Like most of its predecessors, it's a pretty mixed bag with some first-rate new fiction, a number of other pieces which are interesting and certainly worthy of inclusion, and only one or two disappointments.
Overall, it's a less even collection than Silverfish New Writing 6 which also had a much stronger Malaysian flavour, but it still sets a standard that other locally produced anthologies of short fiction have fallen well short of.
Of the 19 stories in the collection, four are by Singaporeans, five are by Malaysians, and another four stories are by expats resident in Malaysia, the remaining pieces coming from writers from further afield. The original intention of opening the anthologies to writers from outside Malaysia and Singapore was to provide a little competition and to lift the standard. Perhaps it is a sign that the short story in Malaysia and Singapore has come of age that many of the strongest pieces are by local writers.
One of the best known writers in the book is Wena Poon. Her story Dog Hot Pot, which humourously dissects the attitudes and prejudices of Singaporeans. The story is included in her collection Lions in Winter, which has just been nominated for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Prize.
Fellow Singaporean Yvonne Tham gives us one of the quirkiest ghost stories I've come across. Jumi who works as a subtitler at a TV station, has recently lost her mother and is experiencing some strange goings on at home, including all the papayas from her tree mysteriously disappearing. She isn't too surprised when a ghost turns up ... except that instead of it being her mother's ghost (which would, she feels have been much scarier!) it is the ghost of Chinese writer Zhang Ailing, whom she greatly admires. The depiction of the growing friendship between the writer ghost and the ghost writer is both funny and touching.
Of the stories contributed by Malaysian writers, I particularly enjoyed Shih-Li Koh's most unlikely of love stories The First Time, and Saras Manickam's The Invisible, the story of an Indonesian maid after she is fired by her employer for letting her lover, another migrant worker, into the house. Both stories avoid all the usual cliches and give us the sense of real women in straightened circumstances making tough decisions.
Four of the stories are by expats who have made Malaysia their home. Robert Raymer is already well-known for his short stories, and in particular for his collection Lovers and Strangers. Only in Malaysia is told from the point of view of an expat whose marriage to a Malay woman has fallen apart. I found it fascinating for its cross-cultural insights, though a little slow in the telling. I much preferred his Transactions in Thai, a very nicely observed piece about the goings on in a Had Yai hotel where two Westerners on holiday from their real lives negotiate a deal with a hotel manager for a couple of women they want to take on holiday. Who, one wonders, is that backpacker scribbling in his journal at another table? It couldn't be Raymer himself playing fly on the wall, could it?
Peter Brown's The Last Deejay, set in a dystopian Malaysian twenty years in the future is nail-bittingly tense. Social order has completely broken down following the collapse of oil prices. Mobs rule the streets, and the forces of the United Islamic Army have landed (although the government denies this in the newspapers!). A deejay is murdered in his club in Jalan Bukit Bintang, and his mother and best friend must risk their own lives to bring back his body for burial.
The most risk-taking story in the book is Yusof Martin A. Bradley's The Good Lieutenant which follows over the course of a day, the life of a British policeman posted to Malaya during The Emergency. What I found exciting about the narration is the way that the lens of the camera sweeps from close up glimpses of the minutest details of the natural world around Reggie Gold (the birds, the insects, the drip of rain drops) to a wide angle view which encompasses the entire range of historical and social forces that brought Gold to Malaya. While little of note happens in the foreground of the piece until the tragic climax, the background is so full sketched that Gold is completely located within his temporal and physical context.
Editors Ashraf Jamal and Shanti Moorthy point out in the introduction that there is something a little unfinished and tentative about some of the stories, that they show :
... something that they (the writers) can't quite name and put a finger to ...and I think that this is indeed true of some of the stories.
Viren Swami gives us The Beggar, a puzzling piece not amounting to a story, because story implies plot and this has only incident, a single incident, a chance encounter with a beggar in the final paragraph. Just who is the narrator and what is the meaning of the this encounter? The piece reads like the opening of a gothic horror novel, and even though the setting (Orchard Road, Singapore) is so familiar and no doubt coloured by our experiences of happy shopping trips, Swami creates an atmosphere of menace and a sense of dread which makes us see it in a new way entirely.
Layang-Layang by Yew Kwang Min is also a-not-quite-story - but an account of a journey back to the quaintly named Johor town with a friend who asks whether there is anything interesting to see. Perhaps to the outsider there isn't, but to the narrator, who grew up there every nook and cranny is replete with memories. This piece left me wanting to read more.
Of those stories by writers from further afield I especially enjoyed Shalini Akhil's surreal tale of a briefcase that took possession of its user, and Jane Downing's That Smile and the Tilt of Her Head in which the mother of a young man fighting in Iraq finds consolation in the memorabilia of an earlier war in the markets of Vietnam, including a haunting photograph of a young girl.
So yes, this was another Silverfish anthology that gave me much reading pleasure, and it really does grieve me to think that there won't be any more to come. Will MPH's collections fill the gap? Will another collection that another friend was talking to me about some months ago, finally materialise? Will Raman manage polish one or two of his protegees to publishable standard?
In all cases, I really hope so. But they really will have something to live up to.