KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 13 -- There has been no better time for books by Malaysian authors writing in English.
There’s Tan Twan Eng with his Man Asian Literary Prize-winning sophomore effort The Garden of Evening Mists. And then there's Tash Aw who debuted with The Harmony Silk Factory; his latest novel Five Star Billionaire has been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2013.
Tan and Aw are Malaysian writers living abroad published by international publishers. So, does one need to head overseas to get a shot at seeing one’s book in print though? Fret not; there is more Malaysian writing in English produced by local writers and publishers than ever before.
The little bookshop that could
Some of these titles – Dina Zaman’s I Am Muslim, Antares’ Tanah Tujuh, and Shih-Li Kow’s Ripples and other stories – would not be sitting on bookshelves today if it weren’t for Raman Krishnan, the proprietor and publisher of Silverfish Books.
An engineer by training, Raman started Silverfish Books in 1999 to sell English titles not available at other bookshops in KL at the time. Since then, he has ventured into book publishing in 2001 with Silverfish Publishing.
Raman says, “I’m only interested in good storytelling; I’m not interested in making Malaysia exotic. If you’re good, you’re good. If you’re bad, you’re bad. In the Anglo-American world, bookselling has become an industry. In my days, you wrote because you wanted to, not because you wanted to enter the bestseller list.”
Using Shi-Li Kow as an example, he observes that she’s “an unbelievable person – a single mother, a full-time real estate manager – and she still finds the time to read and to write. That’s what writing is really about. It’s not about a magic formula.”
As a result, from only dozens of books of Malaysian writing in English when Silverfish Books first opened to about 2,000 titles the bookshop now carries, Silverfish Books has shown that local authors need not live in another country to produce good writing and be published.
Of course, producing good writing in English is still a challenge. Raman says, “English is not the first language for most; it’s the third or fourth language, if you take into account dialects. So what I stress is storytelling because no matter what language you speak, people tell stories. Malaysian stories are even more interesting because we have very different, very rich cultural nuances.”
What do Malaysians read?
However, despite these encouraging signs, are enough Malaysians even reading? Eric Forbes, senior editor at MPH Publishing, is of the opinion that there isn’t much of a reading culture in Malaysia.
“Most of the adults I know don’t read. Perhaps they only read the newspaper or a magazine or two. Perhaps they only read stuff related to their work. That’s about it. I know most graduates stop reading after they graduate.
Reading is not a priority in the life of the average Malaysian,” he says.
Could a lack of variety in published works be the problem? Forbes notes that MPH Publishing produces both fiction and non-fiction, but admits that at the present they are focusing on children’s books, cookery, humour, political biographies, comics and how-to books because these are the genres that sell.
He adds, “Sad to say, Malaysians tend to read the same stuff, again and again. I wish Malaysians will read more essays, travel narratives, short stories, academic and critical studies, etc.”
As examples of non-conventional fare, Forbes highlights two of his favourite books published by MPH Publishing – Adeline Loh’s Peeing in the Bush and Zhang Su Li’s A Backpack and a Bit of Luck. He says, “Both are good travel narratives. I would consider these among the best books by Malaysian authors.”
MPH has also started publishing e-books through their MPH Digital imprint. Forbes notes that online bookstores and e-books solve the problem of physical distribution and increase the sales of Malaysian books overseas.
It’s a mixed blessing however, as Forbes shares, “As an inveterate reader and collector of books, I hope e-books will never totally replace print books. There’s something about turning the pages of a print book that adds to the experience of reading which e-books cannot deliver.”
From Malaysian politicians to Malaysian pulp (fiction)
Some folks remember Amir Muhammad as a former newspaper columnist; others recognise his name as the director of a couple of independent documentary films.
Most of us though know him as the man behind Matahari Books, a small press publisher of non-fiction titles such as the hilarious Malaysian Politicians Say the Darndest Things, Vol. 1 and 2. His Yasmin Ahmad’s Films commemorated the lively legacy left behind by the beloved Malaysian film-maker of movies like Sepet and Talentime.
Amir has gone on to start another press called Buku Fixi (translated as “fiction books”). Here, the focus is on mostly Malay-language pulp fiction. Modern and urban themes are featured such as noir, thriller, romance and even cyber-punk.
“Originally I wanted to work on both Matahari Books and Buku Fixi simultaneously,” says Amir. “I didn’t expect Fixi to get so many submissions. We are publishing about two books a month now. So I went with the momentum.”
Buku Fixi novels – many with attention-grabbing, single-word titles such as Sumbat (Stuffed), Ajaib (Magic), Kougar (Cougar) and Tabu (Taboo) – are popular with a newer generation of readers seeking more identifiable reading.
Slang and colloquialism are commonly used, in stark contrast with standardised Malay that national press Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka strives for.
Amir adds, “Buku Fixi has published 41 books in the past two years, a couple of which have been made into movies.” He shows no sign of slowing down and little wonder; few possess his keen instinct for what the readers want these days.
Could Malaysian writing in English adopt the same strategy to attract more readers? The answer may lie with Amir’s own Matahari Books after a hiatus of two years with no new titles. He promises, “We’ll publish the second volume of What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You by Farish A. Noor later this year.”
This appears to be the future of Malaysian publishing industry – where everything and anything can go. So long as there are readers with the taste for these books – be it high-brow indie literature or localised pulp fiction, there is a writer… and a publisher for them.
This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail, 12 September 2013.