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Why ‘Covidball Z’ matters

by Fong Min Hun

Just how much of the past two-and-a-half years do you remember? 

For example, do you recall that when COVID-19 vaccinations were first introduced, rumour had it that the vaccines contained microchips and were part of an Illuminati plot to control the world? Or that at one point, restrictions had become so severe that regular people were forced to fly the white flag outside their homes to signify their distress and cry for help? Or that a local entrepreneur had tried to cynically flog halal rubber slippers in the midst of the pandemic? 

I’ll be the first to admit that I recall painfully few of these developments, even the really serious ones like the raising of the white flag. Or that other really serious one, i.e. the Emergency ordinance that was in place from January to August 2021. Do you remember how outraged you were when Parliament was suspended or the anxiety you felt about the uncertain direction of the country? In hindsight, these were all but farts in the wind: they happened, they made a big stink and then they went away.

And yet, it somehow feels important that these developments should be remembered. As a former journalist, I had believed—and continue to believe—that newspapers should be the chronicler of these events, to write the first draft of history. Unfortunately we don’t really have one, singular compiler of events anymore, not with the way media is run these days. Fortunately, however, we have Ernest Ng and we have If Malaysia Was Anime: Covidball Z

Five Emergencies have been declared in Malaysia, but only one as the result of playing a collectable playing card. And check out the PM’s ripped bod.

From a Facebook webcomic born out of sheer boredom to a much-anticipated serial that brought laughter and light into the MCO-restricted lives of Malaysians , Covidball is now a published comic (seven volumes and counting!). Narrated as an epic battle between humanity and invading aliens—Ernest makes no pretence that this comic borrows heavily, including its title, from Akira Toriyama’s classic manga Dragon Ball—Covidball hilariously documents the funnier-than-fiction reality of Malaysian life and politics. 

The series’ main arc is focused on Malaysia’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, peppered with various non sequiturs and strange happenings along the way. Importantly, Covidball assembles much of these happenings in a single, unifying story, although admittedly, some of the more obscure references still required some Googling. What Ernest does so well, and in the opinion of this writer better than his contemporaries, is the way he points to Malaysians to say, “Look how ridiculous we are!” (And let’s face it, we are indeed ridiculous!) Covidball works because it doesn’t spare anyone—not even itself—from its purview. As a result of which, Ernest’s satire does not feel patronising or antagonistic. Rather, it feels more like the cheeky observations of that slightly-too-clever cousin who’s always there poking fun at familial foibles in all the gatherings.

I lol’d so hard at this. Taken from his Facebook page but, more importantly, available in Volume 6 of the hardcopy. Available now.

Thanks to the inclusivity of Covidball, Ernest has created a communal platform which, despite being satirical, cannot be construed to be cruel. I have been reliably informed that even politicians—who are usually the butt of the joke in Covidball—like the comic; it could be because Ernest tends to render politicians in the book quite flatteringly: where else would any of our Prime Ministers be drawn with six-pack abs? 

Purchase Volumes 1 to 7 of Covidball Z here.

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Lit Recap: Author event with Hanna Alkaf

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.

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Lit Recap: Author event with Shivani Sivagurunathan

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.

Yalpanam is available here.

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The Lit Rewind: Ep 01 – Tash Aw

UPDATE 31 AUG 2019, 1.29PM: The podcast is back up and running! We’re now hosting the recording via Soundcloud and the player and link is visible in the top-right corner of our homepage. We’ve also posted the link below. Send us a message on FB or Insta if the link doesn’t work for you.

UPDATE 31 AUG 2019, 11.31AM: Dear friends, we did not expect the recording to be as popular as it turned out to be and the sheer number of downloads and streams crashed our website. We are now seeking an alternative solution to hosting the website and will make an announcement here when we have done so. We apologise for the inconvenience!

Welcome to the first episode of Lit Rewind, our very own podcast.

Every now and then, we invite authors and other guests to our shop to discuss books, their work, and answer questions from our very enthusiastic crowd of readers. 

On a stormy Thursday evening in August, our shop was filled to capacity with about 100 eager fans waiting to talk to and meet Malaysian author Tash Aw. Tash’s novel, We, the Survivors, was published earlier this year. We began our interview with him by asking him to describe the novel. 

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Lit Recap: Author session with Suffian Hakim

Suffian Hakim’s The Minorities is a fantastical supernatural tale of four very unlikely housemates embarking on a journey to help a lonely Pontianak return home to Melaka. It is a wacky, witty, cheeky and laugh-out-loud funny parody, but it is also layered and emotionally rich.

Together with the lovely ladies from Two Book Nerds Talking podcast, Diana Yeong and Honey Ahmad, we had the pleasure of hosting Suffian for a meet-and-greet at Lit Books on July 27. The full podcast will be aired soon, but here are some gems from the delightful hour-long conversation with Suffian.

On the protagonist opening up his house to immigrants of suspicious origins:
For me it was the idea of kindness derived from depression [the protagonist was mourning the death of his father]. If you want to pull yourself out of depression, you do that through kindness, through opening yourself up to other people.

On marring very real father-son issues on the one hand with an epic demon army battle on the other in one book:
As a person I believe you cannot experience the world just one way. When I was writing the book it was always clear in my mind that this person’s life, what the narrator and his friends are going through [with the Pontianak], is as important and as real to them as their own personal emotional journeys. You can’t exclude one from the other. We go through our lives — we get into relationships, we break up — but in the meantime, a war is going on in Iraq and all that. But we’re also having our own personal emotional journeys and I wanted to make sure that both arcs play out to their logical conclusions.

