BOOK REPLIES/REVIEWS (2014): Lat’s (1979) Kampung Boy

3 September 2014

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Lat (1979)[2] Kampung Boy

This is a “precursor” volume to Lat’s later[3] (1980) Town Boy, here tracking his earliest life in a Malaysian village; I believe this book particularly put Lat on the map, at least for Occidental eyes. I chose this book (and Town Boy) for a reason similar to reading a first volume of Abouet and Oubrerie’s (2007)[4] Aya series; to get a view of elsewhere in the world (through graphic novels) without succumbing to orientalist cryptotourism.

Like Town Boy, the narrative consists of piecemeal memoir but here—and unlike in Town Boy—the diffuse heap of occurrences nonetheless seems to hang together more as a kind of narrative than in Lat’s later book. Part of this comes from the expectations generally associated with the genre of childhood memoir: we bring less expectation for reading about a definitive start-middle-end type of narrative when browsing the “diffuse” experience of children.

I do not mean fictionalized childhood memoirs (much less fictions about childhood) can only have this kind of diffuseness, this “aimless” quality of narrative that seems to dovetail with the undirected or “aimless” quality of so much of early childhood: books like Hesse’s (1906)[5] Beneath the Wheel and Ngũgĩ wa Thiongʼo’s (1965)[6] The River Between have explicitly non-indeliberate plot arcs set during childhood, and the genre of the Bildungsroman (the novel of character-building, or simply coming-of-age story)—Goethe’s (1795)[7] Wilhelm Meister’s Apprentice gets often cited as the earliest example in Occidental literature—while nonetheless a different genre, clearly present no intention at creating any sense of “aimless” narrative. Exactly the opposite in fact.

William Edgar Burghardt duBois—in his (1903)[8] Souls of Black Folk—described double consciousness in the following way:

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder (¶5, from here).

In Dyer’s (1997)[9] White: Essays on Race and Culture, he quotes a person who once observed that “white people don’t seem to know they’re white.” The correlate of this, that links to du Bois’ point above, means that white people don’t recognise so readily or so often (if at all) their own double-consciousness, that “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on” (whether contemptuously, with pity, approval, or not). Just as the (dominant white) discourse insists that “other people are raced, we are just people” (Dyer, 1), so would other people have (or have to live a world of) double-consciousness, because we are just have single-consciousness.

And we can get away with that in Occidental culture because it provides the norm assumed by (white) people. It makes for a merely polite—impolite, rather, given its consequences—fiction that we live. But, like an insular assumption that holds only for the group doing the assuming, once we go outside of that space, we encounter other people who do not share that assumption.

Consequently, when confronting Lat’s book, which he wrote about and for a Malaysian culture with little or no consideration for its reception by a non-Malaysian reader, it becomes readily obvious that “outsiders” cannot read it except with a double-consciousness. More precisely, a reader might indulge orientalist conceits—whether to favourably exoticise the Other or to take up the usual anti-Muslim/anti-non-white tropes in the form of amused contempt or pity that du Bois identifies—but a less indoctrinated reader can only note how the book double-means simultaneously (for the acculturated “Malaysian” reader and the non-acculturated “non-Malaysian” reader).

As an important note, Lat wrote the book in English (with Malay terms included) not to reach an English-speaking audience but because the newspaper he worked for published in English. The original publisher later produced a Malay-language version of the book. In light of this, we may feel confident that Lat wrote as a local producer and not as a comprador intellectual, attempting to mediate for “the west” the “exotic” or “foreign” elements of Malaysian culture for an Occidental audience. So, since Lat does not set out with an intention to “explain” Malaysia to a non-Malaysian (non-Muslim or especially Occidental) world, then this requires an acknowledgment of double-consciousness on the part of “non-Malaysian” readers.[10]

When I say “non-Malaysian” I mean to point to those who do not have the kind of acculturation that permits a “Malaysian” reading (understanding) of the book. I do not mean, strictly speaking, “white” compared to “non-white” or “Occidental” compared to “non-Occidental” though clearly most “white” or “Occidental” readers will, in fact, lack the “Malaysian” acculturation to grant them access to a “Malaysian” reading of the book. In theory, a “white” person who grew up in Malaysia at the time might very well have a culturally competent (Airhihenbuwa, 1995)[11] reading of the text, just as someone of Malaysia descent not raised in the environment of the book might misread it in various ways.

