Advisory and Updates on COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019):

Singapore Malay writers imagine fantasy and future worlds

18 Sep 2021

Straits Times, 18 Sep 2021, Singapore Malay writers imagine fantasy and future worlds
In a futuristic underground cemetery, machines dispense electronic prayers for the departed. A man's shadow splits into two. A serial killer stalks Singapore, posing victims in tableaux inspired by South-east Asian art.

These are the worlds of Singa-Pura-Pura, a groundbreaking anthology that collects speculative fiction by home-grown Malay writers.

Editor Nazry Bahrawi, 45, posits that the rise of Singapore Malay speculative fiction in the late 2010s constitutes an aliran, or literary movement.

"For some time, Malay literature in the region has been burdened by the baggage of a simplistic binary between two aliran - sastera untuk seni (art for art's sake) and aliran sastera untuk masyarakat (art for society's sake)," he says.

The anthology seeks to challenge this binary, adds Nazry, a senior lecturer at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, who also penned one of the stories, the supernatural crime tale Tujuh.

"Even with the hikayat (an older form of Malay narrative) of yore, I have found stories of magic and myth to be fiercely engaged with the socio-political realities of their time."

In a foreword to the anthology, Malaysian author Faisal Tehrani argues the roots of Malay speculative fiction go as far back as the classic Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals), a 15th- or 16th-century history of the Malay kings which also contains fantastic accounts like that of the superhero Badang.

Singa-Pura-Pura's authors range from Singapore Literature Prize-winner Farihan Bahron, 42, to Nuraliah Norasid, whose debut The Gatekeeper (2017) was the first speculative novel to win the Epigram Books Fiction Prize.

Her story, Prayers From A Guitar, was inspired by her household's strict "no music" rule when she was growing up, as her parents believed music to be immoral and irreligious.

"I could not even practise my recorder at home for school music exams," recalls Nuraliah, 35. "Listening to music had been a small but longstanding act of rebellion that I had to do in secret."

Some of the stories imagine futuristic technologies and dystopias, such as Farihan's Gold, Paper And Bare Bones, in which an elderly man's attempts to collect the 100,000 points required to ascend to "Retiree" rank are thwarted by the transition from paper money to cryptocurrency.

Others take their cues from folklore and the supernatural.

For her story Transgression, Diana Rahim drew inspiration from the traditional folk tale Ulek Mayang, which is also a devotional ritual done to appease sea spirits.

"I had been watching a video of the ritual one day and noticed its transfixing quality," says the 29-year-old. "Later, when I went to take a drink from the fridge, I had the feeling as if my shadow was not catching up with me."

This became the opening scene of her story.

Speculative fiction is a kind of transgression, she adds. "There are limits in the real word, borders that define what is real and what is not, what is permissible and what is not, what exists and what doesn't.

"Speculative fiction erases these borders, transgresses them so that we can reach a truer truth, a realer reality, and show through fictional worlds the true state of our deepest selves and society that the limits of reality cannot accommodate."

Five of the stories in the anthology were translated from Malay into English, while eight were written in English.

Its editor says there is room in the future for an expanded edition that includes more authors or a Malay translation.

In translating from Malay, Nazry chose to leave certain words and phrases untranslated as a challenge to readers, to emphasise reading as a weighty undertaking and to encourage them to learn more about the national language.