Books / Literature

Book Review: Malay Sketches by Alfian Sa’at

-By Hariz B.

Well-known local writer Alfian Sa’at returns to the literary scene with ‘Malay Sketches’, a collection of pieces that center around Malay culture, and what it means to be Malay. Having cemented his role as one of the nation’s best playwrights, Alfian sets his sights on prose this time, and has produced a delightful collection that everyone should not miss.

The entries in the book are not so much short stories as they are flash fiction pieces, with the average entry taking up about 3 pages. Alfian demonstrates a remarkable ability to say much without using too many words, thoughtfully crafting his stories with precision. Each piece continually surprises with its accuracy, as he records the characteristics of Malay people, however obvious or subtle.

Malay Sketches’ feels very complete – Alfian has explored as much about the Malay Identity as he possibly could have. This is commendable, considering we live in this day and age where what it means to be Malay is constantly being challenged. Presentations of family routines are placed alongside instances of racial disparity, insecurity, love, death and even pride, all draped behind believable characters who add a searing vividness to his pieces.

For instance, in ‘Cold Comfort’, Alfian spins a tale of a youth as he mulls over his less-than-common position of a Malay medical student. As he attends to a pregnant Malay girl, it becomes clear that there is diversity within diversity itself, as the two Malay characters operate using different value systems and have conflicting outlooks on life. It is remarkable how Alfian transforms a simple encounter into an assessment of the Malay community, and how multi-faceted it is.

Each piece is accompanied by a sketch, done by the talented Shahril Nizam Ahmad. Not just for the sake of the book’s title, these charming drawings provide an added visual dimension to Alfian’s well-written pieces. I repeatedly examined the drawings after I read each piece, realizing how accurately some of them captured the essence of the pieces they represented.

Alfian has crafted a great piece of work with ‘Malay Sketches’. Those familiar with Malay culture will find themselves nodding in agreement as they read, while those unacquainted will finish the book with a new found understanding on what it means to be Malay. It is a truly representative collection, one that is marked by a sense of careful dedication and quiet observation.

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