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.
This week, the Asymptote team fills us in on updates from around the world, featuring literary prizes awarded in both Vietnam and El Salvador. Speaking of prizes… if you are a translator, why not submit to Close Approximations, Asymptote’s annual translation contest! A year’s subscription to the Asymptote Book Club as well as cash prizes and inclusion in the Winter 2019 issue are all up for grabs, so get writing!
Khai Q. Nguyen, Editor-At-Large, reporting from Vietnam:
In the second half of July, Nguyen Ngoc Tu, one the most prominent living female Vietnamese writers, was awarded a 3,000 euro prize by Litprom (the Society for the Promotion of African, Asian, and Latin American Literature founded in Frankfurt in 1980) for her widely acclaimed collection of short stories Endlose Felder (The Endless Field), translated into German by Gunter Giesenfeld and Marianne Ngo. Nominees include other notable female writers from around the world: Nona Fernandez (Chile, featured in our Summer 2014 and Winter 2017 issues), Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (Israel, featured in our Summer 2018 issue), Han Kang (South Korea, Man Booker International prize laureate for The Vegetarian, translated by Deborah Smith), Ae-ran Kim (South Korea), Shenaz Patel (Mauritius), Shumona Sinha (India/France), Kim Thuy (Canada, of Vietnamese origin).
The prolific French writer and filmmaker Marguerite Duras is perhaps best known for her novel The Lover, winner of the 1984 Prix Goncourt, as well as for her 1959 Oscar-nominated screenplay Hiroshima mon amour. In 1987, she published a collection of texts entitled La vie matérielle (Practicalities), in which she relates “everything and nothing” relating to her life, from her work to everyday thoughts. Duras was an avid cook and had intended to include some of her recipes in the collection, too. Ultimately, though, while some recipes made it into La vie matérielle, most did not. After Duras’s death in 1996, her son Jean Mascolo sought to rectify this by publishing the slim volume La Cuisine de Marguerite (Benoît Jacob), a collection of his mother’s recipes as recorded in her handwritten notebook. After a false start in 1999 when Duras’s literary executor blocked its sale, the book was finally republished and circulated in 2014.
The recipes in La Cuisine de Marguerite are a captivating mix of flavors and influences. This can be expected from any collection of recipes curated over a lifetime. However, given her international experiences, Duras’s collection ranges wider than many others. Traditional French fare is sparsely represented in her recipe book, with leek soup, vichyssoise, and chicken liver pâté scattered here and there among the more plentiful offerings of further-off origins: nasi goreng from Indonesia, rougail sauce from Réunion, spare ribs from the U.S. The recipes are mostly brief, though some are characterized by spirited notes, such as her instructions for Dublin coddle (“The Irish will tell you: add more wine […] Don’t listen to them.”) and gazpacho (“The Spanish use broth in the place of water. They’re wrong.”). In the preface to the book, Jean Mascolo writes that the book “has no other pretense than to evoke Marguerite Duras in a daily activity that she did not hesitate, with a smile, to make as creative as her writing.”
Among the most personal recipes in the book are those originating from the place of Duras’s birth in 1914: the Gia Định province in French Indochina, near what is now known as Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Duras was the middle child and only daughter of two schoolteachers who had answered the French colonial government’s call for volunteers. Her father died early on, plunging the family into poverty, after which her mother allowed the children near-complete freedom. Unlike the other colonists, the siblings were allowed to play with Vietnamese children, and Duras spoke fluent Vietnamese. She had no taste for French foods—the Normandy apples and the meat that her mother occasionally served the family—preferring rice, soups from street vendors, and fresh fish cooked in nuoc-mâm, Vietnamese fish sauce.
In many Asian cultures, new mothers are offered delicious dishes and nutritious soups after giving birth. The postpartum recipes fortify a new mother and ensure sufficient lactation for her newborn. These centuries-old traditions have been kept alive through orally sharing recipes and cooking for one another from one generation to the next. However, with growing assimilation of Western culture and a lack of documentation, this shared cultural knowledge may soon be lost.
Interested in the preservation of these recipes, in 2014 students who were a part of the Asian Pacific Islander Health Research Group (AAPIHRG) at UC Berkeley started a Postpartum Nutrition Folklore Project. We interviewed our mothers, grandmothers, and other relatives to document the recipes in their original languages and then translated them to English. Some of us asked our mothers or grandmothers to cook the dishes and soups in person so we could write down clearer instructions (and sample the delicious recipes!) Others conducted the interviews via phone calls and video chats. Most of us were bilingual so we did the English translation by ourselves and asked friends and family members to review our spelling and punctuation. Ultimately, we collected over thirty recipes from six different cultures—Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Hmong, Cambodian and Filipino—and published them as a multilingual cookbook titled From Mothers to Mothers: A Collection of Traditional Asian Postpartum Recipes.