Tag Archives: Jang Jin-Sung

Asia Literary Review 26 & 27

Martin Alexander (Editor), Asia Literary Review 26, [Northern] Winter 2014
———————————————————- 27, [Northern] Spring 2015


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‘:

Shit happens.
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.

Asia Literary Review 25

Martin Alexander (editor) Asia Literary Review 25, [Northern] Autumn 2012

Chinese artist and filmmaker Zhang Bingjiang has an ongoing project entitled Hall of Fame: a series of portraits of officials convicted of corruption, each painted in the colours of the 100-yuan note. No mainland gallery has agreed to exhibit the paintings, of which there are so far more than 1600. Journalist Audra Ang explores the story behind food contamination scandals in China. He Jiahong, a crime novelist (whose ‘Hanging Devils’ is reviewed elsewhere in the issue) and former high-up official in a Chinese anti-corruption agency, outlines a basic, probably over-optimistic proposal for curbing corruption in the People’s Republic.

This issue of Asia Literary Review is dedicated to crime and corruption, and as those three articles indicate, it comes at the subject from many angles.

The Philippines get a double guernsey: Luis H. Francia reports on Give Up Tomorrow, a film by Marty Syjuco and Michael Collins about a blatant miscarriage of justice in which seven young men were found guilty of rape and murder in a case whose every aspect was shaky, including the identity of the victim. Carla Camille L. Mendoza reminds us with lyrical sarcasm of the spectacularly corrupt times of Imelda Marcos and her husband ‘Ferdie’.

Jang Jin-sung, a defector from North Korea, paints a grim picture of endemic corruption in his country resulting from a failed economy in an authoritarian state. Veteran journalist Farrukh Saleem describes systemic corruption in Pakistan. Mumbai resident Dilip D’Souza does the same for India, but undermines any easy self-righteous indignation by relating the large-scale political corruption to the almost universal disregard for the law by ordinary Mumbai residents: on his daily five-kilometre drive to his son’s school, ‘Nobody, and I mean nobody, stops for a red light.’

Still in India, Shashi Warrier, a thriller writer, interviews a rural worker whose brother is probably a member of a violent Maoist group. These groups are evidently a bigger threat to Indian security than the Pakistani-backed Kashmiri secessionists, and it’s clear that endemic government corruption is as effective a breeding ground for Maoists in India as it is for lethal fly-by-night food operations in China.

There’s fiction too, of which three stories stand out for me. Prosper Anyalechi’s ‘I’m Praising Him Right Now‘, translated (from Japanese? Igbo) by Dreux Richard, is a wonderfully animated story of Nigerian immigrants living by their wits on the edges of the law in Tokyo. John Burdett’s ‘A Day in the Life of Curly Jones, Lawyer‘ brings a similar relish to Western expat lawyers wheeling and dealing with dubious legality in Hong Kong. Tew Bunnag’s Eyes of Karma, which begins with a monk meditating in a Thai monastery, turns out to be non-comic version of Sister Act.

I do have a complaint: a number of the fiction pieces are excerpts from longer works, but there’s no warning of this except the end of each one. I’m a primitive reader – I read for the story. So after being left hanging once, I checked each story and skipped the ones that said they were extracts. I made an exception for the extract from Ali Baba: The Forty Thieves Reloaded by Poulomi Mukherjee and Amit Tayal, a comic book which may be worth seeking out in its entirety.

And there’s poetry. I’m not sure what to do with poems written by people with Western names lamenting how hard life is in a North Korean prison camp (without evidence, who’s to know if it’s US propaganda or someone speaking of what he knows?), or those that are hard to distinguish from touristic observations. And my familiar sense of being an outsider looking in when reading poetry is given a little boost by opaque cultural difference in a number of the poems here. I did, however, enjoy encountering all of them. I particularly liked Sivakami Velliangiri’s ‘Silent Cooking and Noisy Munching‘, which describes ‘old women with gagged mouths / cooking for the gods, in silence’, and discovers in their discipline and grace a metaphor for her art, and Changming Yuan’s ‘A Concise History of China in English‘, a witty piece made from little more than a list of Chinese words that have had vogues in the West over the centuries.

In short, a good read.

