Shih-Li Kow: "Malaysia lacks contemporary writers"
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A winning combination of the real and the mythical, Shih-Li Kow's new novel is a story about the stories we tell ourselves in order to live.
Google “rules for writing” and you’ll find advice against lengthy descriptions of a place or the weather, especially when beginning a story—I suppose because one might risk sounding like a travel brochure. But rules, in the right hands, are meant to be broken (John Steinbeck, for instance, flouted this one repeatedly). When a place is a character unto itself, like Shih-Li Kow’s Lubok Sayong, a fictional backwater Perak town, which has only its annual deluge of floods and fantastical word-of-mouth stories as claims to fame, one could be excused of such caution, especially when equipped with Kow’s knack for imbuing stories with a richness that extends
the imagination beyond the page (Kow’s debut, Ripples and Other Stories, won her a place on the 2009 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award shortlist).
The Sum of Our Follies is a portrait of contemporary Malaysian life, with Lubok Sayong being an amplification of the vagaries of Malaysian history, politics and social mores. You’ll recognise references from newspaper headlines: fake eggs, anti-gay masculinity camps, politicians armed with rhetoric and empty gifts— none of which seem trite, all of which avoid reading like a list being ticked off. Kow proves wrong anybody who’s ever thought that a contemporary Malaysian novel can’t be interesting (living it, as we are) and captures a snapshot of the state of the nation without seemingly setting out to do so, and without tipping into commentary. It’s a tightly packed book, full of sub-narratives that somehow never seem tangential, but there’s so much going on it suffers a little for its lack of a central arc.
The stories are told by two relative newcomers—Auyong, a city slicker who oversees a canning factory in the town; and Mary Anne, an orphan from Kuala Lumpur who was adopted by a Lubok Sayong family when she was 11. Not quite protagonists, they don’t just tell their own stories, but also those of all the people who come and go. It should be hard to keep track of or care very much about anyone, but Kow avoids these pitfalls. Even minor characters—the mad woman who covers herself with leeches to save them from the flood, or the killer fish that grows into a myth of Loch Ness Monster-size proportions—etch themselves in your memory, no matter how briefly they appear. Having said that, Kow sometimes encapsulates caricatures at the same time that she resists them; but perhaps, it is what’s real that sometimes seems unreal, especially in Malaysia.
Whether intended or not, Kow’s book also has inflections of the “Southern Gothic” vibe of the American tradition: the mysticism, the grotesque embellishments, and the humans at the mercy of their capricious natural surroundings. But unlike such novels, there’s a strong touch of the comic too, of a hapless people caught in a web of their own making—perpetually influenced by the stories around them. This quote by writer Frank Bures, I think, is particularly apt as a reading companion: “Be mindful of the stories you believe, the stories you love, and the stories you choose to tell. Because, in the end, they may become your own.”
ESQUIRE: Was there one book that made you want to write?
SHIH-LI KOW: I think there was. My reading kind of went downhill at some point—I think it was after graduation, and then I started working and then I had my kid, and my reading just fell by the wayside. When I picked it up again, my son was probably in primary school. I didn’t know where to start at the time, so I thought, Okay lah, just start with the Man Booker Prize list—and that year The Life of Pi won. It's the type of book I really enjoy and it triggered a lot of things, so probably that book. Before that, I read a lot of old, contemporary American novels and short stories—I mean those written way back in the '60s or '70s, so a lot of John Updike, Raymond Carver, Annie Proulx... I can’t do historical novels, though; it's something I haven’t learnt how to read yet—those 18th- century, 19th-century classics. But it's quite hard to pin down what my influences are when writing. Usually, I read without trying to analyse because it spoils the pleasure of reading. It's only occasionally when I come across a book and I think, Wow, it's really well done, that I will stop and try to see how it's done.
ESQ: Have you always been writing, even before your first collection of short stories, Ripples, was published?
SLK: I think it was in 2006 that I started doing it properly with the Silverfish writing programme. I wanted a more substantial hobby. I've always had hobbies on the side and I wanted something which was more than just painting pretty pictures. At the time, I was doing Chinese painting for eight years already —quite fanatically, and then I think I wasn't as good as I would have liked—and before that was photography... But before Silverfish, I had not done anything very serious before [in terms of writing]—only school magazines and stuff.
ESQ: What has been the most formative time in your life?
SLK: My teenage years—when I was sent to boarding school in Kedah, away from home. I was 13 and I was basically thrown into a fairly new situation. There were only less than 10 non-Malays, so it took a lot of adjusting. It also made a lot of difference to my reading and writing because we had a fantastic library. I don’t think you'll ever find a library like that in any of the secondary schools here. I read all the books of Robert Ludllum, Frederick Forsyth, Orwell... Whenever the Malay students had to go off for agama lessons, I would be free to go to the library. There was nobody telling me what to read or what not to read, and ten years later you realise that you hadn't even known what a big difference these books had made.
ESQ: How do you know when a story is ready to go out into the world?
SLK: When you keep reading it and you find that you’re making such stupid, small changes that there’s no point going through it again.
