Fixi Novo, RM19.90, ISBN 978-967-0374-47-5
Contemporary Fiction, 2013
Race is a pretty big issue in many Malaysians’ lives. When the government practices legal discrimination based on race when it comes to everything from scholarships to financial aid, it’s hard for the bulk of folks who do not belong to the favored race to avoid thinking about race. Racism is a big part of what it means to be a Malaysian.
We know this.
And yet, here’s Marc de Faoite, an Irishman who married a local woman and settled down in Langkawi, telling me that Malaysia is a racist country in his collection of short stories, Tropical Madness. As much as I’d like to think of him as a Malaysian, he’s still a white man in this country, and therefore, he doesn’t exactly experience the same degree of racism that an average Malaysian who isn’t of the favored race or religion goes through. It’s like a Chinese fellow who lives in San Francisco’s Chinatown who decides to write a book denouncing the discrimination faced by African-Americans in that country. It’s probably unfair, but the first thing that goes through my mind is, “Okay, so what makes this guy qualified to write about stuff faced by people who aren’t of his race?”
Take a wrong step, and the end result can be ugly – the author may come off as making a fetish out of the injustices faced by certain “exotic” races for the titillation of his audience.
Perhaps it is a good thing that Tropical Madness is such a mixed bag that it is hard to generalize this anthology as “good” or “bad”, unlike how the author generalizes the Malaysians and foreign workers he is writing about into simple and neat stereotypes.
Stereotypes can be found all over the place here. While the collection features stories of all genres (some supernatural drama, some comedy, some serious drama), there are some consistencies. When supernatural drama is involved, it’s always a Malay witch doctor who causes the whole mess. Indians are rubber tappers and gangsters and “Save our temple!” demonstrators. Chinese people are kiasu, greedy, and lecherous. Malays in the kampungs are helpful, kind, but tad simple-minded. Every Malaysian hates black expatriates but adores Caucasian ones, when he or she is not treating foreign workers like slaves.
While there is some degree of truth in these stereotypes, it’s disappointing to see such shallow and sometimes condescending approach when I’m sure the author could have done something more interesting. He’s a white man in Malaysia – he experiences life here through different lens from the locals, so it’d have been nice to see some Malaysian-centric stories from his perspective instead of this regurgitation of tired Malaysian stereotypes.
Anyway, the stories, as I’ve said. are a big of a mixed bag. Most of them are actually short episodes of someone’s life, with no closure. These stories are generally fine if they can get me to think about life in a more profound way, but here, the presence of tired stereotypes isn’t going to get me to go all zen and enlightened.
Also, these stories seem more like an excuse for the author to show off his purple prose than anything else. Even then, there are often moments where I think the author is really pushing it with his comparisons and metaphors.
From All I Want to do is Play Football, a tale of how locals love Caucasian expatriates but think all black expatriates are thugs and brutes:
His fingers worried an empty can of 100plus, making a sound like Chinese New Year firecrackers.
Unless the can contains explosives and the fellow’s fingers have magic like that dude in Fantastic Four who can turn into fiery fellow, there is no way any empty can can make a sound comparable to that of firecrackers.
From the “play video games and you will die, especially if you also get involved in those weird commercialized Buddhist sects, and this whole thing is actually a parable of how alienation in one’s life can turn one into a byte in a programme… ooh, am I deep or what?” story Hungry Ghost in the Machine:
He was a young clean-shaven office whose Indian ancestors were still present in his dark skin.
What is that supposed to mean? Does this mean that there are some Indians out there with bleached white skin because their ancestors decided to move out of their skin to someplace else?
Tropical Madness ultimately suffers due to its weak sense of identity. If I take away the stereotypes, most of these stories lack a proper sense of place or time. For example, every character, regardless of race, calls Kuala Lumpur “Kay El”, when that’s something mostly only English-speaking people do. Locals call Kuala Lumpur by different ways – “Kalompo” among Chinese-speaking folks, for instance. This is just one of the number of little things that create a sense of artificiality in these stories, creating a distance between me and the characters in these stories.
There are some good stories here, mind you. Food Court is actually a sweet and poignant tale of a Nepalese who comes to Malaysia to work in a food court and falls in love with a local girl. The Rubber Tapper’s Mangle is a well-paced and well-written (if stereotype-soaked) tale that combines a mystery with a tale of a young man’s coming of age. Where is Ah Girl and its sequel Ah Girl is in a Relationship are amusing little tales that capture the absurdity and earnestness of social media users perfectly. These stories are also ones where the author manages to rein in on his desire to show me how familiar he is with the contents of his favorite thesaurus. The rest of the stories, however, are pretty forgettable.
Ultimately, Tropical Madness is more of a mundane beach read than anything else, despite the author’s intention to address sober themes such as racism, prejudice, and PTSD. The author doesn’t go far enough to completely capture the quirks and idiosyncrasies that would have made his stories oh-so-Malaysian in a way that local readers would immediately get and sigh or laugh depending on the themes addressed in each story. The ersatz nature of many stories here makes it hard to forget that a white dude wrote them, and the frequent bloated “I really want to make my creative writing teacher fall in love with me” style of prose only makes things worse.