By Mitali Chakravarty

Suchen Christine Lim

 

What is homeland
In which we planted
Our hopes, lives,
dreams and memories?
A bit of earth.

— Suchen Christine Lim, Second Fragment, A Bit of Earth

 

She wanted to run a chicken porridge stall in Singapore. Instead, she wrote about the coolies, the illiterate and the chicken porridge stall owners. Meet Suchen Christine Lim, an established voice in ASEAN literature with multiple awards and fellowships to her credit.

The first thing I notice when we meet is her humility. I remember listening to her during a panel discussion on ASEAN literature where Suchen said that she picked up bits of garbage and put them together to make a story. To me, her stories are anything but a bit of garbage. They record the history of Malaya and then, Singapore and Malaysia. Her works have been lauded by The Straits Times as ‘worthy literary landmarks that capture a slice of South-east Asian history’. Mohammad A. Quayum, Professor and Head of the Department of English Language and Literature, International Islamic University, Malaysia, sees her works as ‘brilliant stimulating and a compelling read’; Lily Rose Tope, PhD, Professor, Department of English and Comparative Literature, University of Phillipines, says, Suchen makes ‘history personal… a joy to teach and a riveting read’. Martin Marroni, a Scottish poet wrote to Suchen: ‘Astonishing tour de force. You have created a physical and social landscape and peopled it with characters with real human feelings on issues of political import as well as on the strains of personal and social survival.’ Yet, when I ask her where she sees herself in the ASEAN literary context, her response is that it is for the critics to decide. ‘I don’t see myself as anything except being able to write.’

Her passion for writing developed in the course of her teaching career. The characters she wrote about in her novels and short stories came to life for her as she went about her daily chores. She became the weaver of tales for these imaginary personas who led her through their adventures. She talks of her works in terms of the wayang kulit (shadow puppet theatre in parts of Indonesia and Malaysia) based on the belief that puppets have a life of their own and their needs must be respected. She sees herself as the dalang, the puppet master, not a puppeteer, she emphasises. ‘And to me, the relationship between a novelist and a character is that of the dalang and the puppet, which eventually evolves a life of its own.’

By Shikhandin

Dr Quayum

Dr Mohammad A. Quayum is the author, editor and translator of 32 books in the areas of American literature, Asian Literature and Postcolonial literatures. He is also the author of more than sixty articles in distinguished peer-reviewed journals. His research interests range from 19th and 20th century American literature to contemporary Asian literature, with special focus on Indian literature, Bengali literature and Malaysian-Singaporean literature.

He is the Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief of Asiatic: An International Journal of Asian Literatures, Cultures and Englishes (indexed in Web of Science and Scopus) and is on the advisory board of several leading journals including Journal of Postcolonial Writing (Routledge, UK; ISI indexed), Transnational Literature (Australia; ERA indexed), Interdisciplinary Literary Studies (USA; WoS indexed), Journal of Postcolonial Cultures and Societies (USA), Literature Today (India), The Apollonian: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies (India), and The Rupkatha Journal of the Interdisciplinary Studies of the Humanities (India; Scopus indexed).

Dr Quayum is dean of the Kulliyyah (Faculty) of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences at International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), and an Honorary Professor of English and Creative Writing at Flinders University, Australia.

 

Shikhandin: Most of us only know of you as Dr M.A. Quayum the academic and mentor. Tell us a bit about your early life, and what drew you to pursue literature.

Dr M.A. Quayum: I was born in a small town called Gopalganj, in the district of Faridpur in Bangladesh. This was before Bangladesh was formed and was still known as East Pakistan. I grew up in this small, near-idyllic town and got my early education in the only Government school for boys there, S.M. Model Primary and High School. When I was eleven, my father sent me to a public residential school several hundred kilometres away, known as Jhenidah Cadet College. This marked a turning point in my life. It was an English medium school and the fees were very high. My father could hardly afford the fees and yet he sent me there, mainly to secure a good future for me. A second reason was that my father, who was a lawyer in Gopalganj, had a great admiration for English language and literature. Probably he thought that sending me there would also give me a good grounding in the language. I don’t know how and where he picked up his love for English, because my grandfather was a religious teacher at a primary school in our village who had little interaction with the language. My father was, however, educated at the Islamia College (now Maulana Azad College) in Calcutta (Kolkata), and perhaps it was there that he developed his great love for both English language and literature. You would be surprised to know that my father could recite several poems by Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson and Browning from memory. He would take enormous pride in reciting Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” and Tennyson’s “Ulysses” in particular. Maybe I was infected by his love in childhood and therefore developed a natural penchant for literature from an early age, reading all kinds of books, in both Bengali and English. My father would often buy me books and take me to the local library and encourage me to participate in various literary activities such as essay writing and poetry recitation competitions. I remember participating in an essay writing competition on the life of the Prophet when I was seven or eight years old, and then being invited to read my essay at a local mosque. I also remember my father giving me a copy of Rabindranath Tagore’s collection of short stories, Galpagucchha, for my eleventh birthday, and I recollect reading almost all of it in a great rush. My recent attempt to translate some of Rabindranath’s short stories into English, which was first published as Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Short Stories by Macmillan India in 2011 and then as Rabindranath Tagore: The Ruined Nest and Other Stories by Silverfish Books Malaysia in 2014, was a means to share that childhood excitement and discovery: firstly with my daughter who, being born and brought up in Australia, has in a way lost touch with the language and the culture; secondly, with my students and friends in Malaysia and elsewhere, who have great curiosity about and admiration for Tagore but cannot read his work in the original because of the language barrier.