Selangor Club, Bukit Kiara
Tuesday, 12th September 2017
It is indeed an honour to be here, among friends, to celebrate the publication of JK Asher’s novel, The Inverted Banyan Tree and the Way Thither.
It was Datin Paduka Suhaimi Baba who spoke to me about her friend who had just published a novel. “She would like to get in touch with you,” Suhaimi said. I googled the novel, which had recently come out in Australia,and the author but there was very little about both. Asher and I got in touch via email and later WhatsApp. We met briefly over a cup of cappuccino and a pot of Earl Grey tea. And my fate was sealed. I am to launch this novel of hers. Her first.
This is no ordinary novel. It is dense, challenging and pleasantly confusing. Wait a minute, let me explain. Those three words are enough to describe some of the toughest yet best works of literature in history – from Don Quixote to Moby Dick, from Ulysses to The Name of the Rose, from Brothers Karamazov to One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Some say these works are impenetrable classics. They have complex structures, their allusions are diverse and the linguistic styles are unique. In short, they are not your Jeffrey Archer. Don’t get me wrong. I find Jeffrey Archer interesting, so too Stephen King and JK Rowling. You cannot fault best-selling novelists, can you?
Some say the quality of a novel is inversely proportional to the number of its readers. Wait till you read the original version of Don Quixote, The Name of the Rose, Doctor Zhivago or even The Lord of the Rings. We are made to believe, thanks to filmmakers and the state-of-art of today’s film making, that these works of literature are episodic and easily adaptable to movies. They are not.
They are “difficult” novels. Some are even least read but much talked about. Daniel S Burt came out with The Novel 100: A Ranking of the Greatest Novels of All Time. Not everyone will agree with the ratings, but then again, no one agrees on all things literary anyway! Let me read you the top 10 according to this ranking:Don Quixote, War and Peace, Ulysses, In Search of Lost Time, The Brothers Karamazov, Moby Dick, Madame Bovary, Middlemarch, The Magic Mountain and The Tale of Genji. Yes, in that order.
I can bet that most of you in this room have read Madame Bovary at best or not at all at worst. Yet, we all, at least most of us, claim that we love literature, with the capital “L”.
Take the case of Ulysses, always in the list of one the world’s best novels, top of the Literary 100 List, number 3 in fact in The Novel 100 list. Yet it is probably one of the least understood novels the world has known.There is a cottage industry trying to make sense of this supposedly classic. Marilyn French was probably right when she wrote that Ulysses by James Joyce is more than just a novel, it is a world in itself. She wrote a book about the novel, succinctly titled, The Book As World. It was published in 1982, 50 years after the publication of Ulysses.
“After 50 years of intelligent and dedicated exploration, the huge subcontinent of James Joyce’s Ulysses still contains unclassified flora and fauna, untraced streams,” she concludes.
God forbid that Asher’s work would fall into this category. Based on my reading of the book, I can testify, as a reader and a lover of novels, that The Inverted Banyan Tree is not an impenetrable novel. It is, in fact, readable but with all the trappings of some of the finest literary works I have come across. It is in a class of its own, a book that demands attention. It is a classy novel.
I have reasons to be curious initially. Here she is, a Malaysian who is like Si Tanggang, who had spent years abroad, 17 to be exact, who then balik kampung and writes about a place that had helped define her, a little enclave in Port Dickson, Negeri Sembilan. This Tanggang, “an exile” as she called herself, was away far too long.
But she could not resist the temptation of writing about the days growing up in Malaya/Malaysia. Her formative years came rushing back. Even as a “displaced person” (again her own words) thousands of kilometres away, she could not forget her childhood and the people around her that had affected her so much.
And interestingly, it is the sound of the azan, the call for the Muslim prayer, which has had an impact upon her in more ways than one. She grew up listening to the azan. Loving it. The azan is a call by the muezzin at a designated time. It is very much part of a Muslim community. For Asher, a non-Muslim, the azan took on a special meaning. Perhaps it was about acceptance, about diversity, about tolerance, and more. Anyone living in a Malay village back in the 1950's and 1960's would be drawn to the simplicity of village life, where social norms were observed and religion, alongside culture, played an important role.
