Sheila Armstrong’s debut short story collection, How to Gut a Fish, is a poised and masterful blend of the quotidian and the unsettling. The stories showcase an author with an array of writing styles at her disposal, ranging from the slow and lyrical, to the quick and punchy, to the arrhythmic and surreal. These are put to good effect with each story coming off as equally unique and compelling.
In the title story, we follow the travails of a down-on-his-luck fisherman in the midst of gutting a mackerel while waiting for a late night appointment with clients of questionable disposition. His existential ruminations take him from fish to family, and his poor fortune that has turned him into a pleasure boat operator and potential criminal. Written in the second person, the story feels pregnant with fatalism: “Find a prayer as the little death whispers away across the deck and over your shoulders into the sunset. Look your fish in the eye: they say the last thing a man sees is imprinted on his pupil. You check every catch this way for your reflection, but there is only a dark hole of fright.”
Red Market opens with preparations for a village Christmas fete. It is a communal affair that brings people together for the festive season to barter and sell their artisanal wares. Men and women busy around their booths selling an eclectic mix of goods ranging from used wedding dresses and used cooking utensils to an ancient diving suit. But at the centre of the fete is the star attraction of the auction: a trussed up young girl whose vocal cords have been anesthetised and placed belly down like a Christmas turkey. It’s quite clear why she’s there:
Some stop to admire the girl on the podium. A student nurse fingers a foot-long scar across the girl’s exposed abdomen. Pity, she thinks, the left is usually the stronger. Marci opens her palms in a helpless motion when questioned about the missing kidney; it is difficult to get undamaged goods these days , but the stitches are neat and old.
The story is a horrific one, made all the more so by the nonchalance of those participating in the auction; even the bound girl herself adopts a ‘Well, what are you going to do?’ air in these last few hours of her life. Red Market recalls to mind Shirley Jackson’s equally terrifying and superb The Lottery.
Then there are the quieter stories. Lemons tells the story of a girl’s journey to adulthood in 10 brief pages, but nevertheless succeeds in compressing the pains and challenges of a life in a reflective, melancholic story. Mantis, written as an unbroken stream of consciousness, offers a glimpse into the mind of a man in the grips of a mania as he reckons with regret, death, relationships and parenthood.
Originally from Sligo but now living in Dublin, Sheila Armstrong sets many of the stories in her home country of Ireland and deftly evokes the landscape to create an extraordinary sense of place and time in her writing. Her keen judgment ensures that her stories, which are relatively short, are sufficiently detailed to be enticing but not so much so as to break the pace of the story. An excellent collection that we highly recommend.
How to Gut A Fish is available in-store and online.
On a month-long cultural exchange trip to Japan as a teen, Malaysian writer Florentyna Leow fell in love with Japan – so much so that the Petaling Jaya-native went on to study Japanese at university in the UK, and moved to Tokyo when a job opportunity came up.
Leow jumped at the chance to move to Kyoto when a friend she’d met at university asked if she wanted to work with her and move in as her housemate as well. It was this time of living and working in this storied Japanese city that forms the spine of Leow’s first collection of essays, How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart, put out by independent UK publisher The Emma Pressin February.
In an excerpt from the foreword of How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart, Leow writes: “The following pages are a brief record of trying to find a home in Kyoto; a series of sketches, vignettes, and attempts to make sense of all the ways you can love a place. Here’s what I’ve figured out so far: when you try to belong somewhere, your chosen home becomes a reminder of what you stand to lose. It will shape you, make you, break you. To love a place is to love its people, and to love a place is to let it break your heart.”
A slim volume of 12 essays, the intimate book tells the stories of the people, places, and food that have left an indelible mark on Leow. She also reflects on friendship, belonging, and unexpectedly, tour-guiding, a side gig Leow picked up during her time there.
I was drawn in to Leow’s stories by her poignant, expressive writing. Pieces on specific streets and places, namely her favourite shotengai or shopping street and the jazz kissa she frequents, are vivid and charming. But there is, nonetheless, a thread of melancholy that darts in and out of the book as she reflects on the painful demise of a friendship. “I often joke that writing the book was like five years of therapy condensed into a month,” says Leow in an email interview with Lit Books.
Most of Leow’s professional writing encompasses food and drink (she’s written for Gastro Obscura and Japan Times, among others), and there is of course, a sprinkling of that in her book, where she waxes lyrical about persimmons and tea rituals, kakigori and eggs. She credits a food memoir she read when she was 13 as the catalyst. Titled Candyfreak by Steve Almond, it’s “a semi-journalistic memoir centred around a candy/chocolate obsession and visiting small candy factories across the US”, she says.
“Before reading Candyfreak, I had no idea you could write about food, much less write about food like that – describing how it was made, how this guy ate it, how he felt about it – and the sheer granularity of food images you could conjure through sentences. I read that book obsessively,” she adds. “I learned how to use words like ‘exude’ (as in, the dark chocolate coating of a limited KitKat Dark exudes a puddinglike creaminess) and ‘gnash’ (as in, the sweet gnash of hickeys) and ‘tchotchkes’ (as in, a bank of shelves packed to overflowing with candy tchotchkes)… I still read it at least once a year.”
How this book of essays came to be published is straightforward enough. Leow says she sent in a proposal to The Emma Press’ call for submissions and a few months later, received an email asking to see the manuscript. “I was beset with sudden exhilaration and horror at having to deliver a manuscript which was at the time 10% complete at most,” she recalls.
Does she have a favourite from the collection? Leow says, “Not especially, as they represent various aspects of my life and work, but Rainy Day in Kyoto comes quite close as it explores a friendship I cared deeply about. I’m also quite fond of A Bowl of Tea, which is perhaps the most “Kyoto” piece in the collection, as well as the most uplifting and celebratory, tonally speaking.”
