Earlier this year, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop launched the Transpacific Literary Project, an editorial initiative to publish new and exciting writing from across East and Southeast Asia on The Margins while building a body of work that might help us better understand the importance of the Pacific World to literature. In an increasingly divided world, translated literature brings us closer together. As the year draws to a close, we asked some of our most beloved writers—from Viet Thanh Nguyen and Kimiko Hahn to Hari Kunzru and Tash Aw—to tell us about their favorite books in translation out of Asia and the Asian diaspora. Collected below are works that meditate through medieval texts, reimagine the immigrant story, and above all explore selfhood in surroundings.
Red Dust by Ma Jian, translated by Flora Drew
In 1983, Ma Jian, a painter and poet, became the target of a rectification session during China’s 1983 Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign. A colleague began the denunciation by saying: “I asked why a face in one of [Ma Jian’s] paintings looked like the face of a corpse. He laughed and said everyone puts on a mask but underneath our souls are ugly shameful things. He said we are born in a daze and die in a dream . . . He sees life as a great blackness. I feel he should confront his disturbed psychology.”
Alerted that his arrest is imminent, Ma Jian leaves his home in Beijing. Barred from leaving the country, he instead walks a path through it, traversing thousands of kilometres. His book, Red Dust, documents a movement through levels of containment: the captive mind looking for a doorway out into the world, or deeper into oneself. Red Dust is a book I have read a dozen times. It is a despairing, bawdy, provocative portrait of the artist, a memoir that creates its own form, asking, How can one be free in one’s mind when one’s body lives within an authoritarian state? How to see through the red dust of illusion?
Of his country, Ma Jian has written, “There is a collective fear of truth.” I grieve that the same can be said of all our countries; we are living in a conflicted age of revolution and denunciation, an age in which we abandon one another at our peril. The call to each of us to question ourselves, to think for ourselves, is urgent. “You have about twenty thousand days left before you die,” he writes. “Why are you wasting your life? You must focus your mind and do something.”
Madeleine Thien is the author of several books including Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which won the 2016 Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction and was a finalist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. Her second novel Dogs at the Perimeter was just published in the United States by W.W. Norton this year.