History in the Making

27 December 2016

Our country’s past is a treasure trove of inspiration for writers. We speak to three Malaysian authors fixated on the historical fiction genre.
From modern day Malaysia to the days of gaining independence and all the way back to the warring maritime kingdoms, Malaysian history is ripe with its storytelling possibilities. It is no surprise then that, of all genres, historical fiction puts Malaysian writing on the map: celebrated  Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng not only bagged two Man Booker Prize nominations for his novels but also won the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction for The Garden of Evening Mists in 2012, which features World War II as its backdrop. This historical period also serves to be rousing inspiration for fellow Malaysian author Tash Aw, whose award-winning debut novel The Harmony Silk Factory is also set in 1940s Malaya.

While some may criticise these novels for being exotic escapades catered to a Western audience, some Malaysian authors beg to differ. One such writer is not even fixated on fiction, but uses it to explore Malaysian history

Iskandar Al-Bakri

“I write historical fiction because I believe that our Malaysian history is too stagnant. Our historians are too afraid to make new discoveries,” says Iskandar Al-Bakri, an Ipoh-based lawyer and author of two novels, The Beruas Prophecy and The Throne of Ledang.

For Iskandar, the novel is a platform to feed his curiosity about history. He reads dissertations on historical findings and even spent several months surveying the land in areas where he believes is the actual location of the Melakan kingdom. The mystery of a “lost” city of Melaka plays an important role in his latest novel, The Throne of Ledang.

The historical fantasy novel is an imaginative take on the legend of the Princess of Mount Ledang (Puteri Gunung Ledang) and the riches of the Melakan kingdom. It’s teeming with details about 19th century Malaya and the bygone era of Malay kingdoms, comprising familiar historical figures such as Perak’s infamous British Resident James W.W. Birch, on top of covering past Malay cultures such as the use of ancient writing system, Rencong.

Despite Iskandar’s call for new discoveries in history, historical fiction shouldn’t merely be seen as past events wrapped in different packaging.

According to prolific writer Sri Rahayu Mohd Yusop, “There is no point in reading historical fiction for the sake of reading history”. The author of 12 novels believes that the ability of an author to capture the attention of a reader and make them relate to characters existing in different eras is what elevates historical fiction to more than just historical appreciation.

Sri Rahayu Mohd Yusop

Sri adds that her constant interest in writing historical fiction is derived from the romantic feeling of belonging in the past, reinforcing her connection with the country she calls home. She is fascinated with what she calls “the Malay psyche” and how it has been presented in written works throughout the region over centuries. This desire to find a connection to her roots leads to 2016’s Empunya Kalbu, a historical adventure novel that revolves around legendary Malay weapon, Keris To’ Bidan.

“I enjoy exhibitions of weaponry because each weapon displayed has a story. Who owned the weapon? Was it bought or inherited? How was it made? I am totally in love with the past.”

According to Sri, this specific keris has been sought after by many throughout history as it’s believed to be carved out of metal from a meteorite. Empunya Kalbu follows two earlier novels, Warisnya Kalbu and Qalam Kalbu, completing Sri’s trilogy on the old Pahang kingdom.

While both Sri and Iskandar are committed to researching and writing about the country’s centuries-old past in Pahang and Melaka, some writers may only need to look closer to home for material. Author William Tham Wai Liang acknowledges that his parents’ memories of Kuala Lumpur influenced his upcoming debut novel, Kings of Petaling Street, soon to be released in 2017 by Fixi London.

Kings of Petaling Street is actually a crime thriller set in modern times but when I started writing it, I found myself falling back on the past,” said the Vancouver-based author. “My father particularly likes talking about growing up in Chinatown in the 1960s and 1970s, which is where a lot of the details in Kings of Petaling Street came from.”

Kings of Petaling Street is inspired by the infamous rivalry between gangster Botak Chin and his adversary, Deputy Superintendent S. Kulasingam. Living abroad did not pose an obstacle for William as related books are aplenty, but the author admits it may have influenced his desire for the novel to feel authentically “Malaysian” by including his parents’ experiences. Although this is his first foray into the historical fiction genre, William has already set his sights on other historical retellings such as Esca Brooke-Daykin, the illegitimate son of James Brooke, the Rajah of Sarawak.

William Tham Wai Liang

“I like obscure stories about people in unusual situations. Inconsistencies and surprising stories have a way of jumping up on me. But sometimes the novel can be devastatingly difficult to write,” confesses William.

It’s a sentiment that’s also echoed by Iskandar, who concurs that writing historical fiction is hard – one of the reasons being many history books before the 1970s were written by European researchers who may not thoroughly understand the various cultures and traditions in the Malay Peninsula. Thus, historical fiction writers are expected to be imaginative trailblazers, scouring past histories to find a glimmer of inspiration but also, to reinterpret these moments. Whether history is used to reconnect to past generations, discover new overlooked meanings, or even be utilised as forms of self-expression, historical fiction enables writers and readers alike to think beyond the present and dream of rich possibilities hidden in time.

By Nor Atikah Abdul Wahid
Images courtesy of respective authors featured

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