Friends know that I’m a sucker for cake. I am also a sucker for books with interesting titles. And so, when I came across Yeoh Jo-Ann’s debut novel, Impractical Uses of Cake, winner of Singaporean publisher Epigram’s Fiction Prize 2018, I had to bite. And what a treat it turned out to be.
Like a good lemon pound cake (a personal favourite of mine), this story has substance but isn’t dense. It strikes the perfect balance between sweetness and tartness, and it is tender and charming without being maudlin. The story gives you plenty to chew on but doesn’t sit heavy on the stomach. (Okay, that’s it for the cake imagery.)
Different types of cake – yuzu coconut cream, lemon sponge, sugee, coffee pound, and orange chiffon, to name a few – feature throughout the novel, as the main character, 35-year-old English literature teacher Sukhin, is something of a cake fiend. He loves eating them, baking them, and sharing them; it is very much part of his identity. In one hilarious and all too relatable scene (to me, at least), Sukhin is out on a date with a woman who chooses an organic soy latte over cake for dessert, and he spirals into an internal monologue where the love of cake is a criterion to be considered “his people”.
One person who does share his fondness for cake is Jinn, his former secondary school sweetheart. Sukhin stumbles on Jinn one afternoon in Chinatown, and she, to his astonishment, is now living as a homeless person in cardboard boxes in an alleyway. She disappeared several years ago and he had taken her for dead. Seeing her again shakes him to the core.
As Sukhin slowly unravels the mystery surrounding her initial disappearance and present situation, he becomes attuned to the homeless, an invisible segment of Singapore society that he had previously not given much thought. Present-day going-ons – juggling teaching, his family, and meeting up with Jinn – is juxtaposed with Sukhin’s recollections of what he and Jinn were before. Sukhin eventually comes to terms with the new reality, and along the way, finds himself fashioning ever more elaborate “shelter” out of cardboard boxes for Jinn. The whole experience changes him in subtle but profound ways.
Yeoh’s writing sparkles with wit and empathy in this poignant, quirky novel. Told in an unhurried pace that’s part of its charm, the story is a beautiful portrayal of a gentle friendship. It deftly explores how life isn’t just what happens to you but what you make of it, and how the only way to live is according to one’s authentic self.
After having conquered the world of children’s fiction, British novelist Kiran Millwood Hargrave sets out to make her mark in adult fiction with The Mercies, a historical novel that throws into sharp relief the struggles of women forced to live their lives dictated by men, and the perils of self-righteousness.
The novel is based on the witch trials that took place in 1621 in Vardø, Norway, where more than 91 women as well as Sámi men were found guilty of witchcraft and put to death. At the site today stands a memorial by Louise Bourgeois and Peter Zumthor to mark the tragedy which itself is the the main catalyst of Hargrave’s novel.
At its heart, The Mercies is about the complex lives of women told through the lens of two very different women, Maren and Ursula, or Ursa. The novel begins on Christmas eve, 1617, in the remote fishing village of Vardø, where a sudden, ferocious storm claims the lives of 40 fishermen out at sea, leaving the women of this tight-knit community reeling in shock and horror. Among them is Maren, whose betrothed, brother, and father all perished in the storm. In the following months, led by the feisty Kirsten, Maren and the women take on tasks that are usually the purview of men, such as going out to sea to fish. Even though it is a matter of survival, Pastor Kurtsson (who was sent to shepherd the community after the tragedy) and a few of the women disapprove and deem it improper for a woman to do. Kirsten, Maren and et al carry on, regardless, and the women thrive in their new reality without their men.
The narrative then switches to Ursa, a well-bred young woman from the city of Bergen in the south who is made to marry a man chosen by her father, the sanctimonious Absalom Cornet. He has just been appointed the new commissioner of Vardø, and the couple set off for the north soon after the nuptials. Ursa is ill-prepared for her new life as wife to a man who has little regard for her other than in the bedroom, and is also helpless at keeping house having grown up with servants. She turns to Maren for help, and Maren on her part finds herself irresistibly drawn to Ursa. The two soon become inseparable.
