PETALING JAYA: For 24-year-old Penang author Lilian Li, there has always been something magical about synchronised swimming. To her, it’s like expressing a story through water; and the feeling of being upside down, hearing music below the surface, is a truly unique experience.
Write what you love, as the saying goes. So, it’s no surprise that Li chose to centre her second novel, “Duet Me Not”, around synchronised swimming, or “artistic swimming”, as the sport was renamed in 2017.
Passionate about dancing and water sports from a young age, artistic swimming was perfect for young Li. Her parents enrolled her in the Penang state team when she was seven, and she performed well, even winning prizes with her teammates.
After about five years, however, she began to tire of it, and so decided to quit. But once an artistic swimmer, always an artistic swimmer: Li later found herself drawn back to the water, joining the Boston University team while studying there in 2017.
It was amazing, she recalled, how all her old skills came back to her naturally.
Her novel “Duet Me Not”, a contemporary romance, revolves around two teenagers. June is a dedicated athlete who dreams of making it into the Malaysian artistic swimming team. She has only three months, however, to raise funds to save the local stadium where she trains.
To convince the sports council that the stadium is worth saving, June must perform a duet with the most annoying guy she knows: slacker skater Ashvin, who only joined the team on a dare.
Sidebar: while most people associate duets with singing, the term is also used in artistic swimming to describe two swimmers of similar strength being paired together.
Anyway, Ashvin agrees to help June if she will teach him how to ask out the girl of his dreams. Will these two mismatched partners learn how to sync up – or will both their dreams sink without a trace?
June is also bent on convincing the powers that be that boys, especially her brother, should be able to compete – a plot point inspired by the fact that the sport has traditionally been associated with women.
In truth, however, Li pointed out that men have been participating in lower levels of competition for years. This is also going to change on a global scale soon as, for the first time, men will be participating in artistic swimming at the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.
“I’m excited to see this change and hope for more equal opportunities,” Li commented.
As for her book, Li, who is now based in Kuala Lumpur, describes it as a love letter to sports in Malaysia.
“I’ve never read a book on sports in Malaysia before, let alone about synchronised swimming. It was something I wished I could have read,” she told FMT Lifestyle.
Naturally, she has incorporated a lot of her personal experiences into her writing, including details of her training and how competitions were structured. Through “Duet Me Not”, she hopes readers will gain deeper insight into this sport she loves.
Much of the book revolves around the former Penang International Sports Arena in Bayan Baru, which is now the SPICE Arena. As with her debut novel, 2019’s “House of Koi”, “Duet Me Not” contains many references to Malaysian life and culture.
The story is set in the 2010s, and Li said she enjoyed incorporating references to this decade: movies and music, for instance, plus “things we liked to do, like go to the mall and do sand art”.
“There are a few places in the story, like shops, that are no longer open today,” she added.
Some of the characters in her second novel also have connections to those in “House of Koi”, which is only to be expected, Li said, given that both are set in her home state.
“As the popular saying goes, Penang is so small, you will always run into someone you know there,” she concluded with a laugh.
‘Duet Me Not’ is available from Gerakbudaya and other major bookstores nationwide.