National Laureate 1991
By Peter Duke
Professor you describe yourself as a post-colonial poet. What impact did colonialism have on your writing?
I grew up at school speaking English and Malay and after a stint of temporary teaching I went to Brinsford Lodge Teachers College in the UK. I wrote my first poems in English and shortly after my subsequent poems in Malay, in a subconscious act of balancing my worlds and languages. Then I discovered my passion; the Malay language and its literature. It is an exceptionally musical language in which mellifluous sounds sing to us their themes and passion. Metaphors carry the main bulk of the meaning. In the 1970s I discovered a new world — old Malay manuscripts. I found in them a universe of tradition, ideas, calligraphy and art. They helped me on a voyage of discovery of Malay tradition and myself. This led to studies from different approaches and, eventually, translating chosen Malay texts to English and vice versa. But I am a linguistic and cultural schizophrenic in my writing; even today I use both languages.
You are well known for translating old manuscripts of Malay Literature, particularly the Epic of Hang Tuah. Please tell us about your research.
Textual evidence of ancient Malay literature can be found in an extensive area — from as far east as Ambon, and to Aceh in the west of Indonesia and throughout the Malay Peninsula. But they can also be found in Sri Lanka and South Africa. Unfortunately most manuscripts are now in overseas libraries and museums. However, in my work I travelled extensively which provided me with many opportunities to study the manuscripts. It was slow work; for example, the Malay Annals took me not less than five years, and the Hikayat Isma Yatim, about as long. The translation of the Epic of Hang Tuah took me 15 years. It is easier now to research the manuscripts as most libraries and museums have put them on-line.
Why aren’t we seeing youngauthors writing good literature?
You have to go back a few years to understand the problem. During the 80s and 90s, Malaysia was changing rapidly from an agro-based economy to an industrialised one. During that period the arts and literature were sidelined in education to advantage the sciences and engineering. But things are changing now. Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, the Malaysian Institute of Translation and Books (ITBM) together with the Writers Association (PENA) are very active in running courses and helping Malaysian authors. They have regular competitions for the best novels, short stories and poetry. Some of the content that is being produced now is good. I am optimistic that more and more Malaysian authors will benefit from the rich tradition of classical forms, while also experimenting with new expressions and forms. The authors are building their own literature outside of the school curriculum!
What do you think about the independent authors and publishers?
Many of them are angry young women and men who feel marginalised by the realities of modern life. They are more inclined to a much more graphic form, and often use what has since been considered to be impolite and un-poetic language. They write about subjects that many find strange or distasteful. But it has ever been thus across many generations. They will mature and contribute to the wealth of available literature in the future. I too was a rebel in my university days. For example I wrote the following as an answer to Yeat’s ‘Why Should not Old men be Mad?’ It is titled ‘Why should not young men be mad’ in Time and its Peoples.
“why should not
That’s a difficult one as there have been quite a few. They are, as it were, my own children. But of them all I believe The Epic of Hang Tuah was the most demanding and it squeezed out of me many artistic juices that I never thought were there — from the poetic to the classical, from the courtly to the romantic. It was 500-odd pages in length. However, my last project, the translation of Malaisie / Soul of Malaya originally written in French by Henri Fauconnier, helped me delve deeper into the philosophy of nature and work of the Malays. Fauconnier wrote the book during the time he was an estate manager here in the early part of the last century. The book is about the experience of two French planters and reviews the types of French and Englishmen who ran plantations in Malaya at the time. The book captures the beauty of what was then Malaya, but also the soul its people and nature.
You have retired now; what do you do with yourself all day?
Work! Yes I have given up teaching, except when I am invited to conduct special sessions. I now spend most of my time researching old manuscripts, writing papers, and doing translations. I am currently working on a new translation of the Malay Annals. I write two monthly columns – one on world literature, and the other a travelogue of my journeys and experiences. In the meantime I am also writing my autobiography and editing the many essays that have not been published. I have 6 books waiting publication with Dewan Bahasa Pustaka, Yayasan Karyawan and ITBM.
Any closing statement, Professor?
I enjoyed my time teaching, it gave me a certain happiness to share my my knowledge with others.
Professor Muhammad Hj Salleh graduated from University of Singapore. He obtained Master of Arts from the University of Malaya. His PhD was from Michigan, where he later became the Asian Scholar-in- Residence. He has been a fellow at North Carolina State University, University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard. He was appointed Chair of Malay Studies in Leiden University, in 1993, which he remembers fondly because the University library was full of old Malay manuscripts and rare books. He was, until his retirement, Professor of literature in the School of Humanities, Universiti Sains Malaysia. He was awarded Anugerah Sasterawan Negara (National Laureate Malaysia) in 1991 for his contribution to Malay literature, the Anugerah Tokoh Akademik Negara (Eminent Academic Scholar in 2008), and the Eminent Southeast Asian Award for MASTERA Writers in 2013.