Hello Dames Nation!
It’s our honour to be stepping in for Dames Sophie and Margaret while they both go on their well-deserved summer breaks, and to lull you over with our smorgasbord of wandering thoughts, necessary links and delightful gifs.
First, an introduction:
Syazwina (Shaz-WEE-na; or Syaz (‘Shaz’) to friends, Dames, and small woodland creatures) is a Moderate Master of Some who works in advertising by day and fretts over Niall Horan’s impossible and un-pindown-able charm by night.
Leave it to Peggy to sum up #advertisinglyfe perfectly.
Mabel (but call her Mae; Mabel is reserved for people of authority and non-friends) is a Publishing Nerd with degrees in finance and publishing, who develops content and communications for a bookstore franchise/giant book sale. She spends her days surrounded by books (kinda like Belle, but without a furry handsome prince who has a tendency to kidnap), and her nights with a furry handsome prince who has a tendency to always look at her with love eyes (in exchange for treats and belly rubs).
Basically Mae’s average working day.
We both were born-and-raised, and work-and-live in Malaysia. We know—you likely have not heard of the country unless you:
Watched an episode of Jane the Virgin where Rogelio mentioned ‘Malaysian doves’ (it is not actually a Thing; do better, writers!)
Read the news about our national airline and the tragedies that hit it in 2014
Have ever been to Singapore and wondered what the huge mass of land right across its straits is. (That’s us!👋 )
(Also, apparently there’s a Basketball Wives cast member calledMalaysia Pargo, who gave herself the name? As actual Malaysians, we find this random factoid highly amusing. Us? Exotic? Noooo.)
We would describe Malaysia asthe heart of Southeast Asia—we share borders with Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines— and we're situated smack dab atop the Equator. That means that our weather ishot and humidall-year round, with the potential of rain constantly on the horizon. We have rainforests (which arebeing demolished at a worrying rate) and a highly problematic government(Leo DiCaprio is NOT well pleased, let us tell you), and some ofthe best food in the world. Due to varioushistorical factors (including colonialism), we areopenly multiracial, which means that most of us are at least bilingual. By default, Malaysians typically identify by race and faith—in Malaysian parlance, Syaz is half-Chinese, half-Malay Muslim, and Mae is Chinese-Buddhist.
As women who grew up in the suburbs surrounding Kuala Lumpur, with the privilege of middle-class/upper-class upbringings, and access to education overseas, we share mixed feelings about our motherland. We grew up steeped in Western culture, raised in local Eastern traditions and class structures, and then went away to another country during our formative years—coincidentally, we both went to university in Melbourne, Australia. Returning to Malaysia as adults meant readjusting our worldviews and realising a different kind of loneliness that comes from no longer recognising home.
We met while working on a literary project that focused on this specific feeling of loneliness in adulthood: a now-defunct online publication calledISSUE Magazine. It was written and edited by friends we had in common when we studied in Melbourne—a group of young Malaysians experiencingthird-cultureburnout, who saw nothing in our media that spoke to our experiences and were trying to find the right words to voice ours.
We caught up again recently and realised that, while we’re now older and have found more words and courage, our home still confuses us. Malaysia has always been a weird paradox of new and ancient, cutting-edge and traditional, and we’ve grown enough to realise that there is room enough for all these contradictions to exist in our small, unique home, in the same way that our collective cultures have found a way to live side-by-side for centuries without resorting to ‘assimilation’.
Which isn’t to say that our homeland is perfect, or not without its own worrying issues, but we have a long-running relationship with faith in our people and our communities, and in finding strength in each other. We complain a lot, but we love even more, and despite it all. It’s only the Malaysian way.
A representation of our feelings towards Home. (In this scenario, we are Jim.)
MAE’S UNREPENTANT & PURE BIBLIOPHILIA
So, Syaz is not wrong. In my place of work, I am surrounded by books every day, except there’s no way I look like a mid-18th century French village girl. Try an Asian girl sweating in shorts in a dusty warehouse instead. But the hardcore love feels for the books remain.
More accurately, I work in the marketing department of the World’s Biggest Book Sale a.k.a. the Big Bad Wolf Book Sale. But I wear more than just that one hat (read: do a lot of things not related to marketing), which probably explains why you might not have heard of it if you live outside of Southeast Asia.