This caveat in place, one may hardly deny that most people who pick up this book at their local library in the United States (or buy it from somewhere) will not have the cultural competence for a “Malaysian” reading of the book. And that unavoidably interposes the fact of double-consciousness, whether or not a non-Malaysian reader elects to acknowledge it or not.

Three examples from the book illustrate this well.

The most overwhelmingly likely “white” or “Occidental” misreading of this book will read it in universalist terms. Those aspects that analogize with “white” or “Occidental” patterns of childhood will get highlighted (in a favourable way) while “alien” or “exotic” or “otherly” aspects in the book will get overlooked or cast in a problematic light. The point here does not involve, for example, whether “all” children run and laugh joyously during childhood, but rather the insistence that such a claim may get made about “all” children in the first place.

We must keep in mind that the when the Occidental paradigm talks about human universals (of experience) it means, sometimes explicitly, more often only implicitly, Euroamerican “universals” (of experience). Thus, one finds psychologists (generally making arguments in naïve ignorance) and anthropologists (who presumably should know better, given their broader understanding of the variables of culture) insisting that one may speak of a universal experience of adolescence, for instance (Brody, 1965; Kiell, 1964; Mead).[12] That these works date from some half-century ago testify more to the fashion of the day than the on-going habit for such totalizing talk, at least as far as the human experience of “adolescence” worldwide goes, but it shows also a habit of generalizing that relies upon invalidly substituting “white experience” as the template for “human experience”. This echoes the point made by Heilbrun and Stimpson (1975),[13] who have no objection to works of art by and about men, so long as any claims to speak for “humanity” in such works authentically speak (1) in fact to strictly male human experiences, or (2) do not misapply or substitute “male experience” in place of “human experience” generally.

The most abrupt and glaring example of “exotic” or “foreign” (i.e., non-universal in a white sense) experience described by Lat concerns his circumcision, at age 10. I needn’t go into details—like all of the ceremonial aspects that go along with it—because already, by having genital mutilation occur not a few days after birth, when supposedly it leaves no scar (other than the absence of the foreskin), but rather at an age when one can hardly remain nonself-conscious of the event, then a whole arsenal of Occidental tropes kick in to treat this non-universal aspect of coming-of-age as a (Muslim) barbarism or whatnot.

I would point to, but leave aside here, the fact that making circumcision something that the entire community, including the one circumcised, participates in, as opposed to making it a medical (or religious) procedure in which the person circumcised has no awareness makes for a radically different experience, as wa Thiong’o attests to favourably in The River Between. He expressly speaks of how undergoing circumcision, which reads in his Kenyan experience as more intense than Lat describes in his Malaysian experience, changes him; he speaks to the head-space it prompts him to occupy and the sea-change it affects. This emphasis on the psychological rather than the physiological obviously makes a vastly different point than opponents of circumcision generally focus on, especially where female circumcision goes. But for all of the hysterics and histrionics expended by Occidental commentators on the barbaric practices of circumcision (male or female) around the world, Lat offers in his book the one page summary, “In two minutes it was over! It was not very painful. Just like an ant bite!” (105).

Whatever the claimed merits or demerits of circumcision, whatever the dubious arguments advanced in Occidental circles about the medical value or necessity of male circumcision or not (Spock, 1989),[14] and whatever the manifold and contradictory claims and evidences attested around female circumcision (e.g., Koso-Thomas, 1987;[15] Shell-Duncan & Hernland, 2000;[16] Toubia, 1994[17]), what I suspect most would agree upon would involve that when and where circumcision does occur, it should do so in a safe, sanitary, and socially supported way (as also for abortion). The horror stories we hear, as also the critiques of male circumcision in Occidental circles, serve to call into question the means or the circumstances under which circumcision occurs, not the practice itself.[18] No young woman should face the possibility of dying as a result of circumcision—so safe conditions, not eradication of the cultural practice, follows logically from the horror stories; similarly, males in the Occidental world who (rightly) object to genital mutilation they had no say or choice in points, again, to a problem of the means, not the cultural practice itself.

Contextualised in this way, the sequence involving Lat’s circumcision at age ten certainly places in the text a massive discourse that would re-frame what he reports in a (doubled-consciousness) way not intended by his book. I remember from an anthropology class in my college days reading about or seeing films on the Yąnomamö, Papua New Guineans, and the Nuer, and trying to find for myself whether I would want to live in those cultures, and generally answering no. I hardly think the purpose of such exposure wanted to prompt that question, but when invited to see how other people live, when it comes with no attempt to “placate” the dominant gaze doing the observing, the question probably occurs readily enough.[19]

The other moment involves a wedding that Lat attends. Here, again, the ceremonial differences in several places contrast markedly with Occidental (US) experience. And a reading hinges upon to what extent a non-double-conscious gaze resists (or can resist) Othering the people represented, whether in banal, effectively racist terms (“look how those people get married; it’s ridiculous”) or in voluptuously orientalist terms (“ooh, those foreign weddings are so cool and exotic”). This does not mean one cannot manage cultural appreciation; it means that one must begin by acknowledging the partiality of the gaze that frames how we look upon the Other in the first place.

