I heard this great interview on BFM’s Night School with Raja Ahmad Aminullah, a poet and essayist and now I really really want to get a hold of his “Minda Tertawan“. Thinking about it, I actually haven’t read that many books by local authors. Here’s a list in rough chronological order of local books I remember reading, not counting picture books for small children and Lat comics, although I think Mat Som is a great graphic novel and I have both the original and English translation. Given that I’ve probably read hundreds of books in my life the list of Malaysian works is a bit the short:
- Secret in Sabah by Frances and Francis Lee – science fiction YA novel from long before the term “YA” was in common use. A bunch of secondary school students in KK back when it was still called Jesselton discover that their science teacher invented a teleportation machine. It’s actually REALLY GOOD and I look to it as an example of science fiction in a local context that doesn’t involve any weird cultural borrowings from American SF which is frankly epidemic in local amateur SF. Published by Oxford University Press but obviously long out of print so if you find a copy, TELL ME!!!
- Merbuk, can’t remember author. Another YA novel, about a kid who adopts a baby pigeon which naturally grows up to have the best singing voice in the kampung, which naturally leads to the kampung bully coveting it. I liked it enough that I read it several times. It was the only Malay novel I actually read in full during my entire primary and secondary education because we didn’t have a full-on Sastera section during my batch (I did the SPM in 2000).
- Time Out in Sabah – the sequel to #1. Turns out teacher also invented a time machine. Yes, it sounds cheesy, but I promise you it’s also really good.
- Sejarah Melayu by Tun Sri Lanang – Even though my Malay has never been good I was pissed that we only read those stupid 500-word passages for pemahaman bahasa klasik in school (see above about paucity of Sastera during my time) because the stories at least sounded fun unlike the majority of the contemporary literature pemahaman excerpts. So I got a hold of a copy of the Sejarah on a holiday from university in the USA. I finished it by torchlight during a Habitat for Humanity volunteering trip during spring break of my senior year. Reading bahasa klasik/bahasa istana is a bit like reading Shakespeare, it’s like you have to change gears. It’s interesting because it’s one work but it starts out very mythological and ends up more down-to-earth historical.
- The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash Aw – Did not like. I’m not keen on postmodern stuff. Nothing really stuck with me, neither characters nor story. I did like that he tried to show how different people can remember the same persons but that’s about it. Also – I don’t want to get ad hominem but I think the fact that he spent so much of his life overseas gives him a foreign perspective because it felt like all of the local characters were “exotic” and the English guy was the only one with a real voice.
- Kebebasan Kehakiman by Tun Salleh Abas (I almost typed Tun Sri Lanang again by mistake) – this is the former Lord President of the Supreme Court’s account of the events leading up to and during the constitutional crisis that trashed our judiciary when I was in kindergarten. It’s not too technical for a layperson to follow – again, my Malay kind of sucks, and I have zero legal background so if I can read it you can too. But it’s an essential part of our history. Even though it’s a description of events and not a personal memoir, his voice of dignity and sorrow comes through clearly.
- 21 Immortals by Rozlan Mohd Noor – Local crime novel, pretty good. From the Silverfish Pulp imprint. As you can probably guess from the title, it’s a cops and gangsters plot. The author also has written another book about the same detective character in Malay but I haven’t read Infantisid so I don’t know how they compare.
- Perang Sangkil by Akiya @ Mahat China – I guess “sangkil” loosely translates as “manhunters”. This novel in a 19th-century setting follows a group of Orang Asli (some of them are from different tribes) under threat from being caught by the sangkil and being sold into slavery to the Malays. One of the characters had his whole family caught and enslaved so he’s extremely bitter and paranoid; his anger and drive to keep moving constantly cause friction in the group, but the threat of slavery is real and it hangs over their heads. It wasn’t that great of a read but it was definitely interesting to read an entire book from the perspective of the Orang Asli. Some parts have this weird repetitive sentence structure which I wondered whether it was characteristic of their oral storytelling style.
- Pecah by Khairulnizam Bakeri – This was the first of a bunch of books that I read from the Fixi pulp imprint (the English line is Fixi Novo). This is a REALLY good crime/revenge novel. It starts out with a bank robbery but all the characters turn out to have long-standing painful ties to each other. Too bad the movie was meh.
- Jerat by Dayang Noor – pretty good, not as good as Pecah but definitely hard to put down. It’s about an IT professional who wakes up from a coma with amnesia after being hit by a car, trying to regain her skills and get her career back. She also makes friends with a teenage hacker. Things get darker and darker as the two women discover more about her past. I can’t say any more without spoiling it. (Weirdly, I can’t find it on the Fixi website any more.)
- Cekik by Ridhwan Saidi – Kinky ass shit with graphic descriptions of incest, paedophilia, teenage lust, and talking instant noodles. Fairly titillating and has some interesting plot twists. Strangely the titular action doesn’t actually happen all that much in the book.
- Tuhan by Hasrul Rizwan – Takes place on a planet of clones. Starts out promising then becomes unfortunately draggy and random, giving me the impression that the author watched too much Ultraman as a child. The character development of the POV character’s clone friend was interesting at first then he became anyhow evil. The sole female character is a MacGuffin. Also gets weirdly religious at the end – I don’t have a problem with religion in science fiction and it can be really good but this just got dropped in. Yes I know the title is “Tuhan” but the story up to that point was about the mad scientist who created the planet of clones setting himself up as a god, not about religion or spirituality per se.
- Gergasi by Khairul Nizam Khairani – Started but couldn’t get more than a couple of chapters in (and I rarely stop reading books in the middle). Even more ridiculous Ultraman level science fiction.
- Yang Nakal-Nakal by Usman Awang – The stuff you didn’t get to read in school.
- Malaysian Constitution: A Critical Introduction by Abdul Aziz Bari – he’s the famous IIUM professor. What it says on the tin. Well-written and structured but I think it could have done better with a little more copyediting for grammar. There’s a list of court cases at the back but it would have been nice to have a few sentences describing the important ones mentioned in the text. Like Kebebasan Kehakiman, this is one of those books that would tend to make any thinking person angry over the injustices that have happened in our country, not to mention the recommendations of the Reid Commision some of which seem really stupid in hindsight. I got the last copy on Amazon that’s why it’s sold out in the USA. #truestory
That’s all I can remember for local novels and nonfiction books, any recommendations what I should get next? I have Azly Rahman’s Thesis on Cyberjaya: Hegemony and utopianism in Southeast Asia in my Kindle account but I’d like to read something more entertaining in between.