“Little Basket 2016: New Malaysian Writing” [Book Review]

Yesterday while browsing through the shelves at MPH, I picked up a copy of Little Basket, “an annual literary journal offering a taste of Malaysian writing and visuals”. I got the 2016 issue, their very first issue, as it was the only one on the shelves. Maybe the 2017 one went pretty fast? Considering that the 2016 one only had a print run of 3000 copies (after which, the copyright page adamantly states, there will be no second prints), I felt pretty lucky to get a copy for myself.

I’d seen the Fixi and Fixi Novo books before (although, as someone who has poor Malay skills, I paid more attention to the Novo ones… lol), and I’ve skimmed through a copy of KL Noir once but it didn’t really grab my attention. I picked Little Basket up because, for one thing, it was way cheaper than any of the other imported books on the shelves–RM25, which is as good as it’s gonna get for a fresh copy of any book in Malaysia–but also because I thought it’s high time I try and get a sense of what the literature scene is like in Malaysia, and to start learning some names that may become big one day. I’ve spent my whole life reading books but never, ever any Malaysian authors.

And honestly? I’m pleased to say I wasn’t disappointed. Considering that I wrote off the Fixi Novo series earlier on when I put down the copy of KL Noir, I didn’t expect that English-language Malaysian writing was actually… pretty good, and readable! I’m definitely going to pay more attention to the Fixi Novo books after reading this, and I’ll try to see if I can get the 2017 Little Basket anywhere.

As the “Foreweird” tells us, the collection is dominated by short stories, and specifically by “genre fiction” short stories–leaning more towards the fantastic, horror and sci-fi. I think only about five or six of the 21 stories are naturalistic stories, with no involvement of bomohs or ghosts. The lean towards genre fiction reflects the trend in Fixi Novo publications, and also the trend of popular Malaysian fiction generally. As a kid, I remember reading a lot of True Singaporean Ghost Stories and Mr. Midnight books, and it’s kind of funny to see that that tendency towards the supernatural hasn’t really left Malaysian fiction, or what Malaysian readers look for in their fiction.

However, when you write in a genre that’s been done to death in your country (as a comparison, war stories in English literature come to mind, lol), it also means that it’s easier to bore the reader with the same common tropes, cliches and plot devices. Unfortunately, a few of the stories in Little Basket are guilty of this: Tunku Halim’s “Man on the 22nd Floor” started off pretty creepy with the teeth & fingernails, but lost my attention when its exposition used the old “dead beloved relative” trope; Chua Kok Yee’s “Love Potion No. 5” even included that good ol’ “suddenly died in an accident” trope that I swear featured in almost every other passage that we studied in Bahasa Malaysia. There were two forays into science fiction, with Terence Toh’s “Full Circle” and Julya Oui’s “Transbotica”. The paradox in the former felt too easy, too recognizable if you’ve watched any Doctor Who at all, and the lack of exposition left me pretty disappointed with the story’s ending (why did the protagonist have to go back in time to pretend to be the old man?), especially when I thought the author’s vision of dystopia was pretty interesting, and could have been explored way more. The latter had a great title, and was interesting enough, but could have been a lot punchier especially as it was dominated with dialogue.

The stories that I personally believe pulled off the supernatural/fantastic/horror genre well were Foo Sek Han’s “Red King, Asleep in the Garden” (whose protagonist’s life story was still pretty cliche, but the execution & interesting style makes up for it – I loved the idea of the monster that lives forever in our family homes), Marc de Faoite’s “The Green Fuse” (the political allegory almost became too heavily obvious, but it was restrained enough), and especially Angeline Woon’s “The Bloody Keris” and Zedeck Siew’s “Local Fauna” with illustrations by Sharon Chin, both of which were my personal favourites from the entire collection. I might be a bit biased towards Woon’s story, as it was a retelling of the legend of Puteri Gunung Ledang, and I’m usually a sucker for modern re-writes of folk tales, especially so with local ones as I didn’t grow up in a household where I got to hear a lot of them. Still, it made excellent use of the word limit and the cool emotionlessness of her sentences (especially in the final scene) made me feel more horror than any of the other overtly horror-genre stories in the Basket. As for Siew’s story, the editors compared it to Borges in their “Foreweird”, which I think is one of the best compliments a fantasy/supernatural writer could receive, and which I think is deserved as well. The collection of imaginary South East Asian beasts was delightful to read, and it made me excited to note from the author bio that Siew has a full-length collection of these in the works.

So yes, some of the genre fiction was a bit disappointing and may have been better suited for a longer word count, but the writers who can pull off the genre fiction can really pull it off. Besides, this is all still just my personal opinion, and maybe the wider Malaysian readership aren’t bored by these kind of stories, and in choosing them the editors were choosing stories that would appeal to more people. As the literature scene in Malaysia isn’t that big anyway, I can understand the need to just give people what they’ve proven to enjoy already.

The short stories that weren’t genre-fiction were a mixed bag as well. For the most part, I have to say that I enjoyed them a lot more than the supernatural ones. I noticed they tended to be a lot more nostalgic, with a lot of them featuring either children or childhood memories. They were quiet reflections on Malaysian life, and I wonder if that’s due to the overtly Malaysian specificity of the collection, and of what Fixi Novo looks for generally from their writers: in the manifesto from the book’s frontmatter, the third point is that Fixi Novo looks for “stories about the urban reality of Malaysia”, adding that, “if you want to share your grandmother’s world war 2 stories, send ’em elsewhere.” I wonder if asking specifically for Malaysian writing on Malaysia inevitably leads to self-reflection: a lot of the more naturalistic stories are reflections on Malaysia written as if the author(s) don’t live in Malaysia any more. I know from the author bios that a few of them don’t, so maybe that’s why.

