We, The Survivors

A review by T. F. Rhoden of We, The Survivors by Tash Aw.

Various degrees of financial precariousness and a vibrant—yet maddeningly hot and humid—Malaysia are the theme and setting of Tash Aw’s newest novel We, The Survivors. Through the main character Ah Hock, an ethnically Hokkien Chinese Malaysian, a tantalizing story of broken family life that crisscrosses both the megacity of Kuala Lumpur and the tropical provinces and crashes violently into the country’s often callous use of “dark-skinned and foreign” migrants from Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Nepal.

The novel is rich in despair. The author unforgivingly explores the peculiar benefits and vulnerabilities of being Chinese in the Malay-dominated Southeast Asian nation. Ah Hock is raised by a single mother and is shuttled back and forth from the provinces to the capital as they struggle to earn a living. Ah Hock’s mother sometimes works as a maid, sometimes in a restaurant, and later, when they purchase a small plot of land near the sea, as a vegetable farmer. But without luck or any social safety net, their poverty proves intractable when their land is flooded by the rising tides and the mothers becomes terminally ill. A young Ah Hock reflects:

… even at that age I knew, like everyone else, that it was hopeless. We were the wrong race, the wrong religion—who was going to give any help? Not the government, that’s for sure. We knew that for no-money Chinese people like us, there was no point in even trying.

Through an honest desire to better himself, Ah Hock’s situation… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Review of Tash Aw’s (歐大旭) We, The Survivors originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of that yummy-looking Malaysian mooncake for this re-post is via the talented مانفی. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Bangkok Wakes to Rain

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad.

Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s story of Bangkok is the most complete and engrossing tale of this megacity of fifteen million souls ever portrayed in a single publication. His debut novel Bangkok Wakes to Rain is as much an ode to the metropolis’s extremes as it is to the wide-ranging and singular characters that animate its streets and sois.

All of the characters of this novel connect with Bangkok, or what Bangkok once was, in a meaningful way. Some of Pitchaya’s uprooted individuals are displaced from a physical locality—others from traditions and histories that defined earlier versions of themselves and their communities. Those rituals they perform, some of them spiritual and some of them diurnal, are a way to connect themselves to a remembered past. Bangkok itself is an apt exemplar, as the town was born as a refuge after the Burmese sacked Ayutthaya in the 18th century. Much of early Bangkok was designed in remembrance of that former international trading port and royal house farther up the Chao Phraya River. Pitchaya artfully intertwines the fate of Bangkok—and what he later imagines as New Bangkok after a terrible flooding—with the main characters’ longing for things past.

The book contains many… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Review of Bangkok Wakes to Rain originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit for this re-post is via the talented Igor Bilic from Suzanne Nam‘s “The Truth about Thailand’s Rainy Season” in TripSavvy. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth

A review by T. F. Rhoden of The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth by Veeraporn Nitiprapha, translated by Kong Rithdee.

Some authors capture a time and place effortlessly. They draw upon aspects of popular culture and spin them into a literary tale that is more powerful and longer-lasting than the milieu from which they sprang. Veeraporn Nitiprapha is such a writer. But as her work has only appeared in Thai, she has been beyond the reach of most of the world.

One cliché that the author has taken aim at recently for the Thai reading public is the Thai soap opera. For context, one of the most viewed television series in Thailand these days is Club Friday—a series in its tenth season, which follows characters as they swim their way through counter-currents of romance, infidelity, and Buddhist karma. Into this media landscape, Veeraporn has published her artful and lyrical novel The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth. This is the first book-length translation of Veeraporn’s fiction in English. The novel is a poetic and surrealistic reimagining of the Thai romance, where the main characters are lost between unrequited desires and fantastical dreams that are realer than their everyday lives.

The story follows two vivacious sisters, Chalika and Chareeya, as they… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Review of The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit for this re-post is via the talented Nick Knight. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Scales of Injustice: The Complete Fiction of Lōa Hô

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Lōa Hô’s Scales of Injustice: The Complete Fiction of Lōa Hô, translated by Darryl Sterk.

The newest English translation of Lōa Hô’s fiction in Scales of Injustice: The Complete Fiction of Lōa Hô is a fascinating reminder that Taiwan’s literary history began well before the Nationalist Chinese retreat to the island in 1949.

To say this is not to downplay the importance of pre-WWII literature in Taiwan—far from it as the thoughtful and picturesque short stories of Lōa Hô (Lai Ho) evidence. Rather, when fiction from Taiwan is translated into English, these stories often reflect the contemporary social world where individuals both thrive and struggle in a nation that is not quite recognized as a state on the international stage. What little Taiwanese fiction is translated into English tends to be from the post-war period.

Lōa Hô’s life spans the period between the start of the First Sino-Japanese War (1894) and the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1945). This middle period of Japanese occupation of Taiwan during the 1920s−1930s is the setting for all of Lōa Hô’s stories. Lōa Hô’s willingness to compose more in Taiwanese vernacular as he matured as a writer ended up preserving a unique perspective for later generations.

Lōa Hô’s short stories explore the day-to-day machinations of foreign power on a very small scale. These stories capture the… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Review of Scales of Injustice: The Complete Fiction of Lōa Hô, translated by Darryl Sterk, originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit for this re-post is via Wikipedia. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Pathways That Changed Myanmar

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Pathways That Changed Myanmar by Matthew Mullen.

Why has the regime of Myanmar (Burma) only recently moved away from military authoritarianism toward a civilian government with democratic processes? Political scholars of Myanmar, and comparative democratization more generally, have sought to answer this question to varying degrees of success. Some works in this vein include Marco Bünte (2013), Nick Cheesman, Nicolas Farrelly, and Trevor Wilson (2014), Lee Jones (2014), Nehginpao Kipgen (2016), and David Steinberg (2014) – with Renaud Egreteau’s (2016) argument of the ‘caretaking’ and ‘pacted’ nature of the military’s ‘top-down’ approach to reform being one of the more notable dissections to date.

Pathways that Changed Myanmar by Matthew Mullen is an interesting addition to this landscape of recent works on Myanmar’s transition. In many ways, this publication is able to explore and provide invaluable data on dimensions of regime transition that these other accounts have generally glossed over in their analyses. In other ways, however, Mullen’s explanation for change seems to tackle more than is necessary and is, in general, not a very focused work – one that is theoretically a mess of ideas without any stable or coherent direction.

Mullen posits the main question of the book in the following fashion… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Review of Pathways that Changed Myanmar by Matthew Mullen originally published in NewBooks.Asia by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of Khin Shwe, chairman of Zaykabar Company, at the top of this re-post goes to Soe Zeya Tun of Reuters, found in the article “In Myanmar on Cusp of Change, Former Junta ‘Crony’ Sees Business As Usual” by Hnin Yadana Zaw and Antoni Slodkowski. Why use this image at the top of this review? Because it explains more about the changing dynamic of Myanmar’s “transition” than any wishful thinking by us milksop academics (in which I include myself). Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Beyond the Refugee-Migrant Binary? Refugee Camp Residency Along the Myanmar-Thailand Border

Abstract

Processes of mixed migration beyond the reified “refugee-migrant binary” of migration studies are an empirical reality along the Myanmar-Thailand border. Utilizing a survey of 3,874 mobile individuals from Myanmar in Thailand as a case study, this paper examines the impact of past experiences of migrants on the likelihood that any one of them will reside inside a refugee camp instead of outside of one in Thailand. A dataset is constructed that specifically intersects “refugee” communities with “labor migrant” communities in order to measure the importance of factors of socioeconomic, self-identity, past persecution, and social network considerations. Though indicators like religion, ethnicity, and the fear to return are salient in the likelihood of living inside a camp, family location is the strongest single predictor variable for whether or not an individual from Myanmar will inhabit a refugee camp. Future research may benefit by researching across migrant communities normally considered disparate.

Introduction

Human mobility across the 2107-km border that separates the national states of Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand is a complex affair. From a macro perspective, vast disparities in economic wealth, political governance, and social conditions be- tween the two countries for the last half-century have materialized in a movement that is primarily mono-directional—from Myanmar to Thailand. From a micro perspective, the mobile identity of individuals who move has conceptually fallen under categories as varied as refugee, labor migrant, émigré, student activist, family member, escapee, soldier, political prisoner, worker, ethnic fighter, and others. Furthermore, the social scientific argumentation as to the what, when, where, why, and how of this mobility from Myanmar to Thailand has encapsulated, at one time or another, all those traditional binaries of migration studies such as push-pull, forced-voluntary, structural-agential, political-economic, national-international, and so on. There are valid reasons to justify one identity, one concept, or one chain of events over another depending on the argument at hand. Yet, there should be one point upon which all can agree to begin this article in the realm of factuality. Regardless of what we call them or why they are there—today, more individuals from Myanmar can be found in Thailand than vice versa.

