Martin Alexander (Editor), Asia Literary Review 22, [Northern] Winter 2011
[Note added in 2021: All the links in this blog post are broken except the ones in the journal title above and in the image to the left, and the profile of Amitav Ghosh and ‘The Sacred Cow‘. The whole journal is still available online to subscribers.]
The 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.