Saturday, August 10, 2013



Zurinah Hassan,

There is an English saying (or is it a proverb) that goes something like “ Girls should be seen and not heard”.  When I was a young girl I took it as an advice of the elderly on manners and etiquette, given in good  intention  of making us  sweet and adorable as girls should be.  As a grown  up  I look back at the proverb and understand more of the massage it conveys: since you are a female please shut up because nobody is asking for your opinion.
 I grew up  in a village in the northern part of Malaysia at the time when girls were  kept indoors and this saying might as well sound: girls are not to be seen and not to be heard.  Luckily there was a radio in the house that supply some remedy from boredom. I listen to songs and songs in those days have beautiful and meaningful lyrics. The more traditional tunes used pantuns  (a traditional Malay poetry) as lyrics. Listening to them I come to learn and appreciate the beauty of words and encountered the poetic value in my language. I roam about in the gardens, the seas and mountains described in the songs and picked up beautiful expressions which kindle   my imaginations and nurture my love for poetry. That is how I began to write. As I have said earlier I was brought up to think that a girl should not speak or exert her voice. But I have so much to say and therefore the only way out is to write them down. I began writing pantuns and some simple rhyming verse and I have not stop writing until today.  
 I went to the village school when there were still debates among parents whether it was worthwhile to send  daughters to school, especially whether they should be allowed to continue schooling after standard six.  This is partially because   secondary schools were only to be found  in towns. To send  girls to secondary school would   involve too much trouble and too much risk. Luckily I became the first   granddaughter   that my grandmother allowed to go to secondary school. That was around 1960.

I commute everyday to school in town. It  was not easy having to get up early to catch the six a.m. bus, and to take a bus home in the hot afternoon. We spent hours travelling and have   limited  time to study and do our homework. Many of us did not do well in class and failed the Form Three exam that we have to take to continue into Form Four, which further discouraged   parents to send their daughters to secondary school. Then my aunt (my adopted mother)   passed   away and my grandmother grew older and weaker. My grand aunties were always giving advice to my grandmother “We pity you sister, you are old and always sick. We think you better stop Zurinah from schooling. She should stay home and look after you”.  Luckily she did not listen to them. ( Later I wrote a short story on my life with my grandmother and the relatives’ advice to  terminate my schooling in a short story  entitled Nenek or Grandmother. This story won the National Literary Prize).

 I found   and  frequent  a book store next to  the bus station. I saved money to buy newspapers and magazines to follow  the development of writing and literary activities in my country. There was a special page every Wednesday in leading newspaper called Student Page where students can send their poetry.  I become a regular contributor. In between school work and especially during long school holidays I devote much time to writing poetry. I like to be alone sitting under the trees  and walking around in the compound especially in the evenings composing poems. I was too engrossed in my  artistic  activity to  realize that the elders were watching.  Then one day I overheard my grandmother telling a few members of the  family that I have been acting strange, walking from tree to tree . Could I be possessed by some spirit that call me to the trees in the late evening, the  time  they believe ghosts are roaming about.

 With the enthusiasm I read literary coloumns and magazines to update  knowledge of national  literary scene, especially to keep in touch with activities of other women writers. When  I started writing to the media  there were already a handful of female poets and short story writers but I could not find serious  reviews or study on their product.  All attention and praises were  paid to male poets  like Usman Awang or A.Latiff Mohidin.  Occasionally some male writers will write articles specially on women involvement in writing saying the same thing over and over again  like:
1.      Women writing is of lesser quantity and  quality compared to men.
2.      Women writers did not write on important issues. They only write about homely or domestic  affairs and not international affairs.
3.      Women writers are not committed. They do not last long and disappear after marriage

Of course I have made observations and reservation regarding the above statements  but  need  lengthy discussion  to prove that they are just sweeping statements. We will only  go to the third statement about disappearing women writers.  This is something that cannot be denied.   Most  of  women writers who began earlier than me have been inactive due the odds and setbacks against their aspirations of becoming great writers. What are the odds? There are many. First let us look at what has been said by Mary Eagelton ,  in the book she edited Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader (1986) Eagelton pointed out the constraints faced by female writers. “The catalogue of material problems is long, inequalities in the educational system, lack of privacy, the burdens of child bearings and rearing, domestic obligations and the equally decisive restriction of family and social expectation.”

So, what you see in front of you today is a survivor. There are more who can write and 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 in her wide compound only show the believe that girls should not be alone by herself.  She gave some clear instruction that I should be watched and not be left alone. My habit of spending too much time with books did make them happy for I should be cooking and sowing like other girls who were pride of their mothers.

The customary and domestic obligations and the burdens of child bearings 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. I have attached  a translated version of the short story to illustrate  a writer’s  creative process giving 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.


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