Now there’s no denying it: Malaysia has a legion of “soft men” (and women). The efforts of church and state to straighten out the queer population have only galvanized the wrist floppers and their admirers. Here in these twenty-three stories, discussions and confessions is a body of work that brings extra meaning to gay pride.
The compelling honesty, biting humour, dampening sex and unabashed-unashamed tone give cause for celebration and hope for more (both future volumes and greater acceptance at home and abroad). The sense of community is infectious: careful readers will come to the marvellous conclusion that not a few of the writers have experienced each other, moved on and are still living happily ever after—another myth bites the dust.
Once the word gets around, let’s hope the first edition sells out quickly and that—like unwanted adolescent pimples—the few typographical/grammatical blemishes that remain will be completely banished for the next run.
What Do Gay People Eat?
Gomez’s lightly toned tale of a homecoming where “Him” is renamed “His Boyfriend” by anxious family members who are trying their best to make their son and his boyfriend feel at home—no matter who or what he eats—sets the stage with style. It’s an ideal opener with a crew-cut image that will bring back smile after smile with every reading.
Breathing Pure Oxygen
A daughter-mother coming out scene (in this case, the younger—more and more it can be the other way around, cross-reference below) where friends are used to test run the big truth and even brought along for support and courage at the “performance.” As the back-story unfolds, Leong sheds her skin with candor and admirable conviction.
Roommates: Not a Love Story
A first love is lovingly recalled and rekindled in Dewa’s diary-format recollection. Anyone who has gone through the heady moment of revelation then rebuke will savour this piece. It’s formatted around a wedding invitation and the dilemma of attending, uncertain as to how to control such pent-up emotions and dreading the famous line “If anyone knows why this couple should not be wed ….”
The Wedding Present
Randhawa’s shadowy account of arranged marriage and spousal abuse is sadly believable and told with fascinating imagery (“He was a trailer, she was the main feature.”). No anthology would be complete without a drama that ends horrifically; every day, in all parts of the globe, violence fuelled by false pride and ignorance is still far too commonplace for comfort.
The Man from Berali Carpets
Maya Tan Abdullah
The inner turmoil of the systemic oppressor’s deep feelings for another man is spun with sensitivity and compassion by Abdullah. A surprising disability is gently interwoven, adding another level to the theme of how we react to the different among us. Many images of poverty and squalor as well: young boys shooting heroin into their delicate gums only adds to the mood of despair.
And I Love You
Hwa Yi Xing
Xing’s refreshing free-form style is as welcome as needed rain. Amidst the steady flow of lowercase waves are morsels of wisdom (“when you learn compassion you learn coldness too”) that excite the mind even as the soul’s laid bare.
A solitary “foreign” pubic hair threatens to quash a relationship in Lee’s contribution to the set. The notion of fidelity and daily temptation be it porn or Mr. Right Now (“Like a true slut, Hafiz rode bareback only for those he loved.”) there is enough contradiction and encounters to keep the pages spilling steadily forward.
Dude, Don’t Tell Me
Kung Khai Jhun
Unrequited love—both emotional and maddeningly physical: certain reactions can’t be hidden—is at the heart of Jhun’s main characters. Two pair of university chums (“Super Four”) shared lots of life and then each other. But despite traditional marriages, David can’t get Amir out of his head (either!). The hot-blush climax is as skilfully delivered as it is believable by anyone whose formative years’ infatuations cannot be banned when the object of such pent-up affection walks into the room.
The Friendship Dictator
Faizad Nik Abdul Aziz
Aziz paints an interesting tableau of twenty-something party life but comes up a bit short in leaving girlfriend Bianca completely oblivious to her constant companion’s preference for men. Still, there’s some insight into the idea of—like being in an affair—having two distinct sets of friends depending on when one fancies the company of straight or gay, only to have those two worlds, inevitably, collide.
Muslim 2 Muslim
The first of two nonfiction articles allows Shah to delve into Malaysia’s inglorious past of persecuting women and men notably social activist Amina Wadud and former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim—both the object of much scorn and “verbal lynching.” As a Muslim, he also tries to come to terms with the call for Salman Rushdie’s death for writing The Satanic Verses and systemic vilification of queers. The Quran provides no further enlightenment—[selective] interpretation is everything.
Cream of the Crop
Pang Khee Teik
One of the co-editors has provided the emotional tour de force of the collection. His over-gelled, not “very tall” hero tries gamely to fit in with school mates in Singapore even as his budding sexuality takes an immediate left turn towards men (“He taught me how to masturbate.”) and never looks back. Carefully lurking beneath the largely fun, at times self-deprecating scenes, is the sadly beautiful description of what rejection feels like. We’ve all been there, but there’s an oddly comforting mood in this open sharing that may help others to move on. Yes, “It’s alright now.”
