The bookman who embraced Penang

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Petaling Jaya-based independent publisher Fixi conquered Malaysia's bestsellers charts with a new wave of pulp fiction that dares to defy Islamic conservatism and the country’s alleged lowreading rates.

Flesh-eating zombies, teenage drugrunners, cannibal condoms from outer space. On the other hand, there’s also Jemaah Islamiyah-affiliated terrorists on the hunt for runaway Thai prostitutes, glue-sniffing motorcycle gangs, shifty immigrant workers, incestuous imams and all sorts of ghosts. If it’s dark and scary, Malaysia seems to have it these days. Nothing to worry about though, because in order to save the nation from the forces of darkness, one just needs to stop reading and put the paperback down.

Amir Muhammad.

Giving Malaysia this fiction-based bad name is all in a day’s work for Malaysian publisher and director Amir Muhammad, who launched four new books at the George Town Literary Festival in November 2014. In the past year, his signature series of controversial pulp novels and short story collections like KL Noir – published under imprints Fixi (Malay) and Novo (English) – have kicked other mainstream-friendly Malaysian authors off the country’s bestsellers lists’ pole positions and collected hundreds of raving reviews on book recommendations website Good Reads. Two of them, heist story Pecah and zombie apocalypse tale Zombijaya/ KL Zombi, have even been made into feature films.

According to Amir, the secret of Fixi’s success, which can be gleaned from its average sales of 8,000 copies for Fixi and 3,000 copies for Novo, lies in the fact that “pulp fiction is fast and furious” for the Malaysian readership – a very encouraging result for a nation that, according to Minister of Education Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, doesn’t read enough books. Since 2011, Fixi has spiced up bookstore racks and won itself a dedicated readership by publishing a diverse array of compelling urban crime, horror, mystery and science-fiction. Written by a gang of young Malaysian and expatriate novelists, Fixi’s books defy conservative stereotypes by using Malaysia as the ideal setting for fastpaced, noir-tinged pulp stories. Most importantly, Fixi shows how young Malay writers today prefer to embrace dark and urban thrills rather than continue to glorify Malaysia’s colonial past.

Brian Gomez, author of one of Novo’s most interesting titles, Devil’s Place – an amusing rollercoaster ride into the shady world of Malaysian political corruption discovered by an Indian amateur musician who organised his bachelor party at the wrong place and at the wrongest time – remembers that “before Fixi, Malaysia only had romance and the kind of novels with a moral. If you wanted crime fiction, you’d have to buy a foreign book.”

Amir at the launch of Rozlan Mohd Noor's (left) and Tunku Halim's (centre) books during George Town Literary Festival.

But what about Malaysia’s repressive censorship, always ready to mutilate any cultural product if it doesn’t comply with the rules of Islam? How does Fixi escape the scissor cuts of the dreaded Department of Islamic Development ( Jakim)?

Truth be told, Amir doesn’t seem too bothered by censors. “There have been some campaigns against Fixi, but they weren’t led by conservative groups,” he says. “We were instead targeted by some of the bigger publishers once they saw a decline in their sales.”

Sharon Bakar, the eminent British editor and creative writing teacher based in KL, adds that a valid reason for Fixi’s popularity and unscathed freedom of expression is found in the poor reading habits of Malaysians and their ostracism towards books in English. On top of that, Sharon claims, “Once a book receives a formal complaint from the public, it normally takes Jakim around a year to actually clear it off the shelves, granting it plenty of time to continue making waves.” And when censors seize books, they unknowingly help boost their sales. This happened in 2010 to Body2Body: a Malaysian Queer Anthology, an LGBT short story collection courageously published by Amir’s former imprint, Matahari Books. Obviously, Fixi’s main man is no novice when it comes to tickling the belly of the censorship beast.

Kris Williamson, a Florida native who published his debut novel Son Complex and recently edited the fourth and last volume of the successful short story collection KL Noir for Fixi Novo, says, “Censorship in Malaysia, as in any country, is a way to shape or limit people's thoughts on certain topics. Fixi is offering an important alternative to other publishers who self-censor as a rule.” Williamson’s coming-of-age novel tells the story of a young American who travels to KL to find his father and shed light on his dead mother’s past, and ends up having his world turned upside down. “When I write, I take advantage of my outsider-insider position,” he explains. “It’s a perspective that few have in Malaysia. I like to observe people – it always suggests a great range of topics to write about.”

 

Besides censors, another of Fixi’s challenges is the corporate aversion of some mainstream Malaysian bookstore chains that refuse to stock Fixi titles because they outsold their own. Regardless, Amir uses efficient forms of street-based self-promotion and distribution that helped his company bypass the chastising efforts of Malaysia’s book market’s giants. “In any given week, Fixi will participate in several events, from campus convocations to car boot sales outside of burger restaurants. No other bigger publisher is willing to get their hands dirty this way.”

Marc De Faoite, a Langkawi-based Irish writer and yoga trainer, published his debut short story collection Tropical Madness on Novo last year. His stories describe “the elephants in the room that the majority of Malaysian and Malaysian-based writers seem intent on avoiding,” he explains. De Faoite has a clear idea about Fixi’s pulp fiction success: “It’s the literary equivalent of fast-food. Even if younger readers know they should eat their cultural greens and read more serious Malaysian authors like Tan Twan Eng, Tash Aw or Preeta Samarasan, they prefer books that are perhaps less nutritious from a literary point of view, but that are tasty and cheap.” A true selling point – Fixi titles do go for the rather low price of RM20.

Some of Fixi's bestsellers.

And if giving voice to a belligerent team of local writers wasn't enough, the imprint launched Verso, a sub-label which offers Malay translations of revered authors such as Stephen King, Neil Gaiman and Haruki Murakami – quite an accomplishment for an independent South-East Asian publisher. However, a few critical voices might complain that at times, the originality and quality of Fixi’s books are not at level with international standards, but Amir counters, “As it goes for Malaysian filmmaking, if we were to ban all amateur works, there will be no cinema left in Malaysia."

Indeed, the work of amateurs has revived the local publishing industry, satisfied the dirty fictional needs of an increasing number of young Malaysians, and won Amir the coveted “Bookseller International Adult Trade Publisher Award” at last year’s London Book Fair. “The prize was particularly exciting because its name gives the impression that I publish porn,” he quips. “As a result, I did get many emails from publishers and agents from around the world, and I look forward to collaborating with some of them. We are also looking at some regional projects, as it would be too complacent to just focus on Malaysia."

The suggestion would be to keep your doors and windows well shut, because it would seem that Fixi’s murderers, monsters and futuristic creatures will continue to lurk in the streets of Malaysian fiction for quite a good while.



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