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16 Writers on Their Favourite Translated Titles From Across Asia

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

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.

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Photos: The Tragic Tale of Vietnamese Heroine Kieu, from the Epic poem ‘Kim Van Kieu’

Kim Văn Kiều, or the Tale of Kiều, by Nguyễn Du (1765-1820), is a jewel in the crown of Vietnamese classical writing. In Vietnam, as Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen (2003: 18) points out, the Tale of Kiều has been embraced by the general public, who see it as a romance, a book of divination, and a moral fable, while scholars explore its literary, linguistic, philosophical, political and social aspects.

The eponymous heroine is the most acclaimed lady in Vietnamese literature, and her captivating but tragic story has inspired many artistic depictions. The most outstanding version in the British Library collection is undoubtedly a manuscript which was completed around 1894 (Or 14844), written in Hán-Nôm with illustrations of scenes from the story on each page, and a fine yellow silk binding with dragon patterns. Shown in this post are a selection of images of Kiều from this beautiful manuscript, alongside more recent portrayals from printed books.

Literary critics have argued that the theme of the story is an allegory of Nguyễn Du’s guilt and conflict of interest in agreeing to work for the new regime (the Nguyễn dynasty, 1802-1945) which had been indirectly involved in the overthrow of his former master. This behaviour was unacceptable in traditional Confucian Vietnamese society as it was tantamount to betraying filial piety. Hence the theme of the story was a poignant reminder for Nguyễn Du, who was born into a high profile mandarin family, and whose father served as a high ranking minister under the Le dynasty.

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Malaysian Festival Highlights Rise of Pan-Asian Literature

In a beautifully refurbished colonial building next to George Town’s coastal thoroughfare, a tight-knit yet diverse crowd is hungry for answers. A microphone is passed around, and people rock nervously in their chairs as they wait to throw questions at a row of international authors and editors, who are animated after a heated discussion. Above their heads, the demeaning word “monsters” poses a question: Are writers really monsters — prodigious or hideous — in the age of fear and globalization?

“This year’s George Town Literary Festival’s theme — ‘Monsters and (Im)mortals’ — could not be more timely,” said Gareth Richards, owner of Gerakbudaya Bookshop Penang and Impress Creative editorial, and one of the festival’s co-curators — the other is translator Pauline Fan.

“We live in what Junot Diaz calls a ‘dystopian age’ or Pankaj Mishra terms an ‘age of anger,'” said Richards, referring to authors from the U.S. and the U.K. “Writers need to address these realities in their work and in their ‘civic labor’ if we are to imagine and realize a better world.”

The seventh edition of the George Town festival showcased an annual event that is growing in popularity. After a humble start in 2011, hosting only five writers, the gathering has grown into one of Southeast Asia’s most important literary events, attracting an audience of around 4,500 this year — the highest ever attendance. They are drawn by the increasingly diverse talent on the stage. Year after year, the festival has gathered a mixed crew of about 50 Asian and Western authors, poets, academics and critics, who wrestle with ideas and concepts over three days of panels, book launches and practical writing workshops.

“One lesson from the past — and this has been highlighted in the shortcomings of other festivals — is the importance of preparation and good-quality moderation. A bad moderator can kill a conversation. So a lot of thought goes into choosing an experienced and engaged team, and to begin[ing] conversations in advance of the festival itself,” said Richards, who moderated panels ranging from the return of print magazines in Asia to constructing futuristic literary utopias and the dynamics of publishing the works of Asian writers in translation.

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Asia Reborn: A Continent Rises from the Ravages of Colonialism and War to a New Dynamism by Prasenjit K. Basu

By P.N. Balji

Asia Reborn

 

Title: Asia Reborn
Author: Prasenjit K. Basu
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Pages: 708
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Asia reborn… but what next?

He is a keen watcher of Asia, having spent the last 25 years putting the economies of this wonder continent under his microscope. Economist Prasenjit K Basu is eminently qualified to write this weighty tome, which runs into 680 pages. His research is painstakingly done with the notes and references alone going into 41 pages.

At first flush, Asia Reborn is intimidating. The title doesn’t seem to tell anything new and the voluminous nature of the book might put off many potential readers who want information on the go. Still, those interested in a deeper perspective of Asia and why some countries succeeded and others failed will find it worthwhile to plumb through its pages.

