Four from Brunei

Hi folks! It’s time for my roughly annual blog post about obscure books that you have never read and probably never will read that have nothing in common except a loose association with one particular country (in this case, the Sultanate of Brunei)!

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I read four books from Brunei, which was, in this case, both too much and not enough. I don’t think I really got much of a feel for the country, but then again, these books were just barely readable. In order of enjoyment (from most to least), here they are:

Written in Black, K.H. Lim, 2014

  • Brunei, #5
  • Borrowed from Berkeley public library
  • Read January 2019
  • Rating: 3/5
  • This was far and away the best book I read from Brunei. It takes place almost entirely among the Chinese community of Brunei, and feels like it takes place in a completely different country than the other modern novels on this list (both of which are written by members of Brunei’s Muslim majority). Its protagonist Jonathan, a young child who cannot figure out why his mother suddenly moved to Australia and seems unwilling to talk to him, among all his siblings, when she calls (spoiler: this mystery is never cleared up in any way), ditches his grandfather’s funeral to search the country for his older brother. The cover shows a picture of a kid rowing a coffin down a river, and the description says that he “escapes in an empty coffin” so I was looking forward to a surreal Heart of Darkness style journey but, disappointingly, the empty coffin in which Jonathan stows away is actually in the back of a van, and there is no coffin boat trip at any point.

The Forlorn Adventure, Amir Falique, 2013

  • Brunei, #4
  • Hardback, $4.30 from Amazon
  • Read January 2019
  • Rating: 2/5
  • A creative premise, but unfortunately this book reads as if it were written by someone who has never had an actual conversation with a human being before. It was fun to read just because it is so utterly preposterous. A’jon Emir, a Bruneian computer programmer, has been chosen to join a manned space flight to install some software. In space. This might be because he wrote the software that needs to be installed, or it might be because Brunei is literally the last country on earth to send a person into space; both explanations are offered. While he is in space (after completing an extremely abbreviated training program, which for some reason includes a wilderness survival course in the Arctic), a world war breaks out on Earth, the ship is almost hit by a missile, A’jon accidentelly gets stabbed in the heart with a free-floating knife, and his shipmates decide to stick him in the handy cryogenic freezer they have on board in the hopes that he can be resuscitated and healed when the war ends and it’s safe to return to Earth. And that’s just the set-up.

A Decade in Borneo, Ada Pryer

Generally I hate to start off with a book by a colonizer, but this seemed to be my only option for getting a glimpse into 19th century Brunei. It was dry in the way these early travelogues often are, but offered some fairly fascinating descriptions of the edible birds nest industry, as well as heartbreaking depictions of the diversity and abundance of wildlife on the island before Europeans came along and wrecked everything. I have a separate post on this book, so I’ll put it up sometime soon.

Jewel: A Sweet Romance, Aisha Malik, 2017

  • Brunei, #6
  • Kindle edition, $2.99
  • Read January 2019
  • Rating: 2.5/5

Oh this one made me so mad. I found it chauvinistic, improbable, and totally lacking in insight. Yasmin, an independent, smart, driven Eurasian girl falls in love with a fellow college student who turns out to be a prince of the realm, third in line to the throne. He falls in love with her too, but he can’t marry–or even confess his love for her–because she’s not Muslim and he doesn’t think it’s fair to ask her to convert. Luckily for everyone there’s a literal deus ex machina, because Yasmin is in a car crash and somehow spontaneously becomes a Muslim, despite no apparent previous exposure to Islam (it’s mentioned that she’s been “reading” while in the hospital; and sure, people sometimes find god after a near-death experience, but the whole thing just struck me as oddly, improbably specific). Then there’s a lot of lowering of eyes and covering of skin (on both sides, to be fair) and they all live happily every after. Look, romance isn’t really my jam so maybe I don’t have enough practice suspending my disbelief in this context, but even in the most wild sci-fi epic I like the characters to act the way people act, and I just didn’t believe this one for even a minute.

Overall these books from Brunei gave me the impression of a peaceful tropical country, where most people are Malay or Eurasian and everyone reveres the sultan. I don’t know if it was just the books I happened to read, but there was an innocence about them that was kind of sweet. I can’t remember why I decided not to read Time and the River, a memoir/history by a member of Brunei’s royal family, but maybe it would have been interesting to get a bit more about Brunei’s history and politics; as it was I jumped from the 19th century to the 21st and thus missed quite a bit of context.

Quick takes from the Philippines

So, 2020, huh?

I thought about writing a little cap to the year–something about being stuck at home with two small children during an international pandemic, and the wildfires here in California, and unchecked white supremacists driving the country to the brink of civil war but…you get it. You’re all there, more or less (except you lucky bastards who live in New Zealand and are going to have to deal with a sudden influx of immigrants once we’re finally allowed to go anywhere), so I don’t have to tell you what it’s like. Suffice it to say, my brain is pretty fried after the past ten months, and while I’m still reading, not much of it is medieval epic poetry from Southeast Asia. I’ve been working my way through the Khun Chang Khun Phaen, a seminal work of Thai literature, since last February. I managed to get through the novels on my Thai reading list and have tentatively moved on to Myanmar/Burma, but mostly I’ve been reading the collected works of N.K. Jemisin and Octavia Butler, with occasional forays into YA dystopian fantasy. I don’t have the wherewithal to write long screeds about individual books that I read in 2018, and I suspect few people would have the attention span to read them right now anyway. So here are my thoughts on a whole bunch of books from the Philippines, in short format. Maybe I’ll come back to one or two of these later, but for now I just want to get them down and move on. Let’s do this.

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Reading update

I haven’t posted a reading update in a while because I haven’t been reading that much. I’ve mostly been very slowly plugging away at Four Reigns this week (ok, that’s not entirely true. I’ve MOSTLY been grudge-reading P.D. James novels on my kindle in the middle of the night while waiting for my baby to fall back asleep, but that is beyond the scope of this particular reading project). It’s pleasant reading but not exactly a page-turner; mostly a nostalgic depiction of a bygone era.

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Every reference to food in F. Sionil José’s “Dusk”

There is an overwhelming preoccupation with food in this book. Part of this is emblematic of the central characters’ struggle and drive to survive: as refugees, the food they bring and gather to see them through their flight is crucial, as is the prospect of what they will grow and eat when they finally arrive. José’s repeated assertions that “they were Ilokanos—they would not starve anywhere” and “Ilokanos can eat what other people cannot,” are both a descriptive and symbolic. The industrious and persevering Ilocano characters of the book are set in contrast with the overbearing but sloppy Spanish rulers who make their lives so miserable and who, ironically, dismiss all “indios” (native Filipinos) as lazy and stupid. “As for patience and industry,” José writes, “they were Ilokanos born to these virtues—it was in their blood, in the very air they breathed.” Istak and his family are resourceful and resilient, overcoming hardship and scarcity to carve a new life for themselves.

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