Daphne Lee in Star2, a Malaysian webzine:
Indonesian author Laksmi Pamuntjak feels that there should be a greater sharing of literature by Asians among Asians, via translation. Photo: SWF
How do we raise the profile of Asian literature? This is an impossible question to answer.
In the first place, what is Asian literature? The continent is the Earth’s largest and most highly populated. It is the home of myriad literary traditions and works, all reflecting the various and disparate cultures of the many peoples that inhabit the region.
Just as neither the writings of Rabindranath Tagore nor Su Tong can be representative of Asian literature as a whole, we can’t discuss how to raise the profile of Asian literature as if were a single body of work, as though the methods employed to increase the awareness of the continent’s literature can be applied across the board.
At the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) panel discussion titled “Raising the Profile of Asian Literature”, the four panellists – Laksmi Pamuntjak (Indonesia), Linh Dinh (Vietnam), Koh Jee Leong (Singapore), and Eun Heekyung (South Korea) – spoke about their individual experiences as Asian authors.
Obviously, the way things are in Indonesia are different from the way things are in Singapore. Obviously, the experiences and concerns of a Vietnamese author who lives in the United States are literally a world away from those of a Korean author living in South Korea.
In fact, novelist Eun stressed that she was not a Korean writer but simply a writer. “Classifications, especially geographical ones, don’t tell you much about the work – they are restrictive. I don’t focus on Korea when I write, but my writing does reflect Korean life, naturally.”
What all four authors agreed on was that there should be a greater sharing of literature by Asians among Asians, via translation, and that this was a problem that needed to be addressed by individual countries and also in collaboration with each other.
“We don’t write in English and translation programmes are few and far between,” said Pamuntjak who writes in both English and Bahasa Indonesia.
Her first novel, Amba (the English version is called A Question Of Red), set against the backdrop of the Indonesian anti-communist purges of 1965, was named No.1 on the prestigious Weltemfraenger (Receivers of the World) list of the best works of fiction translated into German.
But although Pamuntjak’s novel is a bestseller in Indonesia, you would be hard pressed to find a Malaysian who has heard of the book. One wonders if this would change if A Question Of Red was picked up by a British or American publisher and won an award like the Man Booker Prize.
As Malaysian readers may have noticed, Asian literature often has to come by way of the West for it to be noticed by the world, including Asians.
“Why did I have to go to Berlin to find out about South-East Asian authors?” asked Dinh, at the panel discussion.
The author of seven poetry collections, three short story anthologies, and one novel (he is also a translator and editor) pointed out that because the world sees Vietnam through the prism of the Vietnam War, Vietnamese authors who address the war are noticed more, and
more highly featured in the United States – but are not necessarily the best writers.
The implication is that better writers may be ignored simply because they are not writing about what the West expects them too.
In the case of literature out of Malaysia, the accepted subjects are the British colonial period, World War II, the Japanese occupation, and, to a lesser degree, the Emergency. But award-winning Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng, whose two novels reference the Japanese occupation, is unconvinced that this is a problem: “Those events are major eruptions in history, and if novels based on those events get readers interested enough to read more and read other writers, then so much the better,” he said via e-mail after the festival.
The problem is whether these “other writers” are available in the first place. But even at home, where we have access to the whole gamut of Malaysian literature, there is a reluctance to explore this work. American and British authors are favoured over local and regional ones, with the exception of those like Tan, Tash Aw, Preeta Samarasan, and Rani Manicka who have “made it” overseas.
Dinh elaborated on this point via a later e-mail: “After nearly two centuries of domination and interference by the West, South-East Asians have been trained to look westward for direction and inspiration. Even after independence, we worship the West. This state of mind is so widespread, it is seen as natural or even eternal, but it doesn’t have to be this way, and I insist it won’t be for long.
“One can appreciate the West without neglecting one’s own heritage or close relations, ie, one’s Asian neighbours.”
Singapore-born, New York-based poet Koh said via e-mail, “Asia may still have to play economic catch-up to the West, but this unequal situation affords the Asian writer many advantages, chief among them a strong desire to learn from others. The West’s limited view of Asia and Asian literature is only a problem for Asian writers who wish to write solely for the West.”
“I think it’s time Asia started to pay more attention to itself, without caring too much about what white readers and critics think,” said Linh Dinh. “International authors crave recognition in the English language, because that is seen as dominant. They want to be read by Americans and praised by American and British critics. Given the dominant position of the West in contemporary culture, this is understandable. But the Asian countries should translate and read each other’s works. A Vietnamese reader, for example, should be curious about Malaysian, Indonesian, Filipino, and Thai authors.
“Asia, and East Asia in particular, has a shared heritage that is clearly distinct from the West, but this incredibly rich body of learning and arts is being neglected because we’ve been conditioned to look westward.”
Linh Dinh named the SWF as “a step in the right direction”, but stressed the need for more such events.
“There should be similar festivals in Saigon, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Manila that also feature authors from the region,” he said.
“In paying more attention to our neighbours, we will also see ourselves more clearly. We have much to teach each other. We can’t complain about contemporary Asian literatures being neglected if we ourselves are not interested in it.”
[Since I publish in both English and Vietnamese, I can claim to be both an American and Vietnamese writer. On the same day as the panel mentioned in article, I was featured in another event as an American poet, which I mostly am. The main point I made above, I've been harping on for years, and that is one must be culturally grounded in the local, be it Philadelphia, Leipzig, Brighton, Saigon or wherever.]