There are some Malaysian topics and issues that need to be written about and not just in the form of essays and articles, but as stories that allow for thorough exploration and interrogation as can only be done through fiction. Hanna Alkaf’s The Weight of Our Sky is such a story, as is The Accidental Malay by Karina Robles Bahrin. It’s no accident that both novels centre matters of race that all Malaysians are familiar with, in one way or another. Hanna’s book is set during the infamous May 13 race riots of 1969. Karina’s is about a woman who is raised Chinese but discovers that her mother is Malay.
Race is a hot topic here; never far from the minds of Malaysians; it’s ever present in our day-to-day lives, and it’s also a topic that we are leery of discussing, especially in public, especially in (racially) mixed company. Karina’s novel is not just about (the Malay) race, but about religion, specifically Islam. In Malaysia, the two could be said to be one and the same as there is no separating being Malay from being Muslim. We’ve all heard of people referred to as having ‘masuk Melayu’ when in fact they have ‘masuk Islam’, i.e., converted. This is because there is no such thing, in Malaysia, as a Malay who is not Muslim. Therefore, you might as well have converted to being Malay if you embrace Islam as your religion. Furthermore, when a non-Muslim converts it is usually because of marriage to a Malay. So, when my children’s Malay classmates ask them what race they are and then add, ‘Kristian?’ their confusion is understandable since, in their own lives, there is no division between the two.Read More »
Today I needed to write a paragraph on a book I’d recently read and it reminded me how long it’s been since I last updated this blog.
I thought I would use what I wrote here. I’ve bought many graphic novels in the last year, and been gifted a few. Moms by Ma Yeong-shin is one of them, and one of the few I’ve managed to get around to reading.
Everyone who knows me well knows that I watch Korean dramas and listen to Korean pop music. I also like Korean films, not so much the commercial blockbusters, but the low-budget indie type by directors like Hong Sang-soo.
I’ve also been exploring Korean graphic novels. Hong Yeon-sik’s Uncomfortably Happily and Umma’s Table are two that have the feel of the K-dramas that I like best, the ones that aren’t about beautiful young women falling in love with even more beautiful young men, but about human connections and people trying live their best lives. Ma Yeong-shin’s Moms, on the other hand, is like a gritty, rather grim Hong Sang-soo film.Read More »
I first read Miura Shion’s The Great Passage ((舟を編む, Fune wo Amu) back in 2020, right after I watched the film version, but reading it meant I skipped a lot of it. Unfortunately, this is what I tend to do when I read a book for the first time. It takes me several reads before a book is truly read. So, if I read a book just once there’ll be a lot of it that I’ll miss. Anyway, I recently decided to listen to the audiobook on Scribd. Audiobooks force me to pay attention to every word although I sometimes zone out. When this happens I usually rewind the narration. Somehow, I am more likely to do this than reread a paragraph.
Audiobooks aren’t always the answer if the narrator decides to put on hammy accents or simply if their voice grates on my nerves. Thankfully, Brian Nishii, the narrator of The Great Passage audiobook (published by Brilliance Audio), is close to perfect. His surname suggests he’s Japanese and so his pronunciations of the characters’ and other proper names, and also Japanese phrases, doesn’t sound awkward or forced. Plus, he has a pleasant, likeable voice.
The story is about a group of lexicographers at a publishing house, called Gembu, and their latest project, ‘The Great Passage’. At the start of the book, the editor, Akari Kohei announces that he has to leave to care for his sick wife. The director of the department, Professor Matsumoto, says that he will never find another editor as good and devoted to dictionary making as Akari is. This makes Akari determined to find a replacement before he leaves. It seems like an impossible task given that you come to realise that it would take as it becomes evident that it takes a rare type of person to live up to Akari and Professor Matsumoto’s exacting standards. To add to the challenge, Akari has to make his selection from the existing employees of the publishing house: Although a large company, most of the staff view making dictionaries as boring and a waste of time.Read More »
I am back, with my thoughts on Temple Alley Summer by Kashiwaba Sachiko! The book is translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa, with illustrations by Satake Miho, and published by Yonder, an imprint of Restless Books.
I found it an easy read and the premise was interesting and even thrilling, especially in the early chapters, before the narrator (and readers) know what exactly is going on.