Residing in a smaller city with a less frenetic pace of life than Tokyo enabled Leow to become more observant of life in general. She says, “Living in Kyoto really taught me the value of slowing down and looking closely at my surroundings. And also remaining curious. I don’t always remember this in Tokyo — life here is frenetic at times and I am a total workaholic and homebody — but it is always worth going for a walk and letting the world surprise you… I never used to like plants, nature, or the outdoors. Living in Kyoto for a few years definitely changed that.”
Old cities fill us with a sense of wonder and reverence because they are often more than just a collection of people and places. They have a mood, a rhythm, a pulse, a personality; they breathe through you, and you, in turn, find yourself changed and moved by the city. How Kyoto Breaks Your Heartcaptures some of those elements on the page.
Pick up a copy of How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart in-store and online.
Ten years after The Luminaries catapulted her to literary stardom, Man Booker prize-winning New Zealand author Eleanor Catton returns with Birnam Wood, a literary contemporary thriller that’s intelligent and zeitgeisty, but also incredibly gripping and entertaining.
Birnam Wood has it all – a cast of well-formed characters, a pacey, compelling plot, and writing that’s full of verve. The story is set in present-day New Zealand, and the Shakespeare-inspired moniker is the name of a guerilla gardening collective headed by Mira Bunting and her sensible sidekick, Shelley Noakes. The activist group grows food on unused land using scavenged materials, and what they don’t consume they sell. But five years on, the collective is still far from being financially self-sufficient.
When earthquakes trigger a landslide at the Korowai National Park, local entrepreneur Sir Owen Darvish and his wife Jill are forced to temporarily vacate their nearby farm. For Mira, the landslide is an opportunity, and she heads down to check out the place as a potential planting site. While there, Mira is caught unawares by mysterious tech mogul Robert Lemoine who tells her that he has secretly purchased the property from the Darvishes, and plans to build a doomsday bunker on the land. Intrigued by Mira and her efforts, the American billionaire unexpectedly offers to contribute $100,000 to Birnam Wood while also allowing them to cultivate the land. However, when Mira’s former flame and aspiring journalist Tony Gallo hears about this arrangement, he becomes immediately suspicious of Lemoine’s motives and sets out to investigate.
This satirical, social novel holds a mirror up to society with its examination of several issues including the prioritisation of profits over planet and the corresponding consequences; the prevalence and abuse of tracking technology; and the pervasive obsession with self-mythologising. It is replete with astute observations and wry commentary but stops short of being preachy or didactic. Catton actually draws from real people and events – for instance, Lemoine is partly modelled after billionaire Peter Thiel, whom the New Zealand government granted citizenship after spending a mere 12 days in the country.
But this is also an intimate novel where perspectives alternate between Mira, Shelley, the Darvishes, Lemoine, and Tony. Catton has an uncanny talent for writing interiority, and the result is multi-dimensional characters that practically leap off the page. We discover that, for instance, Mira and Lemoine are actually more alike than would seem. Both are conceited – Mira “was long accustomed to being thought the liveliest and most original thinker of any company in which she found herself”, whereas Lemoine “loved to wonder at his own motivations, to marvel at his own eccentric mind, to evaluate himself in the second person, and then even more deliciously, in the third”. The crusading millennial and the conniving billionaire are equally Machiavellian in their approach to obtaining what they want.
I thoroughly enjoyed this darkly comic novel with its Shakespearean overtones, vivid characters and intricate plotting punctuated by zingy dialogue. I became invested from the get-go and couldn’t wait to find out what happened next as the story built to a heart-thumping crescendo. Catton has written an immersive story that you can really sink your teeth into but that also asks urgent questions about the way we are today.
Birnam Wood is available in-store and online. Special thanks to Meora at Pansing Distribution for the review copy of the book.
I seldom read through a book in one sitting, so I was surprised when I found myself fighting sleep to finish Janice Hallett’s The Appeal, a whodunnit written in the form of a modern epistolary novel. The quick and dirty synopsis: senior barrister Roderick Tanner QC has assigned two law students to review the materials of a done-and-dusted murder case. Tanner believes that the wrong person has been incarcerated, and wants some fresh eyes to review the case ahead of the upcoming appeal to cast new light on the matter. What follows is a series of emails, messages, press cuttings and correspondence from key individuals involved in the case.
It starts off with the return of Sam and Kel to the UK from Africa—the husband-and-wife duo are nurses who had spent the better part of the last decade working as overseas volunteers. They settle in a small, closed community led by Martin and Grace Hayward, both of whom jointly own the local golf club and chair the local theatre troupe, The Fairway Players. It becomes readily apparent that the troupe plays a central role in the community, and participation in the troupe is a quick way for newcomers to ingratiate themselves with the community.
Martin Hayward is acknowledged as the alpha of the community and runs his family and the Fairway Players with a firm hand. Things change suddenly when, after the announcement of the new play, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, Martin announces that his two year-old granddaughter, Poppy, has developed a rare form of brain cancer. Her only hope is an experimental drug being developed in the US which is unavailable through conventional channels, and which will cost £250,000 to obtain through Poppy’s oncologist. But Sam, whose time in Africa has perhaps made her a more worldly person, smells a rat…
It may be difficult to get a firm grip onThe Appeal at the start as the entire story is told through the written correspondence of the various characters. However, Hallett’s remarkable ability to get in the head of her characters and channel their quirks and biases through their emails and WhatsApp messages—difficult at the best of times—gives the story greater emotional texture than initially anticipated. Of course, we must also accept that her characters do selectively censor themselves in their correspondence, which raises questions about the reliability of their testimony. And some parts are just irresistibly funny: an exchange between the garrulous, but annoying, Isabel Beck and an uninterested Martin had me bursting out in laughter when Martin responds to Isabel’s novella of an email with a one word reply.
