SEA-worthy: Some Recent Southeast Asian Literature

When one thinks of famous Southeast Asian writers, one thinks of...nobody. Nada. Not exactly true: Duong Thu Huong, Bao Ninh. And...the mind runs dry. A certain someone has assembled a list of the top ten Southeast Asian novels, but only one or two are of local authorship. How can this be? Could the region's writers be so rare or so bad?

One way to find out is to look at the literature esteemed by Southeast Asia. Since 1979, the Southeast Asian Writers Award, or "S. E. A. Write," has been given to writers from the region's member countries: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The award is given in the categories of novels, short stories, and poetry. Some of the award-winning works have been translated into English and assembled into a pair of thin anthologies: The S. E. A. Write Anthology of Thai Short Stories and Poems and ASEAN Short Stories and Poems by S. E. A. Write Awardees 1999.

In a letter to the Bangkok Post, an educator suggested that whereas Western thought tends to proceed in straight lines and is very much goal-oriented, Eastern (or at least Thai) thought tends to proceed in a kind of spiral and is seldom conclusive. The educator had come to this conclusion by comparing essays written by members from each camp. A comparison of letters written by Thais and farangs to the Bangkok Post tends to verify his findings.

Many of the stories in the Thai anthology follow this same logic, and a Western reader may find them somewhat meandering and anticlimactic. They are also sentimental, especially the stories "Mother!" and "The Song of the Leaves." Some stories have so transparent a "moral" that the story resembles a fable. In "People on the Bridge," for example, two bull keepers try to cross a bridge from opposite directions, but it is too narrow for them and their bulls to pass. Both men refuse to turn back. A number of other travellers join the argument and tempers run high. Finally, when the weight becomes too much for the bridge to bear, it collapses and the people plunge into the river below. In Thai there is a saying: som nahm na, which means "serves you right."

The best story in the anthology, "Mid-Road Family" by Sila Khomchai, is neither meandering nor fabulous, but pointed and modern. A husband and wife in Bangkok spend so much of their day in Bangkok's nightmarish traffic jams that the car acts as a surrogate home. A pair of recent developments will suffice to show how nightmarish the traffic jams have become. First is "Comfort 100," a receptacle into which trapped commuters may happily urinate. Second is the recent opening of Bangkok's first "oxygen bar," where customers can quaff that element to counter the effects of the city's brain-damaging atmosphere. O, brave new world.

These developments should be unsettling, but the husband of the mid-road family loves his automotive existence. "A car is a necessity," he says, "a refuge. You spend as much time in it as in the house and office. And when your wife has put things in it to make it as comfortable and convenient as possible" - these things include "a basket of food, an icebox full of bottled a drinks," "a spittoon (or chamber pot)," "another set of clothes" - "it becomes a veritable home, a real mobile office."

Thais are generally oblivious to Bangkok's terrible traffic, so it is hard to tell whether the author is being satirical or merely optimistic. Despite the apocalyptic traffic reports, the husband feels "hale and hearty." But then he offers this grim diagnosis: "We human beings have destroyed nature outside and within us and now we find ourselves trapped and stifled in city-living." His only recourse is to create pockets of humanity where possible, including the car, where one day he and his wife make love. Soon the wife is puking in the car too: morning sickness. The cycle of life continues.

Many of the anthology's stories and poetry share a common theme: the rich rulers of Thailand are bad, the poor villagers good. The poor grow and build everything that make the rich rich, but get only contempt as compensation. "Nightfall on the Waterway" tells the story of a watermelon farmer so poor that he saws the hand off a rotting corpse in order to get the gold bracelet around the corpse's wrist. (He vomits too; it isn't morning sickness.) In "The Beggars," a rich girl gives 500 baht to a grateful beggar. The man accompanying her has this less than noble thought: "It's so marvelous to have money.... When one feels like being a saint one spends money and presto, one feels like a saint." The chillingly subversive poem "A Beggar's Chant" concludes that "they beg and threat and squeeze / they take and grab and rant and lust / they talk low think low and act low / my friends you very well know / who they are / who they are."

Another recurring theme is the conflict between old and new Thailand, and the effects of its rapid economic development on the Thai psyche. In "The Barter" and "The Prophecy," those who trample on old ways are taught a lesson. In "'Sawdust Brain' and the Wrapping Paper," a dim-witted rural boy struggles to make it in the big city. The author of the poem "Hidden" laments the sacrifice of Buddhist tranquility to modern anxiety, asking "Where's the Buddha so majestic and great / That we saw in the distance / Before entering the metropolis[?]" Finally, the poet of "Banana-Leaf Maiden" is lured away from his rural "banana lady" by an apparently urban, "giggly polystyrene vamp."

