When it comes to Malaysian books, we certainly have a well-storied history. From Usman Awang and K.S. Maniam to Tash Aw, our country has been blessed with creative writing talents whose books have shaped minds and sparked people’s imaginations through the generations.
While we still have a long way to go towards achieving a writing culture, many Malaysian books have gone on to be critically acclaimed, with some even winning international literary awards. These include Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden Of Evening Mists, which won the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize, and Rani Manicka’s The Rice Mother, which won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 2003.
On the foreign literary side, Malaysia has also been represented in writing such as Joseph Conrad’s The Rescue (1920) and Anthony Burgess’s The Malayan Trilogy (1956-1959).
To celebrate the spirit of Merdeka, we asked prominent personalities in the local arts and writing scenes to recommend a Malaysian book and to tell us what about it captures their imagination.
For the purposes of this list, we took a rather wide view of “Malaysian” books, we considered them to be either: a) books that were written by a Malaysian; b) books that take place completely or substantially in Malaysia; or c) books with Malaysia, Malaysians or uniquely Malaysian topics as subject matter.
Not surprisingly, this resulted in a pretty interesting and diverse list – both fiction and non-fiction are celebrated, as well as both local and foreign authors. With poetry, picture books and prose all represented, it’s perhaps safe to say that Malaysian writing has certainly come a long way!
Raman Krishnan, publisher and owner of Silverfish Bookstore
Title: The Sum Of Our Follies
Author: Shih-Li Kow
It’s a very interesting book. Kow created Lubok Sayong, a town in Perak that serves as a microcosm of Malaysia. And all sorts of things happen there! It’s very similar to Malgudi (the fictional town created in the stories) by R.K. Narayan, with all sorts of characters. And her stories are told in the form of vignettes. It’s like reading a newspaper: you have all sorts of things going on all around the country, but put together here in one town. And Shih-Li is a very skilful writer, who writes with a lot of humour. Some of the characters, you’ll recognise and laugh over, they are Malaysian political figures. And then there’s tragedy as well, and a few fantastical things – after all, this is Malaysia, where all sorts of fantastic things can happen.
Amir Muhammad, writer, independent filmmaker and Buku Fixi founder
Title: Sajak-Sajak Saleh
Author: Salleh Ben Joned
I am not sure if this was the first poetry book I ever read (I have the first edition from 1987) but it was certainly the first I re-read and carried around. What initially grabbed my attention was its gleeful satire – some of its lines have become part of my brain chemistry. But there is also tenderness, sensuality and love. It’s a mixture that this former lecturer/columnist would himself like to call “sallehcious”! If nothing else, this book will cure you of the notion that poetry must be either inaccessibly esoteric or a glob of sentimental goo. It’s an earthy celebration that should be declaimed from the minarets of all our shopping malls.
Bernice Chauly, author, educator and founder of the KL Writer’s Workshop
Title: Society And Cosmos – Chewong Of Peninsula Malaysia
Author: Signe Howell
While working at a bookstore when I was a student in Canada, I was fortunate to chance upon this book. It is the first complete study of this shy, reserved orang asli tribe, written after Howell, a Norwegian anthropologist, had lived with them for almost two years.
It was fascinating as I had little prior knowledge of the orang asli, nor had the opportunity to delve into their belief systems. I had a particular interest in magic and mysticism at the time and I found the book, scholarly as it was, compelling, evocative and insightful about the complex cosmology of this small tribe, which now numbers in the small hundreds.
Their understanding of humans, superhumans, god and Earth is intricately linked to their stories of origin and myth. Twenty-three years later, the book still fills me with wonder.
Rumaizah Abu Bakar, author
Title: Kasut Biru Rubina
Author: Sufian Abas
I recommend reading the quirky Kasut Biru Rubina by Sufian Abas, a collection of contemporary short fiction narrated in casual, slangy Malay. Come the 58th celebration of Merdeka, Malaysians should be inspired to take a step back, lighten up and loose themselves in unexpected and unconventional fictitious worlds.
Bursting with a breath of fresh air and featuring out-of-the-box characters, Kasut Biru Rubina stretches readers’ imagination to the maximum. More importantly, these gentle and unique stories paved the way for a new genre, unique and eccentric in each of the authors’ own way.
It indicated that ushering change might not require a drastic move; change could be approached in a cool and calm manner, and with a steady supply of humour. Let this collection by a talented local writer and indie publisher make us look at the world differently.
