Identity, piety, translation and performativity at SWF

Penultimate SWF/UWRF post. Today we’re talking about writing from the diaspora, the future of translation, and objects of piety and consumerism.

Previously in this series of Steph going to UWRF and SWF:

SWF: Writing from the Diaspora

Jon Gresham, Catherine Torres, Robin Hemley

This was my first panel for SWF, and a weird one to start with.

The panelists started with what it means to be part of a diaspora. Jon talked about being in a diaspora of choice (he was born in the UK, moved to Australia, moved to Singapore). Catherine spoke about writers in a diaspora being like prisoners who have to catch butterflies; you have to leave your home in search of something. I’m not really sure, this was some sort of specifically Philippines thing about things that happen to prisoners, I think, but it ended with Cathy saying that just as no two butterflies are alike, so are no two diasporic stories. As a diasporic writer you try to make yourself smaller, both in the place where you are and when you go home, so people can’t accuse you of being wrong because you were away for too long.

The writers noted that they all have significant others who are also members of a diaspora, and that informs their diasporic writing. Robin (who’s white American living in Singapore) talked about how his Philipina wife refuses to live in Singapore because of the racism she’s experienced, but he lives here with their two daughters who, he said, were happy to learn Mandarin, whilst his wife (for now) remains in the USA.

A question that was not really answered: Does being displaced lead to constructing social critiques of place of origin or of the new home? Cathy did speak about writing marginalised characters, and how that inevitably sees her writing social critiques without necessarily intending to do so.

I was quite challenged when they started to speak about cultural appropriation. Cathy hadn’t written since moving to Germany because she still doesn’t understand the culture sufficiently. One of the panelists spoke about how they wanted to look at the experiences of foreign workers but didn’t want to engage in cultural appropriation. Robin commented that to navigate cultural appropriation or appropriateness, you sometimes have to write out the stilted, bad version and then rewrite it.

Robin has always envied people who have known really strongly where they come from (and where they are).

Robin ended the panel talking about sense of place; his Singaporean students often write a story that’s generic Americana and then are blown away when they read, for example, a story that’s firmly set in Lucky Plaza.

The question was asked if being a diasporic writer is a privilege, which is such a funny question I’ve never considered. It also felt so weird to me, this discussion, because they were led (by an audience question) to speak about how to be in the diaspora now is different or a privilege because it’s not “forced” by bad events, instead it’s from individual choice. The moderator said it’s not forced by mass bad events anymore, which is so clueless I can’t even. (Spoilers, there’s still lots of forced migration in the world)

Part of what made this panel different for me is that in Australia on a panel titled such, we’d definitely have spent a lot more time speaking about multiculturalism and identity. Almost none of this panel looked at that, despite Jon having spent several years of his youth in Australia (and his family still lives in Adelaide). And part of my struggle with this panel is just how much I disagree. Of course their lived experiences are all valid etc etc, but I don’t think being of the diaspora lessens a person’s voice, and I’m sad that Cathy feels it causes her to be quiet. I think many people in diasporas find their voices get louder, especially if they’re in exile (chosen or otherwise). I loathe that a person whose white privilege means that he’s left his wife behind and taken their children to be indoctrinated by the Singapore Culture Machine gets to talk about being in a diaspora and what that means.

I just realised that we talk about diaspora to mean non-white people, but we don’t really talk about white people in diaspora, in Australia.

Anyway, mixed feelings about this panel.

SWF: The Future of Translation

Jung Young Moon, Annaliza Bakri, Motoyuki Shibata

Interesting session on the future of translation. I particularly enjoyed the anecdotes. Apparently the Japanese word for translation has an assumed definition of translation from English into Japanese, and Motoyuki said that the Japanese-English translator of Murukami’s novels complains that his name is too small on the English translations, but Motoyuki, who translates English to Japanese, gets a large name on the covers. This is in large part due to the state and status of translation in different countries.

Annaliza commented on this difference, saying that in Singapore, once a thing is translated, no-one bothers to retranslate it, so that thing becomes static. She also talked about how older Malay texts are more difficult to translate than newer Malay texts due to changes in language and the understanding of Malay (much like English, I guess), and that if we don’t understand our own culture then we can’t translate it for others.

The ways in which younger writers experiment with writing makes it more challenging for translators, which makes sense, as they’re often used to a consistent style of writing. Annaliza suggested that a critical reading community is necessary in order to decide what’s translated in order to break stereotypes, in large part because often what is translated is decided by a small group of people, and so only certain ideas become translated.

I don’t have any feelings on this, except to comment on how different I found this panel versus the translation one at UWRF (Found in Translation):

SWF: Piety and Consumerism: peddling religious products in Southeast Asia

Md Imran Md Taib, Okky Madasari, Raja Ahmad Aminullah

I had no idea what to expect out of this panel, so I went in just curious.

The panelists began by talking about the status of things in their countries. Okky spoke on the recent-ish trend in Indonesian Islamic books and films to have Islam as just the “background” – ie, woman wears hijab, has romance, not necessarily to interrogate religion or faith. Raja mentioned the trend towards Islamic media as self-help in Malaysia, with an increased outward appearance but no corresponding performance of piety. Imran thinks that in the modern context in Singapore we’re seeing religious ideas made into symbols and consumed globally.

Imran continued, personality is being marketed as part of the brand of religiousity.

Raja set the history a little in Malaysia – Malaysia had a generation of students in the 70s who weren’t comfortable with political ideas that didn’t somehow reflect “home”, which lead to a rise in Islam as political idea, especially for students from rural areas. Imran noted that in the new global capitalist context, one must be rich to prove you’re generous and therefore pious, and this comes with the rise of the Muslim middle-class.

Mod asked: if you use religious symbols to sell something, do you basically mitigate the ills of consuming the product?

Raja continued, it’s considered that to critique the religious product or interpretation of the faith is to critique the faith, and this is part of the problem. Mod asked: what if people say “we consume because we’re religious? Consumption of these products proves my piety.” Okky replied that of course in Indonesia there’s always someone who believes and some who want to follow, and you get this with the performance of piety, too.

The grand narrative of the world now is capitalism, and Islam has moved with that, as many religions have been consumed by the capitalist discourse – for example, the hijab and the fashion industry. If the hijab is about modesty, how can a person wear a Louis Vuitton hijab?

Okky noted, if you go to a sharia salon, people think you’re more pious but this is still just Islamic economic capitalism. Imran didn’t disagree, but further clarified that any idea of an Islamic economy is still capitalism. Piety right now comes from the individual; it needs to come from the centre of Islam, that is, Mecca. Mecca right now enhances class divisions – there’s lots of shops and consumerism – and that filters back out into the concept of what faith means. So people are being pious within a dynamic they’ve been taught.

This was a fun panel for me, because I love thinking about how people interact with their faith and their religion, and the performativity of identity, so this was a great way for me to end my SWF.

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