ESQ: When you write, do you write for a certain audience in mind? Like with this book, do you think someone has to have knowledge of what happens in Malaysia to appreciate it?
SLK: I think all books can be read on many levels. You can read with an appreciation of the geography and, of course, if you're living in the same place as the author is writing about then you have a different appreciation for what goes on. But even if you don’t, I think you’ll also have a different reading of it. So no, I don't write specifically for an international audience because if I did, I think I'd feel like I would have to explain probably too much and that would break the flow of the story. You would also lose the fun of poking fun at something—there would then be no reason to write some things as a sly or side remark.
ESQ: Are you the kind of writer who would peddle your book to friends and family? Do you self-promote?
SLK: I am leaving it to my publishers. I think I should do more of it, but it doesn’t come very naturally. Recently, a few of us [writers] went to give a talk at UPM—they actually have a course about Malaysian literature in English. We were all given 45 minutes to speak and Silverfish had asked me to bring some books along to sell, and I said, "I can’t possibly go and sell books to students," you know. They can buy it off the website lah. And I don’t have a Twitter account but I do have a Facebook account and it was with much difficulty that I actually posted the details of my book launch. With friends... a lot of my friends don’t even know I write. If they don’t read, then I don’t bother telling them.
ESQ: Would it matter to you if your friends or family didn't like your book, even if it was critically successful?
SLK: No. I think if you had asked me that maybe three or four years ago I might have said that it does hurt a little bit, but not anymore. I think my mom reads it to make sure that no family secrets appear in it in a way that makes her look bad —because she doesn’t read, and then I see her really plodding through the book —it was so funny. After she was halfway through and she realised that everything was safe, she started to give it out to her friends.
ESQ: Would you ever write something fantastical? I mean, even in this book there are touches that give it an air of the mythical and the surreal...
SLK: I don’t know. It can be quite hard to resist writing about the supernatural because it's very much a part of our life here. You know, you sit down and you meet people and chances are everybody has had a couple of conversations with friends about ghosts or something like that. So you know, it's present so much that I think it would be quite unnatural to consciously exclude it. Having said that, I'm also influenced by my reading, a lot of which is very, very real—in the sense that it's a heightened sense of reality, in the details and in the emotions and in the smallest things that happen. It's actually very tempting to write like that, but I don't know if it's my style of writing.
ESQ: With your writing, do you have a certain endgame in mind?
SLK: I think it would be a bit false if I said I wasn't looking for the recognition. If that's the case, why publish, right? But I don’t think I'm seeking that out very actively. I think not having writing as my main source of income allows me to do what I want to do, so I don't have to worry if my book sells three copies, or whatev er.
I think I write because I can. I think there aren't enough people writing about contemporary life here. I said this to the bunch of people at UPM the other day: say, 20 years from now and this Malaysian literature in English course is still being run in universities, what would we be looking at? What would define this period in terms of Malaysian literature? And there's really not much. We can't be falling back onto magazines or newspapers. Those give you some factual truths, but I think in terms of emotional truths—that comes from fiction and film and music.
Also, I like to learn. I enjoy the learning process itself. Maybe it has to do with our education system, but it's always nice to go for a class or a workshop or to hear somebody talk and receive information. Like with my painting, I used to go for a class every week for eight years just to sit there in front of a teacher and paint, and then come back and paint some more. I wasn't very good, but it's okay. Of all the things I've done so far, writing has been the most rewarding... maybe because the standards [by which you are judged], when it comes to writing, are more subjective. With Chinese paiting, it's more rigid. If you compare yourself to another artist it's very clear where the shortcomings are, whereas with writing I think there is a lot more sense of a personal style. Of course, there are comparisons but you can still do it without comparison. It's the best thing about writing.
ESQ: What would make a "Great Malaysian Novel"?
SLK: I think if a book that spans a 50 to 60-year period—which is not what I write—and somehow documents, through fiction, the changes we’re going through. So say a story spanning two or three generations in which we have all the additional content of history or politics or community life. But it's got to be a good book first and foremost before it aims to document history or anything.
ESQ: Do you read Malay literature and what do you think the differences are between Malay and English literature in Malaysia?
SLK: There are a few Malay writers that are quite interesting. Have you read Sufian Abas? He has a collection called Kasut Biru Rubina which is good, and fun; very readable. I don’t think I've read enough Malay literature to compare, but I think one of the differences is probably that those writing in English now are still trying to write in "good" English. I don’t mean grammatically; but we’re trying to emulate a certain writing style which we think of as "good" writing; whereas I think people writing in Malay right now, they're being a lot more experimental and pushing some boundaries with the language. I've read some stuff that's very fresh and modern, not like what we studied in school. It's not just more colloquial, but I think they're also very playful. Maybe it's because it's their mother tongue, and so they feel more confident with experimentation. In English, I think we're still trying to make sure nobody says our writing is "bad", you know.
ESQ: Fun question. If u could save one work of literature from aFahrenheit 451 fate, which would it be?
SLK: Isaac Asimov’s short story, "Nightfall". Basically, at the end, the world goes dark and people start burning books for light.