Search for a contemporary depiction of our country in local English fiction, and a lot of the time, you will uncover dark deeds and darker minds. While there are definitely exceptions to this rule, works featuring modern-day Malaysia are often crime thrillers, urban conflicts, or supernatural encounters in the city!
Think the KL Noir series published by Fixi Novo, the Inspector Mislan series by Rozlan Mohd Noor, the Inspector Singh Investigates series by Shamini Flint, Dipika Mukherjee’s Thunder Demons, Ewe Paik Leong’s A China Doll in KL, Tunku Halim’s Vermillion Eye, and so on.
Before you start to worry about unwholesome reading tastes, though, there’s a probably a reason for this. Evil characters doing evil things is always fun to read about: no one wants to read a book completely populated by shiny happy people! This is why crime, horror and thriller novels have always been very popular, and those genres work best in modern urban settings.
One of the most memorable novels featuring contemporary Malaysia is Brian Gomez’s Devil’s Place, a hilarious thriller featuring (among other people!) a Thai prostitute, a struggling musician, a conspiracy theorist cab driver, an unfortunately-named pimp and a jaded ex-bouncer, all caught up in a wild situation in Kuala Lumpur.
Gomez is the author of several short stories that have been published in various anthologies, including Body 2 Body: A Malaysian Queer Anthology, Readings From Readings and KL Noir: Red. He is also the co-founder of the arts venue Merdekarya in Petaling Jaya, and has recorded a rock album, Gun Inside My Brain, which was released in 2012.
Tell us a little about how you were inspired to write Devil’s Place, your novel set in contemporary Malaysia.
I had many ideas for books, songs, movies at the time. I decided to quit my job and see if one of those ideas could see the light of day. Devil’s Place was simply the idea that appealed to me most at the time. So it wasn’t so much being inspired but more the need to realise some of the ideas.
What are some of your favorite works, Malaysian or otherwise, that are set in contemporary times?
I’m not very familiar with newer work, so by contemporary I mean 10 years ago! My favorite novels were by Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard. Film-wise, I think Devil’s Place is most inspired by the 1980s movie Mekanik as well as Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels.
How can a writer effectively capture the spirit of a place and time in their writing?
Simply by being observant about your surroundings and trying be as honest as possible about what you observe.
What makes contemporary Malaysia unique to write about, in contrast to other places?
Absurdity. There is, quite possibly, no country as delightfully absurd as ours. Every day you can read a ridiculous news item that you would think is satire, but is not.
Writing often takes a lot of time and effort. Are you ever concerned that, after writing about a contemporary issue, it passes out of memory at the time it eventually gets published?
Not really. If it was non-fiction then yes, it might seem dated after a while. But fiction, written well, ought to stand the test of time.
What makes a piece of writing exclusively Malaysian?
I don’t think there’s any one thing. I can only speak for myself, but I think dialogue is essential in capturing a place. I try to write how people speak in Malaysia and that’s what works for me, I guess.
Are there any aspects of contemporary Malaysian life or culture that you wish you could see more in fiction?
Politics, I suppose. But then again you get so much absurd politics in the news, it can pass off as fiction anyway.
Do you think there are any common mistakes that writers make when writing works set in a contemporary Malaysia?
Over-writing things. Or describing things in-depth for a Western audience. It usually becomes intrusive to the story for Malaysian readers.
How can a writer tackle sensitive or controversial issues in their writing, which may offend or alienate readers?
Just write whatever you want and hope that the authorities don’t find out about it ... you stand a good chance of getting away with it.