Kampung Boy by Lat
Published by First Second Books
One of the primary reasons I read is to escape. It’s what I’m really looking for when I sit down with a book: I want to be transported somewhere else. If I’m also educated somehow through the experience, so much the better. That’s when I know I’ve been blessed by a story.
Kampung Boy offered both escape and education right off the bat. I knew going into it that I was going to get to experience life in a rural, Southeast Asian village as a native experiences it. Never done that before. So, I looked forward to it.
I wasn’t disappointed either. Lat is a brilliant cartoonist. Through the accessible whimsy and humor of his drawings, he lets us experience all of the joy and fondness of growing up in rural Malaysia. We get to know the young protagonist Mat and his family, as well as their daily routine, which – as mundane as it is for them – is fascinating to us. We learn about the nearby rubber plantation and the forbidden tin dredge. We feel the excitement of going into town for supplies and through first person narration Mat kindly shows us around as if we were visiting him there in person. We hang out at the tea stall, attend Koran reading classes and other ritual training, go skinny dipping in the river with Mat’s schoolmates, attend a relative’s wedding, take care of siblings, fish, go to school, get (gulp!) circumcised, and illegally pan for tin near the dredge.
But as foreign as these experiences are to Western readers, Lat is able to make them familiar and relatable. Mat’s parents worry that their son is getting into too much trouble and isn’t meeting his full potential. Mat just wishes they’d let him have some fun. The relative’s wedding ceremony may have different rituals, but we know exactly how Mat feels about being around a bunch of unknown relatives and watching his dad embarrass himself on the dance floor. We know what it’s like to get caught doing something we’re not supposed to – even if it’s not poaching tin – and getting in trouble for it. And that’s what surprised me about Kampung Boy. As escapist as it is, it’s also wonderfully comfortable. It made me nostalgic for my own childhood.
‘60s folksinger Joe South has a song called “Don’t It Make You Want to Go Home?” He talks about visiting his hometown in Georgia and the sadness he feels to learn that “there’s a drag strip down by the riverside where my Grandma’s cow used to graze. Now the grass don’t grow and wind don’t blow like it did in my childhood days.” It’s a beautiful, emotional song that makes you long for younger, simpler times. I got the same feeling from Kampung Boy. It completely immersed me in its culture and its story, so that by the end of it, I was heart-broken to have to leave it.
Fortunately, there’s a sequel – a series of them really – that I can’t wait for First Second to get around to translating and publishing. And in the meantime, thanks to the wonderful nature of books, I can always go back and read this one again. In this instance, I can go home again, even if home is a rural, Malaysian village.