When you can’t live a day without reading and talking about books, the next best thing to do is to start a podcast.
The duo behind one of Malaysia’s most popular podcast shows Two Book Nerds Talking decided to do exactly that in 2018 when they launched the program dedicated to discussing all things related to Southeast Asian authors and their titles, as well as those from around the world.
In just two years since its launch, social media manager Diana Yeong and scriptwriter Honey Ahmad have spoken to nearly 20 authors, including the renowned Irish writer John Connolly, and created awareness on books from Malaysia and its surrounding region, such as The Night Tiger by fantasy writer Yangze Choo, whose book The Ghost Bride is now a Netflix series.
“When you pick up a book and understand the Manglish, it actually feels kind of wonderful,” Honey said, referring to the term for Malaysian English. “That form of representation is something you wouldn’t realize you want until you have it.”
The podcast has since aired 74 hour-long episodes of the pair geeking out on books and having intimate conversations with authors across Spotify, iTunes, and Speaker. Its fourth and latest season of usually 20 episodes opened Oct. 7 with Malaysia author Zen Cho.
Coconuts recently caught up with Yeong and Honey, whose real name is Aniza Ahmad, to fill us in on how the podcast was conceived as well as all the book titles and authors currently buzzing in their minds.
Book club to podcast
Yeong, 45, originally formed a book club five years ago after moving to Kuala Lumpur from Malacca, rounding up book lovers both online and at cafes or homes to wax lyrical over books or get into fiery, passionate debates. It was a way to make reading less of a lonely hobby and more of a communal activity, according to Yeong, who had moved with about a thousand books with her.
“It’s really hard to start conversations with other book lovers, because everybody likes different books, and it’s a solitary activity,” she said. “You get to feel like you’re not so alone, plus you get to pick other people’s brains about what’s worth reading.”
The KL Book Appreciation Club is still running today and has gathered nearly 9,000 people coming together to discuss new book releases and other happenings in the publishing world. The club’s popularity has even made Yeong become a little bit more selective about the people she welcomes, making sure that they were legit book-lovers and not random bystanders.
It was at one of those monthly discussions when Yeong met the ever-vocal and opinionated Honey, who rarely ran out of things to say about books.
“Every time I came back from a book discussion, I feel like I’ve not talked enough,” Honey, 43, said. “I asked Diana if she wanted to start a podcast so that both of us can talk to our heart’s content.”
There are other international literary podcasts such as AAWW Radio by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, which talks about books, comics, and post-colonial politics in Asian American literature. But there was still something missing and Honey wanted to fill that gap.
“The idea behind the podcast was that we just wanted to represent readers from this part of the world. Because when you look at other literary podcasts, they’re all Western,” the Perak native said.
After the duo agreed on the podcast, Honey borrowed a microphone and the pair went on to record their first episode at a cafe. Today, Two Book Nerds Talking, which has raked in nearly 30,000 downloads on Spotify, goes on air from a studio in Kuala Lumpur owned by Malaysian podcast network Renegade Radio.
So many books, so little time
Honey and Yeong don’t limit themselves to Asian literature, though, and have also featured titles and authors from the West such as Dutch author Rutger Bregman, who wrote the non-fiction Humankind: A Hopeful History, as well as Irish author John Connolly, who is best known for his series on private detective Charlie Parker.
“I have been following him for the past 20 years or so, and it was a fangirl moment for me,” Honey said.
“One of the memorable interviews for me was with Rutger Bregman. We discussed his book (Humankind: A Hopeful History), which talks about how we’ve always thought of human beings as quite animalistic, but we’re actually really kind and cooperative. That was a really good conversation,” Yeong said.
The two book nerds name-dropped a slew of other authors and titles throughout this interview, including Cho’s new book The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, which tells a story about a group of bandits during the guerilla war that led to a state of emergency in Malaya from 1948 to 1960. Then there was The Weight Of Our Sky by Malaysian writer Hanna Alkaf about the devastating racial riot in Kuala Lumpur on May 13, 1969 rarely talked about in schools.
“We know all about what happened in Europe, in World War II, but we probably know less about what happened in Malaysia. It’s useful to know what happened, and who it happened to,” Yeong said.
“A lot of these books reflect who we are, and they’re close to what we want to see,” Honey chimed in. Other authors from the region that the duo have interviewed include Indonesian poet Ilhamdi Putra, known for his political poem Alegori that referenced the 1998 Indonesian riots.
The duo spoke to even more authors at an Indonesian literary festival last October, interviewing Indonesia’s Lita Lestianti, who wrote travel book Jelajah Pulau Borneo (Exploring Borneo Island), and New York-based Jenny Zhang, whose Sour Heart collection of short stories was published by Hollywood actress Lena Dunham.
Despite their love for all of these books, sparking an interest for Malaysian books remains the key driver behind the Two Book Nerds Talking podcast.
“I hope that people, because of the podcast, will read a local book,” Honey said.
“Eventually, we want to be able to talk more about books from Southeast Asia that don’t get enough global attention. We want authors from our region to reach out, to the world outside,” Yeong said.
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