'Aesop Women’s Library 2.0: Voices Unbound' returns with 6,000 free books to take home

The Exchange TRX and IOI City Mall boutiques will become sanctuaries of stories, showcasing a curated collection of books by local authors.

Aesop TRX, Kuala Lumpur (Photo: Aesop)

In today’s fast-paced world, where screens dominate our attention and our schedules seem ever more packed, the simple act of reading can often be neglected. Yet, the importance of reading cannot be overstated. Are we reading enough? Are we making time to immerse ourselves in the transformative power of books?

This June 14 to 16, Aesop Women’s Library returns to Malaysia to reaffirm the profound impact of literature and the importance of celebrating women authors. During this time, Aesop TRX in Kuala Lumpur and Aesop IOI City Mall in Putrajaya will become sanctuaries of stories, showcasing a curated collection of books by local authors.

For these three days, shelves will be cleared of body and skin care products as well as fragrances. Instead, Aesop will shine a light on the diverse and powerful narratives that women bring to literature. The library will feature a selection of 27 titles in three languages, with writers such as Saras Manickam, Dr Chai Siaw Ling and Charissa Ong leading the pack.

The best part of this exercise is undoubtedly the opportunity for visitors to take home a complimentary book of their choice, at no cost.

The Aesop Women’s Library 2.0: Voices Unbound underscores the essential role literature plays in reflecting and shaping our understanding of the world. By highlighting the works of women authors, the event not only celebrates their contributions but also encourages readers to explore the depth of experiences and insights they offer.


Saras Manickam (Photo: Aesop)

“Delighted doesn’t begin to describe it!” gushes Saras when asked how she felt about being picked as one of the main authors this year. “This came out of the blue and being selected means My Mother Pattu is recognised as excellent, deserving of being showcased, displayed and hugely publicised. How wonderful is that.”

Saras writes stories that spotlight voices often unheard because they are bound by patriarchy, community expectations, exploitative employers or legislation which holds power over them.

“That Aesop Malaysia is putting my book out there for people to choose and read freely, ensuring that these voices are heard after all, I’m really pleased,” she says.

“But books are expensive. And however powerful or authentic or relevant my stories are, it wouldn’t matter at all if the community at large can’t afford them, or if they aren’t readily available in bookshops. So, this initiative uplifts and gives much needed exposure to writers, publishers, bookshops and readers.

“One single important thing the government can do is to remove whatever taxes from books so that they are affordable. If books are affordable, more people will buy them. More people will read. And we push the move towards a reading community. As a writer, I would also push for grants, residencies, awards … so there is space and opportunity to write, without worrying about money.”

When asked what her hopes are for this initiative, Saras says: “Wouldn’t it be just amazing if other companies followed Aesop Malaysia’s lead? Just imagine, books by Malaysian women being given away for free so they reach readers who may otherwise not be able to read them.”


Charissa Ong (Photo: Aesop)

Ong is honoured that Aesop asked her again to be a part of the initiative this year, and this time as a featured author of Daylight Dialogues. “They’re not only supporting me as an author, but also as an independent publisher by purchasing the books straight from my warehouse. I couldn’t be happier and more excited.”

As a publisher with limited marketing funds, she always had to depend on word of mouth and virility of the content itself. It has worked well for her so far: She has sold 50,000-plus poetry books in the past eight years of being in business. This initiative solidifies her company’s brand even more by giving it the trust it deserves.

“As an author, being highlighted gives my books more credibility and exposure. But what I appreciate most is the big picture message the Aesop library seeks to portray. Not only do the books give a larger voice to those who are usually silenced, they aim to unbind the egos and biases of readers who have a limited view on important global issues, and aid the seemingly unwinnable battles residing within themselves.

“These readers would finally have the appropriate ammunition in the form of words and stories to overexpress feelings they never thought they had, or thoughts that were difficult to explain. Not everyone is going to read these books. But these books empower those who do by unbinding their hidden potential to be true empaths, communicators and visionaries, transforming them into interactive advocates of these ideas. Although chances may be slim, there are those who would potentially and responsibly bring these ideas into our reality.”

And we will continue to raise the probability, one word at a time.

Ong is of the opinion that social media and the book community are getting bigger and bigger by the day. “I’m so thankful. I remember making it my mission eight years ago when I started Penwings Publishing to increase the average book read by a Malaysian from one to two. The average has definitely increased over the years, and my mission now is to increase the number of quality writers in Malaysia. Hence, the launch of my practice book.”


Dr Chai Siaw Ling (Photo: Aesop)

Chai’s writing starts from the perspective of women and explores the situation of them living alone after the age of 30. She bought a house at 29, a decision that seemed different from those around her. Her female friends, whether in long-term relationships or quick marriages, all aimed to get married and live in their first house with their husbands. This led her to question why her life was different from others’. She pondered, what should a standard life be?

