A Quick Introduction to a Malaysian and Malaysian SF/F

Hello wonderful readers! I am Jha! Sorry to be so late to the party here. I have excuses, but you don’t want to hear them. So instead, I will do the thing I should be doing, which is writing about pop culture stuff and generally being entertaining while still adding my ish to this here lovely blog.

Right now, I am blogging from my family home in warm, humid Malaysia. Most of the year, I’m in Canada, the Great White North, where I’ve been studying since 2003, and going back for a post-grad degree, with a proposed thesis on steampunk and postcolonialism. If you’ve ever read my steampunk blog, Silver Goggles, you’ve been reading my early homework for my Major Research Project. And obviously, also, rants about the Lack of Diversity in Steampunk, and Folks Gettin’ It Wrong, and How That Should Change.

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.

39 comments on “A Quick Introduction to a Malaysian and Malaysian SF/F

  1. jeff vandermeer says:

    That’s an awesome and honest report–really fascinating. Thanks!!

  2. rushmc says:

    Remove the chip from your shoulder and the overt racism from your remarks and they would be a lot more interesting and a lot less off-putting. (Sorry for the tips–my skin, indeed, happens to be pale.)

  3. jeff vandermeer says:

    Rushmc: I wasn’t threatened by that myself. I certainly didn’t see racism. I just saw an aggressive position, and there’s nothing wrong with that. And, frankly, I didn’t see anything controversial about what she is saying. So cool yer jets or I’ll cool them for you.

  4. Nin Harris says:

    I’m pretty fascinated by the fact that, while there doesn’t seem to be a lot of Malaysian sf/f published within the country itself, writers from the Malaysian diaspora/exodus *are* getting a place in various semipro-zines in the SF/F-verse. I think Malaysians are far more sophisticated than they are given credit for, and this is a bias I grapple with daily. Perhaps this is why those of us who seek publication, seek it abroad.

    Apart from that, I had a good giggle reading the synopses on the PTS website, some of which reminds me of the trashy stories I used to read as a teen in an attempt to better my Malay. I’d totally read some of them, today. Looks like fun.

  5. Jha says:

    Jeff: Thanks!

    RushMC: My shoulders are pristine. Soz for proving you wrong.

    Nin: Yeap! Most so-called developing countries are far more sophisticated than we credit them with, and not just in SF/F. Part of why we seek publication abroad is that the Malaysian market is very small, with assumptions that Malaysian readers don’t care for SF/F. There’s also a vein of “kiasu” – scared to lose – running in us: if we don’t make it big, we shouldn’t try at all. But this is part of the larger culture, not just SF/F.

  6. Joyce Chng says:

    Don’t get me started with Singapore SF/F. :P

  7. Jha says:

    Oh, Joyce, don’t hold back, tell us how you REALLY feel! Our cultures are similar enough that I’ll probably just be nodding along saying, “yeah, same here…”

  8. jeff vandermeer says:

    I was gonna ask about Singapore, actually. I was curious about the differences in terms of fiction. And any cross-influence across countries in Southeast Asia generally.

  9. Nin Harris says:

    BTW @Jha: Steampunk Nusantara looks pretty cool. I’ll have to dig through that at greater length when I don’t have an assignment due. I’m excited by stuff like this happening back home and I think there’s just so much untapped or under-represented talent not just in Malaysia but in S.E. Asia.

  10. Joyce Chng says:

    I ain’t holding back (might end up writing a rant/essay about it).

    Jeff, Singaporean and Malaysian cultures are similar yes: we also suffer from the same colonial baggage and our bookstores are similar as well. I think many of us in Singapore are also trying to find our own voice when it comes to writing SFF.

  11. Todd says:

    Nice. I love hearing about genre fiction in other parts of the world. I often wonder what crazy books are out there in other languages, untranslated. Many, I’m sure. You’ve shone light on a really interesting topic. Thanks for the honest post.

  12. Joyce Chng says:

    I wrote this for the Eastern issue of Crossed Genres:

    Less of the “We exist!” angst – more of a personal journey. :P

  13. Ender says:

    Very interesting. I also love hearing about genre fiction in other parts of the world – one of the things I enjoy most about SF is encountering new ideas, different perspectives, and crazy out of this world things, and reading SF from all around the world helps broaden the stories I come into contact with.