Eileen Lian’s “The Pawn Shop” and Kris Williamson’s “Family Business” are both simple short stories that offer snapshots of a specific aspect of Malaysian life from a child’s point of view, and I think the technique of using a child’s POV makes the emotions they convey more effective. There was also Ling Low’s “Wanton Noodles” (my personal favourite of the naturalistic stories) and William Tham Wai Liang’s essay “Diaspora”, both of them written by Malaysians living abroad reflecting on the distance between the home of their childhood selves and the home of their current selves. “Wonton Noodles” offers a snapshot of a past life, like Lian’s and Williamson’s stories, but is also more complex from how it juxtaposes nostalgia for a childhood memory alongside the disillusionment of growing up. It is a short story about the memory of a beloved wanton noodle stand, “the best in Ipoh”, and the memory of a beloved uncle, and how both memories–inextricably linked to the protagonist’s image of a Malaysia now lost to them when their family immigrated to Australia, where “when we wanted wanton noodles, we had to go to Chinatown”–are dashed when the family returns for a long-overdue visit to their home town. “Diaspora” is also laden with sadness, the sadness of knowing that one’s memory of home no longer reflects the current reality of it. Again like in Lian’s, the emotion is effectively conveyed through a juxtaposition of the author’s internal feelings with an external environment that is lonely and sad, with the repeated references to a “frigid northern city” in Canada where the author worked for a few months.

All in all, it was a fun collection for a decent price, and I’d explore future collections and publications from Fixi/Fixi Novo. It got me really excited to explore more of Malaysian culture and every time I finished a short story I always got busy Googling the authors so I could start knowing some names. Generally, the collection was pretty hit and miss and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for its literary merit, but the content of the stories is solid enough reading for anyone looking for representations of a diverse Malaysia.

 

Rating: 3/5 ★

Favourite stories: “Local Fauna” (Zedeck Siew & Sharon Chin), “The Bloody Keris” (Angeline Woon), “Wanton Noodles” (Ling Low)

It’s weird the things you miss. one week back in Malaysia, and I can already understand why some people go into a masters degree because they don’t know what to do after graduating. of course I miss J. but I don’t much miss anyone else yet–I never saw anyone else so regularly as to start missing them, I think. but other things about the regularity of a life I miss. I saw a picture a friend posted of herself at uni, and I saw the Kent bins in the background, and that made me feel something. it’s just a rubbish bin, but it’s the unique rubbish bins, with the university of Kent logo on them, that I’d always see with regularity on the campus streets. I miss that – the short walkways on campus, the getting from point a to b and knowing all the stops along the way, even knowing where all the bins were. I miss the east part of the library. in my final year, I visited it every day to work on my dissertation and various other essays. I miss the walking in, finding a seat and settling down for a day of work. I guess what it comes down to is the sense of purpose that I had in the library, and walking around campus, and in going to my classes: I had a purpose at Kent. my purpose was to study, and to learn and to work, and I don’t have the same purpose in Malaysia, I don’t have anything guiding me.

at least back in Kent, even if I didn’t know my bigger purpose, at least I knew that I had classes to attend and essays to write – at least that I knew. being home makes me sad because of the boredom and aimlessness of the days that pass by softly. I had thought that my purpose in returning home might have been to be around for my sister, but she’s growing up quickly and she doesn’t need me around so much, i don’t think. I remember all the summers before when she’d bug me constantly for something, and I’d just tell her to leave me alone – now the positions are reversed, and I can tell that she’s growing into that secrecy of young teenagehood. she never asks me for anything, and often if I’m around it’s as if she wants me to leave her alone. she doesn’t say so, but it’s in the way she remains stiff when I embrace her, the way she curls away slightly when I’m near her. I don’t take it personally, I think she’s at that age when children become more self conscious about their bodies and the way they are talked to by adults. I had thought also that my purpose in coming home was to… take responsibility for where I come from, something along those lines. to try and really live in this city I’ve grown up in, to contribute somehow in its growth and in the welfare of the people who live here, but I feel like a stranger in a foreign place. I don’t have anything I work on with any regularity here – if I ever so something, it’s largely for my own benefit or impulses. university was work for my own benefit too, but I also had a sense of being part of a larger network of similarly-aged people who all had the purpose of studying and expanding human knowledge. I don’t have that same network of purpose here: all my actions are purely individualistic: I eat, I sleep, I go on my phone, I see my friends, I talk to my sister. nothing adds up, there is no larger structure to time.

of course, it’s only been a week. but it really strikes me how scary time is. I feel like I am drifting through time, and that if i remained unmoored and purposeless for too long I may just drift off into nothingness. like the particles of Dust in The Amber Spyglass. like smoke from a cigarette. J once told me that the diffusion of cigarette smoke was one of the most difficult things to analyse and predict. that’s how I feel, like drifting smoke that is still unpredictable and evidently aimless regardless of the wind’s direction.

when I was at Kent, I was moored by my larger purpose of pursuing higher education alongside everyone else at the university, but I was also moored by these regular landmarks unique to the university. I was moored by the familiarity of the campus landscape, the placement of the buildings, the pathways from point a to point b that remained the same, day in and day out. I could picture where I was going, how to get there, and even all the little things along the way, like the benches & the signs & the toilets & yes, even the dustbins. Now I am not moored by anything. yes, I know my house and I know the places I usually frequent when I’m in KL, but they’re not alive with the same sense of purpose that energized the university campus for me.

one of my friends who’s a recently-graduated international student himself, who’s also since returned to his home country, told me that he felt depressed when he first arrived home, but that he’s feeling better now. I know that this must change at some point, especially since I’m still looking for work, but until then (whenever or whatever “then” is), it’s still painful all the same. just drifting.