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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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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Hidden Words Hidden Worlds

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Hidden Words Hidden Worlds: Contemporary Short Stories from Myanmar, edited by Lucas Stewart and Alfred Birnbaum.

The crisis of recent months between the majority Buddhist Burmese and minority Islamic group calling themselves Rohingya serves as a reminder that Myanmar (Burma) is not a unified country in the sense of one nation, one state. The central government’s overreaction to an increase in Islamic radicalization in some rural areas by the brutal expulsion of 600,000-plus souls across the border into Bangladesh—though violent and tragic—should not be mistaken as unique in Myanmar’s history.

Stretching back at least seventy years to Myanmar’s independence in 1948, the various conflicts between the majority ethnic Burman along the central Irrawaddy valley down to the delta and the hundred or so different ethnolinguistic groups that populate the republic’s borders with Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, and Thailand attest even more vividly to disunity. The response to the Rohingya crisis is not without precedent. Wave the compass in the direction of northeast Myanmar and another ferocious struggle comes into purview between the central government and the Kachin peoples. Despite valid steps toward democratization—maybe less valid toward political liberalization—these types of communal conflicts have never not been an empirical reality for independent Myanmar. This cruel misalignment between majority-versus-minority aspiration is well documented both inside and outside Myanmar.

Less well documented are those perspectives that often never make their presence felt outside the smaller linguistic communities in Myanmar. The literary anthology Hidden Words Hidden Worlds: Contemporary Short Stories from Myanmar, edited by Lucas Stewart and Alfred Birnbaum, is a fascinating reversal to the usual absence of non-Burman viewpoints. The short stories gathered here are an eclectic mix by fourteen different authors. The writers are… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Review of edited book by Lucas Stewart and Alfred Birnbaum originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of Rakhine Hills for this re-post goes to the talented DG-Photography via a post by Nada Haensel in Destinations Magazine. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Liberalism Lite

Is Singapore a liberal democracy or a social democracy?

Amos Yee, a nineteen-year-old Singaporean citizen, was granted political asylum in the United States at the end of September 2017. A video blogger and occasional provocateur, Yee found himself jailed in the city-state for two months in 2015 and two weeks in 2016. Yee has produced video segments in which, by his own admission, he has “bash[ed] the Singapore government” on one ideological point or another. The videos that have caused, not merely condemnation, but arrest have been diatribes against religion. An avowed non-believer, Yee has poked fun at the most popular faiths in Singapore, including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. One memorable video shows the young Yee “humping the Koran” in protest against some of the text’s more violent strictures.

Arguing that Yee had a “well-founded fear” of political persecution if returned to Singapore, his attorneys successfully made the case to the US Board of Immigration Appeals that he be granted political asylum. For the US, a precocious rant on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram is blasé stuff these days — not to mention squarely protected under the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Any modern liberal democratic regime worth its name would have shrugged off the teenager’s online activity.

Though some of us tetchier adults might murmur that Yee’s commentary was in poor taste, those acts all fit squarely within the freedoms outlined within political liberalism. Yet, what might have been passed over for another teenager exploring and commenting on his understanding of the world about him ended up being considered an affront to the political harmony of Singapore. For the regime, the youth’s commentary on religion, society and politics was enough to place him under state detention.

Amos Yee’s recent turmoil may be a useful test case for deciphering Singaporean political society beyond the usual liberal, and somewhat lazy, critique that the city-state is “authoritarian”. To say that Singapore is not a liberal democracy — that Singapore is patently illiberal on some axiomatic elements of modernity — is easy enough. What is more challenging is to describe clearly the Singaporean regime, whilst not ignoring or belittling the fact that an absolute majority of Singaporeans over the last half century have continued to approve of a government that nakedly “disavows” classical liberalism.

Singapore has not always been against liberalism. Indeed, those liberal components that do survive within Singapore, particularly in how the island trades and communicates with the rest of the world, can be traced backed to its colonial history since 1819 as an important trading depot under the British. After independence in 1963, the island merged with Malaya to form Malaysia, only to opt out of the newly formed country a couple of years later to go it alone. The 1950s–60s brought unemployment between 10 and 12 per cent, along with threats of civil unrest, an attack by the Indonesian military and forced reintegration into Malaysia ever looming.

During these coeval exigencies, the People’s Action Party (PAP) was formed in 1954 with Lee Kuan Yew in a leadership role. The PAP consolidated earlier wins at the ballot box in the 1950s by gaining over 80 per cent of the vote in 1968. With varying, though continued, PAP success, Lee Kuan Yew held the prime minister’s office until 1990, embarking on a modernisation that propelled the city-state into becoming one of the highest GDP per capita nations in the twenty-first century. Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP were always practical in their modernisation plans, never fearing to be openly dismissive of political liberalism whenever it went against policy. Fifty years later, the PAP still reigns. For many liberal commenters today, Singapore is a “de facto one party-state” with the PAP as continued steward of illiberal governance.

Chua Beng Huat’s Liberalism Disavowed: Communitarianism and State Capitalism in Singapore is an informative and nuanced publication on this question of liberalism’s place in contemporary Singapore. The publication serves as a useful text on both the city-state’s peculiar politics and the nature of liberalism itself as it is actualised — or rejected — in the modern world.

Most fascinatingly, Chua’s exposition of what he terms the Singaporean regime’s commitment to “communitarianism” may lead one to reconsider the meaning of “social” in “social democracy”. After reading this book, one may even be tempted to argue that Singapore is — because of its rejection of many liberal tenets — not just a wayward example, but rather the best and purest example, of social democracy in the contemporary era… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Mekong Review by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit at top of this re-post is a screenshot from Episode 6 of 宇宙よりも遠い場所 via reviewer Guan Zhen Tan at Mothership.sg. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

 

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Malay Sketches

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Alfian Sa’at’s Malay Sketches.

Exploring identity in a multi-ethnic community through fiction can be a sensitive subject. The importance people place on identity is often a prickly topic these days—especially in multi-religious, multiracial communities like that of Singapore’s five and a half million citizens. In November 2017, the Singaporean Institute of Policy Studies presented evidence that for the first time more Singaporeans identify with the city-state than with their own ethnic lineage. The remaining half of survey respondents, however, still felt a “simultaneous” identity of both Singaporean and racial heritage.

Yet these statistics only go so far in understanding the subject’s sensitivity for many people. Alfian Sa’at’s Malay Sketches is a short story collection that achieves a balance between the sensitive nature of analyzing race and ethnicity from the perspective of a minority and a playful inventiveness by making the discussion seem lighthearted. First published in 2012 by Ethos Books, it be will released early in 2018 for the international market by the new imprint Gaudy Boy.

In ethnically-Chinese dominated Singapore, Aflian’s perspective in these short stories is valuable for investigating the daily lives of those individuals who may not fit the stereotypical, Chinese-looking Singaporean. Alfian, who is himself a Singaporean Muslim of mixed Hakka, Javanese, and Minangkabau descent, is a creative interpreter of Singapore’s unique society for outsiders.

In total, Malay Sketches contains forty-eight stories. Some stories are… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Review originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of Singaporean Islamic Hub for this re-post goes to this 32cravenfan. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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