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9 Books By Malaysian Women That Capture the Essence of a Nation

In the past, female writers often concealed their identities behind pseudonyms, resulting in a literary landscape dominated by male perspectives. The shelves were filled with books that offered a singular male point of view on the nation and the prevailing social issues of the time, leaving the woman’s voice largely unheard.

However, the influence of women writers on a global scale has been nothing short of remarkable, giving rise to some of the most exceptional literary masterpieces. Books, in their essence, serve as vessels that encapsulate a nation’s identity, history, and the intricate fabric of society during a specific era. Examining these works from a female perspective provides us with invaluable insights into the sociocultural realities and historical representations that might have otherwise been overlooked.

With this in mind, we have curated a collection of nine captivating books that traverse different time periods in Malaysia’s history – from the past to the present and even the dystopian realm. These works offer a diverse range of narratives and themes, further enriching our understanding of the human experience across various contexts.

#1: Though I Get Home by YZ Chin

YZ Chin’s debut book is a collection of short stories centred on a young woman, Isabella Sin. She moved from her home town Taiping to Kuala Lumpur. The book narrates Isabella’s encounters with other characters, exploring themes such as identity and belonging in contemporary Malaysia[1].

In the wider scope, the book addresses the effects of growing Western influence on Malaysia’s social and political landscape through minute details in the stories. “Though I Get Home”, touches on issues of politics, power struggles in the nation and censorship. 

Though I Get Home won the Louise Meriwether First Book Prize, in honour of author Louise Meriwether.

#2: The Seat by Geetha K.

In her first novel published in 2020, Geetha K. transports readers back to the 14th General Election through the eyes of its protagonist, Satya. Derived from Geetha’s personal experience of growing up in Segambut Dalam (now rebranded as Mont Kiara) the book highlights the changing look of the place she grew up in.

Seeing the sorry state of the rivers in Mont Kiara (what used to be Segambut Dalam) was when I knew I wanted to dedicate my novel to the dead and dying rivers of my childhood.Geetha K.[2]

The book is a trip down memory lane for Geetha as it is a reflection of the harsh reality facing many settlements in modern Malaysia. 

#3: House of Koi by Lilian Li

A book born out of homesickness for her hometown, House of Koi is a dedication of its author, Lilian Li, to her grandmother in Penang. House of Koi, is a young adult novel that explores the concept of reconciling with your cultural roots and identity.

The book follows the journey of a young protagonist, Mila. Her present self grapples with conflicting identity as an international school student and her past self who spoke fluent Malay and Mandarin. 

Forced to stay with her grandmother whom she has a strained relationship with, Mila attempts to embrace her heritage. Set in Penang, the book is chock-full of references to food, something most Malaysians are familiar with and love[3]

#4: The Accidental Malay by Karina Bahrin Robles

Source: Tatler & Goodreads

The Accidental Malay, the winner of Epigram Books Fiction Prize 2022, manages one of the most sensitive issues in Malaysia: race privilege, womanhood, and religion.

I wanted to explore how a policy could tear down a woman’s life.Karina Robles Bahrin[4]

The author, Karina Robles Bahrin, of Malay and Filipino parentage sees the book as a way of processing the pressing question of belonging in the community. 

I felt that people saw me as only Malay when really that was only a part of my heritage, overlooking my Filipina upbringing. Karina Robles Bahrin[4]

The story centres around Jasmine Leong, who was raised by her poh poh (grandmother) after her father’s passing during the May 13th riots. As her relationship with Iskandar, a Muslim man, deepens, complications arise. Jasmine’s revelation of her Muslim Malay heritage raises what-ifs and why’s. 

The book may be controversial to certain layers of the community, however, to Karina, it is expected. 

I know my story will trigger certain parts of the Malaysian community, but as authors, we should be prepared for how people will react. – Karina Robles Bahrin[4]

#5: The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

Source: The Edge & Goodreads

Hanna Alkaf’s young-adult novel debut revolves around its protagonist, Melati Ahmad, a music-loving teen with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), derived from a djinn who threatens her with images of her mother’s death unless she adheres to the compulsion of counting and tapping.

Against a backdrop of riots on May 13th 1969, Melati’s journey to return home to her mother is chronicled through a tumultuous time. Together with a Chinese-born, Melati fights her demons and prejudices to return to the person she loved most. 

Our young people deserved a story about their own history, a story that explains the collective scars we carry. – Hanna Alkaf[5]

Hanna interviewed those who lived during the riots and included excerpts of real violence that took place during the time. These excerpts had often been diluted in mainstream conversation. The book skillfully explores pertinent issues such as the lack of understanding about mental health in the 60s, and the state of a divisive nation. 

The Weight of Our Sky has been translated into Bahasa Malaysia and has been the recipient of accolades such as the 2019 Freeman Awards, and Young Adult/High School Literature. 

