Sheela Jane Menon on "The Female Cell"
The Female Cell
Reviewed by Sheela Jane Menon
Goreng Pisang. Nasi lemak. Sambal sotong. Rumaizah Abu Bakar’s debut collection of short stories is sprinkled with a liberal dose of such Malaysian delicacies, invoking both the country’s passion for food and steering the reader’s attention to the ordinary elements that are nevertheless central to so many human interactions. The Female Cell offers a glimpse into the everyday life of Malaysia— from simple moments caught in transit on the local rail system to the complexities of multiethnic professional environments. The collection also includes a series of travel stories based on the author’s trips to a variety of countries including Singapore, the Philippines, Turkey, and Egypt. These stories, like those set in Malaysia, also revolve around carefully detailed moments of intimate human relations. Taken as a whole, The Female Cell is the work of an emerging Malaysian author who conveys a sense of the Malaysian experience through her focus on the intricacies of personal interaction and the details of everyday life.
The first part of the collection, titled “Loves, Lies and Lives,” features twelve stories—ten set in Kuala Lumpur, one in Mecca, and one in Pulau Ubin (Singapore)—each of which takes a very different theme for its focal point. “Christmas in July,” the opening story of the collection, examines the professional rivalry between a Chinese and a Caucasian chef at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur. A number of the stories that follow, including “Beads,” “Sugar,” and “Making Ends Meet,” capture the diversity of routine encounters on the LRT, Malaysia’s light rail system. In these vignettes in particular, Rumaizah* depicts characters and their surroundings with an intense level of attention to the “small” elements of each scene: an amber bead lying abandoned on the LRT platform, the “sweet milky tea and syrupy soy dessert” that breaks a woman’s fast, the drawings of a handicapped Chinese artist. By contrast, stories such as “The Other Woman” examine the complexities of romantic relationships that conflict with traditional Malaysian expectations, while “Shoe Bags” describes the heartache of losing a sister during the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. In each of these stories, Rumaizah’s direct and simple prose style succeeds in capturing the moment, presenting a snapshot of an experience that transports the reader into the scene itself. As Singaporean playwright and poet Alfian Sa’at notes of this collection, “Rumaizah demonstrates a generous capacity for observation.”
Part Two of The Female Cell is dedicated exclusively to travel stories, each one tracing some element of the tourist experience in cities such as Cairo, Bangkok, and Selcuk. Rumaizah highlights moments that might be typical of any tourist’s encounter with a new environment, yet are also unusual in subject and detail. A sense of the supernatural pervades stories like “The Wooden Liver Box” and “Beautiful Lotus,” while the moral discomfort of facing beggars and the homeless appears in “Street Singers” and “The Patron.” These stories, along with the four others that make up this section, convey a rich level of detail and emotion: the frustration of a traveler in a family pension who finds herself without hot water on cold Turkish mornings, the curiosity of a tourist encountering a prison garden and its inmates in the Philippines, the confusion of a visitor unable to get accurate directions from the locals.
While Rumaizah’s collection is noteworthy for its ability to draw the reader into a personal engagement with the details of each narrative, her focus is notably different from that of established Malaysian writers such as K. S. Maniam and Shirley Lim. Both these authors’ attention to the dynamics of race relations in Malaysia situates their work within ongoing discussions of Malaysian national and ethnic identity. The Female Cell, on the other hand, appears to avoid such subjects intentionally, being more concerned with giving readers a flavor of everyday Malaysian life. The one exception to this pattern is “Christmas in July.” Yet, even taking that story into account, The Female Cell does not provide an in-depth commentary on questions of race and ethnicity in Malaysia, nor is that the goal of the publication. However, the conspicuous absence of major Indian characters in favor of predominantly Malay and Chinese characters speaks perhaps to an underlying tendency to view Malaysian life primarily from the majority rather than the minority perspective. That tendency is itself symptomatic of race relations in Malaysia, as is the desire to avoid discussing issues of ethnicity altogether. In this way, The Female Cell implicitly speaks to some of the tensions inherent in Malaysian race relations and reflects their influence on the day-to-day Malaysian experience.
* Muslims in Malaysia are always referred to by their first names, as their last names refer to the names of their fathers.