This article aims is to revisit one of those binaries of migration studies. Specifically, the refugee-migrant binary will be challenged by an exploration of factors that lead to an individual residing inside or outside a refugee camp. The dependent variable under study here is mobile location after crossing an international border.

This study is done in light of recent work that emphasizes the “mixed flows” or “mixed migration” nature of contemporary movements across borders. Utilizing the Myanmar-Thailand border as a case study, the main argument is that both the mobile self-identity and the mobile location of individuals who are normally called “refugees” and individuals who are normally called “labor migrants” intersect in complex ways beyond that normally argued by the refugee-migrant binary. What it means to be a refugee and to be a labor migrant are not mutually exclusive. These creatures of the lawyer’s, the humanitarian’s, and the social scientist’s—indeed, of the politician’s—imagination overlap in important ways. There are unquestionably good legal, humanitarian, policy, and ethical reasons to make a clear distinction between a “refugee” and a “labor migrant” at times. But in those cases where some overlap in identity and causal backdrop are observable, the researcher has an obligation to explore the empirical evidence as to just how they overlap in order to better theorize and, if possible, test claims about human mobility in a field of reality.

Rather than look at those cases where the refugee or the labor migrant fit some uncontested role, this article seeks to explore the exact opposite. More can be learnt by exploring a case where… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in the Journal of International Migration and Integration by T. F. Rhoden; image-photo credit for this post via the Faces of Hope Fund. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Tsunami

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Tsunami by Anatoly Kurchatkin, translated by Arch Tait.

Moscow’s Red Square and Bangkok’s Imperial Queen’s Park wouldn’t seem to have much in common but for the main characters in Anatoly Kurchatkin’s enjoyable and fascinating novel Tsunami, translated by Arch Tait from the original Russian, there is much that unites these disparate locales.

Early in the story, the Russian protagonist Radislav and his female companion at that moment, a child of the Soviet-era aristocracy, are walking past one of Bangkok’s royal parks when they chance upon a group of people practicing a “ballet of a kind he had never seen before.” Radislav admits to his friend Nellie, “I don’t feel I’m in a faraway foreign country. I feel this is where I belong.” The response is quick:

“Of course you do,” Nellie replied briskly. “We are an imperial people. Citizens of the former Soviet Union. For us Asian faces are part of our family. The whole world is our home. I’m speaking from experience. It doesn’t matter where you travel, everywhere feels like home.”

Kurchatkin’s entertaining use of dialogue both keeps the story moving along and imbues an additional psychological depth to the musings of the Russian and Thai characters. The reader might be reminded of other great Russian writers who centered philosophical insights not in the actions or events of the plot, but in the mouths of the characters themselves. The more vocal the characters are, the more wisdom there is to be gleaned from their chatty interactions. Sometimes these discussions are on heavier topics, while other dialogue is more lighthearted.

For example, in one scene, Radislav and Nellie are being chaperoned by their Thai friend Tony, when Tony learns of a lovers’ spat between the two Russians:

“Ah, I expect Rad just doesn’t like the fact that I’m European,” Nellie responded.
Tony, taking his hands off the wheel, and turning to face her periodically, protested.
“No, Nellie, you are not European. I would say you are a Thai woman. You only look European, but inside you are Thai.”
“Well, in that case Rad doesn’t like the fact that I’m a Thai,” she persisted.
Tony’s unfailing smile showed signs of reproach.
“Rad, what you have done to Nellie?” he asked. “I think you have made her sad.”
Rad was left with no option but to respond.
“Nellie is a Russian woman, Tony, and a Russian woman is probably a mixture of European and Thai. It is a dangerous mixture.” He had wanted to say “explosive” but did not know the word in English.

The above quotations also highlight one of the leitmotifs of this story. The protagonist Radislav hints at… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Review of Tsuami by Anatoly Kurchatkin originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of Thai memorial stamps of 2014 Tsunami for this re-post goes to Mark Jochim and his A Stamp A Day blog. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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