In celebration of International Women's Day, writer and BFM 89.9 radio presenter Sharmilla Ganesan highlights her favourite books by Southeast Asian women

For almost two decades, Sharmilla Ganesan has kept her finger on the pulse on Southeast Asia's thriving arts and culture scene as much as its economy and politics. In fact, the presenter at Malaysia's only independent radio station BFM 89.9 has even contributed to the region's literary development. She led The Star newspaper's column for book updates and reviews and has penned several short stories featured in Malaysian anthologies including Endings & Beginnings, The Principal Girl, and KL Noir: Magic.

"Books are shared stories, a window into other worlds, a way to experience life in another's shoes," she says. "Words and stories are powerful—whether they teach us, scare us, comfort us, or make us laugh, books make us a part of a larger story."

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Sharmilla Ganesan (Photo: Zakaria Zainal)
Above Sharmilla Ganesan (Photo: Zakaria Zainal)

Ganesan believes that there is much to learn from this year's theme for International Women's Day, 'Breaking the Bias'.

"As a reader, it means making a conscious choice and effort to not only read more works by women, but by women of diverse backgrounds and experiences," she says.

"So much of the literary world has been shaped by men's writing, and Western perspectives. So going beyond that can feel daunting, and even uncomfortable. But to me, learning to read differently, and to see how much richer literature can be when we make space for the writing of all kinds of women, is something every reader can do."

She shares her hopes that fellow readers will join her on her own journey of breaking the bias by reading more Southeast Asian literature, including translated works: "To be honest, I've only just begun to explore the immense variety of writing available in our region, but I've found it so exciting and enriching to read works from Southeast Asia—familiar in some ways, wholly new in others."

See also: Malaysian Author Karina Robles Bahrin on Winning the Epigram Books Fiction Prize 2022

Below, Ganesan recommends and reviews her favourite books by Southeast Asian women. 

1. Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho

This delightful collection of short stories features tales of a Datin's romance with supernatural orang bunian, a teenage pontianak's grappling with first love, homework and feeding on friends, an earth spirit's exasperation negotiations with its landlord, and much more. 

For Ganesan, Spirits Abroad redefined what Malaysian speculative fiction could be. "It seamlessly weaves in local mythology and folklore into the more human stories of family, belonging, and migration—and all written with a wry, subtle touch that belies deeper questions of what it means to be Malaysian," she says. 

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2. Delayed Rays of a Star by Amanda Lee Koe

Inspired by Alfred Eisenstaedt's iconic photograph of Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, and Leni Riefenstahl at a Berlin soirée in 1928, Singaporean author Amanda Lee Koe imagines what the lives of these three cinema legends would have been like after this fateful night as they rose to fame—and infamy.

"The fact that this was historical fiction that imagines the inner lives of Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, and Leni Riefenstahl was already fascinating to me," says Ganesan. "Add to that, the fact that the novel takes this rich premise and tells a complex and deeply affecting story of women, history, and what it means to shape how your story is told."

See also: First-Time Author Catherine Menon on Finding Her Voice

3. The Wandering by Intan Paramaditha

"I loved the format of this book," says Ganesan of The Wandering, a choose-your-own-adventure novel where you can travel the world and escape your boring life teaching English in Jakarta with a pair of magical red shoes. 

"It draws on magic realism, fairy tales, and folklore to tell a dark, often disturbing story of migration, displacement, and how crossing borders is very often a privilege," she adds. 

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4. How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

Drawing from her own experience as a Canadian immigrant after being born as at a Lao refugee camp in Nong Khai, Thailand, Souvankgam Thammavongsa's award-winning How to Pronounce Knife follows the daily lives of Laotian immigrants and their children as they navigate new cultures, languages and values. 

"What struck me the most about these short stories is how ordinary they seem at first—but by using these ordinary, everyday instances, these stories reflect on what it means to leave one place behind for another, and how the notion of belonging (or not) can take many forms," says Ganesan. 

See also: Susanna Clarkes Wins The Women's Prize for Fiction 2021

5. The Way Through the Woods: On Mushrooms and Mourning by Long Litt Woon

The Way Through the Woods chronicles the years after Taiping-born anthropologist Long Litt Woon experiences the death of the love of her life Eiolf after thirty-two years together, during which she picks up mushrooming as a new hobby. Witty and poignant, Long shares how she found meaning and purpose again through the hunt for mushrooms around Norway and the world with fellow mushroom obsessives. 

"There's something so oddly relatable about this memoir of one woman's journey through the grief of losing her partner, while developing a love for mushrooming—perhaps because it shows us with such honesty how life can simultaneously be painful yet still filled with wonder and discovery," muses Ganesan. 

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