Fiction about Malaysia (and a few other good books)

Compiled by Mindy McAdams

This list includes only books I have read. Most of them I found at bookstores in Malaysia. All are in English. I was very disappointed by my inability to find many novels written by people of Malay ethnicity translated into English, despite my focused efforts to do so.

A scholarly book about Malay literature, Writing a New Society: Social Change Through the Novel in Malay (available from Amazon), by Virginia Matheson Hooker, was published in 2000 by the University of Hawaii Press. A more recent book in the same vein is We Are Playing Relatives: A Survey of Malay Writing, by Henk Maier (in English), published in Leiden, The Netherlands, by KITLV Press, 2004. (I haven't read either of these.)

The Soul of Malaya

By Henri Fauconnier (Singapore: Archipelago Press, 2003) Amazon

This novel, originally published in French in 1930, draws on the wide experience of the author, a Frenchman, who lived in pensinular Malaysia (then called Malaya) from 1905 to 1914 and then from 1919 to 1925. He went there to make his fortune and apprenticed himself to a rubber planter in the Klang Valley. Soon he established his own rubber plantations, and he is known as the man who first brought the oil-palm tree to Malaya. (Palm-oil production is one of the biggest industries in Malaysia today.)

The novel concerns a pair of French rubber planters, one not unlike Fauconnier himself, and their relationship with the land and the people of Malaya. The story is evocative and a little mysterious, and I especially liked the interaction of the two men with their Malay servants, two brothers from whom the Frenchmen learn much about the human soul. I know that sounds hokey, but that's really what happens, and why the title of this book is so appropriate. The original French title was "Malaisie," which is apparently what the French called Malaya (and not the word we English speakers use to mean "a vague sense of mental or moral ill-being," malaise).

Into the Heart of Borneo

By Redmond O'Hanlon (London: Penguin Books, 1984) Amazon

Reading this book inspired me to book a 22-day trekking tour of Malaysian Borneo, the fabled land of Iban headhunters and the magnificent hornbill. O'Hanlon -- an Englishman, literary scholar and amateur naturalist -- undertook an 1800s-style expedition into the jungle in 1983 with three local Iban guides and one English friend, a poet. About their adventure he wrote this thoroughly enjoyable book, filled with laugh-out-loud humor and wondrous descriptions of birds, rivers, forests, the incredible equatorial heat, and all the squeamish details that those 19th-century reports politely left out.

Part of the delight in reading this account comes from O'Hanlon's quirky personality and his deep enthusiasm for nature, and a large part comes from his portrayal of his guides as intelligent men who find in their two English charges an unending source of amusement. O'Hanlon exaggerated nothing. I thought of him often while I walked on muddy paths and rode in narrow longboats in Sarawak, sweat streaming from every pore, drinking in the sounds and smells of the jungle.

The Malayan Trilogy

By Anthony Burgess (London: Vintage, 2000) Amazon UK
Note: This is a much nicer edition than the one on Amazon U.S.

Widely known as the author of A Clockwork Orange (the novel on which Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film was based), Burgess lived in peninsular Malaysia (then Malaya) from 1954 to 1960 while serving as an education officer for the British government. Britain was then preparing to withdraw from the country, which it had considered its colony since (roughly) 1874. (Malaya got its independence in 1957, and the new country of Malaysia emerged in 1963.)

This trilogy was originally published as three separate novels: Time for a Tiger (1956), The Enemy in the Blanket (1958) and Beds in the East (1959). The stories are completely continuous, however, and all feature a British education officer named Victor Crabbe as the central character. Crabbe's circumstances in Malaya parallel those of Burgess, and an unmistakable sense of bright reality colors every scene.

Burgess's dry English humor guarantees a lot of enjoyment in reading this book, but even better is his successful portrayal of diverse public opinion in Malaya at a crucial time in its long history. He respects but does not idolize the Malays, and he skillfully unwraps the many layers of racial complexity that were especially agitated in the years surrounding independence. I very much admired Burgess's ability to capture character with only a few lines of dialogue, and I found the book difficult to put down (even when reading it by headlamp under the mosquito net in my hammock after a long, hot day of jungle walking!). He's pleasantly ambivalent about the role of the British in "helping" the country toward its new position in the world -- through Crabbe's well-meaning ambition to educate young Malays for taking the reins of government, Burgess manages to demonstrate some of the consequences of colonization and hegemony.

