The founders of the Malaysian based literary journal Anak Sastra borrowed a leaf from their own book when it came time for the commemoration of issue number 25 toward the end of 2016. Though it was decided to mark the occasion differently, ie, not with a themed issue as such but rather an anthology of work, the resulting book On the Back of a Motorbike (Literary Concept, 2016) offers the same amalgam of stories, creative non-fiction and poetry that has been one of the journal’s hallmarks since its inception. Another trademark has been the Southeast Asian regional focus.
Aspiring contributors to the anthology were asked to ‘riff’ upon the phrase / concept ‘on the back of a motorbike’, confining their geographical focus as usual to Southeast Asian settings, a part of the world notable for nothing if not the ubiquitousness of the motorbike in everyday life. The authors represented hail from diverse backgrounds, this variety being reflected in the eclectic nature of the series of offerings.
The first story, the cheekily subversive This is My Husband, is followed by a tale of generational conflict, The Truth About Mo. Just Run and Run deals with the stumbling of a friendship, the seams of which fray to breaking point in part literally upon the back of a motorbike. The motorbike is a symbol of status and a right of passage for the ‘A-list’ rebels of Point of Departure, while a little used Harley Davidson serves as a means to begin realising a lifelong dream in Casta Diva.
Arguably, the bike is more akin to an incidental feature, or less omnipresent, in In Between, an astute study of division on both a geographical and personal level, the romantic Didith’s Boyfriend, The Inner Spark, with its touch of the supernatural, the moving and nostalgic Old Soldier, and The Path of the Ghosts, a powerful story of a youthful coming of age of a different kind. They feel perfectly placed as individual takes on the governing construct.
These ten stories share billing with three works of creative non-fiction, the funny and relatable (to any who have sought to batter down the doors of a foreign culture) Down the Rabbit Hole: Snippets of a Saigon Sojourn, the travelogue Me and Kap Chai, and You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda, an in-depth look at the history of the Honda Super Cub 50 bike.
In an anthology of this nature, the poetry, though there are fourteen in all, will inevitably weigh less on the page. But aside from functioning well as a change of pace they are accomplished works in and of themselves. The evocative imagery of the first two poems (which open the book as a whole) is matched here and there throughout.
In summation, a highly readable and enjoyable collection that brings with it the added bonus of affording great insight into the Southeast Asian region.