Grace V.S. Chin and Kathrina Mohd Daud (eds), The Southeast Asian Woman Writes Back: Gender, Identity and Nation in the Literatures of Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines. Singapore: Springer Singapore [Asia in Transition 6], 2018, xi + 152 pp. ISBN: 9789811070648, price: EUR 88.39 (hardcover); 9789811349904, EUR 88.39 (paperback), 9789811070655, EUR 71.68 (ebook).
The Southeast Asian Woman Writes Back is comprised of eight chapters written by six women scholars specializing in Southeast Asia. When women write about women writers, their perspectives often challenge the patriarchal male gaze. The male gaze, Laura Mulvey’s term to show the objectification of women on the screen (Mulvey 1975), is countered in this book, as the writers use their female gaze to analyze texts written by Southeast Asian women in poetry, short stories, novels, and film scripts. As a Southeast Asian woman, I also add another layer here in reviewing this book. As a feminist myself, I always believe that the feminist struggle, especially in postcolonial Southeast Asian countries, centeres on the fight for equal rights for citizens other than cis-gendered men, who usually hold power. Nevertheless, this book is not just significant for women readers, but also Southeast Asian scholars and feminist scholars in general.
In Chapter 1, Grace V.S. Chin and Kathrina Mohd Daud introduce the book with a historical and cultural background of the region and what motivates them in grouping this body of texts into a book. In Chapter 2, Amanda Solomon Amorao discusses the work of Angela Manalang Gloria that opposes patriarchal nationalism in the Philippines. In Chapter 3, Daud writes about Norsiah Gapar’s articulation of female citizenship in Brunei Darussalam. Alicia Izharuddin discusses the rise of the modern female subject and transnational encounters in postcolonial literature by examining Malay women’s short stories in Chapter 4. In Chapter 5, Lily Rose Tope addresses the topic of the state’s invasion of women’s bodies and reproduction represented in the Southeast Asian literature, specifically in Singapore and the Philippines. In Chapter 6, Chin argues that the notion of state ibuism (motherhood) and the pressure of maintaining the integrity and happiness of the family play a pivotal role when it comes to polygamous (having more than one spouse)—or, rather, polygynous (having more than one wife)—marriage in Indonesian literature and cinema. Meghan Downes gives an interesting take on how Indonesian women writers use wayang as an intervention in mythology and national history in Chapter 7. In Chapter 8, Chin analyzes her students’ scripts to show how modern Brunei Malay women use their writings as counter-narratives of the nation.
As the title suggests, there is already an underlying assumption about the typical Southeast Asian woman, especially when it comes to the general narrative of the region. When this type of woman ‘writes back,’ it implies a form of struggle faced by this typical Southeast Asian woman, who uses her writing to fight back. As the black feminist Audre Lorde says, ‘For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence’ (Lorde 1985). Thus, for Southeast Asian women, writing poetry and other literature is necessary to ensure our existence and to represent ourselves with our narratives and gaze.
In doing so, most of the women writers discussed in this book use the ‘semi-autobiographical technique’ (p. 64) in creating their fictional characters and worlds. As this book indicates, Southeast Asian women who write are those exposed to western culture and education to some extent, mostly educated in the universities and having obtained scholarships to study abroad. Since Southeast Asian countries view western society as the measure of progress, it is imported and widely emulated in our everyday life through language use and lifestyle. However, women struggle with this emulation as post-colonialist Southeast Asian countries limit women’s roles to the domestic sphere as part of their nation and character-building agendas. Thus, they frequently have to use ‘self-censorship’ (p. 72) as a strategy to write within societal limitations. This hybrid technique of using their own experiences and perspectives combined with fictional characters and storylines creates a perfect ‘third space’ (Bhabha 1990) for women to have agency within the literature and popular culture.
This negotiation is necessary as Southeast Asian countries still consider several subjects as taboo, specifically when discussed by women. When analyzing women’s sexuality in Indonesian cinema, Chin uses Tatyzo’s (2011) ‘wife-whore’ binary, where women can only be involved in sexual activities as reproduction-machine wives, or else she’s a whore (p. 99). In analyzing Catherine Lim’s ‘The Paper Women’ about women sterilization certificates in Singapore, Tope observes, ‘it is not only the males who invade women’s bodies but also the state’ (p. 82). Chin echoes this sentiment as she examines her students’ scripts in Brunei Darussalam, stating that when the state pushes women to submit, women either have to do it or are rejected by the society (p. 140) both subtly or outright.
As acknowledged by the editors in Chapter 1, one of the weaknesses of this book is the lack of representation of several Southeast Asian countries: Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and East Timor. They mention that the reason for this exclusion ‘is not because they are less significant, but because the obstacles posed by untranslated texts and the lack of scholarship in English have dampened [their] efforts in this direction’ (p. 11). In her preface to this book, Shirley Geok-lin Lim points out the absence of queer representations and sensibilities. She adds that ‘this very absence, however, proffers a testimony to the persistent power of state authority that still regulates in the phallocentric logos of the father, when LGBTQ voices can incur expulsion, exile and even mob- or state-mandated execution’ (p. vi). Even with its limited scope, this book is still rich in analyzes of how heteronormative patriarchal countries uphold gender expectations and the concept of femininity in Southeast Asia.
Bhabha, Homi K. (1990). ‘The third space: Interview with Homi Bhabha’ in Jonathan Rutherford (ed.), Identity: Community, culture, difference, pp. 207–221. London, United Kingdom: Lawrence & Wishart.
Lorde, Audre. (2007). ‘Poetry is Not a Luxury’ in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Reprint Edition, pp. 36–39 [Crossing Press Feminist Series]. Berkeley, California: The Crossing Press.
Mulvey, Laura. (2009). ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ in Visual and Other Pleasures, 2nd Edition, pp. 14–27. Basingstoke, United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan.
Tatyzo, Claire. (2011). ‘Nia Dinata and Indonesia’s post-New Order film culture’ in AsiaOnline [Flinders Asia Centre Occasional Paper 3]. https://mafiadoc.com/nia-dinata-and-indonesias-post-new-order-film-culture-claire-_5a2fd31d1723dd7de4a18ed6.html, accessed 03/03/2020.