Category Archives: South-East Asian writing

How the Literature Museum in Korea will ‘reflect’ on Colonisation, Division,War…

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Korean scripts: Red-Hanja: Blue-Hangul

 

Korea is on the move to open up and assimilate its heritage.

It plans to open a museum for its literature by December 2023 in Seoul’s northwest district with a budget of 60 billion won($53.6 million).

“The need to build a proper museum for Korean literature has always been there, but it has not been realized for a long time,” said Yeom Mu-ung, a literary critic who was named head of the institution in a press conference. He added, “The National Museum of Korean Literature should reflect on the history of colonisation, division, war, industrialisation and democratisation.” 
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This will surprise you: Do you know why Thai literature is one of the least translated literatures in Asia compared to Japanese, Chinese and Korean lit?

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The colonial map of Asia, 1921, courtesy Wikipedia. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en

 

Thailand was probably the only state in South East Asia to have escaped colonial rule. The country evaded colonial rule  because the French and the British decided to treat it as neutral territory to avoid conflict of interests. The policies enacted by King Chulalongkorn of the Chakri Dynasty , which continues to hold sway in Thailand to this date from 1782, also helped.

The resultant effect, says a report, is “the lack of English readers in the country — which reflects the absence of Western imperialism in Thailand, along with the linguistic colonialism it facilitated.”

The numbers from University of Rochester’s Translation Database, which track original literary translations published in America show that Japanese literature leads the way, with 363 books since 2008, followed by Chinese, with 254, and Korean, with 141. Whereas only five Thai novels have been translated to English. Read more

Short Story: The Siege by Tan Kaiyi

The Best Asian Speculative Fiction

He felt the ground for the reassuring grip of his cleaver. Once he had it in his hands, he crouched down and heard for sounds. The night was dead quiet. Not a good sign. It was a shade of absolute silence that was all too familiar to Lao Seng. He gripped his cleaver tightly. He peered over the barrier that marked out the activities area for the elderly to look at the field between the two blocks. The electric lamps had dimmed as well, creating a darkened no man’s land. Something metallic hit the floor violently and from the sound, Lao Seng knew where it was. One of the offering bins had been toppled and thrown against the pavement. The sleepers in the apartment upstairs would only hear it as a minor nuisance before they roll up their blankets to return to slumber. For Lao Seng, it would be a different story.

He eyed the area under the tree where the offering bin lay. It was now somewhere in the covered walkway between the two blocks. In its place, was a black figure, hunched over like an ape. Its form was indistinct, as if one could see through it. Dark smoky trails rose out of it, like it was burning from a black fire. The ape figure was rummaging through ashes of the joss paper as well as several food pieces scattered around the field. It was hunched over, totally focused on picking through the burnt heap. Read more

Essay: Asian Speculative Fiction — An Introduction

 

By Rajat Chaudhuri 

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“Anything conceivable I believe is possible.”

Black to the Future, Walter Mosley (Dark Matter)

A sorcerer-librarian in ancient Korea who transforms people into books locking them up in his shelves for ever, a far-future civilisation on the planet Ruo, remembering their ancestors in the drowned world of BlueGemm — finished off by greed and climate change, a time travelling ghost in Hong Kong disconcerted by the rules of afterlife.

These are just a few of the characters and situations that we present before you dear reader in this book of amazing tales — stories from Asia, a continent blessed with mindboggling creativity and chutzpah, zen and brio, or what they sometimes call the Asiatic imagination, which is born of course out of its chequered fabric, the diversity of its peoples, the textures of our histories. Asia, a multitudinous hundred-headed medley of contemplativeness and chaos, a mélange of landforms, a kedgeree of ideas, a crucible of cultures, and you get it all here in this book, served fresh, sizzling, wok-fried and ready to tease your taste buds. Read more

Book Review: Vital Possessions by Marc Nair

Reviewed By Mitali Chakravarty

 

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Title: Vital Possessions

Author: Marc Nair

Publisher: Ethos books, Singapore

 

Vital Possessions is a collection of poems, haikus, monologues and photographs by award winning Singaporean poet and photographer Marc Nair. The content reflects the tussle between city life and nature.

Marc Nair takes us on a journey through ASEAN countries — Taiwan, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia and of course Singapore. He finds nature pushing its way through the crevices of city life. In one of his haikus, accompanied by a photograph of a worn out wall with grass growing out of the gaps, he writes,

“Nature never fails

to push against the grain

of forgotten cities.”

When I see the picture and read the lines, what springs to my mind is the St Paul’s church in Malacca, built in 1521, a forgotten church of a bygone era. The monument has vegetation growing out of crevices, which many old buildings would have. However, a sense unique hopefulness is brought to the fore by Marc Nair’s brevity of words to create a picture perfect perspective. Read more

How I learned to claim space as a multilingual author

One of the very first questions I wrestled with as a writer was this: Why write in English, the colonizer’s language, when I have others at my disposal? I grew up acquainted with three languages; my grandparents immigrated from southern China to Malaya, which was a British imperial territory. So if I didn’t write in Malay, didn’t that make me unpatriotic? And if I didn’t write in Chinese, didn’t that make me a “race traitor?” Why English?

