On Sunday 31st of August 2014, Malaysia celebrates 57 years of independence from British colonial rule. To celebrate this special day, why not read a book on historical Malaysia? Here are our top 5 picks:
‘The Garden of Evening Mists’ by Tan Twan Eng
The critically-acclaimed novel was awarded the 2012 winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize and the 2013 winner of Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. Here is a synopsis of the novel:
It’s Malaya, 1949. After studying law at Cambridge and time spent helping to prosecute Japanese war criminals, Yun Ling Teoh, herself the scarred lone survivor of a brutal Japanese wartime camp, seeks solace among the jungle-fringed plantations of Northern Malaya where she grew up as a child. There she discovers Yugiri, the only Japanese garden in Malaya, and its owner and creator, the enigmatic Aritomo, exiled former gardener of the Emperor of Japan.Despite her hatred of the Japanese, Yun Ling seeks to engage Aritomo to create a garden in Kuala Lumpur, in memory of her sister who died in the camp. Aritomo refuses, but agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice ‘until the monsoon comes’. Then she can design a garden for herself.As the months pass, Yun Ling finds herself intimately drawn to her sensei and his art while, outside the garden, the threat of murder and kidnapping from the guerrillas of the jungle hinterland increases with each passing day. But the Garden of Evening Mists is also a place of mystery. Who is Aritomo and how did he come to leave Japan? Why is it that Yun Ling’s friend and host, Magnus Praetorius, seems almost immune from the depredations of the Communists? What is the legend of ‘Yamashita’s Gold’ and does it have any basis in fact? And is the real story of how Yun Ling managed to survive the war perhaps the darkest secret of all?
‘The Rice Mother’ by Rani Manicka (available for rent)
Rani Manicka’s debut novel won the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2003. Here is a synopsis of the novel:
Nothing in Lakshmi’s childhood, running carefree and barefoot on the sun-baked earth amid the coconut and mango trees of Ceylon, could have prepared her for what life was to bring her. At fourteen, she finds herself traded in marriage to a stranger across the ocean in the fascinating land of Malaysia. Duped into thinking her new husband is wealthy, she instead finds herself struggling to raise a family with a man too impractical to face reality and a world that is, by turns, unyielding and amazing, brutal and beautiful. Giving birth to a child every year until she is nineteen, Lakshmi becomes a formidable matriarch, determined to wrest from the world a better life for her daughters and sons and to face every new challenge with almost mythic strength. By sheer willpower Lakshmi survives the nightmare of World War II and the Japanese occupation – but not unscathed. The family bears deep scars on its back and in turn inflicts those wounds on the next generation. But it is not until Lakshmi’s great-granddaughter, Nisha, pieces together the mosaic of her family history that the legacy of the Rice Mother bears fruit.
‘The Harmony Silk Factory’ by Tash Aw (available for rent)
This debut novel by Tash Aw won the Commonwealth Writers Prize (South East Asia and South Pacific Region, Best First Book) and Whitebread First Novel Award (both in 2005). Here is a synopsis of the novel:
‘The Harmony Silk Factory’ is the textiles store run by Johnny Lim, a Chinese peasant living in rural Malay in the first half of the twentieth century. It is the most impressive and truly amazing structure in the region, and to the inhabitants of the Kinta Valley Johnny Lim is a hero – a Communist who fought the Japanese when they invaded, ready to sacrifice his life for the welfare of his people. But to his son, Jasper, Johnny is a crook and a collaborator who betrayed the very people he pretended to serve, and the Harmony Silk Factory is merely a front for his father’s illegal businesses. Centering on Johnny from three perspectives-those of his grown son; his wife, Snow, the most beautiful woman in the Kinta Valley (through her diary entries); and his best and only friend, an Englishman adrift named Peter Wormwood-the novel reveals the difficulty of knowing another human being, and how our assumptions about others also determine who we are.
‘Kampung Boy’ by Lat
‘Kampung Boy’ is one of the many graphic novels by highly regarded Malaysian cartoonist, Lat. Here is a synopsis of the graphic novel:
‘Kampung Boy’ is a favourite of millions of readers in Southeast Asia. With masterful economy worthy of Charles Schultz, Lat recounts the life of Mat, a Muslim boy growing up in rural Malaysia in the 1950s: his adventures and mischief-making, fishing trips, religious study, and work on his family’s rubber plantation. Meanwhile, the traditional way of life in his village (or kampung) is steadily disappearing, with tin mines and factory jobs gradually replacing family farms and rubber small-holders. When Mat himself leaves for boarding school, he can only hope that his familiar kampung will still be there when he returns. ‘Kampung Boy’ is hilarious and affectionate, with brilliant, super-expressive artwork that opens a window into a world that has now nearly vanished.
‘When I Was a Kid’ by Boey
‘When I Was a Kid’ is an autobiographical graphic novel that went straight to non-fiction bestseller list when it was released in Malaysia 2 years ago. Here is a synopsis of the graphic novel:
The stories in the book are a reflection of cartoonist Boey’s childhood spent growing up in Johor Bahru and crossing the causeway to attend school in Singapore in the 1980s. At 17, he packed his bags and headed to San Francisco to study and has gone on to establish his career there. The stories first appeared on his blog www.iamboey.com and the number of followers increased over the years encouraging Boey to compile some of the stories into his first book.Funny, poignant, honest, When I was a Kid is illustrated in simple stick figures accompanied by short descriptions. Each story is self contained and can be read in any order.
Do you know any other book that matches our selection for ‘Merdeka’/Malaysia’s Independence Day read? Share your suggestions with us in the comment box below.