Despite its modern veneer, Muslim-majority Malaysia is a country where it is still illegal as opposed to merely irreligious for men of any faith to engage in consensual sex with one another. (Lesbianism is not criminalized but the subject of a religious prohibition, or fatwa.) Kuala Lumpur may boast its share of gay and lesbian bars, and casual visitors can spot scores of transsexuals staffing cafés and department stores. But any open discussion of homosexuality, especially in writing, remains the domain of an enlightened, often foreign-educated few.
Body 2 Body is out, in both senses of the word, to change all that. This self-labeled "queer anthology" claims to be the first of its kind in the country. Edited by two prominent arts activists, it grew from stories and essays posted on an Internet discussion group meant to counter a 2003 government attempt to reform "soft" (effeminate) male undergraduates. But documentary filmmaker Amir Muhammad, whose adventurous sideline Matahari Books publishes the title alongside a number of outspoken political satires, says that submissions soared during the wave of social optimism that followed opposition gains in the 2008 elections.
The 23 contributions eventually selected for publication run the usual gamut of topics, from coming out to first love to poking fun at social strictures ("What Do Gay People Eat?" by Brian Gomez is an effective evocation of parental anxieties). The editors might have employed a firmer hand in weeding out the overly chatty and amateurish fare that obscures some surprisingly well-crafted tales. Yet literary heft is not the issue here so much as bolstering the presence of Malaysia's gay and lesbian community, for whom the publication of Body 2 Body represents a courageous advance.
According to Amir, sales have been robust despite none of the country's review outlets, mainstream or alternative, acknowledging the thin, suggestively packaged volume's existence. That is sad, since there's not much here that reflects badly on the nation. In fact, there are plenty of intriguingly universal themes. Intended or not, Body 2 Body will leave readers feeling that the quest for identity is what unites and bedevils all Malaysians, straight or gay.