English is intricately woven into my family history. When my grandparents first came to occupied Malaya, they worked for the British. For some time they lived apart, my grandfather cooking meals for colonial officers while my grandmother worked as a nanny for British children in a different part of the country. I never heard either of them speak English, but in my imagination, the few English phrases they did know formed the language of intimate care: Please enjoy the food. Are you warm enough? Have another helping. Did you sleep well? Don’t cry. I’m here.

I suppose they learned as much English as allowed them to forge new lives. It was both a choice and not, just as it was and was not for me as I haltingly attempted to piece together a self through literature. I did not see myself in my Malay textbooks about boys who formed interracial friendships. Neither could I find myself in the Tang poems my parents encouraged me to memorize, which featured ancient men in long-sleeved robes drinking alcohol and being sorrowful (only later in life would I come to relate to that). It was in English books that I saw a sense of adventure and escape that I identified with, as embodied by British children daringly solving mysteries or circumventing adult cruelty.

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Writing Matters: In conversation with Suchen Christine Lim

By Mitali Chakravarty

Suchen Christine Lim

 

What is homeland
In which we planted
Our hopes, lives,
dreams and memories?
A bit of earth.

— Suchen Christine Lim, Second Fragment, A Bit of Earth

 

She wanted to run a chicken porridge stall in Singapore. Instead, she wrote about the coolies, the illiterate and the chicken porridge stall owners. Meet Suchen Christine Lim, an established voice in ASEAN literature with multiple awards and fellowships to her credit.

The first thing I notice when we meet is her humility. I remember listening to her during a panel discussion on ASEAN literature where Suchen said that she picked up bits of garbage and put them together to make a story. To me, her stories are anything but a bit of garbage. They record the history of Malaya and then, Singapore and Malaysia. Her works have been lauded by The Straits Times as ‘worthy literary landmarks that capture a slice of South-east Asian history’. Mohammad A. Quayum, Professor and Head of the Department of English Language and Literature, International Islamic University, Malaysia, sees her works as ‘brilliant stimulating and a compelling read’; Lily Rose Tope, PhD, Professor, Department of English and Comparative Literature, University of Phillipines, says, Suchen makes ‘history personal… a joy to teach and a riveting read’. Martin Marroni, a Scottish poet wrote to Suchen: ‘Astonishing tour de force. You have created a physical and social landscape and peopled it with characters with real human feelings on issues of political import as well as on the strains of personal and social survival.’ Yet, when I ask her where she sees herself in the ASEAN literary context, her response is that it is for the critics to decide. ‘I don’t see myself as anything except being able to write.’

Her passion for writing developed in the course of her teaching career. The characters she wrote about in her novels and short stories came to life for her as she went about her daily chores. She became the weaver of tales for these imaginary personas who led her through their adventures. She talks of her works in terms of the wayang kulit (shadow puppet theatre in parts of Indonesia and Malaysia) based on the belief that puppets have a life of their own and their needs must be respected. She sees herself as the dalang, the puppet master, not a puppeteer, she emphasises. ‘And to me, the relationship between a novelist and a character is that of the dalang and the puppet, which eventually evolves a life of its own.’

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8 best books on South-east Asia

South-east Asia has undeniably had its fair share of war and torment through the centuries, from colonisation in Malaysia to communist rule in Cambodia and civil war in Vietnam.

But in the 21st century, the countries are recovering from their pasts and are instead known by nicknames such as Cambodia’s The Land of Smiles and the Philippines’ moniker, The Pearl of the Orient Seas.

There are beautiful beaches, incredible mountains and welcoming people. You have super-modern cities and ancient temples, which combined form the fascinating area we call South-east Asia.

And if you can’t get there to see it for yourself, read about it. We selected eight books covering the region. This list includes a mix of new releases and some older titles that have become classics of their genre.

1. First They Killed my Father by Loung Ung: £7.99, Mainstream Publishing

Loung Ung’s story caught the attention of Angelina Jolie, who is currently directing a film for Netflix of her harrowing early life. Ung was forced to leave the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh to become a child soldier at just five years old when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge army captured the city. This non-fiction book graphically retells the story of a family – and nation – torn apart. She vividly describes the sight and smell of rotting corpses and being forced to eat whatever scraps they could get their hands on, and the terror and loss suffered by so many. It’s a story of survival that will grip you and not let go, even after you’ve turned the final page.

2. Smaller and Smaller Circles by FH Batacan: £7.99, Soho Press

First published in 2002 and released as a film last year, this engrossing, fast-paced tale is considered by many as the first Filipino crime novel. It’s set in Payatas, a vast 50-acre dump north-east of the capital Manila where communities scavenge to survive, and there’s little police protection. When disembowelled bodies of young boys begin to appear among the rubbish, two Catholic priests take up the cause to attempt to bring justice to this corrupt and poor neighbourhood. The cleverly written book won the Philippine National Book Award when it was first published.

