Shih-Li Kow's short stories explore grey areas of Malaysian life


‘When people think about writing, they often just think it’s the work of the author ... It’s the publishers, agents, translators and readers. It’s about all the little things that they do,’ says Kow. Photo: The Star/Aina Amirah

“Do you consider yourself an author first and foremost, or a reader?”

Quite the chicken-and-egg type of question, but author Shih-Li Kow answers without hesitation: “I’m both – you cannot separate the two.”

Despite being a bookworm throughout her life, Kow, 55, hadn’t always dreamed of becoming an author – in fact, she holds a chemical engineering degree, and up until two years ago, was managing a mall in Kuala Lumpur.

“Growing up and for much of my life, I was always more of a reader; I hadn’t really thought much about writing,” admits Kow.

But after reading Yann Martel’s novel Life Of Pi, Kow felt a new-found drive to try her hand at writing.

“Reading Life Of Pi triggered something in me. The language and imagination of the story made me want to write, so after that, I went through a period where I was reading books not for their plot, but for their language.”

Kow’s new book 'Bone Weight And Other Stories' features 25 short stories and flash fiction pieces exploring relationships and periods of transition. Photo: Fixi Kow’s new book 'Bone Weight And Other Stories' features 25 short stories and flash fiction pieces exploring relationships and periods of transition. Photo: Fixi

Kow studied the works of authors such as John Banville, Cormac McCarthy, VS Naipaul and Kazuo Ishiguro. In 2005, she set out to find a writing course, where she came across the Silverfish Writing Programme.

“Looking back, I think it was a matter of timing and a bit of serendipity,” she said.

“I would have definitely still written, but in terms of becoming a published writer, it would have been difficult had I not joined the programme.”

In 2007, at the age of 39, Kow became a published author, with her stories being published in the anthology News From Home, alongside those by Chua Kok Yee and Rumaizah Abu Bakar.

The new version of 'The Sum Of Our Follies', the book that introduced Kow to the wider masses nearly 10 years ago. Photo: FixiThe new version of 'The Sum Of Our Follies', the book that introduced Kow to the wider masses nearly 10 years ago. Photo: Fixi

Since then, Kow has continued writing – her first short story collection Ripples And Other Stories was shortlisted for the 2009 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and her first novel, The Sum Of Our Follies (published in 2014), has been translated into French, Italian and Bulgarian. The French translation of the book won the 2018 Prix du Premier Roman Étranger (First Prize for a Foreign Novel).

Her latest release, Bone Weight And Other Stories, was published by Fixi late last year. At the same time, her two previous books were also re-published (by Fixi) with brand-new covers done by artist Anugerah Gee.

“I think Shih-Li is one of the two best writers we have in English, so it would be odd if I did not want to publish her new book, as well as the two that have been out of print for some time,” says Amir Muhammad, Fixi founder.

Describing what he likes about Kow’s writing, the publisher says, “Every sentence of hers feels right. She gets voice and tone wonderfully, and there is often a hint of humour that creeps up on you.”

The people around us

Kow shares that most of the stories in Bone Weight were written in the past two years, some during the lockdown periods.

“A lot of what I write about centres around family and relationships, especially those found in multi-generational families. Partly it’s because it mirrors my current living situation – I live with my parents – but also because Malaysians tend to be family-oriented and communal. At the end of the day, everything comes back to the people around us,” she explains.

'Ripples And Other Stories' was shortlisted for the 2009 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Photo: Fixi'Ripples And Other Stories' was shortlisted for the 2009 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Photo: Fixi

Even her short story Relative Distance, which was shortlisted for the 2023 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, tells the story of a man who spends a few days in Bentong with his ageing uncle, navigating their shared history and old conflicts.

In a video interview for last year’s Commonwealth Short Story Prize, Kow was quoted as saying: “Stories are so important, there is much truth in fiction, there is much that is unsayable in real life, which can be articulated in stories. And stories help us learn, help us communicate better, stories help us develop empathy I hope, and stories help us make sense of this crazy changing world.”

“All of my stories have a bit of me in them,” she adds during this recent interview. For example, in Bone Weight, there’s a story that features Bukit Tabur, set right at the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.

“At my previous job, my commute would take me past a view of Bukit Tabur. I used to love seeing the mist covering the mountain after it rained, so I wanted to set one of my stories there,” she shares with a hint of nostalgia in her voice.

But her expression quickly darkens the moment she recalls, “Then there’s this one story I wrote about a scammy insurance scheme because I was so fed up with dealing with an insurance agent!”

While most of her stories tend to be inspired by real-life events and her experiences as a Malaysian, Kow says she tends to ignore thinking about genre when she writes.

Kow's books - including the new 'Bone Weight' - have been released and reissued by local publisher Fixi. Photo: The Star/Raja Faisal Hishan Kow's books - including the new 'Bone Weight' - have been released and reissued by local publisher Fixi. Photo: The Star/Raja Faisal Hishan

“Why repeat myself? If I keep writing the same kind of short stories around the same themes and in the same way, I’d get pretty bored. So I’m trying different things.

“But I do see myself continuing to write more short stories. I enjoy the freedom of writing it, as it doesn’t consume five years of your time and tends to be quite self-contained,” she adds.

Ripple effect

According to Kow, it’s the little things that lead to bigger things.

“Things have a way of happening, like how The Sum Of Our Follies getting translated into French was a coming together of many things,” shares Kow.

As the story goes, The Sum Of Our Follies was previously published by Silverfish Books. Its founder and owner Raman Krishnan, went to the Frankfurt Book Fair every year to promote the books it had published.

A blind French translator, Frederic Grellier, came across the book and enjoyed it so much that he recommended it to French publisher Zulma.

The original version of 'The Sum Of Our Follies', released by Silverfish in 2014, has become a collectors’ item for book lovers. Photo: Filepic The original version of 'The Sum Of Our Follies', released by Silverfish in 2014, has become a collectors’ item for book lovers. Photo: Filepic

At the same time, a French literary agent based in Langkawi also recommended the book to the same publisher.

“After receiving two recommendations for the same book, the publisher read it and loved it, and the same translator whom Raman had met at the book fair ended up becoming the translator for the book.

“When people think about writing, they often just think it’s the work of the author, but it’s not. It’s the publishers, agents, translators and readers. It’s about all the little things that they do,” says Kow.

In the same way, her advice to aspiring writers is to focus on the little things: “Learn to read for the craft, and finish that manuscript first before worrying about getting published!”

Bone Weight And Other Stories, as well as Ripples And Other Stories and The Sum of Our Follies, are available in all good bookstores.

More info here.

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Author , Shih-Li Kow , short stories , book , Fixi

   

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