Brunei appears in two of the books I read this weekend – not surprisingly, both are Southeast Asian. Firstly in Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s Sarong Party Girls (very highly recommended by the way – funny and sad, there is so much depth and compassion for the loveable, determined Sarong Party Girl protagonist Jazzy as she moves through the clubs and hawker centers of Singapore in search of an ang moh Prince Charming. There is stuff on race, on feminity, on class and consumerism…it’s just so good. I don’t know enough about Singlish to comment on its authenticity here, but as an outsider it read authentic and was almost another character in the novel.).
Getting a tiny bit off topic there, but I am still thinking about this novel – it’s lingering with me. Anyway, the reference in Sarong Party Girls was incredibly throwaway – Brunei is mentioned as a site of business in the same breath as Hong Kong and the Philippines. The business in question is a furniture import-export company (Court? Ashley? Haha) owned by a super rich Singaporean guy. So…a place of trade, which is interesting.
More depth in Az Karim’s The Frenchman, a short story in the Malaysian collection The Tudung Anthology edited by Azalia Zaharuddin. Karim’s author bio states that she worked as a newspaper editor in Brunei for a while, so some of this may be observational. (The passage below may have spoilers, so don’t read if you want to be spoiler-free. Sorry, I continue to not know how to hide text and toggle for reading. There will be a spoiler over sign if you scroll down real fast.)
The narrator of the story is Marya, a Malaysian journalist (and hijabi – this is a plot point, which is why I mention it) working in Brunei who is in Sri Lanka on a holiday. To assuage her guilt at the cost of the holiday, she also attends a conference, which is where she meets Jean Pierre Tschumi, a doctoral student who is giving a talk on the historical expansion of Kampong Ayer. Struck by this coincidence, she requests an interview with him. Turns out Jean Pierre has spent some time in Brunei, and been burned by a relationship with a Malay Muslim woman. He blames this in part on her practice of wearing the tudung to work but not anywhere else, leading him to believe that her faith isn’t all thaaaaat important to her. He is consequently flummoxed…FLUMMOXED when he asks her to move with him to Melbourne and she says she won’t unless he converts to Islam. Jean Pierre is furious and now thinks all women wearing tudung are hypocrites, including Marya, who he is still reluctantly attracted to.
Let’s be real, Jean Pierre is a total jerk, and I have issues with the fact that the story is called The Frenchman when really – why is he even the focus? And the interracial relationship – hmm. Well, I HAD just read Sarong Party Girls, which very poignantly pointed out the problematic discourses sometimes at play about/in such relationships. Still, I was absolutely fascinated by these articulations of Bruneian tudung culture, where the wearing and taking off of it is in some ways more fluid than in other Muslim communities.
SPOILER OVER (Unless you read the following passages out of context)
Shots of some of the relevant passages!
The hunt for imaginings of Brunei continues.