When USAmerican writer Gail Simone came to town a few years back, she was (quite rightly) taken to task by an indignant local fan who challenged her portrayal of Singapore in Birds of Prey #81-83. As Thursday has mentioned recently, cultural appropriation is one potential problem for writers from white cultures who have chosen to depict coloured cultures. However, another issue – which I’m touching on today – is the question of accurate representation.
Here is my biggest problem with this book: the name of my country is MALAYSIA. Not Malaya. MalaySIa. I don’t mind as much if Andersen Lake gets it wrong–he’s portrayed as an asshole who doesn’t bother to get the local cultural details right anyway, and he seems quite racist to me. That’s fine; while he is wholly unsympathetic in my book, there’s nothing wrong with writing an unsympathetic character.
However, Tan Hock Seng is another matter.
When is this book set anyway? Considering the technology, I would say the book is set sometime in the 21st century. Post-2000, then. How old is Tan Hock Seng? I shall be charitable and say that he is 70 years old, give or take a few. Assuming Tan Hock Seng was 70 in 2010, that would mean he was born in 1940.
Malaysia came into being in 1957 when we achieved independence from the British. While we were still called Malaya back in World War II, that was then. Since 1957 we have been Malaya. Tan Hock Seng would have been using “Malaysia” for YEARS after independence.
Malaya is what the British called us. Malaya is the name of a colonial territory. Malaya is not an independent nation. Malaysians call themselves Malaysians, not Malayans.
So WHY ON EARTH is TAN using MALAYA and not Malaysia? It says in the book he was a Big Deal (my emphasis) back in the day, before the riots. Big Deals do not use Malaya. They say Malaysia.
Predictably, the OP has also drawn a shitload of flak. The arguments being made seem to be:
1. But you didn’t finish reading! How can you judge it?
2. You just don’t appreciate SFF!
3. It’s not that important, why are you so worked up?
Now, look here. We can make a lot of inferences based on context, and 42 pages is not a small sample set either – it was about a tenth of the book, which is usually enough to get a feel of a text. I speak as a literature student who has had numerous love-it-or-hate-it experiences with introductions. Besides, agents and editors will throw out a manuscript for much less than 42 pages. And the OP isn’t complaining about the plot, or speculating about a plot element that is utterly jossed in the dénouement. The problem seems to lie with the way Southeast Asia is portrayed, and frankly I think 42 pages is quite enough for a reader to form an impression of this sort.
It is also more than enough for a reader who comes from a background that has already been long stereotyped and simplified in pop culture. This is what I mean by context. Orientalism like this is so common, we are so used to it, and just because a white audience may not recognize it does not negate its incidence.
Some objectors argue that the OP is ‘missing the point’. This is SFF, they say; of course things will not follow real-world facts. But that is to deny the role of an internal logic (absurd outside of absurdism), and also to ignore SFF which affirms or capably depicts Asian cultures (e.g. The Years of Rice and Salt and steampunk_nusantara).
Most of all, the ability to ask why someone like the OP is so affected speaks of either privilege or a privileged ignorance. A disregard for accuracy implies a disregard for the subject, and that is nothing short of a grave insult for cultures who have had their aspects simplified or misrepresented under colonialism.
Accuracy is not easy. Commitment to research is not easy; responsible interpretation is not easy. But it is an obligation, nonetheless, because – respect for other people aside – it enriches a work, whereas the lack of accuracy only demeans the final product.
The situation discussed by the OP is particularly real, because it supposes an uncharacteristic behaviour in a character for no good reason. It is both racist and bad writing. And yes, I can say, as a postcolonial girl from just the other side of the Causeway as the OP, that the language of the Straits Settlements is still controversial.
On a closing note – y’know Gail Simone? She pulled the tone argument, yea verily, and I have never read her work again. I will not argue that there are feminist influences in her BoP series, but there are feminist influences in Joss Whedon’s BtVS too; their iffy attitude toward racial politics is quite enough spoil both for me.