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 »
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 »
My short story collection Bright Landscapes is now available as an ebook, published by Langsuyar Press. The ebook is a revised edition of the original collection and contains additional notes and illustrations.
Bright Landscapes comprises ten stories inspired by Malaysian/Asian myths, legends and supernatural beliefs.
The book costs USD4 and, at the moment, PayPal is the only pay option for readers outside Malaysia (Malaysians or anyone with a Malaysian bank account can pay by fund transfer, email me at email@example.com).
Please leave a note telling me the email you’d like the ebook sent to. Thank you for buying the book, I hope you enjoy it. All comments are welcome on Goodreads.
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.
Dee Char is the author of Mr Low and the Magic of Borneo, a children’s book set in the foothills of Mount Kinabalu. It is an adventure story as well as the coming-of-age tale of Bibi, a Dusun child who must learn to deal with the unique gift she possesses as well as the changes and threats that her community is facing.
Dee (who is based in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah) and I met on Zoom as fellow writers and committee members of the Malaysian Writers Society. From our subsequent text- and video-conversations, it’s been evident how interested and passionate she is about Kadazandusun (the unification term and the collective name for more than 40 sub-tribes who are the native speakers of Dusunic languages and some non-Dusunic speaking tribes who call themselves Dusun or Kadazan) culture, and traditional arts and skills.
I interviewed Dee recently via email, about the experience of writing and publishing her first book, and how she hopes to write more stories that feature indigenous lore.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 »
Tutu Dutta retells Malaysian folktales and also creates original stories based on the myths and legends of the region and beyond. Her latest book is The Blood Prince of Langkasuka (Penguin Random House SEA), inspired by the Malaysian legend of the fanged king of the Bujang Valley. The following Q&A was done over email. For more of Tutu, visit her blog Betel, Banyan, Basil & Bamboo.Read More »
This review first appeared in Goodreads on 24th November, 2020.
As is always the case with books by Golda Mowe, I like how Iban culture and customs, beliefs and superstitions are described in a straightforward, matter-of-fact manner, without exotification.
The details Mowe provides of weaving, hunting, building and other aspects of Iban life, including ritual practices, are riveting to me. Some readers would probably prefer more action than description, but that’s personal preference. I was rather relieved that the battle scenes were brief. When Ratai harvests her first head, I felt pity for the victim because Ratai observes he’s a young boy. I feel this was an interesting way to remind the reader that Ratai is aware of herself and hasn’t been swept away by the excitement of the moment. However, although she feels compassion, her priorities (the well being of her people as well as her pride as a warrior) don’t allow her to give in to it.
Another thing I found interesting was the slave whose life was spared during the battle and his eventual fate. This plot strand raises questions that I must present to the author. So very interesting.
On the whole, I love the way the story unfolded and the intense exploration of Ratai’s struggles to balance her femininity, what was expected of her as an Iban woman and her natural inclinations and talents.
The inter-weaving of Iban folk beliefs and dreams of gods and goddesses with life, and the way the supernatural aspects of the story manifest themselves in the characters’ real-life is quite beautiful, and presented so naturally that there is no question of not accepting the part played by the divine in the affairs of humans.
This is definitely my favourite of the Iban Trilogy. However, as much as I love the happy ending, I wish to know more about Ratai’s life and hope Mowe will write another book in this series.
Golda Mowe is one of my favourite Malaysian writers. She is Iban and her stories are rooted in Iban life, customs and folklore.
Mowe recently self-published two books — Encounters: Modern Folktales from Sibu, comprising ten stories; and a novella called Fairy Con.
I have to admit that the books’ covers made me think that they were both written for children. I wouldn’t say they shouldn’t be read by kids, but, fair warning, Fairy Con does feature a grisly murder and some very light sexual innuendo, so some may be leery about introducing it to primary school-age readers. As for, Encounters, the stories in this collection also contain some details that may be deemed unsuitable for children, but I don’t think there’s anything that voracious readers of ten and older can’t handle.
IN Mahsuri: A Legend Reborn, Ooi Kok Chuen expands on the legend of Langkawi’s famous icon who was supposed to have cursed the island during her execution for adultery. My ex-husband, whom I met in Langkawi 20 years ago, says that the curse actually involves anyone who visits Langkawi being doomed to listen to Mahsuri’s story being repeated, ad nauseum, by all and sundry. I have to agree that it really gets milked to death and would benefit from some skilful re-telling.
Preeta Samarasan, the author of Evening is the Whole Day, actually wrote a compelling version of the tale for my collection Malaysian Tales: Retold and Remixed, but I feel the story, like this region’s other fairytales, myths and legends, offers Malaysian writers endless scope for fresh interpretations, and its potential has not been maximised.
Such stories have usually survived generations stripped down to the barest, most basic of plots, their key players little more than cardboard figures just crying out to be fleshed out and reimagined. Read More »