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