Circles of life in Malaysia: a review of the anthology ‘Endings & Beginnings’ (Word Works, Kuala Lumpur 2018).

By Lawrence Pettener

Many writers end their stories with material they would have done well to use at the beginning; not so these writers. This one is even better than its predecessors; healthy sales reflect that, which makes its discontinuation feel even more of a loss locally.

Under the editorship of Sharon Bakar and Dipika Mukherjee, ‘Endings & Beginnings’ is the third and last collection of short stories in English by Malaysian authors entered for the D.K. Dutt Award for Literary Excellence.

‘Yama Takes a Drive’ by Sharmilla Ganesan is near-perfect, with a lightness that any writer would do well to emulate, and a specificity of KL locations that grounds the story’s reality; a confident runner-up.

We are hardly kept waiting for food to take centre stage; durians, no less, with plenty of sweet details. ‘Strips of Longing’, the second story, radiates the sort of delight a chef might feel sharing haute cuisine, though its ending moves towards being a morality tale.

Marc de Faoite’s short stories are never less than commanding, and ‘Antecessor’ is no exception.  The prose style is tight and spare, so that we are held at the requisite distance to engage with an unexpected ending. A well-deserved runner-up.

‘White Rooster’ by Tilon Sagulu is a haunted tale with a skillful ending, which works backwards to flesh out the reveal of the opening.

First Prize-winning story of the collection, ‘Charan’, by Saras Manickam, has a well-judged shock ending, after the death of a disabled child brings up a host of family recriminations and regrets.

Melizarani T. Selva’s ‘The Skin I’m In’ is reflective and carefully worked. We feel held by the touching narrative, and it all hangs together well. However, I feel ambivalent towards single-sentence paragraphs; they’re impactful, though their overuse can be trying.

SA Rosly’s ‘Cik Maimon’ is a beautifully sad story about the eponymously-named character and her lot in her judgmental, pious society, where she is ‘shuffling along the road to repentance’. The masterful writing is low-key, like its protagonist; using present tense throughout, it possesses the confidence to stand by an inconclusive ending; clearly an author to watch out for.

Other stories here are psychological rather than plot-driven; Aizuddin H. Anuar’s ‘Taxi Therapy’, a thoughtful analysis of relations between a taxi driver and his customer, won me over, with the exception of the final paragraph or two.

Shazmin Shamsuddin’s ‘Light’ also stands out, with its interesting uses of synaesthesia: departures are silver-grey, good times are yellow; loss and grief are black, grey, indigo. Its main character migrates bodily from that of author, through housemaid, old woman and fool, to soldier. In a tour of transpersonal experience, one particular line here could attempt to sum up the entire collection: ‘Exits and entrances – are they interchangeable?’

‘Inheritance’ deals with a mix of emotions and perceptions bordering on feverish: ‘The heat in the stuffy house pressed upon her, yet she was cold.’ A sinister two-word phrase evokes Jack Nicholson in horror mode; this is a compelling psychological drama with enough physical drama to anchor it.

In ‘Lessons out of Time’, it’s refreshing to see a Malaysian author (Mohan Ambikaipaker) touching on socially sensitive areas: the race riots of 1969, language politics, strong women, immigration and classroom shaming. This one sees itself acutely, through its sub-headers and observational use of the simple present throughout.

Its phrases are crafted, ‘Cold reserve’ being the likely human resort of anyone told to knuckle down rather than feel. Others show a light touch: a woman ‘talks away tiredness’, summing up her situation; a mountain range ‘spines’ a country, a pleasing noun-verb conversion. In this tale, the camera zooms out along with its protagonists’ aspirations to travel.

Pieces by alumni of previous collections round this one off. Sumitra Selvaraj gives a wonderfully apt reminiscence, while Hanna Alkaf reflects on a writer’s life so far, and its rising trajectory; both are indebted to the editors of these collections.

As one of only a handful of publishers of short fiction in English in Malaysia, Word Works – under the expert editorship of Dipika Mukherjee and Sharon Bakar – has made excellent choices in selecting, editing and ordering the assembled work. Endings and Beginnings is a first-rate guide to anyone feeling for the beating pulse of contemporary Malaysian writing.

This book is nicely illustrated throughout, though I would pass on several formatting choices: I find line spaces between paragraphs distracting; right-align, while possibly a norm in Malaysia, introduces unnecessary spatial distortions.

The positive force which is Sharon Bakar’s Word Works dwarfs these issues, pioneering Malaysian short fiction in English even as other publishers have abandoned the genre. This delicious rojak may be an ending for the Dutt Award publications, but with the gathering momentum we see here, there is clearly plenty more to come from this strengthening stable.

About Lawrence Pettener


Originally from Liverpool, Lawrence Pettener works full-time in the Klang Valley as copy-editor, proofreader and writer, specializing in helping solo authors. His most recent (and forthcoming) book reviews and interviews are in The Star (Malaysia) and As Kwailo Lumpur he writes comic material about Malaysian life, food especially. Following the success of May All Beings Rock, three original poetry books are due out in 2019.
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