This is the text of a speech I read at the book launch of ‘Salleh Ben Joned: Truth, Beauty, Amok and Belonging‘ by Anna Salleh, on 1 Dec 2023. The book is out now from Maya Press, available at all good book shops.
I never met Salleh. I know him through words. When I came back from studying in Australia, I was full of ideas. A bit of Baudrillard and Berger. A sprinkling of Said and Mcluhan. Not many women though. I had Ursula Le Guin, but she went further back, from when I was a young girl. I didn’t find many women to mother me in University.
So I came back, and I went looking for the Malaysian in me. I read some Latiff Mohidin, some Usman Awang. But it was Salleh that spoke to the wildness, a kind of horny, cracked madness in me. My tongue was broken, disconnected from my brain and body, darting here and there, speaking in weird tones, searching for a mother, a mother tongue. I read somewhere, I can’t remember where, Salleh said your mother tongue is the one you drank with your mother’s milk, and it healed something in me. My mother’s mother was an English teacher. She married and divorced 4 times, and ended her life as a Buddhist nun. That’s all I know about her. I don’t even know her name. My mother was an English teacher too, a lecturer in university. Her name is Maureen. Koh Mau Reen.
If a mother tongue is the one you drank with your mother’s milk, does anyone know what a daughter language is?
English is a daughter language of Old English, which is a daughter language of Proto-Germanic, which is a daughter language of Proto-Indo-European.
Malay is a daughter language of Old Malay, which is a daughter of proto-malayo polynesian, which is a daughter of proto-austronesian.
Every language is a daughter.
I want to talk about daughters for a moment. When I met Anna for the first time, and she told me about this book she was writing, she was focused and intense. A woman after my own heart, a woman of action. I recognize a woman on a quest. We don’t choose the blood that flows in us, but we can choose our own course and what we take with us on that journey. A daughter on a quest can free us all. She changes the river she is descended from, she shows us where to go.
Kebisuan langitmu tidak mengapa
Kerana rimbamu penuh kata-kata
Dalam sentiasaan cuaca hakikatmu
Kurasa suatu kebebasan yang baru
What matters if your skies are silent
For your forests are articulate
In the constant clime of your essence
I taste a new freedom
When I read these words of Salleh, from the poem ‘Di Detik ini, Di Sini’, almost 20 years ago, I didn’t read them as love poetry, in which said forests are almost certainly referring to those between fulsome thighs, south of ‘dua susu kemuncak gunung ledangmu’.
I read the poem as the rediscovery of a home I hadn’t encountered yet. Of arrivals and deferred welcomes. I read it as a guide. My head was too full, my heart empty. The sky wasn’t speaking to me. I had to get to know the forests, the land under my feet. To me this poem was about fidelity, and the promise of freedom in staying put, and finding out what it means to truly come home.
I raise my glass to you, Anna. To daughters, to all that they carry and have the courage to change. Death to the old ways. Long life to the new freedom pregnant in us, as we dare to sing the songs of our fathers (and mothers) in our own voice, in our own tongue.
If you liked this post, you might like to read: Bad Daughter, or, Where I Got My Feminism (2015)
The artwork featured in the book is from the ‘Benua Dalam / Inner Continents‘ series, part of my first solo exhibition Boats & Bridges in 2005.