Since he broke into the literary scene in his teens, Malaysian writer and academic, Dr Faizal Musa, better know by his pen name, Faisal Tehrani, has written several best selling and critically acclaimed novels and short stories. His articles on issues of culture, human rights and religion have also appeared in periodicals, newspapers and blogs. Yet, over the past nine years, Dr Faizal has faced the full force of the state, with seven of his works banned so far. ArtsEquator speaks with Dr Faizal about the process of becoming an outcast for his writings.
AE: Good Morning Dr Faizal Musa. You are one of Malaysia’s most successful novelists, having won some of the highest literary awards in the country. Yet, over the past four years, seven of your books have been banned. Can you tell us first, how and why you became a writer?
FM: I started with Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka’s (DBP, the Institute of Language and Literature) writing camp and workshops when I was still in school, 17 years old. I am now 43. I published my first short story in the DBP magazine, Dewan Siswa, and my first novel at 19. Since then, I’ve been lucky and received a lot of attention. But in the beginning, I didn’t have a clear aim – I was very young. But things changed when National Laureate Pak Samad Said began to mentor me. Subsequently, I was also mentored by another National Laureate, Shahnon Ahmad. Both opened my eyes as to how I could use my talent to help people. From there, my works basically became about challenging norms. But I managed to escape censorship and criticism because I was still part of the literary mainstream.
AE: What were your early themes and focuses as a young novelist?
FM: I like rare stuff. My very first novel Musim Dingin Terakhir (1994) was about an AIDS patient. It was published in 1994, when people were still afraid of HIV-Aids. Then I went on to write about student rights, focusing on the Baling Demonstration [when students marched in solidarity with peasants] in Cinta Hari-hari Rusuhan (2000). I showed how student activism was stifled. Another novel, Perempuan Politikus Melayu (2000) is about land confiscation in the North of Peninsular Malaysia. But surprisingly these works were never banned. In fact, Cinta Hari-Hari Rusuhan and Perempuan Politikus Melayu were shortlisted for Hadiah Sastera Perdana Malaysia (Malaysia’s Booker) in 2000. I have written resistance topics since I was young.
AE: Despite this streak of social engagement in your works, your novels, short stories and poetry have been commercial success, widely read by young people. Do you have an imagined reader in mind when you write? Can you tell us what that person looked like when you were a young writer? And if that imagined reader has changed through the years?
FM: I have to say, the antagonists in my fictions are my imagined readers. It means that when I write I always think there will be some sort of contestation from readers. So it changes from time to time. For instance when I wrote Perempuan Politikus Melayu, the antagonist is a Malay politician, feudalist, and part of the establishment. There is also an editor who is always afraid and thinking of censoring artworks. Another level of the ‘imagined reader’ is young people. Even as I grow older, I still aim for young people. That is why, surprisingly, youth in their 20s or still in school keep coming to me, either to tell me they are fascinated by my works, or are very annoyed by it.
AE: Well, you’ve recently made more than just school kids very annoyed. How have your books, one of which was launched by the Malaysian Prime Minister, come to be banned in Malaysia.
FM: In 2012, my novel Perempuan Nan Bercinta, together with a number of books by other writers, was launched by the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister gave a great speech, preaching that books should reform, give solutions etc. After, he was invited to have a look at the books exhibited – a photo op. Suddenly he saw my book’s title and uttered ‘Perempuan Penan Bercinta’, which I found funny. I corrected him ‘Perempuan Nan Bercinta’. That was the moment that the Prime Minister held my novel.
But the campaign to get my works banned had already begun, in 2008, with Ketupat Cinta, a novel serialized in Harian Metro. It’s actually a political satire. But a well-know mufti complained to Harian Metro about me referring to some traditions outside the mainstream Sunni Islam. The letter was also sent to the Home Ministry and Jakim (Malaysian Islamic Development Department). He was a famous scholar, seen by some as a reformer, so his voice was influential. He believed that I was propagating deviant doctrines but I think he was reading my works in a literal manner. My work was getting attention based on wrong interpretations. All of a sudden, from being the poster boy of Malay literature, I become a dalit, a pariah, a hated deviant writer accused of trying to destabilize society. I was struggling to explain, to get people to listen to my version.
AE: So, by 2008, individual religious leaders began to accuse you of being a Shia. But you were still writing and publishing, you still had access to state support at some level. When was the first formal pronouncement against your works?
