Change, power and Pan-Asian literature
Now in its sixth year, this year's Asia House Festival of Asian Literature has been programmed around key themes of power and change. Director Adrienne Loftus Parkins reflects on how the global events of the recent years have influenced this year's programming.Change is a concept almost taken for granted in the 21st century. In the past 18 months we have seen unimaginable changes in governments and societies, particularly in the Middle East where the Arab Spring is having repercussions across the vast continent of Asia.
The power of writing and its ability to influence lives, communities and even entire countries is sweeping across Asia. Throughout the continent, there is a growing confidence in the power of ordinary people to initiate change that can improve their lives and those of their children. One of the most important trends we’ve seen since launching the Festival in 2007 has been the remarkable development not only in the numbers of books by Asian authors coming to our attention in the UK, but in the diversity of subjects that their books cover.
Arranged marriage, family sagas and epic love stories are no longer the face of contemporary Asian fiction. Novels like The Village by Indian author Nikita Lawani and Madeline Thien’s Dogs at the Perimeter examine the darker side of society. The Village, set in a prison for murderers where personal morality and judgment are blurred, breaks all the stereotypes of the Asian novel. Thien’s book, whose characters have been subjected to the brutality of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, is a remarkable journey through the mind and its response to the horrors of genocide. It too shatters all of our conceptions of Asian writing. In a similar way, debut author Kim Thuy, who escaped war-torn Vietnam by boat as a child, moves through the daily existence of a woman who has to reinvent herself in a new homeland in her moving novella, Ru. She and Thien have both found welcoming homes and environments conducive to writing in Canada. For them and countless others, only after making new lives are they able to reflect on their old lives and write about the dark side of Asia.
The rapid growth of Asian economies, the increasing need for (and battle over) natural resources and the sweeping political and social changes in the Middle East are all having a huge influence not only on the geo-political map of the region but on how Asians see themselves. This is evident in what both established and new authors write and how they choose to write about it. Asian authors in 2012 are asking hard questions about their cultures in general and society as a whole, and bringing a realism to their writing that was not evident a decade ago.
Once our understanding of Asian events came largely from Western observers. Now that news is personalized by those who have lived the events and are willing to write about them. Author and journalist Ahdaf Soueif was at the heart of the demonstrations in Cairo as their Arab Spring came into being. Her latest book, Cairo, My City, Our Revolution, draws together the story of those exciting days in Tahrir Square, where Soueif actually "lived" for 18 days, experiencing the Egyptian Revolution first hand. Authors like Sri Lankan Roshi Fernando and Iranian Kamin Mohammadi write about asylum and displacement as their families and others in their countries have been affected by ethnic and political upheaval. All of them take us behind the headlines, offering real insight into how events affect ordinary people.
Other commenters are using humour in a way that’s never been seen before in Asian fiction, particularly in South Asia. In the past few years we have enjoyed political and societal satires from Aravind Adiga, Manu Joseph and Moni Mohsin. DSC Prize-winner Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman uses a tongue-in-cheek parody on cricket to touch on the underlying political problems of Sri Lanka. Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is Mohammad Hanif’s latest attempt to bring lightness to the overwhelming problems affecting Pakistan. Both books can be interpreted on two levels - as fun light reads or as more meaningful statements. Looking beneath the surface of both we find characters who question the status quo in their own societies.
For those who keenly observe writing from and about Asia, this is a heady time. The power of writing, whether it be through books, blogs or the mini blogs of social media, is opening doors to understanding. The pace of change is speeding up year on year and more and more people in the West are becoming attuned to the reading opportunities coming from that vast continent.
Photo: "Refreshingly Sri Lanka" event: Adrienne Loftus Parkins (second from left) with (from left) Romesh Gunesekera, Roshi Fernando, Shehan Karunatilaka.
Adrienne Loftus Parkins is Director of the 2012 Asia House Festival of Asian Literature, which runs to 30 May at Asia House, 63 New Cavendish Street, London W1. Full programme and ticketing information at www.asiahouse.org/arts-and-culture