Sunday, February 01, 2009

URBAN ODYSSEYS Tales of the City

By JANET TAY & ERIC FORBES

“KL was never prim and proper, and this anthology celebrates our famous juxtapositions with welcome rudeness.” Amir Muhammad

URBAN ODYSSEYS: KL STORIES
Edited by Janet Tay & Eric Forbes
MPH Group Publishing, February 10, 2009, RM35.90

Urban Odysseys was launched by MANO MANIAM at MPH Megastore One Utama at 2:00p.m. on Tuesday, February 10, 2009

CITIES HAVE LONG FASCINATED and been a source of inspiration for many people. How many of us who were not born and bred in the city have longed from afar to traverse pavements and roads in the metropolis, where hurried and harried faceless people thronged, always looking as if they were late for some important appointment?

We imagine the city to be a glamorous and seductive place, the forefront of excitement and adventure, the pulse or nerve centre of the nation. Bright lights in a big city that never sleeps, the café culture, the theatres, clubs, orchestral concerts, expensive restaurants and shopping in pristine malls: all enticements for the young and wide-eyed, or appeasements for seasoned, ambivalent city-dwellers.

Yet how often do we choose to overlook the dirt and decay that exist within every urbanised community, or inadvertently neglect to notice that beneath the glossy exterior of consumerism and excessive consumption lie forgotten, invisible people steeped in poverty, and apathy that allows new building developments to flourish beside slum dwellings?

Urban Odysseys: KL Stories is a rich compendium of stories and creative nonfiction set against the landscape of the Malaysian capital. These stories represent the variegated embroidery of a city and the denizens, drifters and dreamers who dwell in it. Most of the stories reflect the tension in such juxtaposed city areas: Rachel Chan’s ‘A Tale of Two Cities’; Esther Soh’s ‘On the Sunny Side of This Street’; Joanne Chin’s ‘Clear Skies’; a vagrant’s tale in Lynn Lee’s ‘Underbelly’; a story of an Indonesian man seeking a better life in Kuala Lumpur in Mark David Shim’s ‘Migration’; a man who traipses round the city in a haze of surrealism in Tom Sykes’s ‘Let There Be Something or Nothing’; and Crissida Wong’s exploration of the city as an architectural student in ‘And That’s What Architecture Is All About.’

The city of Kuala Lumpur is as much a character as any of the people portrayed in these stories; these are portraits of the Malaysian capital seen through the prism of stories. Each writer’s experience of or passage through Kuala Lumpur is unique; at some point in their lives, they have grown up in, stopped over in, moved into, or, lost and found themselves in the labyrinthine chaos of the city.

This collection was inspired by Writing New York: A Literary Anthology (The Library of America, ed. Phillip Lopate), a collection of New York stories that paints a literary portrait of the city, mapping out more than a hundred years of its history. We were extremely enthusiastic about the idea of a similar anthology that would not only document the landscape of the city, but also showcase a host of literary voices—both Malaysian and non-Malaysian—that capture its essence and nuances.

Our call for submissions asked for stories that best encapsulate the spirit of the national capital, and the stories we received called on the writers’ unique experiences of the city as well as their rich imaginations. Although some writers might find writing with a specific theme rather restrictive, the number of submissions we received was encouraging and we had to exclude many stories reluctantly. We are also pleased to introduce an array of new writers in this anthology and hope that this will be a springboard for them to continue writing and publish collections of short stories or novels of their own in the future. There are also published authors such as Daphne Lee, M.K. Ajay, Preeta Samarasan, Elizabeth Smither and Tom Sykes—all of whom add further prestige to an already-strong collection.

If the collection seems rather eclectic, it is because we have tried to incorporate as many different styles and settings as we could to reflect the fragmented nature of the city, common in most modern-day cities. A woman’s husband disappears in mysterious circumstances in Ho Sui-Jim’s ‘Bentong’; a man becomes obsessed with preventing crimes against children in Preeta Samarasan’s ‘Rukun Tetangga’; a woman considers her life choices in M.K. Ajay’s ‘Bird Park’; Lee Eeleen zooms in on a young family’s day out in the city in ‘Scenes from the Shopping Complex’ and a world-weary police detective in Karina Bahrin’s poignant yet humorous story, ‘A Woman in Five Pieces,’ contends with the headless ghost of a murder victim. A woman reflects on married life in a city of strangers in Daphne Lee’s ‘Reasons’; Elizabeth Smither discovers Kuala Lumpur and a regal cat named Tai in ‘Sleeping with the High Commissioner’s Cat’; boy-riders participate in illegal motorcycle racing in Yusuf Martin’s ‘Mat Rempit’; and R.K. Boo introduces a different kind of rat race in a world of corporatised brothels in ‘City of Flesh.’

Memories and change dominate the stories as well. A grandmother in Tan May Lee’s ‘From the Roof’ reminisces about a life long past, while a grandfather in Paul GnanaSelvam’s ‘Char Kway Teow, Satu’ desperately attempts to relive fond memories of a changed city. Ho Sui-Jim presents an idyllic urban childhood of a young boy who struggles to remember after a bad fall in ‘Baby Elephants in the Playground’ and another boy enjoys being pampered by his grandfather in Mark David Shim’s ‘Distances.’ Jennifer Tai’s ‘Small Mother’ brings us back to Kuala Lumpur in the 1960s and reminds us of the contrasting images that make up the city today, for what is a city without its past? The most pleasurable part of putting together these stories was probably seeing the many different angles of the city and viewpoints that opened up our minds; more often than not, we were pleasantly surprised by these revelations.

