'House Of Koi' reminds readers, sometimes, your future is waiting for you in your past

‘I grew up in bookstores with imported Western books and no local books to read. Now I am happy to see the diverse literature movement for South-East Asia picking up,’ says Li. Photo: Lilian Li

Several years ago, author Lilian Li was very homesick. She had left home in Penang to the United States, where she studied at the University of Boston.

Home was so far away, and to cope, Li started to write. Soon, she realised she had quite a story on her hands. A professor in her creative writing class even helped her to form her stories into what would become a book.

Last December, her book House Of Koi was released by US-based publisher New Degree Press.

Li, who had just turned 21 at the time, was overwhelmed.

“At first, writing was a way for me to cope with my homesickness. I never thought I would get published. Even now, I can hardly believe people are reading my words, ” said Li, via email interview.

It was perhaps no surprise that Li would end up an author.

“I grew up surrounded by books, and by that I mean I have literally been inside a bookstore for an entire day until the lights in the shopping mall went out and the bookstore had to politely tell me to get out.

“But I would return the next day. My parents had a store next door (to this bookshop) in the mall, so while they worked, I lived and breathed books, ” revealed Li, whose favourite authors are Sarah J Maas and Meg Cabot.

House Of Koi is a young adult (YA) book about identity, family and change. It is the tale of Mila, a young girl from Penang, who studies at an international school, and speaks only English.

Due to circumstances, she ends up having to move to Bukit Mertajam to live with her grandmother. There, she attends a local school.

Being the new kid is never fun, especially in a school where most students speak Bahasa Malaysia and Mandarin, and you don’t.

Mila experiences complete culture shock.

Thanks to her friends, including cute next door neighbour Sean, Mila slowly begins to adapt. But the journey is difficult, and Mila must confront some truths about her past.

“I’ve never read a Malaysian young adult high school romance before, let alone based in my home Penang, so I decided to write one. I thought about my own childhood and my struggles. I felt very drawn towards creating a character with that same internal struggle of searching for identity, ” said Li.

Much of the story is based on Li’s actual experiences. Like her main character, the author also underwent a shift of worlds.

She did the opposite of her character, going from a Malaysian school to an international one.

Li also drew on her bond with her own grandmother to write about Mila and her grandma.

“I decided to stay with my grandmother before I went abroad as I wouldn’t be able to spend time with her. As a way to remember everything we did together – from picking vegetables, going to the morning market, eating rambutans – I recorded all down, ” said Li.

Li’s grandmother unfortunately died before her book could be published.

House Of Koi is peppered with Malaysian references, with real life Penang buildings playing a role in the story. Characters go to hawker centres, drink “Milo Dinosaur” and even watch the movie Cicak Man.

“While writing this book with a US publisher, I also had to remind myself who my audience was. My editors didn’t understand some of my scenes or certain dialogues.

"But I decided I didn’t want to cater towards non-Malaysians. I wanted this story to be for Malaysians written by a Malaysian, ” said Li, who is studying advertising, with a minor in English.

The book took about a year to write. To finance the book, Li ran a successful Indiegogo fundraiser, eventually raising over RM16,000.

Will there be a sequel? Li said readers had suggested a story where Mila goes to university abroad.

“I think that would be a good idea. But for now, I am quite happy with the way the book ended. Perhaps, because writing Mila’s university life hits too close to my current life,” said Li.

The young author’s immediate goal is to graduate from university. Her studies have been delayed because of the pandemic, and she is currently back in Malaysia, working in an advertising agency in Penang.

She is also working on another novel, which she reveals will be a Malaysian-influenced tale about the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac.

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