Doing the Write Thing: Joshua Kam
Earlier this year, Malaysian author Joshua Kam won the 2020 Epigram Books Fiction Prize (taking home a cool S$25,000 cash prize to boot) for his manuscript, How the Man in Green Saved Pahang, and Possibly the World.
As a history graduate of Hope College, Michigan, he has developed a fascination and hunger for mythology and his debut novel is testament to that fascination. We engaged Joshua in a lengthy discussion about his book, all of which has been transcribed below for your reading pleasure.
What is How the Man in Green Saved Pahang, and Possibly the World about?
My book depicts Malaysian history as if it were in the magic realist tradition. I’m writing about two characters, Gabriel and Lydia, who are both encountering Malaysian history for the first time in very literal terms—in that historical figures have come back to meet them in 2018 at the turn of the General Elections.
On one hand, you get Gabriel, who encounters one of the prophets that appears in a lot of the Hikayat Melayu; while Lydia is faced with the legacy of her communist grandaunt and the Chinese traditions of ancestor and spirit veneration that dots the Malaysian countryside through small shrines.
And as both of them converge on the town of Kuantan, both of them are confronted with a history they didn’t really expect out of Malaysia: one that includes a lot of heretics, we’re talking about Sufi Islam as it was, we’re talking about LGBT people that existed well before colonialism or modernist Islam.
We’re also encountering the very real contributions of the communists during the Malaysian Emergency. My story, on one hand, engages with history, but the real part of it is that the story depicts how these characters are wrestling with the theologies and the histories that they’ve learnt throughout all their lives and have had to come and reconcile that with the history that is, perhaps in ways that I have had to as well.
What inspired your novel?
I found myself really going through a lot of Malaysian fiction and literature and non-fiction, and while there are some beautiful things coming out of Budaya right now, I think—in Malaysia in particular—fiction has not yet entirely explored what Malaysia has been—outside of a very narrow narrative; and I think it’s easier for us to go back with a certain nostalgia, real or imagined for the colonial period.
I think it’s easy to go back to a certain extent to look for the glory of the Melakan golden age or to go back to very "comfortable histories". To take the modern narratives of what Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, for example, and to be acquiescent to that. I wanted to write a story in which all the "rebel Malaysians" who also make this land are neither embraced nor denied—just accepted. I wanted to write about a fully fleshed-out Malaysia. I think one of the things that really caught my image was that while doing research in the University of Ann Arbor in Michigan, I ended up reading Hikayat Hang Tuah, which is kind of our national epic, for the first time.
While I was reading that, I found myself really, really drawn to this figure named Nabi Khidir. He’s this Sufi Muslim prophet and he comes up from the sea, and he offers these mystical gifts to people. I found that incredibly compelling and it was a kind of mysticism I hadn’t encountered before while studying other texts.
I had this stunning, weird—and honestly, rather funny—image of Nabi Khidir, this green-clad prophet, one of the great Sufi prophets of the Malay Hikayat tradition, wandering around the streets of Kuala Lumpur in modern times in all of his green-clad glory, and that was enough to start an idea for a book.
What are some of the challenges you encountered while writing this story?
One of the great challenges was modulating both the need for integrity towards the historical figures that I’m depicting—or the mythological or religious figures that I’m depicting—with integrity to the way that Malaysians think. I think it’s very easy to be revisionist about Malaysian history, or any history in general, to make it more progressive or more conservative in ways that would fit the agendas of people whenever you’re writing your book. I did not want to bend the characters into the way I thought of things.
At the same time, I think the past is living and I think that the past is active. I believe that the ways we imagine the past are just as important as what actually happened. In that sense, my book is very much fiction but it is grounded in the very real lived experiences of Malaysian communists, Sufi Islam, the same gender-attracted people, the LGBT people, that have lived for the past millennia on this earth—whether we like them or not. We don’t have to agree with any of these people’s stances or the choices they make, but they exist. In part, it was a real challenge to find that balance, I suppose, between writing stories that we resonate with the present and the stories that pay homage to the people in the past.
What was the biggest lesson learnt in writing this story?
I’m not very good at writing morals. I am worse still at learning morals. I think one of the great things was that this book required a great deal of research on my part. While I knew a great deal about the Hikayat tradition, since that’s kind of what I study, it took me a lot more time to research through accounts of women fighters during the Communist Emergency on both sides. I was comparing it to British analyses of who the bad guys were, who the good guys were, reading Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first Malaysian Prime Minister’s views on what happened during the 1940s to 1950s.
I found myself having to read these first-hand accounts and I was absolutely blown away! I think the biggest lesson I learnt was just how diverse the voices of Malaysia are. Even if so much of it has been erased or swept up under the carpet, I have found a lot of courage in the fact that the history never speaks with one voice. That doesn’t mean we agree with what historical figures thought, but the fact is that they were as much in dialogue and discussion as we are today about what the soul of Malaysia—or Singapore, or Southeast Asia—is and we can be heirs of that conversation.
Are you like Gabriel or Lydia?
To be perfectly honest, I do not have a lot in common with my protagonists. For one thing, I think they’re a lot more daring than I ever am. They also respond to things in very different ways. Gabriel is interested in trying to balance this cosmic scale between whether existence is worth it, and since he’s a theist, whether God is right in making this world of suffering in the first place. Lydia, I think, is much more interested in ancestry and understanding her own family’s history in a way that’s accurate, in a way that’s true, regardless of what she feels about that past and what her ancestors did.
I believe my characters tackle very similar questions to the ones I’m always asking about my family’s history but they go about it in very different ways. In that sense, my protagonists are very daring and willing to reimagine what Malaysia can be in a way that I have not managed to do. I wish I could have a little bit of their courage, and perhaps that’s why I write them—because I am not yet like them.
Who and what are your favourite authors and books that have influenced your writing?
I think the more obvious one is the Hiyakat tradition. Malay Hikayat is this long corpus of works, that started out from the 1500s until the 1900s, of Malay writers who are imagining the world. Some of these are works of fantasy, sometimes these are works of historical literature that are meant to be understood through history, but a great deal of it is deeply influenced by this Sufi understanding that the writer is not writing anything original.
The Hikayat tradition was, in a certain sense, resistant to the idea that people write original ideas, but rather all things are an extension of the mind of God, the heart of God transcribed into the world. As God is a kind of writer in the Sufi tradition, the writer himself becomes a kind of creator as well, of their own mini world. It’s a deeply mystical tradition, for lack of a better word, and I found a great deal of joy in it. And of course, it’s raw material. It’s some of the things I have copied and borrowed and woven into the story that I have written here.
Another great influence is Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I think he is able to unflinchingly look at his own society in Tsarist Russia and to imagine what life can be outside of that. I credit a lot of my writing, my ideas and especially my editing process to afro-futurist writers as well. So, these are often writers from across the black diaspora, who have written not just about countries, or about nations, even about racial nationalism per se, but imagine a world in which people are allowed to grow outside of capitalism, outside of imperialism, outside of racism, and I think that for me, gives me immense hope.
I think there is a great deal of beauty in Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and a lot of the old white guys who wrote fantasy. I think there’s a lot of joy in knowing that their nostalgia for the past is not something I have to inherit. I like the past, I love history, but I think I am interested in the history that reimagines what the future and the present can be, especially in a country like Malaysia, where it is still finding itself in a world where the oceans are rising and the island my grandfather grew up on might be underwater in 25 years. I think all Malaysians are forced to contend with not just what Malaysia is now, but what it can be.
What are your expectations for the novel?
I would like to believe that I have written for Malaysians and other Southeast Asians. I have hopes that the novel reflects different kinds of rebel Malaysias that also appear in the narrative of this country that we’ve been given.
I hope that the book also makes (readers) curious about those alternative countries that are buried under the government textbooks, the ethnic narratives that we’ve been given, and how it synthesises all those stories into the people and nation and land that we have now.
I don’t have any delusions that books alone can change the world—I mean, there’s action too. I just wish that my work could have a small hand in shifting the way we think about the past. Not for the sake of the past, not for nostalgia, but for the hope that we can reimagine what it means to be Malaysian. I’m very interested in people and places. I’m not very interested in nations or borders or kingdoms, and I think it’s easy to get lost in these narratives, be that in Malaysia, Singapore or anywhere else, in which we’re tied to nation-states, and we’re forced to imagine along those lines. I hope we are willing to reconsider and sometimes subvert those ideas.
Get How the Man in Green Saved Pahang, and Possibly the World here.