The Historical is the Personal — Reflections on Postcolonial Guilt, Mi Koo Buns, and Writing History

I did not know that the Mi Koo [1] buns I used to eat for breakfast at my grandfather’s house on Sunday mornings have a history. Smack in the middle of their bright pink skin, there are five gashes radiating from the center, forming a clumsy floral design. I used to peel the skin and slice the freshly steamed bun in half. The next step was to slather butter on both pieces. It would melt immediately into the fluffy bread, leaving a golden patch that came back to taunt me in the cold mornings of my adulthood. Now, I am years and seas away from the simple anticipation of an eight-year-old waiting for the butter knife while swinging her legs underneath the antique table.

*

While watching the buns of my childhood, now on a computer screen in a university library in Abu Dhabi, I am unsettled. I am doing research on the communist guerrilla army in Malaya (now Malaysia and Singapore) who fought against the Japanese and British imperialists during World War II and the Cold War. When the banned documentary first arrived via an email notification, I dropped everything to collect the DVD from an expressionless librarian.  He was stoically hunched over the reserves shelf, hovering his fingers over each title at a painfully slow pace until arriving finally at my order. Titled The Last Communist, this “semi-musical documentary” was made by Amir Muhammad in 2006. It was inspired by the memoir of Chin Peng, the leader of the Malayan Communist Party, who died in exile in 2013 in Thailand. His last wish was to be buried in his hometown of Setiawan, Perak, located an hour and a half away from my hometown. The Malaysian government denied his remains passage.

But what have Mi Koo buns got to do with communist insurgents? Everything, the film argues. It takes us chronologically through Chin Peng’s life by visiting the locations he travelled through in his political career. There is no narrator. The storytellers are the shopkeepers, bakers, plantation laborers, vegetable vendors, tour guides etc. who speak about their vocation and occasionally, their relationship with the past. Reading the captions on Chin Peng’s life in relation to the documentary of the mundane, the quotidian reality I am familiar with becomes imbued with history. I learn that the Mi Koo buns of my hometown are famous for their unique floral design. “Only in Taiping,” the long-faced baker declares in Mandarin. How this design came about is less famous. Decades ago, a young man who joined the Malayan Communist Party’s guerrilla army was caught by British soldiers and sent to prison, where he was tortured into a coma. His mother prayed for him every day at the River Goddess Temple on Temple Street, offering lotus flowers with incense sticks. One day, all the florists in town were out of lotus flowers. Desperate, the mother baked some Mi Koo buns, carved flowers on them, and presented these at the altar instead. The boy survived his coma.

Last summer, while interning at an Asian Studies institute in the Netherlands, I stumbled upon a book on the Malayan Emergency in the “free for all” bookshelf at the pantry. The Malayan Emergency: Essays On A Small, Distant War by Souchou Yao. Distant indeed. As a third-generation immigrant who grew up with middle class concerns, like how to get out of Malaysia, a failed revolutionary movement seemed completely incomprehensible, like the photographs and letters we found in my grandfather’s personal archive after he passed away. Bundles and bundles of relatives in China we know nothing of lay bound in rubber bands. A post-funeral gift from the dead. He left us no clues to make them legible.

*

“Where did your Malaysian accent go?” A close friend asked me after I came back from my first year at university. We were sitting at a café with sleek glass windows in Kuala Lumpur. “Give me a few days, it’ll come back.” Till then, he had to deal with speaking to a foreigner. I became very self-aware of my spoken English after that. Remember the lah’s, the meh’s the wan’s. Remember the Malay words, the Hokkien words, the Tamil words. In truth, I knew my Manglish had dissolved like salt in the sea. As I fill up my senior capstone proposal two years later, I bite down the anticipation of embarking on a journey to the juicy forbidden. I grew up learning that the communist insurgents were terrorists in an insignificant but unfortunate chapter of our national history. Like the methane of decomposing bodies, inherited memory somehow always finds its way to the surface. A trigger, like the subtle reproach of my friend, is the spark needed to start a forest fire. History is closing in on me, and no Western country can save me from my guilt.

