From the Archive: Lloyd Fernando, ‘Literary English in the South-East Asian Tradition’ (September 1971)
An immediate issue arising from the decolonisation of large swathes of the globe following the conclusion of the Second World War, and in the wake of the Bandung Conference, was the question of language in post-colonial nations. In Europe, national languages and their attendant literatures formed in the course of the construction of modern European nation-states, as one of the pillars on which national identity rested; thus, today it makes sense to talk of French literature, English literature, or German literature, each springing from a discrete national language, history, and culture.
But the question becomes somewhat vexed when applied to nations emerging from the experience of colonial administration. For example, what is an Indian writer to think of such a category as ‘national literature’ in her national context, in which there are 122 major languages, 23 of which are official? Is it possible to subsume such multiplicity under the rubric ‘national literature’? And if, as is generally the case, the solution to this problem is left to the global market, then the peculiar situation arises that ‘Indian literature’ ends up addressing itself to the world in the only language spoken in India that is not native to it. Some of the problems associated with this question are addressed in a lecture delivered at the University of California, Irvine, by Aijaz Ahmad, titled ‘On World Literatures: Chronicles of European Time’. As Ahmad notes, the fact is that the construction of discrete national literatures only fully worked in those colonies where sizeable European settler populations found permanent residence, and only then at the expense of the literary and language traditions of indigenous peoples, as was the case in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States of America. Elsewhere, ‘national literature’ is hardly national at all, or rather it is simply a category that cannot sit comfortably outside of a European context.
In Westerly’s September 1971 issue on Malaysia and Singapore, these issues are raised in Lloyd Fernando’s article titled ‘Literary English in the South-East Asian Tradition’. While the attempt here is to catalogue Malaysian and Singaporean literature written in English (while acknowledging Malaysian and Singaporean linguistic and cultural heterogeneity), there is also an attempt to engage with the overarching problem of the category of ‘World Literature’, something that Ahmad goes a long way towards addressing in the lecture mentioned above. Indeed, with the theorisation of ‘World Literature’ a continuing and vital debate in literary and critical theory, it is a pleasure to trace some of the developments in this conversation in the pages of Westerly. With Fernando’s hesitating proposals of alternatively a ‘”Commonwealth” literature’, or a ‘World Literature in English’ (7), one can flag stages in the debate, and attempts to find a platform for comparison. While working through these issues the article is also valuable for introducing poets writing in English such as Edwin Thumboo, Wong Phui Nam, Ee Tiang Hong, and Omar Mohammed Noor, all of whom are represented in the issue.
With Western Australia sharing an ocean with much of the African and Asian world, and on a continent that is neither European nor Asian, it seems that we are uniquely placed to think beyond the European nationalism in which the study of literature remains locked down. As the debate continues, and attempts are made to elaborate a methodology for a comparative literature free of Eurocentric bias or the caprice of the global market, the tendency towards what Ahmad suggests is an internationalism distinct from and critical of the existing paradigm of market-driven globalisation, becomes clearer and more necessary.
Henry Ward is a writer and researcher from Perth. In 2016, he will be undertaking a study of Westerly’s archive, focusing on its engagement with the Indian Ocean region.