The Best Asian Short Stories 2017, edited by Monideepa Sahu, series editor Zafar Anjum, set the tone for Kitaab’s Best Asian series that includes literary and speculative fiction, travel writing and crime. Zafar Anjum shares with us his vision for this seminal book and for the series that he has envisioned. Monideepa talks about her experience as editor for TBASS 2017.
Sucharita: Zafar, what was your vision for the series? Why did you feel the need to bring together short stories from across the continent?
Zafar: The whole idea behind Kitaab is to connect Asian writers with readers everywhere in the world. Coming from this context, I felt that we needed to collect the best contemporary Asian writing across themes in edited annual volumes. I had seen this kind of anthologies in the USA, but nobody was doing it in Asia, collecting Asian voices. That’s how the idea behind the Best Asian series took shape. The vision is to create a series of The Best Asian writing in fiction (literary and speculative), crime writing, and travel writing. Each volume is a mix of new and seasoned voices that makes it so exciting. Through the pages of these volumes, you get a glimpse of what the respective societies in Asia are going through. If there is enough support by readers, hopefully we will be able to sustain the series. That’s my hope.
Kitaab, Singapore, has just published an anthology—The Best Asian Speculative Fiction 2018, which was launched at the Singapore Writers Festival on 9 November 2018.
This unique anthology is being seen by industry pundits as the most comprehensive speculative fiction collection from the continent. Comparisons are already being made with time honoured works like Dark Matter, the turn of the century anthology of speculative fiction from the African diaspora. However, as the editor of the volume Rajat Chaudhuri tells us, ‘We are just making a beginning with fresh-from-the-oven stories. Between stardust and dystopias, we are offering a sampling of flavours from the infinite breadth of the Asian imagination.’
According to series editor Zafar Anjum, ‘Richness of imagination is key to this collection; we plan to make it a series.’ Tales that take off on a tangent from the real have a special appeal to readers of all ages, he says.
Chaudhuri, who is a novelist and short story writer tells us how fulfilling it was for him to put together this volume of two and half dozen stories and some more, covering countries all the way from Kazakhstan to Korea and China to Indonesia. ‘The authors of this volume are either of Asian origin and Asian descent or have been residing in Asian countries for long. Twenty countries have been covered, sixteen (counting Hong Kong, SAR) of which are in Asia, the rest accounted for by diasporas and mixed ethnicities. Also, most of the stories have Asian settings and characters. But we are neither cartographers nor accountants,’ he adds, ‘though we love variety, we don’t want to mark each page of our book with flags and numbers.’
Quoting acclaimed novelist Amitav Ghosh, Chaudhuri says, “The great, irreplaceable potentiality of fiction is that it makes possible the imagining of possibilities.” Explaining the selection process and some personal favourites, the editor says, ‘From the mountain load of submissions, I had begun by looking for stories that imagined possible worlds. Lopa Ghosh’s powerful story Crow depicting singularity ruling as a totalitarian dictatorship and Shweta Taneja’s darkly funny The Daughter that Bleeds about a post-apocalyptic India are from that tradition. We have of course included a ton of so-called genre stories from the stables of science fiction, fantasy and horror and then those with some of this and some of that, and things further still. Xu Xi’s engaging tale about a time-travelling ghost, Joseph F. Nacino’s spine-chilling story about AI on a singing asteroid, Eliza Victoria’s thought-provoking sci-fi Web, and Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s mesmerizing Slo-Glo are those that immediately come to mind. The spook-o-metre goes crazy as you enter the horror stable to read stories by Kiran Manral and Rohan Monteiro while Tunku Halim leads you into poetic darkness. Each story that got included here had something unique to offer while the focus on geographical diversity was also one of my considerations. It has been quite difficult for me to choose the winners.’
Ernst Ingmar Bergman (14 July 1918 – 30 July 2007) would have been 100 today. Film-making for much of the 20th century was dominated by Bergman along with the other greats including Akira Kurosawa, Antonioni, Federico Fellini and Satyajit Ray.
In this interview, first published on Senses of Cinema, Zafar Anjum pays tribute to the auteur whose corpus of work includes such films as Smiles of a Summer Night, Wild Strawberries, Scenes from a Marriage,The Silence, and the experimental film Persona, among many others.