The Rice Mother

By Rani Manicka (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2003) Amazon

This hard-to-put-down novel tells the story of a woman from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) who marries a Ceylonese (Tamil) man living in Malaya and relocates there to live with him and raise a family. The chilling descriptions of the Japanese occupation of the Malay peninsula during World War II stay with me, months after finishing this book. Even today, one hears many references in Malaysia to the occupation, but accounts often focus on the Japanese army's brutal treatment of Chinese in Malaya who were suspected to be communists. In this book, the hardships of all the people of Malaya -- Tamil, Malay and Chinese -- receive equal treatment. To the invading army, the conquered people were simply non-Japanese, equally undeserving of humane consideration.

I found the last third of the book to be much weaker than the first two-thirds, as the story moved away from the story of the mother, Lakshmi, and concentrated on her son Lakshmnan and his daughter and granddaughter. I'm not a fan of family sagas, and this one succumbs to melodrama in the end. That does not detract from the compelling storytelling of the first part, however, and I completely enjoyed the writing and the enveloping sense of Lakshmi's life in what was to her a strange land, where she invested in her children everything she had to give.

A Bit of Earth

By Suchen Christine Lim (Singapore: Times Books International, 2001)
Note: I can't find any trace of this book online anymore, which is a shame, because it's really excellent. Times Books International has apparently been swallowed up by Marshall Cavendish, a company with an utterly unusable Web site.

Set in another crucial period of the recent history of peninsular Malaysia, this novel follows the life of a teenage Chinese immigrant, Wong Tuck Heng, who escapes a death sentence in China to work in the brutal tin mines of Perak. Through luck and hard work, like all fictional heroes, Tuck Heng becomes a wealthy and powerful man in the land of his exile.

The life story of Tuck Heng coincides with the rise of ethnic Chinese economic power in Malaysia, a subject of tension that continues to affect the country today. We come to understand his network of relationships with Malay chiefs such as Datuk Long Mahmud, the volatile Chinese secret societies, the long-established Straits Chinese such as Baba Wee, an Indian Muslim trader known as Musa Talib, and, of course, the British who hold power in the strategic ports and control the tin mines. The plot pivots on the 1875 assassination of James Birch, the first British Resident in Perak. Throughout, Tuck Heng must negotiate a perilous course through changing alliances based on language, culture, trade and loyalty.

Lim's ability to breathe life into her characters' motivations makes this story much more engrossing than many historical novels I have read. Tuck Heng, while neither lovable nor altogether admirable, always seems human and believable. No one functions as a cardboard cutout inserted into the story simply to move it forward to the next event, and so I became caught up in the flow of Tuck Heng's life, always interested to see what would happen next.


By C. S. Godshalk (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998) Amazon

When I was in Sarawak, I resisted all traces of the so-called white rajahs. I felt disgusted by colonization, greedy trade practices and the subjugation of native groups. In every bookshop in that state you can find English books about the Raj and the reign of the British over the northwestern lands of Borneo. I bought none of them.

I knew this historical novel focused on a thinly veiled depiction of the first rajah and his younger British wife. Something overcame my distaste, and I picked it up. Now it haunts me, like the sound of the jungle at night, the quiet barefoot steps of Iban men on invisible trails, the unseen trophy heads, the close heat of the longhouse.

It's a flawed book but well worth the effort it asks. Where the book succeeds tremendously is in conveying the strange mixture of alienation and belonging that the British characters experience. The author chose wisely, I think, in never taking the reader into the mind or heart of any native of Borneo, but rather allowed the reader to develop an outsider's knowledge of them.

