Ask local author Shih-Li Kow why she writes and she mulls her reply. “I don’t think I can pin it down exactly. Sometimes I think it’s because I want to leave a record of these times that we are living in. Many [people] are writing about historical periods and there is a lot of science fiction. We don’t have much fiction on contemporary Malaysia in this day and age. I think fiction fills a gap, a space. It’s not news but a record of what it is like to live in this particular time.
“Sometimes I think maybe I’m just writing for myself, to say what I have to say. When I start writing, it’s definitely for myself. I don’t have a reader profile or know who I am targeting. It’s quite hard to write for a specific reader.”
What Kow, whose given name can be translated as “beautiful poem”, knows for sure is that writing suits her nature. “I’m not very sociable. I can be quite anti-social sometimes. I think writing fits me because it is solitary. It is my outlet.”
Putting words on paper is also a natural progression for this observer of the times, whose anthology, Ripples and Other Stories (2008), was nominated for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in the first book category and shortlisted for the 2009 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Last November, Kow’s The Sum of Our Follies won France’s Prix du Premier Roman étranger, literally the first novel award in the foreign category. The country’s Literary Translation Association selects the winner from submissions by publishers.
In 2007, Kow’s stories were published in a collection called News from Home, together with those by Chua Kok Yee and Rumaizah Abu Bakar.
All three titles were released in Malaysia under Silverfish Books. The French edition of The Sum of Our Follies, translated by Frédéric Grellier and published by Zulma, came out in 2018. Preceding it was an Italian edition, for which rights were sold in 2014. A contract for a German translation is being finalised.
Kow attended a secondary boarding school in Kulim, Kedah — her parents’ hometown — and did her A-levels at another in Kluang, Johor, before getting a scholarship to study chemical engineering in the UK. She worked as an industrial engineer in a multinational consumer products company for 11 years, then became a mall manager, her full-time job now.
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