Right Where They Have Always Been

Book launch for Uthis Haemamool’s The Fabulist at Soho House Bangkok, August 2023

Why aren’t the literary scenes of Southeast Asia getting more regional and global traction?

Try as international book publishers might, Southeast Asia’s literary scenes cannot easily be distilled to a marketable essence – or bound together. Take the S.E.A. Write Award, for example, a prestigious literary accolade that was, until recently, presented annually at Bangkok’s storied Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Since 1979, novelists from across the ASEAN region have gathered for a ceremony that is arguably as infuriating as it is inspiring: no scheme for translating each country’s winning novel into any other language exists. As a result, an award that seeks to expand readership and foster a sense of literary unity in diversity is, in fact, a recurring reminder of how Southeast Asia’s manifest pluralism, its myriad languages and motley cultural histories, hinders such intraregional exchanges. Southeast Asia in this context is an unedifying construct: a winning Thai or Indonesian novel will still only be read in Thai or Indonesian, and so the literary worlds of participating nations remain siloed from one another.

In another interrelated context, however, a strong sense of unity does exist: common among the region’s networked community of literary translators is a sense of grievance at their relative invisibility on the world literature stage. Some of their output is bearing fruit – you could point to the 2016 Man Booker nomination of Eka Kurniawan’s Man Tiger, or 2022’s Out of the Shadows of Angkor, an unprecedented compendium of Cambodian prose and poetry, or the uptick in English translations of sui generis Thai novels, among other releases and milestones – and yet their global footprint remains small.

This claim of regional exclusion isn’t just an anecdotal hunch or vague inkling; it’s borne out by readily accessible statistics. Toying with the ‘language’ search parameter on the University of Rochester’s ‘Translation Database’, which is designed to give ‘readers and researchers a clearer sense of what contemporary voices are making their way into English’, reveals that one Burmese, one Khmer, 20 Indonesian, three Malay, three Thai and 14 Vietnamese fiction or poetry books have been released in the United States since 2008. But these figures are dwarfed by East Asia (352 Chinese, 518 Japanese and 191 Korean books), and even India alone (22 Bengali, 14 Hindi, 16 Tamil, etc).

Another metric of sorts is starker still: while every other region of the world can lay claim to at least one author who has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Southeast Asia cannot. In a 2013 New Left Review article titled ‘The Unrewarded’ (an article prompted by the bestowing of the 2012 prize on the Chinese novelist Mo Yan), the late political scientist Benedict Anderson posited that ‘serious “big-language” loss’ in the region over the twentieth century might be largely to blame for this oversight. Unlike ex-colonial states in Africa, Southeast Asian countries did not, bar Singapore and the Philippines, retain colonial languages as languages of state, so its writers, Anderson claimed, ‘were unlikely to have energetic allies in Europe, the Western hemisphere or even in the Islamic world’. Conversely, the seclusion resulting from the region’s nationalisms has resulted in ‘nationalist-philistine ruling elites’ who ‘rarely think about training really good translators’, and none of its national languages having what he called ‘any transnational aura’.

Reeling off us and European metrics disregards the sterling work of local presses and imprints (and plays into dominant strains of linguistic hegemony and colonial violence); it also presupposes that the region’s literary translators (and authors) sit around daydreaming of long-term goals and accolades. Many, preoccupied with getting the next manuscript off the ground and out the door, do not. Yet metrics do throw into sharp relief the contours of the global playing field and power dynamics they navigate.

The launch of Thai novelist Uthis Haemamool’s The Fabulist, in Bangkok last August, offered some firsthand seriocomic insights. In a rousing opening speech, the evening’s host, art writer-translator Judha Su, recalled a recent conversation with a local author who had just been asked by a foreign publisher to use their Thai name instead of the English pen name they had used throughout their career thus far. “The reason: their pen name does not ‘sound Southeast Asian’ enough,” she said. Noting how writers and translators also face pressure to conform to fictious stereotypes within Thailand, Su stated caustically that “we – commoners – are made to feel ‘estranged’ from ourselves both at home and outside”.

A few years back, novelist-translator Tiffany Tsao articulated a similar sentiment in response to ‘Where are all the Indonesian writers?’, an article released in the buildup to Indonesia’s ‘Market Focus’ programme at the 2019 London Book Fair. In a March 2019 Twitter thread, she called out the ‘neo-colonialist attitudes of the literary Anglosphere’, and bashed out an irascible reply: ‘RIGHT WHERE THEY HAVE ALWAYS BEEN, writing amazing literature and EXISTING NOT FOR THE BENEFIT OF THE WESTERN GAZE.’ In a later essay for Electric Literature, she lamented how ‘works have to be sufficiently “Indonesian” to excite interest’, but not too Indonesian – ‘unfamiliar yet comfortable. Orientalising, not disorienting.’

Structurally, not much has changed in the few years since her comments, although there are signs of activity. Southeast Asia may have a dearth of quality, committed translators (a common complaint), and its member states may lack anything akin to the enviable Literature Translation Institute of Korea (South Korea’s state-funded support system for publishing translated Korean literature), but grassroots efforts are circumventing gatekeepers. Online initiatives, such as InterSastra in Indonesia and Sanam Ratsadon in Thailand, are centring voices and historical accounts outside the mainstream. Regional translator collective The Seams recently launched a mentorship programme. Su and another female translator, Palin Ansusinha, have founded a bilingual Thai-English platform, Soi Squad, focused on holistic literary management; they call it “a makeshift structure, an interim scheme in the absence of a support system”.

In June last year, Soi Squad teamed up with nonprofit UK publisher Tilted Axis for The Parameters of Our Stories: a two-day literary symposium in Bangkok that offered a heartening sense of unity in diversity. During a panel talk on ‘navigating linguistic multiplicities’, Tsao – whose translator credits include Happy Stories, Mostly (2021), a collection of queer Indonesian writer Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s short stories – said she detected a shift, away from translators who are academics or area studies specialists, and towards translators who straddle disciplines, and don’t feel beholden to an entire nation. “You’re not translating the feel of a culture or the exotic components of it,” she said, “but rather you’re translating a particular individual’s expression, experience or point of view… which is where literary production came from, right?”

Mui Poopoksakul, whose Thai–English translations have kindled international interest in novelists such as Duanwad Pimwana and Saneh Sangsuk, touched on this shift in a recent interview with online literary magazine Asymptote. ‘If you translate from a less frequently translated language and a culture that’s not as familiar to English- language readers,’ she said, ‘there’s this feeling of not wanting to be read as something anthropological. I feel that very acutely.’ Her comment was, of course, mainly directed at the Anglophone reader or critic. But when it comes to misreading Southeast Asia’s auras, the gatekeepers of world literature clearly have the most unlearning, and catching up, to do.

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