FM: In 2011, there were rumours that my works had been banned, but I received nothing official. A librarian at a local university told me that they had been directed to remove all my books from the shelves. Then in 2013, JAKIM sent me a letter that my novels Perempuan Nan Bercinta and Sebongkah Batu di Kuala Berang (2011); my short shorty Tiga Kali Seminggu (2010), a play, Karbala (2008) and a collection of poems, Ingin Jadi Nasrallah (2010) had already been banned by Jakim in 2011! Jakim doesn’t have the power to ban books but on 9 April 2014, the Home Ministry, on Jakim’s advice, issued a formal ban on Perempuan Nan Bercinta, on grounds that it would disrupt public order, under Sect 7(1) Printing and Publishing Act 1984. One year later, the Home Ministry banned the other four works. In May 2016, another book, a non-fiction work, Sinema Spiritual: Dramaturgi dan Kritikan (2012), was banned. This year, a 7th book, Aku ___ maka aku ada (2015) was banned. I heard the latest news while attending to my father, who was on his deathbed.
AE : Why do you think your works have been banned?
FM: I think my works deal with power, or policies on religious institutions. For example, Sebongkah Batu di Kuala Berang is about a group of film students who are making a documentary about Islam in Nusantara. Through the characters, we see the syncretism of religion and local customs, for example in Indonesia. Perempuan Nan Bercinta is about a character, Ali Taqi, and his ideas about Muslims being open in their views in order to solve societal problems. My short-story, Tiga Kali Seminggu, about a conservative ulama, is a satire that critiques the lifestyle and lasciviousness of some so-called religious leaders.
AE: What have you done in response?
FM: I filed a judicial review to challenge the banning in 2015, and a few months ago, presented my case to the Court of Appeals. I’m waiting for the ruling. Four special rapporteurs from the UN issued a formal communication about the banning but locally, there was not much publicity or support for me.
AE: Faizal, you’ve been on quite a chequered journey yourself. There was a time when you aligned yourself with very conservative values. You were critical of noted film maker, Yasmin Ahmad‘s work – within the arts scene, there was a sense of surprise, to say the least. What do you want us to know about your journey into, and then away from narrow readings of religion.
FM: I agree I am a variegated writer. There’s a line in Elizabeth Costello, by J.M. Coetzee:
I am a writer, a trader in fiction. I maintain beliefs only provisionally: fixed beliefs would stand in my way. I change beliefs as I change my habitation or my clothes, according to my needs. On these grounds – professional, vocational – I request exemption from a rule of which I now hear for the first time, namely that every petitioner at the gate should hold to one or more beliefs.
Actually, I was an open person when I started writing. I mean, I am no conservative. After my novel 1515 (2002) won Hadiah Sastera Utusan (2003), I got a lot of attention and got myself into the wrong circle of people. They thought I could be a spokesperson for their Malay-Islam supremacy project. It shows how writers need to be careful. But I didn’t have a manager, agent, or writer-friend to remind me at that moment.
AE: When did you break free of these influences? Help me understand how you moved away from that way of thinking.
FM: Well you see, I believe, men of letters should experiment everything, especially ideas. Take this novel just published, Profesor, it reflects myself. I was a cultural relativist long ago, before I became an accidental human rights defender. How did I change? After digging more and more into my own traditions. After I joined the academic world in 2009, I transformed into a new me, a Universalist. I was a believer that human rights were Western oriented, that we should have our own mould. But the more I look into oral literature the more I see universal values. For instance I see human rights lessons in Malay proverbs, freedom of expression in folklores, in fact I found the only Malay exegesis, Tafsir Nurul Ihsan supporting the very idea of freedom of religion. The more I get into my Malay identity, the more I clearly saw that I had put myself into the wrong shoes. I need huge courage to admit this. But as I quoted from Elizabeth Costello, I know that I had to admit I was wrong, and many people were hurt. But I am eager to focus on the future. Malaysia is facing rigidity and this is affecting us all. I am willing to invest my writings to fight the extremism infecting Malaysia.
AE: Your new novel will be launched this weekend. Profesor has a central character that is an academic, Prof Suliza. Tell us about this character and why you wrote this novel, by that, I want to take you back to your comment about your imagined reader. Why tell a story about a lesbian love affair to your readers?
