More Malaysian writers getting kudos on the international literary scene
KUALA LUMPUR – “On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan.”
This is the opening sentence of the poetically languorous novel, The Garden Of Evening Mists (2012), by Malaysian literary giant Tan Twan Eng.
The novel was described by The Guardian as “impossible to resist… showcases Tan Twan Eng as a master of cultural complexities”.
More and more Malaysian writers have been gaining international recognition recently.
Malaysians are surely grateful to Tan for giving up his career as a lawyer, as his works have kickstarted the country’s burgeoning English literature scene.
His debut novel, The Gift Of Rain (2007), was long-listed for the UK’s prestigious Man Booker Prize.
His second book, The Garden Of Evening Mists, placed him firmly in the spotlight when he became the first Malaysian to win the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012 and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction in 2013.
Set in post-war Malaya, the story has been turned into an award-winning film released this year.
But the success came after many rejections by UK publishers.
“It’s a disheartening fact but, over the years, I’ve discovered that most publishers prefer to expend their energies and budget on marketing books that require minimal publicity – books by big-name authors that would sell millions of copies by themselves without any help – because it’s less challenging and requires no imaginative and original ideas,” Tan, 48, told The Straits Times.
“I persevered because I knew I had written a good novel,” he said. He eventually found a new publisher, Myrmidon, which liked his book and the rest is history.
Another Malaysian book-to-screen is Yangsze Choo’s debut novel The Ghost Bride (2013), which has been turned into a Netflix series.
The former corporate consultant, who is now a New York Times bestselling novelist, wrote the historical fantasy set in 1890s Malacca, about a young woman forced to marry a ghost.
“When I started writing, I actually had very little idea of how difficult or easy it might be to be published. This was perhaps a good thing because if I’d realised how low the odds were, I might never have submitted anything,” she told The Straits Times.
Her advice for aspiring writers?
“Write what you find to be deeply fascinating. If you write what you think other people like, rather than what you personally find interesting, it will show in your writing.”
Choo, 46, who is working on her third book, said it will combine elements of magical realism with historical fiction, like her second book The Night Tiger (2019).
“Right now, it’s set in Manchuria (north-east China) during the last days of the Qing empire in 1905. Writing is always a journey of discovery for me though and I don’t know where the book may go – things might change along the way and the characters could end up in South-east Asia after all,” she said.
The list of award-winning Malaysian authors is slowly growing.
Among them is fantasy author Zen Cho, 34. She is a Crawford, British Fantasy and Hugo award winner for her short story collection Spirits Abroad (2014), debut novel Sorceror To The Crown (2015) and novelette If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again (2018), respectively.
Another author, Shih-Li Kow, 52, won a top French literary award in 2018, the Prix du Premier Roman Etranger (First Novel Award, in the foreign category) for her debut novel, The Sum Of Our Follies (2014), which has been translated into Italian and French.
Saras Manickam made waves last year when she was named regional winner of Asia for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for My Mother Pattu.
Earlier this year, Hanna Alkaf, 35, bagged the US Freeman Book Award in the Young Adult/High School Literature category for her debut novel, The Weight Of Our Sky (2019).
Her second book, The Girl And The Ghost (2020) is a finalist for the US Kirkus Prize this year in the Young Reader’s Literature category. The results will be announced on Nov 5.
While her first book is written against the backdrop of the 1969 race riots, her second weaves elements of local religious and cultural beliefs in a story about a girl who inherits a dark spirit from her grandmother and embraces it as her friend and protector.
When asked if he had any regrets on leaving the legal profession to pursue writing, Tan conceded that he is somewhat envious of his friends driving expensive cars and owning a long list of properties.
He said: “I would have been desperately unhappy if I had remained a lawyer and I would have been bored silly too. Even as a boy, I was always aware that I had to march to the beat of my own drum.”
Malaysian writer, publisher and film-maker Amir Muhammad, said he is happy that Malaysians who write in English are getting published internationally and put it down to “the talent and determination of the individual writers themselves in seeking out agents and then fine-tuning their manu- scripts”.
“I also hope Malaysians who write in languages other than English will get good translators and agents. Plus, of course, there are other big markets aside from the Anglophone one,” he adds.
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