The author’s style is engaging; he makes sure that his research findings don’t interfere with his prose. He adds spice to his narrative with anecdotes that will keep the subject matter alive. For example, he brings to life one about Lee Kuan Yew. The former PM was among other students at Raffles College when they heard an explosion at the Causeway. The Allied forces had blown a hole in the Causeway to stop the Japanese army from moving into Singapore during the Second World War in 1942. The principal asked the students what the explosion was about. LKY’s reply: ‘That is the end of the British Empire.’

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Another Birth, Other Words: Queering the Poetry of Forough Farrokhzad in Translation

Recently, the Swedish Academy responsible for the dictionary of Swedish language added the new gender neutral pronoun hen to the newest edition of their work. The news reached international media and reaffirmed the idea of Scandinavian countries as being the ‘frontrunners of gender equality.’

The application of the gender neutral pronoun isn’t all that new, though. It has been a subject of debate among feminist-leftist circles since the 1970s. Swedish kindergarten Egalia even applied the use of hen back in 2011. Egalia’s mission to undo gender stereotypes entailed among other things the substitution of the gendered pronouns han and hon (he and she) with the gender-neutral neologism hen.

The Scandinavian narrative of progressiveness and gender equality isn’t without its challenges and controversies, however. Internal disputes within leftist-feminist circles suggest that some see the gender neutral pronoun as a liberating panacea, bound to revolutionize binary gender roles, while others view it as an unrealistic utopian project that will only serve to blur actually-existing inequalities. Semantics won’t fix the lived experiences of sexism, they argue.

What those opposed to linguistic gender neutrality forget, however, is that this trend is often not nearly as ‘exotic’ or foreign a phenomenon as is often cast. You don’t have to travel farther than Finland — Sweden’s neighbor — before you encounter a gender-neutral language, where the neutral (and only) 3rd person pronoun is hän. This word has served as an inspiration for the Swedish equivalent: hen and the Danish: høn.

Even further afield, another language remotely related to Danish with shared Indo-European roots is Persian, in which some of the oldest and most influential literature in history has been written. Throughout history, Persian’s lack of gendered pronouns has allowed for the production of subversive texts that have confounded and enchanted readers and leaders alike.

The world-renowned Sufi poet Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Molana Rumi, who lived in the 13th century and wrote in Persian, is often brought forth as an example of this subversive poetic tradition, where the Persian neutral pronoun ou (او) allows for a wide array of interpretative possibilities. His object of desire could be a monotheistic God, a deity of the earth, a woman, or his friend and mentor Shams-e-Tabrizi.

Although some read his poems as homoerotic, there is no known proof that Rumi was homosexual or had a physical relationship with his mentor, Shams. What is beyond dispute, though, is their intense love and admiration for each other.

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Short Story: The Name by Aamer Hussein

From the collection Love and its Seasons, Publisher: Mulfran Press (September 1, 2017)

1.

Laila’s husband said to her:

The madman has made a mockery of us.  When he sang songs about you on the streets of the town, and he was told that he was insulting your name, he said, how can I insult my own name? So they gagged him and left him in the desert. He began to write your name in the sand with his forefinger. So they bound his hands. He wrote the letters of your name in the sand with his toe, and they tied his feet together.

And now the boys in their alleys, the musicians who pass in the evening with their flutes and their drums, the women fetching water from the pond, sing his songs or chant your name in public places. At night someone paints your name on the walls of people’s homes. How can we stop this contagion? The madman has made a mockery of our lives. And if only he could see you now! Dry as a withered rose and dark like a desert woman though you bathe in rose-scented water, thin as a sparrow’s skeleton though you are force-fed fresh dates and milk… you were always plain, and now you are an ugly shadow.

Laila sat up in her sickbed and held up her hands. There was a mirrored ring on her right thumb. Looking at her reflection, she smiled and spoke for the first time in days:

If only you could see me through Majnun’s eyes, you would see me as he sees me. I lost myself in those eyes the moment I saw myself there.

2.

Attar says:

Someone asked the madman:

How do you love the night?

He replied:

To tell the truth, I don’t love her.

Astonished, his friend said:

You spend your days and nights weeping and lamenting , you write verses about her beauty in the sand, you paint her name on walls and neither eat nor sleep, you are lost in sorrow: isn’t that love?

The madman responded:

All that is over now. Laila has become Majnun, and Majnun has become Laila:  the madman and the night are submerged in each other, they are one and no longer two.

 

Bio:

Aamer Hussein was born in Karachi in 1955 and moved to London in 1970. He has been writing short stories since the mid-80’s and has been anthologized across multiple languages. He has written six short story collections, a novella Another Gulmohar Tree and a novel The Cloud Messenger. A master of lyrical writing, his love for and knowledge of languages and cultures informs his story telling. His most recent book Love and its Seasons has been published by Mulfran Press, UK.

