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6 Malaysian Authors You Should Put in Your Reading List

by Esther Kuok. |

I’ve always loved reading as a child, but I discovered the joys of reading Asian literature, or specifically – Malaysian, later on in life. There’s just something comforting yet refreshing about reading a Malaysian tale – be it in the form of a big picture: a story painted against the backdrop of a place like Penang or Kuala Lumpur, or even hidden in the little details or elements– spotting a familiar word like “sampan” or “kuih”. From pre-independence Malaya stories about roots and heritage, or modern big city tales featuring relevant issues, there is something for everyone.

As we look into broadening our literary tastes, let us consider supporting our local talent! Here is a list of Malaysian authors to add in your TBR list:

1. Tash Aw

Image source: Options

Tash Aw’s is an author whose novels have twice been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize - which is pretty major in the literary world! His critically acclaimed work includes his debut novel ‘The Harmony Silk Factory, which won the Whitbread First Novel Award and a regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize; ‘Map of the Invisible World’ and ‘Five Star Billionaire’.

Being one of my favourite authors, his books sit on my bookshelves proudly. ‘Five Star Billionaire showcases his storytelling ability by beautifully weaving the lives of five Malaysians trying to gain success in Shanghai, one of my favourite book recommendations to date. His latest book – ‘We, The Survivors’ is definitely top in my TBR list.

2. Tan Twan Eng

Image source: The Peak

We are truly spoilt for choice with homegrown talent as Tan Twan Eng is another author making waves on the global literary scene. Another Man Booker Prize long-list nominee with his debut novel 'The Gift of Rain', Tan is also the first-ever Malaysian recipient of the coveted Man Asian Literary Prize. His second novel 'The Garden of Evening Mists’ even beat out Hilary Mantel (Man Booker Prize winner) and Orhan Pamuk (recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature) in competitions – an impressive feat! In fact, it has been adapted into a film co-produced by HBO and Astro Shaw which is currently showing in cinemas. And if you think the movie is good – here it goes: the book is better.

The Gift of Rain will always be, hands-down, one of the top 5 books I’ve read. Big statement, I know. It is a book that rewards patience, establishing subtle yet powerful nuances throughout the book for a beautifully-written ending. Poetic and lyrical, it took me on an emotional journey with tears shed, a testament to his writing indeed.

P/S: This book lover got her little happy ending when she met the author at a book signing and forum. Hearing him speak about the sheer amount of research and hard work that went into the book made me appreciate it that much more. Also, there’s nothing better than discovering your favourite author is absolutely lovely and humble in person – definitely one for the books! ;)

3. Yangsze Choo

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Yangsze Choo is a New York Times bestselling novelist with her debut novel The Ghost Bride, which is a historical fantasy set in 1890s colonial Malaya and the Chinese world of the dead. With a first sentence like: “One evening, my father asked me whether I would like to become a ghost bride” - the book instantly captivates anyone who picks it up.

I remembered years ago while working in a bookstore, this book would draw the attention of many. I loved that Malaysian customers were intrigued over a Malaysian tale by a Malaysian author – as simple as it sounds, it was heart-warming. Her story was authentic, even down to the minor details like the intentionally-rugged pages (to which many customers enquired about!). From finding favour from celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon to having a series by Netflix based on The Ghost Bride –internationally-acclaimed is an understatement. Do give her second book Night Tiger a read too!

4. Rani Manicka

Image: The Star

Rani Manicka’s debut novel, ‘The Rice Mother’, propelled her into an internationally best-selling author. She was also the first Malaysian woman to win the Commonwealth Writers Prize for South East Asia and South Pacific Region– female empowerment moment!

Infused with Rani’s own Sri Lankan Tamil family history, ‘The Rice Mother’, is a vividly imaginative story about the frailties of human nature and the terrible consequences of war. It depicts the life of Lakshmi, a young Ceylon girl who moves to Malaysia to pursue her married life to provide her children with a hopeful future and the challenges she faces. We love books that help us appreciate roots, heritage and sacrifices! Her other novels include Touching Earth, The Japanese Lover and Black Jack.

5. Tunku Halim

Image source: BFM

If horror whets your appetite, indulge in the nail-biting tales of Tunku Halim. Dubbed “The Stephen King of Malaysia'', he has produced numerous works that garnered rave reviews. Sink your teeth into A Malaysian Restaurant in London – a story about a missing child, a restaurant opened by two brothers and a mysterious dish, intriguing right?

This prince of darkness also has a collection of short stories with tingling tales of bomohs, pontianaks and other gruesome happenings – the aptly named Horror Stories, which alone took 15 years in the making. Although horror is not my personal cup of tea (my weakness is historical fiction), this pioneering author on the Malaysian literary scene is a good one to add to your reading list.

6. Shih-Li Kow

Image: Options

Shih-Li Kow came to fame with her first book of short stories, ‘Ripples and other stories’. It was immediately shortlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award that year, beating Ali Smith and Kazuo Ishiguro to the list. This is a pretty big deal considering Kazuo Ishiguro (also one of my favourite authors) is the 2017 Nobel Prize Winner for literature – wow!

Her novel ‘The Sum of Our Follies’ is the story of characters living in a fictional backwater town, Lubok Sayong, in an Asian developing country. This is not your typical story that romanticizes the beauty of the local cultures or heritage. It is written for all sorts of audiences as the writer blurs the line when it comes to taboo issues in Malaysia, relevant even in the 21st century. She has won a top French literary award in 2018 for “First Novel Award, in the foreign category.

Malaysian literature in English may not be the most popular genre among readers, but there are some Malaysian writers who can do wonders with words. Perhaps give one of these authors a try and you might just stumble upon a hidden gem that ends up being your favorite read, happy reading!

You may find out more about Esther on her Instagram as well.

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