Meanwhile, the commissioner’s true purpose for being appointed to Vardø is made chillingly clear: he is to root out witchcraft and all who practise it. Some of the women in the community, namely those who were opposed to Kirsten and her taking charge, are only too eager to help Cornet along and take it upon themselves to condemn the other group of women, leading to devastating outcomes.
“[Maren] had thought she had seen the worst from this harbour, thought nothing could rival the viciousness of the storm. But now she knows she was foolish to believe that evil existed only out there. It was here, among them, walking on two legs, passing judgment with a human tongue.”
Parallels can certainly be drawn with what we see in today’s “witch hunts” that often take place on social media. With a fervour fuelled by self-righteousness, keyboard warriors draw conclusions based on suspicion and scant knowledge, and proceed to hang the accused out to dry, confident of their judgment. The Mercies is a timely caution against this treacherous path that is all too easy to tread, and the harm it causes.
Hargrave has written a surefooted novel that, while a bit draggy in parts, makes for an absorbing, if sobering read. In an interview with Kirkus, the author reveals that she did not want to focus on the violence of the trials but on the lives of women. She says, “I’m always quite queasy when I read a witch trial book because it does feel voyeuristic, and it does feel like you’re luxuriating in the violence being done to women. I’m also interested in how you get to that stage and I wanted the propulsion to come not through these kind of unimaginable acts [of violence], but through very imaginable acts.”
Verdict: The ending feels a bit rushed but the solid main characters and intriguing story more than make up for it. (7/10)
Availability: Trade paperback, RM79.90
Special thanks to Pansing Distribution for an advance review copy of the book.
Gripped by the plight of thousands of Spanish Republicans who fled the country at the end of the Spanish Civil War only to be interned in horrid concentration camps in France, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in 1939 chartered the cargo ship SS Winnipeg to ship 2,200 Republican refugees to Chile where they were welcomed with open arms.
This incredible humanitarian feat is the platform for the new historical novel by acclaimed Chilean author Isabel Allende titled A Long Petal of the Sea. Although Allende had grown up with direct, first-hand knowledge of the great rescue — her grandfather was amongst those who welcomed the refugees when they docked — it was only after she met Victor, one of the last surviving refugees who made the trip, and learnt about his story that the desire to write A Long Petal was sparked.
And what a glorious novel it is: expansive in scope — the novel’s timeline spans more than 50 years — and rich in historical detail. A Long Petal of the Sea, Neruda’s description of Chile, is a complex tapestry comprising myriad characters and narrative strands, but at its heart is the story of a young medical student, Victor Dalmau, and his dead brother’s expectant girlfriend and gifted pianist, Roser Bruguera. With the noose tightening around them in Francoist Spain, the desperate pair agrees to a marriage of convenience that would enable them passage on the SS Winnipeg and a new life in Chile.
Once there, the wealthy del Solar family take the Dalmaus under their wing. Victor returns to medical school and becomes a sought-after cardiologist while Roser becomes a successful musician. Together, they raise Marcel, Roser’s son from her relationship with Victor’s brother. The arrangement is a pragmatic one for the couple who essentially live separate lives: Victor has a brief but deeply consequential affair with Ofelia del Solar, while Roser pursues her own love interests as well. Nonetheless, as the years go by, the two find that their affection for each other has blossomed into something more than mere platonic love. But it doesn’t end there, for, when the Pinochet dictatorship unseats Chile’s democratically elected president in 1973, the Dalmaus once again find themselves in danger because of their political allegiances.
Allende has written an engrossing tale that sweeps one back to the turbulent times of the Spanish civil war, and yet it is a tale that feels perfectly on pulse with today. It is a beautiful story of family, loss, survival, hope and belonging. But it is also a story of love and its many guises: familial and patriotic; love for your fellow humankind, for art, music and poetry, and also carnal love and the kind borne out of shared adversity that results in deep mutual respect and trust for one another.
Above all, the book is a tender homage to Neruda, his poetry, and his extraordinary deed of kindness — an urgent reminder of our shared humanity, and that the refugee crisis around the world today needs to be met with courage and compassion, with political will and direct action.