Read Aamer Hussein’s interview with Kitaab here.


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Great Indonesian Literature: Tales of Panji

The stories of Javanese cultural hero, Prince Panji Inu Kertapati, dating from the 13th century, mark the development of a truly Javanese literature that was no longer overshadowed by the great Indian epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Set among the eastern Javanese kingdoms, the stories tell of Panji’s search for his beloved Princess Candra Kirana, before the two lovers are happy-endingly reunited. During the Majapahit empire from the 14th to 15th centuries, the Panji stories became extremely popular, spreading from Java to Bali, Lombok, Sulawesi, Kalimantan and Sumatra.

The Panji tales were spread by merchants along the trading routes, and became one of the most popular forms of literature in Southeast Asia during the 17th and 18th centuries, and crossed the borders to the Malay region where they are known as “Hikayat”. The tales further spread to Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia. The Panji influence is described by renowned scholar Adrian Vickers as “a Panji civilization in Southeast Asia.”

Panji tales are unique as there was no single author; the tales were written by diverse authors, each bringing in their version of the story and in their local languages. For instance, Bali calls the Panji character Malat and varied Balinese customs can be found in the stories. In Thailand and the neighboring countries, the character of Panji is known as Inao or Eynao, and his lover as Bossaba.

There is no specific Panji storyline. Generally, the story is about Kuripan’s Prince Raden Inu Kertapati, who is engaged to his niece Dewi Galuh Sekartaji from childhood. However, the mother of Dewi Galuh plans to marry her to another prince. Galuh escapes to the forest where she experiences adventures and disguises herself as varied characters including a warrior who conquers other kingdoms.

Prince Inu Kertapati begins his search and enters the woods. He goes through a wide range of adventures that encompass meeting with ogres, amorous scenes, going through numerous disguises, and waging wars. At the end, the two lovers are reunited. The love story and the adventures are popular among all layers of society.

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Pramoedya Ananta Toer: Why You Should Know Him

Pramoedya Ananta Toer is widely regarded as one of Indonesia ‘s best writers.

At a young age, he joined the anti-colonial struggle against Japan during World War II and later enlisted in an army to fight Dutch colonialists .

He was captured and jailed by the Dutch in 1947. His foray into writing began in prison, at age 24. The Fugitive, his first novel, came out during his two years of incarceration.

Pramoedya or “Pram” – a hero of Indonesia’s anti-colonial movement and a champion of human rightsand freedom of speech – was born on February 6, 1925, in the poor Javanese town of Blora.

He died in the capital, Jakarta, on April 30, 2006 at age 81.

Pramoedya “dedicated his whole life to this country through his work”, his daughter Tatiana Ananta told The Associated Press at his funeral.

Google Doodle  marked the 92nd birth anniversary of the Indonesian writer and activist who spent most of his adult life in jail, imprisoned first by colonial powers and later by Indonesian governments.

“Each injustice has to be fought against, even if it’s only in one’s heart – and I did fight,” Pramoedya was quoted as saying in the book Exile: In Conversation with Andre Vltchek and Rossie Indira.

Pramoedya’s father was a schoolteacher and nationalist who inspired him to join Indonesia’s struggle against colonialism. His mother came from a pious Muslim family.

Despite only having a primary school education, he went on to write more than 30 books, both fiction and non-fiction.

The novelist is best known for the Buru quartet, which traces the birth of nationalism in Indonesia. A Javanese boy named Minke, who rejected the country’s hierarchical society, is the protagonist in the series.

“In fact the books were smuggled out of Indonesia by Pram’s friend, a German priest, to avoid being taken  or destroyed, and have now been translated into more than 20 languages worldwide,” Google Doodle wrote.

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Writing Matters: In Conversation with Aamer Hussein

By Sucharita Dutta-Asane

Aamer Hussein

Aamer Hussein was born in Karachi in 1955 and moved to London in 1970. He has been writing short stories since the mid-80’s and has been anthologized across multiple languages. He has written six short story collections, a novella Another Gulmohar Tree and a novel The Cloud Messenger. A master of lyrical writing, his knowledge of languages and cultures informs his story telling. His most recent book Love and its Seasons has been published by Mulfran Press, UK.

Sucharita Dutta-Asane (SDA): Aamer Hussein ji, welcome to Kitaab, and thank you for agreeing to this interview.

