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.
If there is a lesson to Keiichiro Hirano’s At the End of the Matinee, it is this: love endures. A quiet romance replete with all the clichés, Matinee can, nevertheless, resonate with the right reader at the right time. It is also a reminder that however much love can strike one like a bolt of lightning, a whole series of accidents and happenstances need to fall into place in order for love to work.
Matinee is the story of two people, Satoshi Makino and Yoko Komine. The former is a genius classical guitarist and the latter a renowned journalist. The two meet entirely by chance as they both reach what would be the first apex of their respective careers and are immediately drawn to each other. Their time together at the first meeting is short, but they would build their relationship through emails and video calls, finding succor in the company of each other even as they find their individual powers starting to wane.
But the course of true love never does run smooth, and the very deliberate intervention of Makino’s jealous suitor proves insurmountable for the pair. They separate and life goes on. They find new partners, start families but neither can shake the feeling that something essential is missing in their lives. They eventually come to know of the sequence of unfortunate events that had led to their break up, which brings with it some comfort. They are drawn again to each other, but has too much time passed, for better and for worse, to pick up where things had left off?
There is little that is new in Matinee but the old-fashioned charm it does possess makes for a refreshing read. The lovers are earnest and uncomplicated, and the relationship is derailed only due to the highly unlikely and malicious intervention of a third party, whose only function in the book, really, is to do just that. There are no last minute dashes to the airport—
He didn’t want to do anything that drastic—or rather, he didn’t want Yoko to put him in the position of having to do something that drastic… he had the painful feeling that going after her would not only make him into [sic] a pitiable figure but the fact that she’d made him go might also lower her ever so slightly in his estimation.
—because, let’s face it, those Hail Mary passes never work. Lofty discussions are liberally scattered throughout the dialogue to remind us that our lovers are forces of nature to be reckoned with, wholly constituted with intimate knowledge of Bach, art house films and philosophy.
It will be difficult to imagine At the End of the Matineestanding as a testament to the endurance of love or as a story of romance par excellence but there are certainly layers in the book that deserve further attention. There are pleasures to be had from the story, and the loftiness is told well enough to be interesting and only occasionally hint at their being artifices for a more profound truth. Worth picking up together with a nice chardonnay from the left bank.
What a doozy of a year 2021 turned out to be — trying in so many ways. But it is times like these that I am so grateful that I can turn to books and find solace, truth, and escapism. These are the five books that made an indelible impression on me this year.
Midnight Chicken by Ella Risbridger During the lowest moments of her life, Ella Risbridger found meaning, purpose, and catharsis in the act of cooking and baking. This book — which is a memoir, cookbook, and manifesto for living all rolled into one — was such a balm to read during this anxiety-ridden and despair-filled year. Risbridger’s evocative and conversational style of writing sparkles with warmth and sincerity, and it was a joy to follow along with her as she shared all kinds of wonderful recipes (which are easy to make for the most part) and told the stories associated with them: a burrata salad with plums that she first made in Rome where she went on a whim, and how baking challah bread and giving them away helped her in grieving her grandfather’s death. This gem of a book is an ode to living, and cooking and savouring food; it is a call to make for oneself a life worth living.
A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders What makes fiction good? This is the question that Saunders, the author of bestselling novels such as Lincoln in the Bardo, explores in this book. He takes readers on a delightful romp through seven short stories by Russian masters such as Chekov, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Gogol. And he does so in an accessible, entertaining way, revealing the technical craft behind great stories (there are even writing exercises included) and guiding readers to see the world with renewed curiosity. It articulates the reasons we get swept up in a story and conversely, why we don’t. It makes the case for why fiction is the lens through which we can see the truths that reality obscures, to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson. This literary master class gave me a new perspective on literature and life, and a fresh appreciation for great stories.
Should We Stay or Should We Go by Lionel Shriver Lionel Shriver takes the very serious topic of dying well and turns it into a darkly comic, thought-provoking work of wry humour and wit. The story is about Kay and her husband Cyril who decide that they want to exit this life with dignity when they reach the ripe old age of 80, and so they make a pact to commit suicide. Well, that’s one scenario, but what Shriver has done is imagine 12 other different ways this story could play out: from living in a terrifying retirement home, to waking up in an unrecognisable future from a cryogenic state, to taking a cure for ageing, and discovering the surprising pleasures of dementia. It is at turns touching and laugh-out-loud funny, sobering and irreverent. Along the way Shriver makes known her position on present-day issues including Brexit, mass migration and COVID-19, for better or worse. What’s undeniable, though, is how skilled of a writer Shriver is — this novel is brilliantly and masterfully executed.
We Could Not See the Stars by Elizabeth Wong Malaysian author Elizabeth Wong’s debut novel beguiles with its lyrical prose and imaginative plot set in an alternate Malaysia. Mystery and intrigue abound in a story of a young man, Han, who sets off in search of an artefact that belonged to his late mother and which got stolen. His journey takes him from his sleepy fishing village across the seas to an island of lush forest where a curious tower stands. There are several narrative strands and voices that Wong deftly weaves into a complex whole with fantastical elements and dreamlike sequences that elevate it above the ordinary. It is also imbued with a wonderfully Malaysian flavour with the deliberate use of local vernacular. A tale of loss, memory, and remembering, this literary speculative fiction surprised me at every turn.
Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe Investigative journalist Patrick Radden Keefe’s fourth book earned him the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction 2021 — and truly, it deserves nothing but superlatives. Epic in scope and depth, Keefe recounts the Sacklers’ role in the opioid crisis in the US. This isn’t a strictly straight-forward story, as many of the conditions and practices that enabled the abuse of the highly addictive painkiller oxycontin produced by the pharmaceutical company the Sacklers used to own was put in place by the generation before. Keefe peels back the curtain behind the impunity of America’s super elite and presents an indictment on the greed and indifference that drive them. I found this book compelling and unputdownable — this exposé is narrative reporting and writing at its best.
Deciding a best of list is always a frustrating experience because there are so many books to choose from in any publishing year. Then you also have to decide if books that elicit a strong emotional response is more or less deserving of a place than a novel that is, though more subdued, on the whole, a more technically accomplished work — it’s tough. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed your reading year as much as I did.
Summer by Ali Smith Each entry of Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet has made my “Best of” list in the past three years and Summer has unsurprisingly made the list again. While not my favourite of the four books in the series, Smith’s pretty good is still terribly good although I couldn’t bring myself to read it until there was a lull in the pandemic newsfeed. Tackling prickly issues including immigration, nationalism and COVID-19, it is a true testament of Smith’s storytelling ability and deftness of touch that the novel can seem light and even delightful at times. Which is not to say that the novel panders. It is sharply critical as were the previous three entries and, as with the previous novels, near impossible to sum up briefly what it is about. Nevertheless, we find the redemptive value of art again a central theme and a reminder that the tragedy of evil persists because of the inaction of good men and women.
How to be a Liberal by Ian Dunt The title is misleading because Dunt doesn’t really dwell very much on how one is to be a liberal. Instead, this is a masterful work chronicling the genealogy of liberalism from its philosophical roots to its political, economic and moral instantiations. Dunt does a good job in correcting widely held misapprehensions along the way, e.g., by restoring Harriet Taylor’s rightful role as John Stuart Mill’s collaborator rather than just a hanger-on, and expertly weaving together the disparate threads to create a cogent historical sequence of events. Starting out as a polemic against the rising tide of nationalism, How to be a Liberal charts the development of liberalism from philosophical ideology to economic and political dogma, and reveals the way this cornerstone of the 20th century has now come to be reviled and abused by political leaders. Written with the aplomb of a page-turning thriller, this book is particularly worth reading for those of us with poor knowledge of European history.
The Giant Dark by Sarvat Hasin The Giant Dark doesn’t feel particularly exceptional during the reading; however, the impression it leaves after turning the final page makes it one of my most memorable reads of the year. A stunning retelling of the tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice, The Giant Dark follows the doomed love affair of cult rock star Aida and Ehsan, an erstwhile poet and artist who has lost his mojo. The story picks up with the lovers meeting again after having broken up for the last 10 years after Aida returns to the US from their London home. In that time, Aida has channelled her heartbreak and longing into her music, which has turned her into a rock star with a fanatical following. A chance dinner date brings the two of them back together. For Aida, it is the fulfilment of a decade’s longing; for Ehsan, it is a rebirth but to what end? Comes replete with a Greek chorus (read bacchantes) ready to worship and tear down their hero with equal aplomb.
The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman Richard Osman’s cosy mystery — and I use that term advisedly because there seems to be something pejorative in it — is an excellent read to wind down the year. We return to Cooper’s Chase in this second instalment of the Thursday Murder Club series where a group of old age pensioners (OAPs) choose to unravel unsolved mysteries and crimes that occur in their surrounding environs. In The Man, Elizabeth, the de facto leader of the group and a former spy, receives an unwanted visitor in the form of her ex-husband. Also a spy by training, he has been called out of retirement to infiltrate the home of a crime lord, which, naturally, goes wrong. Meanwhile, Ibrahim, the brains of the outfit and the voice of reason, has been the victim of a snatch-theft and is suffering from post-event trauma. Joyce, the ever-cheerful and enthusiastic member of the group, is trying to hold everything together. A page turner that is readable in every aspect.
Silent Parade by Keigo Higashino I am a huge fan of Keigo Higashino so anything new from him almost automatically makes it to the list. Silent Parade is the latest of the Detective Galileo series featuring Manabu Yukawa, Higashino’s sleuthing physicist who is always ready to pitch in whenever the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department encounters a sticky case. This time, it’s the death of the prime suspect involved in the murders of two young girls 20 years apart. Reticent and more cunning than his external demeanour lets on, Kanichi Hasunuma has already escaped the judgment of the court once, and the family and neighbours of the second victim wasn’t about to let him get away again. Hasunuma is conveniently murdered during a popular parade through the neighbourhood but everyone seems to have a rock solid alibi. Our returning flatfoot, Chief Inspector Kusanagi, is again stumped and calls on the deductive powers of his university friend Yukawa to help solve the seemingly impossible murder. A gripping page turner, Silent Parade is a book you want to finish in one sitting.