Tag Archives: Martin Alexander

Asia Literary Review 26 & 27

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

ALR26How 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 line 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 by 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.

alr27Issue 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 and 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 24

Martin Alexander (editor) Asia Literary Review 24, [Northern] Summer 2012

I subscribed to the Asia Literary Review in 2009 for worthy motives: they had published a short story by my niece Edwina Shaw, and I wanted to support a publication that had faith in her; it also seemed a relatively painless way to ensure some cultural diversity in my reading. I’ve kept on renewing my subscription because every issue has something to delight – from a photo essay on Karen exiles living on the Thai–Burmese border to a splendidly simple pasta sauce recipe. The current issue doesn’t disappoint.

Martin Alexander’s editorial announces that this journal is organised around the theme of identity. The contributors, he writes,

reflect, and reflect upon, the multiplicity and complexity of their identities. Each piece was composed in isolation, but when brought and bound together their explorations of identity complement one another in unanticipated and intriguing ways.

I would add: in laugh out loud ways, and weird ways, and ways that make you want to weep. Many of the pieces are about dislocation – through migration, exile or invasion. Many are about the experience of being mixed-heritage. There’s a fascinating, kaleidoscopic effect as voices from China, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Japan, India, Thailand, South Korea, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, the UK, the USA and Australia, Uyghur, Hawai’ian and Burmese voices, echo one another’s motifs, answer one another’s questions and question one another’s answers.

My precious blogging time is being taken up with doggerel endeavours these days, so I’ll limit myself to mentioning, pretty much at random, just a few highlights.

Kavita Bhanot’s ‘Too Asian, Not Asian Enough‘ asks if it isn’t a new form of Orientalism for so-called British Asians to simplify their identities and perform them rather than striving to understand and reveal their own complexities. The journal’s imprint page reveals that Madhvi Ramani’s short story ‘Windows‘ is taken from an anthology edited by Kavita Bhanot with the same name as her article. Ramani’s story illustrates beautifully the kind of thing Bhanot is advocating: it starts out with Mrs Sharma, close to the stereotype of the elderly, widowed Indian living in Britain, locked out of her home, and ends in a completely unexpected place.

In Win Lyovarin’s Rainbow Days, the Bangkok Reds and Yellows demonstrations are seen, to wonderful satirical effect, from the point of view of a barely legal Burmese street merchant. This is one of a number of pieces translated into English, in this case from Thai by Marcel Barang. Kim Jae Young’s ‘Elephant‘, translated from Korean by Moon-ok Lee and Nicholas Yohan Duvernay, is another: an impoverished and desperate little community of immigrants is seen through the eyes of a young boy, son of a Nepalese man and a Korean mother who has abandoned them.

There’s an interview with Donald Keene, pre-eminent expert on Japanese literature, who in his late 80s, not long after the tsunami, earthquake and nuclear accident last year, decided to leave the United States and become a Japanese citizen.

I’ve always thought that Chinese criticism of the Party and bureaucracy was inevitably an earnest affair. Jimmy Qi’s ‘Yu Li: Confessions of an Elevator Operator‘ (translated by Harvey Thomlinson, whose Hong Kong based Make-Do Press has a novel by Jimmy Qi in the pipeline) demonstrates definitvely that this just isn’t so. At one level this story is a completely serious satire, but at another it’s an immensely enjoyable piece of silliness.

I plan to keep my subscription up.

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 this particular beach resort (about which I’ll write something tomorrow – it’s seven is 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:

20120628-130109.jpg

Asia Literary Review 22

Martin Alexander (Editor), Asia Literary Review 22, [Northern] Winter 2011

20120416-173808.jpgThe Asia Literary Review has a new Editor in Chief, the third in the nine issues since I first subscribed. There’s no note of farewell to Stephen McCarty, as there was none to Chris Wood before him. The silent turnover is just a little unsettling, but I guess we don’t read the journal for news of its staff. Martin Alexander, the new occupant of the chair, was previously (and still is) Poetry Editor. In his editorial, he addresses the journal’s identity:

… while Asia is a concept we may broadly understand, it would be foolish to attempt a precise definition. Asia’s identity is in a state of motion; we aim to capture that motion in these pages.

That’s not bad: if Asia is an imprecise entity, it would be a mistake to overdefine the journal’s scope or purpose. Its contents are in English, and they ‘capture’ Asia in some way. That’s enough.

‘Capture’ can describe what a tourist snapshot does, and there’s quite a lot of that in this issue, mainly but not exclusively in its four photo essays – of street scenes in Java, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and the grand but as yet unpopulated city of Kangbashi in Inner Mongolia. The photography is brilliant in each case, but in the end they are all picturesque street scenes, and so a lot less interesting than, say, Jack Picone’s ‘Planet Pariah’ about life on the Burma Thailand border in issue 19.

There are a number of excerpts from longer works, both prose and verse, which are like snapshots in a different way: tantalising glimpses, but sometimes hard to tell what it is one is glimpsing. An exception is the excerpt from Chen Xiwo’s novel I Love My Mum (banned in China, translated by Harvey Thomlinson, and published by Make Do Publishing), which stands alone as a tale of desperate brutality with chilling allegorical implications. You can read the whole excerpt at the link.

Sticking with the idea of ‘capture’, there’s Fionnuala McHugh’s profile of Amitav Ghosh. I’ve only recently discovered his writing, and was delighted to learn more about him, and about his Sea of Poppies. He reveals, for example, that having done a little sailing he knew that sailing was ‘very dependent on words’:

I thought there has to be a dictionary. I happened to be at Harvard but I found the Lascari dictionary in Michigan – published in 1812 in Calcutta by a Scottish linguist. I didn’t have to make anything up.

He sounds like a terrific man — if a Sydney Writers’ Festival scout happens to read this, could you invite him some time soon, maybe when the third book of the Ibis trilogy comes out?

The Ghosh profile is also part of what Martin Alexander calls ‘motion’, if he means by that the kind of dynamic interplay that can add spice to a literary magazine.  Ghosh, we read, turned down the 2001 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize because it was for works written in English, from a region ‘that was once conquered and ruled by imperial Britain’. This is honourable and hardly surprising, given the unflinching portrayal of the Raj in Sea of Poppies. But here it resonates interestingly with a short piece by Pico Iyer, The Empire Writes Back, Revisited, which argues that the formerly colonised have taken charge of the cultural centre, and that the English language, no longer dominated by the former colonisers, is being reclaimed and revitalised by a host of writers from India, China, the Caribbean, Africa, New Zealand, Australia. This ALR tends to bear out Ghosh’s side of the conversation, as most of the contributors seem to be of European or US extraction, and there is that strong touristic element. But Pico Iyer would find material to support his view as well.

Of the short stories, ‘The King, the Saint and the Fool‘ by A. K. Kulshreshth weaves a sweet romance from elements taken from the folk history of Singapore, and Sindhu Rajasekaran’s ‘The Sacred Cow‘ tells a distinctly modern love story in the context of Indian village life. The essay that stands out is Michiel Hulshof’s ‘Special Academic and Art Zones‘. Hulshof is a Dutch journalist living in China. Among other things his essay gives a fascinating account of the economic and political context of contemporary Chinese art (of the kind Sydneysiders get to enjoy at the White Rabbit Gallery).

Almost as good as getting on a plane and travelling for six months.