Book Review: The Best of Malaysian Short Fiction in English 2010-2020, Exploring the Faculty of Malaysia’s Fictioneers

By Yee Heng Yeh

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WHAT MAKES A short story successful? In reading The Best of Malaysian Short Fiction in English 2010-2020 (which, as an aside, has a really gorgeous cover), I found my own answer to this question shifted and challenged with every new encounter – each of the 19 stories seems to answer this particular question in its own way.

To feel like a story is successful, we must first have a sense of what it sets out to do before we are able to judge whether it accomplishes that. As such, I appreciate the thoughtful inclusion of a writer’s note at the end of each story, providing additional context (inspirations, incidences and insights) that guided its writing. In trying to formulate this review, I’ve also found it helpful to assess these stories for their insight (whether or not they managed to create an intellectual or emotional shift in me, the reader), their voice (how the narration or characters use language), and their plot (whether there was a meaningful structure of events). Naturally, these judgements are applied in retrospect – my initial reading consists only of figuring out whether I liked the story, then why or why not. Still, invariably, the best stories are the ones that ticked all three boxes in one way or another.

We encounter speculative fiction here, at its best reinforced by the astute use of metaphors. For one, the opening story, “Last Shot”, is an eerily prescient tale set in a world where Artificial Intelligence (AI) has encroached into the art of photography. This was first published in 2018, years before DALL-E and ChatGPT became topics in mainstream discourse – yet the story grapples with similar automated processes to capture our persistent need for the perceived “human touch”.

Likewise, in “The Mystery of the Suet Swain”, packaged as a delightful investigative mystery, the issue of harassers sheltered by the community is brought to chilling life through the figure of the orang minyak. Worth mentioning also is “Never Alone, Never Unarmed”, which impresses with its extensive worldbuilding, yet – like the other speculative stories in this anthology – is never bogged down by overly detailed explanations. What brings the story together is not just its seamless immersion into a distinct world, but also the little tender moments it scatters throughout. 

“My Mother Pattu” is a longstanding favourite of mine and, reading it again, I was reminded why – with its heart-breaking, complex portrait of familial abuse and jealousy, it spirals to a stunning conclusion with what I regard as probably the best last line in the anthology. No surprise that it was the Asian regional winner of the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. On the other hand, a newly acquired favourite would be “Never Curse the Mountain”, which has a charming, original voice characterised by wildly inventive language, breathless humour and formal experimentation (including a line graph smack dab in the middle of the story!), all anchored by a great deal of heart.

Plot, however, isn’t always everything. This is evidenced by several stories that are less a series of happenings than they are a series of revelations – stories that nevertheless manage to evoke emotion and provoke reflection. I love the fantasy settings of “All Was Still” and “The Quiet Like A Homecoming”, for instance; both stories use these elements to explore a type of grief. This is further elevated by their graceful, poetic language, which makes them a real pleasure to read.

In the same vein, stories like “The Accidental” and “Enduring” can be examined as slice-of-life portraits – interconnected vignettes that illuminate a wider backdrop of history or politics. The former shines with its careful observations of character and its wistful ending; plus, its compact pacing is aided by the story’s focus on a single conversation over lunch. And I thought that “Enduring”, which deals with the dismal state of rural schools and the machinations of philanthropy, is reminiscent of the works of the late great K.S. Maniam – both in its descriptive passages, as well as its nuanced consideration and critique of power.

So: we can, at times, do away with “plot”. But what about “insight”? To answer that, I turn to the striking, light-hearted “The Novelization of ‘Welcome Back, Mr. MacDonald’”. There are no real stakes in this one, no grand ruminations on the human condition – but there doesn’t have to be for this zany, snowballing romp to thoroughly entertain!

A few other stories are standouts too, but perhaps fall a little short in certain aspects. “FLUSH” has great use of voice (somehow wry, biting and affectionate all at once) and engages powerfully with adolescent struggles; yet, having read it multiple times, I wonder if the twist in perspective distracts more than adds to the storytelling. There’s also “Hotel California”, which details the contemplations of a woman about to convert for love. The writing is perceptive, almost lyrical at times, but her final decision, human though it may be, doesn’t fully convince as a matter of character. Why would she choose this, despite all that? The story hasn’t given us enough reasons.

Moreover, some stories have premises that are stronger than their execution could be, such as “The Ministry of Sun and Storm” and “Undercover in Tanah Firdaus”. “Undercover” has an affective and ambitious vision of a dystopic KL, with a satisfying plot progression. It ends with a strong message about injustice, but its characterisations are too black-and-white, the division between bad and good too tidy for the message to take root – you don’t necessarily feel invested enough in the characters on either side.

And while “Ministry” amuses as a parody of governmental bureaucracy, the satire falls a little flat on the level of story – what ministry would approve a request without the necessary forms and procedures? In addition, the character motivations, though clear, are not very compelling, and I was somewhat put off by the careless use of “schizophrenic” as an adjective. A different pet peeve tripped me up with another story, too: “The Pickpocket” is sweet, straightforward-meet-cute, if a little simplistic, but I’m generally not disposed to fawning over accents, let alone White ones.

Still, despite a few personal misgivings, this is an impressive collection overall: every story well written on a technical level, and the ones I’ve taken to number higher than in most anthologies. If this review seems a little scattered, it’s only because any categorisation of these stories can only be a crude and clumsy attempt, for they draw from such disparate topics, genres and even vocabularies. Perhaps this is fitting – like all things Malaysian, there is no real way to properly capture or represent the gamut of fiction that our writers are capable of. The editors, Zhui Ning Chang and JY Tan, alluded to this in the introduction by inviting the reader to take this anthology as merely an appetiser. Well – consider my appetite whetted.

Yee Heng Yeh

is a writer and Mandarin-to-English translator whose work has been featured in The KITA! Podcast, adda, Strange Horizons, NutMag, Nashville Review and Guernica. You can find him on Twitter at @ HengYeh42.