Beautiful and lush, complex, mysterious, frightening -- the book is much like Borneo itself. It's not an easy place to visit, let alone to know. If you have a little familiarity with the history, I think you will go deep into this book, like the jungle, and succumb to its charms and incantations.

Breaking the Tongue

By Vyvyane Loh (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2005) Amazon

When the Japanese invaded Malaya, they walked and bicycled south from Thailand, and the British (who had occupied the peninsula for quite some time) fled before them like rats deserting the proverbial sinking ship.

In Singapore, a largely ethnic Chinese population watched the colonial overlords -- who had long banned the Chinese from their posh "whites-only" clubs and cricket fields -- first pour in from across the Johor Strait and later abandon the coveted port altogether, surrendering ignobly in February 1942.

This surprising turn of events was a particular shock to middle- and upper-class Chinese who had embraced British ways and customs. Such was the family of teenage Claude Lim, so Anglicized he does not have a Chinese name or understand Mandarin (or Hokkien either).

While this is a story of Singapore at a very notable time in its history, it is also the story of a person whose culture fails him. Claude encounters a variety of characters (both Chinese and British, but almost no Malays) who inspire him to question everything he thought to be true in the world.

I found this book to be annoying at first, but I must not have been in the right mood for it. I set it aside for a couple of weeks, and when I went back to it, I enjoyed it a lot and finished it quickly.

The Harmony Silk Factory

By Tash Aw (London: Harper Perennial, 2005) Amazon

Another story about ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, this one begins with the narrator's father, a scoundrel (or an entrepreneur) named Johnny Lim, whose parents may have worked in those same tin mines as the immigrants in A Bit of Earth (see above). Then the narrator changes, twice -- first from the son to Johnny's high-class Chinese-Malaysian wife, and then from the wife to Johnny's close friend, an Englishman named Peter. Through a not-quite-Rashomon telling of the life of Johnny, we see how a boy who begins with nothing becomes a powerful merchant, possibly a gangster, and probably a betrayer of the Chinese communists in the Malayan jungles.

In a somewhat Heart of Darkness-style adventure, five unlikely companions travel by boat to an island, one of the all-but-mythical Seven Maidens (loosely based on a legend concerning an island near Melaka). There, of course, the plot twists in significant ways, and Johnny's life changes in ways he never discusses with his son, who is born later.

A good read and never dull, this book incorporates numerous dashes and dollops of the history and culture of Malaysia. Because of the timeline of Johnny's life, the Japanese occupation comes into play, and in fact a Japanese military "adviser" takes on a key role. The author reveals his own Malaysianness in subtle ways, never overtly trying to show us the country of his youth (he later moved to England) but often providing a fine sense of place in the settings. In many ways, however, it's not a deeply Malaysian novel. The story of Johnny the maybe-gangster could be transferred to other countries, changed in several places, and told in pretty much the same way.

Spirit of the Keris

(Petalng Jaya: Maya Press, 2003) (Australia)

This anthology of 17 short stories by eight authors and a selection of poems by five poets oddly lists no editors or compilers of the collection. It contains a good range of stories, in any case, and is the only collection of poems in English (longer than pantuns) that I was able to find in Malaysia. Here is one called "Three Layers," by Omar Mohd. Noor:

there are three layers of rural areas
the first became towns and cities a half-generation ago
the second now becoming towns
with yellow electricity and greyish pipe-water
here some characteristics of jungles are intact
the third is still a jungle by itself
only the electricity of the sun permeates it
the stars compensate for the lack of light
by shining extremely brightly
as they never do in towns
which mock their services

I love the poem called "Malchin Testament," by Salleh Ben Joned, but it would make no sense, I'm afraid, to anyone who has not lived in Malaysia or Singapore. The ending (with the boldface as used by the poet) is:

so how dare you say we misplace
our stresses, our nationalism

we always have them about us
ebritime talk english lah
our way of talking the lingo
is our way of being unik oso

it's our great opportunity
to practice our own democracy

The title of the book comes from another poem by Salleh, a poem that demands to be read out loud: "trusting thrusting / into the seas / of prophecy / spirit splurting / with the seeds / of a thousand islands / of a dream nation / envy of all ..."

