“Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvellous, intoxicating.”
As Southeast Asia achieves prominence as a rising tiger of the East (once again), it can be easy to forget the violence that plagued the region. Thailand is known as the ‘Land of Smiles’, but concealed is the reality of military juntas, corruption and royal drama. Indonesia, known for its pristine mythical landscapes, is also home to soil infested with the blood of suspected Communists. Even Singapore, the icon of the region’s progress, is not exempt from a history of violence. The Japanese Occupation and racial riots are just some of the stains on the history of the island nation.
The War on Terror deep dives into the vibrant yet troubled land of the Philippines. Written by veteran journalist Rene Acosta, this slim book is a concentrate of bloodshed and death. The non-fictional account is told through behind-the-scenes perspectives, detailed accounts of the operations and moments of extreme terror that not even today’s ultra-violent entertainment can match. The book centers on the Filipino military’s actions against the notorious Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). An Islamic separatist organization that operates in the Southern Philippines, it has been terrorising the group of islands—and the surrounding regions—since its first recorded activity in 1991.
The beginning sets the tone for the relentless bloodshed that pervades the book’s pages. Acosta starts his narrative in February 1993, when a group from the Philippines Marine Corp was massacred by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). They were lured out into a surprise attack by 300 members of the MNLF. Acosta spares no details when it comes to describing the atrocity of the massacre, reporting that the Marines were “…were stripped to their underwear and whose bodies showed burn and hack wounds that left most of them nearly unrecognizable…”
Shweta Taneja’s story named as pre-finalist in French Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire
The Best Asian Speculative Fiction (2018) is like a rebellious shout to change the world with its threat of futuristic dark stories. Many award-winning and well-known writers like Kiran Manral, Vrinda Baliga, Rochelle Potkar, Park- Chan Soon, Tunku Halim and Eldar Sattarov, have contributed to the anthology. The stories have covered different areas of the genre called speculative which the editor, Rajat Chaudhuri, an established voice in this field, calls, “our adorable, shape-shifting, slippery creature”.
Zafar Anjum, the series editor of the Best Asian series and publisher, explained how the Speculative fiction anthology came about and the editor was chosen: “It was an idea suggested by one of our authors, Anuradha Kumar, and when we got in touch with Rajat to work on an anthology of speculative fiction, he readily agreed. Rajat had done reviews for us before and we always admired his writing, so it was a natural choice.”
Chaudhuri picked Shweta Taneja’s story, ‘The Daughter That Bleeds’, for the Editor’s Choice Award. And now, it has been picked as a pre-finalist in the prestigious French Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire. This French award was first given in 1974 for science fiction and later stretched to the emerging genre of speculative. Winners include Ursula Le Guin (2008), Ken Liu (2016) and Carolyn Ives Gilman (2019). The French Ambassador to India, Emmanuel Lenain, has tweeted about this, tagging Kitaab and Chaudhuri.
Chaudhuri has remarked that Taneja’s story fits into Margaret Atwood’s formulation of this genre. In his introduction he tells us, “Atwood’s test for the speculative is on the touchstone of possibility … Marking a clear break from some of the improbabilities of science fiction, her formulation stresses on this aspect of possibility as the sine qua non of the speculative.” Shweta’s story is “about a market for fertile women who have become rare in a post-apocalyptic India”.
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.
I might have forgotten a few years along the way with all those bloody calendar changes: the Chinese, the Mayan, Julian and the Gregorian. There are definitely miscalculations but once you go past your 3,000s, who really cares? It’s funny when I hear some young ones complaining about how old they are in their 30s or 40s—hell, even 70s. Why would you want to live so long?
There’s nothing new under the sun. Not that I would know.
From the rooftop, I look at the windows of the opposite block. Most of them are dim. I’m guessing the flats’ occupants are out for the last night of revelry of the old year. The ones that are lit contain groups of friends and families, choosing a quieter and homely transition. Some are alone. An old woman is sleeping in front of her TV, the soft glow of the screen accentuating the wrinkles on her face. I feel a tinge of envy when I see them.
Curious about what she is watching, I attune my hearing to her flat. From the strains of modern Mandarin, Indian and Malay pop melodies, I come to understand that the TV is tuned to a countdown show.
Two floors down, I see a lady at her dining table. She drinks a glass of wine by herself. I scan her flat for heartbeats and I locate her son’s in his own room. I try to read her mind, capturing her scattered thought streams. From the pieces I put together, she married young to a Korean man she met at a conference. They bumped into each other in an elevator which malfunctioned halfway. They struck up a conversation while they waited for the repairman to get their lives going again. However, years into the marriage, they found their fiery temperaments too incompatible and they decided to live apart. He would fly back to Singapore, or she would fly to him in Korea, on occasions to keep the marriage alive. This arrangement allowed them to maintain their bond, and the semblance of a family for their son, who rarely speaks to her. Right now, she wonders what would happen if she had taken another elevator instead. She feels that it would have been the better path.
Poet. Photographer. Singer. Bearded botak (bald man). As an artiste, Marc can be best described as a living kaleidoscope. His creative work can be hard to pin down. So far, he has written and edited twelve books of poetry, the latest being Sightlines, a collection of poems and travel photography co-created with photographer Tsen-Waye Tay. He plays with a band, Neon and Wonder, and set numerous poems to music with his band mates. He is also active in Singapore’s poetry slam scene, and participates in regular sessions at Blu Jaz Cafe.
If that’s not all, he is passionate about photography and the principal photographer of Mackerel, an online culture magazine he founded. He also collaborated with well-known Singaporean satirical personality Mr Brown in an online video that made fun of a MasterChef judge who misunderstood the nature of chicken rendang. Responding to his criticism that the chicken was not crispy enough, the song playfully (shown in the video below) corrects the judge with an appropriate understanding of the Malay delicacy:
I was setting up the livestream on the living room’s television when Ma called. “Ah Boon, hand me the gift packs on the table.” I ignored her for the moment, playing around with the video settings. Finally, the words “The Parade Will Start In…” appeared on screen, followed by a countdown timer below them.
There was an ongoing discussion to call the parade ‘a ceremony’. I remember a member of the opposition questioning a minister of the ruling party on the choice of words. “It’s a show of power, of our strength,” the minister had said. “Is it? Many performances seem more like acts of reverence, not deterrence,” his opponent had fired back. She had a point though. The parade usually began with protective blessings from the leaders of our four major religions.
But nothing changed. It was still called a parade.
Ma shouted for me again. I yelled back, saying that I heard her.
I took up the four scarlet packs, one for each of us, from the dining room table and walked into the kitchen. There used to be five but that was two years ago.