Verdict: A captivating drama anchored by a wonderful cast of characters and imbued with humanity and a lot of heart. This story will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page. (8/10)
Availability: Trade paperback, RM79.90
Special thanks to Bloomsbury for the advance review copy of the book.
One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
We, as a species, have a unique relationship with food. No longer mere fuel for our bodies — that uncomplicated relationship has gone the way of cavemen and woolly mammoths — food is the instantiation and expression of culture, of class both economic and social, of religiosity and, indeed, of our very basic identities.
What else explains the millions upon millions of food pictures now clogging up our social media feeds? Or the envious oohs and aahs that accompany said pictures? Or the countless hours and billions of dollars expended in search of authentic and unique cuisine, and in developing new textures and tastes to excite the palate? After all, gold loses its lustre while fame grows tiresome: perhaps like love, food is an appetite for which we never weary.
It also explains why food writing remains so incredibly popular with readers and publishers alike. The following are our selections of some recently published food books we think worth reading.
Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking it All with Rene Redzepi, the Greatest Chef in the World by Jeff Gordinier (RM89.90) Jeff Gordinier was a food writer at the New York Times when he received an invitation of a lifetime: to be part of the entourage on several gastronomic and culinary trips to Mexico, Australia, Denmark and Norway with none other than chef extraordinaire, René Redzepi, whose restaurant, Noma, had topped the World’s Best Restaurant list for several years. What follows is a rollicking account of landing in new destinations to seek out exotic ingredients and sample exquisite flavours, all so that Redzepi and his team could chart new territory in their offering of haute cuisine. Gordinier writes with admiration on the inner-workings of the Danish chef’s mind — he observed the man’s manic drive for perfection, his obsessive creative process and constant search for inspiration, and his sheer imagination. One doesn’t have to be a fan of Redzepi to enjoy this delectable food and travel memoir that will likely leave you hungry for more.
Milk: A 10,000-Year History by Mark Kurlansky (RM69.90) The best-selling author of Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World and Salt: A World History returns with this fascinating cultural, economic, and culinary monograph on milk and all things dairy. Ever since the domestication of animals more than 10,000 years ago, humans have used milk of other mammals as a source of nourishment and turned it into foods such as cheese, yogurt, kefir and ice cream. Kurlansky traces milk’s history from antiquity to the present, from families keeping dairy cows to produce their own milk to mass production and the introduction of pasteurisation. Today, milk is still a test case among the most pressing issues in food politics, from industrial farming and animal rights to GMOs, the locavore movement, and advocates for raw milk, who controversially reject pasteurisation. Written in his signature entertaining style, Milk demonstrates Kurlansky’s unparalleled ability to dive deep into a single subject revealing secret histories and remarkable stories in a highly entertaining fashion.
The Best American Food Writing 2019 (RM89.90) In this evocative and wonderfully diverse anthology, award-winning author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat Samin Nosrat has gathered a mouth-watering collection of 2019’s finest writing about food and drink in the US. There are stories for every taste and preference: there’s a piece on the reclamation of the queer history of tapas, another on the dizzying array of Kit Kats in Japan, a spotlight on a day in the life of a restaurant inspector, and an essay about eggs that segues into an exploration of purity myths, gender and sex, to name a few. The stories here will not only inspire but also provoke critical thinking and new perspectives about the food we eat (or don’t). In each case, the stories also reveal just how much our food is a part of our identity and how much time and effort we spend to make our food just right.
Only in Tokyo: Two Chefs, 24 Hours, the Ultimate Food City by Michael Ryan & Luke Burgess (RM119.50) Tokyo, Japan is undoubtedly a food-lover’s paradise that offers up a plethora of epicurean delights. But with such a dizzying array of choices, it can be a bit overwhelming. In Only in Tokyo, Australian chefs (and Japanophiles) Michael Ryan and Luke Burgess narrow down the choices for you by highlighting genuinely local food experiences — no tourist traps here — with compelling stories and insight into the individuals behind the restaurants, cafés, bars and tea houses. Most of the venues featured are towards the west of Tokyo (Shibuya, Shinjuku, Meguro and Minato), and the book starts with breakfast haunts and moves through to lunch venues, mid-afternoon joints, dinner destinations, and watering holes. The short, punchy text is complemented with charming photos by Burgess, and the notes on favourite dishes make this a delightfully personal and compelling guidebook.