One thing: the book supposedly gives you enough information to figure out whodunnit before the big reveal at the end. I’m not sure if it does. But then again, I read it in one sitting so I might have been too tired, or just not clever enough, to figure it out. All in all, The Appeal is a gripping read, but perhaps not one for fans of dark Scandinavian detective noirs.
Fourteen years after her critically acclaimed debut novel Evening is the Whole Day was published, Preeta Samarasan returns with her second full-length novel, Tale of the Dreamer’s Son. It is an ambitious and darkly humorous book that examines the hubris and frailties of a community of Malaysians. Novel and insightfully written in a way that only Preeta can, the book delves into the synthesis of religion, politics and violence that lies at the heart of this country.
The France-based Malaysian writer celebrated her homecoming and launch of the new novel at Lit Books on 5 Nov, 2022. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation she had with Min Hun.
On how the novel first took shape: This book very much began with the characters, with their individual stories. […] It’s about the children, first and foremost, who are just dragged along their parents’ weird, spiritual quest. It’s, of course, also about the way that the Malaysian political context shapes the destinies of the characters, in a quite obvious way.
I began with the child, the narrator Clarence Kannan Cheng-Ho Muhammad Yusuf Dragon. I started with him because I have been very interested in the way that parents decide what values their children are going to believe, the values that they’re going to pass on. I think this is true for all children but it’s sort of more apparent when the parents embark on some unusual spiritual journey.
I tend to not begin with themes. Everything grew out of this idea of who would this child be, what would it be like to be an observant child yet a child sort of marooned in this weird situation where your parents, they have this weird relationship to the cause. And you’re there trying to figure it out. I did have this novel be bookended by May 13th and Operasi Lalang, and I think the themes emerged out of that as well.
On whether the novel is the story of Malaysia writ small: It is this one guy who’s a visionary trying to build what he feels he can build… Yes, Malaysia writ small. He’s building a small community where all of what he wants Malaysia to be can be done in this hermetically-sealed context. He’s lost hope that it can happen on the grand scale, but he can at least do this.
On how she came up with name and concept for the Muhibbah Centre for World Peace in the book: It went through several iterations. I had various, different names, and none of them felt right. And then one day, we were discussing the whole concept of muhibbah on social media and I was like, ‘That’s it!’ That’s the Orwellian concept this book needs … you know, this big hope but it ultimately means nothing. It’s empty. It doesn’t ever happen.
It’s not based on any one particular sect or cult. My parents, they never entered into any residential commune like this where they were fully involved in the cause, but they experimented in a lot of different things. My mom especially was always seeking truth. As a child I was exposed to a lot of religious movements and the characters are amalgamations of people that I ran into and also of the infighting that I saw in all of these movements. And also, the way that I was exposed pretty young to different religious leaders and the way they’re all this sort of weird mix of really believing in the cause, being really committed to their values but also being flawed human beings, having their own desires and imperfections.
On whether May 13th continues to be a major issue in Malaysia: I think on a conscious level, no. I think most people don’t think about it, really. It’s sort of gone. But I think that, the fact that people don’t think about it is the exactly why it continues to matter. Because I think we’re not really exorcising those ghosts; we’re not really facing our history and not really talking about why and how we would want to depart from where we were. Precisely because we don’t talk about it in any meaningful way, it’s still very much a part of our biological makeup as a nation.
On whether her role as a fiction writer is about seeking redemption: I feel like that’s kind of what almost all writers do. We tell these stories in an effort to somehow fix something in the retelling, even if the retelling is not in an obvious way because it’s not like we retell the story and then put some happily-ever-after perfect ending. But somehow in the retelling, it’s a way to relive it and to fix certain things. I think this is an idea that was there in my first novel and it’s very much there in Ian McEwan’s Atonement. It’s in a lot of books, this idea of going back into history and somehow if you can think about it the right way, if you can just fix the story in your head, that you’ll change something, that you could change the way that we experience the present.
On her favourite character in the book: Oof. They really aren’t likeable characters. They each have their moments where they’re actually being kind of a halfway decent human being. I have a lot of sympathy for the narrator, especially when he is a child. But would I want to be his friend? No, absolutely not. He’s terrible. I mean, I wouldn’t want to spend more than two hours with him. When he’s a child, he’s my favourite character in the book. He has the possibility of becoming what he doesn’t become.
On portraying identity and class in the novel: I think it would’ve seemed too unrealistic to have everyone treating everyone, regardless of race or class, with the utmost respect all of a sudden. You can’t just switch on a switch and all of a sudden Malaysians, or anyone anywhere in the world, becomes capable of never thinking about class or race. Of course, they arrive at this community and the idea is that they’re never supposed to think about race and class. But they just can’t do it. In the end, they’re just conditioned by their prior lives. I’m not trying to make any larger point but as a writer, I felt myself constrained by reality. Like how would Malaysians behave if they suddenly found themselves in a place where they can’t talk about race? I don’t think they could do it.
On how different the experience of writing this second novel was from the first: It was quite different, for one because Evening Is A Whole Day is so much closer to my immediate life experience. It was about a Malaysian Tamil family. It wasn’t autobiographical, but it drew a lot on my familiar world. In this one, I had to, sort of, invent a lot more, speculate a lot more, imagine a lot more. So the experience of writing it was very different. The experience of publishing it was night and day. […] It’s not a book that’s easy to pigeonhole ethnically and because it’s a much less South Asian but much more Southeast Asian book, it’s much, much harder to sell because Southeast Asia is unfamiliar to the West. And the West is not particularly interested in Southeast Asia yet. They say they are, but they’re not really. So yeah, it was very different in that sense as well.