Repin’s poignant memory and farewell to her not-best-friend is generously filled with love, sadness and a few moments of “the joy of recall.” How others see what we either ignore or are truly unaware of rings especially true, even as the leaves of a relationship wither and float away into the past.
O Thiam Chin
Using family influence to push an MSN chat-addict into his uncle’s workplace seems innocent enough in the richly descriptive opening before Chin gradually provides the wannabe designer some alone time with Uncle Ang. Before you can say “crotch grab” what could be cause for a sexual assault charge morphs into moments of unexpected pleasure of the familial kind. Despite a blurry timeline, the rest of the tale is well balanced with desire, competition and an unforgettable farewell.
Harry Is Dead
Murder most foul after a well-attended barbeque. Harry’s been skewered, Bunny is distraught and Mrs. Ang opts not to bother with the police. Kow paints a bleak picture of vigilante justice fuelled by the jealously of privilege (“He wasn’t an innocent. He was biologically sinful,” spouts the killer). All fiction of course; civilized countries would never let anyone get away with queer extinction no matter what the species.
The Old Fig Council
Another gem-in-the-rough is Adam’s cautionary yarn of animal justice. With a dead man in an oh-so-appropriate pink shirt discovered by Mr. Tiger in the forest, the Old Fig Council swings into action and sees that the guilty are punished. Filled with potions, addictions and lust, this story would be excellent fodder for an animated treatment.
The Wives’ Story
Tan May Lee
The unexpected joy of polygamy is at the core of Lee’s imaginative depiction of a Muslim man and his two wives. Soon, the Friday night special evolves into a threesome after the narrator eagerly fulfilled “our” husband’s request, teaching the younger bride the fine art of pleasuring a man. Along the journey, the obedient teacher learns to savour her co-bride and truly learn to love both. The respective, beautiful telling is especially welcome.
Have You Seen my Son?
Has telling the truth ever made you feel invisible—unseen by those who used to love you? Durai’s homecoming of “an odd-looking woman ” who used to be a man (mak nyah) speaks volumes about the terror and courage of starting life over in a completely different skin. Happily, surprisingly, it’s the new-found beauty that saves the day—a primer alike for parents and those contemplating the change.
Friends of Everyone
Despite a few awkward phrases and too many clichés, Rik’s journey back into the closet has a lot to say about the allure and power of religion for those having second thoughts about “becoming gay.” Through a series of phone conversations with his inner circle, Oui manages to look at all sides of the dilemma and slip in a few hilarious zingers along the way.
A chance meeting with an unrecognizable school mate (mak nyah II) during a convenient downpour sets the scene for a full body massage of a quite different kind. GnanaSelvam explores the “career” path of a transgendered soul (“It was his idea … I changed because of my boyfriend. But it was my doing also.”) and the married man who finally accepts the invitation for a no-limb-left-untouched rubdown. The needs and wants of both guarantee future assignations in yet another marriage that doesn’t ask too many questions.
The Naked Meme
Professorial indeed is Langenbach’s essay about Lan Gen Bah. The subject seems bigger than the real estate permitted to expand on it. As can be the case when writing about accomplished authors, the excerpts from LGB frequently surpass the words around them. An odd fish in this volume, here’s to a more expansive venue to allow Langenbach the opportunity to complete his thesis.
In Search of
Using the devices of chat-room names and alternating points of view, Sui-Jim has come up with an engrossing tale of the human condition. From vivid scenes of blowjobs at the mall to sudden or unresolved death to hide-and-seek in the dark to an unexpected declaration of love, the writing fires on all cylinders even as it fades to black.
Co-editor Kugan’s deft employment of non-linear narrative keeps the reader engaged throughout a night on the town on the heels of a breakup with the bf (“He found out about Mark.”). Touring Kuala Lumpur’s queer hangouts (Liquid, Backroom) finally brings Jay face-to-face with half-naked Alvin. Eventually back at his place, there’s hot new sex less than 24 hours after Jay’s rupture. A somewhat predictable series of events (make-up sex with bf; ignoring Alvin’s attempts for a rematch; meeting unexpectedly months later; walking in on a spot of fellatio) would seem over-the-top bits of stereotypical behaviours were it not for the fact that every one of them rings true. Erm, why not flesh out the sequel?
Rudin’s gentle, lyrical collage of brief scenes closes the volume. By journey’s end there are as many questions remaining as answered, yet it has been a quiet pleasure peeping briefly into the lives of two men gradually finding a few moments of peace. Here’s to more of that for all. JWR