Penang Monthly is now in its ninth year, and we are looking forward to our tenth anniversary next year (it’s called the Tin Anniversary, by the way). Transformed from the policy-brief Penang Economic Monthly, the city magazine now champions a cultural, political and economic renaissance for the state: “The publication was hugely transformed in late 2009 and has now developed into a shape that more easily fulfils our heightened ambitions,” says editor Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng, who is also Executive Director for Penang Institute, the publisher of the magazine.
Seeing Penang as a Culture City as much as a Unesco heritage site and electronic hub, Penang Monthly decided to pronounce that fact by initiating a book prize.
“It is time we celebrate the literary scene in in Malaysia, and a book prize for Malaysian literature, based in Penang, is something that cries out to be done,” says Ooi.
Introducing the Book Prize
Calls for submissions among publishers began in July last year, and the books quickly started coming in. The criteria for submissions are that the works have to be fiction (even if history-based), written in English (that being the language of the magazine), and it must have Malaysia as its narrative and cultural background – at least partially.
Malaysian National Laureate Prof. Dr Muhammad Haji Salleh, writer and editor Gareth Richards, and writer and translator Pauline Fan formed the first judging panel, which Ooi chaired. “The judges decided very early on that we should have a short shortlist, at least for the inaugural prize. Each suggested three titles that they thought could stand as winners,” says Ooi.
The 2017 shortlist comprised of:
1) Kings of Petaling Street, the debut novel of Vancouver-based writer/editor William Tham Wai Liang. This crime thriller is inspired by the infamous rivalry between gangster Botak Chin and his adversary, Deputy Superintendent S. Kulasingam.
2) Jungle Without Water and Other Stories by Sreedhevi Iyer, a short story collection that crosses borders and boundaries and challenges our views and understanding of race, colour and love.
3) Once We Were There by Bernice Chauly. Set amid the upheaval of the Reformasi movement in KL, the novel chronicles journalist Delonix Regia’s personal struggle to confront the terrible secret of a city where babies are sold and girls trafficked, after her two-year-old daughter Alba is kidnapped.
It was Chauly’s gripping debut novel that won. It’s certainly no bedtime story: “The experience of being a Malaysian living in KL during the Reformasi movement, coupled with the depth of suffering endured when the daughter is kidnapped, made for a very intense read,” admits Muhammad, “but if a reader has to feel that way, then for the author it must have been hell writing it.”
(From left) Pauline Fan, Prof. Dr Muhammad Haji Salleh, Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng, Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, Publisher and CEO of Epigram Books Edmund Wee, Penang Monthly Book Prize winner Bernice Chauly, Gareth Richards and Julia Tan, deputy editor of Penang Monthly.
Once We Were There is Chauly's debut novel.
Chauly explains: “The Reformasi movement was a time that transformed me greatly, as a person, as a woman, a wife and a mother. The novel took six years to write, and when I finished it in 2014, a lot of people loved it but said it was too bleak, too KL, too much drugs, sex and politics. Fourteen agents and many rejections later, I finally decided to send it to Epigram Books in Singapore.”
Chauly is not one to shy away from controversy: her novel can be seen as problematic by some – possibly even seditious. “Once We Were There is not stocked in certain bookstores in Malaysia. We have the disclaimer on the cover, ‘For mature readers only’. I think that because of the disclaimer, there has been some hesitance from some local newspapers to review the book. So far, the reviews have been mainly from outside of Malaysia.”
“It’s a hugely ambitious novel,” says Richards. “Bernice handled different forms and styles of writing that could cohabit within the novel effectively. There are lyrical passages, tender passages, and then there are passages that are deliberately more prosaic when describing the political context. But it is the working together of those elements that I thought connected particularly well.”
Chauly is already doing research for her next book: she’s looking into climate change, artificial intelligence, shape-shifting and suicide – “You know, just the regular stuff.”
Writing the novel has been a difficult journey, Chauly admits: “You get so lost and have so much self-doubt. When it’s actually done, there is such a profound feeling of joy and you think ‘I should not do this anymore’. But no, you’re onto the next one. It’s a form of torture. I’m really looking forward to using the RM5,000 prize money to work on my next novel.”
The book prize – the only one of its kind in Malaysia – is a welcome addition to the country’s literary landscape. “I’m hopeful that in time the book prize will come to symbolise the importance of Penang as an intellectual hub, and help rejuvenate a strong sense of pride and confidence in Penang’s cultural depth. As far as I know, Penang Institute is the only think tank around that runs a city magazine. I find that an effective way of avoiding the ivorytower effect of academic work. As with all our other activities and publications, we work towards, for the want of a better term, a Penang Renaissance.”
Regina Hoo is a Broadcasting and Journalism graduate from the University of Wolverhampton.