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  • The Writer and the Native Tradition:A Conversation
  • Muhammad Haji Salleh (bio) and F. Sionil José

Born in 1942, Muhammad Haji Salleh is one of Malaysia's best-known authors. He entered the Malay College, Kuala Kangsar, in 1958, where he excelled in the study of English and Malay. In 1970 he became a lecturer at the National University of Malaysia, and for many years he was the director and head of several university departments. In 1977, he was a visiting professor at North Carolina State University, and from 1992 to 1993 was a Fulbright visiting researcher at the University of California at Berkeley. From 1993 to 1994 he was the chair of Malay Studies, Leiden University, the Netherlands. He has also been a fellow at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University, and since 2000 has been a professor of the School of Humanities at Science University of Malaysia, Penang.

In 1977, his collection of poems Perjalanan Si Tenggang II, which he later translated into English as The Travel Journals of Si Tenggang II, won the asean Literary Award. His only collection of poems written originally in English is Time and Its People, published in 1978. Among his other works, including collections of Malay-language poems translated into English, are Tradition and Change in Contemporary Malay-Indonesian Poetry, Pengalaman Puisi, Cermin Diri Yang Empunya Ceritera: The Mind of the Malay Author, Beyond the Archipelago, Rowing Down Two Rivers, Laughter and Romance in the Archipelago, and Aksara Usia.

Recognition for Salleh's work includes Malaysia's highest honor for an author, the Anugerah Sasterawan Negara, for his contribution to Malay Literature. In addition, he has received the Australian Cultural Award to Asian Artists, the sea Write Award, and the Southeast Asian Literary Award.

FSJ As a poet, how do you use your tradition?

MHS I can answer in fairly concrete terms. I experiment with forms. After being introduced to other literatures of the world, I feel that we in Southeast Asia have our unique forms and aesthetics which can't be found [End Page 44] in the West. These are our own, from which we grow. And we don't have to be like an airport—all poems, all poets—we should be different. Especially now that local traditions are being replaced by global ones. They can be retrieved through new experiments. But more than that, of course, tradition is not only a poetic form or a poetic line. It is a whole way of thinking, of writing, and even a concept of literature.

FSJ That's very important. Let's discuss this concept because it is something that many writers don't understand. For most of us, the novel, the short story—these are Western borrowings. So what is the concept?

MHS For one, I don't think it's possible to develop a genre out of nothing. In Malaysia, we started with the novel in the 1930s, but before that, there were so many versions of it—novels, hikayats,and kisahsand ceritas.

FSJ What is hikayat?

MHS It is a form of narrative prose that we borrowed from the Persians. Although we adopted their term and, at times, the story line, everything else became bound in Malay literary styles. In the end it was really ours. But the terms for it stayed. So the works that began to be produced in the 1920s can be called novels, but all the components—style, movement, the cyclic way of arranging time—were Malay, not Persian. There was, as in other countries, a gradation of change.

FSJ Well, it's the same thing with us, though there are literary forms in the Philippines that predate the Spaniards. I'm speaking of the folk epics, especially the Mindanao epics. The Spaniards brought in the verse form, and many of our earliest poets recited poetry in our own languages. The most famous Tagalog long poem, "Florante at Laura," is not an epic, but it follows the metric romances of Europe. The Mangyans of Mindoro still recite their old poetry. Some of them may make new ones, but the difference is that there is no particular author to...