Chronicles of KK
Edited by Ann Lee
Published by Fixi Novo, 2016
Review by Nine
Since moving to Malaysia, it’s been impossible not to see Sabah and Sarawak as marginalised by Semenanjung, not unlike how my homeland, Northern Ireland, is treated as an afterthought by the rest of the UK. The basics that I thought I had learned about Malaysia were really about the Peninsula, while the rest of the country had still more levels for me to unlock. And I realised that although I might have a specific learning curve as a foreigner, there were also plenty of KL locals who were as clueless about the states across the sea as many Londoners are about where I come from. Semenanjung, like Great Britain, is where all the action is perceived to happen, despite the Borneo states covering a greater landmass. And is there enough room in ‘1Malaysia’ for so many ‘lain-lain’?
While Borneans themselves are pushing back against their marginalisation, it’s essential that those on the Peninsula step up too, which is one reason to applaud KL-based publisher Fixi Novo’s recent endeavour: the new short story collection Chronicles of KK. After numerous KL-based anthologies, as well as collections themed around Putrajaya, Ipoh and Penang, this is Fixi’s first venture across the water, with a mix of writers from Borneo and beyond.
Like most anthologies, Chronicles includes both standout pieces and less memorable ones, but the overall quality is refreshingly high. A couple of stories fail to adequately explain Sabah-specific references to those who are unfamiliar – but on the other hand, why should they? Just as Fixi’s policy is not to explain Malay words to its predominantly Malaysian readership, the argument could be made that writing focused on a specific part of Malaysia need not include a glossary. And if this were a book primarily aimed at Sabahans, so much the better; its inhabitants should not have to explain themselves on the national stage. Still, even the uninitiated should be able to understand most of the content based on storytelling and context.
The anthology takes in Mount Kinabalu, migration, the supernatural, love and heritage, as well as exploitation, poverty and crime. One recurring theme is that of otherworldly retribution for errant husbands. The Kadazandusun death ritual of the momisok provides one avenue for traitors to get their comeuppance, as employed in Cicciolisa Nattalia’s ‘Momisok’ and Maizura Abas’ ‘Why He Called Me Pam’.
For me, the surprise highlight of Chronicles was Foo Sek Han’s ‘Never Curse the Mountain’, a story both entertaining and bittersweet. Any read that incorporates both a graph and an alternative script is going to get my attention – plus Foo’s use of internetspeak is fun without being poyo. It was gratifying that a story this good was a decent length and didn’t end too quickly. The preceding story also deserves a mention: ‘Kacak’ by William Tham Wai Liang, a handwritten and illustrated scan of a travel journal. I was several pages in before I could be sure whether his engaging tale, of a backpacker tracing his roots, was fact or fiction.
Also notable is Elizabeth Gimbad’s ‘Strange Fruit’, a sweet tale of first love and first sex, two prefects breaking the rules on a school trip. The apprehension of the protagonist rings true: her uncertainty about what she’s doing, how to do it, and all the messages she’s received about appropriate behaviour, chastity and reputation.
Unfortunately, Tina Isaacs’ ‘Not a Fairytale’ leaves me conflicted. Her talent for writing is not in doubt; rather it’s the subject matter, the plot. A tale of a trafficked teenager in a Sabah brothel can tug on the heartstrings, but having paid close attention to real-life trafficking coverage – and its fictional offshoots – for the past fifteen or so years, I yearn for a more nuanced approach. The fate of migrant sex workers ‘rescued’ from brothels is most commonly detention (with all the abuse that entails) followed by deportation, yet this is rarely highlighted; instead, the twin tropes of stolen innocence and police heroism – which is how this story goes, albeit with plot twists – help to ensure that the public will accept this status quo rather than demand real justice. Furthermore, the ‘white knight’ who gets romantic with an underage, traumatised captive leaves me feeling nauseous, though he’s signalled in the story as a good guy.
However, Hanna Alkaf’s ‘Hunted’, the final piece, undoes this feeling even as it evokes a real-life Sabah where poverty drives people to desperate measures, and where exploiting nature also means risking their own lives. It’s one of those stories that leaves the reader to wonder what happened after its conclusion, but it also, masterfully, leaves a small glimmer of light in the darkness. And with that, the collection ends on a note of anticipation, rich with prospects and a hope that this focus on often-overlooked parts of the country will gain increased momentum.