Can you describe your condition when you learned that Ingmar Bergman passed away? One morning I was generally trawling the internet and chanced upon the news of Bergman’s death. It came as a shock to me. I was sad for a while as unquestionably one of the towering figures of international cinema had passed away. In Bergman’s death, we saw the end of a great era of filmmaking. Perhaps he was the last of the greatest filmmakers the humanity has ever known. I loved the way Peter Mathews described his experience on Bergman’s passing away: “Cinephiles are a superstitious lot, so the recent deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni within hours of each other seemed laden with portentous meaning. It was as though blind chance had certified what many of us knew in our bones: that the great, visionary enterprise of cinema is over. Henceforth there are to be no more masterpieces–uniquely luminous works describing the finest vibrations of the creator’s soul. Instead we will get (have been getting for nigh on 20 years) an industrial cinema, streamlined, impersonal, marketable and crudely derivative” (A Cinephile’s lament, Sight & Sound, October 2007).
On the other hand, I was also a little angry as the local media had largely ignored the news. Soon after, when I saw his well-written obituary in my copy of The Economist , I felt a sense of relief. At least one of the world’s most respected newspapers had chosen to pay homage to this great philosopher-filmmaker who for decades had devoted his life to the examination of the human condition, plumbing the depths of human emotion and exploring the metaphysical questions of life and death.
Clearly from your blog, you admire Bergman. Can you talk about the things you admire about his work? As a matter of fact, I got introduced to Bergman’s work quite late in life. I was born in a nearly isolated small town in northern India where there were two or three cinema halls that showed only B-grade Bollywood fare. When I started watching films in those cinema halls (video parlours soon emerged in the 1980s), I had no idea if a different, more artistic and satisfying cinema existed beyond the Bollywood kitsch.
In my 20s, when I arrived at a university near Delhi for higher education, and joined the university’s film club, I got introduced to Hollywood and Iranian films. My perspective on cinema began to change. I also began to read about the Indian parallel cinema movement, which was in its waning phase in the 1990s and began to go to film festivals that I got introduced to the greatest filmmakers of the world. That included Bergman, among other directors.
As a lover of cinema, I generally like all kinds of films, from the epic to the noir to surreal cinema, but what I like the most, the kind of cinema that is closest to my heart is the one that talks about human relationships and explores various shades of those relationships in a microscopic way. I think Bergman did that and much more. I like his brooding, philosophical cinema, done in an aesthetic way that is simply mind-blowing.
Today, when latitudes shift, cultures collide, and we are all travellers in one form or another, in ways perhaps unprecedented, these stories must be told. — Dr Debotri Dhar, editor TBASS 2018
Putting together an anthology of short stories is not easy. Reading across a continent and picking from among the best of its writers and their stories is a daunting endeavour. TBASS 2018 is the fruit of this undertaking — 24 writers, 13 countries — led by Dr Debotri Dhar, Editor, TBASS 2018 and Zafar Anjum, Series editor.
‘The winners of TBASS 2018 are Rakhshanda Jalil (India), Aditi Mehrotra (India), and Martin Bradley (Malaysia; originally UK),’ said Dr. Debotri Dhar. ‘I also loved the translation of Japanese writer Mogami Ippei by Avery Udagawa (Thailand; originally USA), and there were many other excellent entries, from more than 13 countries.
‘While Rakhshanda Jalil is a seasoned writer known to many in South Asia, Aditi Mehrotra is an aspiring Indian writer whose story delightfully juxtaposed textual passages and news clippings on women’s empowerment with everyday life vignettes of domesticity from small-town India. Martin Bradley’s story highlighted the intersecting themes of travel, historical memory, and communication across differences. Today, when latitudes shift, cultures collide, and we are all travellers in one form or another, in ways perhaps unprecedented, these stories must be told.’
‘The response to TBASS 2017 has been tremendous. That really encouraged us to continue the series and redouble our efforts,’ said Zafar Anjum, Series Editor of TBASS and founder of Kitaab. ‘TBASS tries to represent the best of Asian voices, and we are specially keen to provide a literary platform to emerging, new voices from the region. The sheer writing talent that we have gathered in this volume is a testament to Asia’s creative fecundity.’
Rakhshanda Jalil (India) Story title: ‘Diamonds are Forever’
Aditi Mehrotra (India) Story title: ‘Don’t Ask! Poocho mat!’ firstname.lastname@example.org
Martin Bradley (Malaysia; originally UK) Story title: ‘Bougainvillea’ email@example.com
Also, Avery Udagawa (Thailand; originally US) Story title: ‘Festival Time.’ Translation of Japanese writer Mogami Ippei. She is working on the translation rights. firstname.lastname@example.org
A face/off set in the world of mythology and folklore
By Zafar Anjum
Conceptualised by: Monisha Charan and Dr Siri Rama Executive producer & Director: Monisha Charan Artistic director and choreographer: Dr Siri Rama
Girish Karnad’s play Hayavadana is considered one of the landmark works in the annals of Indian theatre. The play brings about the interplay of questions of love, identity and sexuality through a panoply of characters set in a world of mythology and folklore.
