As Malaysia moves closer to becoming a strict Islamic country, young Muslims escape their suffocating reality with the help of “pulp fiction” from pop-up bookstores in Kuala Lumpur.
Anis Suhaila, 24, is one of the young Malays who browse these stores for books about “risqué tales of crime, horror and gritty young love that are written in Malay.” She told The New York Times the “writing can be patchy, but it is fresh and edgy.”
Amir Muhammed founded Buku Fixi, an independent publishing company for these books, four years ago. Authors with little to no publishing experience write the books the younger crowd crave and risk long days in sweltering heat to consume. Bookstores told Muhammed that “Malays only read romance, religion and cooking.” He did not believe their assessment, and his company is lucrative because of his instincts:
The books can be riddled with typos, but they have slick covers, and some young Malaysians regard them as cool fashion accessories. Unlike traditional pulp fiction in Malaysia, mostly soppy romance novels, the new works are written in the street slang favored by the young and often feature story lines that flirt with taboo topics such as sexual promiscuity and communism.
His two best sellers have been “Kelabu,” a racy love story in which a girl hires a fake boyfriend to make her real one jealous, and “Asrama,” a horror story set in a girls’ school.
Lejen Press, a major competitor of Buku Fixi, published Awek Chuck Taylor, which sold 40,000 copies. An awek (Malaysian slang for girl) in the story wears Chuck Taylor sneakers “ho declares herself an agnostic and a fan of books on communism and anarchy.” Leaving Islam in Malaysia could result in the death penalty. In March, the State Assembly of Kelantan put forth a hudud (crimes against God) bill that will allow the state to execute anyone accused of apostasy, which is the abandonment of Islam.
If a person is convicted of apostasy, he or she will receive a prison sentence. If the person does not repent, they could be executed.
“Provided that when he repents whether the repentance is done before the death sentence is pronounced or after such pronouncement is carried out, he shall be free of the hudud sentence and his forfeited property shall be returned to him,” says the bill.
Here is how the publishing companies find their authors:
Retail prices are kept low compared with those of competing English or Chinese books, at 20 ringgit, or about $5.50, each. Publishers promote the works on social media with writing contests and book prizes, giving readers the sense that they have been invited to an exclusive club.
Though some officials have voiced concerns that this tide of cheap fiction will have an adverse effect on Malay grammar, the government appears to be paying little attention.
Last year, Lejen became the first of the independent publishers to open a brick-and-mortar outlet — a shop in a Kuala Lumpur suburb that hosts readings and book releases, often with live bands, and sells T-shirts emblazoned with its logo.
Muhammed told the New York Times he hopes the government continues “not to read” the books. Strict religious groups and the government are already working to crack down on Malays’ social lives. In one instance, Badan Bertindak Jaringan Muslimin Pulau Pinang (JMPP) organization drew up a complaint against a young girl who held a dog at an adoption drive. Muslims in Malaysia are not allowed to touch dogs, “which are considered ‘haram’ [sinful] in Islam. Mohamed Hafiz Mohamed Nordin, the head of the organization, is pushing the Penang State Religious Department (JAIPP) “to take appropriate action against the young girl.”
A Muslim cleric caused more controversy when he claimed marital rape does not exist, since a wife cannot turn down her husband when he wants sex. Ismaweb.net struck back at the critics and people who denounced the cleric because “Other religions are worse as they may permit anal sex in marriage.” Senior editor Razali Zakaria also lashed out at DAP assemblyman Yeo Bee Yin’s rape awareness campaign, as it does “not target any particular religion.” He also accused the news outlets who decried Zakaria of being “close to the Jews” and “trying to denigrate Islam.”
Activists know of many people who will not return to Malaysia due to the growing fundamentalism.
“It’s not for economic reasons, but simply because they feel that the environment here has become so negative and oppressive that it’s impossible to be able to live as peaceful, productive citizens any more,” explained Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir, a social activist. “You just never know when something that is perfectly acceptable one day becomes ‘haram’ [forbidden] the next day.”