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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 04 – Bob Holmes

Welcome to the fourth episode of the Lit Rewind.

Every now and then, our bookshop hosts events that brings together writers and readers to discuss all things literary. So when The Edge Options approached us to jointly launch a book by one of their columnists, Bob Holmes, we jumped at the opportunity. Further sweetening the deal was the fact that Bob’s book, Shanks, Yanks and Jurgen, concerned the history and revival of the best football team in the world, Liverpool FC.

While the launch did not rival the famed European nights at Anfield, it came pretty close thanks in part to The Edge’s kind sponsorship of the refreshments for the evening. The event was kicked off by The Edge’s CEO and Publisher Ho Kay Tat who is a life-long Chelsea fan. But we won’t hold that against him… much.

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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: What Dementia Teaches Us About Love

Few things in life are as heartbreaking as bearing witness to the steady decline of a loved one. It is particularly tragic when the decline pertains directly to that sense of self and identity which makes a person distinctive, special and, perhaps more importantly, makes them the unique individual that we have come to care and love over a lifetime. But this is precisely the area in which dementia — described as the disease of the century — affects. 

It is a great irony of our age that the medical technologies and breakthroughs of the day have done so much to prolong and extend life, and yet it is precisely because of this extension that cases of dementia have been increasing. Though the exact cause of dementia has yet to be determined, there is a definite and observable correlation between dementia and old age, which raises the spectre of new challenges for countries such as Malaysia where average life expectancy is on the rise. 

In her recently published book, What Dementia Teaches Us About Love, Nicci Gerrard provides a comprehensive account of how dementia affects us — as patients, caregivers, society — and the challenges that exist now and in the future in coping with a growing number of dementia sufferers. Having lost her own father to the disease, Gerrard’s book is a moving account of personal tragedy but also explores important philosophical questions such as the meaning of self, and what it means to live a meaningful life. 

At Lit Books, we were inundated with readers who reported their own challenges of living with or interacting dementia patients, and who picked up Gerrard’s book in search of information, perspective or perhaps just to locate a shared experience — caring for a dementia patient can be a lonely undertaking. In view of this great interest in the subject matter, we invited Dr Rishikesan Kuppusamy, consultant neurologist at Pantai Hospital Kuala Lumpur, and BFM89.9 presenter Lee Chwi Lynn to talk about the book and on dementia in general at a public panel discussion held in our shop recently. Edited excerpts from the discussion is reproduced below. The podcast will be available on BFM89.9 sometime in September. 

Lee Chwi Lynn: Doctor, can you take us through the definition of dementia?
Dr Rishi: Dementia is a syndrome. It’s like a fever — you could have fever because of an infection, because of cancer — so dementia is just an umbrella term. What it essentially means is it’s a chronic condition and it’s degenerative — that means it will progress over months and years, resulting in loss of memory, although memory is just a small subsidiary of this. It also involves losing the ability to carry out your day-to-day tasks, things you’ve already learnt, things you’re already good at: driving, cooking, managing your finances. That’s what dementia roughly means.

Everyone has had the experience of leaving their house and thinking, ‘Did I lock the door, did I switch off the iron, did I do these things.’ At what point in these little flickers does somebody need to consider to go see a doctor?
Dr Rishi: If you’re losing your keys, you forget where you parked your car, you should just tell yourself what I tell myself every day: You’re fine. That’s normal. The fact is that this disease makes you completely oblivious that you are losing it. It’s usually the people around you who will say something is off — you’re embarrassing yourself or you’re making cock-ups which are atypical of yourself. We’re not talking about forgetting where you parked your car because you know you forgot where your car is. These are people who didn’t even know they brought their car and they have problems with managing space, parking, and so on. The involvement here is not just one isolated thing like forgetting your keys; it’s a multi-factorial domain.

The book deals with this question of identity. At what point does someone not become themselves anymore? A little bit of a philosophical question for you, but what is the self?
Dr Rishi: In dementia, there is a gradual evolution of change because the disease is multifaceted. It’s not just the component of memory, but losing executive function, which is loss of ability to carry out an already learned skill. You have these inhibitive values — for example you used to be someone who’s very quiet and someone who likes to listen but now you’re the loudest one in the room. Bit by bit you start becoming somebody else. I think this is a very abstract point. But the truth is it’s difficult and the system doesn’t really recognise this because we identify you by name, by IC number, by your fingerprints and your signature. We have a system that’s built for that but we are lost when it comes to this.