During an author event here at Lit Books on Nov 2, 2022,Audrey Magee, author of The Colonyand former journalist, said that while writing her novel, she had to keep the reporter within in check. Notwithstanding the self-professed demarcation of roles, The Colonyis a fine example of a key journalism precept, namely, show, don’t tell. The result is an achingly beautiful novel written with a fluency and sparseness of prose that draws all emotion out from the page to inject them fully within the soul of the reader.
Such is the prowess of Magee’s Booker-longlisted novel that it makes absolute sense as to why it didn’t win the prize: it simply reads too well. Also working against it Booker prize-wise is that rather than it being a simple story masked in complexity, it is a complex story that masks itself in simplicity. The Colony recalls to mind that other quietly powerful novel, John Williams’ rediscovered Stoner, which similarly traverses the themes of class, ambition and betrayal within similarly narrow confines. Indeed, Julian Barnes’ verdict on Stoner can and ought to be restated in respect to The Colony: “the prose was clean and quiet; and the tone a little wry”.
Set in a fictitious remote island in the Atlantic at the height of Irish sectarian violence in 1979, The Colonycentres around the arrival of two neo-colonials, an Englishman and a Frenchman — an artist and a linguist, respectively — to an unnamed island. Entitled and oblivious, both arrive with the aim of seeking out and capturing for themselves an authentic Irish experience, to the amusement and bemusement of the islanders.
Despite initial reservations about the intentions of Mr Lloyd, the Englishman, some of the islanders begin to warm to him, particularly James, an island boy with a preternatural gift for painting. Recognising James’ talent and in appreciation of his willingness to run around as his dogsbody, Lloyd promises to take James home with him to London and showcase his precocious, if naive, talent at his wife’s gallery. In the meantime, Lloyd is also painting James’ mother, Mairead, in the style of Gauguin, despite the disapproval of the remaining islanders.
The Frenchman, Jean-Pierre Masson, has arrived on the island to complete his longitudinal research on the Gaelic language. He has been coming to the island annually for five years to document and capture changes in the language on the island, which, thanks to the remoteness of the location, was relatively free from outside influence. Viewing himself as a protector of the authenticity and survival of the language, Masson finds favour with the matriarch of the family who fervently insists on keeping with the old ways. Masson expects to be lionised for his work; the islanders know better.
At its core, Magee’s novel is a restatement of the violence of colonisation, and a revelation of the play of power within a complex weave. It is when this dynamic is normalised — when the one who wields power and the one over which power is wielded forget their place — that the nuanced wretchedness of the colonial relationship is revealed. Indeed, this is stated with some force in The Colony where each chapter is divided by a short report on some incident of violence that happened in Northern Ireland in 1979, culminating in the assassination of Lord Mountbatten on August 27.
No such ruckus disrupts the quietude of the main story, save for a rather menacing, albeit ambiguous, ending for some of the islanders. The Colony ends the way that Irish novels must: a melancholic return to the status quo with everyone just that little bit more sad.
The author session we had with Magee and Pusaka founder Eddin Khoo was thanks to the support of the Embassy of Ireland in Malaysia. Below are edited excerpts from the hour-long conversation.
On achieving a sense of distance in her writing: I think I grew up in an Ireland that was kind of almost distant from itself. The core of this novel is the violence — the violence that was the backdrop to my childhood, to the childhood of the people of my generation. And it was obviously distant from me as I was living in the south, but the violence was up in Northern Ireland. And most of the time you lived your life, but sometimes it cut into your life and it became very difficult to absorb.
I think you naturally created a distance from your identity to protect yourself from the violence. I say this because as a child, your identity was so defined by what you thought of the violence. For anybody growing up in a violent situation, whether it’s a violent marriage or a backdrop of violence, they can become quite distant as a way of self-preservation. I think a lot of us became quite distant from our heritage and our sense of Irishness — by that I mean our relationship with the language, our relationship with the flag because it was so politicised. Everything about our identity was politicised. So our flag is green, white and orange, which embodies the Catholics, Protestants with the neutral white between us. That was deemed to be an appropriate foundation of the state — and it was. But when the violence started again in the late 1960s… most of us just distanced ourselves.
I became very interested in otherness, and I became very interested in France and Germany. It was an easier space than Ireland. And then I continued that passion by going into journalism; it’s not your story, it’s somebody else’s story. So that kind of life as a viewer became quite a natural space for me, to stand outside of things. That’s a very valid space as a writer.
That fed into the titles. My first novel is called The Undertaking. It’s the Second World War from the perspective of the ordinary German — again, standing back to analyse. The Colony is obviously about colonisation, what it is to be colonised, what it is to be the coloniser. But I deliberately went with the definite article and a noun. I suppose drawing to a large degree on Camus and that whole L’Étranger/La Peste, that sense of creating an environment from which you can stand back to then explore. So it’s a distance to create an exploration because we assume we know what happened in Nazi Germany. We assume we know what happened in Ireland, what happens when you’re colonised, what happens in colonisation. But I’m much more interested in the latencies, in the things that are hidden from one generation to the next. Or the things that are passed on from one generation to the next by parents, grandparents, schools, institutions, politicians, society in general that we don’t even understand we’re inheriting and that we’re still repeating. And to do that, you need a distance. […]
But I can create a space for us all to think about what we know, what we’ve inherited, what we don’t know, what maybe we should think about. […] I wanted to understand the implications of that for all of us. We go on because we’re always focused on the future, because we have to be. We have to focus on the next generation. But sometimes to bring the next generation to the right place, you have to go back a bit to go forward. And that’s the space I’m trying to create.
