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Shahnon Ahmad (b. 1933)


Malaysian novelist, satirist, and short story writer, the most important contemporary prose writer in the Malay language. Shahnon Ahmad has gained acclaim with his innovative, rich use of old and new languages that have combined Malay languages, such as Kedah, Prak, Johore, Negri Sebilan, Minangkabau, with Sanskrit, Javanese, and Arabic. He has won in the highest literary award in his country, including in 1976 the title of Pejuang Sastera (Champion of Literature) and in 1982 the most prestigious federal award, Anugerah Sastera Negara (Writer Laureate Award). He also holds the honorary title of Dato, roughly the equivalent of a British knighthood. Shahnon's novels often dealt with controversial issues of the day.

''If politics is foul and can foul other things, then I as a writer will present the foulness and elements that are fouling other things, in my own way.'' (from the foreword of Shit, 1999)

Datuk Shahnon Ahmad was born in the remote village of Banggul Derdap, in the state of Kedah, where father had moved from Medan. Shahnon's mother's family were originally from Pattani, Southern Thailand. He attended an English secondary school in Alor Setar from 1947 to 1953 and then taught English in Trengganu and in Kedah. In 1955-56 he served in the army as an officer. Between 1960 and 1963, he taught Malay language and literature at a Malay school in Kedah.

In 1968 Shahnon went to Australia for university study, graduating with an Asian Studies degree in 1971. Four years later he gained his M.A. from the University of Science in Penang, where he has taught literature and served as the dean of the School of Humanities. In the mid-1970s, he joined the Islamic fundamentalist movement Darul Arqan. However, later he expressed his disappointment with religious leaders who exploit their followers. Shahnon argued that Malay writers should develop an authentic Islamic literature. Only literary works written by Islamic writers, truly believing and writing for God, he said, could be true "Islamic literature." For 11 year until 1996, Shahnon also headed the Islamic Center of Malaysian Science University. After writing a very critical satire of the regime, Shit @ PukiMak @ PM, Shahnon resigned from his teaching position at the university.

By the mid-1960s, Shahnon was considered with Samad Said among the leading short-story writers in his country in general the short story played a more important role than the novel. From 1965-1978 Shahnon Ahmad wrote several novels which dealt with the social changes in his country. Rentong (1965), then title of which refers to "ashes" in Kedah dialect, was about an unfortunate rural population. The central characters are Pak Senik, headman of the village  Banggul Derdap, who patiently tries to persuade the villagers to plant two rice crops a year, and the young Semaun, who is passionately connected with the land that feeds them and rejects double cropping. Often the titles of his books are uncommon. Menteri (1967) and Perdana (1969) are political novels, and when read together they form Perdana Menteri (Prime Minister). The German word "Weltanschauung" in Weltanschauung: Suatu Perjalanan Kreatif (2008), an autobiographical work, means "world view" or "philosophy of life."

Ranjau sepanjang jalan (1966, No Harvest but a Thorn), which brough Shahnon international attention, depicted the hardships of a farming family, the struggle of the peasants and their belief in the supernatural. For years, this novel was a textbook for secondary school children. The symbolic Srengegne (1973) won an important literary Prize in Malaysia. As many of Shahnon's later works, the book had a strong religious theme. His series of Islamic novels, starting from Al-Syiqaq (1985), presented a complex examination of worldly and religious interests.

In the short story 'Woman' from The Third Notch, and Other Stories (1980) individual desires clash with cultural conventions. Siti, a young girl, rebels against the marriage arrangement her parents have secured for her. At the same time she fears that the voice of the full rights, shouting "I don't want to" in her heart, is imprisoned inside a weak body. "A virgin is a piece of fertile land, waiting to be dominated. That domination is freedom, but not conquest by Haji Rahmat. It had to be someone else. She didn't know who, but she hoped and believed that he existed. Every story has a hero. Every child has its father. Every plot of land has its rightful owner. One day, the rightful owner would come. She would wait for that sacred day." The end of the story is open. Shahnon leaves Siki without a promise of future brightness.