*

“What is the archive for a memory that was decimated by colonial powers and actively suppressed to this day?” I asked my professor a few weeks ago. We had just read Arlette Farge’s Allure Of The Archives, in which Farge describes her experience of looking through police surveillance documents in 18th century France in the Paris Archives. They were incoherent transcriptions of splintered conversations and scattered observations. Farge notes with delight how these fragments capture what the archive itself rejects, and how this tension reveals “history as it was being constructed, when the outcome was never entirely clear”[2]. Enchanted as I was by Farge’s poetic prose, I could not help but be bitter. Fragmented as they were, at least the proletariat’s subjectivity was preserved. What about my grandfather’s? The historical has become the personal.

In The Combing of History, David Cohen writes that there are “multiple locations of historical knowledge”, and only by “recognizing the spacious and unchartered reservoirs of historical knowledge in present and past societies [can we] begin to think more clearly about the forms and directions of historical knowledge…”[3] As I start collecting the various fragments of a memory smashed by successful British and nationalist propaganda, I am finding that some of the richest locations of historical knowledge are situated within my memory. That surreptitious memorial plaque by the haunted waterfall my parents forbade us to swim in? It was actually built to honor the guerrillas who fought against the Japanese soldiers during the brutal occupation. The Chinese high school that was my mother’s alma mater? It was a school known for its communist sympathies, and where teachers would beat anti-imperialism consciousness into their students. The Chinese-concentrated area my mom and her siblings grew up in, and the constant subject of their nostalgic conversations? Just two generations ago, it was a concentration camp built by the British colonial government to isolate the communist guerrillas from their Chinese-majority support base. I am not recalling evidence or even anecdotes that are useful for my research topic. Rather, I am starting to look back and recognize the everyday of my reality as a product of a history that is worth paying attention to. In other words, I am an archive.

Like my parents, I was an inactive carrier of the memory of our civil war. Somehow, an alignment of random chance and privilege has caused a mutation in the gene of silence.  I find myself fervently gathering every insurgency-related fragment from libraries and archives around the world. The expressionless librarian might have caught on to my impatience. His fingers hover slower each time. But every time I open the book, or the document, or the DVD case, the ghosts rise howling. I hear the planes carpet bombing our tropical rainforests. I hear the wailing families forcefully removed from their ancestral homes. I hear the fading heartbeat of a husband bleeding to death at the fringe of the jungle, begging his wife to leave with their comrades before the enemy closes in.

But I have also been listening for the silences. I cannot force the mute Mi Koo bun to tell me its story, but the silence surrounding its incredible origin says something about how the censorship of the history it is associated with trickles down. The closed doors I keep encountering in my search for primary sources also speaks, albeit with bureaucratic language. “Special permission is required for materials related to the Malayan Communist Party at the Arkib Negara[4],” a Malaysian scholar writes to me. But if I stick my ear against the door, I hear fear. A fear inherited by the present government from the past government, who inherited it from the British colonial authorities, who shared it with their American counterparts across the ocean during the Cold War. A fear that was global in scale, local in its casualties. A fear that stretched across time, across subcontinents: evolving from the fear of a British ethnographer in India when confronted with identities he could not neatly categorize, to the fear of a contemporary Malaysian politician who cannot foresee how ethnic tensions will escalate should the narrative of our hard-won independence shifts. The fragments cannot be put back together, but writing about how they came to be hits back at power with the force of a million clenched fists, raised.

*

Sunday mornings at Grandpa’s were always a quiet affair. As a child, I revered and feared him. I would stare at him from across the table, Mi Koo bun in my tiny hands, while he cracked a raw egg into his rice. “That was how they did it in China,” mother explained, while peeling baked sweet potatoes, her favorite breakfast.

“You wasteful children,” he would growl from across the table when I turned away from my mother’s hand trying to feed me potatoes, “the sweet potatoes were all we had to eat in those camps.”

***

  • [1] A Malaysian-Chinese bread. “Mi Koo” roughly translates into Tortoise Bun.
  • [2] Arlette. Farge, The Allure of the Archives, Lewis Walpole Series in Eighteenth-Century Culture and History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 107, 113.
  • [3] David William. Cohen, The Combing of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 4-5.
  • [4] Malaysian National Archives.