    “(and if we are, I don’t need to hear about it from white people, mmkay). ”

    If you are doing it wrong it doesn’t matter what colour skin the person who tells you that has, they are right.

  14. rushmc says:

    Disappointed that you would condone it on your blog, much less defend it (and threaten to censor discussion of it). It was ill-advised, unnecessary, and detracted from an interesting topic.

    You’ve lost a long-time subscriber (I know, I know, you don’t care, but nevertheless, there it is).

  15. jeff vandermeer says:

    I don’t condone anything like what you’re talking about. It is an aggressive stance and it probably wasn’t necessary for Jha to add that dig–it was definitely preemptive–but I guess I am just viewing it differently since I know Jha a little. I also am not going to censor any of my guest bloggers. I am not always going to agree with them, though, either. And if I lose you over somebody else’s blog post, then I am not sure I had you to begin with.

  16. PZ says:

    Always refreshing to see the celebration of diversity, especially with post-colonialist, reconstructive vision. Looking forward to more of your writing Lady Jha. Blessings 'pon the works *-*

  17. Nin Harris says:

    Just as a note for those who may be interested – something I forgot to mention yesterday: if you dig into the classical MalayHikayat you’ll find some really cool instances of “science fiction” happening way back in the day. Stuff like flying chambers that resemble helicopters (In “Hikayat Raja Muda” which was otherwise a pretty standard romantic epic) and elevator-like contraptions that go deep into the sea (in a description of the origins of a Malay Empire with some really kick-ass connection to Alexander the Great. All deeply fictionalised, of course). A “Hikayat”‘s a romantic Malay epic form which exists in classical Malay and may have been translated into more contemporary Malay. I know there are English translations of the Sejarah Melayu and I’d been planning to write an article or essay about the cool old stuff they made us learn in schools (and translate for exams into modern Malay) but I never have the time. So yeah, I’m sure this is the same for most of the S.E. Asian nations, (or most cultures, whether autochthonous or not!), if you dig deeper, you find really cool stuff.

  18. Ender says:

    “Disappointed that you would condone it on your blog, much less defend it (and threaten to censor discussion of it). It was ill-advised, unnecessary, and detracted from an interesting topic.

    You’ve lost a long-time subscriber (I know, I know, you don’t care, but nevertheless, there it is).”

    I also didn’t like that comment (see above), but I don’t think Jeff is condoning nor defending it. It merely is. Jaymee wrote this post, and chose to write that. It may be aggressive as Jeff says, but it certainly isn’t serious enough for him to need to object to it in a guest post, and his asking you to cool your jets (or he’ll cool them for you) is hardly a threat of censorship, just a reminder from the owner and moderator that he wants calm productive discussion – not really that much to ask.

  19. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Thanks, Ender. I have an obligation here as a host when people guest blog. Expressing disapproval of something is just fine, but beyond that begins to feel like overkill. I didn’t delete the dissenting comments and of course wish Jha hadn’t felt the need to preemptively parenthetical. But it’s not that big a deal, in my opinion.

  20. Jaymee Goh says:

    Hi peoples! Wow, the comments got busy while I was gone.

    Ender: “If you are doing it wrong it doesn’t matter what colour skin the person who tells you that has, they are right.”

    It does, actually. There is a history of cultural imperialism whereby white people tell the poor uncivilized non-white people what to do with their own lives, taking the reins of leadership. The dynamics of white privilege work this way: the confident, “superior” white person talks, makes suggestions, unnerves the others, who step aside to let the “more experienced” lead the charge. Without keeping it in check, eventually, a dynamic evolves whereby the white person is in charge. No one else questions this, because it is so normal for it to happen. Very often it occurs unconsciously. Historical habit, as it is.

