A Quick Introduction to Malaysian SF/F

This post was originally posted at Jeff Vandermeer's blog, Ecstatic Days, at which he very kindly asked me to guestblog for a bit! See the original post plus comments here.

So, I’m going to chat a bit about science fiction and fantasy here in Malaysia. For today.

Firstly, our folklore is rich with talking animals, mystical people, daring adventures, and heroes. Much of it is based on animistic beliefs, leftover from the days before Islam came to our shores. (Much of what is recognized as the Malaysian peninsular was under various Hindu empires for several centuries.) As a result, myths and legends provide a rich source for imaginary romps. Unfortunately, much of these myths and legends aren’t always transmitted, as Malay supremacy, tied with Islamism, is on the rise and wants to do away with animistic traditions (our political situation is fairly fraught).

Secondly, our history of colonialism has affected us, deeply. Some of you may remember reading Deepa D.’s I Didn’t Dream of Dragons, which articulates wonderfully the wounds left on the psyche of colonized peoples long after the British empire receded from our shores. The same issues affect Malaysians.

Thirdly, it is incredibly difficult to find South-east Asian science fiction / fantasy in English. If I find something, it’s usually a collection of myths and legends, rather than a new, original novel.

If you were to wander into a Malaysian bookstore, you would find that most of the books sold are in English. Part of it is because despite Malay being our official language, much cross-cultural communication occurs in English, although we have a basilect that takes on the grammatical structures and vocabulary of Malay, Chinese and Tamil, depending on who you talk to (we Malaysians are very good at code-switching).

If you look into the science fiction / fantasy sections, young adult, horror, and romance, you would note that all books have been brought in from overseas. Tolkien is always in stock, alongside other classic fantasy mainstays. The young adult stocks all the latest books. Most of them are from U.S. American publishers. And noticeably, U.S. American white authours.

If you could read Malay, and moseyed into the Malay aisles to see what books were being offered, you would see that we do, in fact, have science fiction/fantasy novels. (We also have a comparable YA section.) I don’t read Malay books often, nor Malaysian books in general, because although my Malay is passable (we must pass Malay to graduate from secondary school), I have difficulty really getting into a Malay-language book, and also because a lot of Malaysian fiction tends to be heavy-handedly moralistic.

I’m not home enough to be able to judge Malaysian sf/f very much. I’ve got one book from PTS Publishing, and I didn’t like it. The writing was poor, like that of a new scifi writer who has yet to master the craft of storytelling before going on about How! Cool! This! Hero! Is! I like wish fulfillment fiction as much as the next person – it’s one of the reasons why I read sf/f – but like my friend cycads says, about another different genre of writing in Malaysia, “Can do better.”

I know, however, that we have fen here, and we are reading (and writing, and creating). Maybe all local scifi scenes have this beginning bumps in the road, these rough edges, where writing is clumsily derivative until we find our voices and come out strong and substantial. Maybe we’re getting it wrong (and if we are, I don’t need to hear about it from white people, mmkay). But it’s there. And that’s cool by me.

Also, the covers are pretty awesome.

I hope this post has been informative for you! Feel free to ask me to write about other subjects, if you like.


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