Novelist Yang-May Ooi set me this poser in an e-mail a while back and asked me to pass it on to you lot.
She will be back in Malaysia this month. She wants to do some book-buying while she's here. Supposing that she has room for no more than five books in her suitcase, which are the local books she should carry back with her?
Now I've been thinking this up and down. Some of the books I'd want to recommend are out of print. Others such as Tash Aw's The Harmony Silk Factory and Tan Twan Eng's The Gift of Rain are published (or in the case of the latter - soon to be published) in the UK anyway.
Then there horrendous gaps in my own reading. I bought Lloyd Fernanado's Green is the Colour, for example, but haven't read it yet. Much else has slipped by me and I haven't managed to get beyond the first page of any novel in Malay apart from kids' books. (Shame, shame and more shame!)
Plus enough writing friends of mine read this blog to drop by and strangle me if I don't include them in my top five, so ... erm ... I'm going to fence-sit.
All this is an introduction to one book which I think Yang-May should slip into her suitcase if she doesn't have it already: Rehman Rashid's A Malaysian Journey.
Rehman is a friend from way back. Met him at an old boy's reunion at Malay College in 1985 when I was teaching there. I remember we had a conversation at the rest house in Kuala Kangsar about the traumas of turning thirty (aiyoh, such spring chickens!) and we discovered that we share exactly the same birth date.
Rehman was writing for the NST and I loved his friday column, Scorpion Tales, and can remember some of them still. (Including a curious one about a caterpillar he wrote after Operation Lalang.
I took my Form Four kids up to KL and Rehman gave them a talk about the work of a journalist at the New Straits Times' offices and the grand tour. On another occasion, we roped him in to judge a debate against Royal Military College.
Our paths divided. I left Malaysia to do my Masters and was away for the best part of two years. Rehman moved to Hong Kong to work with Asiaweek and later to Bermuda.
I didn't know Rehman was back in Malaysia until one day in 1993 when I went into Skoob and saw copies of A Malaysian Journey of the counter. And when I picked it up, it opened straight to a page about my husband bullying him at rugby practice which made me laugh out loud. (That's Abu all right!)
The book I loved - a series of vignettes from his travels across the country weaving together the personal and political landscape with a freedom and honesty that was extremely rare at that time (pre, of course, the anything-goes until-someone-sues-you days of blogging).
It was, and I would argue, still is, a very important book
The book has now been reprinted. As Rehman says in his new foreword to the book, copies were changing hands for many times the initial price on the internet without him making a cent from the transaction - so why not bring out a new edition?
The book was intitially turned down by every publisher Rehman approached because the subject matter was too hot to handle, and so he had to self-publish. Now he says those same publishers were falling over themselves to reprint A Malaysian Journey, but it was his turn to reject them, choosing once again to handle the whole process himself.
So Yang-May, I'd say, put this one in your suitcase and we'll go browsing for the rest.
Unless you guys have any better ideas?
(Rehman will be appearing at MPH in April - more news about this later.)
(Suitcase pic by Tom Slaughter. Book cover from Rehman - click to see full size)