Malaysian novel captures French readers’ imagination

Kow and Bouchoud during the talk. The novel’s French version has a red jacket band which is traditionally used in France to mark awards won by the book, heightening its visual prominence while on display in bookshops. — Photos courtesy of Embassy of France

“IT WAS a very surprising journey. I didn’t expect for it to take off in France.”

Malaysian author Shih-Li Kow was referring to the warm reception among the French towards her latest novel during a French Talks series at Alliance Francaise in Kuala Lumpur.

Her talk was titled “In Conversation with Shih-Li Kow: A Malaysian Book, A Success in France”.

Organised monthly by the Embassy of France in collaboration with Alliance Francaise of Kuala Lumpur, the French Talks is a series of dialogues featuring both French and Malaysian experts discussing pertinent issues of the day with the aim of building bridges between the two countries and cultures.

In the latest French Talk, French writer, literary translator and publisher Jerome Bouchaud and Kow discussed the trajectory that her book Sum of Our Follies, published by Silverfish, had taken ever since its 2014 debut as well as comparing the reading cultures between the two countries.

They also analysed reasons for her book’s success in France.

French journalist Christine Chaumeau, in a Télérama article last month, described Kow as having a “tender and mischievous talent for observation, clearly having great fun in telling stories, in playing with the absurdity of some situations and with the inconsistencies of people.”

In November 2018, the book’s French version, translated by M. Frederic Grellier, who is blind, won a top French literary prize – the “Prix du Premier Roman étrenger” (First Novel Award in the Foreign Category).

The story was set in an imaginary town named Lubok Sayong in Perak, which Bouchaud described as a type of “mini Malaysia”.

French readers have been quoted in a headline saying “Lubok Sayong sounds just like my hometown in Loir-et-Cher!”

To this, Kow reckoned it was because the themes were universal, based on her encounters with French readers on her visit to two literary festivals there.

“It has concerns that people have about, for instance, growing up, growing older, change and developments, personal challenges. They also enjoyed some of the humour in it, ” she said.

“It is a little bit of a personal, fairytale Malaysia. It’s imperfect but it has got all the elements that I think Malaysians would love about the country, squeezed into a tiny, tiny space, ”

she added.

At the invitation of her book’s French publisher Zulma, Kow attended two literary festivals – Festival Atlandide in Nantes in February 2019 and the Etonnants Voyageurs in Saint-Malo in June 2019.

Kow, who attributed the book’s success to its fine translation by Grellier, also said it was perhaps the French read the book without having too many preconceptions as compared to Malaysians who may be familiar with some of the elements in the book.

During her time at the French literary festivals, her publisher also arranged for her visit to various small but supportive independent local bookshops that carried her books.

There, she observed how they help promote book sales with a close working relationship with publishers.

Bouchaud also explained how the French book industry enjoy the support of the National Book Centre (Centre National du Livre, or CNL in short) which assists publishers, funds book translations like hers, supports independent bookshops, and sponsors literary festivals.

They also discussed how the book price control policy in France helped towards book sales.

How the book came about was from her work on short stories.

“Some years ago, maybe five to eight years ago, I was collecting a lot of interesting material from The Star and there were some short stories coming out of it, ” she said.

Currently, Kow is working on more short stories while still working full time in the real estate industry.

The German translation of Sum of Our Follies by publisher Wunderraum of Goldmann Verlag is expected to be out in 2020.

Kow’s previous book, Ripples and Other Stories, published in 2008 by Silverfish, was nominated for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in the First Book Category and shortlisted for the 2009 Frank O’ Connor International Short Story Award, beating international authors such as Ali Smith and Kazuo Ishiguro to the list.

The next French Talks will be tonight at 8pm, featuring the topic “Dealing with Urban Pollution: From KL to Paris”.

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