Malaysian novels in English: A fragmented publishing scene

  • Books
  • Tuesday, 08 Sep 2015

While there were more Malaysian novels in English produced between 1994 and 2003, the local publishing scene was fragmented - of the 13 novels released then, only three were published by locally-based mainstream publishers. Photo:


In my earlier survey of the local publishing scene in 1965-1993, I noted that it was only between 1976 and 1984 that Malaysian novels in English (MNEs) were published by locally based mainstream publishers. The rest of the time, novelists had to resort to foreign small presses or self-publishing. One of the consequences is that the self-published books are now mostly forgotten and unread.

The situation in 1994-2003 was very similar. However, the new generation of self-published authors (all women) have been more successful in ensuring their novels do not vanish into oblivion. Today, nearly 20 years after their first publication, some of their novels are still being bought and read.

In my previous article, I discussed how these women opened up new possibilities for the development of MNEs by crafting discourses of national and social importance into popular fiction forms. In this article, I celebrate the fact that, through their efforts to produce and sell their self-published works, they set new paradigms for the local promotion, marketing and distribution of MNEs.

An examination of who published which MNEs launched in 1994-2003 reveals the fragmented nature of the local publishing scene. Of the 13 novels by home-based novelists, only three were published by locally based mainstream publishers: Alex Ling’s Twilight Of The White Rajahs (1997) by the Sarawak Literary Society in Kuching; and K.S. Maniam’s Between Lives and Lee Kok Liang’s London Does Not Belong To Me, both launched in 2003 by the newly established Maya Press.

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Malaysian-made: The three novels that were published by local mainstream publishers.

 The three novels by Marie Gerrina Louis, who lives in Johor Baru and works in Singapore – Road To Chandibole (1994), Junos (1995) and The Eleventh Finger (2000) – were published by mainstream presses in Singapore.

Hamid Yusof’s The Thirdway Factor (1996) was published by a vanity press in Britain, and Shoba Mano’s Love’s Treacherous Terrain (2003) was published in India.

The remaining five novels – Ellina A. Majid’s Perhaps In Paradise (1997) and Khairunnisa: A Good Woman (1998), Uma Mahendran’s The Twice Born (1998), Aneeta Sundararaj’s The Banana Leaf Men (2003) and my own book, Echoes Of Silence (1994) – were self-published.

The five diasporic novelists who published during the same period had an easier time; they were all published by established publishers. Yang-May Ooi’s The Flame Tree (1998) and Mindgame (2000), and Rani Manicka’s The Rice Mother (2002) were published by Hodder & Stoughton.

Shirley Lim’s Joss And Gold (2001) was published simultaneously by the Feminist Press in New York and Times Book International in Singapore.

Interestingly, two novelists were published by local presses which, until then, were not known to publish fiction. Beth Yahp’s The Crocodile Fury was published in 1996 by Strategic Information Research Development, an imprint of Gerakbudaya. Tunku Halim’s Dark Demon Rising (1997) and Vermillion Eye (2000) were published by Pelanduk Publications, established in 1984 and mainly associated with non-fiction.

The pattern that emerges from this brief survey is clear. A home-based novelist who didn’t live in the right place or have the right connections to a publishing house had to self-publish – or perish as a novelist.

Malaysian novelists, Tunku Halim and Beth Yahp. - Filepix

Malaysian novelists, Tunku Halim and Beth Yahp. - Filepix

The four women novelists who self-published may or may not have been the “psychotic housewives” that Feroz Dawson had hoped would invigorate the local fiction scene, but they were certainly women with successful careers in the commercial world. In informal chats with them, I learned that their approach to writing and publishing was marked by their working-life professionalism. For one thing, they had done their market research.

As writers, they were aware of the reading public’s preference for imported popular fiction. As publishers, they knew of the lack of adequately trained personnel and quality control systems in the book publishing, distribution and retailing industries.

As businesswomen, they set up their own publishing companies, and took advantage of their knowledge of information technology to produce, publish, market and promote their books, creating websites, blogs and social networks as and when the applications became available.

They made use of their experience in public relations, advertising and marketing to plan book launches. They worked with event planners, bookshops, universities, schools, book discussion groups and local as well as expatriate culture-related groups to organise readings and meet-the-author sessions at which they discussed their work, and sold their books.

Many of their practices, new in the 1990s, are now commonplace in the local publishing industry. But perhaps their most significant contribution to the industry is that their activities, although essentially commercial, had a community-oriented flavour. Over time, novel writing began to lose the elitism of the past and came to be seen as achievable by anyone with the will to develop his or her writing skills.

It can be said without overstating the case that because of their efforts, the basic infrastructure required to take the MNE in a new direction was already in place locally when large international publishers began publishing, promoting and marketing the “Malaysian” novels of the diaspora.

It is often assumed that the diaspora writers, especially those who have won literary awards, are responsible for putting the MNE on the world map. The way I look at it, it seems like an oversimplification of the matter. The real cause was a series of political and economic events in the second half of the 1990s, which suddenly made Malaysia interesting to an increasingly globalised world. In my next article, I shall explore how the phenomenon of globalisation helped build an international readership for the MNE.

This is the sixth of a weekly 10-part series of articles on Malaysian novels in English. Chuah Guat Eng is a Malaysian author whose works include two novels (Echoes Of Silence and Days Of Change) and two collections of short stories (The Old House And Other Stories and Dream Stuff). She was conferred a PhD by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia in 2008 for the thesis From Conflict To Insight: A Zen-based Reading Procedure For The Analysis Of Fiction.

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