima, an upcoming short story writer who left her  job to look after  her small children. She became  desperate when routine of a housewife  took her away from her writing (and herself). Indeed . the protagonist is speaking my own desperation in a life that offer no sense of satisfaction and purpose. Those were the times when I considered myself  a failed poet and a failed person. During the period, I  wrote very little partly due to  fatigue  of household chores and attending to  small children’s constant needs and the fatigue of suppressed anger and dissatisfaction.  I lost contact with the world and the contact with my own being.
When Hamima had no choice but to give up her job to become a full time housewife, she thought she could  manage her time:
            So I planned my schedule properly. I allocate time for the various tasks of a housewife,     working the hours and minutes needed for cooking, sweeping , ironing ,washing          plates, tidying the kitchen so that I could have sometime left for my writing. I have to be     careful             if I were to maintain as a writer and not die off   like so many of them before me.        I told   my self that  I am not going   to give up. After all isn’t there a saying “hendak seribu   daya” (you will try a thousand ways if you really want something)

And later she found out that there is no such thing as time tabling  in a housewife job because it is full of the unexpected. There is no way of telling when the child is getting sick, at what time  is he going to  slip and fall,  when is any one smear tomato  sauce on the floor. She felt empty and depressed for not being to write. She envied the men for it is easy for them to do anything. For instance a male writer could sit at the table with his books as long as he wanted to.

            Today I manage to steal some time to read the Literature Magazine. There is an      interview with our leading novelist Amran Hadi.  Bapa Amran was talking about his     commitments to writing and also his secret of success. He talked about the  understanding   wife who keep the children away, preventing them from disturbing him so that he could          concentrate on his writing.

The novelist, who is a big name said he is lucky to have such an understanding wife. Hamima sigh, yes bapa Imran is lucky but can she do the same? What will happen to the children if she lock herself up in the room to write?. The children will cry for her. They demand attention and disturb her even when she wanted to write, even when she is hungry and need to eat and even when she is sick and need a rest.

Besides Writing on the Dinner Table there are more short stories on the problems of being a woman and a writer.  Siti Hawa Dan Pengembara Yang Singgah (Siti Hawa And The Traveler Who Stop By) is about a student and  a promising poet named Siti Hawa having a romantic relationship with Andy, a visiting lecturer who is himself a poet and a literary critique.  Andy assured Hawa of her talent and  encouraged her to pursue her artistic aspiration. To be a successful writer she should travel and see the world and break away from social and cultural bondage. Hawa finally decided against it because she cannot leave behind a beloved and sickly mother.  Apart from Writing on the Dining Table Siti Hawa And The Traveler Who Stop By) there are other stories that depict the plight of female writers and women as a whole. Anita is about a dedicated school teacher who is often prejudiced by tha people around only because she is not married. Perjalanan Sendiri (My Journey) portrays a lady officer with a stressful life juggling between official workload and child rearing and the need to please in laws and  neighbours.

My main involvement in literature is poetry. It is for poetry that I received SEA Write Award in 2004 and The Sunthorn Phu Award in 2013. There are many poems befitting the feminist voices as has been analyzed by Dr.Suzana Muhammad (Universiti Sains Malaysia) in her paper “The Development of Woman Identity: Feminist Approaches To Selected Poems of Zurinah Hassan”. One such poem is the Message of the Princess of Mount Ledang to Sultan Mahmud. The Princess of Mount Ledang was a mythical character,  unearthly, magical, mysterious and of course described as exceptionally beautiful.  She dwell at Mount Ledang  in Southern area of Peninsular Malaysia  visible from  the  palace of the Malacca Sultan. As the story goes, The sultan was looking for a queen after the demise of his consort.  This time around the sultan was determined  to marry some one or something out of the  ordinary human princess as he wanted to be different and far above anyone else. That was how he got the idea of asking for the hand of Princess of Mount Ledang.

So the Sultan sent his men up the mountain to ask for her hand in marriage causing much hardship and unnecessary death. It was hazardous journey that even Hang Tuah the famous Malay warrior failed to get to the top. Only Tun Mamat succeeded to the summit  and entered the garden of the Princess. But he could not speak to the Princess,  only conveyed the sultan’s proposal through an Dang Raya Rani who was the princess’s chief lady in waiting.  The beautiful princess send her famous message to the Sultan through Tun Mamat.

The Message From Princess Of Mount Ledang To Sultan Mahmud

Tun Mamat
Convey this message to the sultan
Bring these as my dowry
If he wish to marry me

Build me a bridge of gold and another of silver
Bring me germs and mosquitoes seven trays of their hearts
Vessels full of tears and juice of young beetle nuts
From the king and his prince a bowl each of their blood

I knew from the start
That he is willing to construct the bridge of misery
Let the people carry the trays of agony
And bear the burden of heavy vessels of tears
Rack their life with flame of his own desire
Provided he could escape the fire.

Tun Mamat,
These conditions only show my rejection
As his queen I refuse to be
Seeing my life a murky reflection
I am not  Tun Fatimah
With the skill to forgive cruelty
I am not Tun Kudu
Who could be forced to  agree
It’s enough with Hang Li Po
Wrapped up as a gift, a legacy
Or Tun Teja who trip and fall
The lover she follow was only a shadow

Let Mount Ledang  stand  tall , a reminder to all
Of a flower that survived and remain free
Untouched by the royal fancy
Even a woman can choose to disagree
Even a king has his turn
to admit being beaten

 This proposal is an episode in the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals). The whole thing may not  historical true. The Princess may not exist. But the writer of Sejarah Melayu has put up the story as a medium to criticize the Sultan for his unjust rule of the country and cruelty  especially to women treating them as if they have no heart and soul. Princess of Mount Ledang put up this conditions of the dowry as a way of refusing to marry him. As for the sultan this is the first time anyone say no to him. The Princess was the first women to succeed in showing the Sultan that he too must be accept rejection. The important point in Message of Mount Ledang to Sultan Mahmud is the exertion of a woman’s right to decide and take control of herself  and her life. That princess is able to speak her mind show that women has freedom of expression. As I put in my poem

Let Mount Ledang  stand  tall , a reminder to all
Of a flower that survived and remain free
Untouched by the royal fancy
Even a woman can choose to disagree
Even a king has his turn
to admit being beaten

Besides Princess of Mount Ledang, there are more  legendary figures in the Malay Annals. One of which is Princess Hang Li Po.


