KUALA LUMPUR — Khidir, a century-old Islamic saint clad in a green robe, appears at the Jamek Mosque in modern day Kuala Lumpur to resuscitate the body of a political blogger found drowned in a canal, then travels to Pekan, in Pahang State, to save the world from an evil force called “The Mouth.”
Halfway through this mad jaunt, in which gods and goddesses disguise themselves as humans, forests glow in the dark, and ethereal golden highways connect the earth with the sky, it emerges that the mysterious savior is also gay — something that is still largely eschewed by writers in Malaysia, where gay and lesbian sex acts remain punishable under traditional Islamic law.
“I wanted to portray Malaysian history, its leftist and queer histories in particular, with an accuracy I’ve found missing in some accounts of the time,” says Kuala Lumpur-born author Joshua Kam.
Kam’s debut novel “How the Man in Green Saved Pahang, and Possibly the World” won Singapore’s prestigious Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2020 — the first time that the coveted annual prize of 20,000 Singapore dollars ($15,085) was open to novelists from across the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The novel is a genre-bending story that is part fairy-tale adventure, part insightful local folklore, and part Malaysian historical treatise, peppered with heavy doses of magical realism and coming-of-age themes. However, the book’s most striking feature is that its heroes are largely LGBTQ characters.
In this regard Kam is following other recent Malaysian works of fantastic fiction in English, most notably by U.K.-based Malaysian-born Zen Cho. She used nonwhite and LGBTQ characters in two successful historical fantasy novels set in Regency London, “Sorcerer to the Crown” (2015) and “The True Queen” (2019), and also in her wuxia novella “The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water” (2020). Wuxia means Chinese historical fiction focused on the martial arts.
Cho’s new novel “Black Water Sister,” just published internationally by Penguin Random House, is also her first work set in contemporary Malaysia. It tells the story of Jess, a young Malaysian lesbian who moves to her family’s native Penang Island after having been raised in the United States. Guided by the ghostly voice of her dead grandmother, Jess has to find ways to appease Black Water Sister, a local Chinese goddess.
What sets Cho’s and Kam’s works apart from other Malaysian and Southeast Asian novelists is their exploration of nonconformist sexual orientations and controversial episodes of their country’s history, including the Malayan Emergency, in which British, Malayan and Commonwealth troops defeated a communist insurgency in colonial Malaysia, then known as Malaya. The fighting started in 1948 and ended in 1960, three years after Malaysia’s independence from the U.K., though a lower-level conflict erupted again in 1968, finally ending in 1989.
Both authors blend their fiction with the country’s multiethnic history, religion and folklore — large Malay, Chinese, Indian and indigenous population groups overlap with Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and other religious groups — introducing Malaysia to international readers with their own peculiar brand of Southeast Asian magical realism.
In terms of her choice of protagonists, Cho says the prevalence of some types of characters in globally distributed literature is a result of power imbalances with deep historical roots. “But it’s not inherently more natural to write a story about a straight white man than about a straight black man, or a queer Asian woman,” says Cho. “I think [that] the United States’ and the U.K.’s publishing [industries are] growing more aware of the importance of inclusivity, though it has a long way to go.”
Kam, on the other hand, is grateful that his debut novel was published by and for Southeast Asians. “As my [Epigram Fiction Prize] co-finalist Sunisa Manning notes about her own home, Thailand, countries like ours are frequently spectated upon, ogled, theorized about by outsiders. But rarely do we get to read other Southeast Asian voices reclaiming the past or the future.”
Kam balances past and future in the converging stories of Khidir and Gabe — a Malaysian-Indian Christian interpreter who becomes his lover and unwilling accomplice — and Ling Mo Niang and Toh Yun, two female fighters in the Malayan National Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Malayan Communist Party. Separated by the Malayan Emergency, they confess their love, unacceptable for those times, in a series of emotional letters that Lydia, Toh’s great-niece, finds stashed inside an old diary after her great-aunt’s death.
“I think many Malaysians are okay with seeing LGBTQ characters in stories,” says Kam, who says he defines himself as gay. “But to really see queer bodies and queer people as holy, [meaning] as full of divine light as anyone else, perhaps that’s what still feels subversive. Sometimes it feels like I write religious literature almost as much as I write queer folklore. For me, they might be the very same thing.”
Asked why many of her leading characters are from the LGBTQ community, Cho says she is interested in gender and sexuality, including that of heterosexual cisgender people (those who identify with the gender identity they were assigned at birth). “I would say that even my straight cisgender characters tend to subvert traditional gender roles in some way,” she says. “Again, it seems more natural to me to include characters with varied relationships to gender and different sexualities than to write exclusively or mainly about straight people.”
In “Black Water Sister,” Jess must negotiate the differences between her modern upbringing in the U.S. and her newly unfolding Malaysian identity, knowing that coming out as a lesbian could shatter relationships with her family. This is one of the ways in which Cho suggests that Malaysia’s ethnic groups needs to engage with their history “to move past communalism.”
“So much of our public discourse is founded on fear and judgment; on avoiding nuance; on casting one party as a victim and another as an oppressor, while erasing the many marginalized groups [that] Malaysia exploits for its benefit,” says Cho, adding that Malaysian writers suffer from “being cut off from our history.”
“It’s not like Malaysian literature in English only started getting written in the 2000s, but earlier works are relatively inaccessible,” says Cho. “It’s much easier to pick up, say, a Jane Austen in a Malaysian bookshop than [important local books like] Lloyd Fernando’s ‘Green is the Colour,’ or a [work by the author] K. S. Maniam.”
Cho also believes, however, that the English language literary scene is growing in Malaysia, and that its prospects are good. “What I’d like to see is more authors based in Malaysia and more non-Chinese authors getting published internationally.”
Meanwhile, Kam and Cho have laid the groundwork for other Malaysian and Southeast Asian authors to build more honest depictions of their own history and gender diversity. “I’m thinking of the courageous queer folks in Myanmar who in many ways are leading the charge in protests today,” says Kam. “We’ve always been here. We always will be.”