Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Working Process of "Between Islands"

In the midst of reading postcolonial theory and books about gothic literature, I decided to write another steampunk story. Some of you may have read Between Islands, my steampunk short at Expanded Horizons. In the name of procrastination, I thought I would share with you the process and history behind writing it. (What? Everybody else likes to talk about their work. I'm just jumping on that bandwagon.)

Initial stages: "Jahanam Francis Light"
The first impetus for Islands is this post I wrote in Steampunk Nusantara, about the discovery of a booklet called "Jahanam Francis Light: Riwayat Peristiwa Akibat Pertempuran Antara Negara Kedah & Briton Curang Pada Tahun 1780". Ostensibly, it's written in Jawi (which is Malay in the Arabic alphabet), and it means, "[Damn] Francis Light: The Tale of the Battle Between [the country of] Kedah and the Traitorous Briton in year 1780."

Two things are going on here: Francis Light is the most obvious. He's credited with the founding of Penang. To simplify, the Sultan of Kedah leased the land of Pulau Pinang (Malay) / Binlang (Chinese) / now called Penang to Captain Francis Light. In return, Captain Light promised to render aid to Kedah whenever it was threatened by Siam. I can't find the reference for this now (it's somewhere on Wikipedia, I know this) but Francis Light had no clearance from the British East India Company to offer such aid, and when asked, said he meant only the strait between Seberang Prai and Penang. So the Sultan of Kedah attacked to take back Penang, and since Francis Light had superior forces, Kedah surrendered not only Penang, but also Seberang Prai. (You may note that the dates are fudged, because I had two or three different dates and didn't know which to go with.)

The other thing going on here is a bit of more modern Malayan history - the formation of the Malayan Union. Essentially, the MU would create a coalition of the sultans of Malaya, effectively joining all states into one federation. It would extend citizenship to everyone in Malaya who had lived there before 1942, or if they were born outside Malaya, they had to have a Malayan father, or they had been living in Malaya for severa years prior to the formation of the MU and basically speak English or Malay and was generally a good citizen. 

Sounds like a good plan, right? Except it was complicated: Sir Harold MacMichael, who was in charge of gathering the sultans' approval to join the MU, apparently did so using underhanded means. Moreover, under British rule, the Malays were either bureaucrats or farmers, and they felt threatened by the economic power of the Chinese, so extending citizenship to them was not exactly a good thing. Joining the MU also reduced the power of the sultans, handing over the power to British hands.

So the Malays protested, and took to the streets, and every good Malaysian student has seen that old photograph in their History textbooks of Malays holding signs that read "JAHANAM MACMICHAEL". (Which roughly translates "damn you to hell, MacMichael". This isn't the exact translation.)

Now, it just makes a whole lot of sense that if we're going to pin down the first bit of British colonization in Malaya, we'd pick Francis Light's takeover of Penang, because his establishment of a port and colony on Penang is what drew more British business to the Straits (the British already was doing business in the Straits, but at the time was more focused on India) (there were Dutch and Portuguese too) (in Queens of Langkasuka, Queen Hijau greets white traders who want sole trading rights with Langkasuka). Presumably, preventing Francis Light from establishing the colony would also prevent British monopoly in Malaya. Presumably.

The Crew of Al-Rohani Antara and the Dao Yi
From the first, the crew would have to be multi-racial. I made the owner a Straits Chinese, aka Peranakan Cina, aka Nyonya, because as mentioned before, the Straits Chinese were townspeople, a merchant class. Choosing Yap Siew Fei's name was a trial, because I wanted a name that was common, but also significant. I went with the surname Yap because it's both - I'm also harking to Yap Ah Loy, an immigrant from China who is famous as a Kapitan Cina (Chinese captain - head of a Chinese settlement) in Kuala Lumpur at a time when KL had its beginnings as a commercial and mining town. The Yap surname is fairly ubiquitous, and as a clan, was also very large and resourceful. 

I didn't get too in-depth into Yap Siew Fei's background because I wanted time to develop her character (and also, it was Crossed Genres' Steampunk Eastern month and I didn't have time). Moreover, I also had to jump between the various characters to build the story. But as an interesting note, "siew" is Cantonese for burn, and "fei" is Cantonese for fly. Although Straits Chinese tend to speak Hokkien, there's really nothing barring a family from having a Cantonese background (especially since Canton / Guangzhou is in southern China, where Yap Ah Loy also comes from). Her hate-on for the Dutch (who did a lot of business in Melaka, where she's from) stems from personal reasons, though. Ching Seow Fen, her maid, is also Cantonese, although "Seow Fen" is more Hokkien.

The challenges I've found with naming Chinese characters definitely has to be with the regionalism - on the one hand, it's not the best to generalize; on the other, character names should reflect their backgrounds. There's a fine line which I'm still working on. My dad's probably sick of my emails asking what are common names for certain regions. He's fairly knowledgeable though. When he first met my Form 4 teacher, he said, "you're from up north, right?" she replied, "Yes. How you know?" and he said, "you have a 'H' in your name." This is dicey and will probably not matter in a generation or two, due to the mobility of younger generations, but it's still amusing and interesting.

I wanted the rohani to be captained and crewed by Malay speakers. Harun and Johari aren't based on specific people. Nakhoda is Malay for captain - not to be confused with Laksamana, "sea admiral". Samy is Indian (not to be confused with Samy Vellu, hey!) and who is sorely underthought as a character - his family is Malayan-Indian, Kedahan, Hindu. Johari is from Terengganu, which is on the eastern side of the Malayan peninsula. I don't talk much about him either. 