    If I’m going to hear about this particular fault from someone, I want to hear about it from one of my own. In many other contexts, in which race doesn’t matter as much, I wouldn’t mind, but you know? Malaysian-specific sf/f really should be criticized by Malaysians, not spear-headed by non-Malaysians, especially since it’s a country that’s still looking for its identity. That’s why the skin colour of the critic, within this kind of context, matters, greatly. SF/F isn’t a field of perfect racial equality; some groups are overrepresented compared to others.

    rushmc: Nawh. Well, you’d be missing out on Jeff.

    Todd: I hear Italian SF/F is pretty rocking. The World SF Blog had an article about it recently. I don’t know if it’s “crazy”.

    Jeff: Thanks! Yes, I was being preemptive, but that’s me wanting to kill well-meaning suggestions before it happens (and it happens a lot a lot a lot). I’m pretty high-strung in spaces not my own.

    Nin: Teehee! Yes! Steampunk Nusantara needs some TLC really badly. But I’m proud of it, and just knowing that it’s a place for folks to come to for reference gives me warm fuzzies.

  21. Ender says:

    Thanks for the reply Jaymee.

    “If you are doing it wrong it doesn’t matter what colour skin the person who tells you that has, they are right”

    In this sentence ‘doesn’t matter’ was referring to ‘they are right’, and it is true that whether they are right or not does not change based on the colour of their skin.
    You are saying, if I understand you right, that whether or not the white person is right, their pointing out the error can be a harmful thing.

    I agree in principle, and your example shows how it can go down, but I do not necessarily agree that that is what would happen in this kind of case (perhaps you have seen it happen, the dynamics of Malaysian sf writers are not something I’m familiar with), nor that the possibility of it happening makes it reasonable for you to single out a particular race of people and ban them from voicing their opinions.

  22. Jaymee Goh says:

    You understand me right.

    My example doesn’t actually just show how it “can” go down. It already has. Many many times. With many many movements. Not Malaysian SFF, but in US/Canada. And not SFF, but in social justice (which is where I blog from most of the time). I’m generally very reconciliatory, but there are certain things I take a hard line on, and limitations on where privileged groups can exercise that privilege is one of them.

    For example, Tim Rice. He’s a very well-known white ally, and his talks on racism’s manifestations in today’s political environment is nuanced, and he’s generally right, most of the time. The problem is, and he’s well-aware of this from what I understand, that because he’s white, he’s the go-to person for talks on race. This, despite the fact that he doesn’t personally suffer from racism (directly, that is; racism hurts us all, privilege or no). But people will take their cue from him anyway; he’s the one receiving requests to speak, he gets accolades, fame and recognition. Because he is a white man, thus his opinion is considered more worthwhile listening to than other anti-racists, usually black. Even as he uses his privilege to serve as a gateway for anti-racist work, he is playing into the same power structure that perpetuates racism. As long as people see HIM as the go-to person for anti-racism, at the expense of black anti-racists, it’s still a white bias that is, due to the group dynamics, racist.

    Furthermore, you’re assuming that there is a single standard of Doing It Right. White imperialists thought they were Doing It Right, and everybody else had to follow their ways because it was obviously the best. If a group thought differently, they were considered uncivilized (Middle East, Native America) or sabotaged so the imperialists could get their way (China).

    I know it doesn’t sound reasonable to some folks, particularly white people, who often have NO idea of the kind of systemic bias that PoC face on a daily basis, but if you take into account that this HAS happened, and is STILL happening now, read anti-racism blogs, study the history of radical movements, I think you’ll find my mistrust quite justifiable. You don’t have to like it, but the problem is not the marginalized person’s mistrust, but the system that causes that mistrust.

    Hope that helps you understand my POV.

  23. Jha, saw this from your LJ, nice intro (though a bit rushed IMHO XD).

    Being Malaysian I assume I am allowed to say something about the scene? While I can’t speak for SF in particular, I do have a publishing anecdote to share that may shed some light on the matter.

    I remember reading about MPH’s Urban Odysseys and their call for submissions. Of the friends who submitted, two of them were accepted into the anthology. One just said yes to everything the editor suggested. The other (E) asked about rights. For her trouble/self-awareness/attempt at self-protection, E’s story was dropped.

