By Sharlene Tan
The part of the world that is known as Southeast Asia may include the fourth most populous nation in the world but ask the average person to name a Southeast Asian writer or novel and they might stare at you – or rave about Alex Garland’s The Beach.
That may sound like an exaggeration on my part, especially these days when novels like Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians are bestsellers. But this is quite a recent phenomenon. I was born and bred in Southeast Asia (Singapore) and even studied Literature at O and A Levels, but none of the works I studied was by an Asian, let alone a Southeast Asian, and it’s only in recent years that I’ve started reading books by Southeast Asians.
Southeast Asia is a varied region. It consists of 11 countries, with countless different languages and dialects (Indonesia alone has over 700 languages), ethnicities and cultures. So it’s pretty much impossible to pin down what Southeast Asian lit is. Another issue is that many works of Southeast Asian literature have yet to be translated into English.
So it has been especially exciting to see more Southeast Asian works pop up in the western book world.
Eka Kurniawan has been writing and publishing books in Indonesia for years, but it was only in 2015 that two of his works were published in English (and wowed so many critics) – Beauty Is A Wound, published in 2002, and Man Tiger, published in 2004, longlisted for the Man Booker International. Love and Vengeance is to be published in 2017. Beauty Is A Wound is an epic story, one that combines Indonesian myth with the country’s tumultuous history from Dutch colony to independence, wrapped up in a family tragedy that spans several generations. It is sprawling and political and at times rather bawdy, quite an immense and emotional read.
Kurniawan has been described as a successor to Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesia’s most well-known writer, who died in 2006. Toer wrote his most famous work, the Buru Quartet, while imprisoned by the Suharto regime. With no writing tools allowed, Toer recited the story orally to fellow prisoners, and somehow it was written down and smuggled out. While I have yet to read the Buru Quartet, Toer’s wonderful storytelling is evident in The Girl from the Coast, a story of a young girl from a small village who is married to a nobleman and has to adapt to life in the city.
Even if you’re not familiar with graphic novels or with Singapore’s history, Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye provides a refreshingly different take on the Singapore story, a biography of a fictional comic book artist, a brilliant controversial book that had its funding from a Singapore government body pulled just before the launch, due to “sensitive” material. That naturally contributed to the selling out of the first few Singapore print runs!
Balli Kaur Jaswal’s wonderful Inheritance is written from the perspective of a Sikh family in Singapore, and addresses mental health issues, still a rather taboo topic in Asian families.
If cosy mysteries are more up your alley, Auntie Lee’s mysteries by Ovidia Yu has a busybody Peranakan auntie, Singapore food and a dead body or two. Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh series takes the reader on murder investigations around the region.
The names of some Malaysian writers may ring a bell. Tan Twan Eng’s second novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, set in the picturesque Cameron Highlands, was shortlisted for the 2011 Booker prize and also won him the 2012 Man Asian prize. Along with his first book, The Gift of Rain, Tan’s fiction takes the reader into the past, to the trauma of the Japanese Occupation of Malaya and its aftermath. Tash Aw’s first novel, The Silk Harmony Factory, won the Costa (Whitbread) first novel and a Commonwealth Writers prize. The plots of his books, which also include Map of the Invisible World and Five Star Billionaire, have been set in Malaysia,1960s Indonesia and modern-day Shanghai.
If you’re looking for something a bit more other-worldly, Zen Cho’s debut historical fantasy novel, Sorcerer to the Crown, may be set in Regency England, but its diverse cast includes a freed slave, a mixed-race woman, and a strange and powerful witch/vampire from Malaysia. Likewise, Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride takes place in 19th-century Malacca where a young woman receives an unusual proposal – to be the bride of a recently deceased young man, the only son of a wealthy family.
I am not a big reader of short story collections but was still drawn to Mia Alvar’s In the Country: stories which have won acclaim recently and it is well-deserved praise. This collection of stories about the Filipino diaspora is fresh and engaging. These are stories about a New York pharmacist returning to Manila, a Filipina teacher in Bahrain, a student in the Philippines whose brother works in Saudi Arabia.
Cambodia and Vietnam
It is pretty much impossible to talk about Southeast Asia without talking about conflict. Not just the Vietnam War, but also in Cambodia with the Khmer Rouge, which is the focus of Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan, an emotional, courageous book that is closely based on her own experiences. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel The Sympathizer offered an unusual look at the Vietnam War, which probably contributed to its beloved stature among critics. Unfortunately, I have to admit that the Vietnam War is a topic I tend to steer away from so there are no doubt plenty more books out there that I am not aware of.
While it is easy enough to find books written by authors of Singaporean, Malaysian, Filipino origin, countries in which English is more commonly used, it is more difficult to find literature from the other Southeast Asian nations like Myanmar, Brunei, Laos. For instance, when searching for Burmese literature, Google points me towards books set in Myanmar or Burma, like Daniel Mason’s The Piano Tuner, Karen Connelly’s The Lizard Cage, Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace. But rarely are books written by Burmese authors mentioned. It is similar when looking up Lao literature. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t any contemporary Lao literature but just that the books haven’t been translated into English.
So hopefully with more interest in literature from Southeast Asia, by Southeast Asians, publishers will be more interested in, more willing to take a chance on Southeast Asian writers, and to translate Southeast Asian literature.
Sharlene blogs at Real Life Reading.