On the use of food puns as titles of chapters:
The idea with the chapter titles like ‘Diet Coke and Mentos’, ‘Chinese Century Egg’, ‘Gula Melaka Dreamsicle’, ‘The Long Arm of the Coleslaw’ was that I wanted to parody the fact that when most people consider a minority group by ethnicity, the only way they seem to connect or contextualise that group is through food, but not so much the rich history or heritage they might have. It was to bring to light the fact that a minority group is more than their food.

On an almond that recurs throughout the story and its significance:
The almond that keeps popping up in the book, it’s a cheap thrill for me as an author (laughs). In Arab Muslim cultures, when a boy comes of age it’s tradition for his dad to give him a bag of almonds as a gift. The almond in the story represents the narrator’s issues with his dad, the baggage that he keeps because of his strained relationship with his dad. What he does with the almond in the end signifies the fact that he’s finally letting go of his issues with his dad.

The Minorities is available at Lit Books for RM69.90.

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Lit Recap: Author meet-and-greet with Hanna Alkaf

On Saturday, Feb 17, we celebrated the publication of Malaysian author Hanna Alkaf’s debut young adult (YA) novel, The Weight of Our Sky, with a meet-the-author event that saw more than 70 people in attendance. We were heartened to see the enthusiastic response to Hanna’s novel, which is about a music loving teen with OCD, Melati, who does everything she can to find her way back to her mother during the historic race riots of 1969 in Kuala Lumpur. This is one of those books that on the one hand, is gut-wrenching, but it is also heart-warming. There are heart-breaking depictions of human cruelty, but also of immeasurable kindness. Most of all, it is an empowering tale of hope and courage in the face of terror, both from within and without. Min Hun conducted a Q&A with Hanna, an edited version of which is reproduced below.

Min Hun: Tell us about how you came to write a novel set during the riots of 1969.
Hanna: The Weight of Our Sky was a book that had lived in my head for a long time before I started writing it, mostly for the reasons you mentioned, that we don’t talk about May 13. I remember it from my history textbook but it was really glossed over and sterilised. It always fascinated me what we were not told and what voices we were not hearing, and what was being obscured.

What sort of research did you do to write this book?
I love doing research; it’s so fun to me. But I’m also a journalist by training so I approached it a lot like as if I were writing an investigative feature. I read everything that I could on it: articles written at the time, both from in and out of the country, I read government white papers, any book that I could find. I interviewed survivors and I consulted experts on the things that I needed to get the details right for — although I did end up missing a couple of things.

How did you create your characters?
They are an amalgamation of different people and they are fully Malaysian. It’s very hard to see characters like that in the current YA novels… I write YA and I write for kids because as a kid who read a lot of English books growing up, I don’t think I ever saw anybody who looked like me. I feel like when you’re reading as a kid, a teen or young adult, that’s when what you read is most formative. I think it means a lot to a kid to be able to read a book that they can see themselves in.

There is a theory from researcher Dr Rudin Bishop, who says in kid lit it’s important that children have both mirrors and windows. They should have windows into experiences other than their own and they should also be able to see themselves reflected in the fiction they read. Malaysian kids get a lot of windows but we have very few mirrors. I also enjoy reading YA, and I just really wanted to write Malaysian stories for Malaysian kids.

It was full house with standing room only at the event.

Mental illness is a big part of this book and your first collection of stories, Gila, is also about mental illness. Can you tell us about your interest in the subject and why mental illness is an important part of this novel?
I wrote Gila, a nonfiction book in 2015. I wrote it after I had my daughter, and I was freelancing at that time. I was working on an article about postpartum depression, a very relevant topic to me at that time. I had interviewed 4 or 5 women, and the thing that I noticed was that all these women were educated and lived in urban areas, but not a single one of them — even though they had reached the point of psychosis — had gone to see a psychologist or psychiatrist. They relied on other things — they relied on faith, on community and family but they never went to see a professional. This was weird to me because if you’re sick, you go to a doctor. If your brain is sick you go to somebody who can help you but that wasn’t the case. And I started thinking about why that was. I started doing some research, and I thought if there was something interesting to be uncovered here, I could pitch it as a series of articles. As it turned out, it was one of those topics where the more questions I asked, the more questions I came up with. It became clear that it was a topic that really needed to be talked about in a lot of different but interconnected ways, and that’s how Gila came about.

When I wanted to start writing the novel, I knew that I wanted to create a protagonist who was dealing with this intersection of faith and mental illness, which was a thing that was coming up a lot in the interviews. As Malaysians, we are surrounded by faith, whether you’re a person of faith or not. I wanted a book that explored that intersection between faith and mental illness because I think at the age the protagonist is at, you’re questioning a lot of those things. 

I think you also represented the way our society tends to approach mental illness. It is still largely a taboo topic of discussion, or it’s something you can’t explain. In the novel, Melati’s mental illness was stifling in a way because this sense of losing control, of being enslaved to mental illness, is something we’re all naturally uncomfortable with.
You’re not the only one. I’ve had people say things like the parts where she’s dealing with her OCD, they’re tedious to read and they’re painful. But that’s what OCD is. OCD is tedious and it’s painful. It’s not having these quirks of needing to clean one’s hands or arrange things a certain way. It’s tedious and it’s painful. I wanted the text to reflect that and really put you in her head.

Given how sensitive we are as a society with racism, were you at any point concerned about what you were writing?
Not really, only because we’re not a society that talks about it and that’s a problem. The more we don’t talk about the painful parts of our history, the more likely we are to never learn from them. If we just keep obscuring things that are hard and that are painful and uncomfortable… we have to sit with our discomfort. This is a thing that happened in our history, we have to accept that it happened and we have to figure out why. 

The Weight of Our Sky is available at RM55.90.