Muhammad Haji Salleh is National Laureate (Sasterawan Negara) of Malaysia, an Emeritus Professor , a well known poet, critic and translator.
A further illustration of this individualism comes from the works of a woman poet, Zurinah Hassan. Her poems not only show that she is a different woman from other woman writers but also a person who finds in poetry the opportunity to speak out her inner most soul without the decorum of the past literary practices.
Although Malaysian literature does not discriminate against women poets, because of certain attitudes of propriety and femininity, the really vocal and individual woman poet is a rare person. Zurinah Hassan is a poet who does not shy away from the personal problems in poetry. Unlike traditional poets, her style is direct and she is her own theme. The woman alone, through Zurinah, has never before been dealt with in such terms or put in her uncompromising reality.
Let us look at a short poem as a start to see how the poet sees herself
Now I am a mad actress on an empty stage
The curtain has fallen
And the audience have all gone
But I am still acting
uttering my favourite lines
“God, thank you god
O, thank you god
For giving me everything
Except the one I desired most”
I see this poem as a statement of a lonely young woman facing a loveless life- a topic that is shied away from in Malaysia, and discussed done so only very indirectly. Zurinah includes no self pity or sentiments for effects. On the contrary it is stated in the staccato sounds of the brutal absurdity of her existence, she allows herself to judge objectively. This she does by comparing herself to a mad actress who acts out a life on an empty stage without an audience. In a very intense moments of absurdity. Absurdity in this form is very novel to Malaysia and in its freshness strikes hard at the old world-views.
Like Latiff Mohidin and Baha Zain, Zurinah Hassan too illustrated these aspects of this new individualism that perhaps come from a university education, a changed environment, new personal and moral values. Zurinah as a contemporary woman finds that she must hear her own inner voice and a poet must record it as truthfully as possible. Even though times have changed, to be this truthful is to be a courageous woman, both intellectually and morally. She needs freedom in order to be this courageous.
While the air is for one moment light
at another moment heavy
Space is for one moment laden
And another moment empty
A bird in the mud lifts its trapped wings
Trying to be free.
The poem is called “Dalam Mencari kebebasan (To Be Free). It parallels the predicament of a woman to be herself in a society that is not ready for her.
SASTERAWAN NEGARA, LITERATURE LAUREATE USMAN AWING, IN AN INTERVIEW WITH THE STAR, THE STAR, THURSDAY JUN 30, 1988.
Zurinah Hassan has made a significant contribution to Malay literary development. She brings meaning to the Malay language, breathes life into her words. Her use of language is captivating, poetic and harmonious. Some of her poems I’ve noticed are cynical, satires about men based on her experience.
One of her poems in particular had large impact on Usman . He remembers that it was a message to children which read, “Do not forget there is always god. For you will need him one day particularly when you are born a woman. I will always remember that poignant line. It reveals the problem and sufferings of a woman trying to survive in a man’s world”