    I retell this anecdote to point out that the entire publishing scene in Malaysia is still in its infancy; it is nowhere near as sophisticated as that of the US or the UK (or any other country as far as I know). SF is merely a genre, and a sad, unwanted, overlooked genre at that. Our non-fiction industry is alive and well–just look at all the educational books on the shelves, especially the PMR/SPM cram books, which come out with new editions every year! Somehow there are almost zero new Malaysian books on the fiction shelves.

    What does this have to do with SF/F in Malaysia, you ask? Just this: fiction in Malaysia–whatever the genre, whatever the race/ethnicity of the author, whatever the language they write in–is in and of itself still growing, still figuring out its role, still trying to get the details right. As far as I can tell, a number of Malaysian authors move to another country, send submissions to other countries’ publishers, and generally avoid dealing with the Malaysian publishing industry whenever possible.

    I wonder: would fiction in general (and SF/F in particular) be better off if a concerted effort was made to develop the publishing industry as a whole?

  24. Jha says:

    Being Malaysian, you should never doubt you are in a position to talk about it. Especially since you ARE currently living in Malaysia, whereas I am not.

    And yes! That was definitely something I had missed out on writing this post. I had an inkling, hearing about it from various corners, but can’t speak to it definitively. Thank you for your anecdote. I agree that the publishing industry, AND book distributing, in Malaysia needs to improve. For one, they could stop looking down so much on local authours.

  25. Actually, I’m not. I currently live in Tokyo and have been here four years. (I am writing this comment from Gate City Osaki while waiting in between classes, and I’m rather annoyed by how poor my wireless connection is.) ^_^; I’m sorry if there was ever any confusion on the matter; I didn’t think it mattered enough to specify, and on Goodreads it says clearly that I live in Tokyo. Does it count if I’m only one of two members of my extended family to live outside Malaysia, and the only one who isn’t in SEAsia?

    Yes, local authors are far too powerless. They are taken advantage of, and any attempt at self-protection when one is not a superstar (eg. a politician publishing a memoir or something similar) is pretty much rewarded with “Go away, we don’t want to deal with you, plenty of other people are looking for an outlet.” Until that particular factor is changed, I doubt the largest part of Malaysian fiction will rise above the level of vanity publishing.

  26. Also, because an edit wasn’t caught in time: the anthology paid in one copy of the book, no revenues/royalties, in exchange for perpetual non-exclusive rights. No money, by the way, not a single sen.

  27. Jha says:

    My apologies! Well, you’ve been there four years, and I’ve been away seven, and you seem a hella lot more plugged into keeping in touch with Malaysia than I am, so we’ll say it still counts. Besides which, it’s not like there’s any evidence to the contrary (other conversations I’ve had on this same subject with other Malaysians, over many years, have resulted in the same gripe, over and over again).

    The only counter I can think of against this would be a grassroots level movement in which local fiction writers are encouraged to participate in (one of the reasons I started Steampunk Nusantara). The problem with this is that it’s incredibly difficult to encourage folks to participate, on a regular basis, without some monetary reward. I don’t WANT to have to ask writers to give away their stuff for free (I don’t like doing it either).

  28. My apologies first of all for spamming the comments–I was digging through my archives looking for the details. It was Marshall Cavendish, not MPH. 6000 words (give or take), and apparently two Malaysian authors were selected for the Asian anthology, not Malaysian. I’ve conflated two submissions for being a little too closely published, and I apologize for that. In my defense, IIRC both anthologies offered almost exactly the same remuneration: one copy of the book, free, no royalties, and asked for non-exclusive rights in perpetuity.

    @Jha: Heh, what can I say? I pay attention because my entire family is still there (the only one who doesn’t live in Malaysia lives in Singapore).

    I have to be honest: if I had the seed money, I would do that publishing movement myself. But I don’t. If I had the seed money, I would also be campaigning for Marina Mahathir for Prime Minister too, though, so there you have it. There are so many things I want to do for Malaysia, but the opportunity to do so (without sidelining my own life in the process) is never quite there.

