Inaugurated in 2017, the Penang Monthly Book Prize returned for its second edition last November. “Penang Monthly will soon be celebrating its 10th anniversary, and through the book prize wants to show recognition for, and to celebrate exceptional works of English fiction written with Malaysia as its partial or full narrative background,” says editor Dato’ Dr Ooi Kee Beng, who is also Executive Director of Penang Institute, the publisher of the magazine.
The Selection Process
Submissions for the book prize concluded in July 2018, and a shortlist of the four most promising titles were announced soon after. “The selection process actually took a while; we were wrangling back and forth because each book had distinctive features which made them very special in their own way,” says Dr Grace V.S. Chin, who with Dr Mohamad Rashidi Mohd Pakri – both senior lecturers with the English Language Studies programme at Universiti Sains Malaysia, and Ooi formed the judging panel.
The 2018 shortlist comprised:
1) Marriage and Mutton Curry by M. Shanmughalingam. A collection of short stories portraying the concerns and intrigues of the Jaffna Tamil community in Malaya, it explores what happens when we hold on to or when we choose to leave behind our traditions and identities in a changing world.
2) Cold East by Gabija Grušaitė follows author and minor social media influencer Stasys Šaltoka’s journey to South-east Asia where a chance meeting with an enigmatic Russian leads him to document the murder of a mysterious Mongolian model that implicates a prime minister and his jewel-hoarding wife.
3) Iban Woman by Golda Mowe narrates the deadly tasks 20-year-old Ratai must overcome, both in the forests of Borneo and in the Iban dream world after a bad omen befalls her longhouse, all the while balancing between her desire to be the perfect Iban woman and her lust for adventure.
4) Finding Maria by Dawn Farnham is at once a mother’s quest for her child, an unravelling mystery, and a journey into suppressed memory and the nature of self-delusion.
The post-modernistic Cold East took home the coveted prize. “Raw, exciting and cutting-edge, the reader is immersed in a millennial yet fragmented world of story-telling, vacillating between the protagonist’s desire to engage, but also retreat from his new surroundings. This sense of alienation and isolation is characteristic of twentieth and twenty-first century literature, and we thought Grušaitė captured brilliantly the kind of ‘outsider view’ of Malaysia and the disorienting culture shock that comes with it,” says Chin.
Cold East is Grušaitė’s second novel following the critically acclaimed Unfulfilled that captured the psyche of post-Soviet millennials who left the country to pursue their education in Western Europe, the first Lithuanian generation to experience globalisation. Like her debut novel, Cold East has strong elements of controversy, inspired by political events in Malaysia. “I thought it was very brave of Clarity Publishing to decide on publishing my book, and to be awarded the Penang Monthly Book Prize makes it even more special,” says Grušaitė.
Future editions of the Penang Monthly Book Prize will broaden the scope of entry to include non-fiction and poetry as well, says Ooi in his closing remarks. “Starting from 2019, the book prize will be awarded to different genres year by year; to fiction, non-fiction and poetry on a rotational basis. This way, works in other languages can also be submitted, and the advantage of this is there will be a greater crop of literary works to choose from over the three-year period for each genre.”
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