FM: This one is pretty much for the conservative reader. Now if I myself can change dramatically after reading and struggling with this idea that Malays were originally liberals, I want to experiment with the same process. What if I wrote an idea driven novel that tests the reader? Just as I had experienced before. So I created Suliza, a professor in the field of human rights at a local university. She lives in a town, which is the centre for religious conservatism in Malaysia. She is a lesbian. Should people accept her? Even though she is different? I want to contest this othering, to tell readers that othering is NOT normal. I have written novels about student rights in Cinta Hari-Hari Rusuhan, Orang Asal and Penan rights in Bahlut (2010) and Bagaimana Anyss Naik Ke Langit (2004, which has been translated into English) and the Shias in Perempuan Nan Bercinta. I believe in human rights for all. Thus I need to write about sexual minorities. To write about a Malay queer woman seems relevant to me. Especially when I imagine a conservative reader is holding and about to read this novel. I imagine the reader expecting me to condemn the act of lesbianism. But instead, Suliza was martyred. I imagine a conservative reader reminded by their own identity, and religion, in this case by their own Malayness and Islam, that Suliza has a place in this society, and pushing her to the corner has no benefit and perhaps can be very tragic. When I wrote Profesor I expected my imagine reader to be challenged by their conservative stance and to shift their view to a more open one. So I am curious about how readers will respond to this.
AE: Where can they buy copies of Profesor?
FM: My publisher, Fixi, thinks this is a risky novel to publish so I agreed to a limited print run of 1500 copies of Profesor. Potential readers can visit Fixi’s online book store or Whatsapp to this number 01123651972 to order.
AE: Thank you for your time Dr Faizal Musa. Any last words before we let you go?
FM: Don’t stay safe. Stay free.
An excerpt from Profesor by Faisal Tehrani.
So when Idrus was about to open her legs wider, Hashimah spat the chillies as hard as she could into his face. The chilli paste entered his eyes, some stuck to his lips. Half his face was burning. She pushed him away as vigorously as she could and kicked his genitals until he curled up on the floor, groaning in pain. Hashimah seemed to be possessed, under a spell. She spread the rest of the chillies on Idrus’ face. She could not remember how the knife appeared in her hand.She remembered Dalila’s story about Athena.
“We women are not just housewives. In some civilizations, we are goddesses.”
Dalila chuckled, nodded and answered, “Goddesses who are born adult, do not marry or need a lover, beautiful virgins.”
Dalila went on.
Hashimah saw Hephaestus who wanted to rape Athena, but like in a Hollywood film, he was beaten and defeated. Afterwards, Athena became a beautiful queen ruling over the Parthenon. Perhaps it was not her mother who had come to her after all. Perhaps it was Athena’s mother, Metis, who was the goddess of wisdom and deep thought. The goddess who established the status of women as goddesses of wisdom.
Hashimah did not remember how the knife could cut Idrus’ penis. The next thing she knew, there was a pool of blood in the middle of the house, the kitchen was a mess, and Idrus was screaming in pain before he passed out. She realized she was holding half his penis and threw it into the sink; like a sausage that she had forgotten to slice before frying it with the noodles.
Hashimah felt like she had wings. A goddess named Athena with magic powers. She landed in front of Suliza’s house and knocked on the door with her magic wand.
Suliza’s voice came from inside, “Who is it?”
Dalila opened the door.
“Sister, you’re going to die.” That was all Hashimah was able to blubber, over and over again.
Ladies and gentlemen, what happened to Idrus was a blessing for many people. Without Hashimah’s desperate action, Idrus would have remained undetected. He went to the police station by himself; as if he was surrendering. He walked there with his bloodied penis and at the counter, he showed it to them.
The police sent Idrus, or Kasim, his real name, to the Kuala Lumpur hospital. The surgical team managed to reattach his severed penis after a fifteen hour-operation. And when Kasim woke up from his coma, a dozen police officers and investigators of the Counterterrorism Division of the special Branch of Bukit Aman were surrounding his bed.
Of course, it did not end there. Suliza was going to receive a punishment which shocked the entire world.
Translated by Brigitte Bresson.
Faisal Tehrani. 2017. Profesor. Buku Fixi. Petaling Jaya.
About the author(s)
Kathy Rowland is the Managing Editor of ArtsEquator.com, a registered charity that she co-founded with Jenny Daneels in 2016. The site is dedicated to supporting and promoting arts criticism with a regional perspective in Southeast Asia. Kathy has worked in the arts for over 25 years, working in the areas of critical writing and arts advocacy, with a special interest in media platforms for the arts. She is the Project Lead for ArtsEquator’s Southeast Asian Arts and Culture Censorship Documentation Project, launched in 2021. She has written extensively on censorship of arts and culture in Malaysia. She was a member of the International Programme Advisory Committee of the 8th World Summit on Arts and Culture, 2019.