Min Hun: The book offers two very good views on what the self is. On one hand you have those who say the self is no longer the self if you sever all connections with people around you. If I can no longer be a son, or a husband or employer, then I am no longer myself because I can only define myself in relation to another person.

But then there’s also another perspective that no matter how you change, you’re still you. We’re not the same people we were 20 years ago; we are changing all the time. It’s just that the change is more gradual. But do I now say I’m not me because I’m not the same me that I was 20 years ago? That second idea of the self is talked about in some detail in this book and you find that these people who believe that even though they have changed, even though they might be suffering from dementia and they are no longer the same person they were before, they actually live fairly full lives: they actively go out and do things in the community. Yes, perhaps not in the same capacity as they did before, but in their new capacities. I think what’s interesting though especially within a Malaysian context is at what point do we recognise or say that you no longer have the power to decide because you’re no longer able to.

Min Hun thanks for getting us there because I wasn’t asking tricky philosophical questions for fun. It was leading to this point about being able to grant permission. In the medical fraternity, the patient’s right to choose is a huge thing. In a situation where you’re dealing with somebody who has loss of certain levels of identity and faculty, what options are there for people to make decisions ahead of time? How much does that respect the patient’s ability and right to change as well?
Dr Rishi: We call this an advance directive, that means you sign a note with your closest family members present or your legal counsel stating very clearly that in case of medical emergencies you do not want to be resuscitated. This is on a pretext that you already have a bad condition… or for whatever reason there’s a car accident or something sudden that requires certain things to be done. You’re very clear on what should be done, where the line has to be drawn.

The thing about dementia, it is a slow continuous progressing condition. If you make this advance directive in January, how sure are you in July that you won’t change your mind? This is where the problem is; it’s not so clear-cut. From a medical perspective, patients are given the liberty to make advance directives but it’s very clear that it’s for acute medical situations and not for long-term conditions where the outcome is variable and there may be issues with patients changing their minds.

Ideally, the patient has decided for himself and the family is on the same page with the patient. But this is a taboo topic here. We rarely have patients talking to their kids and saying, ‘Hey if this happens, I think it’s only right that you let me go.’ It’s not within our culture to talk about that. These are the challenges.

The irony is that advance directives are also for the benefit of the family. I’m curious whether there are specific things that are unique to our Asian culture when it comes to care-giving with our notions of filial piety, which is a very important value to us.
Dr Rishi: I don’t think it’s fair to say it’s Asian values and that’s why we are going to give our parents more. I’ve been hammered for saying this. In the western world they’ve got their own rationale, how they approach things. It’s not due to a lack of love. The system works differently. The social support allows them to do what they are doing now. The social support system here doesn’t allow you to engage an institution or a home close-by to the hospital where dad or mom were admitted. And here we have a stigma concerning nursing homes. But it’s not necessarily true; some of them are run very well. But the perception that a lot of people have is that if I send my folks to a nursing home, I’m letting them down. Sometimes you’re doing them a service because they are allowed to engage with people, activities are being done, health issues are being attended to faster. Maybe we are in denial because we feel that we have to just hold on to this value system where I care for you like you care for me but you may be giving less than what the home can provide. We have to be more open about this.

In the book there is a focus on the language we use when we talk to old people in general, people with dementia, things like not calling everyone ‘my dear’ but instead using their names, and not referring to putting someone in a home as if that person were no longer a person but an object. I’m curious, doctor, how important is language when you are talking to patients?
Dr Rishi: I don’t think this is just a medical issue; it’s an issue that encompasses all facets of life. If your neighbour was Mr Nathan, it should always be Mr Nathan even if he has now become less of what he was before — we honour what he was before by still calling him Mr Nathan. That’s the human element to medical care. He may not be able to express his thoughts in the most rational fashion but he was somebody and he still is somebody. It’s also like dealing with children in school. Just because they express something which is not typical, it’s not fair that we label it as different. That’s why I say this is not just a pure medical thing; it’s across the board. You respect each other’s presence — don’t rob someone of their identity just because they are going through some trouble. The whole idea of dementia care is until the last day he is with us, everything should be done to preserve his dignity.

What Dementia Teaches Us About Love is available in-store at RM98.90.