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Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Why Rani Manicka is the first Malaysian author of serious fiction to be internationally popular

by Suzan Abrams
  1. Rani Manicka's first novel The Rice Mother was translated into 18 different languages at one go. No other Malaysian writer achieved this before her.
  2. This would later be followed by her second novel, Touching Earth a novel that went a different journey as I remember seeing it at several international airports - the time that I was travelling constantly - all at one go.
  3. She was the first Malaysian writer who received so large an advance, that the news clip was splashed all over the search engines in a day. Before this, the media never discussed the wages of other published Malaysian writers. There wasn't such a thing as a large advance with the exception of writers like Arundhati Roy.
  4. She was the first Malaysian novelist to have had The Rice Mother published in the States after the UK.
  5. She was the first Malaysian novelist to have had her novel internationally accessible in bookstores from the first day her novel was launched in London. In Australia, The Rice Mother was splashed in lavish window displays all over Sydney and Melbourne. Think David Jones, Myers and Dymocks.
  6. In East Africa, The Rice Mother was upfront in the few bookshops that were available for expatriates. There were even posters of The Rice Mother and Rani Manicka that hung on the walls. I remember that really took my breath away.
  7. I would never been able to observe this of course, if my global travelling of 9 years had not put me in such good light of how Malaysian novels sold to the masses at the time.
  8. Today, you can still pick up The Rice Mother even in the smaller bookshops outside Ireland. Six years on and the novel still makes its rounds and is often easily available from a bookstore shelf.
  9. Rani Manicka was also the first Malaysian writer to have received a one-page spread in Waterstone's quarterly, the in-house magazine of one of the UK's biggest bookstore chains.
  10. She was the first Malaysian writer to be named by the Bookseller (UK) as having honed a possible bestseller with The Rice Mother.
There were a few writers published beforehand. In 1998, there was Malaysian writer Yang May-Ooi with her novel, The Flame Tree.
Still in 1999, I was unable to purchase a copy in Melbourne, as no store had heard of her. She didn't have it as good with bookstore availability in spite of being published in London. I had considered this at the time to be a strange thing. Neither was this novel available any longer in bookstores like Borders when I went to England in 2003. I was told it was no longer in print. With nary a blaze in the first place, the novel had fizzled out as quietly as it had first popped up on what may have been an expectantly hopeful scene. Due to my unsuccessful attempts at purchasing a copy at the time, I finally relied on what seemed to me, the obvious sensibility that the book had failed to garner the attention it sought.

There were other writers like Shirley Lim popular in the States but her books were definitely not available in stores in Australia or the UK. At the time during and before Manicka first published The Rice Mother in September 2002, world distribution as pertaining to books published in the US (with the exception that they were commercially highly popular or international bestsellers) were always dicey. If UK didn't buy the rights, you couldn't find the book in several of the smaller countries or even Australia and the UK unless specifically ordered, whereas books published in the UK were always circulated widely, from its first launch date.

Australian writers who published in their country suffered and still suffer the same fate. It's difficult to find Australian fiction elsewhere unless commercially popular or promoted under specific categories. I also remember trying to get hold of Beth Yap's book The Crocodile Fury in 1999/2000 to no avail.

I was finally able to secure a lone copy in Reader's Feast, Melbourne after getting a thumbs-down sign everywhere else. The title simply wasn't available and once more stores knew nothing about it. The Crocodile Fury may have been a prize-winning novel in earlier years in Australia but it didn't last the ride. I'm guessing probably from a lack of international awareness and publicity.

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