Zaitoun: Recipes from the Palestinian Kitchen by Yasmin Khan (RM149.90) Yasmin Khan is an award-winning author, campaigner and cook who is passionate about sharing people’s stories through food. Her second book, Zaitoun, is part cookbook, part travelogue that focuses on Palestine, its people and cuisine. Palestinian food can best be described as fresh and bright, as it revolves around colourful mezze dishes that feature the region’s bountiful produce and earthy spices. The cuisine has evolved over several millennia through the influences of Arabic, Jewish, Armenian, Persian, Turkish and Bedouin cultures and civilisations. Featuring more than 80 modern recipes, captivating stories and stunning travel photography, Zaitoun unlocks the flavours and fragrances of modern Palestine, from the sun-kissed pomegranate stalls of Akka on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea through evergreen oases of date plantations in the Jordan Valley, to the fading fish markets of Gaza City.
This article appears in the January 2020 issue of FireFlyz, the in-flight magazine of Firefly airlines.
Who: Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey are both New York Times journalists. Kantor started at the paper in 2004 as editor of the arts section before moving on to cover politics and investigative pieces. Twohey spent a decade uncovering sex crimes and sexual misconduct in Chicago and elsewhere before joining the Times in 2016. The duo broke the story of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s decades of alleged sexual harassment and abuse against actresses and female employees, which the Times published on Oct 5, 2017. The two women tell how they did it in She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story that Helped Ignite a Movement.
What: Prior to the Times’ exposé, at least two other newspapers attempted to write about Weinstein’s years of alleged sexual misconduct but their efforts were foiled, no thanks to the former film producer’s underhanded manoeuvrings. It was no different when Weinstein got wind of the Times doing a piece on him. On top of the legal threats that his team of defenders used to intimidate the journalists, Weinstein also hired an organisation of professional manipulators called Black Cube (made up of ex-Mossad intelligence agents!) “to prove he was a victim of a negative campaign”. That the Times managed to successfully and credibly publish the story despite all that is a credit to the paper’s prowess. Kantor and Twohey recounts all this with transcripts of interviews, emails and other primary documents reprinted in the book and give a scintillating play-by-play of the months they spent tracking down Weinstein’s victims, verifying their stories, and, most crucially, convincing them to go on the record. The tail-end of the book shines a spotlight on how and why psychology professor Dr. Christine Blasey Ford chose to reveal a decades-old sexual assault incident involving the US Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh just weeks before his confirmation.
Why: This is investigative journalism at its finest, and it offers a behind-the-scenes look into the journalistic process, the ups and downs, and moments filled with suspense and uncertainty but which ultimately ends in sweet triumph. From the less than promising start with actress Rose McGowan — an early Weinstein accuser — initially refusing to get on the phone with Kantor to uncovering a host of other women aside from actresses who had suffered similar incidents and were persuaded to break their silence, the book paints a clear picture of the monumental effort and journalistic rigour Kantor and Twohey employed in gathering a solid body of evidence of wrongdoing to write a water-tight exposé.
One couldn’t help but became emotional reading the part where they describe actress Ashley Judd finally consenting to go on the record after weeks of deliberating:
“Standing amid the neat lines of glass wall and grey carpet, Jodi lost it, like a marathoner collapsing at the finish line. She and Megan had spent months living in a state of suspense and responsibility. They would land the story or they would blow it; they would get actresses on the record of they would not. Weeping, Jodi searched for something to say to Judd that was equal to the moment but still professional. The best she could muster was, ‘This means the world to me as a journalist.’”
That Weinstein would employ the kind of dirty tactics he did to prevent the Times from publishing is almost unbelievable if not for the transcripts of correspondence and documents made available. But what is even more eyebrow-raising and infuriating is the revelation that the US has a system for muting sexual harassment claims, giving harassers the ability to commit the same offences time and again.
