Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Fifty Shades of Green: The Individual and his Identities in Lloyd Fernando’s Green is the Color

Green is the color primarily associated with nature; it is also the color that represents our natural state of existence — that is, as individuals belonging to the human race, unified by our common humanity. Green, as the representative color of universal human identity, is notably mentioned only towards the end of the novel when Siti Sara went out of the house one evening and sensed how “the color of the leaves differed from bush to tree and from tree to tree, in dazzling shades of green after the rain” (192). 

Shades of green in nature signify chromatic harmony despite the variation of shades or, to aptly demonstrate this in the novel, the shades of identities are exemplified in the characters of Dahlan, Sara, and Omar –  all Malaysian colonial subjects who acquired Western education which produced “dazzling shades” or ambivalent effects on their respective identities: Dahlan advocates against racial inequality for minority groups; Sara struggles with her individualism and attachment to her restrictive culture; and Omar embraces fundamentalist Islam and nativist ideology through an elimination of all “traces of colonial legacy”.

While the reference to color green appears to be a mere passive mention in the story, its symbolic quality is being emphasized pervasively through our historical reading of the text. The depiction of greenery sets the backdrop for tropical Malaysia where different shades of green are visibly painted on its multicultural, multi-religious, and multilingual landscape. 

Malaysia, as a modernizing yet tradition-oriented society, grapples not only with sociocultural differences between racial groups but more significantly with economic disparity among them. Green, as a known representation for envy and resentment, characterizes Malaysia’s classic problem of racial, political, and socioeconomic divide: the dominant Malay group perceives themselves to be at an economic disadvantage in the agrarian countryside against the Chinese and Indian minority who prosper in urban centers, respectively for their handling of most commercial enterprises and constituting the country’s professional sector.

It is important to note how this racial strife in the country originally stemmed from British colonial policy that previously encouraged Chinese and Indian migration to supply the demand for labor in the country’s flourishing rubber and tin industry. Green, in this sense, becomes the symbol for money as the capitalist Britain, during its occupation of Malaya, concerns itself not with the promotion of cultural harmony among racial groups but merely for financial gains from its colonial activities. As such, racial conflict emerging from colonial policies dominated Malaysia’s postcolonial history after it gained independence in 1957.  

Referred in the novel as the “unsightly scab” in Malaysian history, these racial discords, which later erupted into a widespread racial riot in May 1969, provided the main backdrop for the story where multiracial characters representing their shades of identity are at odds not only with their inner selves but also with their distinctly cultural as well as universal human identity. What Lloyd Fernando tried to portray in the novel is how ultimately, the human identity, with love as one of its universal qualities, prevails over both sociocultural and personal identity.

Being green is embodied in the bold and “transgressive acts” of the main characters, Sara and Yun Ming as well as Dahlan and Gita, who are involved in interracial relationships. Green is the color associated with nature primarily because it does not discriminate but rather celebrates diversity through love in its varying shades of existence. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Society and the Isolated in Shahnon Ahmad’s Rope of Ash (Rentong)

It is not difficult to notice, as Filipinos, the striking similarities between Shahnon Ahmad’s idyllic portrayal of Malaysia’s countryside and the sceneries of Philippine rural life. In the novel Rope of Ash (Rentong), we are given familiar images of typical countryside life in a remote village of Banggul Derdap: farmers scattering across various square fields, village rice lands looking like a “large single lake”, and typical village meals consisting of sticky rice and grated coconut. It is from these rustic images that our appreciation and understanding of Malaysian village life are vivid and familiar.

But while these rural sceneries are reminiscent to Philippine countryside life, it is also easy to understand how we are able to relate with Malaysian rural values which put emphasis on the importance of kinship and sense of community among rural folks. In the Philippines, headmaster Pak Senik is represented by a well-respected Barangay Captain or Purok Chairman whose leadership is central in maintaining harmony in a village. Similar to Philippine provinces, the lives of families in Banggul Derdap are closely knit since villagers are “dependent and independent from each other” for their living and sustenance. Because of this, it is almost unimaginable for village residents to isolate themselves from the community that works towards unity, order, and harmony.
If negative values such as violence, jealousy, and ambition disrupt the idealized notion of harmonious coexistence among villagers, then the community – being a structured social and political unit – has the power to isolate and make an outcast out of those who initiate societal division and conflict. However, it is interesting to note how, in the novel, we are given the perspective of the isolated; that is, we are given insights on how, at times, the society misjudges an individual based on past deeds and subverted opinion that challenges the prevalent view of the village group. In the novel, the isolated becomes vulnerable to malicious rumor and prejudgment of character; for instance, we are drawn to relate to Pak Kasa and Semaun’s violent character as similar to the popular Filipino adage: kung ano ang puno ay siyang bunga.

With societal seclusion, the isolated Semaun is forced to shape his character based on the presumptions of society; hostility and violence becomes his recourse to defend his family and their traditional ideals. Predictably, an ambitious character, personified by Dogol, is able to exploit this ambivalent and already delicate relationship between the society and the isolated. However, through the notable leadership style of headmaster Pak Senik, whose patience and compassion has led Semaun’s family to subtly acquire utang na loob or debt of gratitude from his goodwill, we can see how the gap between the community and its outcast is eventually narrowed and restored. This happened when the violent call to destroy Semaun’s property by fire was, towards the end of the story, prevented – signifying that the rope to tie, to connect the isolated with society did not burn and turn into ashes. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Back to Poetry (#3 - UP Diliman Series)

Musings of a Lone Dew on a Sunny Day

I am a tear to this grass
which cups me kindly,

to fit the curve of its leaf
and delay my joining
the sun.

I am shriveling warm, but I glisten
ever more intensely:

swaying dragonflies
as I join the wind,

hovering its glimmer
above my green,

viewing flickers of grain
from its sandy loam home

gripping what is left of me --

so all that we become
are city lights of day.
4/11/2012, Fodboldbane

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