Marginality and Mahua Literature: On Li Zi Shu’s “The Age of Goodbyes” and Cheow Thia Chan’s “Malaysian Crossings”

By Jeremy TiangFebruary 11, 2023

Marginality and Mahua Literature: On Li Zi Shu’s “The Age of Goodbyes” and Cheow Thia Chan’s “Malaysian Crossings”

The Age of Goodbyes by Li Zi Shu
Malaysian Crossings: Place and Language in the Worlding of Modern Chinese Literature by Cheow Thia Chan

WHAT IS THE place of the critic? The scholar who haunts the pages of Li Zi Shu’s 2010 novel 《告别的年代》 (published in English as The Age of Goodbyes, 2022), a character known only as “The Fourth Person,” is doomed to be “the loneliest reader in the world. Perhaps even lonelier than a writer.” Despite his general misanthropy, he can’t resist his fascination with one particular author, becoming the “most devoted and yet most hostile follower” of an author called Shaozi, devouring every word she writes only to rip it to shreds. Their symbiotic relationship continues past Shaozi’s untimely demise, when “the Fourth Person was found clutching his review of The Age of Goodbyes in his dead hands,” resulting in increased posthumous sales of both her writing and his criticism.

In the novel’s universe, Shaozi is the pen name of Du Li An, the author of The Age of Goodbyes (not to be confused with Li Zi Shu, the actual author of The Age of Goodbyes, newly translated into English with sparkling verve by YZ Chin). The obsessive analysis that the Fourth Person brings to her work is one of three strands that make up this metanovel. Another takes place in the second person — “you” are reading a library copy of The Age of Goodbyes in the seedy Mayflower hotel, seeking solace after the recent death of your mother, who worked as a prostitute in this very place. Finally, there is The Age of Goodbyes itself, which begins on page 513 (a reference to the wave of racial violence following the Malaysian elections of 1969, later referred to as “the May 13 Incident”; read more on the social and political context of the novel in Jenny Wu’s November review for the Los Angeles Review of Books). This novel-within-the-novel follows the turbulent life of a woman from a backwater town, beginning with her marriage to the local gangster and continuing through a series of melodramatic crises and reversals that echo the dramas bearing titles like Floozy’s Allures that recur throughout the text. To add to the muddle, this woman’s name is also Du Li An.

The novel teems with twins and doubles, as if to obfuscate the author until she is “a shadow character attached to her own work.” Du Li An (the character, not the author) becomes romantically entangled with a pair of twins, Yip Lin Sang and Yip Mong Sang, while “you” have a doppelganger in the town by the name of J, “one of you on the front stage, illuminated by a bright spotlight; the other backstage, among the city’s moldy, sinister shadows.” Eventually, the Fourth Person splits into four separate people. The effect is to make identity as slippery as the narrative — how certain can any of us be that we are who we think we are, or of whose story we’re really in? The book resembles the literal hall of mirrors that Du Li An dreams of at one point, each mirror containing “a vague, blurry human figure.”

Like her creator, Shaozi is a Malaysian Chinese author working in the tradition known as Mahua literature, defined by Cheow Thia Chan in his new book, Malaysian Crossings: Place and Language in the Worlding of Modern Chinese Literature (2022), as Sinophone writing from “postcolonial Malaysia, which gained independence in 1957, as well as [from] colonial Malaya, its historical antecedent,” whose “authors confront an existential condition of deep marginality for being associated with the Southeast Asian country.”

Borrowing Malaysian writer Ng Kim Chew’s idea of the “Literary Galapagos archipelago” to contemplate Malaysia’s “challenges in gaining external recognition as a valid literary location, and its predicament of being embedded in the fringes of multiple local and regional ecologies of culture,” Malaysian Crossings wisely does not attempt to be comprehensive. Instead, Chan’s method is to roam the periphery, seeking the outermost islands of this archipelago in order to define its outlines.

The four case studies that make up the bulk of Chan’s book “pose taxonomic challenges to Mahua literature”: Lin Cantian, whose 1936 book Thick Smoke is often regarded as the first Mahua novel despite being published in China; Han Suyin, who wrote in English, thus “juxtaposing the Sinophone and the Anglophone as two abutting local literary ecologies”;  Wang Anyi, who hails from China and is best known as a chronicler of Shanghai, but who also traveled to Southeast Asia to retrace (and write about) her Singaporean father’s footsteps; and Li Yongping, a “constitutive outsider” who identified more with Borneo than Malaysia, a position that “circumvents the national scale still dominating most accounts of world literature.” As Chan astutely points out, “[D]espite repeated negations of his Malaysian identity, [Li] still requires the national label, if only to eventually refute it, so that he can remain intelligible in a large-scale literary order premised on nationality.”