Shahnon Ahmad's most controversial novel is the 240-page long Shit (1999), a runaway success, which broke tabooed subjects in the spirit of Swift and Rabelais. Although the title is in English the book is written in Bahasa Malaysia. The surrealist tale is set inside someone's large intestine and has lumps of excrement as lead characters. The head of the "shit front" is "PM," who is opposed by one heroic lump. It was no surprise that this kind of book from such an eminent writer as Shahnon Ahmad caused much debate. The angry authorities called Shit un-Islamic and the education minister arranged a meeting to discuss the cancelling of Shahnon's National Literary Award given him in 1982. As a prominent Malay cultural figure and creative writing lecturer he was accused of undermining the prestige of his own office.

The story of Shit, a long scatological anecdote on too old leaders who refuse to step down from power, was read in Malaysia as an attack on the government and the former Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamed. The book was first printed in opposition-controlled eastern Kelantan state. Shahnon himself is a member of the opposition party PAS and won in Sik in the parliamentary election of 1999, defeating the former religions affairs minister Abdul Othman Hamid, but he chose not to run in the general election of 2004. According to a joke, when asked to comment on the defeat, all Othman could say was "Shit!" "The book is not aimed at anybody and it is a creative expression," Shahnon has argued. ''I'm not a politician. Many people say it [the book] is dirty, but I didn't create the stinking situation. I just created the novel from reality."

For further reading: Critical Perspectives on Literature and Culture in the New World Order, ed. by Norital Omar et al. (2010); Shahnon Ahmad: Islam, Power, and Gender by Harry Aveling (2000); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 4, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Antara kampung dan kota: Rural Bias in the Novels of Shahnon Ahmad by Ungku Maimunah Mohd. Tahir (1998); Shahnon Ahmad and Tok Guru: Essays on Malay Literature by H.S. Aveling (1997); Approaching Islam and Malay Society in the Work of Shahnon Ahmad by Harry Aveling (1996); 'Continuity and Change in the Itinerary of the Malay Novelist, Shahnon Ahmad' by Laurent Metzger, in Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 22, 1 (March 1991); Novels of the Troubled Years: A Study of Shahnon Ahmad's novels, 1965-1978 by Mohd. Yusof Hasan (1985); 'On The Third Notch, and Other Stories' by P. Nazareth, in World Literature Today, 56 (1982); 'Introduction to The Third Notch, And Other Stories' by L. Fernando (1981)

Selected works:

  • Anjing-anjing, 1964
  • Debu merah, 1965
  • Terdedah, 1965
  • Rentong, 1965
    - Rope of Ash = Rentong (translated and introduced by Harry Aveling, 1979)
  • Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan, 1966
    - No Harvest but a Thorn (translated and introduced by Adibah Amin, 1972)
    - films: 1983, directed by Jamil Sulong, starring Sarimah, Ahmad Mahmud,  Melissa Saila, Puteri Salbiah; Neak sre, 1994, prod. JBA, La Sept Cinéma, Thelma Film AG, dir. Rithy Panh, starring Peng Phan, Mom Soth, Chhim Naline
  • Protes, 1967
  • Menteri, 1967
  • Perdana, 1969
  • Srengenge, 1973
    - Srengenge: A Novel from Malaysia (translated from the Malay by Harry Aveling, 1979)
  • Sampah, 1974
  • Kemelut, 1977
  • Selasai sudah, 1977
    - The Third Notch, and Other Stories (translated by Harry Aveling, 1980)
  • Seluang menolak Baung, 1978
  • Penglibatan dalam puisi, 1978
  • Gubahan novel, 1979
  • Kesusasteraan dan etika Islam, 1981
  • Al-syiqaq, 1985
  • Tok Guru, 1988
  • Tunggul-tunggul gerigis, 1988
    - Stumps (translated by Adibah Amin, 2010)
  • Sastera sebagai seismograf kehidupan, 1991
    - Literature as a Seismograph of Life (translated by Hawa Abdullah, 1994)
  • Ummi dan Abang Syeikhul, 1992
  • Pongang sastera: gema karya kreatif dan kesannya terhadap khalayak, 1995
  • Tivi, 1995
  • Nurul, anak papa ku, 1999
  • Shit @ PukiMak @ PM, 1999
  • Lamunan puitis: sebuah trilogi, 2003
  • Tonil purbawara, 2005
  • Perjalananku sejauh ini: sebuah autobiografi, 2006
  • Setitis embun semarak api, 2006
  • Mahabbah, 2007
    - Mahabbah (translated by Normala Othman, 2011)
  • Weltanschauung: Suatu Perjalanan Kreatif, 2008

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