The Big Idea: A.M. Muffaz
In her debut novella Finches, author A.M. Muffaz looks at marriage in a way many of us here in the United States might have never considered, and the damage that can be done when promises assumed and made are broken.
There’s never a good way to find out your father is cheating on your mum. This betrayal cuts the same way whether you live in the US or at the other side of the world in Malaysia. In the unique context of Muslim society, however, adultery among Muslims can at least be made ‘right’. An adulterer may marry his mistress, thereby skirting the social stigma of being unfaithful and the legal penalty for committing infidelity under the Islamic courts. When I was growing up in Malaysia, where more than half the country is Muslim, the suffering this caused in first wives’ families was assumed but taken on the chin. Islam allows polygamy, God knows better than mere mortals. It’s taboo to talk about the damage polygamy causes to individuals. At the very least, anyone who does so has their faith questioned.
It’s why I very much decided that my book, Finches, would talk about these consequences. It talks about the harm a polygamous marriage deals to three generations of a family, from the first wife to her children and her grandchildren. Some of the harm is obvious. Bonds of trust with a father are irretrievably broken. The marriage of one’s parents is not for their children to fix. But children who love their parents inevitably try to do something, whether they stand in as mediators and counsellors, or weaponise themselves as spies and deterrents against the new wife. As I was writing my book, I asked would it make a difference if the new marriage happens only after the first family’s children are fully grown? Would an adult’s capacity to cope help my characters? I realised that even with the financial and legal standing to help, you cannot avoid the emotional harm. Parents grasping at a breaking marriage are individuals grasping at straws. They are hurt and will hurt the people around them. They will make their children take sides.
Some of the harm is far subtler. Men who are raised in an environment that condones taking additional wives absorb a certain sense of entitlement. In my experience, looking around simply at my wider family and our circle of acquaintances, it struck me how easy it was to find someone whose life was touched by polygamy. Out of six brothers on my father’s side of the family, at least three took on or tried to take additional wives. Both of their sisters had unfaithful spouses. Outside of my own family, I knew at least two more families where this happened. Usually, if you dig a little deeper, you find that a grandfather or great-grandfather also had multiple wives. Patriarchy is an inherited privilege.
In Finches, I use ghosts haunting the family home to represent how men who grow up with a sense of entitlement, when given the opportunity to do so, frequently make the worst possible decision. Even after death, the patriarch of the family tries to embrace his first wife when she returns home as is his ‘right’.
A man who refuses to divorce his first wife may say that he still loves her. It would be more accurate to say he wants to keep controlling her. These things aren’t mutually exclusive within a society where men are the assumed caretakers of women. Thus, the first wife in Finches does something rare—she is the one who abandons her husband, refuses to divorce him and vows vengeance. When her husband tries to embrace her, she fights him off.
Because this is ultimately a horror story, Darwinian evolution and social evolution become the boogeymen. The practical evolution happens through everyday creatures like the story’s chickens and feral plants. The metaphorical evolution is a wider conversation about Malaysian society. The economic reality of most families today is that both parents must work to put food on the table. Girls are encouraged to study hard and pursue successful careers. Women who stop working the moment they have children—with all the frustrations, dependencies and lost dreams that entails—are becoming rare. The women of my generation have tools to escape a bad match that our mothers did not. These changing gender dynamics are reflected by a female character who is the ambitious workaholic and sole breadwinner in her family. No one questions her situation or her husband’s role because there should no longer be any need to. Conversely, through her brother I ask, what is the measure of a responsible son? Someone who cares for his parents no matter how much they hate him, or someone who gives his parents heirs?
My hope is that through my book, readers get to experience some of these complexities and perhaps gain some empathy for a topic seldom discussed. While polygamy is unfamiliar territory for many, troubled marriages are not. Combative parents anywhere in the world can leave lifelong scars in their children, emotional or otherwise. If we look at the protections needed for partners and children in failing families, they are remarkably similar regardless of why that family is in trouble. That’s a universality I think that can be built upon. It’s not enough that people are changing on their own. We can and should join the conversation.
Finches: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Powell’s