If Shirley Geok-lin Lim was the first Malaysian writer I encountered, then K.S. Maniam's The Return was the first Malaysian novel I read. The book made a lasting impression; I once presented a paper on it at an art history conference.
I hadn't thought about the book in a while. K.S. Maniam seems not to have published much in the last decade. Then, suddenly, he's in the news again. The first writing of his to surface in a while serves to refute fake news spread by a government publication that he has migrated to the U.S. "for the sole purpose of obtaining international acceptance and acknowledgement." ("Semata-mata untuk mendapat penerimaan dan pengiktirafan pada peringkat antarabangsa").
Maniam is still in Malaysia. Correcting the government's intentional misinformation is important. But I think another critical issue is to recognize what the government is trying to do by spreading these false facts.
There's nothing wrong with aiming for an international audience, especially for a writer whose government censors art and bans books. I'd argue that it's necessary to transcend the narrow boxes we've been forced into. The government is trying a different tactic for oppression, that of shaming. If you love your country -- they're saying -- you will swallow the censorship and crackdown on art. You will not seek more. And, readers, if you are truly patriotic, you should condemn Malaysian writers who dare try to bypass oppression. The government frames it as a question of greed for fame, turning it into a moral issue. How base.
Since The Return has been on my mind, I looked for other books with the same title on a whim. Turns out there are very many. In hindsight, I shouldn't have been surprised, since the desire to relive better times or alter the past is common (see popularity of time travel narratives). And, of course, redemption stories are a staple. I guess I was taken aback only because, for me, Maniam's book has such singularity.
Coincidentally, Hisham Matar's The Return has won the Pulitzer prize. I had a thought -- what if I spent a year reading as many books titled The Return as I can get my hands on? Years ago, I'd already picked up a Robert Bolano story and finished it in one sitting, just for its title -- The Return. That one was about coming back from the dead.
Here's what a YoTR reading list would look like, spanning all genres from sci-fi to romance, and even Animorphs. And a Conrad, apparently? I had no idea! Plus William Shatner and Buzz Aldrin.
62 books, and only because I got tired of searching.
I understand this isn't a very logical way to approach reading, but why not. Perhaps I'll even write my own The Return, which is my account of reading all these returns. Ooo.