Fixi Novo, RM19.90, ISBN 978-967-0954-05-9
Mixed Genre Fiction, 2015
Hungry in Ipoh, on the surface, seems to be about food-hunting in Ipoh, but because this is a Malaysian anthology, we need to act like we are all deep and profound, as if we’re scrambling for a seat in some literary hall of fame, despite the fact that this anthology is purportedly pulp fiction in nature. Fortunately, those pretentious twats are kept to a tolerable minimum in this anthology, although they are still around, and yes, there is the obligatory second-person “you, you, you” point of view entry because, you know, Malaysian writers. They will die if they don’t show everyone their heads are buried up their rear ends.
Terence Toh kicks off the show with No Kick, the only tale of outright creepiness in this anthology. Jin’s father is the current operator of the family’s famous hor fun noodles, and the man’s latest trip to the hospital convinced him that it is time to step back and let Jin take over the business. Jin finally learns the secret recipe from his father, ooh. Unfortunately, greed soon overcomes Jin’s senses and he makes a mess of the whole thing – with spectacularly disastrous results. While this one is appropriately gross, it is an almost accurate portrayal of millennial Chinese Malaysians’ approach to self-employment. The only inaccurate part is Jin not hiring a lady from Myanmar or Indonesia to do all the work while he ignores the business altogether – someone has to spend all the profits of the business, after all! All in all, this is a pretty good anthology-opener.
Then comes Cassandra Khaw, who is all about “you, you, you”. Ipoh Girls™ is supposed to be some kind of satire on men’s lust for Stepford Wives-like sex pots, I’d imagine, but it’s hard to care when the author writes like this:
Your fathers with their rainbow-snarled hair and razorblade limbs chased them through hallucinations of 9-to-5 existences.
What? This story is everything annoying about a self-fancied author who had been hammered by her SPM tutors that her compositions needed to be as bombastic, purple, and turgid as can be in order to get that A+, and she has never been able to escape that mindset ever since. The most tragic thing here is that the author is pouring purple goo all over her unreadable prose to say things that have been said many times before, in much better ways, by more capable authors. If Ms Khaw wants everyone to be in awe of her navel, she could at the very least be original. An utter waste of time, this story is fortunately short and, therefore, easily done with.
Ted Mahsun’s tale of madness and revenge, Mastura’s Air Lengkong Adventure, is one of those moments when local authors borrow heavily tropes from their Western counterparts and slap in some local names for their characters to make the whole thing “theirs”. Nothing interesting here, it’s a filler entry.
Atikah Abdul Wahid’s Beloved suffers from prose that is almost as purple as Cassandra Khaw’s, but this story works pretty well because the author succeeds in capturing the heartbreaking loneliness of a baker and his obsession to both his art and the young lady who comes in to savor the pavlova. This is almost a beautiful story – almost, that is, some of the phraseology here feels more awkward and pretentious than anything else.
Marc de Faoite’s Joget Girl is another story where the “hunger” is more of a craving for love, ties, and emotional fulfillment. Set in the days after the Japanese occupation is over, this is a story of an aging pianist’s fascination with the new dancing girl in the club. The ending is one that I can see coming from a mile away, but this is a well-written and solidly paced tale that feels complete, raw, and emotional despite its short length. The author’s phraseology is decisive, economical, subtle, yet every word can pack a powerful punch to the gut. Some other contributors can take some lessons from this author – you don’t need to write hilariously awkward phrases like ‘hallucinations of 9-to-5 existences’ to score an A+ in SPM composition papers.
William Tham Wai Ling’s Night in a Garden in Ipoh is another tale revolving around lonely souls and fragile hearts, and it’s also one of the better entries here. A ghostwriter travels to Ipoh to find some closure to her family history while trying to figure out her life – she’s at a crossroads of sorts, you see. This one manages to tie in the very nature of ghostwriting with observing and recording things from the sidelines, never being recognized for one’s work or capability. The whole thing can be pretentious in the wrong hands, but here, the tale is haunting and bittersweet, with just the right touch of ambiguity to make the heart hurt a little by the time the last page rolls in.