Such an acknowledgment never becomes complete or total, though it does reach a point (a limit) where given our current frame of understanding can go no further. We can realise that our own aversion to getting circumcised at age ten points (in Malaysian cultural terms) to a professed desire to remain perpetually childish, i.e., never to actually take on the mind-set of an adult—a diagnosis that even Occidental commentators have directed at (US) culture more than once (Kiley, 1983).[20]

For Lat’s part, he has stated part of his reason for composing this book. With the success of his newspaper column Scenes from Malaysian Life, as his “fame grew, he began questioning his city lifestyle and reminiscing about his life in the kampung. Lat felt he and his fellow citizens had all forgotten their village origins and wanted to remind them of that” (from <href=”#Conception”>here).

This may explain the very different depiction of people in this book and Town Boy. In the later book, people regularly get twisted into all kinds of distorted shapes, often anatomically impossible ones. Similarly, while prominent teeth figure in both books, we find them far, far, far more plentifully (and often with more than a tinge of excess) in the later book. In general, particularly with his origins as a political cartoonist, Lat and others characterise his work as attentive to sensibilities and never “aggressively” pushing any envelopes. We might read this as overly safe or capitulatory, but one may still note that the change in presentation from one book to the next points to a pushing of an envelope, however gently or not.

Call it a kind of homesickness for his childhood, the first book (this one) does not permit a view of the “questioning of city life” (because it remains entirely set within the kampong) that the second book does, but it seems that the motive remains the same in both books. Once again, however, how easily one may quickly read this as the sort of infantile regression Freudians like to make such a fuss about. In point of fact, what Lat emphasises does not involve the experience of childhood so much as the setting of it, i.e., specifically the profoundly social character of lived experience. The childhood of the average US suburbanite has nothing of the deeply implicated social life that Lat depicts; we have nothing of the “city-wide festival” attending our circumcision. Our weddings may sometimes bring, in effect, the entirety of a child’s world into a single event and focus, but weddings don’t occur on a daily basis, whereas the sheer daily experience Lat depicts occurs ever and always within something like that total world.

Putting it too bluntly, one lives (tribally) face-to-face in the kampong in a way that town life, with its vastly more populated social structures, simply does not permit. This does not automatically condemn the city as a failed social structure, but it does show how one of the costs of city (town) life involves a loss of the unmediated sense of relationship with everyone around you; or, rather, that such an unmediated experience no longer becomes a tacit assumption one may expect of those around you. Your neighbour’s house no longer constitutes a place you may wander into at will (as a child or not). And so forth.

This yearning for social relatedness, as a loss suffered (or at least experienced as a dominant fact) in town life, does not in any way connect to infantile regression. In a culture like our own, where the monetization of social relationships has become a doxa of our lived experience, the very idea of a “tribal childhood” has become all but impossible, except in those places where environmental constraints lead to closed communities. Some of these communities do so deliberately (the Amish, the Mushketian Turks); some do so accidentally (towns or villages isolated by geographic features); some do so in a desperatized way (sorry for the weird word), i.e., ghettos hostilely encircled or cut off from city life by police, &c., or a place like Gaza, &c.

In general, however, the dominant mode of US culture fosters the opposite of a tribal childhood; in line with the dominant ideology, we emphasize more the individual over the group than vice versa (for example), so that our nostalgia for childhood does have more the character of a neurotic or regressive condition, because what we yearn for involves merely our own (undeveloped, naïve, childish) sensibilities—yearning for “simpler times” or “innocence all over again” from the “harsh lessons” that pseudo-adult life have “inflicted” upon us. We might remember fondly “the gang” we once ran with, but even our experience of that gang already remains deeply informed by the individualistic accent. No doubt, in such a culture, experiences in the military may very often provide something more like the kind of sense of belonging and “home” that Lat assumes as self-evident in his depiction of the kampong. I’d have to call it tragic that a best place to find “belonging” and “home” arises in a context that requires training for (if not the actuality of) participating in the destruction of other people’s lives around the world and domestically.