The beautiful Princess Hang Li Po
In the voyage to Melaka
Crying in agony
So young and so tender
To be torn from her mother
Like a shoot from its root
She’d rather die
Drowned by the ocean
Then to lose the loving touch of her parents

Is this her fate her destiny
To be delivered as a gift,
wrapped as a commodity
Shipped to Melaka
As a bride and a donation
That would strengthen the nation

Her mother, Her Majesty, The Maharani
Had spoken in tears
My beloved Li Po, please be brave
This fact we have to face
You and me what we are born to be
As queens and princesses
We do not own ourselves
Marriage for us is not a personal decision
It is a state arrangement, a political mission

Do not cry for your father
He is a man, and a king
He loves you as a daughter
But his kingdom is everything
He laughs and cry for the nation
The kingdom demands his attention
First the reign over his land
Family happiness come second

Yes Li Po
Look what history has written
Of empires and nations
Built and strengthened
At the sacrifice and tears of women
While many brought to the end
By misdeed and greet of men

Original tittle: pelayaran Hang Li Po
Translated by the poet.

Princess Hang Li Po was the princess of China betrothed to the Sultan of Melaka as the show of support and protection from the much feared Empire of China to the newly founded nation of Melaka. The Princess was taken away at a tender age when she still wanted to stay home, cuddled by  her mother.  I imagined Hang Li Po’s tear dropping  into  the ocean for the people she loved. Her mother must have also cried in agony but they are both women facing patriarchal oppression. As a mother I am very much disturbed and sadden by this mother-daughter separation.  It was  heart breaking for any mother to have  her daughter taken away and sent to a place so far. Given the condition of travel at that time, there was no guarantee of seeing each other again.  Hang Li Po was being treated as a commodity shipped to Melaka. Marriage for queens and princesses is not a personal decision but   a political mission. And her father as  a man and a king think and talk less about family happiness but more on nation building.  Hang Li Po was not the only one sacrificed for the sake of Malacca Sultanate. There have been  others like Tun Teja  who ran away for the love of  Hang Tuah only to find out that she was to be bestowed to the king. Another known character in The Malay Annals  was Tun Kudu, a queen who was divorced by her husband and told to marry a  statesman  in exchange for stability.  Melaka was built on sorrow and tears of women but eventually fall due to the greed and misdeed of men. And so are many other nations.

I have written poems about women in the legends but actually I am talking about the present situation. What happened to them is happening to many women in our time though in different ways.  Even today there are marriages for reasons other than love,  There are marriages of convenience, marriages for family honour,  business arrangement, social commitments, and more often to save a woman and her family from the social stigma. There is a high and often unaffordable  price of living up to one’s identity and curving one’s own destiny. This is what I said in a poem entitled Marriage:
  -one woman’s opinion

Marriage is the difficulty
Of changing routine and priorities
That make you less yourself
And a woman has to be less her self
In order to be more a woman

Marriage to a woman
Is  a protection
For her who dares not live
on her own identity
It is too costly and too risky

Marriage is a priority and the traditional upbringing instilled the   anxiety of   remaining single. Even up to the present time some young girls sacrifice advancement in  career for a marriage prospect much to the lost of their nations.  In a poem Salam Perempuan Dari Penjara, (A Woman’s Greeting From Prison, 60-61)  I look at a woman’s journey through life as procession where no one dares to divert from. It is a procession where   everyone walk  to a fixed destiny.  “She and her sisters/in a procession to their day/while within this wall/they have not lived at all”.
As I have mentioned earlier there are women who marry for the sake of freeing themselves from social stigma. As for choosing their life partner, the elders told their girls not to be choosy and told their boys choose their bride properly.  This depressing situation give rise to a poem  Satu Catatan Singkat (A Short Conversation)
            A man is free to limit his choice
            A woman limits her choice to free herself. (page 88-89)

To be born a woman, there is not much that you can do but to pray to God for his protection and guidance. As I wrote in Nyanyian Menidurkan Halini (A Lullaby to Halini), where I am telling a girl to be strong
Don’t cry anymore
You must learn to value your tears
 don’t let it fall
 on any wrong shoulders

May you grow up Halini
With courage and confidence
Put your trust in God
 You  will really need him
because you are born a woman. (page 80- 81)

These are some of the poems and short stories depicting female depression especially for those born at about the same time and in the same place as I was.

Where literary production is concern things have changed. Gone are the days where you have to hurt your arms and shoulders on the type writer.  You save the journey to the post office and the risk of  getting your laboriously prepared manuscript lost in the post. The computer has arrived to the joy of all writers. The process of  producing manuscript is cut down drastically. Now it look as if anyone can be a writer by just typing on the key board and e mail  to the editor or directly publish in their own blogs and numerous web sides open to anyone at all.  E literature is in fashion. Your writing can published on line sometimes without having to go through editorial screening.  In my country there is influx of popular novels and many women writers are making names and money. Of course this look likes a happy  ending only if we can be sure that we are  producing literature and not otherwise.  

The road I have taken is long and winding,   paved with sharp and coarse gravels. If not for  love and passion, I wouldn’t have reach anywhere.

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