I was clearing my bookshelf at home in Penang this morning when I came across the first Sweet Valley book I bought at the age of nine.
Most girls have read Sweet Valley, a series of books on the lives of blonde identical twins Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield.
The multi-authored series spans from Sweet Valley Kids, to Twins, to High to University and chronicles the girls’ adventures in a Californian school.
I often think about who I consume in the media – the girls I see in magazines, the models in shopfront windows, the characters in fictional paperbacks, the actors in Hollywood films etc.
At university, I came across a book called The Colonizer and the Colonized (1957) by Albert Memmi, a Tunisian-Jew living in Paris. In this book, Memmi describes how, as a French colony, Arabs in Tunisia were taught the French syllabus in school and studied history and literature from the culture of their colonial masters, not their own. He writes:
“The memory which is assigned him is certainly not that of his people. The history which is taught him is not his own. He knows who Colbert or Cromwell was, but he learns nothing about Khaznadar; he knows about Joan of Arc, but not about El Kahena. Everything seems to have taken place out of his country… He and his land are nonentities or exist only with reference to the Gauls, the Franks or the Marne…. The books talk to him of a world which in no way reminds him of his own; the little boy is called Toto and the little girl, Marie; and on winter evenings Marie and Toto walk home along snow-covered paths, stopping in front of a chestnut vendor.” (Memmi, 105)
In the case of Sweet Valley, the books talk to me of a world which in no way reminds me of my own; the girls are called Elizabeth Wakefield, Lila Fowler and in a Californian high school, they hang out by their lockers and watch the Lakers’ Games with their boyfriends.
In my world, girls were called Nurliyana Hashim, Yeoh Siew Pheng, and in a Malaysian school you carried all your books in a SWAN backpack, hung out by the water cooler and were promiscuous if you were seen with boys.
And so it is with the colonized in Malaysia. Like Memmi who is not Tunisian-Arab but Tunisian-Jew, I am not Malaysian-Malay but Malaysian-Chinese. But whether Arab, Jew, Malay or Chinese, the same fate befalls all who live in a colony and suffer cultural injustices like bilingualism and identity crises.