So our human desire for “community” already seems confused or misdirected, but to the extent that it points actually at the kind of interrelatedness that Lat assumes as a matter of course in his depiction of the kampong, then one may say with certainty that that longing represents something profoundly pro-social and not something regressive at all.

This doesn’t mean I have to exoticise the setting he depicts. The fact that I would not want circumcision at age ten helps to point to the reminder that (1) we do not invent our desirable social settings in generally (perhaps unfortunately), even as they remain the product of the power structure that supports and generates them, and that (2) the social structure I genuinely desire would not consist of one that merely gratifies my individualistic desires but would, in exchange for my assent to cultural norms, bring with it that sense of belonging that our current ideology of materialism so miserably manages to stand in for.


 [1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Lat. (2006). Kampung boy. 1st American ed. New York: First Second, pp. 1–141.

[3] Lat. (1980). Town Boy: Macmillan.

[4] Abouet, M, and Oubrerie, C (2007). Aya. (trans. H. Dascher). 1st hardcover ed. Montréal : New York: Drawn & Quarterly, pp. 1–106.

[5] Hesse, H. (2003). Beneath the Wheel: A Novel: Macmillan.

[6] wa Thiongʼo, Ngũgĩ. (1965). The river between. Oxford [Oxfordshire]; Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

[7] Von Goethe, J. W. (1989). Wilhelm Meister’s apprenticeship (Vol. 9): Princeton University Press

[8] Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). The souls of black folk: Oxford University Press

[9] Dyer, R. (1997). White: Essays on race and culture. New York, NY: Routledge.

[10] When I say “non-Malaysian” I mean to point to those who do not have the kind of acculturation that permits a “Malaysian” reading (understanding) of the book.

[11] Airhihenbuwa, C. O. (1995). Health and culture: Beyond the Western paradigm: Sage.

[12] See Brody, E. B. (1965). The Universal Experience of Adolescence. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 140(3), 235-238; Kiell, N. (1964). The universal experience of adolescence: International Universities Press New York; Mead, M. The Universal Experience of Adolescence (from here).

[13] Heilbrun, C, & Stimpson, C. (1975). Theories of feministic criticism: a dialogue. In J. Donovan (ed.). Feminist literary criticism: explorations in theory (2nd ed.), pp. 61–73. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.

[14] Spock, B. (1989). Circumcision—it’s not necessary. Redbook, 53. This seems a retraction of his earlier advocacy.

[15] Koso-Thomas, O. (1987). The circumcision of women: a strategy for eradication.

[16] Shell-Duncan, B., & Hernlund, Y. (2000). Female “circumcision” in Africa: Dimensions of the practice and debates. Female “circumcision” in Africa: Culture, controversy, and change, 1-40.

[17] Toubia, N. (1994). Female circumcision as a public health issue. New England Journal of Medicine, 331(11), 712-716

[18] Such critique would comprise a separate argument.

[19] Some naïve people might think this all suggests that only “whites” can adopt such a totalizing view of the world. The same sort of people tend to believe that white racism and “black racism” function identically within white supremacist culture. One can only find such naiveté or ignorance pitiable o offensive, depending upon whether the person gives up such a claim when corrected for their error. In a similar vein, if we find a totalizing view within Occidental culture by someone not from the dominant culture (often a comprador intellectual), then it remains just as naïve or ignorant to imagine that that totalization functions identically to such totalizations by the dominant culture. But this also means that when a totalizing culture like ours “reads” a totalizing gesture from within another culture, then the default involves our misreading it. Defining the Other as subaltern, we then cannot hear when the subaltern speaks (it no longer remains a question if the subaltern can). And so we will misread claims to universalism such as that found in the Malaysian writer Adibah Amin, quoted in Redza (2003),* who says of Lat:

He is at one and the same time childlike and mature, outrageous and delicate, Malaysian and universal. He always gets away with a lot mainly because his humour is utterly free from malice, sharp but never wounding, coaxing us irresistibly to laugh with him at the delectable little absurdities around us and within us. Typical Malaysian foibles most of these, yet as foreign fans testify, they touch chords in people from other cultures too.

* Redza Piyadasa (2003). “Lat the Cartoonist—An Appreciation”. Pameran Retrospektif Lat [Retrospective Exhibition 1964–2003]. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: National Art Gallery. pp. 84–99. ISBN 983-9572-71-7

[20] Kiley, D. (1983). The Peter Pan syndrome: Men who have never grown up: Dodd, Mead.

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