On the passage from journalism to writing her first novel: I really had to — and I kid you not — go on a detox programme. I had to unlearn everything I had learnt about writing and create a freedom of space for something to happen. When you’re in journalism it’s always very preordained — obviously much more so in news writing than in feature writing and I did both — but also to no longer be certain. I had always been involved in otherness because that was exciting. Journalism is the epitome of other. But sitting with [the man who’s family was killed] the most precious thing we can hope for is an ordinary life. So I became compelled to try to create that ordinariness, and what was the impact. I wrote my first novel, which is what is the impact of fascism on the ordinary person. and then I was halfway through The Colony when I realised I was actually writing a triptych of power and the ordinary person. So we have fascism and the ordinary person, [The Colony] is colonisation and the ordinary person. There is a third novel, it’s got “the” in the title and that’s all I can tell you.
It was quite a process. I had to go back to the writing I was writing before I ever went into journalism. I was a ferocious letter writer, I had dabbled in short stories and plays but then buried them thinking I’ll never be a writer. You’re also dealing with the legacy of Irish writing. It’s hard to underestimate the legacy of four Noble Prize winners. Where do you begin? So to even put yourself forward and use the word writer was such a huge step for me. I couldn’t do it; I couldn’t say I’m a writer. In journalism I was never a writer; I was a journalist who wrote. It’s just such a precious word in Ireland. Writer is a very precious space, and I revered that space. Therefore, to enter it, I had to leave journalism behind me.
On how European literature shaped her fiction writing: I was 16 when I met French writer Marguerite Duras for the first time. I had a wonderful French teacher in school who is my friend. She decided to do Moderato Cantabile with us which is one of Duras’ very sparsely written books. It’s a beautiful book, not a lot happens and yet a ton happens. I had been reading as part of my English curriculum all the Dickens and the Jane Austens and they’re all grand, lovely, great. But there was no space for me as a reader. I was always being told what to think, what to feel. I found that a bit boring. And then I met Duras and I was like, ‘Oh my god’. This is so radical for me because she created a space for me where I could engage; I could make my own decisions and I could analyse things for myself. She treated me as somebody who had thoughts and that was utterly radical. [Albert] Camus was huge because of his integration of narrative, politics, philosophy and sociology all into a novel and I thought that was thrilling. There was obviously Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, Heinrich Böll, Thomas Mann — the list is long and wonderful.
I had two amazing departments in University College Dublin (UCD). In 1980s Ireland we were doing French feminism while there were rows raging about divorce, abortion, homosexuality — all these things were really introduced by the church and anybody who stepped out of line was in trouble. I was on the fourth floor of UCD immersed in French feminism, French film, French linguistics, French language, German philosophy. I mean it was the most incredible space of otherness and it absolutely fed into me. But I think it fed into me in a very interesting way as well because you know you might be reading Goethe in German or German in the Middle Ages. And of course I didn’t understand a thing. So you learnt how to grasp onto a tiny phrase that gave you an understanding. When you read in a foreign language, you learn how much you can actually say with very little, that you can cut out tracks and tracks of description and put it into two words and you still pass your exams.
That really fed into understanding the impact of just two words, or three words or a phrase and how much that can carry, and how little you need to carry a whole scene.
Signed copies of The Colony are available to purchase in-store and online.We also have Magee’s first novel, The Undertaking.
As booksellers, Elaine and I constantly work through an endless pile of books to determine their suitability for our shelves. We usually divvy up the books between us and avoid reading the same book to speed up the assessment process (which makes for interesting book conversation, because rather than discussing something we had read together, we are almost always telling each other about the book that we just read). It’s not often that we would say to the other person, ‘Hey, you need to read this book’ but she said just that after finishing Elizabeth Wong’s We Could Not See the Stars several months ago. I mumbled, ‘Okay, I’ll get around to it,’ and left it at that. But several weeks ago, she’d thrown the book at me, metaphorically speaking, and said ‘Read It!’, because the author was going to be making an appearance at our shop and I Needed To Read The Book. And so I did.
At first blush, We Could Not See the Starsis a work of speculative fiction set in an alternate Malaysia populated by emigrant Chinese in which Manglish is spoken exclusively. The story begins in Kampung Seng, a small fishing village on the west coast of the Peninsula, where our protagonist, Han, lives the quiet, unassuming life of a rural fisherman. He schleps for his rich uncle — Tauke Lim — who owns the largest fishing operation in the kampung and spends his days aimlessly rooting around, despite his young age. What sets Han apart from all others, however, is his spotty provenance: his mother, Swee, had suddenly appeared at Kampung Seng with him in tow years ago armed with a mysterious looking spade, and never disclosed any information in regards to her origins or her family. That she would then deliberately run into the sea to her death several years later, leaving no clue as to her origins save for the odd-looking spade, would further deepen the mystery of the pair.
Han, who has little recollection of his mother and even less of their past, is phlegmatic about this void in his life even though he is plagued by dreams and fragments of memories embedded in his being. All this changes when his mother’s spade is stolen from his house — “She’s dead and I have nothing left of her!” — spurring Han to go after the thief, setting him off on a journey that will take closer than ever to the discovery of the truth of his heritage. His odyssey will see him leave his tiny kampung for the first time, taking him to the Capital in the Peninsula, then across the deadly Desert of the Birds, and finally across the sea into the Hei-San archipelago where the secret of his origins lies within the forest of Naga Tua.
First, a word about the language. It is clear from the off that Elizabeth Wong is adamantly writing a book about Malaysia, for Malaysians. However, there is also no doubt that she is writing about a specific setting of Malaysia and for a specific segment of Malaysians:
In their evenings, they lingered in the parking lot of the former Golden Star cinema. The last rays of sunlight flared across their motorcycles as they smoked their cigarettes, and the dust clouds from the main road billowed around them. Sometimes they would race from Golden Star to Liu’s prawn farms on the other side of the village, and back again… If they were at Boon Chee, they would watch football matches that were showing on the twenty-year-old Sony TV that hung over the entrance, next to Laughing Buddha looking at them. ‘Eh, boss, boss, more beer, peanuts also, why like that so slow?’ Chong Meng would holler, and the workers would scurry.
