Panel: Identity Strategies in Life Writing from the Modern Cityscape
Copanelists: John D. Barbour and Seth Howes
The glittery twin towers made famous in the movie Entrapment, a spectacular international airport, and a complex web of highways connect the heart of the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, to the high-rises and large housing developments that have sprung up where forest or plantations once dominated. A new administrative capital, Putra Jaya, is Gotham City gone Moorish—sparsely peopled, awash in marble, and already a little run-down. These are the some of the large scale representations of Malaysia. The latest official presentation of the country is a commercial for “Visit Malaysia Year 2008” that has George W. Bush congratulating this “moderate Muslim nation” on fifty years of progress.
But various hybrid forms of life writing, and the continuing crossover from one culture to another despite official disapproval, are offering alternative representations of the nation. Malaysians, whatever their ethnicity, who cannot yet agree on what it means to be Malaysian, seem to agree on the need to resist the official staging of identity. A peaceful march for Clean and Fair (BERSIH) Elections in late 2007 by nearly seventy NGOs and five opposition parties drew 40,000 people. The Malaysian government’s response was to both belittle the protest and turn the riot police on the crowd with tear gas and water cannons. Two weeks later the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF) rally calling for justice for the long neglected Indian working class drew a similar response from the authorities. These internal spectacles translate to onlookers outside Malaysia through media outlets such as Al Jazeera or CNN simply as democracy under siege.
I would like to examine how these multiple translations of identity online, through the media, through independent films, and through other forms of cultural production, internally and externally, are creating a new kind of biography of the nation.
Dawn Morais is completing her PhD in English at the University of Hawai‘i with a special focus on life writing and issues of race, nation, and identity in largely Muslim Malaysia. She earned a First Class Honors degree in English from the University of Malaya and a Master’s in American Literature at UCLA. She was born in Kerala, raised in Kuala Lumpur and remains anchored in the Catholic faith she was schooled in by her parents and by Franciscan nuns. The daughter of first and second generation immigrants who made Malaysia home during colonial times, she is also the mother of two young adult Malaysians whose genes are both Hindu and Catholic. As the wife of an American with Quaker and Episcopalian roots in Pennsylvania, she has been engaged for years in an on-going family conversation about what it means to be Malaysian – or American. Dawn has held communications management positions at Esso and IBM in Malaysia and in Hong Kong. Here in Honolulu, she is the head of Loomis-ISC, a 25 year old mid-size communications agency. Her academic interests cluster around understanding how Malaysians are articulating who they are, wherever they are, in ways both deliberate and accidental.