Several times a year, we take over an entire convention centre for 10–18 days at a time and hold a giant book sale (duration and size varies depending on the city). My boss has likened us to a traveling circus troupe, only we bring books and joy instead of dancing elephants on bouncy balls. (Though sometimes, his demands make me feel like we should be pulling rabbits out of hats…) We started in Kuala Lumpur, and now have had sales in Bangkok, Thailand and Surabaya and Jakarta in Indonesia.
If I’m not doing a great job in explaining what these book sales are, let me visually present to you a sale we had in Kuala Lumpur in 2015.
Books, books, books! This is not a drill, I repeat, this is not a drill.
Over at our neck of the woods, affordable books are hard to come by. If you’re a fresh grad, your average monthly income would be approximately RM2,500 (~US$583) and books from most bookstores are about RM50-RM100, so it’s a no-brainer that not many people spend money on books. Our books are sold at a discount—RM12 at the sale and RM18 at the stores. Yep, we’re a remainder book sale.
If you’re a Publishing Nerd like me, you’d know what remainder books are—if not, the short story is that they’re overprinted books sent back to the publisher from the bookstores if they don’t sell. Publishers need to make space for new books, so they either pulp them or try sell them at a discount to other remainder booksellers, like us!
But before you think I’m living the dream by working in a bookstore, I’m have to burst your bubble; most of my days range from this:
(And let’s be honest, it’s more often this)
That said, all I have to do when I’m having a hard day (or week, or month(s) as it’s been lately) is take a stroll through our warehouse, glimpse the books coming in, and my heart soars a little bit. I wonder what it is about these bound pieces of paper that exercises such a chokehold over me, but my well isn’t infinite and I tell myself that these little flutters of passion are not for nought.
In that vein, here’s what I’ve been reading lately to keep fighting the good fight:
Linda Holmes’ piece remembering Bill Walsh reminded me that words, punctuation, language, and all the fun involved is what sparked this obsession with books in the first place. It’s an obituary, essay and book review rolled into one—so immensely thoughtful and reflective.
Similarly, this article in The Atlantic about keeping a BoB (Book of Books), where Pamela Paul, a NYT editor, discusses her practice of keeping a list of every book she ever read, reminded me of what books, stories, and good writing can do for you. It was practically a lifesaver when those piles of books in the warehouse were not doing it for me.
Working in a bookstore is a close second to my (actual) dream job, which is to become a book editor. This wonderful long-form piece from Food52 by Mayukh Sen touches on all the things I love: publishing and recipe editing, Chinese food, and the curiously wonderful relations between writers and their editors.
Nothing hits close to home as food does, but good food writing comes pretty close. Growing up and reading articles written by mostly non-Asians, I experienced a certain internal turmoil about the relatability of my country's cuisine and my taste and, by extension, some questions on identity. But a recent burst in articles about Asian food by Asian writers has been helping with that. Munchies has been hitting it out the park lately with their food-related content and this article by Clarissa Wei has made me so immensely proud of my Asian palate. [Publishing Brain insert: I wonder how much Munchies has capitalized on the demise of Lucky Peach? RIP Lucky Peach, so sad.]
Perfect representation of the average Malaysian’s enthusiasm for food
I loved reading the college admissions essay that earned 17-year-old Cassandra Hsiao an acceptance from all 8 Ivy League schools. I’ve never had to write a college admissions essay, but I would probably have asked the same identity questions she did. She struck right to the heart of the issue, dredging up all the nostalgia feels, laced with idealism I held (hold?) so dear.
The last time I had visited the States, I was in Washington D.C. for all of 6 hours and only managed to do a tour of The Library of Congress. It was my happy place, so it made me even happier to find that you can now download up to 2,500 Japanese Woodblock Prints from their digital collections. What the WHAT. The magnitude of the Library of Congress’ digitization efforts continue to astound me.