Malaysian Crossings is not just a wide-ranging survey of Malaysian Chinese literature that will serve as an introduction to writing from the region but also a thoughtful recontextualization for those already familiar with the subject, supplemented with Chan’s own translations of Mahua texts. Ambitiously, Chan presents the analytical framework of his book as one that could be applied to other peripheral Sinophone literatures, formulating his project of “remapping modern Chinese literary production” by “elucidating the worldliness of Mahua authorial imaginaries and practices.”

Although The Age of Goodbyes is not one of the texts featured in Malaysian Crossings, the very form of Li’s novel fits neatly within Chan’s concept of “Malaysian crossings,” in which authors resist their marginality by “composing locally specific tales that manifest inventiveness rather than pursue approval by established cultural centers.” Its intricate nature is not mere narrative tricksiness but bespeaks a writer defining her field even as she contributes to it, discarding existing forms as insufficient for her purpose.

The Fourth Person sneers that The Age of Goodbyes “reveals the author’s traumatic memories and her long-untreated mental illness, namely multiple personality disorder,” yet the fractured structure he is alluding to serves as the perfect container for the many voices and perspectives Li seeks to include, all against a backdrop of the political changes sweeping Malaysia, from the unrest of May 13 to Yip Lin Sang’s detention as a political prisoner. This has the effect of creating a strong sense of place, grounding Du Li An’s “tin mining town of a bygone era” within the wider context of a country in flux, creating a thoroughly Malaysian story. As Han Suyin notes, “It is only when people feel deeply about their country that a national literature is created. And it is more important to have a literature than a flag.”

Chan finds that Wang Anyi’s writing about Nanyang “implies an enduring global community whose members are bound less by blood than by a shared sense of drift.” This also serves as an apt description of The Age of Goodbyes, whose characters appear both trapped and untethered, adrift yet bound together by their peripheral nature. Despite their stasis, the passage of time continues relentlessly, and it is a jolt to realize, from a mention of the Tiananmen Square massacre, that two decades have passed since the May 13 Incident.

Early in Malaysian Crossings, Chan references Benedict Anderson’s 2013 essay “The Unrewarded,” which questions “why, over the 110 years of announcements of winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, there has never been an awardee from any country in Southeast Asia — while every other region has had its turn?” This is partly, he concludes, because “[n]one of the national languages of Southeast Asia has any transnational aura” and so “no Southeast Asian writer could count on being a symbol of the region as a whole,” and partly due to a lack of good translations. And indeed, Malaysian Crossings concludes by mentioning the astonishing fact that Ho Sok Fong’s 2014 short story collection Lake Like a Mirror became, in 2019, the first work by a Mahua author to be published in English translation by a nonuniversity press (in Natascha Bruce’s translation by Granta in the United Kingdom, then by Two Lines in the United States in 2020). The translation of Li Zi Shu’s novel is a cause for optimism, but there is clearly more work to be done.

The periphery’s anxious desire for validation from the center is on display throughout The Age of Goodbyes. Shaozi’s initial claim to fame is winning an award “overseas” for her novella The Lefty Who Lost Her Right Brain. After her death, many other emerging Mahua writers “were awarded international prizes, thus injecting vigor into the local landscape.” The book ends by catapulting the reader many years into the future, when the Malaysian literary scene has been rocked by the sudden global success of a Malaysian Chinese writer who happens to write in English. Her novel, which wins “a major European prize,” is subsequently translated into Chinese, sparking much local debate as “the phrases ‘literature by writers of Chinese descent’ and ‘Sinophone literature’ are bandied about.” The perpetual problem of classification, however, can be left for another era — by that point in time, as the narrator helpfully informs us, “[l]uckily you’re already dead.”


Jeremy Tiang is a novelist, playwright, and translator, most recently of Zhang Yueran’s Cocoon (2022). Originally from Singapore, he now lives in Flushing, Queens.

LARB Contributor

Jeremy Tiang is a novelist, playwright, and translator, most recently of Zhang Yueran’s Cocoon (2022). Originally from Singapore, he now lives in Flushing, Queens.


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