The publication of Kantor and Twohey’s investigative piece turned out to be a watershed moment:
“The name Harvey Weinstein came to mean an argument for addressing misconduct, lest it go unchecked for decades, an example of how less-severe transgressions could lead to more serious ones. An emerging consensus that speaking up about sexual harassment and abuse was admirable, not shameful or disloyal. A cautionary tale about how that kind of behaviour could become a grave risk for employers. Most of all, it marked an emerging agreement that Weinstein-like conduct was unequivocally wrong and should not be tolerated.”
The impact of the Weinstein story is still felt today (for better or worse, depending), and it is something that Kantor and Twohey grapple with in the book.
“The old rules of sex and power had been partly swept away, but it was not clear what the new ones would or should be. There was little agreement and rancorous debate over what behaviours were under scrutiny, how to know what to believe, and what accountability should look like. Years before, Tarana Burke had started the #MeToo movement to promote empathy and healing for victims of sexual violence, but now that label was being used as a catchall for a huge range of complaints, from verbal abuse to uncomfortable dates, many of which lacked the clarity of workplace or criminal violations.”
Despite there being a central and consistent thrust to the entire book, perhaps what is most refreshing is the cautionary note that it strikes with regards to reverting to mob rule. Yes, it is important that gender biases and abuses be exposed. Yes, women need to be brave and courageous and band together to make their voice heard. But no, this is not license to adopt every complaint as a battle-cry to steamroll over the opposite sex.
Verdict: A riveting, inspiring and empowering read that gives a better understanding of the #MeToo movement and its implications. (9/10)
Every now and then, our shop holds events where we invite authors, readers, and basically anyone interested in books to talk about all things literature.
On the evening of Aug 23, we were pleased and honoured to launch Bernice Chauly’s new poetry collection Incantantions/Incarcerations. Bernice is one of Malaysia’s leading poets, novelists and all-round literary activist, and she was in top form as she opened up about her work, her life and her poetry in conversation with poet and lecturer Lawrence Ypil.
We kicked off the evening with Bernice reading from her latest poetry collection. The book is available in-store at RM28.
Suffian Hakim’s The Minorities is a fantastical supernatural tale of four very unlikely housemates embarking on a journey to help a lonely Pontianak return home to Melaka. It is a wacky, witty, cheeky and laugh-out-loud funny parody, but it is also layered and emotionally rich.
Together with the lovely ladies from Two Book Nerds Talking podcast, Diana Yeong and Honey Ahmad, we had the pleasure of hosting Suffian for a meet-and-greet at Lit Books on July 27. The full podcast will be aired soon, but here are some gems from the delightful hour-long conversation with Suffian.
On the protagonist opening up his house to immigrants of suspicious origins: For me it was the idea of kindness derived from depression [the protagonist was mourning the death of his father]. If you want to pull yourself out of depression, you do that through kindness, through opening yourself up to other people.
On marring very real father-son issues on the one hand with an epic demon army battle on the other in one book: As a person I believe you cannot experience the world just one way. When I was writing the book it was always clear in my mind that this person’s life, what the narrator and his friends are going through [with the Pontianak], is as important and as real to them as their own personal emotional journeys. You can’t exclude one from the other. We go through our lives — we get into relationships, we break up — but in the meantime, a war is going on in Iraq and all that. But we’re also having our own personal emotional journeys and I wanted to make sure that both arcs play out to their logical conclusions.
On the use of food puns as titles of chapters: The idea with the chapter titles like ‘Diet Coke and Mentos’, ‘Chinese Century Egg’, ‘Gula Melaka Dreamsicle’, ‘The Long Arm of the Coleslaw’ was that I wanted to parody the fact that when most people consider a minority group by ethnicity, the only way they seem to connect or contextualise that group is through food, but not so much the rich history or heritage they might have. It was to bring to light the fact that a minority group is more than their food.
On an almond that recurs throughout the story and its significance: The almond that keeps popping up in the book, it’s a cheap thrill for me as an author (laughs). In Arab Muslim cultures, when a boy comes of age it’s tradition for his dad to give him a bag of almonds as a gift. The almond in the story represents the narrator’s issues with his dad, the baggage that he keeps because of his strained relationship with his dad. What he does with the almond in the end signifies the fact that he’s finally letting go of his issues with his dad.
The Minorities is available at Lit Books for RM69.90.
