Comparatively Speaking Interview with

Nazry Bahrawi


Senior Lecturer


Singapore University of Technology and Design


Nazry Bahrawi is a senior lecturer of comparative and world literature at Singapore University of Technology and Design. His research explores Malay-Indonesian textual and non-material cultures in maritime Southeast Asia in light of race and ethnicity, poetics and literary theory as well as translation and adaptation studies. He has published in these areas in peer-reviewed journals and edited volumes. Nazry serves on the editorial board for the literary magazines, Wasafiri (UK) and PR&TA (Singapore).


Can you tell us a little about your current research and/or your most recent publication?

I study the non-material culture of Malay-Indonesian peoples in maritime Southeast Asia between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when the region is said to be ‘modernising’. I do this with the aim of re-assessing the Enlightenment idea and ideal that modernity privileges reason, science and progress – extending my doctoral thesis on literary post-secularism supervised by BCLA’s own Susan Bassnett. Specifically, I am interested in identifying and articulating systems of knowledge that are indigenous to these cultures expressed through texts categorised as premodern such as the Malay literary genres of the hikayat and syair as well as texts that fit into the contemporary genres of the novel, the short story and film. As the breadth of my work can get unwieldy, I zero in on what Malay-Indonesian texts can contribute to the disciplines of race and ethnic studies, literary and translation theory and in the past two years, animal studies. The intersections of at least two of these areas can be seen in my most recent article that analysed the manners through which oral were-tiger legends of the Malay Archipelago have been culturally translated to film and novel to straddle between modernity and mythology in an edited volume on translational politics in Southeast Asia.

In what sense do you think of your work as “comparative”?

My comparative angle stems from the question: “How has the universal and the particular been culturally imagined in the Malay Archipelago?”. While there are several cultural imaginaries that exist in this multicultural region such as the Sinophone as theorised by Shu-Mei Shih and other scholars, I am primarily concerned with the Bahasa-speaking communities in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei. The cultures I study have engaged with texts, thoughts and traditions from the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East. To be specific, I am interested in looking at this engagement in light of what Marshall Hodgson has described as the ‘Islamicate’ which refers “not directly to the religion, Islam itself, but the social and cultural complex associated with Islam and Muslims, both among Muslims themselves and even when found among non-Muslims”. I am therefore working within the burgeoning field of Indian Ocean Studies, which encompasses the Malay Archipelago on the far eastern side of this oceanic cultural cosmopolis. Historians have mostly written on these engagements in terms of ties and linkages, but I am interested in sussing out parallels and contrasts that may not have explicit, provable connections.

What challenges have you faced while pursuing your career in comparative literature, and do you have any advice for comparatists at the early career stage?

As an academic working on and in Southeast Asia, I have found that the demand for comparatists in universities in this region is wanting. In my research, I have only found two universities with comparative literature departments – University of Chulalongkorn in Thailand and University of Diliman Philippines. The situation seems better in Europe, Canada, the UK and America. In essence, I think job prospects that are properly ‘comparative literature’ depends on the languages and cultures that you study as well as where your place of employment is. Comparatists like me who work on a minor language or culture (Malay in my case) can consider some strategies to stay employable. First, consider doing a major lingua franca as one of your other languages or cultures of choice. However, be sure to think through your choices because you would not want these to be incommensurable. In my case, Arabic is a language that I am attempting to master, though reading them in translation has helped to a certain extent. Second, consider how your research might work credibly in a related, preferably new discipline. Some examples here include environmental humanities, medical humanities and digital humanities.

Who is one person in your field whose work you admire?

I am inspired by the work of an Indonesian writer and academic named Kuntowijoyo (1943-2005) who had introduced the concept of ‘sastera profetik’ or ‘prophetic literature’ for theorising a mode of literary thinking that embraces spirituality as a means of circumscribing the trappings of materialism and technology for the modern Indonesian citizen. I have recently completed an article theorising this concept as a form of decolonial literary theory that is context-specific yet ubiquitous in some of its aspects. I find this to be a breath of fresh air from normative modes of reading such as poststructuralism and Marxist literary theory that are valid in their own right but whose universal applicability can be called into question.

What have you read recently that you would recommend to other comparatists?

I have found resonances between the essence of my work and a particular article by Revathi Krishnaswamy titled ‘Toward World Literary Knowledges: Theory in the Age of Globalization’ (2010). This is not a recent work nor something that I have just come across, but I am recommending it because of the gravity and urgency of her message. There, she problematises the issue of ‘world lit without world lit crit’ and calls on comparatists to do the hard work of augmenting the field of literary theory with ‘non-Western poetics, criticisms and commentaries’. It is a short piece but one that I think should be considered a canonical work for comparatists interested in decolonial research.
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