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  • A Quid of Betel
  • Muhammad Haji Salleh

As a poet and student of literature, I have been fortunate to be exposed early to more than one language and literature. In school, I was introduced to both Malay and English literatures, and from then on I studied Indonesian, Japanese, Chinese, and general comparative literatures. So initially I had two languages to express myself in, and I had many literatures to refer to and learn my art from.

It was in the cold winter of 1964, while a student in the Malayan Teachers College at Brinsford Lodge, Wolverhampton, U.K., that I began to try these two languages out, encouraged and helped along by my lecturers. Many words have been written since and in many countries—places I travelled to for study, research, and conferences. I have studied and enjoyed literature at universities in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the United States, and I have taught in Michigan, North Carolina, Köln, Hamburg, and Leiden. Places help create poems; to come to a place is to discover, to uproot, and to change or experience change. Change provides the initial spark from which brilliant literary lights are made.

I wrote, and still write, in two languages. To be admitted into English and comparative literatures, I needed an international language. After returning from my studies, I discovered the riches of Malaysian literature, which had been sadly neglected by the majority of Malaysians themselves; they had been taught for many decades that it was the literature of the colonisers that mattered and was worth reading. Yet my rediscovery was a wonderful journey into the past, into the brilliant and multifaceted genius of Tun Sen Lanang, the author of Sulalat al-Salatin. In the four-line verse form, the pantun, I found the remarkable collective genius and language—as fine as any and replete with images conceived from nature—that reached from the mountains and valleys out to the corals and seas, with real and mythological birds flying above quite freely.

I owe my poetic inspiration to both languages and my literary examples to the literatures that I have continually read and studied—from Persian to American Indian, from Chinese to Chilean, from Caribbean to Hungarian. Most of all, I owe my poems to the broad and varied lives I had in the places I visited or resided in: Bukit Mertajam, Penang, where I grew up; [End Page 49] Singapore, where I studied (with D. J. Enright as my mentor); Kajang, where I have been for twenty years; Jakarta; Ann Arbor; Leiden; Hamburg; London; and the many places in Malaysia where I have done research or taught.

A poet writing in two languages lives a strange life. He must continually read, speak, write, and, if possible, dream and curse in both of them. At home, as in my classes at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, I speak, lecture, and write in Malay. As soon as I leave for another country or write a poem or paper in English, I have to retrieve the English that lies quite dormant at the edge of my consciousness. It does take time to thaw out, and sometimes the English drips with the Malay and the bits and pieces of other languages that I have studied or picked up: French, Dutch, and German.

However, a poet writing in two languages is still a single poet. He has two rivers flowing within him. If he feels that he should take out a boat and row down one of them, the poem would be, say, in Malay, and if the boat is launched out on the other, the poem would be in English. The person is the same, and so are the experiences and cumulative life. Malay is a musical language in which the meaning is traditionally spun by metaphors and alliteration. The great play of poetry is in the timbre of the sounds and the subtle meaning they evoke. In comparison, English is more direct and practical, but lends itself to so many styles and experiments.

Because I am a poet, all things are "poetic" to me; all are legitimate themes for this wonderfully flexible verse form. Things and events that I live with and...