Your writing is an inspiration in its lyrical intensity, its telling use of fables and folktales and in the knowledge of cultures and languages that layer your stories and their vast range of characters. They explore rich inner worlds with compassion and empathy that require intense involvement with the characters. This cannot come easily to any writer. How do you approach your writing? Do you usually know what you will write and how you will write it, or do you follow a process that is organic, the story and its characters leading you by the hand?

Aamer Hussein: I’d say that in most cases it does lead me by the hand. I sit down with an image, a line or an impulse, then the story takes un-imagined pathways and the characters do things I had no idea they were planning to do. Often the end is in sight when I begin and I do often know what I want to write, for example when I use a traditional story as a template, or when, as in my new collection, I was inspired by my mother’s diary about her singing; but there is always an element of surprise even in the process of retelling. And in what we now call life writing, there is the crucial question of arranging memories in a pattern and seeing what they reveal, which often is surprising.

SDA: The search for ‘home’ and the inevitable running away from it, the rootless-ness and at times the aimless wandering – this theme and its traces can be found across most of your short fiction as well as in Another Gulmohar Tree and The Cloud Messenger. What does ‘home’ mean to you as a writer and as somebody witnessing the evolving concept of exile and refuge in the world today? Does language, rather than any kind of physical manifestation, contain the sense of ‘home’ / homecoming?

AH: I’m wary of talking about multiple homes but in this case I must. There’s Karachi, the city I was born in and to which I often return (I’m going back in a fortnight), which remains home in some visceral sense – that location between desert and Arabian Sea is where my clay belongs. It’s at the seaside there, near where my father and grandfather lived, that I feel that sense of homecoming. I ran away from it for many years and now I keep running back. There’s London where I’ve worked and lived all my adult life, but I only feel at ‘home’ in my neighbourhood by a canal and in a small, central part of the city where I once studied and taught.  I also have a lost maternal ‘home’ where my grandparents lived in Indore. So yes: I wander among my homes and my notions of home. I’m not in any way an exile or a refugee; today I feel like a fairly privileged expat.  Yes, language as well – or rather the page on which I write, where I look for a landing place. That place too is ambivalent, as I read Urdu when I feel homesick, but rarely write in my mother tongue from any sense of nostalgia; English seems to be my memory-language, so yes, that’s a home too.  Urdu is a retreat.

SDA:   In The Cloud Messenger language seems to be a character with multiple layers waiting to be discovered. In Another Gulmohar Tree, Usman says, ‘You don’t choose the language you write in, it chooses you.’ With your polyglot sensibility and sensitivities, how important has this knowledge of languages been for your writing? Has it created creative dilemmas for you or given a sense of freedom that has helped your storytelling?

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A Good Time for Translations

In Livemint, Sana Goyal explores whether the UK market has ‘space for Asian fiction in translation’.

Over the past couple of months, literary critics in the UK and the US have been unstinting in their praise for Ghachar Ghochar, Vivek Shanbhag’s Kannada novella, translated into English by Srinath Perur. “A Great Indian Novel Reaches American Shores” is how The New York Times publicized its review. In the UK, translator and publisher Deborah Smith, reviewing the book for The Guardian, wrote that “reading beyond our tiny borders shows us what we’ve been missing”. The question is, will Ghachar Ghochar’s international success pave the way for more literature translated from Indian languages—indeed Asian languages—to gain a sizeable readership outside the country?

The interest certainly exists. In the UK at least, the year 2016 was pertinent in terms of translated fiction. The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize joined forces with the Man Booker International (MBI) Prize, which changed in character and criteria into a prize exclusively for fiction in English translation—awarding £50,000 (around Rs40 lakh) for the winning title, to be shared equally between the author and the translator. South Korean writer Han Kang and her translator, Smith, bagged the inaugural MBI Prize for The Vegetarian(Portobello Books), a disturbing three-part novella delving into the subjects of madness, desire and the rejection of social conventions.

A year earlier, Smith had set up Tilted Axis Press (TAP), a not-for-profit focused on publishing Asian language literature, which started functioning in full swing in 2016. Research—commissioned by the MBI Prize, and conducted by Nielsen Book—revealed a near doubling in translated fiction sales figures in the UK between 2001 and 2016, from 1.3 million to 2.5 million copies.

One may credit this overall curiosity for, and consumption of, translated tales to the success of Scandinavian noir, or even the Italian literary sensation Elena Ferrante, but there’s something to be said for the UK pointing its compass towards languages and literature from the Asian continent—from Korean, Thai and Japanese to Bengali and Kannada.

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