« Editorial

Asia’s Literary Writers Now – Quietly – Demand Your Attention!

Asia Literary Review (www.asialiteraryreview.com) managing editor Duncan Jepson discusses the five year history of his magazine, why Westerners sometimes struggle to comprehend Asian writing, and why it’s important to see beyond China.

Editorial by Duncan Jepson

Duncan Jepson

When we launched the Asia Literary Review five years ago, it was still a Western World and Asia, regardless of 5,000 years of history, was still considered emerging. Our coming issue is our 18th and explores the most important topic of the day, and perhaps for some time to come: China. I had wanted to be involved in creating a literary magazine focusing on stories about Asia, since I was a student in Beijing in 1987 and experienced the strangeness, diversity and intensity of life there. I had also traveled through Southeast Asia many times since I had started visiting my grandparents in Singapore and it was during that time I was first exposed to the rich tradition of story-telling that has existed in Asia for thousands of years.

Although one must often rely on translations, entering Asia through its writers is perhaps the best way to understand the place and its cultures and the character of its people, which is now becoming crucial if we are all to understand the role the region will play in shaping the world’s future.

Many Westerners are still unused to the narrative style of Asian writers because they are brought up on strong characterizations and potent dialogue. Asian writers often build their stories slowly, sometimes colored with finely shaded, albeit restrained, dialogue. The characters can unfold slowly. Like the reactions to the broad images created by the classical Chinese artists who painted without a vanishing point, Western readers can be frustrated by the lack of immediacy and pointed direction in the storytelling.

An example of this, one I liked very much, and one our previous editor-in-chief, Chris Wood, was ecstatic about finding, was Liao Yiwu’s Memories of My Flute Teacher (No. 13, Autumn 2009), a story of intense sadness and hardship, but one told with such lightness. Yet as quiet as some of the storytelling can be, it is very Asian and if one is interested in different perspectives, then it is worth the effort to appreciate to read these and understand an Asian point of view.

In the late eighties, the West was introduced to Chinese storytelling through “scar literature” — the tales of starvation, torture and political madness from the years of isolation. Yet from Asia, it feels as though many western readers still expect every story to be about Mao’s children, the craziness left by Pol Pot, and the failure of Asians to adopt completely western human rights.

Asia has moved on, each country busily, and greedily, crafting its own culture and society which — suddenly post-credit crisis — is no longer being done in the shadow of the US and Europe. The West is taking notice and it is very pleasing to see a sudden increased interest in new writers, such as the author/celebrity/racing car driver Han Han and filmmaker/author Xiaolu Guo (The Mountain Keeper, No. 4, Spring 2007, and Life by Accident, No. 18, Winter 2010).

While there are a few local literary magazines being published around Asia, particularly associated with universities, we wanted to create something that was a place for new and established writers of fiction, poetry and reportage from all of Asia. This is perhaps absurdly ambitious but it seemed to me that any lesser ambition would be completely incongruent with the spirit of modern Asia, where billionaires appear and disappear (often literally) over night.

Our editor-in-chief, Stephen McCarty, presciently decided on the theme for the coming issue some five months ago, prior to currency wars and what may turn out to be an interesting turning point for climate change talks this week in Cancun -– provided rumors of the announcement of important and tough carbon emissions legislation by the Chinese government come true.

Just as China is destined to dominate the region, it is easy for China to dominate any media -– including literary magazines. Since we want to cover all Asia, we continually aim to ensure proper geographic balance of writers and stories.

During 2010, I am proud to say that we have ranged widely across Asia: we covered the protests and demonstrations in Thailand as they were happening (Gary Jones’ piece Weapons of Mass Disinformation, No. 16, Summer 2010), we wrote about the sentencing of Cambodian torturer Duch (Robbie Corey-Boulet’s The Teacher and the Torturer, No. 17, Autumn 2010), and much of our Summer 2010 issue was devoted to Indian writers. These are just a few examples, supported by work we’ve published from Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea and elsewhere.

Asia is a vast region, one that contains nearly 60% of the world’s population. As a magazine, we are working harder to explore and understand it. Along the way, I hope more and more people, Westerners included, will come to appreciate Asia Literary Review‘s distinct form of storytelling and its myriad voices.