Artwork by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, “I Still Face You”, 2015.

Petit Prince

I paint a lot of portraits. My paintings don’t really convey a message. I am not looking for a cause or a problem to be denounced. I rather feel things through. If there is a message then I am unaware of it. People often say “But Sandra, you wanted to say this or that in this painting, isn’t it ?”  I watch my own work and then begin to realize ” Yes, maybe.” But I am primarily motivated by feeling.

In 2014, I lost all my inspiration. I kept asking myself: should I stop painting? But while reading a magazine, I realized I could try collage. At first, it was just a cut-out portrait that I painted over; I wanted to do collage until the need and the desire for painting came back. But now I still do collage. I love it, to cut, paste, cut, paste…. it brings me back to my childhood. It really removes my stress. I love to associate and connect things that would never go together to create a dreamlike and poetic atmosphere in my collages.

See more of Sandra Paris’ work here

absence of the latina intellectual: some abstract theory for your ass

there are several ideological lines,
the first being
there are three bodies to contend with:
mine
ours
theirs

my body is really heavy
with guilt, this leaking thing
charged with sex
and stifled

our body is really heavy
i am so crushed
by the burden of bodies belonging to me,
i must occupy space for our body
i must walk as these bodies,
these naked
and piling bodies,
these bodies thick
to stack and build upon,
these equally weak
and temporary bodies,
these bodies that are
simultaneously more and less

(i was holding my copy
of the women of brewster place
too tightly,
almost wrinkling
gloria’s name
when my white coworker
lifted her nose and said
she could only read books
she actually heard of and
that were well written)

finally their body is really heavy.
the body on
and outside my body
is rendered weak
in its own construction,

as it renders itself
during and only through
its relentless creation of my body
and their body
and whatever bodies
that birth themselves
in between, outside and aside
of this central body of work
which is itself a body

my body is really heavy.
our body is really heavy.
their body is really heavy.

this theory
comes up against
what I’ve identified
as three ideological lines
in their bodies of work:

my body is weak
against their body.
my body must relent
to their body of work.
my body is only here
because of their bodies
and body of work.

i disagree
with these lines
in their body of work.

precisely because
they are lines
and what lines
actually make up my body?

their bodies are all line
which is why
their body of work
consists of lines
and why my body
does not fit into these lines,
its form enjoys
everything but lines

(the chapin
I’ve been fucking
on and off for four years
makes it a point
to remind me
of his love for redheads
who burn easily)

walls are supported
by their body of work
walls are made by promises
written about in their bodies
they are losing their grip
on these promises

(old white women
point at my legs
when they are crossed
on the train and in their way.
and
on three occasions
in my adult life
white women have shoved
their chests in my face
non sexually)

my body is constant
and in the way
of their body of work
and it’s lines.

my form was here before
and birthed their bodies
my body will continue
to be a body of work
more than it is just my body

reading and writing
about the body
and their body
and their bodies of work
should render
all the bodies silent,
dead
it doesn’t, I learned

(my ex
still has my copy
of borderlands
i still have her copy
of beloved)

as i wrap myself
in the flesh
of my own body
— my own, meaning i own it,
this is a line
from their body of work
that i am now forcing
on my own created body
and body of work —
I’ve learned to tell you
it isn’t there
you become accustomed
to my body of work
which is more my body
than my actual body

you will ask yourself:
where is this bitch

Artwork by Paula Rego “Mermaid Drowning Wendy”

mina port (abu dhabi, uae)

bodies froth
at the mouth
of mina zayed, oozing
sun

is a knife here, slits
into their flesh &
scales, debones
without asking
into plastic
wrapped sales:

for some dirhams,
men in shades
of flaccid arabic
dates, make feasts
out of creatures – common
oranges, fish, young

women, passing by
the smell, squirming
legs beneath skirts
pulled down by

those men, mirage
in their heads, glistening
meat, cut & priced
in rows like firangi
sunbathers
sweating on the lip

of this island: desert
smoothly filleted
by well-oiled palms.

