This August and September, we celebrate the independence days of several countries in Southeast Asia, including Singapore (9 August), Indonesia (17 August) and Vietnam (2 September). In today’s blog post, Asymptote travels to Southeast Asia to reflect on writing from the past. Having gained independence from Great Britain, Holland and France, the literatures of these countries often address complex post-colonial histories and the multilingual environs of post-independence life. We asked Asymptote Editors-At-Large Theo, Norman, and Khai, to tell us more about a local writer worth knowing more about, in celebration of national freedom and identity.
Few remember the scene, but for two weeks in November 1960, passers-by on Singapore’s busy Stamford Road stopped to cheer on forty librarians as they formed a human chain to transfer 150,000 books – then the entire national collection – from the dusty shelves of the old colonial museum to a new, purpose-built National Library. Singapore had just achieved self-government, and amid rapid political change, the city was in the mood for new beginnings. Behind this audacious plan was Hedwig Anuar: writer, activist, war survivor, and the first Singaporean Director of the National Library.
A canny observer of current affairs, Anuar penned satires and parodies that appeared in the periodicals of the day, and later in a slim collection by Landmark Books. “While the young men around her were busy getting the weary tones of T.S. Eliot into their verse,” writes Philip Holden, “[Anuar’s] poems…remain notable for their wit and robust handling of contemporary political realities.” Indeed, Anuar’s piercing commentary reflected the same verve with which she approached political life and public service. Describing herself as a “leftist or socialist” from her student days, she worked hard to start a Mobile Library service to improve literacy in Singapore’s rural neighbourhoods, and later helped to establish both the National Book Development Council of Singapore (now the Singapore Book Council) as well as the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE).
Working and writing through the heady days of political transformation, Anuar’s poetry – along with the visible legacy of her life’s work – reminds us that the lived and literary spheres are always inseparable; that engagement, resistance, and reflection are equally urgent for writers in any position and political climate. It’s hard to imagine anyone wearing all her different hats today, but we should, at the very least, start somewhere.
—Theophilus Kwek, Editor-at-Large for Singapore
I ask those who think about society, who love life, whose blood has reached a temperature that makes them indignant about [these] injustices, to become a bit more zealous… Because if no one budges at all, then the authorities will be in no hurry to do anything, and every time it must respond, the government will once again respond in the way that it always responds to us: ‘The Annamese people still lack the capacity.’
Wrote Vu Trong Phung at the end of Lục xì (Dispensary), one of his most well-known reportages, in which he explores the industry of prostitution in early 20th century Hanoi with questions about the colonial patriarchal society and the course of its development.
Born in 1912, Vu Trong Phung died in 1939 in Hanoi just a few days before his twenty-seventh birthday from tuberculosis (just as his father did when he was newly born). He was incredibly prolific, with a huge body of works including 30 short stories, 9 novels, 9 reports, and 7 plays, along with hundreds of newspaper articles on all facets of life and society. He is unanimously considered by readers, writers and critics as one of the most influential writers and journalists of 20th-century Vietnamese literature, “King of reportages” in Northern Vietnam, and arguably one of very few early feminists. This is even though his writings were banned in communist Vietnam up until 1986, being deemed “debauched”. Despite having to stop formal education at the age of fourteen due to lack of financial means, he benefited from free French colonial primary schooling in Hanoi, which left indelible traces in his works (Vu and his characters usually cited Victor Hugo and Anatole France, among many other prominent French authors). His works of fiction and reportages are noted for their realistic portrayal of Vietnamese society, especially the underclass and le nouveau riche, with bitter satire and wit, humour as well as explicit sex. His most famous work is Số đỏ (Dumb luck), a novel featuring a vagrant’s social ascent in late-colonial Vietnam
2019 marks eighty years since the death of Vu Trong Phung and there is still much to do to fight against injustices and for freedom. Thus, his works prove to be as timeless as ever, a reminder of what we have been through and what we should do as ones who love life. “What can we do with the conscience of our time, do Vietnamese people still lack the capacity?”
—Khai Q. Nguyen, Editor-at-Large for Vietnam
Among only a few literary awards in Indonesia, the Rancage Literary Award stands out, as it is perhaps the only one that gives prizes to original literary works written in Indonesia’s indigenous languages. Most Indonesian writers today write in the national language Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia), which stems from the Malay with the influence of many languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Indian, Dutch, English, and Spanish, all which arrived in Indonesia through trade or colonialism. Trying to change this situation, Rancage has published more books in numerous local languages, especially Javanese, Sundanese, and Balinese. Among a handful of people who initiated and maintained the award, there is a Sundanese poet named Ajip Rosidi.
Well-known of his insistence in using the accented letter é, Rosidi writes poetry, short stories, and nonfiction in both Indonesian and Sundanese. His most read book is perhaps his memoir Orang dan Bambu Jepang: Catatan Seorang Gaijin [People and Bamboos of Japan: a Gaijin’s Notebook] which speaks about his experience living and wandering in Japan from 1981 to 2003, a country who occupied Indonesia from 1942 to 1945.
Rosidi is also influential in the shaping of the contemporary Indonesian literature: in 1968, he proposed to then Governor of Jakarta Ali Sadikin, what we know today as Jakarta Arts Council, an important body in contemporary Indonesian art and literature. He is also active in the shaping of Sundanese identity, publishing the book Kesusasteraan Sunda Dewasa Ini [Contemporary Sundanese Literature] and Mencari Sosok Manusia Sunda: Sekumpulan Gagasan dan Pikiran [Looking for the Image of Sundanese People: Thoughts and Ruminations]. In the former, he voiced his criticism to the tendency to split classic Sundanese writing into “prose” or “poetry”, as for him, the Western conception of literature might not be suitable in understanding indigenous Indonesian writing. He even resisted the use of the term “puisi” or “poetry”, as it cannot quite capture the idea of “wawacan”, “sisindiran”, or “kawih”.
Rosidi reminds us that all languages should be equal, and there will always be untranslatable thinkers in every language, the continuity of these languages will allow their valuable works to live on.
—Norman Erikson Pasaribu, Editor-at-Large for Indonesia
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