This admirable anthology is an excellent introduction to contemporary Thai literature and the contradictions of Thai society. But for Thai literature to become world-class, it may have to draw more from the outside world and its literary experiments. Fabulous and socially committed works can be masterpieces, but only if they say something new or in a new way. Much may have been "lost in the translation," but masterpieces are masterpieces, no matter the language.

That said, the Thai contribution to the anthology of pan-Southeast Asian writings is outstanding. Like Thailand's best novels, "The Chaniang Pot By the Window," by two-time S. E. A. Write winner Win Lyovarin, is also R-rated, painfully honest, and panoramic. A head-on car collision paralyzes a man and renders him speechless. His wife must work extra hard to support their child and pay for his hospitalization, so she visits him less frequently, and he grows more suicidal. But he cannot kill himself. Enter Ket, his nurse. She tries to impart to him her rosy view of life, but one cannot, alas, tell a paralytic to turn that frown upside-down.

Many optimists have suffered more than pessimists have. Paralysis is nothing to cheer about, but Ket has had her own share of problems, caused largely by the men in her life. Raped as a child by her father and brother, Ket is married to a drunk who occasionally kidnaps their own child to get ransom money for booze. She is optimistic simply because she has (almost) escaped these nasty creatures. The story ends unhappily for Ket, while the paralytic is granted his last, desperate wish.

There is an easy explanation for this strain of unspeakable misery in Thai literature. In Thailand, misery is unspeakable, i.e. not to be discussed. It gets written instead. The contrast between what comes up in conversation and what turns up in print could not be starker, and anybody hoping to understand Thailand must take both into account.

Of the remaining stories in the anthology, only two make much of an impression. "The Lottery of Karma," by Laotian writer Chanthi Deuanesavanh is a typically Oriental morality tale. A poor Laotian man tries to win the lottery. When he succeeds, he drinks himself silly and fondles some giggly bar girls. He drinks so much that he vomits on himself (vomiting again!) and eventually becomes unconscious. When he arrives back home, his dutiful wife washes his soiled shirt, which also happens to contain the winning (and unredeemed) lottery ticket. Som nahm na revisited.

In "Don't Love Flowers," by Indonesian writer Kuntowijoyo, a young boy confronts the choice between the contemplative and the active life. The old man "Grandpa" loves looking at flowers and extolling tranquility. He offers baffling homilies like: "Life is like flying a kite. Everybody likes kites. Everybody likes life. Yet a kite can break loose. You can feel sorrow. You can suffer. But you will always fly kites." But the boy's father loves building things and talking tough. When the boy repeats Grandpa's words, his father snaps, "Be quiet! What's all that for, huh? Take this hammer!" In the end, the boy acknowledges that blood, for better or for worse, is thicker than water.

Though highly acclaimed, the poetry in the anthology is forgettable. It makes for less interesting reading than the anthology's one essay, written by Cambodia's first S. E. A. Write winner, Pich Tum Kravel. That he should be Cambodia's first is not surprising: the country has known only a few years of what Kravel calls "half-war-half-peace" since the award's inauguration. Kravel's essay is about sbek thom, Khmer puppet theatre, but its interest for the general reader lies in its often sad meditations upon the erosion of Khmer culture, caused in large part by its recent wars. During this time, Kravel writes, "the people lost their humanity. They lived like animals, like ghouls in a hell on earth." Their fanatical leaders, meanwhile, tried to erase the national identity and replace it with sterile Communist ideology.

"One measure of any community wishing to regard itself as truly civilised," says Lord David Puttnam on this anthology's back cover, "is the quality and depth of its achievement as expressed through its writing." Spoken like a true child of Gutenberg. But lest we forget, Southeast Asia is the love child of two of the world's most fertile civilizations, India and China, before whose writings the West is wont to stand in awe. If these two anthologies are any indication, the child has grown up; it may have even grown old. But whether its literary output can compare to that of its parents remains to be seen.

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Books reviewed in this article:

The S. E. A. Write Anthology of Thai Short Stories and Poems, edited by Nitaya Masavisut and Matthew Grose. Silkworm Books, 2000.

ASEAN Short Stories and Poems by S. E. A. Write Awardees 1999, edited by Srisurang Poolthupya. Thai P. E. N. Centre, 2001.

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Fact File:

What is the Southeast Asian Writers Award?

SEA Write Award Books (in Thai)

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