Four Books from Malaysia

The appetite for Malaysian fiction in the English-speaking world seems fixated on family sagas set in the Japanese Occupation of Malaya—stories largely irrelevant to the current sociopolitical challenges facing this Southeast Asian nation tussling between a growing theocracy and fading democracy. Fixi, a leading Malaysian publisher, states in a manifesto: “We publish stories about the urban reality of Malaysia. If you want to share your grandmother’s World War II stories, send ’em elsewhere and you might even win the Booker Prize.” Only one of the books below obsesses about the Japanese Occupation.

 

Evening is the Whole DayPreeta Samarasan

Evening Is the Whole Day

Mariner Books

Preeta Samarasan weaves a multilayered story about the Rajasekharan family in Ipoh, holding up a mirror to the growing pains of Malaysia. Undercurrents of racial tension, civic unrest after the elections, and the growing criminality of the streets are a foil to the family drama of a household dealing with forbidden relationships and intensely lonely people who turn to ghosts for solace. The brilliant cast offers a view of Malaysia with small betrayals at the heart of larger ones, highlighting the many ways in which the people in a family, and the people of a nation, give in before finally giving up.

 

A Malaysian JourneyRehman Rashid

A Malaysian Journey 

Rashid, a leading journalist and commentator on Malaysia, had to self-publish this book, now a classic. The reader is taken on an eloquent journey of the personal and the political as well as the murkily historical, meandering from the Malaccan sultanate to the Mahathir years, when the dictatorial style of government set in with the subsequent clampdown on free speech that exiled this patriot for some years. Rashid makes a case for keeping Malaysia multicultural and multiracial in a way that seems ideologically possible but is becoming politically impossible by acutely analyzing the issues dividing the three main races as well as the many cultures and religions. Compelling and heartbreaking.

 

Devil's PlaceBrian Gomez

Devil’s Place

Idle Minds 

This is an entertaining romp through modern Kuala Lumpur, a modern megapolis that speaks Manglish through the mouths of policemen and politicians. There is murder and high-level cover-ups wrapped in an entertaining page-turner that never flags despite insidiously commenting on the corruption of the ruling elite. Brian Gomez writes a truly Malaysian tale with no gloss or cover, his finger firmly on the pulse of the real Malaysia.

 

The Garden of Evening MistsTan Twan Eng

The Garden of Evening Mists

Weinstein Books 

The imagery of the lush highlands of Malaysia with mists and dark clouds and Japanese gardens is the perfect setting for conflicted characters Aritomo and Yun Ling. This nuanced tale delves into the mystery of Japanese gardens and body tattoos, wood block prints and tea cultivation, but above it all looms a contentious Malaysian history. What could have easily been another clichéd epic of sacrifice and familial duty soars to become an extraordinary story of forgiveness and redemption through artistry. 

 


Photo by Bobo Lin, Shanghai.

Dipika Mukherjee’s debut novel on Malaysia was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize as an unpublished manuscript, then published as Thunder Demons (Gyaana, 2011) and Ode to Broken Things (Repeater, 2016). She won the 2016 Virginia Prize for Fiction with her second novel, Shambala Junction, which is being published by Aurora Metro later this year.