'A Chance Encounter at Sungai Chiling' spotlights work of Malaysian Short Story Writing Competition 2022 winners

Fresh voices tell stories filled with meaning, mirth and menace in a collection that is simply engaging.

14 entries from the Malaysian Short Story Writing Competition 2022 were picked for this collection (Photo: Maya Press)

“Sulo had just turned eight years old when she first felt the thick swirl of a man’s tongue in her mouth. His tongue felt soggy and stubborn at the same time, like when you tried to pull a snail off a garden wall.” With these opening lines, Sumitra Selvaraj’s Such a Pretty Girl plants the reader in the playroom where an innocent girl is violated.

She is opening her birthday presents when the moustachioed man appears. After he leaves without a backward glance, she vomits down the front of her hand-smocked dress, and again at breakfast the next morning. Sulo considers telling her mother about the tongue incident when the latter asks if she is still feeling sick. But the moment passes and mum, after ticking off what the maid can feed her, sweeps out in a cloud of silk and perfume, convinced her daughter will be fine with some water and rest.

If you have ever recoiled from someone directing his erection at you, surrounded by silent witnesses to “the unfolding climax of violation”, you will feel Miriam Devaprasana’s unnamed victim’s shock and horror in The Things You Weep For and laud her move to not let it go, this time. If you have ever tried to report a sexual assault, her encounters with systemic indifference and injustice will be all-too-familiar and frustrating.

When all the second-person narrator in this story wants is to be held and have a good cry, her father busies himself with a bag of peanuts as he drives her to the police station. When she identifies the culprit from a line-up of men in orange, there are tears instead of cheer because she knows, once freed, he will pick another prey.  She also knows she will never be the same, even if there is healing.

Sumitra and Miriam’s accounts of sexual abuse in A Chance Encounter at Sungai Chiling and Other Stories are different but equally emphatic. The pair were jointly placed third in the Malaysian Short Story Writing Competition 2022, from which 14 entries were picked for this collection.



It opens with the titular story by Sharmilla Ganesan, the top winner, followed by Lam Kok Liang’s The Festival, which won the second prize. Six shortlisted entries and four from the longlist complete the book, which is edited by Malachi Edwin Vethamani and Sharon Bakar. The competition was sponsored by University of Nottingham Malaysia and Maya Press.

A Chance Encounter at Sungai Chiling is best read unhurriedly, like the water that laps the rocks where two spirit creatures meet, as submerged thoughts and feelings bubble to the surface. Amid sounds from the waterfalls, they raise questions about colour and identity, and talk about learning new languages, walking the soil of a land where one chooses to be, witnessing its stories and waiting to belong.

The two main characters in Lam’s story are as vivid as the Hungry Ghost Festival their tour bus pulls up at, en route back to their retirement home after a jalan-jalan and makan outing. Talk about roaming ghosts stokes an argument about who will go to heaven or hell and ever-complaining Ah Por hits a raw nerve when she accuses Ai Lee of always pretending that all is well. Anger flares and casts light on the latter’s suppressed needs. Ai Lee, reminded of lost love by an old song, realises how similar she is to Ah Por.

Humour, a rare ingredient hard to get right in writing, peppers Generation Game Night and An Afternoon at the Bank, written by Joshua Lim and Fong Min Hun, respectively. The first centres on a family that plays games to decide who gets to keep the ashes of their beloved dead. They are driven by prosperity, not filial piety. Still, family dynamics and the benefits of supernatural help are so convincing that the reader rolls along with the fun of it all. The second story is about being at the wrong place at the wrong time. When it seems like you have no way out, remember the power of the pen!

Confident voices tell old stories from fresh perspectives in this collection. A volunteer who helps give out food to street people breaks the rules in The First (by Hoo Sze Ling) and finds there is no turning back. Yeoh Jun Ee reveals what a young boy did to save The Washerwoman, the target of her husband’s blows and kicks. Four (Wan Phing Lim), a number the Chinese fear, “permutates” as a girl is used and abused by her boyfriend, who calls her his four-angled bean, a “winged bean” that he tries to pin down.


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Posted by Malaysian Short Story Writing Competition 2022 on Friday, February 2, 2024


Fact and fable mesh in The Girl Who Remembered (Poh Tun Min), a gentle reminder about respecting the environment and what it offers in return. Aliah “entered this world paddling, swimming like a little fish … She instinctively understood the river and the fish. What she could not understand was people, why they kill the parangan [largetooth sawfish] even if they didn’t want to eat them”.

Just a Cat (Wong Xiu Wei) catches the turning point in a strained mother-daughter relationship while Threshold (Isaac Tan) follows a father who, using overtime as an excuse, parks himself at an Internet café where he had spent days and nights in his teens. As he knives enemies and blows up fighter jets and tanks with two Gen Zs, memories of games with old buddies crop up and he ponders what made them stop playing and why they never ask him out for drinks now.

Red-Eye Flight (Chloe Hor) and The Gambling Man (Joshua Lim’s second story in the collection) approach alienation from the family from opposite angles. In the first, the narrator was not there when his or her dying father called out his/ her name and could not be reached for days after he passed. From the ugly goodbye after the funeral to the violent storm shaking the plane, the momentum builds up, leaving you quite breathless. Finally, with “expired apologies stuck between the teeth”, the narrator wonders about reunion and forgiveness.

Ruined by drugs and disowned by his father, all that remains of The Gambling Man are a few cardboard boxes of things Adam is tasked with clearing. He fishes out a medal for running, a Manchester United jersey, PMR and SPM certificates filled with Fs, a sports cap and the invitation to Adam and Lily’s wedding — and remembers a guy who once was more than his label.

One is drawn to and enjoys the stories in A Chance Encounter at Sungai Chiling as they tell, simply, of people we probably know struggling to find their way through their everyday lives — a sibling waylaid by a flasher; a schoolmate led astray by the wrong company; parents blind to what’s affecting their kids; and people hurt by negative names that make them unwelcome where they are born and bred.

The individual narratives make up a whole of what moves us to laughter and tears — our joys, fears and concerns in a country that has much to inspire creativity. They also reflect how Malaysian writers absorb what is happening around them and articulate what needs to be said, using their imagination to show perspectives we often miss.


'A Chance Encounter at Sungai Chiling' (RM25) is available at Gerakbudaya Petaling Jaya and Penang, Kinokuniya and all good bookstores.

This article first appeared on Apr 22, 2024 in The Edge Malaysia.

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