THE celebrated theatre practitioner Anne James is a perennial learner. “I can be a student forever,” she says. In 1983, after a long tussle with the Ministry of Education to secure leave (James was a schoolteacher), she went to Northwestern University to work on a Masters in Performing Arts for three years.
James remembers that time fondly. “I was 28,” she says. “My fellow students were 19-, 20-year-olds. They were willing to work with me. They didn’t think of me as haram.”
It is interesting that James expresses this particular experience in this way. It probably comes from living in the Malaysian context, where awareness of race and difference is so ubiquitous it can be oppressive. The Nut Graph spoke to James about where she comes from, when she first saw race affecting her life, and what these issues mean for her, and our, home.
TNG: We are all pendatang. Where are you from?
Both my parents were from Kerala. My father came to Malaya when he was 14. That must have been in the 1930s. He came alone, but he had relatives here. It was an extended family thing: he stayed with his aunt and worked.
Later, he somehow got involved with the Indian National Army (INA). I think he might have joined up after Subhas Chandra Bose stopped over in Malaya. My father was very anti-British, very pro-Free India. He trained in Jitra, and his regiment was going to be deployed to Burma when the war ended.
What happened after the war?
After the war, he had to go into hiding; he talked about having to flee the British because of his ties to the INA.
Later, he applied to join the police force. He changed his name for the interview. My father’s full name was Nepoans James Gomez; all my cousins are surnamed Gomez. So I guess he just dropped the last name and went in as Nepoans James. The Brit who interviewed him probably knew.
He worked with the police force as clerical staff, a stenographer. Once he had that job, he asked for a marriage to be arranged through his sisters. My mother’s name was Aleykutty Thomas.
What was growing up like?
We lived in Alor Star. When I was about seven we lived in a kampung house, and behind this house there was a paddy field that was left fallow: there were mud holes for kerbau. I used to play in them. Climbing trees, catching tadpoles. There was a gang of kids, mostly Malays and Indians, and we used to rove around together.
We were people who were moving up in life, the rising middle class of the 1950s and 60s. My parents founded the first typewriting school in Alor Star. People didn’t live in a segregated enclave. At the time you bought a piece of land and built your own house. In our compound, there was a Malay family living in the house in front, our house was in the middle, and the smallest house had a Eurasian family. There were no clear-cut demarcations of race or wealth.
I went to a convent school. Everybody spoke English, but we could converse in Bahasa Malaysia. I remember National Language Period. I studied joget and inai in school, as part of the physical education curriculum.
When did you realise that race was important?
Post-1969. That was when I started being aware of people being Malay [Malaysian], or non-Malay [Malaysian]. Looking at it now, it wasn’t so much race as much as the idea of being bumiputera.
I did my Form Six in Kolej Sultan Abdul Hamid. I was a prefect there, and there was a good chance that I was going to be head girl. But the head boy was already an Indian [Malaysian], and I was told that I couldn’t get the position because I was Indian [Malaysian]. The Malay [Malaysian] girl who became head girl was my best friend. It didn’t affect our friendship, but that was the first time I saw the race factor deciding position.
The next time the bumi thing came up was when I applied for a federal scholarship to do History. I distinctly remember, as I filled up the form, thinking that I was not going to get it, for being Indian [Malaysian]. Going to the interview, I told myself: I’m not going to get it anyway. So what the hell. I was not going to be a mouse.
I held my ground, and argued history with my interviewers. I got a bursary.
So you got into Universiti Sains Malaysia.
Yes, that was in 1975. The world was a very big place then. Going overseas was not even on my radar. University was such a mix. I saw my first tudung that year; the woman was in my batch. From that to young men riding on Kawasakis, to drinking on campus, and dope — it was the panorama of university life in the 70s.
It was also extremely multiracial. The policy at that time was that, if you were a non-Malay [Malaysian], you had to share a room with a Malay [Malaysian]. It was a good policy. This policy was later reversed.
Now, people say, oh, I can’t stay with a Malay [Malaysian], there might be issues. What issues? When I was in university the issues were the usual, about cleanliness and hygiene, not whether I was haram-ing your space.
After university you spent some years teaching, then got into theatre in earnest…?
My interest was always in theatre.
In the English-language theatre of the 1970s and 80s there was a sort of racial blindness. Productions would have a family with a Chinese mother, Indian father, and Caucasian son. Yeah, one was brown, one was slightly yellow, but we suspended our disbelief.
When Krishen Jit directed K S Maniam‘s The Cord, he started playing around with the idea of race, deconstructing it. He cast Kee Thuan Chye as an Indian character, in the play’s second staging; and cast Hamzah Tahir as the husband to my character for the third staging. Theatre of that era asked these questions.
Something that disturbs me is that Malaysian plays don’t seem to be important to Malaysian institutions: to the national archives, or institutions of higher learning. There are serious gaps, and this is enmeshed with the issue of race and language. This country places very little value on knowledge, as a whole — and specifically knowledge about the “pendatang”.
Where theatre archiving is concerned, I think even works of Malay [Malaysian] writers like Nam Ron might be disregarded. The world of theatre is a world on the margins.
For the last 10 years, we have been written about by people from outside of Malaysia: academics from the United Kingdom and Singapore.
What are your hopes for the future?
That every citizen in this country be valued. That we all have a stake in our future, and that the bumiputera stake is not any deeper than mine. For me, India is not home. This is home. What bumiputera-ism is taking away is my identity as a Malaysian, and my past in this country.
When I go overseas I sometimes meet other Malaysians. Usually they left because they were forced out, not because they were looking for greener pastures. I meet people, in their fifties and sixties, with a deep desire for home.
Having been a schoolteacher for so many years, I think young Malaysians are damaged: by race, issues of race. It begins in their families, it is embedded in their schools, and asking universities or National Service to fix the problem is ridiculous.
I was recently told this story by a friend living in Shah Alam. My friend’s nine-year-old daughter told her mother that her best friend, a Malay [Malaysian] girl, said that her mother had not allowed her to invite any Indian [Malaysians], except for my friend’s daughter, to her birthday party. They were supposed to keep the birthday party a secret between the two of them.
This haram-ing of everybody else — it is immoral, it has to stop. It is dosa.