Book Review: The Principal Girl

Principal Girl cover (18Feb2019)


Edited by Sharifah Aisha Osman and Tutu Dutta

Publisher: Gerakbudaya

Having curated and edited two collections of Malaysian short stories, I am aware that it’s not an easy task to produce a book in which the stories are of a consistent quality. Unfortunately, we do not (as yet) have a large enough pool of experienced and talented writers to produce enough well-written stories (especially in English) to fill an anthology. Still, this shouldn’t deter anyone from planning to collect and publish short stories by local writers. However, it should be stressed that such endeavours take time and patience to complete, and may leave those in the editing/publishing roles with their sanity in shreds. Nevertheless, I learnt a lot from editing the anthologies Malaysian Tales: Retold & Remixed and Remang and both experiences were ultimately rewarding and enriching. I hope this was also the case for Sharifah Aisha Osman and Tuty Dutta, the editors of The Principal Girl.

I really like a few of the stories in this collection. The Girl on the Mountain and Red and White by Preeta Samarasan are excellent, the kind of stories that send shivers up your spine, that excite you and make you want to write.

And I love Julya Ooi’s Surya and the Supernatural Sleuths — in particular the voice of its protagonist and the tale’s original take on Malaysia’s most ‘beloved’ ghoul, the Pontianak; and Anna Tan’s delightful Operation: Rescue Pris (with its even more delightful gedembai).

I also enjoyed Golda Mowe’s Under the Bridge, although I’m not certain what is ‘feminist’ about the story. In fact, this is not the only story which makes me to wonder if the collection’s sub-title — Feminist Tales from Asia — is a suitable one. In my opinion, the title The Principal Girl would have been sufficient to convey the idea of stories that centre female protagonists, without actually championing feminism. As it is, the ‘feminist’ label is problematic as the definition of this word is not reflected in quite a few of the tales.

I would go so far as to say that some of the stories here are anti-feminist, in various ways. One example is Renie Ling’s Saving Grace. Although it has an ostensibly highly-principled protagonist who strives to save the shrine of a goddess and be true to the promises she made to her late grandmother, she also betrays worryingly ageist and sizeist attitudes towards a stepmother who is  stereotypically, conveniently and predictably unpleasant. All these points wouldn’t necessarily be at odds in a feminist story if the writing was more nuanced, and the issues more thoroughly explored. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case here.

This and other pieces in the collection would definitely have benefited from more rigorous editing. Sumitra Selvaraj’s The Queen’s Last Stand seems unfinished; Reborn by Joyce Ch’ng and Priya’s Faraway Tree’ by Krishnaveni Panikker are messily constructed to the point of being nonsensical and pointless; retellings like Cik Siti Wan Kemboja and Princess of Mount Ledang do little to add to the tales as we already know them; while Shireen Zainudin’s Grey and Sharmilla Ganesan’s Gamble could do with the authors delving more into what makes their characters tick and developing their storylines further. Grey is, I feel, especially vague. The author needs to decide what the story is about, or maybe I’ve just missed her point.

However, I do know that it is far from easy to work with more than a dozen authors and have to deal with different temperaments and styles of writing. The writers’ intentions and attitudes are also to be considered, and their willingness and ability to put in the work are factors that are rarely discussed in this industry. On occasion, short of rewriting work themselves, there’s not a lot that editors can do to improve stories.

There really is more to anthologies, especially local ones, than meets the eye, but I like the idea behind the creation of The Principal Girl and I hope it is just the first in a series that puts female characters front and centre.





4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Principal Girl

  1. This sounds a fair and very balanced review. I do agree that short story collections are difficult to manage; and even those with selections of works by just one author can be unwieldy with adjacent pieces feel feeling mismatched. I thought you did well with Malaysian Tales as, unlike say chocolate selection boxes, many of the stories while of fine quality were like chalk and cheese side by side.

    Liked by 1 person

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