And finally, while we’re in the neighbourhood, this made me giggle:
Follow my Instagram-- @lynnegweeny-- to see a day in the life of a book-dweller and to admire my hauls from #perksfromwerk—a habit which has transformed my room into a mini version of the book warehouse where I work. Also for special appearances by aforementioned furry handsome prince, Fitzgerald - named after F.Scott, not Ella (although he has eyelashes like the latter). I think he’s a real cutie, but I’m biased. [Editor's note: He is a real cutie; I am not biased at all. - Dame M.]
SYAZ’S RAMADAN CARE PACKAGE
When this edition goes live, it will be the last day of Ramadan in Malaysia. The month began with Mae and I talking about how all the life lessons we’d learned in the weeks before, and how psyched we were that it seemed the month was going to be filled with self-care and zen.
Exhibit A: Our actual WhatsApp conversation in Week 3 of Ramadan
Ramadan is always a hectic month if you observe it, because it lives on such structure: There’s the pre-dawn meal where you consume something that will sustain you for most of the day; the sticking to your normal routine but on an emptier tank than usual; cooking for a feast that your mind and body have been anticipating ALL DAY; the night prayers which go on till late. In between, it’s a time for gatherings of family and friends, of communal eating and worship, for catching up with loved ones, and it can be quite exhausting for those who find everyday human interaction to be a little taxing.
Here are some things and treats that have helped sustain me through the month, which might help you when you feel a little low/tired/in need of TLC:
The pre-dawn meal (suhoor) is always tricky, because you don’t want to have a meal with too many simple sugars or too much protein, because both will make you hungrier/thirstier. Oats seem to hit the right spot for me, and here are some easy oat-based recipes, in case you’re trying to add more sustaining meals to your routine.
I lean towards self-comfort during my downtime in Ramadan, which means surrounding myself with reads, TV shows, podcasts and music which feel cozy:
After months of following Kathryn VanArendonk’s great Jane the Virgin recaps on Vulture, I finally took the bait and started watching the show—in reverse, because I have FOMO and know all the spoilers already, so why not. It is vastly entertaining even when you know what happens, but you might want to watch the show in chronological order. It’s smart, cheeky, never afraid to tackle the big issues. It addresses emotional quandaries with the directness one associates with soap operas, but adds to that drama a candour and empathy that’s all its own. I have special twin rooms in my heart for Rogelio and Michael and their lovely, lovely bromance. Also, the combination of the Villanueva women + Petra always hits me in the solar plexus.
#Rogelio taught me everything I know about texting.
I’ve started binge-listening to Dame Margaret's podcast Appointment Television this month, even going back deep into its archives for more of the hosts' easy camaraderie, friendly heckling, and pitch-perfect analyses of television past and present. It really is like watching TV in the living room, you guys! [Editor’s note: I DID NOT ASK HER TO SAY THIS!- Dame M.]
Even though most of Malaysia’s population is Muslim and observing Ramadan, it can be easy to feel lonely as you fast, because we’re not allowed to humblebrag or complain about the act. It helps to have other Muslims share their own experiences, and the podcast See Something, Say Something has been a good listen in this respect. It’s a nice introduction to the Muslim experience, albeit a North American one, and the guests are as diverse in background as they are in practice.
I am a Korean drama connoisseur (unapologetic female gaze + male leads who freely cry when emotional? YES PLEASE). I haven’t been watching as many as I’d like due to work (ugh), but this month I’ve found myself catching up with a ‘family drama’ titled Father is Strange. Like all Korean family dramas, it features huge extended families, lots of filial duty, realistic class struggles, and a birth secret or two. The siblings are sweet, supportive, and well-drawn as individuals, and it’s filled with laughs, as well as a fauxcest plotline that’s slow-burning but promises to wring your heart with all the male tears. (P.S. If you’re new to K-dramas, I highly recommend cross-dressing indie-lite rom-com drama Coffee Prince.)
This is Syaz’s actual K-drama-watching face, only less handsome.
(Also, HE IS IN COFFEE PRINCE. Do you see what I mean??)
If you ever need music that raises your heartbeat but is also comfortable, might I suggest One Direction’s last two albums, FOURand Made in the A.M.? They’re filled with references to their musical heroes, so no matter your age or familiarity with these boys, you’ll find the music easy to listen to and familiar, and well-liked.
