How cool is it that there’s a quarterly journal dedicated to literature from Asia that’s either written in English or translated into it? Such a gift to those of us who don’t speak or read any Asian languages!
After a two year hiatus, Asia Literary Review revived in November last year with Issue 26, under new ownership and with a greater focus on its digital platform. Martin Alexander is still editor.
Issue 26 is a feast. Of the many interesting things, let me mention some of the non-fiction:
- Sister Philomena’s Veil by Kavita Jindal, a memoir of schooldays in a convent in India, which has a similar subcontinental girls-own adventure flavour to Swapna Dutta’s Juneli stories, but takes an altogether darker turn
- The Secret Happy Life of Uncle Renfeng by Fan Dai, an extraordinary account of a life, which would be satisfying if it was an exemplary tale, and is all the more so when one realises at the end that it’s the story of the writer’s actual uncle
- Eid in Oghi by Nighat Gandhi, in which the author, described in her bio as ‘a writer, mother, Sufi wanderer and mental health counsellor’, visits a village in dangerously tribal region of Pakistan and comes to know, like and admire the women who are her hosts, so that we too come to like and admire them.
There’s also plenty of fiction and poetry. I particularly enjoyed two dystopian stories, Michael Vatikiotis’ A Case of Penetration and Dipika Mukherjee’s Conjuror of Divinity, though the latter may well be too realistic a tale of the rich and ruthless to be really a dystopia. I also enjoyed Eliza Vitri Handayani’s From Now On Everything Will Be Different, an Indonesian romantic comedy gone wrong.
Among the many poems I was struck by Yong Shu Hoong’s prose poems Tanglin Halt and After the Fire; Kathleen Hellen’s Salmon Said Surrender, which captures a moment when history pushes into the present moment. Justin Hill’s translations of six poems introduced me to T’ang poet Yu Xuanji. I was prompted to go looking for other translations of this, from ‘On a winter’s night I wrote this poem for Wen Ting Yun‘:
I think now I've found fulfilment.
Success follows failure follows what?
There's a third way forward.
I found one by Leonard Ng, here, which translates the same lines as:
Thoughts scattered and released, at last I found fulfilment:
through the emptiness of rise and fall, I saw True Mind.
And I learned again that to really understand a poem in translation you need to read at least one other translation. ‘Thoughts scattered and released’ is almost certainly more literal, but ‘Shit happens’ brings the shrugging of meaning home more sharply. And what if it’s a vulgarity? Yu Xuanji was after all a courtesan.
Issue 27 is, if anything even richer. It has its share of dystopian fiction, this time – perversely – a Singapore buried deep in ice in ‘And Now There Came Both Mist and Snow‘ by Clara Chow, and of strong non-fiction, including:
- ‘The Sinking City‘ by Bill Tarrant, about Jakarta, which is literally sinking, and a disaster waiting to happen
- ‘The West Sea Battle’ by Jang Jin-sung, translated by Shirley Lee, an account of his debriefing North Korean sailors after a skirmish, trying to persuade them to tell what actually happened rather than the politically desired version
- ‘Challenging Convention – The Kung Fu Nuns’ by Namgay Zam, about a striking (pun intended) feminist initiative in Nepal and Bhutan.
The fiction includes a number of stories that feel only slightly removed from reportage: Beijing Hospital by Jeremy Tiang, an account of an expat hospital experience; ‘Comfort Woman Eleanor’ by James Tam, an altogether uglier crosscultural encounter that’s particularly telling at the time of Prime Minister Abe’s too-litle-too-late apology for Japan’s wartime atrocities; Phillip Y Kim’s ‘Run’, a family encounter in the midst of the recent Hong Kong demonstrations.
Again, there’s plenty of poetry, including the marvellous, long, elegiac ‘Peng Chau’ by living Chinese poet Zheng Danyi, translated by Luo Hui. According to Wikipedia Peng Chau is a small island near Hong Kong less than one square kilometre in area, ‘known for its small island lifestyle’. Really, I didn’t need to consult Wikipedia, when the poem includes this:
Post office and doctor's office, one each, police station and fire station, one each One laundry shop, called 'Laundry Shop' One bakery, called 'Bakery' One library, called 'Library' Tin Hau Temple, one and only Mother Dragon Temple, one Daoist, Buddhist, Catholic Protestant – one each in peaceful co-existence.
There’s much more, in that poem, and in the journal.
I am grateful to the editors for my complimentary digital subscription, beginning with Issue 26.