From the Archive: Shahnon Ahmad, ‘My Friend Africa’ (Summer 1993)
An initial interest of mine in embarking on this blog project was to discover representations of Asia from Australian writers and representations of Australia from Asian writers. What each may reveal about the other and themselves in the process was one of the ways I intended to trace the ‘wake’ proceeding from Bandung, as the title of this project suggests.
Predominantly, however, I only found fiction in Westerly by Asian writers on Asia, or by Australian writers on Asia. Rarely did I find work by Asian writers on Australia. Of course, this difficulty in itself signals an aspect of what I have been attempting to highlight in these blog posts—that is, the persistence of colonial relationships in literary representation, manifested in cultural preconceptions, by a failure to discern the economic processes that reproduce such relationships, and in the myriad related issues that one might describe under the heading of an unequal exchange of representation itself.
By providing opportunities for Asian writers to present perspectives on Asia in their own voices to an Australian audience, Westerly has contributed significantly to one half of this struggle, but the other half, surely, is in allowing ourselves to be represented, to have the mirror held up not by ourselves, but by those who see us from the South. The result is not often flattering, but it is revealing.
The story I present here from the Summer 1993 issue of Westerly, by Shahnon Ahmad, recalls a story by the same author that I mentioned in the fourth instalment of my blog series on Westerly’s December 1976 issue. But while that story, titled ‘Mr Proudfoot’, articulated a nationalism posited against the West by reversing the kinds of stereotypes told about the East, ‘My Friend Africa’ hinges on an uneasy engagement with nationalism itself. At the same time, it maintains a healthy attitude of criticism towards the superficiality of radical Western ‘lifestyles’.
In this way, Shahnon’s story, written ‘shortly after Shahnon’s arrival in Australia’ in 1968, anticipates some of the problems nationalism faced around the time Westerly published ‘My Friend Africa’ in 1993. Indeed, by the time white apartheid rule in South Africa had been defeated in 1994, nationalism, the powerful motive force that propelled those emergent nations to coalesce at the Bandung Conference in 1955, had lost much of its revolutionary power. By 1994, with the exception of Israel and the older established settler colonies, colonialism had been removed from the face of the earth by national liberation movements from Africa to Southeast Asia. At the same time, the dissolution of the USSR meant that those independent countries emerging from revolutionary anti-colonial movements no longer had the diplomatic or financial support of the socialist countries.
All of this is reflected in the Malay narrator Noh’s alternately invigorated and cynical response to his Nigerian friend Abbas Kotamba Africa’s passionate black nationalism. Both are studying at ANU, where Africa is writing his PhD on ‘Black Power’. Surrounded by student ‘bohemians’ at a university barbeque, it is the “seriously ill society” (110) before him that encourages Noh’s nationalist feeling, on top of Africa’s commitment. That, when called upon, Africa is ready to recite a poem by Patrice Lumumba further impresses Noh. Failing to recall an appropriate Malay nationalist poem, Noh settles for a nursery rhyme about a cockatoo, which garners just as much applause from the clueless Aussies.
But in spite of the impressive figure of Africa, and his contrast with the pathetic Ben—a hippy nuclear physics student accompanied first by Rosemary, then Barbara, then Jacqueline, who in claiming, “I support the struggles of Afro-Asia” Noh senses is joking (113)—Noh cannot help but express his feeling that “My society is sick. It is the sickness shared by all Asia” (111).
Prompted by Africa to explain, but unable to articulate his thoughts, Noh narrates,
“Yes, we are sick. I wanted to tell him. Sick in our own way. And one of the reasons was the ‘take things easy’ attitude of many of our leaders. The ones who didn’t care. Who preferred to work things out in stages. Who had given up the nationalist struggle… Our people are well-endowed with the imperialist spirit, bureaucracy, compradorism, an irrational and reactionary intelligentsia, capitalist tendencies, bourgeoism and counter-revolution” (112).
Noh’s sense that many nationalist leaders in the former colonies don’t really care about the nation is thus a reflection of what he sees in the West. When Noh looks at bohemian culture, he sees personal gratification and little else:
“[The students] sang a sort of broken, crazy song. Other groups swayed about and criss-crossed as they chewed like dogs on the burned meat. Half a dozen couples lay close together on the ground, kissing each other’s lips and gnawing at necks and shoulders. Others affirmed their right to be an individual – stroking their Maharishi Mahesh Yogi hairstyles, laughing without cause, and tearing at the chunks of meat like barbarian Vikings. They affirmed their commitment to the concept that ‘The world can go to hell – who cares’. They were true bohemians” (109).
At issue here is the transition, perceptible at the time of writing in 1968 but becoming a generalised condition in the 90s, from direct colonialism to neo-colonialism; from white rulers to black, but with little change in social relations. And with the failure or defeat of internationalist and class-based politics the outcome, as Noh perceptively observes, is that “nationalism always degenerates into communalism” (114).
The triumph of communalism in India with the election of Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party as Prime Minister in 2014 is an indication of the rising watermark of communalism or ethnic and religious nationalism across the world. The relationship between this dangerous kind of ‘identity politics’ and the West is something that Shahnon’s story does well to dramatise. That Shahnon himself is today a member of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party in Malaysia demonstrates the depth of the concessions that nationalism has made to communalism in even this case.
Henry Ward is a writer and researcher from Perth. In 2016, he will be researching Westerly’s archive, focusing on its engagement with the Indian Ocean region, before moving to the USA to undertake a Phd candidature at the University of California, Irvine.