Sunday, March 29, 2009

LEE Tse Ling reviews Urban Odysseys

Feeling Malaysian
Review by LEE TSE LING

Edited by Janet Tay and Eric Forbes
(MPH Group Publishing, 339pp)

MID-November 2007, MPH Group Publishing put out a call for Kuala Lumpur-centric short-story submissions—stories and essays between 3,000 and 5,000 words to be collected between the covers of Urban Odysseys—that would conjure a uniquely Malaysian spirit of place.

About a hundred submissions made their way to MPH Publishing between then and February 2008. Of these, 21 from 19 writers (Ho Sui-Jim and Mark David Shim have the honour of double entries) were selected and published in the collection, which was launched on February 10, 2009.

The band of 19 is a mix of Malaysians living in Malaysia like Tan May Lee and (StarMag’s Tots to Teens columnist) Daphne Lee, expatriates like M.K. Ajay and Yusuf Martin, Malaysians living abroad like Ho, Preeta Samarasan (whose début novel, Evening is the Whole Day, made the longlist of Britain’s Orange Prize for Fiction on May 18) and Jennifer Tai, and a few foreign writers like Shim, Elizabeth Smither and Tom Sykes.

Being an anthology of works from various authors, Urban Odysseys promises—like a buffet—a variety of styles and tastes in quick succession, within which lie tastier morsels and those less palatable.

Little and often is best the way to tackle Urban Odysseys, as the entries are highly digestible individually, but harder going as a continuous read (rather like hitting the buffet line one time too many in one sitting).

A few of the gems, for me, were Ho’s “Baby Elephants in the Playground,” Preeta Samarasan’s “Rukun Tetangga,” Lee’s “Reasons,” and Tai’s “Small Mother.” Firstly, because they were Malaysian-flavoured without trying too hard to be (unlike some where the dialogue grates like those bad radio commercials we’re so good at with their over-exaggerations of -lah, -leh, mah and meh).

Secondly, because they didn’t so much ring a bell of recognition as sound like a host of performing bell-ringers in full swing, provoking thoughts like “Hey! I know that place!” (suburbia and Mid Valley Megamall, patrolled by Preeta’s vigilante Guna Uncle for would-be kidnappers); “My aunties tell me stories like that!” (Tai’s 1960s-set clan clash of tai tai meets concubine); “I know how that feels ...” (Lee’s echoing thought: “Anyone, everyone is lovable, especially if they love you”); and “I totally remember that!” (Ho’s childhood scenes: waiting out calls for prayers in between cartoons on TV, grannies smeared with Hazeline Snow, and the dismal realisation that glass bottles of fizzy drinks will crack when placed in the freezer).

That resonance felt like those thrills you get when you catch a sighting of home, i.e., Malaysia, in an international movie (like the Petronas Twin Towers in Entrapment and Ipoh in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution). And it’s novel feeling. After all, most literature in English with a Malaysian setting tends to be nonfiction—travel guides, war memoirs from ex-soldiers and British residents and collected articles from local columnists spring to mind.

Urban Odysseys makes you realise just how “foreign” most creative literature you read/have read is. From children’s books about golliwogs, English farms, treacle tarts and—of all things—blancmange to classics set in Elizabethan, Edwardian, or Victorian England, to contemporary best-sellers set in London, New York, Tokyo and Paris. In doing so, it also makes you realise how “Malaysian,” or not, you are.

Reproduced from The Sunday Star of March 29, 2009


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Eric,
What happened to the other anthology of short fiction that will be published under the tentatively title Chinese Stories? Any writers chosen?

Monday, March 30, 2009 2:00:00 AM  
Blogger Eric Forbes said...

I am afraid Chinese Stories has been shelved due to lack of entries/good entries.

Monday, March 30, 2009 3:07:00 AM  
Blogger Michelle said...

Hi Eric, what were you looking for in Chinese Stories?

Tuesday, March 31, 2009 9:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your last paragraph made me think yet again about the question of identity and how I, as a Westerner, would feel if the vast majority of my book-derived, cultural worldview had its origins in racially-alien literature. Fiction (or, as I've heard the art form described by Malaysian friends, storybooks) is a sine qua non of Western culture but other cultures seem to get by without very much of it being either produced or read, at least on a per capita basis.

I suspect that some of the reasons for this may gleaned from a close reading of that remarkably illuminating book, 'Human Accomplishment' by Professor Charles Murray.

Friday, April 03, 2009 9:57:00 PM  

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