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8 best books on South-east Asia

South-east Asia has undeniably had its fair share of war and torment through the centuries, from colonisation in Malaysia to communist rule in Cambodia and civil war in Vietnam.

But in the 21st century, the countries are recovering from their pasts and are instead known by nicknames such as Cambodia’s The Land of Smiles and the Philippines’ moniker, The Pearl of the Orient Seas.

There are beautiful beaches, incredible mountains and welcoming people. You have super-modern cities and ancient temples, which combined form the fascinating area we call South-east Asia.

And if you can’t get there to see it for yourself, read about it. We selected eight books covering the region. This list includes a mix of new releases and some older titles that have become classics of their genre.

1. First They Killed my Father by Loung Ung: £7.99, Mainstream Publishing

Loung Ung’s story caught the attention of Angelina Jolie, who is currently directing a film for Netflix of her harrowing early life. Ung was forced to leave the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh to become a child soldier at just five years old when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge army captured the city. This non-fiction book graphically retells the story of a family – and nation – torn apart. She vividly describes the sight and smell of rotting corpses and being forced to eat whatever scraps they could get their hands on, and the terror and loss suffered by so many. It’s a story of survival that will grip you and not let go, even after you’ve turned the final page.

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2. Smaller and Smaller Circles by FH Batacan: £7.99, Soho Press

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Writing Matters: In conversation with Dr Mohammad A. Quayum

By Shikhandin

Dr Quayum

Dr Mohammad A. Quayum is the author, editor and translator of 32 books in the areas of American literature, Asian Literature and Postcolonial literatures. He is also the author of more than sixty articles in distinguished peer-reviewed journals. His research interests range from 19th and 20th century American literature to contemporary Asian literature, with special focus on Indian literature, Bengali literature and Malaysian-Singaporean literature.

He is the Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief of Asiatic: An International Journal of Asian Literatures, Cultures and Englishes (indexed in Web of Science and Scopus) and is on the advisory board of several leading journals including Journal of Postcolonial Writing (Routledge, UK; ISI indexed), Transnational Literature (Australia; ERA indexed), Interdisciplinary Literary Studies (USA; WoS indexed), Journal of Postcolonial Cultures and Societies (USA), Literature Today (India), The Apollonian: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies (India), and The Rupkatha Journal of the Interdisciplinary Studies of the Humanities (India; Scopus indexed).

Dr Quayum is dean of the Kulliyyah (Faculty) of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences at International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), and an Honorary Professor of English and Creative Writing at Flinders University, Australia.

 

Shikhandin: Most of us only know of you as Dr M.A. Quayum the academic and mentor. Tell us a bit about your early life, and what drew you to pursue literature.

Dr M.A. Quayum: I was born in a small town called Gopalganj, in the district of Faridpur in Bangladesh. This was before Bangladesh was formed and was still known as East Pakistan. I grew up in this small, near-idyllic town and got my early education in the only Government school for boys there, S.M. Model Primary and High School. When I was eleven, my father sent me to a public residential school several hundred kilometres away, known as Jhenidah Cadet College. This marked a turning point in my life. It was an English medium school and the fees were very high. My father could hardly afford the fees and yet he sent me there, mainly to secure a good future for me. A second reason was that my father, who was a lawyer in Gopalganj, had a great admiration for English language and literature. Probably he thought that sending me there would also give me a good grounding in the language. I don’t know how and where he picked up his love for English, because my grandfather was a religious teacher at a primary school in our village who had little interaction with the language. My father was, however, educated at the Islamia College (now Maulana Azad College) in Calcutta (Kolkata), and perhaps it was there that he developed his great love for both English language and literature. You would be surprised to know that my father could recite several poems by Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson and Browning from memory. He would take enormous pride in reciting Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” and Tennyson’s “Ulysses” in particular. Maybe I was infected by his love in childhood and therefore developed a natural penchant for literature from an early age, reading all kinds of books, in both Bengali and English. My father would often buy me books and take me to the local library and encourage me to participate in various literary activities such as essay writing and poetry recitation competitions. I remember participating in an essay writing competition on the life of the Prophet when I was seven or eight years old, and then being invited to read my essay at a local mosque. I also remember my father giving me a copy of Rabindranath Tagore’s collection of short stories, Galpagucchha, for my eleventh birthday, and I recollect reading almost all of it in a great rush. My recent attempt to translate some of Rabindranath’s short stories into English, which was first published as Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Short Stories by Macmillan India in 2011 and then as Rabindranath Tagore: The Ruined Nest and Other Stories by Silverfish Books Malaysia in 2014, was a means to share that childhood excitement and discovery: firstly with my daughter who, being born and brought up in Australia, has in a way lost touch with the language and the culture; secondly, with my students and friends in Malaysia and elsewhere, who have great curiosity about and admiration for Tagore but cannot read his work in the original because of the language barrier.

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