MALAYSIAN writer Joshua Kam was picked as the winner of 2020 Epigram Books Fiction Prize in an award ceremony and gala dinner held in Singapore recently. The 23-year-old, the youngest winner of the Prize to date, took home S$25,000 in prize money and a publishing contract with Epigram Books.
The KL-ite’s winning manuscript, How the Man in Green Saved Pahang, and Possibly the World, which tells the story of Gabriel and Lydia and how their paths converge as they go on a cross-country race against time — meeting historical and mystical figures from folklore along the way — to try and prevent the end of the world as they know it, will be published in the second half of this year.
The other finalists were Singaporean librarian, Erni Salleh, 31 (The Java Enigma); Bruneian academic Assistant Professor, Kathrina Mohd Daud, 35, of the Universiti Brunei Darussalam (The Fisherman King); and US-based Thai writer, Sunisa Manning, 34 (A Good True Thai).
The winner was selected by a panel of judges comprising bestselling author Balli Kaur Jaswal; acclaimed film-maker Tan Pin Pin; Director of the Division of Humanities at Yale-NUS, Prof Rajeev S. Patke; Mekong Review chief Minh Bui Jones, and publisher Edmund Wee. According to Patke, Kam’s manuscript was "… the most exuberant of the four novels. It’s filled with energy, cheerfulness and a linguistic panache that is... altogether charming.”
PAGES OF JOSHUA KAM
1. Tell us about yourself in a nutshell.
I’m a KL-lite with family roots in Kuantan and Penang. I spent some of earliest years in America as a kid while my parents were studying, but most of my life has been spent in KL. I studied in Michigan for university, studying history and classics, and now I’m doing a Masters in Southeast Asian studies at the University of Michigan.
I have one brother who’s five years my senior and just starting to study political science. My family has always treasured the humanities — the study of people and what we write, eat, talk, and behave over time — from a distinctly Malaysian lens.
2. Favourite subject at school? Favourite book as a kid?
History! Definitely Maths was not a strong subject. My parents home-schooled us so there was always a steady traffic of so-called classic literature, fantasy, and reference books my brother and I pored over. I have to thank my mum for starting a family tradition!
3. When did you first dabble in writing? What was the first story you wrote?
I was 10 and I wrote about an imaginary world of talking animals. Never finished it, but I will say it took me some two unprintable novel attempts to get me close to where I am now. It took many, many, endeavours before even those.
4. What inspired/motivated you to go down this path?
At heart, I'm an academic and an activist. Writing isn't exactly a career for me, but a kind of by-product of existing in a world of people, places, tastes, and things. I write to assuage my own sadness, and to re-imagine a Tanah Air (homeland) I dearly love free of capitalism, colonialism, and climate change.
5. What do you enjoy most about writing?
I can’t say if I “enjoy” writing but it’s certainly one way of channelling my ideas, hopes, and sadness into something that perhaps can be shared with others.
6. Can you describe your style?
My writing style tends to play on the sort of dark, merry writing of medieval and Hikayat literature. There's a playfulness in old texts that borders on the irreverent that I just love. But there's with that irreverence a deep capacity for awe and heran — wonder and delight in physical senses and sights. I try to mimic that when I write.
7. Where do you like to write? In a quiet room? In a bustling cafe?
Absolute silence! I find a study and hide there as long as I can.
8. What do you enjoy writing about? Any particular genre of writing?
Fantasy and magic realism really are my stomping grounds, but historical fiction often dovetails with those genres well.
9. What's your biggest challenge when writing? How do you overcome this?
Honestly, finding the time and discipline to write in short gasps was crucial. It's hard but I found personally that using short bursts of writing is so much more effective than waiting for those long hours on weekends.
10. Do you ever get writer's block? And what do you do at times like this?
I do! I find that as long as I write something, the block goes away. I just have to mute the editor in me and power through — even if the writing is subpar.
11. Favourite book/favourite local author?
The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky is closest to my heart. And favourite local author? My heart is in the Melayu Hikayat — don’t make me choose!
12. What three books are currently on your bedside table/or/on your To-Read list?
Elmer (a graphic novel also published by Epigram, my publisher), A Hundred Years of Solitude, and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children.
13. Last book you read and enjoyed tremendously?
N.K.Jemisin's Broken Earth Trilogy — a seamless blend of Afro-futurism, fantasy, and science fiction that speaks powerfully to racism in America and elsewhere. Stunning, imaginative and rich.
14. Describe yourself in three words?
A curmudgeonly hedgehog.
15. Tell me about your winning manuscript. What was it inspired by?
My manuscript tells the story of two Malaysians at the end of the 2018 General elections, Lydia and Gabriel, who find themselves confronted with a wild rebel Malaysia they hadn't known before. Pulled into a parallel, underground Malaysia full of Sufi saints from Hikayat Hang Tuah, Emergency resistance fighters, and Chinese sea gods, the characters are forced to reimagine their place in a wild, unorthodox, complex Tanah Air, where magic — as we might call it — is by no means gone.
It was inspired by my research on Hikayat Hang Tuah (HHT) and Chinese nadugong shrines — the red tiny pondok-pondok you see lining streets, gardens and houses anywhere in the country. I was confounded — the mysticism HHT and Chinese tradition borrowed from so many sources. Some Christian or Hindu, some Sufi or Chinese Buddhist or Taoist. I found a lot of hope in this vision of a Malaysia past that openly flouted the national narratives of race, identity, and sexuality we all grew up with.
The book came together at last with the image of Al Khidir, a wild, green-clad Sufi
Prophet from Hikayat Hang Tuah. What would this peace-making Prophet think of KL if they'd stepped off the platform of Masjid Jamek in 2018? What would he do? The story took off from there. My work expanded organically from my research.
16. What do you do to chill?
A glass of cheap white works wonders when I need to de-stress.
17. What next?
I'd like to write more. But if I wanted to write more, I want to ground my work in good research — to reinterpret Malaysian heroes while also doing my homework first. It's a balance I want to be wary of as I approach heroes so close to many Malaysians' hearts.
18. Ultimate dream?
I’d love to join or start a little commune of Malaysians who cook and read and re-imagine our earth and water outside of capitalism, homophobia, and racism. I don't really have big ambitions. Community, ancestry, and friendship are integral to the way I see the world, and the way I write. I'd like to share that with anyone who cares to join.