Duncan Jepson was a founder and is currently Managing Editor of the Asia Literary Review. He is a lawyer and filmmaker. His debut novel was recently sold by Peony Literary Agency and will be published in Autumn 2011.

DISCUSS: Do Contemporary Asian Writers Suffer a Lack of Prestige in the West?

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  1. Posted December 5, 2010 at 1:56 am | Permalink

    Hello from Australia:)
    I think there are a number of issues arising from your suggestions here, but I think you are right when you say that the West isn’t up-to-speed when it comes to writing from Asia. In general, the West isn’t very good at knowing about works in translation from anywhere, especially in countries that are overwhelmingly monolingual despite their multicultural populations i.e. America, Britain and Australia. Popular fiction is always going be dominated by books in English, that’s just how it is.

    However the rise of the eBook offers new possibilities. It makes readers like me who are interested in fiction from other places less dependent on supply-and-demand at local bookshops. If Asian writers stitch up publishing deals so that their work is available on Amazon (Kindle) or The Book Depository (other formats) then all they need is publicity and good reviews on the Web. Online consumers will do the rest…

    The price of translation may be an issue. Short stories are by definition cheaper to translate, but for Asian writers to be taken seriously in the world of literary fiction they need to enter that market with novels. Readers of literary fiction thrive on the type of reflective writing you describe above, but the translations must be good: poor translation is fatal and does a great deal of harm not only to individual authors but also to the publishing house. See http://tinyurl.com/24xlezv for why I would never bother reading a book from Holland Park Press again.

    I personally think that the misery memoir aka scar literature has done Asian writing a lot of harm – I’m sympathetic about these events but am tired of reading about oppressed Chinese people who have gone to live in America. If you check my blog’s ‘country of origin’ categories you can see that I read widely from all over the world, but there is nothing from my neighbours in Asia (unless you count expats from India living in Britain which I categorise as Commonwealth literature). I don’t know about anything else that’s available, and I don’t know how to find out. Publishers don’t send me any review copies from Asian writers, and I never see any reviews either in print or online, again because I don’t know where to find them.

    I think it is regional blogging (in English, or at least bilingual) that could facilitate the breakthrough. Increasingly there are specialist blogs that promote the literature of countries outside the dominant markets. In Australia mine is but one of many; in Africa I know of Kinna Reads; in Canada there is Kevin from Canada and The Mookse and the Gripes. All of us – and our growing readership – read and comment on each other’s blogs and buy the books discussed using online booksellers. This is what Asia needs too, though of course what I really mean is a network of Asian blogs from its diverse countries and cultures linking with each other and with blogs from English speaking countries.
    Thanks for a thought-provoking blog post,
    Lisa Hill, Melbourne, Australia

  2. Bruce McDowell
    Posted December 6, 2010 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment that immersion into the literature of a region leads to better understanding. I must subscribe to your Review. I am newly resident in Malaysia, and have found access to literature from the region (admittedly expecting to find it in English translation) a difficult task, and my attempts at getting to know and understand the literature have been largely thwarted. Even Tan Twan Eng’s Booker long-listed The Gift of Rain is not available in the bookshops in my two nearest cities. As a newbie and a keen beginner I would welcome your advice and perhaps some direction as to which authors, from any country in South East Asia, I could find most easily in print.

    Bruce, Penang, Malaysia

  3. John Dalby
    Posted December 9, 2010 at 12:06 am | Permalink


    I’ve seen The Gift of Rain in Kinokuniya in KL. You can order via their website and they’ll post it to you.


  4. Posted December 10, 2010 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    Hello! I am a literary agent based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. We started in 2009 to focus on children’s books but am now expanding into fiction and literature. We are working with the Malaysian Translation Institute to publicise Malaysia’s wealth of literature. In most countries in Asia there is typically a government-owned National Translation Institute where you can obtain information and books on local literature. The Korean Translation Institute, for example, publishes in English, a monthly magazine called ‘List’ which has interesting interviews, reviews, new writings etc. You might also want to check out Silverfish, a bookstore in Kuala Lumpur that focuses on fiction from Malaysia [http://www.silverfishbooks.com/ with blog by proprietor and publisher, Raman]. In Singapore, check out local publisher, Monsoon [http://www.monsoonbooks.com.sg].

    Thank you ALR for promoting Asian Literature!

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