Who: After stints as an actor, singer and storyteller, Lucy Strange became a secondary school teacher and writer of middle-grade historical fiction. Her first book, The Secret of Nightingale Wood, received high praise and her second, Our Castle by the Sea, is the subject of this review.
What: It’s 1939, and England is on the cusp of World War II. Twelve-year-old Petra (Pet) and her family — older sister Magda (Mags), her pa and mother (Mutti) — are lighthouse keepers in the coastal village of Stonegate. Unlike her spirited sister, Pet isn’t particularly brave and is given to believing in myths and legends.
As war encroaches upon their small community, Pet’s family gets caught up in a plot that threatens to tear them apart. Mutti, a German immigrant, is packed off to an internment camp for “enemy aliens” as a matter of national security. Mags becomes increasingly secretive and evasive, and her pa is distracted and distant. It is up to Pet to muster every ounce of courage to uncover the truth and do what she can to set things right.
Why: There is much to unpack in this beautifully written, atmospheric novel — it blends mystery, intrigue and family dynamics with a protagonist, Pet, who starts out quiet and timid but because of the extraordinary circumstances she gets thrown into, becomes a lass of steely resolve by the novel’s end.
The story begins with the telling of a local legend of four sisters, who traded their souls for the safe return of their father lost at the treacherous sandbank, the Wyrm. They were turned into stone when their wish was fulfilled. This myth, the self-sacrifice and bravery of the girls, is embedded in Pet’s psyche and colours her perception and interpretation of events in the book. I love how Strange weaves myth into the fabric of the story because history and identity as a people and culture is as much about real events as it is about the myths and legends passed down through the ages.
The book affords wonderfully nuanced explorations on the themes of love, loyalty and sacrifice, and the way fear and racism can drive a person to do crazy things; World War II is the perfect foil for this. Through the actions of her parents, Pet observes the price of true sacrifice. When acts of sabotage start happening in the village, Pet learns the painful lesson that sometimes, people are not who they may seem, and the enemy within is often more insidious than the enemy without.
The author is masterful at evoking the time and place, and in bringing out the gamut of emotions portrayed in the book through her rich, sensitive prose. Meanwhile, Pet as a character is endearing and wise beyond her years. The build-up of the mystery and suspense makes it a delicious page-turner.
Quotable quote: “If you were torn between loyalty to your country and love for your family, what would you choose?”
Verdict: An evocative, richly rendered historical fiction full of depth of characters and plot (9/10)
The Unesco World Book and Copyright Day falls on April 23 annually, and each year, a city is named World Book Capital. For 2019, that honour falls on Sharjah, the United Arab Emirates; as such, this month’s picks are dedicated to featuring books written by Middle Eastern authors. Often set in the interstices of culture, tradition and modernity, these stories reflect the pervasive tension that has beset the modern Middle East and its reverberations through the lives of individuals. Yet, these are beautiful stories with sheer underlying humanity that will resonate with every reader.
The President’s Gardens by Muhsin Al-Ramli (RM49.90) Seeing first-hand the terrible suffering endured by ordinary people in the violent tragedies of Iraq in its modern history was the catalyst for Iraqi writer, poet, academic and translator Muhsin Al-Ramli to write this profound novel. The story begins with Ibrahim, nicknamed “the Fated”, whose story is told set against the last 50 years of the country’s history, of dictatorship, invasion and occupation. Essential to understanding Ibrahim’s story are those of his two best buds, Tariq “the Befuddled”, a schoolteacher, and Abdullah, known as “Kafka”, who becomes a soldier and ends up a prisoner of war. Ibrahim, after he was made lame during the invasion of Kuwait, finds a job in the titular garden, an idyllic location by all appearances but which belies the horrors lurking within. This gripping story of life in a war zone is a vivid investigation of love, death, injustice and the importance of friendship.