Those of us of a certain vintage and variety would certainly recall such locales: Chinese townships anchored by the local cinema — the Sentosa, Paramount and Ruby cinemas come to mind — supported by an enclave of petty merchants selling sundry items and fireworks under newspapers during Chinese New Year. The local patois would very much be dictated by the majority dialect group in the area, and if any English was spoken in these areas, it would be in the Manglish so deftly illustrated in the line of dialogue above. Even the cry of the rooster, which Wong phonetically dishes out as Goukokoko, is typically Manglish; nowhere else would you find a rooster’s cry written out in this way, in the same way that so many thousands of Chinese Malaysian mums have sounded the cry of the rooster to their children.
Indeed, all of Wong’s characters speak in Manglish in the novel. Nevertheless, it is a particularly Chinese Malaysian variety of Manglish that dominates in the book which leaves the question of, ‘What about the other races?’ unanswered. The fact of the matter is, the other races don’t feature in the book at all; or if they do, their distinguishing marks are subsumed under generalities and abstractions. (White men do make an appearance in the book, although they are, perhaps slightly pejoratively, described as the White Ghosts, a literal translation of the Cantonese term for Caucasians, gwai lo [鬼佬]. Before anyone loses their composure over this, it’s a very minor role and their presence more a function of world-building demarcating boundaries than anything else).
But there is a reason for the Chinese-Malaysian-centricity of the book. At its core, We Could Not See the Starsis a fable about the Chinese diaspora, and about the descendants of those who left the motherland for Nanyang in search of riches in these relatively virgin lands. It is about those of us who have been separated from our ancestral lands for generations, who have lost all bonds of familiarity with these lands, and yet hold on to a thin thread that ties us to a past and impels us to seek out our identity by following that thread of history. This theme is repeated in several passages through the novel:
We are all part of this world, Ah-ma explained, connected in this great shining net of humanity, and to belong in it fully, one needs a past, a history.
For we are stardust — we are merely a minuscule physical manifestation of larger processes, planet forming from bits of rock and dust, plants generating oxygen, comets and asteroids delivering water, volcanoes spewing aleum, creating homes for humans to find and populate; we are one sentence in a larger story, one whose ending has not been written yet. To lose this history is death.
We Could Not See the Stars is not a perfect novel. I have some reservations about the pacing and the structure of the book, and there is a sense that the balance between world-building and plotting is slightly off-kilter. Nevertheless, the book continues to resonate deeply within me because the problem of historicity and identity is one that I can strongly identify with. Going back to the metaphor of the thread of history which ties us to our past, we can also see that the thread thins and weakens with each successive generation. There will be a point of inflection in which the thread snaps altogether, and decisions will have to be made: about when and where we are to re-anchor ourselves, and to decide our part in the larger narrative. We will need to do this, because, as Wong tells us, to lose this history is death.
Join us for an author session with Elizabeth Wong in Lit Books on 6 Aug! Purchase tickets here.
Malaysian author Hanna Alkaf’s third novel, Queen of the Tiles, is set in the world of competitive Scrabble. Hence it was only fitting that the author session held at Lit Books on 2 July, 2022 would feature life-size Scrabble boards where attendees could try their hand at fielding high-scoring words. The event was organised by the Two Book Nerds Talking podcast headed by Honey Ahmad and Diana Yeong, who are no strangers to those who have been following us for a while. This dynamic duo has collaborated with us on numerous literary events over the years.
The morning of Hanna’s event dawned bright and beautiful, and the audience who came were eager to get up close and personal with one of their favourite authors. Hanna spoke at length with Honey and Diana about Queen of the Tiles, a mystery novel set in the world of competitive Scrabble that explores teenage friendship, grief and mental health. The full podcast will be out soon, but in the meantime, here are some snippets from the hour-long interview.
On how she came to write Queen of the Tiles: I grew up in a time when my brother was playing competitive Scrabble. There used to be weekly tournaments at the Park Royal Hotel downtown, and I used to teman my mother to send my brother and pick him up. I sort of absorbed the atmosphere and would watch my brother walking around with these massive printed out lists of words that he bound with duct tape on one side — he would study them.
While I was thinking about what my next book would be after The Weight of Our Sky [Hanna’s debut novel], the idea came to me to write about a Scrabble tournament because I’d never seen books that really centred a Scrabble tournament before. And then I thought, well, what if I added murder…
On how she crafted Najwa, the novel’s main character: Najwa was tough in a lot of different ways to write because first of all, Najwa is dealing with such immense grief. In order to write those kinds of emotions, I find that I have to mine them within myself and really explore my own feelings in order to bring that to the page, and that’s a tough thing to do. You have to scrape away the layers of protection you put around yourself and really sit with your own ideas of grief and loss.
The other level is just that Najwa is much smarter than me so it’s very hard to get into her head and write the way that she thinks, which is to float from word to word, definition to definition, and tie it altogether. I wanted to write her that way and I was also very mad at myself for writing her that way because it made my life much more difficult. The search for the perfect word at the perfect time that would tie to the next word and the next word, that wasn’t an easy thing to do. It didn’t come naturally to me. It involved a lot of reading of the Scrabble dictionary.
On being unapologetic about injecting Malaysian elements into her stories: There are things about the Malaysian experience of growing up that stick and that I really want to see written about normally in the narrative, the same way that we accepted tea parties with tea and crumpets, nurseries and governesses — we all read this as kids and we just accepted that they were the narrative of our childhood even though it didn’t look anything like our childhoods. And that’s what I wanted for us. I wanted to read it and be like this is just a thing. It’s one of those things that I write without trying to make it a big deal. It’s not a focal point; it’s not a thing I want outsiders to look at and exoticize. I just want it to feel familiar to you.
