[Note added in 2021: the links in this blog post are all broken, except for those in journal title above, and the cover images, which still work for subscribers to the Asia Literary Journal.]
The cover image of Aung San Suu Kyi and the accompanying line ‘The Lady in Waiting’ announce that Asia Literary Review No 19 has a focus on Burma. The halo behind her head may seem to suggest a cheerful postmodern irony, but none of the irony, and very little cheerfulness, penetrates beyond the cover. The only appearance of Aung San Suu Kyi is an interview, effectively an extended sidebar to ‘The Generals’ Celestial Mandate‘, a grim account by Bertil Lintner of the world’s oldest continuous military dictatorship. The lady in waiting’s statement that there is great hope because so many young people are joining the democratic movement is like a tiny ember glowing in the horrendous darkness of state murder, incarceration, torture, and corruption. The Burma theme is continued in a number of pieces. Jack Picone’s ‘Planet Pariah‘ is a photo essay on life on the Thai-Burma border, where refugees, mostly Karen, live perilous and sometimes heroic lives. Incidentally, it brought home to me what an inspired piece of television SBS’s Go Back to Where You Came From was – having seen the reality TV version of refugees struggling to survive in a country that hasn’t signed on to the UN Convention, I found it easier to absorb information presented here in a more traditional mode. ‘Surveillance‘, a short story by Devan Schwartz in which the protagonist is broken in as an agent of the military, reads as a compassionate commentary on the former Burmese intelligence agent currently in the news in Australia (‘Maybe they kill 100 or 150 because I order them to do that. It’s not their fault, my fault. If they didn’t kill, they get killed too‘). There are poems by a political prisoner known only as Jimmy and by Ma Thida, a writer now practising medicine in Rangoon who has previously spent six years in prison.
Things don’t get any more frivolous when the journal moves away from Burma. In the photo essay ‘Qi Lihe’, Stephen J. B. Kelly explores the plight of impoverished Muslims driven from the increasingly arid countryside of northwest China to a scarcely less bleak life on the outskirts of Lanzhou. John Evans’s ‘Blood Money‘ is an ebullient but desperate tale about professional kick-boxers in Korea. In Meira Chand’s story ‘The Return‘ a young man comes home in disgrace from employment in Hong Kong that had been his family’s hope of financial salvation. These pieces contain a lot that’s rich, but it’s a grim world they inhabit.
Hsu-ming Teo’s ‘Fables of a Fractured City‘ departs from the pervasive grimness. The city of the title is, delightfully, Sydney, ‘the most Asian of Australian cities’. The fractures of the title are the four points of the compass, but also the disjunction between mainstream and Asian perceptions of the city: is the south to be represented by Cronulla, notorious for the 2005 riots, or by the fabulously multicultural ‘temple-land’ of the south-west?
Just as I’d finally got around to reading issue 19, issue 20 arrived in my letterbox. Having made the former wait, the least I could do was move the latter to the top of my teetering bedside pile. The image of a broken Godzilla toy lying amid debris with the line ‘Tales from Japan’ gives an accurate account of its content. All but roughly 20 of roughly 200 pages are related in some way to Japan.
Perhaps the most interesting items are those that deal with the March earthquake, tsunami and nuclear threat. Jake Adelstein’s ‘The First Responders‘ is a fascinating account of the role the yakuza played in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and the history behind their surprising (to me) civic responsibility. While government agencies were locked in bureaucratic straitjackets the criminal organisations moved swiftly and efficiently to bring aid and maintain order in shelters where there were reports of violence and sexual assault (a yakuza organisation sent 960 ‘peace-keeping’ members across the nation, while the National Police Agency managed 30 officers). Masaru Tamamoto analyses the government’s failure to respond flexibly and effectively in ‘Conformity, Deference, Risk Aversion: Parsing Japan’s CDR Complex)’. In ‘Reaction to Disaster‘, a manga-like comic by Sean Michael Wilson and Michiru Morikawa, a British resident of Southern Japan tells his story.
There are two short stories set in the aftermath of the earthquake – by authors described at the back of the book as a ‘Singapore-born American novelist’ and a US expat who has ‘lived most of his life in Japan and Thailand’. I felt uneasy about them, as if it might be too early for fiction-writers to exploit these terrible events without disrespect being part of the package.
Other stories and poems move away from the recent news: a crosscultural relationship blooms and dies beneath the cherry blossoms and the fires of Obon; the great poet Basho has an inconclusive encounter with a young woman, also as the cherry blossoms fall; a man is slated for ‘voluntary’ euthanasia in a dystopian future; a depressed and overworked nashi farmer falls in love with a bird.
As this is an English-language journal, it’s probably not surprising that very few of the writers are Japanese – just Masaru Tamamoto, the poet Akiko Yosano (1878–1942), whose ‘Four Poems from the Kanto Earthquake of 1923‘ are perhaps the high point of the journal, and the poet Gina Barnard, who may not be the only mixed heritage Japanese writer here, but she is the only one who makes it her subject, which she does powerfully. Most of the other writers are from elsewhere in Asia or are North American or British writers who are living in Japan or have lived there. (Featured artists and photographers, on the other hand, are mostly Japanese, not the least of them being manga artist Michiru Morikawa.) The best known presence in the journal is novelist David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas, who is interviewed by James Kidd. The interview addresses possible unease about this preponderance of outside voices:
Having set many of his stories in Asia, from Japan to Korea, China to Mongolia, Mitchell is understandably sensitive to charges of Orientalism. I ask whether he has ever had any reservations, political or aesthetic, about writing in English about Asian culture. ‘I worry now,’ he replies. ‘At the beginning of my career I was too young and ignorant. I read Said’s Orientalism in my early 30s. I remember thinking, “Jesus, this guy would hate me and my books.” But still.’
Today, however, he improvises a response to Said’s hypothetical objections by posing a succession of counter-questions about his ‘right’ to imagine cultures other than his own. ‘Why do you have to be Asian to write about Japan? Why can’t I have a protagonist who’s my age but Japanese? Isn’t there a reverse racism if I say, “I’m white, therefore I have no business writing about non-white people”? By the same rather crap logic, no novelist from India or Pakistan or Africa or even South America has any business writing about the British – an untenable argument leading to a mutually uncomprehending world, right?’
It’s an issue that Asia Literary Review can be seen to grapple with constantly. With the temporary demise of Heat, though, it stands out as a publication in our region that has a deep platform of cultural diversity. I feel my horizons expanding with every page.