A sentient rock tricked into a familial murder, a toilet wall re-imaged as a stage for revolution, and a lowly maid’s spicy Indonesian dish reworked for terror are just some of the mischievous and engrossing tales recounted in Eka Kurniawan’s Kitchen Curse. Translated from the original Indonesian by Annie Tucker, Ben Anderson and others, the collection includes sixteen stories with themes that run from the dark to the mordantly funny.
Some are overtly political and caustic to past and current regimes in Indonesia. Others are mythical and magical. All of them are bold and—as the first collection of short stories by Kurniawan to be translated into English—serve as a memorable introduction to contemporary Indonesian surrealism and Kurniawan’s savage wit.
Of the stories that have a magical twist, “Caronang” is the most haunting. A Javanese farmer finds a dog that walks upright and said to be of ancient origin, having gone extinct on the island long ago. This “Lupus erectus” proves to be more intelligent than a normal canine. The caronang creature befriends the toddler of the family, learns how to fill in coloring books, and even bathes itself, “shampooing its whole body, though with a clumsiness that tickled us.” Soon the caronang is…[click here to continue to read full text]
The ban on Arabic script at halaal restaurants in Beijing last month is a somewhat small, yet unnerving reminder of China’s illiberal relationship with its various minority populations. More serious has been the reported detainment of a million-plus Uighur and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang over the past couple of years. Similarly, the on-going detention of many Tibetan Buddhists—as well as a near universal ban of foreign travel for individuals living in the Tibetan region—also indicate a tense relationship between the single-party People’s Republic of China (PRC) and many minority populations.
The 55 “minority nationalities”, as defined by the Chinese party-state, only account for around eight percent of China’s 1.3 billion people. Yet, this non-Han population still amounts to a large number at over 100 million. How they do, or do not, interact with the overarching Han identity will continue to have a profound impact on China’s prosperity—particularly the farther one travels inward away from the coastal megalopolises.
Insightful and measured, Economic Development in China’s Northwest: Entrepreneurship and Identity along China’s Multi-Ethnic Borderlandsby Joshua Bird is a fascinating evaluation of the day-to-day lived experience of those non-Han individuals. This is a measured investigation specifically because Bird focuses his study on ordinary people, making an ordinary living in China, including simple businessmen, small-time retailers, provincial-level traders, and local entrepreneurs. This is not a book about extreme cases of minority repression. Rather, the background assumption here is that by concentrating on those individuals, who are materially tied into the system for their livelihood—which is, indeed, most minorities in China—the researcher can better judge the government’s development plans as a whole on these populations. The outlier cases often make for good journalism, but they rarely represent the experience of most minorities, who are simply trying to maintain some sense of ethnic or religious identity that is independent of the juggernaut that is Han culture and society.
The Chinese authorities’ official view has been that if they were to succeed in improving the economic development of minority nationalities, then this would inevitably lead to a diminishing of political identity. As Bird notes, official policies like the “Open Up The West” campaign
have been created in the explicit belief that increased economic growth in minority nationality areas, and improved livelihoods for those who live there, will facilitate greater national cohesion.
In this case, minority local languages and minority status are fine—even encouraged for reasons of tourism—as long as they don’t signal any type of independent political aspiration. The end goal would be… [click here to continue to read full text]
A pious canine argues with a camel, a windy night lasts for years, and a Javanese keris blade is wielded to murder a village witch in Fairoz Ahmad’s enchanting short story collection Interpreter of Winds. A quick and charming read, this book includes four magical tales across Islamic communities in the Indonesian and Malay world. Some take place in a stylized colonial past and some in the contemporary world, where current struggles crash against the fantastical.
The main story with the same title of the collection follows the quest of a talking dog, whose master is unconscious of the adventure his canine pet is about to have. The dog wants to be inducted into the Islamic faith as a true Muslim like his master and sets out on journey after meeting a cantankerousness camel named Ghati on the roads. The dog soon endears himself to Ghati as they go in search of the winds of all four points. Upon meeting one of the fabled winds, the wind requests an “appropriate gift” to assist the faithful canine in his search. Another tale is then woven within the first as the dog responds, “The only gift I could offer to you is the gift of stories.”
*Review of Fairoz Ahmad’s Interpreter of Winds originally published in Asian Review of Booksby T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of for this re-post is via wallup.net. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons license.
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Though a work of academic anthropology, based mainly on Patcharin’s PhD research, the book is highly readable. The communities in the Isan region of Thailand, the women who inhabit these spaces, and the western men who end up sharing their lives with them are communicated with a non-judgmental clarity and sincerity. Patcharin’s meticulous examination of the lives of Thais in one village, some of whom have opted for marriage with foreign partners, makes for a fascinating and very contemporary ethnography.
Patcharin’s central argument is refreshing in that she does not want to bend the evidence to fit any narrative that denies women their agency in how they use their sexuality. The researcher is direct in saying that she is less interested in following many of her colleagues, who may be too quick to dismiss these relationships as a “gendered orientalizing project”, and more concerned about allowing the empirical evidence to speak for itself. Focusing on the “victimisation/oppression perspective” exclusively is often detrimental to “our understanding of the complexity of the current transnational phenomenon.”
This book goes against currently popular theories that wish to equate transnational marriage as nothing more than a front for sex trafficking. The research captures numerous moments of this bias, particularly by Western women, who may be inclined to emphasize a material—or even more crudely a transactional—interpretation of these relationships. As one Thai woman, who is married to Dutchman and works in a grocery store in the Netherlands, described in her own words:
Yes, my co-workers sometimes tease me about this. Once I was asked how much my husband paid to marry me. I didn’t take it seriously, but this is the way they think about us.
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.
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.
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.