Eileen Lian’s The Art of Food Plating is another relationship story, and by this point, I get this impression that editor Hadi M Nor has the knack to pick tales that can provide the best kind of catharsis for readers. This one is eerie in how accurately it captures the cultural and behavioral divide between Malaysians and Singaporeans. A Singaporean lady follows her Malaysian husband to settle down in Ipoh, and the whole Malaysian-ness of her new home is threatening to drive her insane. The only comfort she finds is in showing off her food plating to her fans on Facebook (not Instagram?) – this is the only time when she feels appreciated. This one is both humorous and painfully real – as someone who has lived in both countries, I can definitely relate to the heroine in many ways – and it is easily the better stories of the lot. But it also has its share of contrived, stilted writing. Take a look:
“And where has this obsession of yours left us, your husband and daughter? Eating cold food every day, having to ingest form over substance. Unable to reach that part of you forever stuck in Facebook-land.”
Who speaks like this again? Definitely not any Malaysian.
Wong Hon Kit goes all pretentious and “Look at me! I’m a sasterawan negara!” in The Ipoh Food Court, which has an underlying bittersweet tale that is completely ruined by the author’s reliance on showy writing gimmicks that only sink the whole thing. Shame. Still, unlike Cassandra Khaw, he seems to have a pretty good idea despite the execrable execution.
Tina Isaacs offers a local take of the whole paranormal stalker trope in The Ultimate Indulgence, which manages to work because (a) the stalker is an actual villain rather than the usual love-lorn emo vampire stereotype and (b) the localized references work very well here. I like this one, and I may like it more if the author manages to make her characters speak like actual people rather than actors reading aloud cringe-inducing lines from a bad script.
“It-it is true!” Melia gasped. “You’re the Raja Bersiong! The basis of the Hikayat I just read to my kids last month!”
Who speaks like that when faced by a dire threat on one’s life? Come on now.
Leroy Luar’s More than Enough isn’t a story. It’s all about people “talking” like they are reciting epic speeches of the most pretentious nature, topped with italicized words used exactly like how every pretentious creative writing git tend to do. I guess someone forgot to tell the author that he is contributing to a pulp fiction anthology, not a collection of the most pretentious and pompous literary vomit from people who try way too hard.
Julya Oui’s An Epi-curious Affair is unexpectedly sweet and humorous, devoid of the trying-too-hard gimmicky writing that marred her previous book from this publisher. A Chinese family gets a most unexpected kind of news: not only is the prodigal son coming back to catch up with the rest of the family, he is bringing along with him a girlfriend… a trans woman. How the mother reacts to the whole thing – she is trying very hard to be open-minded, mind you – is pretty amusing yet believable.
Angeline Woo’s Mother’s Manifesto is a sometimes painful, always disturbing tale of a mother’s dark thoughts about her mother, her newborn child, her husband, and more. This one is disturbing because it cuts right down to the thoughts that many real life mothers may have but refuse to admit to doing so, and the ending is definitely the most glorious thing ever in this entire anthology. It’s definitely one of the stand-out reads in this anthology.
Finding the Way Home by Benjamin Tham is a hammy, didactic tale of a father, who is quite the asshole, getting a heavy-handed epiphany after an encounter of the paranormal kind. What is this doing here? It’s more at home with the hokey stories such as in those True Singapore Ghost Stories things.
Ivy Ngeow’s Funny Mountain is the spiritual sequel to Leroy Luar’s story: it is ruined by gimmicky narrative devices and pretentious use of italics. And in this one, the story isn’t anything interesting in the first place, so this is basically the author asking the world to gaze at her navel and tell her how amazing she is as a sasterawan negara.
Tilon Sagulu closes the story with the excellent Pau Babi, in which a pregnant Chinese woman, married to a Muslim man who is very zealous about them eating only halal food, finds herself struck by a stark craving for pork buns. Her craving is just the tip of the iceberg, a surface manifestation of her growing unhappiness and malcontent with her lot, and the poor woman doesn’t know how to deal with all these things. This one is painfully raw and real, and it ends on a desperate note that is, at the same time, oddly triumphant. It is as if by letting go and surrendering to the moment, our heroine finally accepts what she truly wants and feels, and this is in itself some kind of victory.
Hungry in Ipoh can be an uneven read, especially when the editor lets in those aspiring sasterawan negara wannabes to play with their purple prose and awful gimmicky styles, but when it is good, the stories can really cut the heart and make the pain feel so good. This is definitely one of the better anthologies out there from this publisher.
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