Some of Som

Yes, I felt a bit of pride when it was announced earlier this year that the ALA’s best books for young adults for 2007 included Lat’s Kampung Boy. This American edition debuted last year, but the comic itself isn’t new by any means. Kampung Boy was first published in its original Malay in 1979, with its local English version following swiftly after. Regardless of the thirteen editions it’s undergone since, the comic retains a quaint timelessness, combining youthful wonder with a bit of nostalgia.

I was thinking about this in terms of another one of Lat’s comics, which invokes nostalgia on a different level. On my last trip home, I’d grabbed the family copy of Mat Som before it could get swallowed by my parents’ moving boxes (I have since smuggled it with me across the ocean, mwahaha). This dog-eared first edition was from 1989. On wandering around local bookstores, I glimpsed newer editions of this comic, including an English version distinguished by its blue cover (the Malay version is ochre).

I looked at the translated version and thought, “Hey, cool!”

Then I hesitated and wondered, “Wait. . . does it still work?”

Perhaps Kampung Boy‘s nature as a simple and straightforward memoir allows it to be able to achieve that timeless quality and be translatable (though I’m sure some readers would’ve found a glossary helpful!). Could Mat Som achieve the same thing? It’s a more contemplative work, more layered, and consequently a tad harder to pin down.

But then, a lot of the comic is universal. Mat Som’s contemplations on place and finding his identity can easily be understood by anyone who has experienced being transplanted into new surroundings. You don’t have to go from a rural Malay village to the congested city of Kuala Lumpur in order to relate. And his childhood flashbacks share the sweet simplicity akin to Kampung Boy — for instance, when he explains that he and his friends must ask permission from the forest spirits before they could relieve themselves in their domain (see image).

As for the matter of timelessness. . . well, who knows? When Mat Som goes to a fancy party, musing that his friend would never believe that he was eating dinner next to a swimming pool, that brings on the nostalgia I was talking about. On the one hand, we can relate to that, especially if we’re from small towns ourselves. On the other hand, in this increasingly modern age, nearly twenty years after this comic was first published, is a swimming pool as big a deal to twenty-somethings as, say, an iPhone and advancements in digital technology? Will that sense of wonder still follow?

It’s hard to say. But maybe that’s what nostalgia is, after all.



P.S. I’d be interested in hearing your own reviews and thoughts of comics from your younger days, and how you think it relates (or doesn’t) to now.


Lynn Lau