When Karina Bahrin had to shut her La Pari-Pari hotel and fatCupid restaurant in Langkawi during the first lockdown in 2020, she saw other people baking and thought, “Okay lah, I write a book.” The mother dough was at hand — fragments of a story she started more than 10 years ago. By the time she sat down to draft it, she was very clear who the main character was and who would be some of the supporting characters.
Karina plotted as she went along and was pleasantly surprised when certain characters made themselves more important than she thought they should be. Writing during the pandemic was so much easier than she expected because there was nothing else to distract her. The urgency of getting the book done came from knowing she had run out of excuses. “As I was telling a client, if I don’t write it this time, I will never write it.”
She did and, last month, her manuscript for The Accidental Malay won the 2022 Epigram Books Fiction Prize (EBFP). She takes home S$25,000 (RM77,850) in prize money and a publishing contract with Epigram Books. Her debut novel on race and religion in Malaysia will be published in July, as will the submissions by the three other finalists, all Singaporeans: Ng Ziqin (Every School a Good School), Nisha Mehraj (We Do Not Make Love Here) and Tan Lip Hong (Lost Treasure of the Lanfang Republic).
The EBFP was established in 2015 to promote contemporary Singapore creative writing and reward excellence in Singapore literature. It was open to Asean writers from 2020 and Joshua Kam became the first Malaysian winner that year, for How the Man in Green Saved Pahang.
The Accidental Malay is about workaholic Jasmine Leong, who eyes the CEO seat at Phoenix, her family’s billion-ringgit company famed for its bak kwa. But her life and ambitions are upended when she discovers that she is actually a Malay. The book looks at the impact of a country’s racial policies from the perspective of a woman unwilling to accept the fate history has designated her.
“I wanted to write a story that explored this issue of how Malays are classified or categorised in Malaysia. It’s enshrined in our constitution, which is a little bit unusual because in most countries your race is not constitutionalised,” Karina says.
“I am trying to talk about the implications of the constitutional policy on people, on individuals. When these policies were formed, you were looking at them from a macro perspective. But when you drill down, should there be exceptions to those rules, like in the case of this Chinese woman? Or, if you are a Malay and you become an apostate, not only are you not a Muslim anymore, you also are not Malay. Then what are you? I want to approach this from a very human perspective, that of someone who is coming in and being subject to that. I don’t think I have written the story in a literary style. I want to make it accessible so people would have to consider this issue, but from a person point of view.”
It is a touchy subject, though, personally, Karina does not think the novel is offensive. “I realised if the book needs to be written, it is going to get some flak from certain quarters because it is controversial. But it has to be written by a Malay. If a Chinese person were to do it in this country, lagi teruk. I will kena anyway because I have written it. But I’m Malay, so they can’t say, ‘How dare you insult the race?’
“This is an issue I have thought about a lot. The personal tie to the book for me is that my father is Malay but my mother is from the Philippines. Of course, I was brought up as a Malay-Muslim, to the extent that I feel it negated my mum’s heritage — it’s not acknowledged here. I am just Malay, full stop. My little pushback with The Accidental Malay and my fiction is, I decided to use my mother’s surname, Robles, as my middle name. I’m just trying to reclaim that part of me, making it part of my identity. When you’re a non-Malay, you can always include your mum’s name officially. When you are Malay, you can’t.”
Karina had moved north lock, stock and barrel in 2011 to get away from corporate life and the city environment. Langkawi is a happy medium between KL and Penang, as there is some kind of diversity on the tourist island.
She got her first break as a writer when she guest-edited a weekly teen column in the New Straits Times in the 1980s. She was a former columnist with The Heat, a now-defunct weekly by Focus Malaysia, and has had short fiction published in Urban Odysseys: KL Stories (MPH Publishing); KL Noir: Blue (Fixi Novo); and Malaysian Tales Retold & Remixed (ZI Publications).
A year ago, Karina added “farmer” to her name by starting a hydroponic farm with some partners to supply temperate-climate vegetables to a handful of hotels and restaurants. It is just 700 sq ft but “enough to keep us busy for the moment”.
Since completing The Accidental Malay — she is happy with the title and hopes it makes people ask, “What do you mean?” and at least read the back of the book — Karina has been tossing around some ideas for a second book. What she knows for sure for now is whatever she writes will always be very Malaysian and contemporary.
She does not see herself writing historical novels — “Maybe because I am lazy lah, have to do a lot of research” — nor science fiction or crime — “No, I’m not that organised”. What is important to her is contemporary fiction that looks at current Malaysian society. She is also attracted to do that because she sees a vacuum in this area.
Pointing to the traditional Western publishing world, Karina says the stereotype is Malaysian stories must be colonial in nature or have ties with that, or feature ghosts. “They don’t have the facility to understand contemporary Malaysian culture and the issues around us.”
The same goes for China, where stories that first came out were all about bound feet and suffering, and India, with fiction centred on its colonial past, she adds. “Now, the contemporary literary scene in India is thriving. I suspect a lot of that also comes from the region closer to us — that’s where these things grow and are cultivated.
“We are going to be the first ones to allow these modern stories to be told. And the more that happens, like what Amir [Muhammad] is doing with Buku Fixi and Fixi Novo, it’s just going to improve. Eventually, the international publishing world will start to take notice and say, ‘Actually, they have a thriving literary community that doesn’t just do colonial and hantu. They also are quite articulate writers who are able to tackle quite modern issues.’”
There are so many issues Malaysian writers need to explore, asserts Karina, who lauds Hanna Alkaf for putting out stories that normalise the Malay girl in the hijab. “She is no longer an exotic creature; she is doing a lot of things.”
The overall patriarchal structure of society, more so within the Malay context, intrigues her, as do independent, outspoken women who go against the norms that conservative culture wants them to be, then abide by traditional expectations at home. “The duality is interesting too. I wish a woman who wears a tudung would write about polygamy. I would read it.”
Can writers bring about change through their work?
“I don’t know that you can actually [effect] change because change, especially for the kind of issues that are so embedded in our culture, takes time. I suppose what you can do at least is help start conversations or dialogue. Some people might get upset, but you need to at least talk about things to start. If you don’t, you won’t get anywhere. I think that is the role of artists and writers: to provoke people into thinking about issues.”
This article first appeared on Feb 21, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.