Although I did not come up with this extensive Laurel Canyon playlist, it was also a super soothing listen for quiet lunch hours spent doing anything BUT eating and drinking.
I started off the month with discovering the late John O’Donohue via his interview on the podcast On Being, and immediately got his bookcalled Anam Cara (Gaelic for ‘soul friend’). He has insightful, poetic observations on spirituality, prayer, friendship, and inner beauty. I haven’t read as much of Anam Cara this month as I’d planned, but I highly recommend it, no matter which phase of life you’re in.
I have loved every single one of Rainbow Rowell’s novels, which count as my favourites to reread, so I was pleased to learn that there was a novella she’d written that had flown under my radar! Kindred Spirits, which Rowell wrote originally for World Book Day, is now available as an ebook, and ALL proceeds from its sale are going to the ACLU. It was a lovely short (about Star Wars fans!) that warmed my heart one afternoon, a.k.a. my favourite kind of Ramadan Read.
Watermelon juice is like manna after a long day of not drinking, and my one true craving this Ramadan. Making it should be a no-brainer, but in case you’re one of those people who likes having a how-to guide anyway, here’s a video featuring a hand blender, a fairly cute guy, and Free Falling playing in the background as a watermelon is being juiced whole. You’re welcome.
This isn’t the most halal of recs in what is meant to be a fairly abstinent month, but I’d be lying if I said Niall Horan and his simmering Irish charm hasn’t been a comfort this past Ramadan. You can start from this lovely feature in Billboard, and then work your way through everything else from there. The journey is SO worth it.
If anyone has their own list of small comforts, feel free to share them with me on Twitter! I’m always on a quest for maximum hygge in my life.
A BUNCH OF MALAYSIANS WE LOVE AND THAT YOU SHOULD CHECK OUT
Syaz's most famous former neighbor, Yuna.
It’s strange, we know, but being raised in suburban Kuala Lumpur means that we’re more well-versed in American/Western arts and pop culture compared to our own. But the Malaysian arts scene is seeing a slow and steady surge, driven by the internet and a generation of young emerging creatives. [Trivia: Yuna grew up in Syaz’s little suburban town of Subang Jaya, as did several other local artists. Something in the water here, perhaps…]
Do note that as is the multilingual nature of our people, most of them create content in both Bahasa Malaysia (our national language) and English.
Here’s a list of a few Malaysian folk we keep track of:
Ezrena Marwan curates the wonderful Malaysian Design Archive, which is reintroducing our architectural & design heritage to a whole new generation. Her focus on women in and of art is also a breath of fresh air here, and much welcomed.
Gerakbudaya is an independent bookstore and publisher that focuses on Malaysian politics and socio-economy, and is great resource for books politics, from centrist to radical positions.
Tintabudi was founded by our friend Nazir Harith Fazilah, who LOVES books and collects and curates rare books in his business. (One of Syaz’s favourite things is to poke through his library and moan at all his great finds. You can join her in envy by viewing them on his Instagram.)
Takahara Suiko is the terribly hip frontwoman of local indie band, The Venopian Solitude. Takahara (she refuses to reveal her real name) is also a Red Bull Music Academy fellow, and we highly recommend you follow her Instagram, where she shares clips of the jams she gets up to while actually stuck in traffic jams (yet another Malaysian thing). Her sound is experimental and fiercely quirky, and her gumption is inspirational. Check out one of their songs, Tenangkan Bontot Anda, which translates to ‘Calm Your Ass’.
Fahmi Reza is an activist who aims to revive interest in the Malaysian history of protest and accountable government. His work is subversive and controversial, leading him to regular run-ins with the police. He has the bravery to say what many of us can’t, and a visual eye that harks back to the days when student activism was still legal in Malaysia.
And to all Muslim Damespals, Eid Mubarak!
A Heartbreaking Addendum: Everything for Nabra
Nabra Hassanen’s murder has been on our minds all week, especially as her death happened in the last 10 days of Ramadan, a significant period of worship for Muslims. We do not have good words for how sad it’s made us or how tragic it feels, but we did not want to close the newsletter without a least touching upon it. If you’d like to contribute to Nabra’s family, you may do so here.