Asia Literary Review 23

Martin Alexander (Editor), Asia Literary Review 23, [Northern] Spring 2012

Issue 18 of Asia Literary Review has a sense of occasion about it. Like some previous issues, this one is devoted to a single nation. But a collection of English language pieces on China or Japan can confidently assume its readers will have heard of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle or those poets who are in trouble, even if they haven’t read any of them. This one, on Korea, can expect to be giving many readers their first real look at a national literature. All the more so as both North and South Korea are represented. The sense of occasion is marked by an appearance by the journal’s publisher, Ilyas Khan, who contributes a note on his personal connection with Korea and his appreciation of the Korean people.

If the state of the short story is any indication of the vigour of a literary culture (a big if, I know, but think of Australia in the 1890s), then South Korean writing is thriving. All four short stories here are grippingly weird: in Kim Young-ha’s ‘Ice Cream’ (translated by Dana Zur) a suburban couple phone to complain when a packet of their favourite ice cream tastes of petrol, with unsettling results; Park Mingyu’s ‘Is That So? I’m a Giraffe’ (translated by Sora Kim-Russell) takes the situation where commuters are pushed into the underground trains of Seoul and turns the surrealism up to full volume; in Jeon Sung Tae’s ‘The Korean Soldier’ (translated by Jae Won Chung) the hero, who seems to be the author’s alter ego, has a thoroughly civilian and richly comic adventure in Mongolia; ‘Black-and-White Photographer’ by Han Yujoo (translated by Janet Hong) is a chilling tale on what Martin Alexander’s editorial tells us is a recurring theme, the lost child. The lost child turns up again in the other piece of fiction from South Korea, an extract from What You Never Know by Jeong I-hyeon (translated by Chi-Young Kim), which I’m guessing is a gripping novel – at least I was left frustrated when the extract stopped and nothing was resolved.

Of the South Korean non-fiction, the stand-outs for me are the excerpts from Liu Jiaju’s memoir, ‘My Experiences in the Korean War’ (translated by Martin Merz), and Michael Breen’s ‘Image and Identity’ (crosscultural reflections of an Englishman who has been living in Korea for thirty years).

Two North Koreans speak directly in these pages. The first, Jang Gil-su, does so in a pencil drawing he did when hiding in his mid-teens on the way to successfully escaping to the South. The drawing shows a man being executed by a uniformed figure with a rifle. The caption informs us that everyone is expected to attend executions in North Korea, ‘including children’. The other, the poet–defector Jang Jin-sung, is represented by five poems (translated by Shirley Lee) as stark as the drawing that precedes them. I don’t generally ‘get’ poetry in translation, but these speak to me very strongly. According to the editorial, Jang Jin-sung will be representing Korea at the Cultural Olympiads, which must be happening round about now.

Of the pieces about North Korea, I felt most enlightened by ‘Pyongyang: City of Privilege and Pretence’ in which journalist Sue Lloyd-Roberts ranges far and wide trying to make sense of the outpouring of grief at Kim Jong Il’s death, and Daniel Levitsky’s ‘North Korea’s Revolutionary Cinema’, which lays out a part of the jigsaw explaining how people can accept the regime. Possibly the scariest piece in the whole issue is the photo essay ‘Holiday Tours to the DPRK’ by Simon Cockerell, an Englishman who has been taking tourists into North Korea every month for the last ten years. His text is as carefully noncommittal as the faces in his photos, and any irony in his final sentence is totally deniable: ‘A week at a beach resort may be temporarily refreshing but the same amount of time in the DPRK provides an experience that will last for a lifetime.’

I’m writing this on the iPad in Kayaköy, near the Turkish Mediterranean, and creating links to all these articles is more complex than I’m prepared to do while at this particular beach resort (about which I’ll write something tomorrow – it’s seven Ks from the beach, and not exactly a resort). But I’ve listed the translators because everything here read beautifully in English and at the same time retained its sense of having come from elsewhere. Many of the pieces I’ve mentioned are up on the Asia Literary Review site, where there’s an online supplement of material that wouldn’t fit in the magazine, which is well worth a look.

I’ve read most of this issue in Turkey, quite a bit on public transport. One friendly Turkish man picked it up, skimmed the pages, and asked, ‘Where are you from?’, clearly failing to fit me to his mental image of a Korean. The Art Student kindly gave permission to use this photo: