There aren’t many English books written by Malaysians for young adults. Going through a bookstore or library, you can see that most of the books promoted are from overseas. One author from Penang aims to change that. Her name is Lilian Li. She stumbled into the publishing world in 2019 with the release of her first book, House of Koi.
It was well-received and now she’s back, four years later, with her sophomore effort. Duet Me Not is a Malaysian young adult novel based on the author’s experiences as an artistic swimmer (also known as synchronised swimmer).
The story follows Ashvin, a daring skateboarder, and June, an aspiring national athlete. Ashvin is dared to learn artistic swimming to ask a girl to the prom, while June will do anything to get on the national team and win over the council to save her stadium from closing.
They both struggle with perfectionism, identity, belonging, chasing their dreams and first love. But, when Ashvin learns artistic swimming from June, he doesn’t just learn oversplits, sculls, and ballet legs; she teaches him the tougher lessons of what it means to dream and find himself.
As a Malaysian in an international school, Ashvin is torn between who he is and what he is surrounded by. He also needs to learn to speak up for himself. June has her own challenges with self-worth; she needs to realise that it is not medals or achievements that make her worthy of love.
Li states, “I chose these themes because I felt they have messages that I and many others need to hear.”
To have the story include artistic swimming was a no-brainer. Li was inspired by her experiences as an artistic swimmer, and some of the details of the swimming and training have found their way into the book. She joined the Penang State Synchronised Swimming team when she was around seven, and grew up with swimmer shoulders and a severe case of perfectionism.
“Writing Duet Me Not allowed me to shed some light on my beloved sport that not many people know about, as well as share the message that people are good enough and worthy to be loved without accomplishments or having to be the best,” says Li.
She enjoys writing about the exciting and sweet moments of first love related to a coming-of-age story because it is something that many can relate to. With not many similar English books on the market written by Malaysians, it is no surprise that Li has become an inspiration to many youngsters. Sometimes, she receives messages from people who have read her books.
Li says, “It’s always such an honour to know my words have touched someone or helped make their day or made them cry, in a good way.”
She is aware that she has a role to play in influencing young people. She says that she would’ve felt more empowered to write and share her stories as a youngster if she had had a young Malaysian author to look up to then. Li is all for championing local authors. She loves being part of the Bookstagram and Booktok communities on social media where the mission is to see more local books on shelves. She hopes that sharing her journey and advice will pave the way for future writers.
Although she has become a role model to young Malaysian writers, Li believes more can be done. One sore point for her is seeing local books hidden away in bookstores or relegated to the Asian Fiction section, rather than on the shelves near the front of the store.
Li knows it is important for Malaysians to have a foothold on the global front. As such, she aims to write stories in a local setting and to help others like herself feel represented.
I didn’t see it as a dream but more of a need for me to believe and prove that Malaysian books can and should exist and hopefully help future generations see themselves represented.
When she was with an American hybrid publisher, the publishers didn’t understand why she purposefully wrote the dialogue in Manglish. Li feared they might think she was a horrible author, and she was concerned that the dialogue and local references would put off international readers. Nonetheless, Li kept fighting for it because she wanted the book to be as Malaysian as possible.
Li says, “I also believe that if you write the stories you want to read, they will find the readers that are meant to read them.” Moreover, she advocates for more diverse literature. If foreign books set in New York, are acceptable or the norm, why not books set in Malaysia?
Duet Me Not has reached multiple bestselling lists from a variety of bookstores including Eslite, Kinokuniya, and MPH.
Li is planning a third and possibly last book in this Malaysian contemporary romance series that could connect all the characters. She is also rewriting and working on a fantasy novel.
Authored by Anna Anthon, and edited lightly by Sukhbir Cheema. Cover image by Lilian Li.