“Hiraeth,” Speaking in Tongues, and Penang’s Georgetown Literary Festival (Nov 25-27)

georgetown-literary-festivalI will be one of four translators taking part in Speaking in Tongues: The Art and Craft of Translation on Saturday November 26 at the “Georgetown Literary Festival” in Penang. Our panel will be moderated by Gareth Richards, and fellow translators will be Pauline Fan, Jérome Bouchard and Muhammad Haji Salleh.

You can check out the full festival program here.

Intriguingly, the theme for this year’s festival is hiraeth, a Welsh term that Wikipedia defines as:

Homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed . . . a mix of longing, yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness . . . for the Wales of the past. 

We can assume that the Wales part of the formula won’t be the focal point, since nostalgia for British colonial rule is not a mainstream sentiment here. At least, I don’t think so.

I was pleased to find an essay by Malaysian feminist Zainah Anwar in the first few pages of the handbook, suggesting that this festival is not intended as an ivory tower event for the local intellectual elite. Trump and the Red Shirts of Malaysia both got a mention, for one. Have a read:

Hiraeth: The longing for a homeland that is no longer there.
Homesickness tinged with grief and sadness over the lost and departed. A mix of longing, yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness. An earnest desire for the land of the past. A yearning for a home to which you cannot return.

It does seem like the whole of humanity is suffering from this longing for a homeland that is no longer there.

The millions of refugees, forced to leave their homes and living in misery and isolation in foreign lands, long for a lost home that has been bombed to smithereens.

Trump supporters in the US and the Red Shirts of Malaysia, in mourning over their perceived displacement and dispensability, long for an imaginery ideal home, devoid of threatening “Others” – a utopia that never existed in the first place.

The pervasive sense of anxiety, fear, restiveness, and sense of powerlessness over our ability to change the course of the world, the course of our own beleaguered nation, has led to this sense of hiraeth, of yearning for a much simpler, more harmonious past, a slower time, a comfortable context where we understood what was happening around us.

And yet, as someone who often travels the world, flying home, peering through the window at our green land below — a sense of relief and even joy permeates me.

If this is home, with all its warts, gaping holes, loss of values, where right is wrong and wrong is right, where the good are detained and charged, and the bad remain in power, what can we do?

As a Malaysian who has no intention of leaving her country, I want to believe a different kind of hiraeth is possible. A hiraeth, a longing, a yearning that will compel us to create something better, to make this country good again, to make this world more humane. And I believe this is possible.

Look at Bersih and what it has become: A sea of yellow that has ignited the people’s imagination. A yearning for free and fair elections among civil society activists has burgeoned into a mass movement, bringing diverse Malaysians together in a call for change; for an end to corruption and abuse of power. Even Malaysians living abroad have joined this movement for change. This desperate longing for a better Malaysia has united us in a way that no political sloganeering to create One Malaysia could do.

Look at G25 — a group of retired Muslim civil servants who came together in a yearning for a Malaysia that used to embrace its pluralism, its diversity, its compassionate, kind and gentle Islam. Their hiraeth for that lost homeland led them to take action — a group of retirees known for conformity stepped outside their comfort zones to speak their minds in envisioning a better Malaysia.

Look at Sisters in Islam, the group I co-founded almost 30 years ago. A yearning for Muslim women to be treated as human beings of equal worth and dignity led them to unearth a rich tradition of scholarship in Islam that enables them to champion equality and justice. That lost past can be resurrected towards a better future.

Writing can be a powerful medium to effect social reform. There are rich source materials in our homeland to make compelling narratives that can bring about awareness and change.

So can we, activists and writers, translate this hiraeth we feel, this longing for a better homeland, into a compelling call to action? Can we mobilize this pervasive sentiment of loss into a movement for social change?

Zainah Anwar

Co-founder of Sisters in Islam in Malaysia and Musawah

2 thoughts on ““Hiraeth,” Speaking in Tongues, and Penang’s Georgetown Literary Festival (Nov 25-27)

    1. Will be fun to return to Penang after time in Tainan and now Kuching, Sarawak. Beginning to understand the appeal of smaller towns after so many years in metropolises like Shanghai, Shenzhen and Hong Kong.


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