Nowadays whenever I am in Malaysia I make a beeline to the local bookshops to stock up — MPH, Popular and Times are not bad for local books, though annoyingly the MPH nearest to me is in the thick of renovations right now, which means that their Malaysian Interest sections are all huru hara. (Incidentally the bookshops here put things like KL Noir: Red in the Malaysian Authors or Malaysian Interest section — you’d think they’d know better. I mean, of course it makes sense to have copies in the Malaysian Authors section, but they should also be under Crime or wherever it is the other English-language noir books go, IMO. If we insist on ghettoising ourselves how can we expect other people to avoid doing the same?)
Anyway — reading meme!
What are you reading now?
Josephine Ross’s Jane Austen: A Companion, which is what it says on the tin. Her primary source is Jane Austen’s letters, which I have just been reading, and it is very interesting to be reading along and tripping over lines I remember from the letters. I feel pretty full up on Regency research now — I have one more book on the Regency from the library (Our Tempestuous Day), but I think after I’ve finished this and JA’s letters I’m going to call it a day and move on to other things. I need to bulk up my Asian historical knowledge — sadly, but unsurprisingly, it has been harder to get ahold of Asian history titles than books telling you what a kerseymere spencer is, and what the dancers would have eaten at a Regency ball. And once I start revising Prunella I will want to be reading more primary sources, to get into the right mind-set.
What did you just finish reading?
Sybil Kathigasu’s No Dram of Mercy, her account of her experiences during the Japanese WW2 occupation of Malaya. It was INTENSE. I’m trying to be a bit strategic about getting through my haul because my bag is already gonna be very heavy, so my initial plan was to read a few of the books so I wouldn’t have to take them back to England. Once I was a few pages in I realised this was a book I needed to take with me, but I couldn’t put it down because it was so interesting. So much for my strategy!
Sybil Kathigasu was a midwife married to a doctor in Ipoh who secretly treated the anti-Japanese Communist guerrillas and was imprisoned, tortured and interrogated by the Japanese for this. She survived the occupation but died a couple of years later from complications due to the injuries she suffered. She was well-educated, English-speaking, passionately Catholic, and a loyal British subject. Her account is incredibly gripping — and it was funny reading it, having recently read Linda Colley’s book on British captives in the Empire, because Colley has a section about how the captivity narrative became a thing, and British men and women captured in Afghanistan in the 19th century started scribbling away in prison with one eye on publication. And Kathigasu is totally thinking about writing a book about her experiences perhaps the whole time she is in prison, and talks about how it sucks that there was no pen and paper.
She must have been a real character — for one thing she was obviously very brave to have treated the guerrillas and hoarded a series of radios (forbidden by the Japanese) so she could listen to the BBC. But she was also obviously super bossy! You can hardly tell what any of the other people who feature in her book are like, because her personality dominates it so strongly. I can just imagine what she was like — a genial, tough, intelligent, scary auntie, fully aware of her innate superiority. She was great at being a war heroine but might have been difficult to live with in peacetime. (Amusingly Richard Winstedt’s preface to the narrative notes that she was “proud and dominant”, though he hastily adds that she was also humble, loving and devout.)
One interesting dystopian feature of the Japanese occupation, mentioned in passing — Eurasians were made to wear numbered armbands, as the Japanese wanted to be able to distinguish them from Westerners (Eurasians being allowed to mingle with the locals and go about their lives, but not the Europeans, Australians, Canadians, etc.).
What do you expect to read next?
I’m on Tales of Ogonshoto, an English translation of Anwar Ridhwan’s Naratif Ogonshoto. This is a series of short stories about the fictional Pacific state of Ogonshoto, so far largely preoccupied with corrupt politicians. Literary rather than popular fiction. Let us hope I shall have finished it before I fly off on Saturday!