Second Malaysian winner of the Epigram Books Fiction Prize
SINGAPORE – The Epigram Books Fiction Prize was won by a Malaysian for the second time on Saturday January 22.
Karina Robles Bahrin will receive $25,000 from the seventh edition of the prize, Singapore’s only prize for unpublished novels in English.
His manuscript, The Accidental Malay, came out on top in a virtual ceremony streamed live on Facebook and YouTube.
“It’s really unexpected because it’s my first attempt at a novel,” said Robles Bahrin, 52, who runs La Pari-Pari, a small hotel-restaurant, with his sister on the island of Langkawi.
The idea for her novel had been marinating in her head for 10 years, but she only started writing it in March 2020, when the pandemic lockdown in Malaysia decimated the hotel’s business.
“We started having to eat from our restaurant’s stock before it all went wrong,” she recalled on Zoom. “But then I realized it gave me time and space to do something else that I had always wanted to do, which was to write the book.”
She is the second Malaysian to win the prize, after Joshua Kam in 2020 for her novel How The Man In Green Saved Pahang, And Possibly The World.
The Accidental Malay follows Jasmine Leong, a workaholic who wants to be the next CEO of a bak kwa company owned by the wealthy Leong clan. The discovery that she is unwell on her mother’s side upsets her professional ambitions and her sense of identity.
Robles Bahrin, who spent two decades in corporate communications before moving to Langkawi to open the hotel, says that although the book is not autobiographical, she drew on her own experience as a than mestizo in Malaysia.
She is Malay on her father’s side, while her mother is from the Philippines and converted from Catholicism to Islam to marry her father.
“I have always described my own life experience as walking a tightrope covered in glass,” says Robles Bahrin, who is Muslim. “If you stay on it, you’ll cut yourself. If you fall, it’s going to hurt.
“Anyone who is biracial will understand that. But in a country like Malaysia, if one of those halves or quarters of you is Malay, there’s a bit more pressure on you, to the point that culturally it almost negates other parts of your heritage.”
She says she wouldn’t be surprised if the book sparks controversy for its frank discussion of race. “But you don’t grow up like me without developing some sort of shell. You learn to take things on the chin.
“Writing this book is also my way of trying to make sense of it all on my own.”
Shirley Chew, a professor at Nanyang Technological University, who was on the jury, hailed The Accidental Malay as “an intelligent, well-crafted and meaningful work”.
“The novel’s narrative flow and structure are constructed with a strong sense of drama. This is deftly aided by witty flashes of prose,” she said in a statement.
The other judges were author Amir Muhammad, publisher of Buku Fixi in Malaysia; T. Sasitharan, co-founder and director of the Intercultural Theater Institute in Singapore; Margaret Thomas, president of the Women’s Association for Action and Research; and Edmund Wee, publisher of Epigram Books.
The other finalists, who are all Singaporeans – student Ng Ziqin, 20; private tutor Nisha Mehraj, 37; and general practitioner Tan Lip Hong, 58 – will each receive $5,000.
The four shortlisted novels will be published in the second half of this year.
The prize, which is a cash advance on future royalties, was launched in 2015 for writers from Singapore and opened to writers from other ASEAN countries in 2018.