Seeing first-hand the terrible suffering endured by ordinary people in the violent tragedies of Iraq in its modern history was the catalyst for Iraqi writer, poet, academic and translator Muhsin Al-Ramli to write this profound novel. The story begins with Ibrahim, nicknamed “the Fated”, whose story is told set against the last 50 years of the country’s history, of dictatorship, invasion and occupation. Essential to understanding Ibrahim’s story are those of his two best buds, Tariq “the Befuddled”, a schoolteacher, and Abdullah, known as “Kafka”, who becomes a soldier and ends up a prisoner of war. Ibrahim, after he was made lame during the invasion of Kuwait, finds a job in the titular garden, an idyllic location by all appearances but which belies the horrors lurking within. This gripping story of life in a war zone is a vivid investigation of love, death, injustice and the importance of friendship.
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi (RM79.90) In this intimate memoir, Iranian author and English professor Azar Nafisi recounts the two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran when she met with seven of her most dedicated female students to read and discuss forbidden Western classics by authors including Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and of course, Vladimir Nabokov. This took place from 1995 to 1997 at a time of increased radicalism, when Islamic morality squads would stage arbitrary raids in Tehran, artistic expression was stifled with censorship, and fundamentalists were taking hold of universities. The women who gathered every Thursday morning came from diverse backgrounds — some conservative, others secular — but bonded over their shared love for literature. Literary criticism is intertwined with personal stories of resilience in the face of tyranny, and the result is a book that is illuminating in more ways than one.
The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif (RM75.50) Egyptian writer and translator Ahdaf Soueif examines the repercussions of the British occupation of Egypt and the fierce political battles of the Egyptian Nationalists in an evocative, epic romantic tale between an English aristocrat, Lady Anna Winterbourne, and Sharif al-Baroudi, an Egyptian nationalist, in 1900. A century later, Anna’s great-granddaughter Isabel Packman finds her notebooks, journals and letters in a trunk and travels to Egypt to piece together Anna’s life. Accompanying her on this journey is Omar Ghamrawi, the man she loves and who happens to be Sharif’s grandnephew. There she meets Omar’s sister Amal, and they become fast friends. Told through the Amal’s voice, Anna and Sharif’s story is echoed by the love affair between Isabel and Omar, set against the continuing political turmoil of the Middle East. This absorbing, eloquent novel provides a lesson in cultural and political history, but also the intricacies of love.
The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk (RM75.50) Turkish novelist, academic and Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk has written a beguiling mystery that explores father-son relationships and questions of patricide in a nod to Oedipus Rex. After Cem’s father abandons the family, the 16-year-old apprentices himself to a master well digger, Mahmut. Cem becomes attached to the elderly man and comes to regard him as a surrogate father. Then one day he meets a stunning red-haired woman, Gülcihan, who is as taken with him as he is by her. A subsequent act by the well puts an end to things, Cem’s relationship with Mahmut also comes to a tragic end. These events change Cem’s life forever and haunt him for the next 30 years. This is an extraordinary novel from one of the great storytellers of our time.
Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak (RM43.90) Turkish author Elif Shafak’s 10th novel, Three Daughters of Eve, wrestles with questions of identity, faith and feminism through the story of Peri, a Turkish housewife and mother. A violent encounter with a vagrant while Peri was on her way to a dinner party in Istanbul one evening causes an old polaroid to fall out of her purse, triggering unpleasant memories of the past that she would much rather forget. The memories are of her time at Oxford University. She and her two best friends, the worldly Shirin and the devout Mona, engaged in lively discourses on Islam and feminism. Peri also took a life-changing course on God with Shirin’s mentor, the charismatic but controversial divinity professor, Azur. Their group is torn apart by a scandal, and its effects are still felt in present day. Shafak deftly weaves a tale with philosophical overtones to give the reader much to mull over long after the novel ends.
This article appears in the April 2019 issue of FireFlyz, the in-flight magazine of Firefly airlines.
On Saturday, Feb 17, we celebrated the publication of Malaysian author Hanna Alkaf’s debut young adult (YA) novel, The Weight of Our Sky, with a meet-the-author event that saw more than 70 people in attendance. We were heartened to see the enthusiastic response to Hanna’s novel, which is about a music loving teen with OCD, Melati, who does everything she can to find her way back to her mother during the historic race riots of 1969 in Kuala Lumpur. This is one of those books that on the one hand, is gut-wrenching, but it is also heart-warming. There are heart-breaking depictions of human cruelty, but also of immeasurable kindness. Most of all, it is an empowering tale of hope and courage in the face of terror, both from within and without. Min Hun conducted a Q&A with Hanna, an edited version of
which is reproduced below.
