‘The Accidental Malay’: Karina Robles Bahrin’s award-winning debut novel examines the human cost of a country’s racial policies



People, place and politics tackle each other accidental discomfortKarina Robles Bahrin’s debut novel about a 41-year-old woman who controls her family’s billion ringgit bak kwa company, who receives a curveball when she discovers her true identity.

There’s punch too, starting with the opening lines: “So much for hot sex tonight.” At least the bartender is used to waiting for him, sometimes for a little while, but other times until closing time.

This image of Jasmine Leong drinking tequila alone because Iskandar picked her up – his wife has a cold – sets the tone for this story of humans pulled in opposite directions by race, class, gender and religion. religion, personal desire suppressed by the dictates of law and society, corporate maneuvers and secret alliances with powerful politicians who can get you contracts.

There is also the weight of gender and family expectations. Poh Poh, the wonderful grandmother who raised Jasmine after her father died in the May 13 riots, often tells her, “You are a girl, you can’t do enough. His cousin Kevin, who First Aunt Ruth thinks should become CEO of Phoenix Public Ltd after the matriarch’s death and then settle down, has eyes only for handsome Matthias, a skilled cook of Chinese food .

Iskandar says there’s no way to walk away from his family when she wants more from him. He can only marry a Muslim; Poh Poh would never allow him to convert. More importantly, Jasmine doesn’t want to be one. Marrying a Muslim would mean “a whole lifetime of food wiped out”. So they meet in places her people wouldn’t go, and she waits out the remaining minutes of her busy life so they can crawl under the covers again.

Sex runs through the pages, often in a hurry, sometimes tired, never sinister. Alone after Iskandar leaves, Jasmine counts the price of love. She wants everything, including love, but at what cost?

When Jasmine learns that she is a Malay Muslim, new whys and assumptions intersect her already complicated relationship with Iskandar and her two watchful aunts. The past creeps into the present as she makes plans for the future. Characters with particular social and ethnic eccentricities arise, reflecting how people find their place in a multicultural society and make the most of what life has in store for them.

Karina keeps a firm grip on the pacing in this gripping story about a delicate subject matter that eats away at an urban nation and threatens to tear it apart. Lively, observant and bold, she uses humor to soften the sting of what needs to be said even if people aren’t listening or wanting. She has a wonderful way with words that makes you reread passages for their wit and sophistication, and brings to light thoughts that creep into the back of your mind.

The fiction is actually based on The accidental Malay, takes place mainly in 2010’s Kay-Yell and Ipoh, the mining town with white hills topped with clouds. This is where Jasmine grew up, among practical people who “first swallow the bitter and dream of the sweet”.

There are snippets about social bonds – students gathering for food and companionship at Malaysia Hall in London, where Jasmine, struggling with a maze of ketupat, first encounters Iskandar – and the living disconnecting from the dead. After Poh Poh, who wore minimal makeup in life but went absurd in death, was laid to rest, Aunt Ruth made sure Jasmine and Kevin rinsed their feet before entering the house, ” in case there are traces of grandmother’s spirit on their soles”.

Karina writes with the confidence of someone who has thought long and hard about the problems plaguing the country. Kuan Yew, Jasmine’s poor schoolmate who did well in Australia, expresses his anger at a system that denied him a scholarship but sent those who did poorly to the UK and US because of their breed.

The author clearly saw events erupt, triggered by racial tensions, and the aftermath of mob frenzy, and put them into this story. Burhanuddin Ishak — the husband of Jasmine’s mother who abandoned her after her father’s death — raises young protesters outside a downtown store, holding signs with illustrations of crossed out pigs. Religious groups have attempted to claim Jasmine as one of their own, but have failed. Deeply offended by “Phoenix’s blatant disregard and disrespect for the Muslims of this country”, they want her to resign.

accidental discomfort won the Epigram Books Fiction Prize 2022, which promotes contemporary creative writing and rewards excellence in Southeast Asian literature.

In a February interview with Choice, Karina said the book was controversial and had to be written by a Malaysian. Her personal connection to this is that she was brought up as a Malay Muslim. But her mother is from the Philippines and her “little step back” with her fiction is to include mom’s last name, Robles, as her middle name. It’s an attempt to reclaim her Filipino side and make it part of her identity.

Buy a copy of ‘The Accidental Malay’ from Litbooks for RM55.90 here.

This article was first published on August 29, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.

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