Image sourced from Yalla Abu Dhabi.

Amma, Acha & Malayalam ft. english

അമ്മ (Amma)
My Amma’s Malayalam is Trivandrum slang,
shifting between simple
churidar and formal sari in a blink.
trishurpooram cacaphony is her laugh,
words the speed of onam boat races
on slow crashing waves of kovalam beach.
It is every spice bubbling
in my Ammuma’s cheenachatti,
both sweet sharkara and sour achar
Chutni podi with chilli podi by her hand.
Her Malayalam hits hard
Ammuma’s soft palms, Appupa’s rare playfulness;
Her Malayalam is a 22-year-old recipe, came along to flavour a desert.

My Amma’s english is accented
with Malayalam, from ancestral
beef fry to salmon grill
Other worlds and words with a twist of her own
Kovalam softened by corniche calm,
chilli podi, sounds of two cities, date syrup
and desert sand filling
the gaps in her english
“Yalla pogam!” She yells “Mafi Mushkil, Aathma!”
Sharkara lacing her laugh,
it echoes loudly in between
the buildings of Hamdan St.

Appupa said my laugh is like hers,
I carry it safe in my voice box.
My Malayalam is a mirror  
of her slang, her lullaby my tongue
Trishupooram still resounding in them.

They complain they can’t understand her,
her laugh too loud, her accent too strong for their weak ears
They demand us altered for their palate
demand silence, compliance
for their tongues to handle.

Amma did not move
for me to be silent;
our laughs are trapped ancestral joy, they died
for the spices you came to our shores for,
they died. Our laughs are eulogy
folded into our voice boxes.

Does your tongue burn?
Here, have the water–
our laughter will not drown again

അച്ഛാ (Acha)
My Acha’s malayalam drips
on the page, fountain pen sprouting
rhymes, rhythms, words
of a Love, land,
loss, gain,
home, no home, new home, old home,
dreams to come, dreams left behind,
shore he came to, shore he left,
a sea, a kadal that watched him come
and go over and over and over–
the second half of his life,
the first half he refuses to forget.

He polishes an english accent
with experience, age, command
and Malayalam slips in, a jewel found:
film comes filim, his english crashes
under Malayalam exclamation,
the language of his soul sees no barrier.

An architect of words, an architect of worlds
an architect on two shores, he built
poems, he built places,
built a love for words in his Molu,
built a home, a city for his daughter.

This new city gentrifies her tongue;
he wonders if he can build
a bridge, a boat for his daughter lost in the kadal
between the poems of his soul and
this new city she speaks of.

Artwork by Dayanita Singh “go away closer”

incessant

my head’s not in the clouds it’s in second hand smoke rumbling the remains of a mute blast of a bomb i do not recall when or where going off when or where what went wrong rattling my hardened stone block of brain which was once the color and vigor of blush pink turned into onyx black ink bleeding through hazy eyes the asphalt rattles the cage of my skull ringing the impact is null nothing hits me shifts me i’m at the bottom of the ocean sitting with my legs before me like a rag doll crane my heavy head to look up a hint of sun twinkling through the far surface there’s no one there was no thud i’m not sure how i got here but i landed like an anchor

Artwork by Mona Hatoum, Image courtesy of The National

an evening meal with langston hughes, william carlos williams, christopher columbus & lady liberty

I.
i fell into birth
licked down like
sand tongue, salivating
water toeing
against continent; i got me
a country this way

II.
middle of the map;
supposed to be

III.
my dream is painted
on the pavement smeared
with dog-shit; metropolis
sunlight striping my coat
and my face, turned up
to catch like a baseball
glove, cratered with the
blow of dream

IV.
i don’t want to depend, least
of all, on your red
wheelbarrow

V.
have you ever seen the veins
of a carrot? fine
sanded like arms
of tired woman, come down
for dinner, my mother
calls.

VII.
i didn’t do it well
the crowning, so they cut me
out, islanded me;
i’ve been taking my time to ferry
towards lady liberty
and her sharp, sharp
head.