Wednesday 16 July 2008

Kak Juwie's amazing adventure

Dengan Seribu Cinta by Juwie (Pena, 1983, 75 pages)

Sexuality has invaded our politics, but this doesn’t mean we know much about the politics of sexuality. One could, of course, go through the Western canon and start fingering Freud, craftily quoting Krafft-Ebing or picking on Paglia. But we shall instead look at a local book.

Juwie was born with the name Abdul Jalil Salleh and she is now one of the best-known figures in the Malay entertainment scene. She has been writing for the pop scene, both as print journalist and song lyricist, for decades. This, her first book, came out when she was still in her 20s and considered ‘Kak’ rather than the ‘Mama’ Juwie of today.

Growing up, he could feel he was different from the other boys. His teenage years included a suicide attempt and a spell at a psychiatric ward. Although he wanted a sex-change, his parents wouldn’t hear of it, so he is still legally male. She considers herself to be a spiritual hermaphrodite rather than a woman or a drag queen, so it’s apposite for this column to switch gender pronouns rather than stick to just one, don’t you think?

The terms khunsa (hermaphrodite) and mak nyah (transvestite) are used almost interchangeably in this book, which takes the form of a picaresque journey through several locations and boyfriends. Rantau Abang is not just a geographic spot, you know. And how many boyfriends? Although Juwie confesses to having had thousands of lovers, these 75 pages couldn’t cram in all of them, so we get around six.

Juwie’s style as a lyricist is proudly jiwang (sentimental) and sure enough, if the ink had been in colour, that colour would be blazing. She wears her heart on her sequined sleeve and leaves it dripping there like a red, red rose.

We are given relatively precise anatomical descriptions of how she is different from a regular hermaphrodite. Although only her male genitalia is visible, she doesn’t consider herself to be a gay man but a member of the ‘third sex.’

Most gay men have the option of ‘passing’ in heterosexual society, and have done so since the year dot. But interestingly enough, third sexers have always had some kind of place in many Asian societies. This place may not always be a high one, but it’s there.

Juwie’s book is probably the first Malaysian testament by a ‘third sexer,’ and by a known person, even a celebrity of sorts. She challenges you to smile or even laugh at her story, but predicts (not inaccurately!) that you will feel like crying too.

Dengan Seribu Cinta starts off by saying that ‘sweet love’ is temporary and repetitive, while ‘bitter love’ stays with you and makes you an adult. She has tasted more bitter than sweet, since no man is willing to settle down with her. His rampant promiscuity is explained as a mechanism to stay sane (since he makes his urges sound very urgent indeed) and also so that he won’t be beholden to any one man.

Some would find it incongruous for Juwie to frame many of his arguments in religious terms. Particularly memorable is when she likens herself to a unique painting; if you insult this painting, you are actually insulting the creator, or rather Creator. The more prurient among you might also be interested to know that she has never ‘gone all the way’ sexually. But who among us will cast a stone and say that her journey isn’t ultimately also a spiritual one?

As a sexual and gender minority, Juwie is uniquely placed to point out the hypocrisies of heterosexist society, and he does so with gusto. But she also speaks in the vernacular of mainstream Malay society (she even drinks orange juice while dating!) and has a greater impact than NGO press statements.

This isn’t a heart-warming tale of self-acceptance; it’s rather more pathological and lurid. She hurts so she can feel, and she is almost coldly aware of this. If you can connect in some way, then that is the basis for some shared humanity. But you’d never know what it’s really like for Juwie unless you walk a mile in those sarung kemban she keeps mentioning.

Postscript: This book is sadly out-of-print. An expanded reprint would be in order, methinks.

(Malay Mail, 16 July 2008).


Anonymous said...

Hi Amir,

I'm a film student from Singapore, and I was wondering if you could tell me where I can find your films here? Thanks a lot yea!


Amir Muhammad said...

Two of them. 6horts and Village People Radio Show, can be ordered online here:

The rest are, erm, not yet available :(

Anonymous said...

Okay, thanks a lot:) Your work's great by the way, can't wait to watch Susuk!


Anonymous said...

selamat jalan romeo!

Anonymous said...

salam ziarah from dublin.. :)