In this collection, I also enjoyed in particular a very short story titled "A Common Story," by Kassim Ahmad. It concerns a young man named Yusuf who left his rural village, or kampung, in Malaysia to go to university in Singapore. After finishing his degree, Yusuf comes home, to the perplexity of his uneducated parents, giving up a secure future with the civil service. His reason has to do with (I think the best phrase is) the soul of Malaya.

The Merlion and the Hibiscus

Dipika Mukherjee, Kirpal Singh and M. A. Quayum, editors (New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2002) Alibris

This anthology contains 19 stories, each by a different author from Malaysia (where the national flower is the hibiscus) or Singapore (where the national symbol is the unusual merlion -- that is, a lion with a mermaid's tail).

A truly wonderful story, "Mariah," by Che Husna Azhari, also appears in the Spirit of the Keris collection (above). In a little village in Kelantan, a young widow sells various rice dishes each morning after the subuh prayers. Most of the men in the village (married or not) linger in the market square and wait for Mariah to come with her rice. The Imam has been persuaded by a friend to try some of Mariah's cooking ... and that day, he does not come home to eat the delicious rice his wife has prepared for him. What happens next constitutes a story of love, desire and the will of Allah.

"Kimmy," a story by Ovidia Yu, could be told in any country. Two sisters, ages 10 and 12, are not collected by their single mother at the end of their YMCA camp, and a camp counselor ends up looking after them for five days until the mom returns from her vacation with a new wealthy boyfriend. In the meantime, the young counseler (and the reader) comes to learn some sad and disturbing things about the girls' life, as seen through the eyes of the 10-year-old, Kimmy.

"Bugis," by Alfian Sa'at, also has universal appeal, but it shows distinct characteristics of both Singapore and the Malaysian peninsula. It seems (at first) to be a simple tale about two teenage girlfriends on the subway. A transvestite gets on the train at the Bugis stop, and our narrator finds the man in drag both fascinating and repulsive. She's been thinking about her best friend's recent decision to start wearing tudung (scarf), but her thoughts switch over to wondering why the transvestite wants to dress and act as s/he does. In the end, I couldn't help but be reminded of how hard those years can be, when one is young and just figuring out how to be in the world.

New Writing 4

Robert Raymer, editor (Kuala Lumpur: Silverfish Books, 2004) Silverfish Books
Note: Silverfish will ship anywhere in the world!)

Herein are 26 stories by 26 authors with "a Malaysia/Singapore connection," according to the Foreword by the editor. They were selected from 133 submissions, and they're a diverse bunch, with settings and characters from all over the world.

In "The Sandal Thief," author Mohamad Mohamad-Sharin gives us a look at the good and bad of everyday life. A young professional man leaves the mosque to discover that his fine new shoes have been stolen. But an old man appears, dragging his teenage son by the collar, and begs the professional man's forgiveness for the dishonesty of the boy, the thief. Accusations and lamentations ensue, a crowd gathers, and some people debate the propriety of beating your child in the shadow of the mosque.

One of my favorites, "The Marriage Certificate," by Ashish Kulshreshtha, tells the story of a man who must get a marriage certificate from the local government of his town in India. Although he and his wife have been married for five years, they have no legal documentation, and he needs the certificate to take his wife and their child along with him to his new job in Singapore. Obtaining the certificate turns out to be a convoluted (but very amusing, to the reader) lesson in the maze of bribes and bureaucratic red tape that ensnarls offical business in India.

The memory of a disastrous teenage date will surely come back to readers of "Butterfly," by Doreen M. Nor. Nina has led a protected life; the only reason she's going out on a date at all is because her parents are out of town for the weekend, and her three sisters have pumped up her courage so that she can go to a party with the dreamy Rashid, whom she knows from school. Nothing turns out as she had imagined it, though, and with the vehemence of someone whose dream has been abruptly wiped out, Nina retaliates with ammunition she didn't know she was capable of using. (No, no, it's not the movie Carrie transplanted to Malaysia!)


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