Min Hun: Tell us about how you came to write a novel set during the riots of 1969. Hanna: The Weight of Our Sky was a book that had lived in my head for a long time before I started writing it, mostly for the reasons you mentioned, that we don’t talk about May 13. I remember it from my history textbook but it was really glossed over and sterilised. It always fascinated me what we were not told and what voices we were not hearing, and what was being obscured.
What sort of research did you do to write this book? I love doing research; it’s so fun to me. But I’m also a journalist by training so I approached it a lot like as if I were writing an investigative feature. I read everything that I could on it: articles written at the time, both from in and out of the country, I read government white papers, any book that I could find. I interviewed survivors and I consulted experts on the things that I needed to get the details right for — although I did end up missing a couple of things.
How did you create your characters? They are an amalgamation of different people and they are fully Malaysian. It’s very hard to see characters like that in the current YA novels… I write YA and I write for kids because as a kid who read a lot of English books growing up, I don’t think I ever saw anybody who looked like me. I feel like when you’re reading as a kid, a teen or young adult, that’s when what you read is most formative. I think it means a lot to a kid to be able to read a book that they can see themselves in.
There is a theory from researcher Dr Rudin Bishop, who says in kid lit it’s important that children have both mirrors and windows. They should have windows into experiences other than their own and they should also be able to see themselves reflected in the fiction they read. Malaysian kids get a lot of windows but we have very few mirrors. I also enjoy reading YA, and I just really wanted to write Malaysian stories for Malaysian kids.
Mental illness is a big part of this book and your first collection of stories, Gila, is also about mental illness. Can you tell us about your interest in the subject and why mental illness is an important part of this novel? I wrote Gila, a nonfiction book in 2015. I wrote it after I had my daughter, and I was freelancing at that time. I was working on an article about postpartum depression, a very relevant topic to me at that time. I had interviewed 4 or 5 women, and the thing that I noticed was that all these women were educated and lived in urban areas, but not a single one of them — even though they had reached the point of psychosis — had gone to see a psychologist or psychiatrist. They relied on other things — they relied on faith, on community and family but they never went to see a professional. This was weird to me because if you’re sick, you go to a doctor. If your brain is sick you go to somebody who can help you but that wasn’t the case. And I started thinking about why that was. I started doing some research, and I thought if there was something interesting to be uncovered here, I could pitch it as a series of articles. As it turned out, it was one of those topics where the more questions I asked, the more questions I came up with. It became clear that it was a topic that really needed to be talked about in a lot of different but interconnected ways, and that’s how Gila came about.
When I wanted to start writing the novel, I knew that I wanted to create a protagonist who was dealing with this intersection of faith and mental illness, which was a thing that was coming up a lot in the interviews. As Malaysians, we are surrounded by faith, whether you’re a person of faith or not. I wanted a book that explored that intersection between faith and mental illness because I think at the age the protagonist is at, you’re questioning a lot of those things.
I think you also represented the way our society tends to approach mental illness. It is still largely a taboo topic of discussion, or it’s something you can’t explain. In the novel, Melati’s mental illness was stifling in a way because this sense of losing control, of being enslaved to mental illness, is something we’re all naturally uncomfortable with. You’re not the only one. I’ve had people say things like the parts where she’s dealing with her OCD, they’re tedious to read and they’re painful. But that’s what OCD is. OCD is tedious and it’s painful. It’s not having these quirks of needing to clean one’s hands or arrange things a certain way. It’s tedious and it’s painful. I wanted the text to reflect that and really put you in her head.
Given how sensitive we are as a society with racism, were you at any point concerned about what you were writing? Not really, only because we’re not a society that talks about it and that’s a problem. The more we don’t talk about the painful parts of our history, the more likely we are to never learn from them. If we just keep obscuring things that are hard and that are painful and uncomfortable… we have to sit with our discomfort. This is a thing that happened in our history, we have to accept that it happened and we have to figure out why.
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