We hope you will enjoy reading these stories, which we feel present a colourful montage of ambiguities and contradictions of the city, as much as we have enjoyed editing them.

We would like to thank all the writers for their stories. We would also like to thank Sharon Bakar for her constructive advice and sensible suggestions during the editing process. We truly appreciate her invaluable and stringent reading of the final drafts of this book. Heartfelt appreciation to Felicity Hatfield, whose extraordinary painting, Trapped, commissioned specially for Urban Odysseys, graces the cover. Last but not least, we are indebted to Daphne Lee and Amir Muhammad for their generous assistance.

From the Introduction to Urban Odysseys: KL Stories, MPH Group Publishing, February 2009

19 Comments:

Anonymous Jenn said...

It was a pleasure and a huge honour submitting for the collection, Eric. I look forward to the reviews. I am writing for children these days. Let's see where that goes.

Monday, February 09, 2009 8:37:00 PM  
Blogger Eric Forbes said...

We just launched Urban Odysseys. The turnout was fantastic. Thanks for your story. Hopefully, the response to the collection will be favourable.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009 1:22:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congratulations, Eric!

- Twan Eng

Wednesday, February 11, 2009 12:54:00 AM  
Blogger Eric Forbes said...

Thanks for your support, Twan Eng! Highly appreciated.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009 1:06:00 AM  
Blogger Yusuf Martin said...

May I take this opportunity to thank MPH, Eric and Janet for all their hard work and support in getting this collection of stories off the ground.

But most of all for allowing me to be part of it all.

Sunday, February 15, 2009 12:18:00 AM  
Blogger Eric Forbes said...

Thanks for your good wishes, Yusuf!

Sunday, February 15, 2009 12:25:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Eric: I had to tell you that I went out at lunch today and bought the book. It’s very handsome (yes, I know we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover ... but why not, eh?) and I can’t wait to read the stories. I just had a quick look at the contents page to see who the writers were ... and it is good to know I don’t know any of them except for Preeta Samarasan ... so reading this will be an adventure. Cheers, Elizabeth

Friday, March 06, 2009 5:51:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What were the editors’ initial expectations of the project when it first started in the middle of 2007?

Sunday, February 14, 2010 3:20:00 PM  
Blogger Eric Forbes said...

When we first embarked on this book project in mid-2007, the idea was to coax new talent out of the woodwork and experienced writers to contribute their stories. We were merely looking to develop good Malaysian writing in English. The project was meant to be encouraging, nurturing, so to speak.

Sunday, February 14, 2010 3:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The call for entries to the anthology was looking for short stories that “best encapsulate the spirit of the national capital.” Generally speaking, how did the 100-odd submissions portray KL?

Sunday, February 14, 2010 3:21:00 PM  
Blogger Eric Forbes said...

We were looking for stories that best encapsulate the spirit of the national capital. We had about 84 submissions and we shortlisted 21 for the collection. Most of the stories portray KL as a rather dark place—certainly not cheery or peaceful. Most of them paint KL as very colourful, contrasting, a kaleidoscope of images, shadowy, which we thought as a city should be.

Sunday, February 14, 2010 3:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some of the stories in the anthology could be universal experiences in any other cities—what makes them “distinctively Kuala Lumpur”? Or would it be that the universality of these stories show that Kuala Lumpur share many similarities with other cities?

Sunday, February 14, 2010 3:23:00 PM  
Blogger Eric Forbes said...

Lots of specific places in the city are evoked in the stories; also the food, smells, culture, people, language, dialects, etc. Using words to evoke a sense of place in stories is a skill writers must develop through constant writing, constant practice. Some of the stories have succeeded in this respect. Kuala Lumpur, of course, shares many similarities with other cities in the world, but there are certainly examples that are uniquely Malaysian, uniquely Kuala Lumpur, or characteristics of a Malaysian metropolis.

Sunday, February 14, 2010 3:23:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The editors’ introduction says that you “tried to incorporate as many different styles and settings to reflect the fragmented nature of the city.” Why?

Sunday, February 14, 2010 3:24:00 PM  
Blogger Eric Forbes said...

We have tried to incorporate as many different styles and settings in this collection to reflect the fragmented nature of the city. We wanted to reach as wide a readership as possible with this collection. There is no one particular style in this collection: some of the stories are rather mainstream in tone, while others are literary.

Sunday, February 14, 2010 3:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is this the beginning of a series of anthologies for MPH Group Publishing? Would you consider Urban Odysseys a complete project?

Sunday, February 14, 2010 3:25:00 PM  
Blogger Eric Forbes said...

We didn’t have a series in mind when we began—but one never knows. Urban Odysseys was supposed to be a one-off project. As far as completeness is concerned, no, we think there are aspects that the selected stories did not cover, but we had to pick the best stories for the collection, so most of the time it was a matter of choosing quality over theme. However, we do hope to publish more of such collections in the future, both fiction and nonfiction. Nonfiction collections would most probably assume the form of essays: travel pieces, political commentaries, etc. We consider Urban Odysseys a stand-alone project, not necessarily the beginning of a series, though we would like to do more of such story collections as and when we have enough stories that bristle with imagination and authentic characters. What we are looking for is basically good writing. We are keen to do the same treatment on Singapore.

Sunday, February 14, 2010 3:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, eric. Just letting you know, I'm using one of the texts from urban odysseys, rukun tetangga. I do hope my students buy the book upon reading this story.I might also recommend this book for my tiny tiny book club called the bookeaters.
joan, tronoh, perak

Tuesday, February 16, 2010 4:38:00 PM  
Blogger Eric Forbes said...

Thanks, Joan!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010 4:48:00 PM  

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