Many authors, local and foreign, have tried capturing the soul of this nation in their writing, like lightning in a bottle.
Malaysia’s culture, history, diversity, and sheer physical splendour have inspired many nonfiction books, while many novels, graphic and written alike, have featured unforgettable Malaysian characters and unique local settings.
With Merdeka Day just around the corner on Aug 31, we decided to offer readers a chance to immerse themselves in books that capture the Malaysian experience.
It wasn’t easy compiling this list (arranged below in alphabetical order), of course, what with so many titles to choose from, so do share with us what books we’ve missed out (we’re sure there are many!) at email@example.com, #Malaysiana.
A Malaysian Journey (1993/2006, nonfiction)
Author: Rehman Rashid
IN this much-loved bestseller, Rehman chronicles two journeys: the first, a trip he takes through every state in Malaysia after a return from an extended stay overseas, with descriptions of all the people he meets and places he discovers. The second journey is a metaphorical one, that of the former veteran journalist coming to terms with the impact that the country’s colourful post-independence history has on him.
(Rehman died on June 3 after suffering a heart attack while cycling earlier in the year; he was 62.)
As I Was Passing Vol 1 & 2 (1978, nonfiction)
Author: Adibah Amin
Publisher (2007 edition): MPH Group Publishing
RENOWNED educator and essayist Adibah Amin’s column of the same name was first published under her pseudonym Sri Delima in The New Straits Times in the 1970s and 1980s; selected columns were then compiled into two volumes in 1978 and reprinted in 2007.
Adibah writes about Malaysian life and its idiosyncrasies, relating amusing and heart-warming anecdotes in elegantly written vignettes that remain as fresh, unpretentious and readable as the day they first appeared.
Bunga Emas: An Anthology Of Contemporary Malaysian Literature (1964, fiction)
Editor: T. Wignesan
Publisher (2015 edition): Silverfish Books
THIS anthology offers a selection of Malaysian literature written from 1930 to 1963 in English as well as Chinese and Tamil (with translations). It is, contends editor Wignesan, “the first anthology of non-Malay literatures of Malaya and Singapore”. Most works featured are poetry, although there are essays as well, along with supplementary essays to help contextualise the selections for the reader.
The new edition was welcomed eagerly in local academic and literary circles in 2015, with Star2 reviewer Catalina Rembuyan writing that it is “accessible to both the devoted researcher and the casual reader interested in creative writing of this era”.
Fatimah’s Kampung (2008, fiction)
Author: Iain Buchanan
Publisher: Consumers Association of Penang
THIS lushly illustrated book is a parable about preserving one’s heritage in the face of modernisation. Fatimah lives in a peaceful kampung, next to a keramat (sacred spot) and patch of forest. Its landscape slowly changes, however, in the wake of modernity and economic development.
“Thanks to the meticulous rendering of the kampung (keep your eyes peeled for the cats that appear in almost every picture spread) and the detailed recounting of Fatimah’s life, this book can be enjoyed by readers of all ages,” said Daphne Lee when she wrote about it in Star2 in 2009.
Growing Up In Trengganu (2007, nonfiction)
Author: Awang Goneng
Publisher: Monsoon Books
THIS book started out as a series of blog entries by Awang Goneng (a pseudonym for Britain-based writer Wan Ahmad Hulaimi) that became so popular that fans called for their existence beyond cyberspace. Through a collection of memories retold in colour, Awang evokes the pleasures of a kampung childhood for the benefit of new generations brought up in air-conditioned condominiums.
History Of Malaysia: A Children’s Encyclopedia (2003, nonfiction)
Author: Tunku Halim
Publisher (2009 edition): MPH Group Publishing Sdn Bhd
THIS richly illustrated tome records a panorama of Malaysian events, from the Stone Age up to the present day. The main sections include regional maps, an encyclopaedic A to Z, beginners to advanced learners’ quizzes, a historical time chart, a chronology, and glossary.
