How The Best Asian Short Stories 2019 Explores the Souk of Asia’s Imagination
Book review by Tan Kaiyi
With the rise of the Asian Century, the global community typically shines its spotlight on the economic progress of the region. Much is made of the advancing wealth of nations like India, China, Singapore and Vietnam. But while the economic progress is an easy unifying narrative that could be woven through the different countries, equally important — but much more challenging — is charting the breadth and depth of the Asian literary imagination.
The Best Asian Short Stories 2019 is up to the monumental task. The editor of the anthology, award-winning author Hisham Bustani, highlights the main obstacle to the endeavour when assembling the collection:
“…there is no such thing as a well-defined, self-contained, concrete, unified Asian identity…”
He explains the issue by contrasting it with Europe. While similar to Asia with a geography that contains multiple language and cultures, the region “claims a unique identity and set of ‘European values’ that separate it from others…” This consequently gives a literary landscape in the region a halo of universalism. Whether it is true at heart or not is certainly up for debate, as Bustani rightly points out that some communities like Turkey are isolated from the Eurocentric ideological bloc.
The anthology’s response is surprisingly, not with another Asian universalism, but pluralism. As Bustani suggests:
“Asia is a badly-needed expression of non-uniformity in a world dominated by stereotypes, racism and physical and political walls.”
The anthology certainly encapsulates this. Reading through its pages, one gets the sense of being taken on a magic carpet ride of forms and narratives. Even a cursory glance will yield such a sensation. With a diverse number of styles, the words on the pages physically look like a textual topography of an imaginative terrain. Abstracts from scientific reports, paragraphs of a novel on Kindle, pop songs and poetic snippets are just some of the tactics employed in beautifying the landscape. While words are the main vehicle for delivering the stories, no one said that they had to be arranged in a linear or logically straightforward fashion. The anthology gives a magical view of what the best in literary Asia have to offer. The avant-garde in the region is not new, but this book is a great portal to access this hidden world behind the ironic veils of language.
One of the best examples of this is the first story in the anthology, also one of the five selected for the Editor’s Award. The book puts its best foot forward in the beginning: “Artifacts from the Parent”. Through scientific paper abstracts, news reports and even a Lazada online ad, readers are thrown into an incredulous but horrifying journey through a Philippines that is under assault by an unusual outbreak from a skin whitening treatment. The tale is an exceptional combination of form and subject matter. A linear telling would have been good, but it is apparent that a careful arrangement of fragments into a Cubist horror piece is much better. Readers get the full scope of the destruction, a scale that would be lost in the myopia of the straightforward.
“Michael, Whose Name Was Sari” is also notable for employing memories, poetry and pop songs in its narrative. Told entirely from the viewpoint of the titular protagonist swimming furiously in the sea, the story is formed through painful flashbacks of the young Turk’s experiences. His encounters with love and loss, evils of an oppressive authority and fear of outsiders come crashing at the reader like the literal waves the protagonist fights against. Consolations come in the form of lyrics from the late pop star Michael Jackson and American punk band Green Day, providing a flimsy mental shield against the realities that threaten to drown him. Another notable mention is “Willie’s Chinese Funeral Urn”. The story is told entirely from the perspective of the urn, which traces the disintegrating arc of its owner’s life.
While the anthology celebrates form, it does not skim on substance. The collection presents a mix of joys, disappointments, trials and tribulations of the people across this complex region. On top of great tales, readers are too given a fly-by of the political, social and spiritual issues of the communities that make up Asia. Indeed, even if one doesn’t appreciate the book’s literary value (which will be odd), there is no doubt about the wealth of insights into the myriad of lives in the region. From the crime -drenched life of gangsters in the streets of Tokyo to hikers in the Himalayas, the stories give a democratic view of a diverse range of protagonists, each with their own story to tell.
Some concerns are more socio-political. The collage narrative of “Artifacts from the Parents” pokes dark fun at the evolution of the Filipino’s place in the world while “These Are the Rules of Exiles” give a concentrated glimpse of what it means to be a victim of unrest and rootlessness in Egypt’s tumultuous history. Others like “The End of the Line” examines the tension and paranoia of being a stranger in a strange land within the claustrophobic confines of a Melbourne train commute. “Letter to My Forbidden Lover” examines the struggles between tradition’s pressures and the desires of the heart, a very classic theme but no less potent due to its evergreen relevancy.
The stories are varied not only according to theme but also genre. The imaginative range of the collection includes stories that skirt categories like fantasy, science fiction and magical realism. “The Short Posthumous Biography of Mar’a Longhead (c.3300 BCE – 1993 CE)” follows the long existence of an erudite immortal as he gives a whimsical account of his life and the flaws and wonders of humanity he encountered. Through this device, the story also deals with several disturbing aspects of the suffering in Syria. “Seventh Lunar Month” adds a dash of the supernatural to explore themes of memory and love with a couple who interacts with spirits during the Hungry Ghost Festival.
To encapsulate the range of opinions and tales, the stories are arranged according to five themes. Unfortunately, they don’t really add much to the reading experience. Nothing is mentioned as to why the themes are selected and how they are arranged. It is apparent that Bustani wants the readers to form their own conclusions but a little guidance would have been appreciated. A complex landscape requires meaningful landmarks to navigate. After all, it’d be nice to take a guided stroll through this wondrous bazaar of tales.
At the beginning of this review, it was mentioned that Bustani realised that there was no unifying identity for Asia. He even went on to say that “…there is not even a generalization or an approximation of one.” However, reading through the collection, Bustani might be mistaken.
A generalisation can be made: that is that Asia and its people are endlessly creative—and we have barely scratched the surface of infinity.
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Tan Kaiyi is a content consultant at a marketing communications firm, based in Singapore. His poems have been published in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore (QLRS). His play, On Love, was selected for performance at Short & Sweet Festival Singapore. Kaiyi’s horror story, The Siege, appeared in Kitaab’s Best Asian Speculative Fiction (2018).
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