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Bookstores and our weak sense of self-worth (PEM Editorial April 2011)

I SHALL tell you a secret. Whenever in Dublin, I actually prefer browsing through bookstores to bumming down at a public house for a piece of steak washed down with a stout. And truly, only in Ireland does Guinness Stout taste like it should.

No, I cannot keep away from Irish bookstores. The range is amazing, and as in London, the shop stretches from floor to floor. But what gives me reason to pause and contemplate is that they always have huge central sections that are solely dedicated to Irish literature. This literature can be academic, covering Ireland’s painful yet colourful history; or biographical, studying the lives of the Emerald Isle’s
many heroes and villains. Or it can be fiction, or poetry.

Now, the literary bent of the Irish is legendary, their authors having filled the roll call of the Nobel Prize Committee ever since it began giving out prizes 110 years ago.

What interests me, however, is more than their ability to create great works of literature. It is not only the presence of a sophisticated reading public that encourages these works. It is their strong interest in their own stories, their own people, and the struggles in their own history.

When in Malaysia, or Singapore for that matter, what is striking about bookstores is the presence of small sections titled “Asian Interests” or “Local Authors” or “Malaysiana”.

And the parade of Bestsellers is not of books that have been sold locally, but of titles taken from foreign lists. The latter could be due to foreign owners or whatever.

The biography section showcases the life of Bill Clinton, Mother Teresa, Margaret Thatcher and anyone else who is not local. If you wish to find a biography about Tunku Abdul Rahman, then you go – yes, you guessed it – the sections titled “Asian Interests” or “Local Authors” or “Malaysiana”.

But what gets me most is the New Arrivals section in our bookstores. They do not showcase local books at all! They do not mean new arrivals from the publishers. They clearly only denote new arrivals from Western publishers. New arrivals from local publishers are found under “Asian Interests” or “Local Authors” or “Malaysiana”.

Alright, one can blame it all on the apparent Eurocentrism and America-centrism of bookstore procedures and ownership. But surely the managers of these bookstores are not foreign, and should realise how ridiculous their modus operandi is.

Summarily, what we see here is the habit of not taking ourselves seriously. It has certainly not helped that the country whose politics thrives on the citizenry being divided against itself on issues of culture and religion. Any serious expression of our diverse cultures is potentially controversial.  Not a conducive atmosphere for cultural creativity and self contemplation indeed. And since we do not celebrate our diversity, we tend not to contemplate our being and our past.

The country that does not proudly fill its shops with exciting and impressive cultural products is a museum, either captured in the conceptual claws of nationalism, or in the identity prisons left by our colonial past.

OOI KEE BENG, PEM Editorial April 2011

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About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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