Iban Stories (1990, fiction)
Bidayuh Stories (2005, fiction)
Melanau Stories (2006, fiction)
Author: Heidi Munan
Publishers: Pernerbit Fajar Bakti / Utusan Publications & Distributors
THESE books are a collection of traditional folk tales collected from some of the indigenous populations of Sarawak. Munan is a private researcher and Honorary Curator of Beads at the Sarawak Museum, and has been studying the material culture of Sarawak for over 35 years.
Kampung Boy (1979, fiction)
Author: Lat (Datuk Mohammad Nor Khalid)
Publisher: Berita Publishing
THIS beloved graphic novel is the tale of Mat, a young boy growing up in rural Perak in the 1950s. Many events in his life, from his adventures in the jungles and tin mines, to his circumcision and fun/mischievous times at school, are depicted by Lat in loving detail in this semi-autobiographical novel that has been translated into 12 languages.
KL Noir series (Red in 2013, White 2013, Blue 2014, Yellow 2014; fiction)
Publisher: Fixi Novo
THIS four-book series features crime, horror, and dark deeds done in the nation’s capital. Each title gets its name from one colour of the Malaysian flag. Various authors contribute pulp tales about unseen sides of Kuala Lumpur – expect both the fantastical and the real. (Disclosure: This writer contributed a story to KL Noir: White.)
Looking Back: The Historic Years Of Malaya And Malaysia (1977, nonfiction)
Author: Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj
Publisher (2011 edition): MPH Group Publishing
AFTER retiring as the country’s first prime minister, and when he was chairman of the board at The Star, Tunku Abdul Rahman wrote the weekly Looking Back column every Monday, beginning in 1974. The articles were partly autobiographical and partly a biography of the young years of the Malayan, and later the Malaysian, nation. The first collection published in 1977 was re-issued in 2011.
Made In Malaysia (2014, nonfiction)
Author: Alexandra Wong
Publisher: MPH Group Publishing
FREELANCE journalist Alexandra Wong wrote the popular Navel Gazer column in The Star for almost a decade; for her book, she chose 40 Navel Gazer pieces that fit her theme of “hometown heroes and hidden gems”. The stories are all based on real-life encounters with ordinary Malaysians she met on buses and trains, in the warung (coffee shops) and mum-and-pop eateries in “obscure but charming small towns that make up grassroots Malaysia”. Wong also added a backstory to each previously published tale for the book.
Malaysian Children’s Favourite Stories (2004, fiction)
Author: Kay Lyons
Illustrator: Martin Loh
Publisher: Tuttle Publishing
THEY say a great way to know a nation is to know it’s folktales. This book collects many rich Malaysian myths and legends, and presents them with beautiful illustrations for children. Stories include the legend of Badang, Pak Pandir, and the dragon of Kinabalu.
My Johor Stories: True Tales, Real People, Rich Heritage (2017, nonfiction)
Author: Peggy Loh
Publisher: MPH Group Publishing Sdn Bhd
THE freelance writer maintains a blog about her native state, ppunlimited.blogspot.my, that is a favourite among Johoreans. Persuaded to put pen to paper, Loh produced this collection of cherished memories of post-Independence Johor, from her growing up years to the present. It also contains unique photos of old Johor, taken by the author’s father, who was an avid photographer.
Once We Were There (2017, fiction)
Author: Bernice Chauly
Publisher: Epigram Books
SET during the upheaval of the Reformasi movement in Kuala Lumpur in the early 2000s, this debut novel is the tale of Delonix Regia, a journalist who finds love in Kuala Lumpur, only to have her life upturned by tragedy. A captivating portrait of Malaysia’s capital city at the turn of the millennium.
Penang’s History, My Story (2014, nonfiction)
Author: Wong Chun Wai
Publisher: Star Publications (M) Bhd
THIS book is a compilation of Star Media Group managing director and chief executive officer Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai’s popular column of the same name on the history of Penang, published from 2013-14 in the Metro section of The Star. The book looks at street names in George Town as a means of exploring the stories of a particular area, and dives into Penang’s rich cultural and historical heritage along the way.
