YOU know The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown? That persistently best-selling novel that has been on local best-seller lists for more than a year? Last year, just one Malaysian shop, the Kinokuniya Bookstore in KLCC, sold 10,000 copies of it. That’s an amazing figure, we are told, because bookshop managers get excited about selling 50 copies of an English language title.
When it comes to Malay titles, however ? Sharifah Abu Salem sold 70,000 copies of her novel, Pesona Rindu (Enchantment of Longing), last year. And she had company: Sepi Tanpa Cinta (Lonely Without Love) by Damya Hanna also sold 70,000.In fact, in little more than half a decade, just one publisher of Malay novels, Alaf 21, has sold more than half a million copies of seven titles, including Sharifah and Damya’s books:
Ten years ago, the large bookstores didn’t carry popular Malay fiction – now, their shelves groan under the weight of an impressive number of titles. – Photo by RICKY LAI Tak Seindah Mimpi (Never As Wonderful As a Dream) by Sharifah Abu Salem sold 70,000 copies in 2000; Kau Untukku (You Were Meant For Me) by Aisya Sofea, 80,000 in 2001; Kau Yang Satu (You Are the Only One) by Nia Azalea, 75,000 in 2002; Bicara Hati (Discussions of the Heart) by Damya Hanna, 100,000 in 2003;Sehangat Asmara (In the Heat of Love) by Aisya Sofea, 70,000 in 2003; Pesona Rindu (Enchantment of Longing) by Sharifah Abu Salem, 70,000 in 2004; and Sepi Tanpa Cinta (Lonely Without Love) by Damya Hanna, 70,000 in 2004. Welcome to the exciting, not to mention growing-in-leaps-and-bounds, world of Malay novels.
I was quite amazed when I ventured into this realm. I met Mohd Feroz, who buys at least 50 novels a year, and Raja Azlina Shaharin, who has been an avid reader since secondary school, and newbie Normala Shahidan, who was recently introduced to these books and now devours them every free moment she has.
Such fans are the lifeblood of the Malay fiction publishing industry, which has grown tremendously in just a decade, says Norden Mohamed, general manager of Alaf 21. “I can’t give you exact statistics about the industry but you can see in the big bookstores today that there are Bahasa Malaysia sections.
Ten years ago, there weren’t.“And one of our December releases, Adam & Hawa (by Aisya Sofea), sold out its first print run of 30,000 copies within a week! To date, 50,000 copies have been sold,” says Norden, pride evident in his voice. “One can also see how lucrative this area of publishing is by the number of publishers of general titles or even school books that are jumping on the bandwagon by putting out novels,” he adds.Indeed, this is a field that's lucrative enough for more and more writers to make a living entirely from it, says Norden.“Some of them (writers) finance their studies with the royalties they receive. They even buy cars for their parents and are well-known among the Pusat Zakat staff for paying hefty tithes.”
I must admit I didn’t see the attraction when I first began researching this story. Having read English language novels all my life, I was rather alarmed when I realised I would have to wade through a Malay novel. I flashed back to Malay Lit classes when I had to struggle with the beautiful but utterly flowery Bahasa Sastera. And I imagined all the words that must have been added to the very formal Bahasa Melayu I had studied a decade ago ? I mean, who wants to read a novel with dictionary in hand!
But I was pleasantly surprised when I picked up Bagaikan Puteri (Like a Princess) by Ramlee Awang Murshid – no flowery language in sight (see ‘Positively swoon inducing’ next page). This, by the way, is common to most of Alaf 21’s titles, despite the suspiciously flowery names of the books!This is due to an industry-changing decision made about a decade ago. Alaf 21, one of the biggest and most influential Malay novel publishers in the business (the other big player is Creative Media), decided to begin using everyday language in their books.“In 1997, we decided to use bahasa suratkhabar (casual newspaper language) rather than bahasa sastera (the more formal language of literature), which had, until then, been the standard in novels,” says Norden.Norden Mohamed “We were actually the first to do so.
We use common words, those used by the man in the street, because he is the one who is going to read our books.”? I mean, who wants to read a novel with dictionary in hand!But I was pleasantly surprised when I picked up Bagaikan Puteri (Like a Princess) by Ramlee Awang Murshid – no flowery language in sight (see ‘Positively swoon inducing’ next page). This, by the way, is common to most of Alaf 21’s titles, despite the suspiciously flowery names of the books!
This is due to an industry-changing decision made about a decade ago. Alaf 21, one of the biggest and most influential Malay novel publishers in the business (the other big player is Creative Media), decided to begin using everyday language in their books.
“In 1997, we decided to use bahasa suratkhabar (casual newspaper language) rather than bahasa sastera (the more formal language of literature), which had, until then, been the standard in novels,” says Norden. Norden Mohamed “We were actually the first to do so. We use common words, those used by the man in the street, because he is the one who is going to read our books.”
Judging by the figures, the use of bahasa suratkhabar is a hit with readers. But what of the stories that language tells? What sort of stories do the fans like?Firstly, while romance seems to be the genre of choice – check out the titles on the best-seller list provide by MPH (above right) – there are other genres, like thrillers, sci-fi and historical novels, though even within those genres there are usually elements of romance.How the romance is played out in Malay novels is quite different from most English language romance fiction.
In Malay fiction, in keeping with our culture, passion is restrained to eyes meeting, and love is seen as something more emotional than physical. And you don’t declare love in an unseemly manner: bahasa suratkhabar or not, when a character declares his love, he does it poetically.Religion, good values and love are all tied up together, and this strongly influences the overall flavour of the stories.Because of all these elements, 50-novels-a-year Mohd Feroz says he can learn many things from these books.
He is particularly attracted to novels written by Sharifah Abu Saleem dan Ramlee Awang Murshid because they deal with social and familial issues, and they don’t shy away from portraying real emotion.
“Today’s novels are able to fulfill the needs and taste of our time. I am attracted to genres that can provoke critical thinking, that provide knowledge of family issues and experience in dealing with conflicts.“From these novels, I also get to know a lot about current events.”And there are nuances among all those romances, too. Raja Azlina, for instance, says she likes novels that deal with family and marital issues but that, “You know, the stories that deal with falling in love, especially those that are set on campus, those are a bit too young for me.”
Newbie Normala doesn’t mind romance, but the books have to deal with subjects “like family issues and marriage as well and not just concentrate on people falling in love”.
Normala and Raja Azlina both enjoy the works of Norhayati Berahim.Says Normala, “I can relate to her topics.
I’m married and as her plots tend to revolve around married couples with ‘third party’ problems, you can learn a lot from her books – you can read about all the tricks used by these cheating parties and pick up tips on handling them!” Women turning to novels for advice on their love lives, eh? That’s a sure sign that Malay fiction is making a very real connection with its readers.
Our writers of Malay fiction have nothing to fear from the Dan Browns of the world?.