By Kevin DiCamillo
Economists, always terse, like acronyms, hence we have the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China), and MINTS (Malaysia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey, and South Africa) and the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain). In Asia, you have ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations), which began with Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia in 1967 (the height of the Vietnam war). Between that time and the present, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Brunei have all joined, making ASEAN an economic powerhouse of over 600 million people and an annual trade revenue of $800 billion.
So why haven’t we heard much about ASEAN (as opposed to all of the above)?
Linda Lingard, one of the organizers of the SESA (Southeast Asia and South Asia) Collective, has a few theories, but feels that now that these countries are really starting to work together, you’ll be hearing a lot more not only about ASEAN but SESA, which is represented this year in Frankfurt by Anvil Publishing from the Philippines, Buku Fixi of Malaysia, Kalachuvadu Publications and Zubaan Publishers from India, and Chibooks from Vietnam.
Lingard is one of the co-founders of the Yusof Gajah Lingard Literary Agency. “We started out as a children’s book publisher, and when we started coming to Frankfurt in 2009, we were always part of the Malaysian pavilion,” says Lingard, who is based in Kuala Lumpur. After meeting Yusof Gajah in 2009, the two agreed they’d be better off becoming agents for Malaysian illustrators and writers, “and now we’ve expanded to represent not so much individual authors, but publishers from the member-nations of ASEAN”.
However, despite some early successes, Lingard admits that “it hasn’t been easy for us to sell at Frankfurt or Bologna.” One reason: “Southeast Asia is still somewhat alien to the West,” Still, the region has a rich literary history, as yet untapped, “which is one of the reasons we at SESA started asking, ‘Why do we have to keep looking to the West when we have so much great writing in this region?’”
One of the reasons is likely the lack of cross-cultural collaboration between the various cultures, either as a result of a language barriers or vast distances. This, of course, changes in the age of globalization and digitization, and in particular at a venue such as the Frankfurt Book Fair, which exists to be a catalyst for the cross-fertilization of book ideas. But Lingard is eager to see this take place at home, too, where she hopes to foment literary exchanges across the region. “We are, after all, each other’s most important trading partners. We may need to shout a little louder about what we have here, it’s so unique and diverse.”
SESA may currently be a “loosely based alliance of six companies,” but Lingard has high hopes. “We have great books, we have ancient, fascinating cultures—we have everything really,” she says, adding with a smile, “aside from world peace.”