Physical Map of Asia

When we travel or go on a holiday, we look forward to discovering spaces and cultures new to us. Here is a list of ten books that can vicariously give us a flavour of diverse cultures in the same way. The selection zips across Asia collecting books that have won Man Booker Prize, Man Asian Literary prize and more.

The books sail from Philippines to China, Mongolia, India, Japan, Vietnam to satisfy the fussiest of palates with fiction from different cultures.

Books by award winning and popular writer Haruki Murakami of Japan; Man Asian literary prize winner Bi Feiyu of China; Man Booker prize winning writer Arvind Adiga from India and the last and only female winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize, Korean writer Shin Kyung-sook , are featured in this listing.

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by Dan Bloom

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Taiwan sits on a piece of colourful and multi-splendoured island real estate, south of Japan and east of Hong Kong and China. As an independent, sovereign nation since 1945, it has produced its share of Asian literature since the beginning of the Japanese Colonial Period (1895-1945) to the present. In this brief essay, I want to introduce two Taiwanese writers; one a novelist with an international reputation, Wu Ming-yi, who writes in Chinese, and the other a short story writer based in Taipei, Jane Wu, who writes in English and has recently published a collection of nine stories about the martial law period of Taiwan history (1949 to 1987).

Nature writer and university professor Wu Ming-yi  (吳明益) wrote a popular novel titled The Man with the Compound Eyes in 2011, with translations in English and French following in 2013 and 2014. Largely ignored at first for the novel that was published in Chinese, Wu’s eco-fantasy later  attracted attention overseas in translated editions, thanks for the eagle eye and savvy marketing skills of Taipei-based literary agent Gray Tan, who took Wu under his wing and introduced the novel to agents and publishers in Europe and America.

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South Korean writer, Hang Kan ,who was the winner of the Man International Booker prize in 2016 for her novel The Vegetarian, has joined the ranks of literary greats who are giving their writing for the Future Library Project in Norway started by artist Katie Paterson in 2014.

Katie Paterson, an award winning Scottish artist known to play with and find inspiration in nature using her imagination to create unique artworks based on natural phenomenons like glaciers,stars and the universe itself, planted one thousand spruce trees in the Nordmarka forest, just outside Oslo in Norway. The paper from these woods will be used in 2114 to print the books of the literary greats who are participating in the project, which include literary giants like Margaret Atwood and multiple award winning novelist David Mitchell and whose ranks Hang Sen joined last month.

Jokha Alharthi, an Omani writer, is the first Arabic author to win the Man Booker International Prize 2019 for her novel, Celestial Bodies.  She shares her award with the translator of her book, academic Marilyn Booth who teaches Arabic literature in Oxford. 

This international award was initiated in 2004 to complement the Man Booker Prize that went to a book published in English in England. It was given every two years for the author’s “continued creativity, development and overall contribution to fiction on the world stage”. It recognised the writer’s body of works rather than any one title. It was only in 2016, that the award started being given for a single title and would be shared between the author and the translator.

The story of this year’s winning title, Celestial Bodies, revolves around the life of three sisters who marry and move out into the world. The chairperson of the panel of judges, Bethany Hughes said, “Through the different tentacles of people’s lives and loves and losses we come to learn about this society – all its degrees, from the very poorest of the slave families working there to those making money through the advent of a new wealth in Oman  and Muscat. It starts in a room and ends in a world.” Bethany Hughes was joined on the judging panel by  philosopher Angie Hobbs, writer, translator and chair of English PEN Maureen Freely, novelist and satirist Elnathan John and essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra.