For various reasons, I've had more time on my hands this summer than I was expecting I would. Although I've been doing a lot of intensive reading in the area of American magical realism (more on why later), I have taken breaks here and there to sample other work. Sometimes you just have to let your brain rest. As odd as it may sound, I actually haven't read many of the books that we have reprinted and distributed via BookCyclone. There are just too many of them! With more time, and long workouts at the gym with lots of cardio to manage my stress, I decided I ought to familiarize myself with the books. And if these reviews help bring attention to them, so much the better.
Body 2 Body: A Malaysian Queer Anthology is where I started. This is a collection of writing by LGBT Malaysian authors, and it comprises both fiction and nonfiction. The diversity of forms within the book is a good starting point, because Malaysia itself is a diverse country. Full disclaimer: I love Malaysia and have been there quite a few times. I think the country has barely scratched the surface of its potential. It's overshadowed by Thailand and Indonesia, and even Singapore in some ways; even people in the region kind of forget that it's there. (Malaysia? Why go there when you could go to Bangkok or Bali?) Just as Malaysia's diversity hasn't always been managed well or fairly, the book is also occasionally a bit off-balance. Some pieces in the anthology are much stronger than others. I'll comment a bit on the standouts, for better or for worse, before wrapping up with a few thoughts on why more people ought to read this book (apart from the fact that I reprinted it).
Some of the imagery in Pang Khee Teik's "Cream of the Crop," which I believe is memoir or creative nonfiction, will stay with me for a long time to come. It goes from interesting (SE Asian coming-of-age) to flat-out horrifying (repeated rape by a supervisor at his first job); I read it inwardly moaning I don't think I wanted to know that. However, I've been in Asia long enough to know that closets are bigger here, and, sadly, some people stay in them longer than would be the case in the West.
"Muslim 2 Muslim" by Shanon Shah, another work of nonfiction, is among the book's more thought-provoking pieces. A reflection on the process of reconciling one's identity as a Muslim with the innate and unalterable fact of being gay, it speaks volumes on the way Islam has been repurposed by religious zealots in the same way Christianity has been by its own mindless fundamentalists. I am interested in Islam, and I think it is a faith more people in the Western world need to know more about. The message here is that there's more to it than repression. The Q'uran should not be interpreted as an instrument of homophobia any more than the Bible should. At least if you've actually read it and thought about what it's saying. This message is one that people of all faiths need to hear.
Zed Adam's "The Old Fig Council" was a hoot, good writing and an absolute delight. So was "The Wives' Story" by Tan May Lee: it's not what you'd expect and yet it is, in a good way.
The one I wish hadn't been included is "The Naked Meme" by Ray Langenbach. While I can live with the mix of fiction and nonfiction (it's not something I'd do as an editor, and probably not something I'd publish either), this piece reads like a piece of academic writing meant for a scholarly journal. Which in itself is great. After all, I'm heading for PhD-land, myself. Or so goes the plan. The problem is the dissonance with the rest of the book. While Langenbach can clearly write and has much to say on his subject, a condensed version of this essay written in lay language would have been more appropriate for the collection.
Overall, I think this is an excellent book. It's approachable, it gives the reader a snapshot of what LGBT life in Malaysia is like, and there is some genuinely great writing. Even some of the pieces that jaded Western readers might yawn at, coming-out stories and nightlife capers, are still fresh and relevant here. Malaysia, for all it has to offer, is not Canada or Denmark or the Netherlands. If you're interested in what's going on in gay Asia, this is well worth checking out.