Kazu sees a girl leaving his family’s home early one morning. She is wearing a white kimono, much like how his late grandfather was dressed for his burial! Kazu is convinced he’s seen a ghost and even more so when he has to research old place names at school and learns that his own street was once called Kimyō Temple Alley — Kimyō meaning ‘return to life’.Read More »
What a gorgeous story. The premise, the telling, the characters: I liked most everything about it. I’d been a little wary because someone had mentioned that it’s about a pelesit who becomes the friend of a little girl. I was wary because pelesit are Malay familiar spirits that are used by their owners to possess victims and I didn’t particularly like the idea of such a creature being turned into a cute Disney-type character. However, my fears were pretty much unfounded. The friendship between the pelesit and the girl is framed in such a way that makes it plausible, natural and even necessary. Also, the spirit itself declares that it is ‘not a character from some childhood tale’, a meta moment that I hugely appreciated. TGATG is a childhood tale, but of course it’s not that kind of childhood tale, the sort that sanitizes the heck out of our stories, wringing out all but their most attractively exotic commercially viable cultural details.Read More »
Peasant boy Zhu Chongba is promised greatness by a fortune teller, while his sister (unnamed throughout the book) is declared ‘nothing’. But when Chongba dies, that sister (already shown to be the more shrewd and competent of the two siblings) decides to take on his identity and claim the greatness that Zhu Chongba’s destiny. To escape starving in the famine that grips the land, the girl goes to Wuhuang Monastery, which her brother was dedicated to as an ailing infant, and by sheer will and persistence, is enrolled as a novice monk. Thus begins her life as Zhu Chongba and despite setbacks and hardships, she does succeed, first at the monastery where her potential is recognised by the abbot, and then as one of the leaders of the Red Turban rebels and so on to the ultimate triumph: the dragon throne.
No spoilers — this novel, Shelley Parker-Chan’s debut, is the first book of a trilogy about the rise of the first Ming emperor. We come to the book knowing that the main character (Zhu) will achieve her goal. How she goes about it and whether she becomes great simply because she has tricked Heaven into thinking that she’s ‘Zhu Chongba’ or because it is her destiny (despite her gender) to be great are questions that fixed my attention and held the story in my mind when I was not in the middle of it (I listened to the audio recording) and even after I completed it.
I completed the audio recording of Black Water Sister by Zen Cho a couple of weeks ago. The story is set in Penang and tells of Jessamyn Teoh, a young woman who has lived in the US most of her life, but must move back to Malaysia with her parents when her father falls ill and loses his job in the States.
To complicate the whiplash-sudden change of life and lifestyle, Jessamyn is a closeted lesbian who plans to escape Penang and reunite with her girlfriend when the latter moves Singapore for graduate school. Plus, once in Penang, she finds herself haunted. By her recently-dead maternal grandmother.
We read The Dark is Rising this month, or rather some of us did. I couldn’t fit it in, what with re-reading Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin and listening to She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chen. Perhaps book club reads should take priority, but I suspect I would have made more of an effort if I’d wanted to. I like The Dark is Rising, and I know it’s a much better book than Over Sea, Under Stone; that it’s wonderfully atmospheric and haunting, intense and exciting, but I’m just not in love with it. This has something to do with Will Stanton who is a nice boy, but just not my favourite as I find him too bland and unobjectionable. Jane is arguably just as boring, but she is the one whom I love, so I will definitely be re-reading Greenwitch, September’s book.
I did not choose to make time for The Dark is Rising, but I did spare a thought for Herne the Hunter. When I first read the book, the wild hunt made a strong impression on me. I suspect it was the first time I encountered anything as mysterious and frightening in English folklore. When I lived in England in the 90s, I was disappointed to find that no one I met (then) had heard of him, but in the early 90s, I was delighted that Herne was a key character in ITV’s Robin of Sherwood. Alas, the show has not aged well and the mysterious, mystical Herne now just looks like a man taking the piss in a deer costume. (One of my flatmates in Eastbourne came from Herne Bay, but to my great disappointment, the town was not named after the antlered man, but merely refers to a neighbouring village and its geographical placement, herne or hyrne meaning corner in Old English.)
This is not a review, but some thoughts I have about Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper, and the Famous Five series by Enid Blyton. Beware of spoilers.
I belong to a Fantasy Book Club that focuses on YA and children’s fantasy fiction and in July we started reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence. Unfortunately, I did not have time to read the first book, Over Sea, Under Stone, but this is one series which I’ve reread so often that I know it well, or well enough to join in a discussion without needing a fresh re-read.
Now, The Dark is Rising Sequence is one of my all-time favourite fantasy series and you know how it is with favourite books: They’re almost like your children in that you feel a little protective about them. Therefore, when the club met up on Google Meets to discuss OSUS and one of the group seemed less than enthusiastic about the book, I kinda bristled with indignation, but tried to cover it up with an understanding (and probably strained) smile. However, when she said the book was ‘kiddyish’, I was ready to throw hands. Read More »
If you’re a Malaysian who reads fantasy fiction and enjoys those that draw on Celtic, Norse or Greek mythology, you may have longed for stories based on the myths and legends of our land. True that we are probably better acquainted with dwarves and elves than with pelesit and bunian, but this is precisely why we need more fiction that links us to these old tales, our own old tales.
I have been a fan of Tutu Dutta since I reviewed Timeless Tales of Malaysia, her collection of eleven folk stories, published by Marshall Cavendish in 2009. Before I read this book, I had only a sketchy idea of the stories in it, and Timeless Tales was the first really decent (English language) collection I’d come across.
Dutta has since published other folktale collections, as well as novels for young readers and a picture book. She has also co-edited an anthology of short stories inspired by local folktales.Read More »