Katak, Kakak, and Kacak: "Chronicles of KK" Retrospect

An extract from 'Kacak'

My eighth story with Fixi Novo is all set to be published as part of the MY Writers Fest 2016 when Fixi's Chronicles of Kota Kinabalu is launched in Sabah later this month. Kacak ('handsome' in Malay) follows a tourist who arrives in Kota Kinabalu in search of his roots when he stumbles upon a mysterious girl who frequents the hostel he is staying at. As far as plot and tone are concerned, this represents a huge departure from the stories that I wrote for Fixi when I first started out. Now seems like an excellent time to revisit three stories from three different points in time, starting with Katak in 2013, Kakak in 2015, and eventually Kacak in 2016.

On the surface it's a conventional love story that switches between the past and present, Georgetown and Vancouver. This was my first published short story and although I'm still fond of it, it represented a writing style that I was already phasing out. Drawing heavily on reconfigured memories and personal experiences, it said more about me than I was comfortable with sharing. I was quite desperate for the chance to tell my stories and perhaps that's one of the reasons why I went a bit overboard with descriptions and internal monologues, but the usual traits that defined my later writing were already in place. Lyrical writing, characters in transition trying to figure out who they really were, and how the past always dominates the present and the future. I was a prolific writer growing up but without anything publishable to show for my efforts. Katak was a real game-changer in that regard and it was a way for me to showcase the lessons learned from my first two years at the University of British Columbia at a time when I was hopeful that I had figured out how to proceed with the rest of my studies and my future career. In fact it would go on to represent a break from my past as my personal life changed in the months following its publication.

KAKAK is a futuristic story set in a run-down Kuala Lumpur on the verge of disaster. It's yet another love story of sorts, a lopsided love affair between an android maid and a tortured robot with a painful past. The sci-fi element allowed me some freedom to work with my characters as I tackled the usual issue of domestic servants in Malaysian households. As far as the storyline was concerned it was fairly generic, but the tone differed significantly from my earlier Fixi stories. Alone in the prairies where I worked as part of my year away from my studies in Vancouver, I was in the midst of an uneasy period of alienation. What struck me was how easy it was to fall out of contact despite the fact that I was only one province away, and this gloomy mood persisted in the stories that I wrote during this period. All the characters in my stories were very aware of how transient their relationships and lives were, and how alone they would be in the end. As far as language was concerned, my sentences were longer and they ran on and on in an effort to be lyrical, fueled by the library books that I incessantly read during lunch breaks at the Southside laboratory that I was working at. Weekends were long and uneventful, and so were my evenings when I caught the 70 back to town. This solitude gave me my best ideas and richest writing. For that I was grateful.


Things are different again. My first novel, Kings of Petaling Street, is getting published and pre-sales have started on Amazon. I am now the creative nonfiction editor at Ricepaper. I am moving between jobs as I try to figure out what my career will look like post-graduation last spring. And until this summer I had been away from Malaysia for four years, the longest stretch so far. But my ties to it still remain. Kacak was an experiment in understanding how I saw things. In this case I was interested in perspectives. How well can you really understand someone else? There will always be a gulf that you cannot cross, even if you try to empathize and put yourself in their shoes. Some parts of Kacak are almost like a monologue, appearing within the context of a travel journal. Funnily enough it was shaped by my experiences on co-op, particularly by the lessons learned when I was in China. In terms of style my writing is at its most toned-down, with long sentences removed in favor of sharper and more precise descriptions. And I'm hoping that I will go somewhere with this new angle that I'm exploring.

Vancouver, 2016.