#6: The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

In 2019, Yangsze Choo published The Night Tiger, which takes place in 1930s colonial Malaysia. This captivating novel tells the intertwined stories of Ren, an 11-year-old Chinese houseboy, and Ji Lin, a young woman who works as both a dancehall girl and a dressmaker apprentice. Their lives become connected when Ji Lin acquires a severed finger, rumoured to be the outcome of a supernatural tiger encounter.

The book expertly crafts a sense of suspension of disbelief through its vivid description, and magical realism weaving together folklore and historical details to tell a captivating tale. 

Choo is also the author of The Ghost Bride, a historical fantasy set in the 1890s, in which a woman must marry the dead son of a wealthy family to pay her family debts. “The Ghost Bride” has since been adapted into a Netflix series and is a well-acclaimed read[6]

#7: 912 Batu Road by Viji Krishnamoorthy

The first chapter of 912 Batu Road was a letter penned by the author Viji Krishnamoorthy as a gift to her husband, Ranjit.

I really had no idea, so I thought why not I write him a chapter as a letter. It was a pretty lame present, really! But I did it anyway! – Viji Krishnamoorthy[7]

However, Viji suffered bouts of self-doubt and put the book away, until she was urged to put it into the limelight by her publisher. 

It explores moving away from the familial pain when caught in a forbidden love during two different timelines, one during wartime and one in modern Malaysia of 2008. 

The present offers (I hope) the reader a window into the life of a Tamil brahmin family trying to hold on to traditional customs and values. And the war offered a platform of history and drama so I could create a melange of real and fictional characters and weave my story through the threads of a historical timeline.Viji Krishnamoorthy[8]

Viji, who is an avid historical fiction reader, draws on national heroes such as Sybil Kathigasu, Gurchan Singh standing side by side with her fictional characters. She recreates the rich past setting.  

#8: Iban Women by Golda Mowe

Source: Riwayat & Oyez

Iban Woman is the latest instalment in Golda Mowe’s Iban Dreams series. Golda, born and raised in Sibu, Sarawak ventured into writing in 2004 and published the first book in the series: Iban Dream in 2013 and Iban Journey in 2015. 

Iban Woman chronicles the life of the character Ratai, 20, the eldest child of Nuing, an Iban warrior who travelled to the invisible world and returned alive. Ratai is also the granddaughter of Bujang Maias, the great headhunter who once was raised by apes. With the blood of greatness in her, Ratai, who is also an excellent hunter in her own rights grew frustrated with her inability to master weaving and gain a man’s heart[9]

Readers are taken back on an immersive learning journey of Iban culture – learn to master weaving alongside Ratai, or tell the omens of bad weather and hunt animals and humans’ heads. 

#9: The Food That Makes Us By Foong Li Mei & Sze Too Wei Wen

Source: The Star & Goodreads

In the wake of her father-in-law’s death, Foong Li Mei realised that when someone passes away, they bring with them their creations. It was what was lamented by one of their relatives;

When he passed away due to a sudden heart attack, one of his relatives lamented that they had not only lost a man they loved, they would also not be able to taste his one-of-a-kind braised chicken feet with mushrooms dish anymore. – Foong Li Mei[10]

Li Mei started the project as a column in 2012. Soon, her project partner, Szetoo Weiwen embarked on a timeless journey to preserve family cooking recipes. The Food That Makes Us, is a collection of Malaysian stories and home-cooked recipes, from the native Semelai to suburban mothers – it covers all bases. Glimpse into the kitchens of households nationwide and the stories behind their family dishes.  

Explore our sources:

  1. Asian/Pacific American Librarians Associations. (2018). Book Review: “Though I Get Home”. Link 
  2. B.S. (2020). Immortalising the past. The Sun Daily. Link 
  3. S.Cheema. (2021). How To Embrace A Foreign Culture And Remain True To Your Own? Eksentrika. Link 
  4. J. Wee. (2022). On menopause and being Malay: Author Karina Robles Bahrin opens up on award-winning debut novel ‘The Accidental Malay’.Malay Mail. Link 
  5. JR Ramakrishnan. (2019). “The Weight of Our Sky” Uses Fiction to Reckon with Malaysia’s Unspoken History. Electric Literature. Link 
  6. Tatler. (n.d.). Yangsze Choo. Link 
  7. I.M.Ahmad Kamal. (2021).912 Batu Road, the Malaysian story that took 15 years to be born! New Straits Times. Link 
  8. K.Ng. (2021). Q&A: Viji Krishnamoorthy on her debut novel 912 Batu Road. First Classe. Link 
  9. The Star. (2019). Iban Woman. Link
  10. E.Pikri. (2016).A Family Death Started This M’sian Recipe Book, Now It Preserves The Stories Of Others. Vulcan Post. Link

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