In her letter to readers at the beginning of her debut novel, The Storm We Made, Vanessa Chan writes that Malaysian “grandparents love us by not speaking” and goes on to explain that this only pertains to the four years of Japanese occupation during World War II. In every other subject, she writes, Malaysian grandparents do speak and at great lengths. But when it comes to the war, they cannot bring themselves to talk about the horrors from that time.

In the opening story of Saras Manickam’s collection, My Mother Pattu, a sixteen year-old Tamil girl named Meena is sent from her home in Penang, Malaysia to live with an aunt and uncle in Mambang, an inland town halfway to Kuala Lumpur. Her crime: writing and receiving letters from a boy at school. This story, “Number One, Mambang Lane”, sets the tone for the collection with colorful Malaysian settings and characters that exemplify Malaysia’s diverse cultures, racial issues and all.

Literature tends to be defined by language and place. For instance, Japanese literature is written in Japanese, or translated into another language, and written by Japanese authors. Chinese literature is however a little more complex because writers may also hail from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia. In most of these places, citizens—a significant minority if not the vast majority—speak, read, and write Chinese. In the case of Hong Kong and Singapore, ethnically-Chinese writers may also read and write in English. But Malaysia is a case apart. Despite the Chinese being a minority that speak a variety of languages and dialects, there has been a robust Chinese literary tradition from Malaysia for almost a century. Cheow Thia Chan’s new book, Malaysian Crossings: Place and Language in the Worlding of Modern Chinese Literature, discusses the history and complexities of Mahua, or Malaysian Chinese literature, to show how it has developed and endures stronger than ever today.  

The two novellas in Shivani Sivagurunathan’s What Has Happened to Harry Pillai? take place on the fictional Coal Island in Malaysia, a setting she has used previously in a couple of other books going back a decade. Much lurks under the surface of this seemingly idyllic locale. In this latest book, each novella takes on the theme of loneliness and reinvention.