When we talk about who I’m writing for, I’m writing for Malaysians. I may be published in the US, but I’m writing for Malaysians. I want them to feel like they are home to you. I write them thinking about how I was at that age, how I grew up, how my kids are growing up, what’s normal for us, and what’s normal for them.
On plotting an absorbing and compelling mystery: Queen of the Tiles is in many ways my most technically difficult book because plotting a mystery is very difficult. Writing any sort of mystery is very difficult and very technical and it involves a lot of meticulous planning and follow-up, going back and forth and making you’re foreshadowing right and adding the correct red herrings and making sure that you’ve led people astray enough times and all sorts of stuff like that.
On her favourite word: One of my favourite words is obsequious. I just like the way that that falls off the tongue. It sounds like exactly what it is — a slimy person. There’s something about the way you say it that’s very satisfying.
Watch out for the full interview with Hanna Alkaf soon on the Two Book Nerds Talking podcast, which you can subscribe to on Spotify and Apple podcast.
After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, we hosted our first in-person, in-store literary event on Saturday, 4 June, 2022. The occasion was to fete Malaysian author Shivani Sivagurunathan and her first full-length novel, Yalpanam, published by Penguin SEA last year. The novel is about the unlikely friendship of 185-year-old Pushpanayagi and her 18-year-old neighbour, Maxim Cheah, and how both would have to revisit the past in order to become whole persons and move forward in their lives.
Shivani, who is assistant professor in English and creative writing at the University of Nottingham Malaysia, spoke with Lit Books owner Fong Min Hun about the long journey it took to write her first full-length novel and the intricacies of the story and characters. Excerpts from the conversation is reproduced below.
Min Hun: How did you come to write this particular story and how long did it take you to write it? Shivani: It was a very convoluted journey because I started writing it in 2011 just after my first book was published, Wildlife on Coal Island, which is a collection of short stories. I was on a writing spree basically; something was unlocked within me. The first image that appeared with regards to this book was of Pushpanayagi herself. What I saw was a really fat old woman in a white saree doing a bit of gardening. It was a very compelling image. I saw that the garden was very fertile, almost Edenic, and at a slight distance was an old colonial-style house.
That was a very magnetic image that I started to follow and basically, image followed image followed image, and then a story was unfolding. The first half of the novel, right up to the point where Maxim moves into yalpanam, would flow beautifully. It was very engaging; I was really getting into the mood of writing. I felt very much in control. When I reached the middle point of the novel, things would just fall apart. I would be lost; it drove me mad. From 2011 to 2014 I was writing and rewriting this novel.
This book went through so many changes and finally in 2014, I put it away. I thought fiction writing isn’t for me; I’ll just go back to poetry. In retrospect I see that what had to happen was I had to grow up as a person and as a writer in order to complete this book. I put it aside, got a job teaching creative writing at the University of Nottingham Malaysia and frankly, that was the training I needed.
In 2018, I managed to score myself a sabbatical. I got six months off work to do something. Initially I was not planning to go back to this novel… I had a novella written in 2014 so I thought to return to that novella and work on that. But a writer friend of mine took me away to Tioman and encouraged me to go back to the novel. Very interestingly I realised that the distance, the time spent away from the manuscript, really helped me to see it more clearly. I could read it more objectively; I could see where it was problematic. I basically rewrote it.
MH: How autobiographical is this book? S: I’d say that all fiction is autobiographical; it’s just a question of how [much so]. This novel is not very overtly autobiographical but I definitely did draw on my complex relationship with my Sri-Lankan-Tamil heritage, exploring the complex relationship one can have with one’s own inheritances in terms of the question of displacement and the pain of feeling severed from one’s own culture.
MH: It’s a challenging book to read, Shivani, but at the same time rewarding. I find with a lot of difficult literature, if you persist with it, while there may be parts that you don’t fully understand, you find yourself rewarded by it at the end. Your book was one of those. There were two or three different timelines going on at the same time and at the start, I think you deliberately try to confuse your reader. For example in the book, you talk about the rupturing of the notions of reality and when I read that I thought to myself, ‘This is what Shivani is doing. She is trying to shake me out of this comfort zone from the very start of the book.’ Was that what you were trying to do?
S: Absolutely. I’m really glad that you experienced that. When the novel starts, we see Pushpanayagi, who’s basically been a recluse for close to seven decades. She lives in this house on her own, and the only person she meets is Hadi the vegetable seller who comes to her house to collect the vegetables that she grows; that’s how she earns a living. She’s been living in a state of stagnation for seven decades and she has a very myopic vision of reality, of the world, and of herself. The way she lives life is a very narrow way of living. The process of transformation that she goes through is a process of dismantling these fossilisations, a rupturing of this perception of reality that has basically kept her in a kind of paralysis.
Similarly, with Maxim — she’s been brought up in this very sheltered home, she’s been fed on a diet of certain beliefs and ideas that are very limiting. The journey that they’re both on is one of dismantling these encrustations and that necessitates a questioning of what they’ve been believing, a questioning of assumptions, and then seeing what else is there. It’s problematising reality, problematising what is. It’s saying that reality is so much bigger and so much more complex than we think it is. There are multiple versions, multiple perspectives. It’s sort of asking the reader also to consider what you’ve been taking for granted and saying let’s open up the world.