Recently, Izaara Productions brought this famous play alive on stage in Singapore under the skilful direction of Monisha Charan.
The play began with a brief narration on the play’s antecedents: one of the influences behind the play was Thomas Mann’s The Transposed Heads, which in turn was borrowed from a Kathasaritasagara story. In keeping with the spirit of the play, Monisha Charan paid a rich tribute to the myths and legends of the Hindu religion.
The plot revolves around two parallel stories, both involving questions of love and identity (the heart and the head). In the main track, a well-built kshatriya, Kapila (Avtar Bhullar), finds that his best friend Devadatta (Justin Lee) has madly fallen in love with Padmini (Dr. Siri Rama). Although Kapila harbours an attraction for Padmini, his love and loyalty stands above all; he arranges the match for Devadatta and Padmini and they get married.
The director has made sure that the two actors present a contrast in their physicality and demeanour: Kapila is a Kshatriya with a muscular and manly appearance; Devadatta is a learned Brahmin and poet with a weak physique. The playwright cleverly poses the question to the audience: what if their physicalities are switched? What if the weak Brahmin poet becomes muscular and the sinewy warrior takes the body of the weak poet? Are they happy in their new avatars? What happens to Padmini’s love in that case?
Subtly, the play comments on the rigidity of the caste system which imposes a hierarchy on people. Along with the main track, the sub-plot features the Hayavadana (the horse-man), played with gusto by De Zhong Chia, who is unhappy because he feels incomplete with the face of a horse and the body of a man; yet, he is the object of affection of a beautiful lady, played by Renita Kapoor. I wish this track had more layers to it, as we find in the main track.
Lucknow has been the hub of mushaira, Dasstaangoi and kavi sammelan for centuries, but as times change, rituals and traditions also get recreated and rejuvenated according to the prevailing zeitgeist. In a unique collaboration, the first of its kind, writers, poets, translators and scriptwriters from different parts of India and Asia assembled in Lucknow in the first weekend of April to celebrate writing from South Asia and Southeast Asia.
This first edition of the SRMU Kitaab Literary Festival was jointly organized by Kitaab International Pte. Ltd., Singapore and Shri Ramaswaroop Memorial University (SRMU), Lucknow and was held on the 7th and 8th of April, 2018 at the SRMU campus.
Building bridges between Asian writers and readers
Festival Director Zafar Anjum, the festival’s patron A K Singh, Vice Chancellor of SRMU, Chancellor Pankaj Agarwal, Pro Chancellor Pooja Agarwal, and the faculty of SRMU led by Dr. B.M. Dixit, inaugurated the festival. ‘The aim of this festival ties up with the aim of Kitaab—to create bridges and dialogue between Asian writers and global readers and to bring literature to the grassroots,’ said Anjum in his welcome address.
Agarwal applauded SRMU’s collaboration with Kitaab. He said that Kitaab is an esteemed organisation that offers a promising worldwide platform to both budding and established authors, editors and publishers. Extending from the areas of literary fiction and translation to filmmaking (together with Filmwallas, founded by Zafar Anjum), Kitaab caters to all genres in English and other South Asian languages.
The festival featured more than 20 writers in English, Hindi and Urdu from India, Singapore and Malaysia. Well-known and award-winning writers such as Sudeep Sen, Rahman Abbas, Yogesh Praveen, Dr. Surya Prasad Dixit, Isa Kamari, Dr. Rakhshanda Jalil, Dr. Malachi Edwin Vethamani and Novoneel Chakraborty top lined the festival. Theatre and film actor Shishir Sharma, who was present to talk about his journey in the world of acting, presented the film, More Chai Please, Singapore’s first Urdu short film.
The film, shot in Singapore and presented by Filmwallas, tells the story of a couple with the plot spanning Singapore and Lucknow. The film’s writer and producer Sunita Lad Bhamray and its director Zafar Anjum were present during a special screening of the film on the second day of the festival.
The other major highlight of the festival was the launch of Tawassul, a Malay novel by Singaporean novelist Isa Kamari, translated into Urdu by Rubina Siddiqui. It is the first work of Singaporean literature to be translated into Urdu. Award-winning Urdu novelist, Rahman Abbas who has also helped oversee the edits, hailed this avant-garde work of fiction and told the audience that the book’s Hindi edition was in the works.