... it did not bring to the surface the multitudes of Malaysian writers presumed to be hiding in the woodworkHe announced his intention to start a new project, fostering a small number of voices through his writing programme, and then publishing the work of those who managed to demonstrate the kind of talent and staying power he was looking for.
News From Home is the first fruit of the venture. He says in the introduction:
... we* recognise that, in the absence of literary agents in this country, it is not enough to simply invite submissions and sit back and wait. Publishers need to do more, to guide and train as well.Now this is a noble aim. It used to happen (but not longer!) that publishers in the UK (and perhaps too elsewhere) took a risk on authors they felt had potential, and nurtured them, even if their early efforts were less than wonderful. It's probably something that we need to happen rather more here where the talent pool is not so big, where there is a willingness to publish and a growing readership - but not enough local voices of quality.
So for putting the effort and commitment into this, Mr. Raman, well done.
I am loathe to say anything too critical about beginning writers, knowing how easily they bruise, so hope that I err on the side of kindness. But the proof of the pudding is, as they say, in the eating ... so how does the book taste?
It's actually a meal in three courses and each of the three selected authors has contributed ten stories to form a book within a book.
Let's take them in the order in which they appear.
I wasn't very far into Chuah Kok Yee's (below) portion of the book, entitled My Grandpa's Funeral and Other Stories, when I suddenly felt an urge to grab the phone and call up Xeus to tell her that this is a writer she should be promoting, because he writes just the kind of dark side twisty tailed stories that she writes herself. And guess what? Kok Yee actually has a story published in Dark City 2 so I wasn't too far off the mark.
There is a market for fiction of this kind and Kok Yee may well have found his niche, though I hope he continues also to push himself beyond it.
I liked best his more surreal pieces. Where There Is A Will, which features a nagging treadmill (perhaps what I need to get into shape!), and will-power patches (perhaps what I need even more!). Three Little Pigs is a wonderfully cynical subversion of a children's fairy tale with C21st realities thrown in.
Some of his more conventional horror stories were pleasingly plotted and entertaining. I particularly liked Merdeka, and The Fox and the Dog.
Other pieces I felt were a somewhat weaker. I was disappointed with The L-Word on the Beach, which got yanked back abruptly to hetrosexual safety when it was clear that the story was really headed elsewhere. (Can't say more without posting a spoiler! But read it and tell me if you don't think I'm right!)
The title piece, My Grandpa's Funeral, I found a little too predictable and the tension could have been built up rather more with perhaps the mourners talking rather more about the dead man to create a greater sense of intrigue . I didn't "get" The Crime Adventure of Mr Shrill and Mr. Gutteral, but maybe that's just me being dense. The one-page story Magic Mirror seems to me more of a filler than a valid story in tis own right.
To answer Raman's question about Kok Yee:
Is he out own Murakami?I'd say that sometimes he certainly has the requisite quirkiness, but his writing style needs to develop. And how else can a writer do that but by reading, reading, reading?
Kok Yee also designed the very nice cover with it's very Malaysian tea-cup and old photos.
Shi-Li Kow's (above) Peach Blossom Luck and other stories form the central section of the book and left me hungry for much much more from this writer.
The title piece is very well narrated, it is a story with a twist - and one that makes you genuinely gasp because it is so subtly introduced.
But for me the main strength of these stories is that all the characters - even those not within the immediate frame are satisfyingly fleshed out. That is no mean feat in the tight space of a short story. There is also a very pleasing flow to Shi-Li's writing: she is entirely comfortable with the language.
Baby is beautifully written, and as with so many of these pieces left me wishing that this was the first chapter of a novel rather than a four-page short.
Pak Hassan's Story has an old fisherman keeping a group of rebellious youngsters amused with an intriguing Malaysian fairy tale ... but is it really all fantasy? I loved the way the frame effortlessly became part of the story.
I appreciated the humour of A Job to Love, a piece that borders on sci-fi and set in an entertainment complex of the future. I chuckled over the story which gives the whole collection it's title News From Home, particularly as the voice of the narrator is so well captured.
But most of all, I enjoyed Seeking Frangipani, which is a story that makes you pause for thought as the writer reminds us that sometimes seeking for something is more important than actually finding it.
Has Raman discovered the next big thing in Shi-Li? Maybe he has.
Rumaizah Abu Bakar (above) seems to me (as yet) a less confident writer than the other two, and I wonder if she was hurried into print because it seems to me that some of the pieces had real promise but didn't seem to have yet "arrived". (She has been working with Raman for a much shorter time than the others.)
Her biggest strength is in being able to create convincing settings for her stories. I like the hotel setting of a couple of them, and I'm sure that Rumaizah is drawing on inside knowledge of the hotel industry. (She was at one point a hotelier.) Chestnut Chocolate Mooncake which explores the seamier side of an international cookery competition was my favourite story, though I feel a bit cheated that we didn't see more of Chef Chen's struggle with his conscience. Room Service is also interesting for its behind the scene peep of hotel life, but the twisty ending was so obvious even from page one that this reader discounted it!
The 50Sen Queens I also very much liked for its exposé of school politics, and I really would have liked more of this. The newspaper office setting of Tomorrow's Headline is also well done, although the story didn't convince.
Rumaizah is not afraid to experiment and tells one story (Swimming Elephants in Harbarana) from the animal's point of you, which is a brave move, even if it does not entirely come off; and from the point of view of Pepper Shaker and Kitchen Knife in her quirky short A Peppery Affair, which I enjoyed, and would have liked to have read more of.
My advice - Rumaizah is a writer who should just still keep going, build on her strengths, keep reading and keep learning ... because she certainly has potential, and because there is a market locally for fiction.
Raman has done a good job of giving these writers their first leg-up, even if we will still miss the New Writing anthologies.
Typos there are in this book - not a lot, but some. But what I found an annoyance throughout (and this is probably the English teacher in me speaking) was the underuse of the past perfect tense, and the persistent use of time expressions like "ago" and "yesterday" which should have been backshifted in past tense narrative ("previously", "the day before"). All fiction writers (and editors) need to master these grammar points. (Says the pedant.)
Shall I slip in a grammar lesson another day??
* Am intrigued. Who is this "we"??