That was then. Religiosity has yet to rear its ugly head. Today, as the Malays become more Muslim, they become less Malay, discarding even the best values their race have to offer. I call it the Arabisation of the Malay race.
How things have changed from the era depicted by the novel. We are a troubled nation now. Our people are drifting apart. Notions like muhibbah (harmony) and perpaduan (unity) are taken for granted. Even multiculturalism, the very foundation of our existence and the bedrock of the characters in this novel, is frowned upon.
It is within such a construct that Asher has created her characters – men and women who had lived during the period, when innocence was not yet lost, humility the rule of the day and decorum was observed to the letter. Asher’s keen attention to history’s bitter hold on the present is remarkable. She knows what history means. She uses history as backdrop, skilfully weaving it into a tapestry of happenings, big and small. The tapestry provides the setting for her novel’s love story, which is both complex and riveting.
More so because it involves the various races in pre-Independence Malaya. And what a love story it is, replete with suspense and intrigue, with a minefield full of clear and present dangers and, more importantly, a forbidden one. I shall not divulge details of the story line for it will not do justice to the author and the readers for now. Suffice to say, the love story itself is worth a movie.
But I am drawn to the discourse in The Inverted Banyan Tree, particularly one pertaining to the concept of “cultural appropriation” that is taking a new dimension, especially in the West. There is a lot of debate about cultural appropriation during a time when racism is taking centre stage in the American psyche. The concept in itself is interesting – “the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture.” In fact, such adoption (there are others who are labelling it as plundering) is not new.
While there are some who look at cultural appropriation or misappropriation with a negative connotation, I would like to take it positively. After all, culture is dynamic. Culture evolves. Trans-cultural diffusion is an integral part of cultural transformation. Therefore, cultural appropriation should be viewed as inevitable and contributes to diversity and free expression.
Asher’s judicious and clever use of the Malay culture and infusing it with her own is commendable. The very strength of this novel is in the audacious use of different cultures and, with it,their worldviews and perspectives. I would suggest serious readers and scholars among you to look into the discourse on cultural appropriation when you study this novel.
Asher has treatedhistory differently. In the tradition of story-writing by “native” Chinua Achebe, history is merely a backdrop. But The Inverted Banyan Treetakes history to a new level. After all, Asher is an immigrant, though once a native, who has lived in a faraway land.
I salute Asher who, despite her immigrant status, still writes about her roots in Port Dickson. Many of the so-labelled “immigrant novelists” writing in English and based in the UK, such as Arundhati Roy and JhumpaLahiri, are obsessed about non-resident Indian characters or NRIs. They look at themselves as part of the immigrant issues in foreign lands. Their characters are metaphorical renderings of immigrants coming to terms with their existence.
But Asher is looking back with lots of nostalgia, emotions and psychological references. In this first novel, she is more concerned about a Serani Roman Catholic girl and two Malay gentlemen who are in love with her. Perhaps, in Australia, Asher feels unreal, outside her skin. Thus her novel is about love, sacrifices, understanding and a reconciliation of sorts. It could even be autobiographical; who knows.
The Inverted Banyan Tree is a long, erudite novel, with a post-modernist tendency, reminding me of Garbriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and our very own ASamad Said’s Hujan Pagi. Both are modern fables shrouded in the chronicle of memory.
Asher opens her novel with a prologue, “1956: Year of the Inquisition”, not unlike Marquez and Samad who borrowed the traditional story-telling style in their works. There is a lot of “memory” involved in the grand tradition of post-modernist writers. I am not saying Asher should be categorised as such, at least not yet, but this much I can say, The Inverted Banyan Tree, using memory (selection of events) and chronicle (order of events),is framed in a unique narrative structure. Living history is satirised into “magical realism” in The Inverted Banyan Tree. Even the “tree” – a symbol that appears in all major religions – has a special meaning in this novel. But not as a tree per se or a religious symbol as such, but as a literary totem pole of faith, even hope.
