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Malaysian author blurs myths and truths as you escape on a wild road trip

Spending hours at museums has always been a favourite pastime for author Joshua Kam.

Two of his most-loved museums are the Sultan Abu Bakar Museum in Pekan, Pahang, and the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore.

To him, the idea of viewing and learning about ancient exhibits and artefacts are only part of the thrill.

Kam also likes to see how different audiences react to the exhibits.

“I think it comes out of this fascination with the idea of us trying to preserve the old. But every time you try to preserve something old, you never appreciate it in the same way people did like say, 200 years ago, ” says the US-based Kam, 23, during a recent Zoom interview.

“You’re seeing it through your own lens, your own perspective, and the object itself changes. It takes on a different value, once it enters a museum, ” he adds.

The young Kuala Lumpur-born author has always been interested in the past. Kam grew up in Montana in the United States, where his parents studied economics, and later returned to Kuala Lumpur, where he lived for 15 years. He is now pursuing a master’s degree in South-East Asian studies at the University of Michigan.

It’s perhaps no surprise that reimagining the past is a major theme in Kam’s debut novel How The Man In Green Saved Pahang, And Probably The World.

In January this year, Kam became the youngest winner of Singapore’s Epigram Books Fiction Prize, which opened submissions to Asean writers for the first time.

Kam won for his manuscript How The Man In Green Saved Pahang, And Possibly The World, in which he has characters going on a cross-country race against time in an attempt to prevent the end of the world.

This whimsical, rollercoaster ride of a book also carries a tale of old and new Malaysia colliding, with various figures from local history, politics and folklore coming together in an epic quest for the soul of the nation.

Kam wasn’t born in Pahang if you’re wondering about his book’s title. His father hails from Kuantan, and so Kam spent many of his school holidays in the state. There, he would build many memories that contributed to Pahang being the setting of his novel.

How The Man In Green Saved Pahang, And Probably The World is the story of Gabriel, an unassuming man who witnesses a mysterious event. The person behind it is a man in green called Khidir.

Gabriel, rather against his will, ends up joining Khidir on a wild road trip through Malaysia, on a quest to defeat The Mouth, a national threat.

At the same time, a young woman named Lydia discovers old letters written by her grandmother during the Malayan Emergency.

Lydia also ends up on Khidir and Gabriel’s trip, where they encounter sea gods, golden sky bridges, and Malay folk characters.

Through the book, ancient Malay epics and Taoist myths clash with modern-day politics and bigotry, in a moving narrative, told in a strong, distinctly Malaysian voice.

During Kam’s history studies, he was introduced to the classic Hikayat Hang Tuah, a Malay work of literature that tells the tale of the legendary Malay warrior Hang Tuah and his four warrior friends – Hang Jebat, Hang Kasturi, Hang Lekir and Hang Lekiu – who lived during the height of the Sultanate of Malacca in the 15th century.

One of the characters in the book that fascinated Kam was the Man in Green, a mystical peace-making prophet.

“I was walking through Masjid Jamek (in KL) one day and I was thinking how it was a very East-meets-West, old meets new place.

“I thought, what if this character from Hikayat Hang Tuah ended up in the middle of Masjid Jamek in the middle of 2018 Malaysia, ” says Kam.

“What would he do? What would he love? What would he want to change about this country?” he asks.

Kam started writing his book in early 2018, with his mother informing him about the Epigram Prize, a Singaporean literary award.

In his book, Kam admits: “I talk about sensitive issues sometimes. And I used (folk) stories that are very close to people’s hearts. So I think I was very careful to make sure that I was using these myths with care.”

The author believes it is important not just to keep remembering these old stories, but to keep reimagining them as well.

“Before print, people would pass down their stories orally. Things can change. I don’t think it is a bad thing. I think stories are shaped a lot by the people and the times they are told in, ” says Kam.

At the moment, Kam isn’t ready to dissect the issues about myth-making and the problems of history.

Fiction based on history is his bag of adventure.

“I like the continuity of old stories, especially when you see how versions are different from one other. Its like different branches sprouting from one seed. And I’ve always wanted to join in this long procession of telling myths.”

Kam is also working on another project: he originally had plans to come back and do research for a novel, but the pandemic hit.

Instead he is planning to do a story involving South-East Asians in the American Midwest.

“I think there are a lot of (Asian) writers out there, but they aren’t getting the platform they are getting. I’d love to see a readership and a ‘writership’ grow for these voices. Plus speculative fiction is always rooted in both the past and the future. It’s always interested in what we are becoming and we will become, ” says Kam.

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