Books from the Bolehland: Highlights of Contemporary Malaysian Literature

Lindsay Parnell

Malaysian literature and fiction remains something of a mystery outside of South East Asia. But this is changing due to the success of Tan Twan Eng, a Malaysian novelist who in 2012 was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and in 2013 won the Man Asian Literary Prize for The Garden of Evening Mists. Eng’s success has put the spotlight on older classics of Malaysian fiction such as Abdullah Hussain’s Interlok and the graphic novel The Kampung Boy.

The Garden of Evening Mists, Tan Twan Eng (2012)

Tan Twan Eng story of political turmoil The Garden of Evening Mists, was a Man Booker favourite. An acclaimed member of 2012’s Man Booker Shortlist and the winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize, The Garden of Evening Mists tells the poignant and often heart wrenching tale of Yun Ling Teoh, a battered and broken survivor of the Japanese camps during WWII. Teoh ventures from the land of her torture and torment desperately seeking consolation at Cameron Highlands, a tea plantation. By chance Teoh meets a Japanese garden owner whose violent past is an initial barrier between them. An unlikely bond forms across national and political borders as the two become deeply involved in a passionate relationship examining their own transgressions, secrets and sins. A literary opus whose prose is as mesmerizing as it is emotionally stirring, Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists solidified him as a major literary force whose narratives examine the power of the human spirit as it seeks to overcome the emotional and physical carnage of wartime destruction.

Interlok – Abdullah Hussain

Published in 1971 by Malaysia’s esteemed writer Abdullah Hussain, Interlok (1971), was subjected to censorship in school systems and bookstores alike. However, it remains one of Malaysia’s most accomplished and thrilling literary works in its narrative weaving of the country’s post-colonial history and its beautifully complex tale of friendship. Set in the early 20th century when Malaysia was still under a turbulent British colonial rule; Hussain tells the story of three friends, Maniam, Seman and Chin Huat, whose personal lives are linked, woven and fused together during their homeland’s pursuit for a national identity. The friendship of Maniam, Seman and Chin Huat is tested by the turbulence of Malaysia’s struggles for independence, to devastating effect. The parallels between their brotherly intimacy and their country’s struggle for self-determination are as poignant as they are inspiring. But Hussain’s greatest accomplishment seems to be his tight control of contextualizing a fictional narrative within a grand scheme of political and colonial history. In a search for freedom, both individual and national, Interlok is an inspiring tale with frequently painful and dark speed bumps along the way.

The Kampung Boy – Lat

The first print of Lat’s (also known as Datuk Mohammad Nor Khalid) graphic novel The Kampung Boy came out in 1979 at which time it was a unique prospect for a country in which comic books and graphic novels had never taken hold. The novel was inspired by Lat’s own childhood and adolescence as a boy living in the rural Malaysian state of Perak during the 1960s. The Kampung Boy has had a profound effect on Malaysia’s literary and artistic tradition. It ignited a successful career for its author and artist Lat, solidifying him as a major artistic talent. The Kampung Boy earned its author a multitude of international accolades including numerous children’s book awards worldwide. Lat’s highly autobiographical graphic novel begins with his own birth and then gives detailed depictions of the religious, spiritual and traditional rituals and ceremonies surrounding such an occasion. Lat’s story then continues with both his secular and religious education as a young boy, an illegal act committed with his friends as an adolescent and continues as he matures. Lat’s The Kampung Boy is highly regarded for its beautifully crafted drawings and its presentation of a traditional childhood and adolescent life in his native Malaysia. The graphic novel has been the recipient of various international adaptations, including a televised cartoon airing in the US, the Philippines and Malaysia. The Kampung Boy has been reprinted countless times and remains one of Malaysia’s most prized narratives.
By Lindsay Parnell

Culture Trips launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes places and communities so special.

Our immersive trips, led by Local Insiders, are once-in-a-lifetime experiences and an invitation to travel the world with like-minded explorers. Our Travel Experts are on hand to help you make perfect memories. All our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

All our travel guides are curated by the Culture Trip team working in tandem with local experts. From unique experiences to essential tips on how to make the most of your future travels, we’ve got you covered.

Culture Trip Spring Sale

Save up to $1,656 on our unique small-group trips! Limited spots.

Edit article