When publishers or authors reach out to me to ask if I am interested in reviewing an advanced reader copy of any book, I rarely assent—not because I have anything against that but because I already have a mountain of backlogged books I have been studiously neglecting. I make exceptions sometimes though, and this is one of those times. I accepted Elizabeth Wong’s We Could Not See the Stars because it sounded like a book I would have picked up on my own anyway. It’s (a) a speculative work (b) set in a fictional Malaysia. That’s it. That’s all I need really.
If that wasn’t enough, the premise would have hooked me anyway. It’s about a boy named Han living in fishing village modeled after Pantai Remis, and the mysterious origins of his mother, Swee, who is a “spirit” from the distant forest of Suriyang across the sea. There are tantalising hints of a deeper truth to this world, one signified by a golden tower and a strange spade which Swee was carrying when she first appeared eighteen years ago carrying a baby Han, with no memories of her past.
As soon as I read a couple of pages, the question that immediately struck me was: how is any non-Malaysian going to read this? Since forever, Malaysian authors have had to decide how far they want to turn up the Malaysian dial on their works. In recent years, I am heartened to see that more and more Malaysian authors of international stature like Hanna Alkaf and Zen Cho pushing the envelope on this. Zen Cho’s The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water is as far as I believe it can go with its use of Manglish (our local English-based creole) liberally sprinkled with words from Malay, Tamil, and multiple Chinese dialects, which non-Malaysians would be forced to Google. What Elizabeth Wong had done was to push it even further and turned that dial up to eleven. Aside from writing large swathes of the book in thick Manglish, she also included Malaysian discourse particles like “lah”, “meh” and “wan/one”, and reduplicated words like “play-play” and “real-real” which, depending on the word, can signify that it is a plural or mean something else completely. I have no doubt a non-Malaysian would be able to hurdle through the pages and catch the meaning of most of the text, but they might be left with the sense that they are missing something. This is an incredibly bold creative choice, and I am very glad that Elizabeth Wong’s British publisher appears to be supportive of it.
The story of We Could Not See the Stars is one that focuses on the Malaysian Chinese diaspora community, and perhaps on the Chinese diaspora as a whole, so much so that this fictional Malaysia feels like it is mostly populated by Chinese people. In fact, when the novel reveals to us the backstory of the “flower people”, I noted that in Mandarin, “flower people” (花人 or huā rén) sounded similar to “Chinese people” (华人 or huárén). In essence, Han’s journey is one of self-discovery, of an exploration of his origins, and the themes surrounding memory and forgetting relates to our retention of our heritage and identity as we venture into foreign, distant places. It’s about who we are, both as individuals and as a people. I think.
The tower was coldly mute. No stories for you, it said to him. There will be no stories of digging weeds in vegetable gardens, nor stories of Ah-ma or Mama or Father. Or cousins. You will never know the journeys of your ancestors, the people who have loved each other, who have gazed into the faces of their newborns, the newborns that would become your great-grandparents, and grandparents, and parents, and everyone in your family besides. You are like a tree with no roots. You are the flower people. This world is bigger than you can imagine, and it lies out there, in the riffling of the grass, in the swash of the seas, and the lands, and it goes on, to the sky, to the stars, a large swirling cloud of millions and millions of stars, around which worlds like this revolve. But these stories are not for you. No, there will be no stories for you. There is no one and nothing here for you.
I get this feeling like I have a tenuous grasp of something profound as I was reading this book, like I am on the verge of a revelation. And then that feeling is gone, like wisps of a dream. That’s what this book feels like: a dream, made up of familiar parts that feel like they belong together but when you think about it, they don’t really. For example, we have a country that looks and sounds remarkably like Malaysia. A large part of it is even set on a Peninsula. Characters ride on Honda C70s. They drink Milo and kopi-C, and celebrate Chap Goh Mei. Alongside these familiar elements are alien geographical features like the Desert of Birds, Suriyang, Hei-San islands, and the Naga Tua volcano. Hei-San means “black mountain” in Mandarin and Naga Tua means “old dragon” in Malay but echoes Krakatau faintly, but I can’t even begin to guess at the significance of these names. The history of this world is also warped, with something called the Bercahaya Empire in the past being referenced multiple times. My question is: if this is not our world, how did the people in this world independently discover Nestlé’s popular chocolate malt drink named after a 6th-century BC wrestler? Perhaps Malaysians, whichever reality they find themselves in, simply cannot live without MILO®.
The book debuted last month. I read it last month and I am still chewing on its meanings, so much so that I feel like proposing this book for discussion in one of the book clubs I am in to help with the mental mastication of this rich cud of symbolism and allegories. If anything I’ve described about Elizabeth Wong’s We Could Not See the Stars appeals to you, do check it out. There is really no book quite like it.