Jo Kukathas, director, playwright and actress
Title: What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You
Author: Farish A. Noor
What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You is a sexy tell-all book. Dr Farish Noor knows how to make history sexy, and it’s a delight. Inside these pages you’ll find out everything you always wanted to know about our cultural past but was too afraid to ask. Everything from the real story of Hang Tuah to the true origin of the keris to the fascinating history of PAS to the sexual practices of the ancient Malays. It’s as fascinating as opening a can of worms. So much of our cultural history has been cheapened for nasty political agendas that it’s no wonder our politicians keep telling us we are “easily confused”. Farish, however, reveals exciting hidden histories, details mysteries, and allows us to enjoy our complex past. No confusion here.
Leow Puay Tin, playwright and arts lecturer
Title: Orang Asli Animal Tales
Author: Lim Boo Liat
This book is a collection of authentic tales from the rainforests by a zoologist that will make you wonder how such unusual and fantastic stories have existed for such a long time in our land and yet remain unknown to most Malaysians.
The natural world of the rainforests, ruled by an unimpressive creature called the Tikus Bulan, or Moonrat, is populated by a society of animals much like our human one with its own politics and foibles, perspectives and moral laws. So when Moonrat grows into a “veritable little tyrant”, his subjects rebel. But before chucking him out, they “took turns to vomit and belch on his face and body, leaving on him traces of their own smell”.
Sharon Bakar, trainer, creative writing teacher and independent publisher
Title: No Harvest But A Thorn
Author: Shahnon Ahmad, translated by Adibah Amin
Adibah Amin’s translation of Shahnon Ahmad’s Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan was my first introduction to Malay literature. I read it within a couple of weeks of arriving here in 1984, and was deeply moved by this story of a rural community pitched against a hostile natural world and struggling to survive, both physically and spiritually. The translation was published only once by Oxford University Press in Australia in 1972. It hit the bestseller list there, but has since been allowed to disappear, and the only copies you will find now are secondhand. I recently managed to buy a secondhand copy of the novel via abebooks.com, and plan to reread it. It’s high time it is republished for a new readership.
Daphne Lee, writer, editor and columnist
Title: Fatimah’s Kampung
Author: Iain Buchanan
I choose Iain Buchanan’s Fatimah’s Kampung, a thoughtful and moving story that celebrates the Malaysian countryside and the old ways of life, warns of the dangers of over-urbanisation, and champions the preservation of our natural treasures. The British author and illustrator’s deep love for this country, especially our fast-disappearing forests and kampungs, is reflected in the book’s painstakingly detailed and beautiful illustrations – I wish a Malaysian had been inspired to create Fatimah’s Kampung, but I do believe that Buchanan’s passion for this land actually makes him one of us, in the ways that count the most.
Tunku Halim, author
Title: Looking Back
Author: Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra
This compilation of articles published in The Star by Malaysia’s first prime minister, also known as Bapa Malaysia, is a must read even though they were written almost 40 years ago. Actually, it is the fact they were written so long ago that makes the book so important. It gives us a historical perspective of another time, a much gentler period in our country’s politics even though we were struggling for our independence from the British.
Some have called it “gentlemanly politics”, but I would say it was a time of integrity and the words “money politics” and “cronyism” seemed to not have been even invented yet. Many of the issues that the Tunku faced then we still confront today. His memories were also published in several other books including Viewpoints, As A Matter Of Interest and Challenging Times.
Zedeck Siew, author and journalist
Title: Malay Magic: Being An Introduction To The Folklore And Popular Religion Of The Malay Peninsula
Author: Walter William Skeat
I love this book. It is a terrible book. As an ethnographical text, it has been superseded by more comprehensive, more sensitive studies. It comes from a time when white men ruled the world, saying reprehensible things like “alien people in a relatively low stage of civilisation”. (White men still rule the world. They just don’t say things like that any more. Not aloud.) But this is the book that made me love the magic of my home. It collects such beautiful stories. I’ve stolen so many images from it – bloodsucking snails; a bird-soul-ed tree, yearning to be free; a crab god dwelling in the Navel of the Seas. I think it tells of true things, dimly. Between the 19th century and now, though our rites have changed, we still treat the powers and mysteries around the same way: with fear, respect – and a nonchalant: “Ya, here got ghost.”