“What I hope to convey in my writing, 洞, is that even if a woman does not marry and have children, or lives a different life from most people in society, no one should judge her. I feel that the theme of my writing is very consistent with the purpose of Aesop’s Women Library, elevating and sharing their experiences and voices to be seen and heard, and I hope that I can contribute to promoting social care for women.”

This initiative, the first of its kind in Malaysia she says, has raised our local women’s voices in collaboration with Aesop. “I hope it can enhance women’s awareness in society and understanding of women’s various situations. However, this cannot rely on just one party. I believe all must work together to ensure literature and reading are not confined to the classroom, but integrated into everyday life.”

To create more awareness, Aesop’s Women’s Library collaborated with Human Edition, a social media platform dedicated to sharing stories of individuals from all walks of life. Shi Han, the co-founder, had a great time putting together the content by working with the organiser as well as Two Book Nerds Talking, who are returning with a three-part podcast series. For the launch, Aesop will co-host a reading event with TBNT Book Club with the aim of igniting a discourse around the multifaceted identities of women and fostering connections in the literary community.


Shi Han, co-founder of Human Edition (Photo: Aesop)

Human Edition was roped in because there is a need to have digital content that tells the stories of the women involved in this exercise and the literary scene in KL. “We have been covering a broad range of human stories, as the name would suggest, since we started in April last year. It’s great to be a part of this initiative, to bounce off ideas with like-minded folks and to encourage people to read, or even help those who want to start unearthing local women authors,” says Shi Han.

Expect four documentary-style episodes exploring the literary landscape of KL. The first episode, released on June 3, covers a book-sharing session organised by Honey Ahmad and Diana Yeong, the main folks behind TBNT, at the Temu House, which includes a cooking session featuring a recipe from the book The Food That Makes Us by Foong Li Mei and Szetoo Weiwen. The next episode will cover Lit Books, an independent bookstore that is making all the difference on the local literary scene.

“This year, Aesop got a little more ambitious and wanted to do a pre-launch event. Both Diana and I run book clubs of our own. She has the Book Whisperer [focusing on contemporary fiction] and also founded The KL Book Appreciation Club on Facebook. I have a cookbook club called CREAM (Cookbook Revellers Enthusiasts and Makan) where we choose a cookbook, cook using a recipe from it and then discuss that,” says Honey.

“So this year, we joined forces by inviting book clubs to join us for a pre-event launch at Temu House and listen to a reading by three authors — Dina Zaman, Saras and Ong. CREAM cooked dishes from one of the books on the list and had a lovely time just ‘nerding out’. It was quite mad, preparing for the panel and figuring out how to make the recipes work for a morning soiree.”


Honey (left) and Yeong from Two Book Nerds Talking (Photo: Shi Han)

The TBNT podcast will also feature Amir Mohammed, founder of Buku Fixi; Sharon Bakar, who runs monthly book readings at Readings@Seksan; and Sharifah Osman and Tutu Dutta, the editors of Principal Girl Redux. “Sharifah is a professor of English Literature and Dutta has written many books that delve into Malaysian mythology and culture. We hope our conversations with all of these pillars of Malaysian literature will inspire more people to reflect on the importance of highlighting the diverse voices of women from all walks of Malaysian society,” Yeong pipes in.

“The Aesop Women’s Library 2023 successfully distributed more than 5,000 books but besides queuing in line with others, there were no opportunities for book lovers to engage with each other. This time around, the event has more of a community feel, especially given the engagement with book clubs at the Temu House pre-launch event, the conversations with local book personalities and further collaborative efforts with the Human Edition IG page. We hope not only will more people be inspired to pick up a Malaysian read, but also be made aware of the bookish communities that exist around us.”

“I loved discovering all these new book clubs and younger readers coming into their own. They are vocal, feisty and have opinions. Isn’t that wonderful? We hope there is space for future collaborations with these book clubs and together grow the community of readers. The love of stories unifies us and storytelling, myth creation and collective identity in lived experiences is something that can be very powerful. But first, let’s grab a good book together, makan and talk about it,” says Honey.

With a selection of more than 20 titles recommended by six collaborating local publishing houses — Lit Books, Clarity Publishing, Cite Book Garden, Gerak Budaya Kuala Lumpur, Penwings Publishing and Buku Fixi — the library spans a wide range of genres and styles. From emerging voices to seasoned authors, and encompassing short stories, novels and poetry, the collection celebrates diverse narratives. To support local independent publishers and booksellers, Aesop has purchased more than 6,000 volumes for the ephemeral library, ensuring no voices are left unheard.


This article first appeared on June 10, 2024 in The Edge Malaysia.


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