The steampowered ship, however, is captained by Lu Gen Wei, and I don't remember the naming process for him anymore. He's from China, and was first mate to Harun for a long time. He speaks Mandarin, which is a whole other story. (I think he also nurses a crush on Siew Fei, which I explore in the sequel, but I haven't decided what to do about it.) (I hate it when characters take lives of their own without my sayso.)

Kedah Sultanate
Sultan Abdullah Makarram Shah III is based on Sultan Abdullah Mukarram Shah, who reigned in Kedah around that time period. There's precious little information on him and his reign that I could find, which I will have to fix when I'm next in a SEA-rich library.

For those of you with zero background in Malay, here's a breakdown: The Temenggung is the chief of police, army, and one step down from Bendahara. The Bendahara is the Sultan's right hand man, his chief advisor, and head of bureaucracy. The closest translation I can find is vizier. The Laksamana, as I said before, is a naval admiral. I made up their names, but you can see both Arabic and Hindu influences in their names. 

When Johari and Samy meet with the Sultan, they use very formal language. There's a whole protocol of bahasa istana (palace language). The site I got all this info from is down, which kind of pisses me off, because it is a wonderful primer on palace protocol, well-written, and easily navigable. =( There is very little in way of good information sources regarding the Malaysian monarchy, which is a shame (if you google it right now you'll get all sorts of debates on the validity of the monarchy, which, dudes, ugh).

Religion and Culture
Malaysia is a Muslim country, but Malaya was Hindu was a very long time as well. Hinduism and Islam tend to adapt according to local costumes. Even in Indonesia you can see the syncretism of both religions. When the Temenggung is first introduced, he is coming out of the surau from prayers. I used the Malay word, subuh, which I think is the loanword from the Arabic ظهر, and bugged my friend Tariq incessantly about prayer times and the like. 

Yap Siew Fei, being a local Chinese, worships at a temple to Thean Hou (which is also the name of a temple in KL), a SEAsian goddess of the sea, a kind of patron saint for seafarers. Chinese pantheons shift and adapt to local customs (there are gods and spirits we pray to in Malaysia that we didn't bring over from China, although I'd be hard-pressed to name them at the moment) but worship of Thean Hou is fairly widespread. 
You might also notice the mentions of food in certain scenes, as a way of bonding. This is an incredibly Asian thing. Oh, sure, white Westerners do it too, but never quite to the same extent and with the same fervour as people of Asian descent. I'm not sure why, but it's something I noticed.

Also, you might notice I used the Hijri calendar dates in certain letters. At Steampunk Nusantara we have a bunch of links, but I personally like the design of this one the best.

Vessel Design
So, onto the rohani! I call it a rohani, as opposed to an airship, because firstly, it was designed in an Arabic-speaking space so I wanted to a name that reflected this. I wiki'd the shit out of "airship" and looked for other viable alternatives. Much like how we take "zeppelin" to mean airship, and it was the name of a dude named Von Zeppelin, I saw no reason why an Arabic word couldn't be used to mean the same. "Kapal terbang" means "flying ship" in Malay, but that's.... for an airplane, not really an airship in the steampunk sense. It also doesn't roll off the tongue well.

Long before I'd written about Jahanam Francis Light, I'd found this interesting profile of an Arab, uh, everything. Taqi al-Din Muhammad ibn Ma'ruf was, "a scientist, astronomer and astrologer, engineer and inventor, clockmaker, physicist and mathematician, botanist and zoologist, pharmacist and physician, Islamic judge and mosque timekeeper, Islamic philosopher and theologian, and madrasah teacher" (I said he was everything!). More relevantly to this post, he designed a steam turbine and wrote a treatise on it, called "Al-Turuq al-saniyya fi'1-alat al-ruhaniyya" - "The Sublime Methods of Spiritual Machines". Out of all those words, "alat" and "ruhani" are also loan words from Arabic into Malay - "alat" means "tool", and "ruhani" I was more familiar with as "rohani", derived from the word "roh" which means "spirit" / "soul". "Rohani" is also a common female name.

According to Wikipedia, the alat al-ruhaniyya was invented for cooking purposes. Which has always struck me as a peculiarly sweet, very Asian thing, this invention for an activity that is nourishing for body and community spirit. So, it kinda sucked when I had to take this idea and transform it into a what amounts to a war machine. I actually don't like the meme that all great technologies are borne out of war and military. I think a lot of great inventions are borne and implemented out of desperation, but humans are adaptable and eventually they mix and match and adopt things as part of daily life once they see the usefulness of new things.

I didn't talk much about the Dao Yi, and I'm hoping to describe it further in future stories - after I've learned more about ships. It's a streamlined ship for swiftness, whereas al-Rohani Antara is designed to impress (and more of a prototype tech). Dao Yi is Mandarin, and I combined 岛 (island) and 圯 (bridge). It's pretty silly of me to just stick two characters together like that, and there was also narcissism going on there - Yi (仪) is also part of my Chinese name - but I wanted something to reflect the nature of the ship and its new home port (Penang Island) and its multinational crew. (Also, I spent an inordinate amount of time on online dictionaries.)

Concluding Thoughts
Because this is still a project in the making, and I'm writing this to avoid reading for next week's classes, I don't actually have any conclusions. Writing in this setting is difficult, because it's such a departure from the usual world-building that I do, since it's so rooted in reality. It's also hard because each character is their own person and shouldn't be written as representatives of their respective cultures, but still remain true to the cultures from which they are part of. The result is a story in which characterization and voice is hard to pin down (much like postcolonial Malaysia!) and will remain so until I write some more. As difficult as it was, it brought me closer in spirit to that place I call my homeland, even though I wrote it on the other side of the planet.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this post =) 

No comments:

Post a Comment