Salina (1961, fiction)
Author: A. Samad Said
Translator (Malay to English): Lalita Sinha
Publisher (2013): Institut Terjemahan & Buku Malaysia
THIS classic novel is the tale of Salina, a young woman from a small Malay village who is forced by poverty to become an escort in 1950s Singapore. The story aptly captures the poverty, moral ruin, and struggle for survival amidst the political and civil upheavals that took place in Malaya and Singapore at the time.
The book was famously controversial when Samad first submitted it for a competition and it was reportedly only published after he toned down some aspects of the depiction of prostitution.
The Gift Of Rain (2009, fiction)
The Garden Of Evening Mists (2012, fiction)
Author: Tan Twan Eng
Publisher: Myrmidon Books
TAN’S critically acclaimed debut novel tells the tale of Philip Hutton, a half-Chinese, half English lad living in Penang at the outset of World War II. Hutton befriends Japanese diplomat Endo, but their relationship is torn apart after Endo is discovered to be a Japanese spy. The Garden Of Evening Mists also delves into the past, revisiting the aftermath of World War II and the Japanese occupation, and using the tenets of Japanese gardening to reveal the story of its protagonist.
Rain was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2010 and Garden won the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize as well as the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction the year the prize was opened to writers from the Commonwealth.
The Harmony Silk Factory (2005, fiction)
Author: Tash Aw
SET in 1940s British Malaya, Aw’s first novel is the story of the rise and fall of a Chinese businessman, told by three narrators. To many people, Johnny Lim is a hero: a Communist who fought the Japanese when they invaded. To his son, however, Johnny is a crook and traitor.
Aw created a buzz in London literary circles when he was offered £500,000 (RM2.7mil at today’s rates) for his manuscript, and the book went on to be longlisted for the 2005 Man Booker Prize, and win the Whitbread Book Awards for First Novel that same year.
The Land Below The Wind (1939, nonfiction)
Author: Agnes Newton Keith
Publisher: Little, Brown and Co
IN the 1930s, Agnes Newton Keith left her home in Illinois, the United States, to live in Sandakan with her husband Harry Keith, a Conservator of Forests. Over the next five years, Keith documented her experiences, resulting in one of the few written accounts of contemporary life in Borneo at the time. It records the history, culture and natural beauty of Sabah.
The Return (1981, fiction)
Author: K.S. Maniam
Publisher (1993 edition, Skoob Pacifica Series): Skoob Books
THROUGH its youthful narrator Ravi, The Return tells a story of the Indian immigrant community in Peninsular Malaysia before and after the country’s independence in 1957.
Said to be largely autobiographical, the novel – Maniam’s debut – chronicles Ravi’s journey as he tries to figure out who he is in a rapidly changing world.
The Rice Mother (2002, fiction)
Author: Rani Manicka
Publisher (2004 edition): Penguin
YOUNG Lakshmi, just 14, leaves her home of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) for a married life in Malaya. She finds herself growing into the role of the formidable matriach of a large family that she struggles to keep together through perils such as the Japanese occupation and the temptations of life.
The Rice Mother won the Best First Book award in the 2003 Commonwealth Writers Prize for South-East Asia and the South Pacific region.
The Sum Of Our Follies (2014, fiction)
Author: Shih Li Kow
Publisher: Silverfish Books
LUBOK Sayong, the town this novel is set, is fictional. The novel, however, is such a vivid depiction of life in a small Malaysian town, complete with a colourful cast of characters, that it feels very much like a real place. The book is the tale of two newcomers to the town, and the experiences they have there.
Kow’s debut collection of short stories, Ripples, was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award in 2009.
The Towns Of Malaysia (2017, nonfiction)
Authors: Neil Khor, Mariana Isa & Maganjeet Kaur
Publisher: Editions Didier Millet
THIS book examines the history, development, planning, and architecture of over 25 major towns of Peninsular Malaysia beginning towards the end of the 19th century and ending with Independence in 1957. Royal towns, mining towns, ports, agricultural towns and more are all covered, with each section beautifully illustrated with maps and archival photographs.