Writ­ing about do­mes­tic abuse

The first fic­tion ti­tles ad­dress­ing this so­cial is­sue in Malaysia emerged early in the coun­try’s postIn­de­pen­dence pe­riod.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Reads -

SO far, we have been ex­plor­ing nov­els con­cerned with na­tion-build­ing in terms of our eth­nic dif­fer­ences – how do we forge so­cial in­te­gra­tion or na­tional unity out of our di­ver­sity? This, of course, is not the only way to write about the na­tion. One can also write about the na­tion in terms of the so­cial is­sues that have far-reach­ing con­se­quences for the way the na­tion de­vel­ops as a civil so­ci­ety.

Do­mes­tic abuse, the vi­o­lent op­pres­sion of women and chil­dren, is one such is­sue.

It is an is­sue that our English-lan­guage nov­el­ists have been ad­dress­ing for a very long time. The ear­li­est ex­plo­ration of the psy­cho­log­i­cal im­pact of the abuse of mi­nors is Lee Kok Liang’s novella, The Mutes In The Sun (1962), about how an ado­les­cent boy, vic­tim of his wid­ower fa­ther’s psy­cho­log­i­cal abuse, has to cope with his fa­ther tak­ing his best friend’s girl­friend as his mis­tress soon af­ter his best friend’s mys­te­ri­ous dis­ap­pear­ance.

In most of the nov­els pub­lished be­fore 1994, all writ­ten by men, fe­male vic­tims of gen­der-based dis­crim­i­na­tion or abuse are usu­ally por­trayed as be­ing from un­der­priv­i­leged or tra­di­tion-bound homes and hav­ing lit­tle ed­u­ca­tion.

It was not un­til women nov­el­ists ap­peared on the lo­cal lit­er­ary scene in 1994 that we find sto­ries of do­mes­tic abuse oc­cur­ring in bet­ter-ed­u­cated and eco­nom­i­cally well-off homes. Among the nov­els are my own novel, Echoes Of Si­lence (1994), El­lina Ab­dul Ma­jid’s Per­haps In Par­adise (1997) and Marie Ger­rina Louis’ The Eleventh Fin­ger (2000).

The pub­li­ca­tion dates of these nov­els, par­tic­u­larly Per­haps In Par­adise and The Eleventh Fin­ger, are sig­nif­i­cant be­cause they co­in­cide with the pass­ing of the Do­mes­tic Vi­o­lence Act (1994) passed in 1996 af­ter much de­bate, and the Child Act (2001).

Per­haps In Par­adise is the first novel in English by a Malay woman, and the sec­ond by a Malay au­thor (the first was Sham­sud­din Ta­jud­din’s The Price Has Been High pub­lished in 1984). It is a slim novel – just 197 pages – and is de­scribed on the front cover as “a bit­ter­sweet, nos­tal­gic novel about grow­ing up”. But it is, in fact, a se­ri­ous novel about do­mes­tic abuse in a Malay elite fam­ily liv­ing in Kuala Lumpur dur­ing the 1970s. The vic­tim of abuse is Rose, the el­dest of a gov­ern­ment min­istry of­fi­cial’s three daugh­ters. But the story is told by Ka­rina (Kina), the youngest daugh­ter, who is away at school in Bri­tain when the main events in Rose’s life are tak­ing place.

Kina’s youth and her phys­i­cal dis­tance from her fam­ily are im­por­tant nar­ra­tive strate­gies be­cause they lend an ironic edge to her ac­count of events; we, the read­ers, know (or can guess) what is re­ally hap­pen­ing but she does not. Her ex­pe­ri­ences of fam­ily life be­fore leav­ing for Bri­tain are told from her per­spec­tive as a child. She tells us about Rose’s teenage ro­man­tic es­capades with the same in­no­cence and non-un­der­stand­ing that she tells us about the May 1969 ri­ots and the 1971 “Big Flood” in Kuala Lumpur – and she makes judge­ments that are echoes of what she hears the adults say.

While at school, she learns of Rose’s “ac­ci­dents” and in­juries in the same way she learns of po­lit­i­cal events such as the 1974 anti-poverty stu­dent demon­stra­tions in Bal­ing, Kedah – through her par­ents’ let­ters and their per­spec­tives. When she re­turns home, her nar­ra­tive takes us through the var­i­ous stages of her re­sponse to the truth of Rose’s abuse: moral judg­ment, de­nial, shame, si­lence, and the de­sire to for­get. The “grow­ing up” les­son Kina learns is that she lives in a world where ap­pear­ance and look­ing good take pri­or­ity over in­di­vid­ual hap­pi­ness.

But for the reader, the les­son is that we, too, go through the same process – of see­ing with­out un­der­stand­ing, learn­ing through hearsay, judg­ing, deny­ing, and re­main­ing silent – which al­lows do­mes­tic abuse to con­tinue unchecked and un­pun­ished in our so­ci­ety.

The Eleventh Fin­ger, Louis’s third novel, is about parental abuse. The cen­tral char­ac­ter is Li Lian. Through­out her child­hood, she, her mother, and her two older sisters are bru­tally abused by her fa­ther be­cause he thinks fe­males are use­less and he badly wants a son. When she is 12, her mother dies in unusual cir­cum­stances, and her fa­ther is charged with man­slaugh­ter and sent to prison. As an adult, she plots to take re­venge on her fa­ther’s mis­tress, whom she blames for her mother’s death.

This, how­ever, is not a sim­ple re­venge crime thriller. Although the fo­cus in on Li Lian, nearly all the char­ac­ters, from dif­fer­ent so­cial and eco­nomic classes, have suf­fered some form of phys­i­cal or emo­tional parental abuse.

The novel is a re­minder of the preva­lence of child abuse, of the in­jus­tice we do to the vic­tims when we treat as “un­re­li­able” what they know from per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence to be the truth, and of the many handed-down be­liefs we cling to as truths that are far less re­li­able.

In the run-up to Merdeka Day on Aug 31, we cel­e­brate lo­cal lit­er­a­ture with a fort­nightly 10-part se­ries on how home­grown English lan­guage nov­els fit into the na­tion’s story; this is the sev­enth in­stal­ment.

Chuah Guat Eng is a Malaysian au­thor whose works in­clude two nov­els (Echoes Of Si­lence and Days Of Change) and three col­lec­tions of short sto­ries (Tales From The Baram River, The Old House And Other Sto­ries, and Dream Stuff ). Cur­rently, she teaches fic­tion writ­ing at two uni­ver­si­ties in Malaysia.

Do­mes­tic abuse is an is­sue that Malaysia’s English-lan­guage nov­el­ists have been ad­dress­ing for a very long time, since 1962 at least. — 123rf.com

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