Launched at last year’s George Town Literary Festival, Bitter Root Sweet Fruit, compiled and edited by Sharon Bakar and Dipika Mukherjee, is the second collection of stories arising from the D.K. Dutt Award for Literary Excellence.
The award is in its final year and marks the end of what has become a welcome showcase and springboard for contemporary Malaysian short fiction.
I attended the book launch in Penang and heard some of the writers read extracts from the book.
The theme for this collection is “Knowledge and Education”. For those acquainted with the Malaysian writing scene there are familiar names among the contributors and some new names as well.
Several of the pieces – including A. Jessie Michael’s evocative “Lingo Bingo”, which recounts her childhood attempts at learning Tamil while living in a largely English-speaking household and Ester Soh Huey Jo’s “Cikgu”, a harrowing account of corporal punishment and a vindictive and merciless schoolteacher, to name but two – are more in the vein of memoir than fiction.
Among the stylistically more interesting of the memoir pieces is “Appa’s Mutton Curry” by Sumitra Selvaraj. It was joint runner-up for the 2016 D.K. Dutt Award and features a recipe as well as a story, proving that Malaysians can divert and subvert any theme or subject towards food and cooking!
Ling Low’s story “Bird”, also a runner-up for the 2016 prize, is another that bends the theme towards food, but also deals with isolation, alcoholism, marital abuse, and subterranean home-schooling. Low’s tight prose is exemplary in its concision. She makes every word work in the service of her story.
Another of my favourites is the opening story “Prince Of Games” by Timothy Nakayama. It tells of the miseducation of a young man whose uncle instructs him in matters that hover close to, and occasionally cross, the boundary of what might be strictly legal. Along with Sukhbir Cheema’s story “Does Ganesha Poo?”, this is one of the few stories to have a sense of humour. Two stories touch on what is sometimes euphemistically termed “neuro-diversity”.
Sakhinah Alhabshi’s “Children Of Heaven” is told from a child’s point of view, and features an elder sister who is “special”. This is another of the stand-out pieces, confidently written, with a colourful family dynamic that keeps the story interesting.
The other is “Good Intentions” by Chin Ai-May. If Sakhinah’s story is one of love and light, Chin’s story is its dark antithesis. This is a disturbing rural tale about a mentally disadvantaged young man whose angry father keeps him locked in a cage. Two well-meaning women who try to help the boy end up questioning what century they are living in. It makes for a chilling read and is one of the stories that persists even after the entire book has been read.
Both Sukhbir Cheema and Sharmilla Ganesan’s stories draw their inspiration from Hindu mythology, but use that leaping-off point to go in widely divergent directions. Both stories, though very different, are impeccably written.
Vernon Daim’s beautifully written “Stars”, a fictional homage to a stargazing former schoolmate, has one of the best written opening paragraphs of the whole collection, deftly conjuring up setting and characters in the space of a few lines.
While there is much fine writing in this book, there are a few stories, particularly in a couple of the memoir based pieces, where the writing, though competent and sincere, is a little bland and flat. Memoirs sometimes need a bit of tweaking to invigorate it. If it relies on strict chronology it runs the risk of following a less dynamic story arc than fiction.
This mild quibble apart, the standard throughout the book is generally very high, and there was only one story out of 22 where I found my eyes glazing over and struggled to finish, which I count as a definite win.
The book’s cheery colourful cover is more eye-catching than the previous volume, Champion Fellas, and at 100 pages thicker is a heftier tome as well.
The layout inside is playful too, featuring pictures and images reflective of the themes of the stories, not an aspect I overly care for myself, but it doesn’t detract from (nor particularly enhance) the writing.
The 22 stories in this book give an interesting insight into Malaysian attitudes towards education, both past and present, but above all its strength lies in being taken as a whole, as representative of the country’s rich socioeconomic and cultural diversity.
Bitter Root Sweet Fruit is a welcome addition to the ever-growing body of contemporary Malaysian writing.
In the interests of full disclosure: Stories written by Marc De Faoite were runners-up in both the 2015 and 2017 D.K. Dutt Award for Literary Excellence. He has also had several stories published by both editors, in Champion Fellas and elsewhere.
Bitter Root Sweet Fruit
Editors: Dipika Mukherjee & Sharon Bakar
Publisher: Word Works