Malaysian writer Preeta Samarasan ’98 is juggling projects of varied scope and heft — among them, a novel; a short piece examining whether English is the language of elitism in her home country; a piece about truth that combines the personal and the political; an introduction for a novel written by the late Malaysian Indian writer K. S. Maniam.
Also in the works is an anthology.
“Southeast Asia as a region is quite conservative and religious still, and dissenting voices, like agnostic voices or atheist voices, are very much still in the minority — and there's not a whole lot of space for those voices or those kinds of thoughts in the public sphere,” Samarasan observed. “So I'm interested in some essays about doubt, and skepticism, agnosticism, atheism, from Southeast Asia.”
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Samarasan, who lives in France with her husband, Robert Whelan ’98, and their two young daughters, left her home in Malaysia to attend high school in the U.S., and never moved back. Still, Malaysia remains at the heart of almost everything she writes.
Her debut novel, Evening is the Whole Day, published in 2008 by Houghton Mifflin, is set in Malaysia, where Samarasan was born and raised. Her family’s roots are in India, so she and her relatives are considered “non-Malays.” Her parents, Samarasan wrote in an article published in 2020 the Culture Review Mag, “knew that as non-Malays, we would always be second-class citizens under the New Economic Policy (NEP), under the forces that gradually took control of Malaysia in the 1970s and 80s. For them, the rise of Malay ethnonationalism was a deeply felt personal disaster.”
Because Samarasan mostly writes about Malaysia, most of her work deals with racial identity and racism. “I would say that, in general, it's impossible to write about the country without acknowledging that as at least the background, the backdrop,” she said.
A career as a writer was not what her family had in mind for her. Neither she nor her family considered writing to be a viable career like law or engineering, and she entered college thinking she would eventually study medicine. Instead, she moved away from the sciences.
“It was like this whole new world for me, because even though I had always been interested in humanities, I'd always read a lot of history and politics, I had never really taken classes until Hamilton, and so it was just very freeing,” Samarasan recalled.
She majored in music and history, then entered a doctoral program in music history at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. But she was writing a novel on the side, and her interest in writing overtook her interest in music. She entered a master’s program in writing at the University of Michigan, finished the novel, then had it published to favorable reviews.
She says she’ll always continue writing, and in particular, feels a responsibility to write about events in Malaysia that move her.
“I know this sounds incredibly arrogant, like a kind of hubris, if I say that no one else is going to tell these stories if I don't,” she said. “But remember, just keep in mind, that Malaysia is a pretty small country. There are a few people who are writing and who are published, and who are telling these stories. We're small enough in number that, I think, all of our work, is really important.”