7 books by Malay-Singaporean writers you must read
Whether you're in the mood for a croissant on the streets of Paris or exploring underground cities inhabited by mythic creatures, let these English books by some of the most talented Malay writers from Singapore whisk you away to worlds you've never explored.
In Manticura, you wear your difference. You might be a pink-skinned Human, else a scale-covered Scerean, or flat-nosed Cayanese – or if you’re anything like Ria, maybe you are a beautiful, dangerous medusa, who must walk with her fearsome eyes always averted. Melding myth and romance – as well as a chimerical society that looks suspiciously familiar to our own – The Gatekeeper is about a powerful woman’s search for home, and the sacrifices she is willing to make to reach it. Nuraliah Norasid’s acclaimed debut also won the 2016 Epigram Books Fiction Prize.
2. One Fierce Hour by Alfian Sa’at
This writer needs no introduction. As one of Singapore’s fiercest voices, Alfian Sa’at articulates with acute eloquence the grief and anger Singaporeans often swallow and stifle. His debut collection, published when he was just 21 years old and containing the incendiary “Singapore You Are Not My Country”, is description and declaration both:
O Singapore your fair shoes your garlands your GNP.
You are not a country you are a construction from spare parts.
You are not a campaign you are last year’s posters.
You are not a culture you are poems on the MRT.
You are not a song you are part swearword part lullaby.
You are not Paradise you are an island with pythons.
Yet running through it all is the love that is the source of this despair and disappointment, and the tenderness that is the product of careful reflection – the blurry, rough outline of a figure who refuses to turn, or look, away. A prolific writer with award-winning work across all mediums, Sa’at is currently the resident playwright of W!LD RICE, a local theatre company whose plays celebrate diversity and seek to both challenge and entertain.
3. Annabelle Thong by Imran Hashim
Brimming with humour and heart, Imran Hashim’s debut novel about a girl (who unfortunately shares her first name with Singapore’s first and only porn star and her last name with a piece of lingerie) studying in the prestigious Sorbonne is also a love letter to Paris. Inspired by his own time in Sciences Po and the Pantheon-Sorbonne, Hashim marries Jane Austen’s gentle and critical eye with Sophie Kinsella’s outrageous humour to create a novel that explores culture shock and difference, that is about homes lost and found. Of Annabelle Thong, a few questions remain: Will she find love? Will she get her essays in on time? Will she be able to talk about immigrants without sounding like Mussolini? Find out in this smart, hilarious debut.
4. Penghulu by Suratman Markasan
An already-established name in the Malay literary scene and a Cultural Medallion winner, Suratman Markasan is the author of several Malay poetry collections and novels that are, at last, being translated into English. Displaced from his position of authority in his beloved village to a small flat in Singapore, Pak Suleh struggles to adapt to his new life, replete with an aspiring-politician son-in-law and a slew of new practices he must now get used to. Penghulu, meaning “village headman”, is a meditation on loss and change, as old power structures and traditions give way to the new.
5. Pilgrimage by Isa Kamari
Another winner of the Cultural Medallion, Isa Kamari is one of the most prominent voices in Singaporean Malay literature. This collection of poems is excerpted from a triptych of chapbooks about Kamari’s pilgrimage to Mecca. Each poem is printed in its original Malay form and then again in its English translation, so readers can hear the fluidity of the language while appreciating Kamari’s gentle, spare verse: “I am afraid to go home / now that I have found myself”. Another of Isa Kamari’s novels, The Tower, has also been translated into English, becoming simultaneously Alfian Sa’at’s first foray into translation. The Tower is the story of an architect’s descent into madness, exploring themes of spirituality and memory in an increasingly materialistic age.
Irreverent, witty, critical – all three words might be applied to Suffian Hakim’s writing. Perhaps best-known for his tongue-in-cheek parody of Harry Potter, in which Harris bin Potter is the boy who tak mati (siol!) and gets sorted into the house of Fandi Ahmad (home of the very best void deck footballers) by a talking songkok, Hakim manipulates Singaporean stereotypes with a deft and comic hand to create a story that is both unbelievably funny and more than a little bit familiar. A parody of Harry Potter and Singapore both, Harris bin Potter and the Stoned Philosopher will keep you in stitches from start to finish. Hakim also has a forthcoming novel called The Minorities (featuring a Singaporean inventor, multiple illegal immigrants and a pontianak as roommates in a flat in Yishun), coming in October 2017.
7. The Mango Tree by Hidayah Amin
Based on the author’s own childhood, The Mango Tree is an award-winning children’s picture book written by Hidayah Amin and illustrated by Idris Ali. A story inspired by the loss of the mango tree that was planted to celebrate Hidayah’s birth, The Mango Tree is about family, roots and remembrance – and about how the important things remain, even if their physical body is long gone.