Once again - The language and stories behind it.



“In the beginning were words. But not the sort of words you might expect.”
Amir Muhammad, Once Again – Trash, Our Trash
Generation: A Collection of Contemporary Malaysian Ideas (1997)


I don’t remember a world without language. Always, language and imagination, speculation, utters of sound. Words, beginning of words. What would I be without language? My existence has been determined by language, not only the spoken but the unspoken, the language of speech and the language of motion.

My childhood was the oral tradition of Melayu people – which included my immediate family of one elder sister, one younger brother, one youngest sister, my father and mother. My world was the world of several places in memory; Changlun and Yan (Kedah), Lenggong (Perak), Jalan Pekeliling, Sungai Besi and currently it is Taman Tun Dr. Ismail (Kuala Lumpur). The years when I was an offspring (baby to 12-year old), I grew up within a people who didn’t get well with education, including my parents whom the SPM holders and my neighbors who were mostly living abstemiously and not well schooled during their youths.

All families develop their own language, a retrospective stories, expressions, and inside jokes that weave the clan together. This verbal shorthand is a big part of what makes a family more familiar, a refuge from the anonymous world outside. Having strict parents which I define strict parents as they who apply clear and consistent rules for the children to follow in order for them to reach their highest human potential and they who provide consistent discipline and look out for the best of the children’s future is surely a blessed thing. My parents believe that they are the primary educators and they assert that parenting is a role to be taken seriously. For them, education is really important regardless how much they earn monthly and we would be forced to read and count willy-nilly. My father would force us to read English newspapers, but he didn’t know how to read them nonetheless.

It used to be so different in times gone by. In 1990s, my father earned RM200 as a constable where RM200 at that time had more value than today. My parents managed to give us the best education and that amount was more than enough to clothe and feed us, and surprisingly they had saved for my father’s respected thoughts, Nanti anak Abah semua masuk universiti. He did all he can do to maintain the best education for us. He worked 7 days a week and never lost his joy of life and the humor. We never saw him complaining or sick affectedly. With the all-inclusive economy crisis in Malaysia, my mother told me that:

“Kami cuma mampu beli buku dan pensil. Dan kamu semua tak berhenti menulis dan mengira di atas kertas-kertas kosong sejak usia 3 tahun. Kamu semua bercakap dari apa yang kamu dengar, apa yang kamu baca. Kami tak mampu untuk beli buku-buku cerita, sebab tu Abah akan beli surat khabar setiap hari. Dan kamu belajar dari surat khabar.”

After independence, National Education Policy (NEP) was enacted and the implementation gradually enforced. So by the 1980s, English was completely phased out from schools and universities. And in the legal profession, English dragged on much longer.  

When I was in primary school, I had a hard time to understand and converse in English. It had occurred to me that I learned English simply because I was forced to, as so many other Malay children were. And there came Teacher Masriah and must of the time I was punished and looked upon with disdain for not being able to speak and learn English quickly and smoothly. It made me to learn more and to prove that I am not an object of scorn. So I learned.

As I went through it, I had to write my own essays in Bahasa Melayu and English. Whenever I lost courage, my father would remind me to keep trying as I am the grand-daughter of Mahmud Hussein, who was so great in writing and had the ability to recite spontaneous pantun. So there, started my journey. I began to love language, the sound, the meaning and the magic of it. Language opened up vistas of the world around me, and it allowed me to discover knowledge that would not be possible for me to know without the use of language.

It was really hard sometimes I have to admit, to write, to speak in public or voice out my opinions in a group of English speakers with astonishing academic backgrounds. Once, all of a sudden as I scrambled for words, I freezed and I was unable to think clearly. Minutes passed by as I was struggling to retrieve my thoughts until I finally managed to say something.

I love how I am able to put words and language into certain format and boost the characters for my own satisfaction. I write for my satisfaction. I write for the sake of language. And I write for my parents.

Speaking about writing, someone once said that writing is very guileless, all you have to do is to sit in front of your computer. My technique for getting started is to sit down with my coffee before I’m fully awake. I will then remember all the good things I have ever relished throughout my life and decide the language and words I want to use.  By the time I have typed, I am several pages into whatever I’m working on, simply from typing mechanically. Sometimes, I have been too numb to suffer the pangs of beginning. I have to delete first couple of paragraphs, but that’s okay. If I did not do it that way, I would not have any pages at all.

What makes it so tough for all of us, I think, is our fright that what we write won’t work. It will sound vacuous and not fascinating or it will be less than pathetic. Mercifully though, whatever we get down on paper that first time through does not have to be THE FINAL PROJECT.

Good luck with your writing!

After more than twenty years of living, I have acquired quite adequate English skills to function fairly well. I can pass as long as I don’t have to write or say my thoughts around those whom I see as being more educated and articulate than I am. I don’t have that courage, yet. Hahaha.

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