6 Malaysian writers who are making waves in the 2020 literary scene

These rising authors and poets are being recognised internationally for their literary achievements.

Long Litt Woon, Paul Sebastian, Ho Sok Fong and Kulleh Grasi were among other authors and poets who attained literary achievements in 2020 (Photo: Suhaimi Yusuf/The Edge; Paul Sebastian; PEN Transmissions; Royston John Kulleh)

In recent years, the Malaysian literary scene has been gaining a lot of traction and recognition beyond borders. Last year, the spotlight was shone (quite literally) on Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists. The film adaptation of the novel, which was shortlisted for a Booker Prize in 2012, starred a host of international A-listers and went on to receive nine nominations at the 56th Golden Horse Awards.

Young adult author Hanna Alkaf’s The Weight of Our Sky became one the biggest must-read Malaysian novels in 2019, bagging the American Freeman Book Awards for the Young Adult/High School Literature category early this year. Her second YA novel, The Girl and the Ghost, is in the running for the 2020 American Kirkus prize under the Young Reader’s Literature category.

While the success of these familiar authors should undoubtedly be celebrated, there are also several rising stars on the horizon who are making their names known globally. Here are just some of them. 


Ho Sok Fong
Having bagged a slew of awards, including the Taiwanese Chiu Ko Fiction Prize and United Press Short Story Prize for her evocative short stories, Malaysian author Ho Sok Fong is no stranger to the literary stage. Ho, who has a PhD in Chinese Language & Literature from NTU Singapore, also received the 2019 English PEN award for Lake Like a Mirror, her second collection of short stories, which was translated into English. Originally written in Chinese, Lake Like a Mirror is told in a manner which is both surreal and unsettling. The tale is a scintillating exploration of the lives of small-town Malaysian women twisted by powers beyond their control. This year, the book is longlisted for the annual £1000 (RM5,372.93) Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, established by the University of Warwick to address the gender imbalance in translated literature.


Malaysian author Ho Sok Fong is no stranger to the literary stage (Photo: PEN Transmissions)

Get a copy of 'Lake Like a Mirror' from Kinokuniya Malaysia for RM59.90 here.


Long Litt Woon
Hailing from Taiping, Perak, Long Litt Woon, an anthropologist who currently resides in Oslo, Norway would never have thought that the loss of her husband would gain her literary fame. Charting the author’s coming-to-terms with death, loss and the redeeming quality of mushroom foraging, The Way Through the Woods: Of Mushrooms and Mourning is a journey which is equal parts memoir, equal parts mushroom-hunting, and could perhaps be considered as a brief, albeit informal, introduction to mycology. The memoir took four years to complete and was published in Norwegian in 2017. Translated by Barbara Haveland, the memoir has also been longlisted for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation 2020 in October. With translations and distributions to over a dozen countries, the book spurred a cult-like following, enchanting readers with mushroom and fungi related trivia and compelling obsessive foragers to guard secret locations of mushroom colonies. Such is the life of a thriving anthropologist, certified mushroom forager and writer.


Long's mushrooming book spurred a cult-like following (Photo: Suhaimi Yusuf/The Edge)

'The Way Through the Woods: Of Mushrooms and Mourning' is available at Kinokuniya for RM69.90. Buy here.


Alan Liew
Miri-born Alan Liew, a former mechanical engineer, traded in his test pen for a fountain pen and is currently enjoying retired life writing poetry in KL. Liew is one of three Malaysian poets among 350 awardees from 80 countries to receive the International Award for Literary Excellence by Motivational Strips and the Gujarat Sahitya Academy this year. Only the best authors, writers and poets are considered for the recognition and are awarded based on an evaluation by both literary bodies. Liew's evocative and thought-provoking poems, which range from nature and love to peace and war, are shared on his blog.


Miri-born Alan Liew is a former mechanical engineer (Photo: Alan Liew)

Read his poems here.


Kulleh Grasi
The translated edition of Tell Me, Kenyalang, Iban poet Kulleh Grasi’s book of selected poems, was published by New York-based publishing house Circumference Book in late 2019. Describing the book as “my love”, Kulleh, whose real name is Royston John Kulleh had his work longlisted for America’s Best Translated Book Awards 2020 in April. As he was born and raised in Kapit, Sarawak — a land famed for its jungle and indigenous groups — his writing incorporates both Malay and indigenous languages. Kulleh had been working on his poems since 2002 and they were written based on his experience with mythology, humanity and nature. Upon completing his collection, he then worked with literary translator and writer, Pauline Fan for two years to produce the final translated book in English. Most recently, Tell Me, Kenyalang was shortlisted for the prestigious National Translation Awards in Poetry (an award for literary translators), whereby judges have commended both Grasi and Fan for "giving readers rich multilingual evocations of multiethnic storytelling, ceremonial songs, ritual incantations, and dream weaving". 


Kulleh is the only Malaysian author whose book is listed for the international literary award (Photo: Royston John Kulleh)

Get a copy of 'Tell Me, Kenyalang' from Kinokuniya Malaysia for RM113.52 here.


Paul Sebastian
Paul Sebastian is a reputable lecturer, poet and author. He juggles between working as a principal trainer at Business Skill Training Centre and an academic consultant at Master English Language Centre in KL. With 20 years of teaching experience, he devotes his time to teaching English to pre-college and university students. But that's not the only skill that comes naturally to him. He has also written over 1,000 poems, some of which have been published in anthologies. Apart from being a recipient of the International Award 2020 for Literary Excellence honoured by Motivational Strips and the Gujarat Sahitya Academy, he was also awarded with the Order of Shakespeare medal.


Sebastian has written over 1,000 poems (Photo: Paul Sebastian)

Read his poems here.


Lilian Woo
Taiping-born Lilian Woo’s admiration for poetry started from jotting down quotes during her leisure time. She has since won some of the world’s toughest poetry competitions, including the Bold Gold Pen International Award in 2018. More recently, Woo was one of the 350 recipients to receive the International Award for Literary Excellence by Motivational Strips and the Gujarat Sahitya Academy. She has co-authored four Amazon’s best-selling anthologies — A Spark of Home (Volumes I and II), Break The Silence and Crossroads — and her poetry book The Pearl Wonder, harbouring some of her award-winning poems, incorporates themes of love, nature and inspiration.


Woo won the Bold Gold Pen International Award in 2018 (Photo: Lilian Woo)

Get a copy of 'The Pearl Wonder' here.


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