Place: Southeast Asia

A “People’s Literature” of Southeast Asia? 

Attending to this tradition might remind us that the present is not unique, and that the task of imagining other futures is one for the long haul.

Two Singaporean writers have recently provoked state opprobrium with their attempts to present and preserve alternative histories of the city-state. Familiar to many is graphic novelist Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, which has swept prizes at home and abroad, including three Eisner’s Awards this year. Liew’s fictional biography of “Singapore’s greatest comics artist,” the eponymous Charlie Chan, is notable not only for its “thrilling postmodern style” but also how it retraces the hopes (and ultimately, the disappointments) of progressive activism in Singapore, from the heady days of post-war collective action to betrayal and repression under a new political establishment. By weaving the stories of real-life activists into Chan’s recollections, Liew leaves us with a tantalizing “what if”: what if something of this history still lives and breathes under the surface of the modern city?

Jeremy Tiang’s novel, State of Emergency (released earlier this year by Epigram Books) takes a different tack. It incorporates fastidiously-researched vignettes from several turning-points in the political history of Singapore and Malaysia–from the Batang Kali massacre of 1948 to the “Marxist conspiracy” of 1987–into the multi-generational narrative of a single Singaporean family. Tiang, also an award-winning translator (and five-time Asymptote contributor), is remarkably successful at re-animating these forgotten episodes. Moreover, by allowing a different acquaintance or relative to narrate each event, he explores how entire communities must live with the echoes of arbitrary detention, harassment and censorship. And just as in The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, what comes to light is an unbroken genealogy of those who have dared to hope against these circumstances.

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November News from the Asymptote team

From erotica in translation to magazine launches, no rest for world literature!

Spanish Social Media Manager Arthur Dixon has helped to found Latin American Literature Today, a new online literary journal, with support from World Literature Today! He will serve as its Managing Editor when it launches on January 31, 2017.

Contributing Editor Ellen Elias-Bursać will be part of an evening of readings in translation at Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop on December 17, 2016, presented by Harlequin Creature. Her translation of Dubravka Ugrešić’s brilliant address on receiving the Neustadt International Prize for Literature 2016 has been published on LitHub.

Slovakia Editor-at-Large Julia Sherwood‘s co-translation (with Peter Sherwood) of Uršuľa Kovalyk’s short story “Julia” was published in the latest issue of SAND, Berlin’s English literary journal.

Romania & Moldova Editor-at-Large, Chris Tanasescu, aka MARGENTO, will be launching an anthology of contemporary Romanian erotic poetry in New York together with past Asymptote contributor Martin Woodside.  Another contributor to the project is Ruxandra Cesereanu, the primary editor of Moods & Women & Men & Once Again Moods.

Editor-at-Large for India Poorna Swami‘s poetry reading in Bangalore was featured by The Hindu, Metro Plus. Her poem “River Letters” was published in Prelude, Volume 3. She also wrote a blog piece on the politics of social media friendship for The Huffington Post, India. She has been long-listed for the 2017 Toto Awards for Creative Writing (English).

English Social Media Manager Thea Hawlin‘s ‘five-point guide’ to avant-garde artist Yves Klein was published in AnOther magazine.

Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek  placed Second in the Stephen Spender Prize 2016 for poetry in translation, and his translation of Wong Yoon Wah’s poem, ‘Shadow Puppets’, was featured in The Guardian‘s Translation Tuesday series in collaboration with Asymptote. He was also part of recent poetry readings at the Woodstock Poetry Festival and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

Indonesia Editor-at-Large Tiffany Tsao has had two translations and a short story published in BooksActually’s Gold Standard 2016—a “best of” anthology of short fiction by cult writers from East and Southeast Asia that aims to counter the tokenistic way Asian writing is often curated in the West.

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More Dispatches from the Asymptote Team:

“They Cannot Be Pigeonholed”: Julie Koh on Racial Nepotism and Asian Writing

I’m not overly interested in waiting around for reform to take place in publishing in the West. Instead, I’d prefer to create a new center.

This month sees the launch of BooksActually’s Gold Standard 2016—the first edition of a new annual anthology comprising what indie Singaporean bookstore BooksActually considers to be the best short fiction from cult writers of East and Southeast Asia, and the diaspora. Most significantly, the anthology is overtly political: a protest against how Asian writing is curated in the West and an effort to establish a new center for Asian writing within Asia.    

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Julie Koh, the inaugural editor and co-founder of the Gold Standard. I’ve long been troubled by the problems that arise from editors and publishers outside Asia curating Asian writing (a topic I explored at length here). I was naturally excited when Koh invited me both to translate for and contribute to the anthology, but it was only through our conversations that I got a fuller sense of the passion fueling the anthology’s creation and goals.

                    Tiffany Tsao, Indonesia Editor-at-Large, Asymptote

Tiffany Tsao (TT): In its promotional matter, the BooksActually’s Gold Standard anthology describes an attempt at a literary reformation: an effort to “redefine how Asian voices are promoted—providing a counterweight to the often tokenistic way in which Asian writing is curated in the West.” In your opinion, what is wrong with how Asia is currently promoted and curated in the West, and how exactly does the anthology counter it? 

Julie Koh (JK): The best way to begin to explain the rationale behind BooksActually’s Gold Standard is with reference to the controversy surrounding The Best American Poetry 2015, where the editor Sherman Alexie discovered that one of the poems picked for publication, by a “Yi-Fen Chou,” was in fact by a white male poet named Michael Derrick Hudson submitting his work under a pseudonym—more specifically, a name he had stolen from a former high school classmate. Hudson was trying to make a point about how the political correctness of contemporary literary culture unfairly favors Asian writers. Alexie ultimately decided to retain the poem, along with the pseudonym, admitting “racial nepotism” as a major reason for his choice.

As an Australian writer of Chinese-Malaysian descent, my reaction to this controversy was one of shame. It cast a different light on the curation of work by writers of East and Southeast Asian descent across the West. To me, the decision suggested that achievements by such writers were attributable to some external agenda, not to the quality of our writing.

There was also the egregiousness of Hudson’s claim—that Asian-Americans get ahead of white male writers because of their race. This is patently untrue. Any writer of color in the West knows the difficulties inherent in trying to ascend the literary ladder. In the Australian context, for people of East and Southeast Asian descent, the “bamboo ceiling” exists across many sectors—the literary industry being no exception. Although I’ve been fortunate enough to have had many good experiences with Australian publishers, the fact remains that there are generally few people of color in positions of power in the literary game, and this has a direct impact on the type and quantity of work by writers of color that makes it to publication, how writers of color are promoted, and how their work is understood. This in turn can influence what writers of color believe they must write to get published.

In considering the logic of Alexie’s decision, I came to the conclusion that “racial nepotism” was a jolly good idea, and that it should be taken even further—that there was a clear gap in the market for an edgy “best of” collection originating in Asia and transparently curated by “nepotists.”

I decided it was important to question whether we, as writers of Asia and the diaspora, should always to look to the West for cues on how literature should be read, what kinds of literature should be valued, and what our place is within it.

And I’m not overly interested in waiting around for reform to take place in publishing in the West. Instead, I’d prefer to create a new center which doesn’t rely on others to curate us—and the BooksActually’s Gold Standard is an effort to contribute to the work already being done in Southeast Asia to create this new center.

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