  29. Jha says:

    FebruaryFour: Always the money problem. I just said that yesterday on Steampunk Nusantara. Of course, it was in the frame story, but that’s our real-life issue too. The logistics of publishing are also tricky, and it’s incredibly difficult to get feedback on what would be the audience’s preferred way of doing things. I asked once, Would folks be willing to pay RM10 for a zine featuring local authours? I got, “If the writing quality is very good.” This is further problemized because a) what format to publish in? (electronic, paper; each has their own issues); b) how much to charge / pay without making a loss?; c) if we don’t produce the fiction, how will we readers know it’s good? How many free samples do we need (at loss to editors AND writers) before we make up our mind whether this endeavour is worthwhile?

    Not to mention the fact that those of us I know who are interested in doing this have way too little knowledge of how things work to be able to get started, and none of us are so privileged we can afford to crash and burn a few times. =/

  30. T-Boy says:

    So like, hai there. I’m Tariq, one of the other co-mods in Steampunk Nusantara.

    You know, life’s been so busy that I’ve taken to skimming blog post entries, until Jhameia smacked me upside then head and told me to go participate. So the first thing I did was read up on her post.

    And it’s kind of funny/sad, but had I been more proficient and interested to reading Malay fiction over English fiction? I wouldn’t have been an SF/F fan. I grew up reading Asimov, Tolkien and Herbert, and the SF/F I used to read was primarily written by White Westerners. Which is something you don’t really notice as a kid, as you internalize a lot of the stuff that White Westerners do, but then I had a bit of a jolt and realized, hang on, that’s not who I am.

    And another funny/sad thing that I noticed was Jha’s description of the bowlderization of Malaysian myths? It used to be, when I was a kid, I could read really violent and gory Malaysian myths (primarily Malay, although we had some Kadazandusun, Iban and Orang Asal stories as well) from Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (the Institute of Malay Language and Literature, which is a governmental organization responsible for the spread and codification of Malay language and literature).

    These sort of stories persisted even up to ten years ago, I remember — my baby sister had the Myth of the Lady of Mount Ophir, and it used to be that she DEMANDED the BLOOD of the Sultan of Melaka’s Crown Prince. Violent, unwholesome stuff. Freaking awesome. And today? Recently, my wife bought a book of Malay (specifically MALAY) myths from DBP. And not only were the stories tamed to the point of inoffensiveness, they were INCOMPREHENSIBLE. It was as if, in censoring those tales and downplaying their supernatural and un-wholesome elements, the story loses cohesion.

    I mean, I don’t know if I was a better person for knowing those stories unabridged or not — because those myths and ghost stories did provide me with a whole BOATLOAD of neuroses that took a HELL of a long time to work out — but I’m not exactly sure if making those tales wholesome and palatable was necessarily a good thing.

  31. I would be happy to coordinate long-distance, or to provide consulting for free. I don’t suppose anyone has thought of funding books via Kickstarter?

  32. Joyce Chng says:

    Kickstarter is American or USian. Unless there is a Southeast Asian option…

  33. Nin Harris says:

    Ah hah. Good discussion happening.

    A grass-roots publishing movement for fiction/lit is exactly what Malaysia needs, but I think we’ve been ****ed up for so long because of the prohibitive legislation which pretty much limits the publishing industry – which is the last thing indie press needs. But I doubt the people who made the legislation would care or even know what indie press *is*

    I was grumbling along the same vein w/ regards to Malaysian indie music also. There’s just so much talent, not enough venues (that wouldn’t be closed down) IMHO.

    @T-boy: Agreed re the whitewashing of the old stories. I refused to watch the movie w/ M.Nasir for that very reason, from all accounts it was a mash up between the Tun Teja story and Puteri Gunung Ledang.

    @Februaryfour: I agree w/ regards to local writers being screwed over. Oh, the horror stories I could tell :)

  34. Jha says:

    The thing about fiction/lit in Malaysia is that there seems to be a particular formula for what constitutes “Malaysian literature”. And this formula doesn’t seem to include “speculative fiction” unless it’s extremely general spec-fic, like what PTS is producing. There are small presses (Silverfish and Matahari come to mind), but most of what they produce is non-fiction.

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