The Inverted Banyan Tree is unique in another way – the way it is written. The story itself takes place in two parallel periods of time: 1950's Colonial Malaya and 1980's Post Independent Malaysia. Both periods are woven artistically by. Asher to reflect on the travails of time. Historical terrains matter in a novel like this, in which history is not just a smoke screen that separates the characters’ lives from reality itself. It is a necessity as a meta narrative. We are seeing images being deconstructed and remodeled according to the grand paradigm of postmodernist construct.
Which reminds me of John Fowles’The French Lieutenant’s Woman. This 1969 novel is labelled a post-modernist historical fiction. What is interesting is the parallel lives of characters living in a Victorian period and those living in contemporary time. In that novel, Sarah Wood ruff is a complex and troubled woman who is discovered by paleontologist Charles Smithson at Lyme Regis as she watches the brutal waves smashing the cob. The modern Sarah is in the form of an American actress, Anna.
According to Fowles, his idea to write the novel came when he envisioned a woman standing at the end of a deserted quay and staring at the sea at Lyme Regis. It was 1966. The novel was published three years later and made into a film by Karel Reisz in 1981 starring Meryl Streep and Jeromy Irons as lead characters.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman received a lot of attention because of its treatment of the gender issue. I would like to see such attention be given as well to The Inverted Banyan Tree. Mariam is my idea of our very own literary Sarah – perhaps troubled but emancipated, independent and beyond stereotypes.
I have warned you earlier that this is no easy novel to read, not your typical novel, one that you can enjoy in one reading. You will need a number of re-readings! Before I scare you, let me qualify by saying, it is rich, fertile and seductive. It is one of the best novels that I have read in many years.
That leads me to my next question: why now, why was this novel not written 17 or 20 years ago? With such talent, I find it mind-boggling that I have not read any of Asher’s works earlier. There must be a reason. As they say, better late than never. Age matters little in penning a literary work. Some writers are simply late bloomers. Or perhaps they can only find time to write after the age of 50 or even 60. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her first novel at the age of 64, Frank McCourt at 66 and Mary Wesley at 70.
Last year, I launched a novel by Sonia Mael. Don’t Forget to Rememberwas her first novel. She is in her late 60s. Perhaps one of the pleasures of increasing age is that one starts reminiscing plentifully. Memories come cascading in fragments, in snippets or in whole. Like The Inverted Banyan Tree, Don’t Forget To Remember is also about forbidden love, in this case between a mat salleh(an English man) and a Malay girl in the 1960s.
Again, I must congratulate Asher’s success in publishing this novel. My wish is that it be published in the UK to qualify for the coveted Booker Prize. Now, this is not about winning. I assume that Asher was not thinking of the Booker Prize when she wrote the novel. But let me put this in perspective. Less deserving novels have won the prize, so you can understand what I mean. Let me say, it has all the trappings of an award winner – great writing, wonderful characterization, marvelously written. You cannot ask for more.
Asher, I hope this is not your first. Keep writing. You have the flair and more. In the difficult circumstances that we are in now, we need people like you to make sense of the turmoil, the trials and tribulations of this beloved nation of ours.
Your characters, Mariam, Ummah and Ismael, despite their imperfections and misgivings, have seen better days as part of a nation. This is a nation that needs a lot of soul-searching. Thanks, Asher, for your intuitive understanding in bridging the bridgeable – while it is not too late to do so. You have given the characters hopedespite their hopelessness, and faith despite their weaknesses.
We are like them – longing to see better days. You have expressed humanity in a way that we have always wanted to. You cannot change the nation single-handedly. Like your characters, we are merely simulacra of portraits and images. But we have our strength in our differences and our diversity.
And thanks, Asher, for bring back such memories with style and finesse.
With that, I hereby humbly, but with great pride and honour, launch The Inverted Banyan Tree and The Way Thither by the incredibly talented JK Asher.