MH: Maxim wasn’t particularly enigmatic but I couldn’t figure her out. Why was she so hurt by her family’s circumstances that she felt the need to run away? Tell me more about Maxim and how she fits into this picture. S: Maxim is, you’re right, not a very enigmatic character. She’s also very young. There is a big contrast between someone who is 185 years old and an 18-year-old who is particularly emotionally immature. She’s a deeply lonely person. She’s friendless. She hasn’t really had that kind of training in looking at her emotions, at her interior world, and being able to process it and understand what’s going on. In terms of her response to her situation, I think it’s fitting for the kind of person that she is.
MH: There is something very broken about Maxim, or something fundamentally missing in her and we do get that part of the story later on when she tries to uncover her own secret history. You were talking about how reality is not all that it seems to be and there is something about reclaiming history and the past for an alternate future. So, this is a book about secret histories, isn’t it? S: To some extent, yes, the unearthing of stories that have not been heard before, the stories, the voices, the experiences and feelings that have been repressed that have been banished to some kind of psychical outer space that need to be aired in order for us to get a fuller perception of reality. What does it mean to open up reality? It is to bring in these perspectives that haven’t been seen before. In that sense, yes, there is a lot of secret histories that are coming to the surface.
MH: There does seem to be a lot of writing with a preoccupation with secret histories, or an attempt to try to flesh out the world as we know it through knowledge that was once known but perhaps now hidden or now lost. I’m wondering, why do you think there is this current in contemporary writing? Is it because we are somehow dissatisfied with who we are today? Is modernity so sterile and so limiting that we want to recover something about ourselves that we no longer have? S: That’s a great question. I think it comes, yes, from our dissatisfaction with who and what we are now because we feel lost in terms of our identity. Maybe we don’t feel like we’re grounded enough or that we understand where we are. What do you do if you you’ve lost your way? You can’t move forward without going back. There’s always something that occurred in the past that hasn’t been resolved, accepted or processed, that hasn’t been truly grasped. And so, we have to keep returning to the past in order to really understand where we are now.
MH: There are two very distinct voices throughout the book. One voice is very poetic, uses a lot of imagery and allegory. The other one is more straightforward prose. Was this tension between these two voices deliberate? S: Yes, in a very practical sense because there are actually three narrators in the novel. There’s Pushpanayagi’s point of view, there’s Maxim’s point of view, and then there’s a third unnamed narrator…. the grandiose, philosophical, poetic voice. I had to make sure that the language Maxim uses and the language that Pushpanayagi uses were authentic to the kind of people that they are. Maxim would never speak in very poetic, grandiose ways. For Pushpanayagi, in the initial stages of writing her, her voice did come out very poetic, but then as I clarified her voice, I realised that it wasn’t actually that philosophical or that dense. Then I realised that there was still space for a lyrical, philosophical voice, hence, the third narrator. I have a very clear idea of who or what that narrator is and it’s sort of related to the core of the story, which is asking metaphysical questions.
When I started reading Jenny Tinghui Zhang’s Four Treasures of the Sky, seated behind the counter at work, I wasn’t expecting to fall so deeply in love. A stirring debut of historical and literary fiction, Four Treasures explores a young girl’s coming of age set against the backdrop of historical and personal tragedy.
Born in 19th-century China to a loving family, 13-year-old Daiyu has spent her life in the shadow of her namesake Lin Daiyu — a doomed maiden from Chinese folklore. When Daiyu loses her parents under ominous circumstances, she can’t help but feel that her name is to blame. Her grandmother sends Daiyu off to Zhifu, a seaport town, disguised as a boy named Feng, where she meets Master Wang, the owner of a calligraphy school. With his guidance, Daiyu unlocks a love for calligraphy that breathes new life into her distressing world.
But her fate sours once again when she is abducted, smuggled across the ocean and sold to a brothel. In America, Daiyu becomes Peony. Every day is a fight for survival with only Master Wang’s teachings for comfort. When an opportunity to return to China arises, Daiyu manages to escape the brothel only to face cruel betrayal. She ends up in Pierce, Idaho, where she is taken in by two Chinese shopkeepers, Nam and Lum, and a violinist named Nelson — all of whom know her as Jacob Li. As anti-Chinese sentiment spreads across the country, Daiyu’s newfound stability is threatened, and she faces a difficult choice: should she stay or go?
Four Treasures of the Skyis a powerful story about searching for identity despite extreme circumstances. As I sat to write this review, I was stumped on what to even call the narrator. Daiyu, Feng, Peony, Jacob Li. Which name is the most truthful to the character? Which name is the least? Is she all of them at once, or something else entirely? (The answer to why I landed on ‘Daiyu’ lies in the ending, so no spoilers!) To most of us, finding who we are is an organic process; to Daiyu, that timeline is a luxury. Seeing Daiyu deal with impossible situations time and time again with the measliest of resources is a gruelling experience. But the high stakes are what make her hero’s journey so compelling. When Daiyu finally succeeds and learns to forge her own identity, I was moved, haunted and ultimately satisfied.
In terms of craft, the book is elegant in its economy. The writing is buoyant, the pacing quick, and the world brilliantly immersive. What makes Four Treasures special, however, is how it bridges lyrical prose and loaded subject matter, especially given that part of the book was inspired by real-world events following the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Zhang deftly delivers emotional punches one after another, and you barely have time to appreciate the setup before feeling the blow. Here’s a little taste of what I mean:
“[In America], I am special. The white people make me that way. Why else would they step aside when I walk by, or avoid my eyes, or whisper things that I cannot hear under their breath? My body is covered in the syllables of another language, the scroll of a kingdom that has existed long before they did and will continue existing long after they are gone. I am something they cannot fathom. I am something they fear. We all are.” (207-208)
Thus, Zhang proclaims the beauty in pain, and how that beauty is anchored in art, history and community.
This book has earned its place as one of my favorite books, period. If you’re in the market for a heartbreaker,Four Treasures of the Skyis for you. Prepare to be sucked in and sucked dry.