Matahari Books, RM34.00, ISBN 978-983-43596-9-0
Contemporary Fiction, 2009
Body 2 Body is Malaysia’s first English anthology featuring stories of Malaysian LGBT folks. With Malaysia being… well, Malaysia, this one has limited distribution, however. Folks outside Malaysia can always buy this one from Amazon, but if you’re in Malaysia, you will need to seek out the Kinokuniya bookstore in Suria KLCC or place an order from Kinibooks. I always have problems with the shopping cart of Kinibooks not loading on my browser, so I ended up writing to the publisher, Amir Muhammad, to ask whether I could pay for a copy via wire transfer. That dear fellow offered me a complimentary review copy. However, I can’t promise that he will give you a free copy, so if you decide to opt for this route and pepper him with emails, please don’t tell him that you heard it from me.
Okay, back to this anthology. It’s not high fantasy, there are no werewolves, and while there are some romantic elements in some stories, this is not a mainstream genre anthology. It has some literary aspirations, but fortunately, only a few stories seem to be trying very hard to mimic the formula of authors like Alan Hollinghurst and Edmund White. You know, the “I’m searching for the meaning of life via non-stop sodomy and navel gazing” formula. Most of the stories just flow in a manner that I find most engaging indeed. Given that I am as far from a hoity-toity reader as can be, I think it is likely that the average reader may find this one enjoyable as well.
There are 23 stories here along with an introduction, and I’m not going to review all of these stories as doing so will mean that I will be still working at this review three hours down the road. I’ll just touch on the ones that I find memorable in one way or the other.
I love Brian Gomez’s opening story, What Do Gay People Eat? This hilarious story revolves around a father of a gay son who ponders over the question that has kept sages awake throughout the years: what to feed his gay son and the son’s boyfriend when those two show up for the dinner. The protagonist is a middle-aged man with simple views of life who has never thought much about matters straight and gay until his son came out of the closet recently, and now that the son in question is showing up with his beau for dinner, he and his wife realize that yes, it’s true. Their son is gay. The parents mean well and are willing to accept their son’s sexual orientation, and that is what really counts at the end of the day. This is a nice closing message for this short but oh-so-funny but oh-so-true comedy.
Shanon Shah’s Muslim 2 Muslim is actually an introspective piece about his feelings and thoughts about being Muslim and gay. This piece is sobering and well-written without coming off as too preachy or melodramatic. Oh don’t worry, the author isn’t accusing all Muslims to be narrow-minded bigots. This is a well-balanced article that gives the reader a good insight into the author’s search for acceptance among members of his faith and how he reconciles the teachings of the Quran with his experiences in life, despite the less-than-pleasant reactions of his fellow Muslims that he had been exposed to.
Tan May Lee does a double-whopper, taking on feminism and lesbian love in one go, in The Wives’ Story, a beautiful yet depressing tale of two wives of the same man who seek solace in each other’s intimate caresses. A part of me wonders whether this situation – an author with a Chinese name writing about the unhappy circumstances of polygamy, a standard practice among mostly wealthy Malay men here – will come off as patronizing especially to Muslim folks. I’ve heard plenty of arguments from people who support this practice that polygamy has been misunderstood and demonized to ridiculous proportions by the opponents of this practice. Still, there is no denying that I find this story a most moving one.
Abirami Durai’s Have You Seen My Son? is a short but heartbreaking story. Alex left Malaysia for England three years ago as a strapping and handsome young man, and he returns as a woman. To be fair, he didn’t warn his parents and relatives about his, er, new look. Still, they refuse to acknowledge him, with his father going as far as to reassure his wife and other relatives that Alex must have played a trick on them. Only Alex’s friend Nita understands and accepts him.
Some stories are pretty deliciously sleazy without going too much into details, alas. O Thiam Chin’s Good Job sees a young man falling prey to a naughty older man who takes advantage of his strapping young employees. I hope college kids aren’t this susceptible to seduction in real life, heh. Paul GnanaSelvam’s Monsoon Massage details an encounter between a supposedly straight man and a crossdressing ex-schoolmate turned masseur. I’m not too fond of juvenile references of a man’s penis as “serpent” and I don’t think it is nice of the author to close the door on the reader after all that build-up about oiling the serpent and all. Come on, where is the sleaze? Gay literature is pretty much well-written gay pornography – the late Reinaldo Arenas’s critically acclaimed “autobiography” Before Night Falls is a neverending orgy of incest, pedophilia, sodomy, and insertion of baseball bats up one’s rear end – so come on, why be so demure? On the other hand, I can do without Jerome Kugan’s Alvin, which is nothing more than a Queer as Folk wannabe.
Pang Khee Teik’s Cream of the Crop is a story that I find interesting because I was a Malaysian who went to Singapore to study and eventually went abroad from there, before coming to a full circle and settling back in Malaysia. I am bemused to realize that I can relate to much of the sentiments of the main character and heck, reading this story has me remembering those years when I was in Singapore.
And I sincerely hope Shih-Li Kow is a pseudonym.
If I have one complaint, it’s that some of the stories featuring the “L” of the LGBT sandwich tends to have an overwhelming male-bashing feel to them. (Shih-Li Kow’s Harry Is Dead, on the other hand, has deranged killer lesbians.) It is not entirely right to represent lesbians as a consequence of a male-dominated society (the “we could have been straight if men didn’t treat us like crap” trope), I feel, just as it is not a fair representation of lesbians as a product of the feminist movement. But this is perhaps an inconsequential complaint, as the stories with gay characters outnumber stories with the other three ingredients of the LGBT sandwich.
All things considered, this is a pretty good anthology. Most of the stories are accessible, well written, and entertaining. There are some spelling boo-boos here and there, but I guess I can close one eye in this instance, as they don’t intrude too much or render a sentence too incomprehensible. Body 2 Body is easily one of the better local books I’ve read. I know, this is not exactly a glowing compliment considering the abysmal quality of local English genre fiction and literature in general, but it is one of the better anthologies I’ve read in a while. Kudos to the guys who put this together. I would be more than happy to blow the dust off the cover of my Kamus Dewan – now where did I put that thing again? – and put it to good use when the Bahasa Malaysia sequel comes out.