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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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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Too Much Democracy

Despite appearances, something is missing at the heart of Thai democracy.

This rainy season marks eighty-five years since Thailand had its first experiment in democracy. Before 24 June 1932, the country had been ruled by royal absolutism. Many wonder, since the nation experienced a democratic revolution so long ago, why it is under the control of a military-imposed government in 2017. After a total of nineteen coups over the last century, what is holding back Thailand’s embrace of liberal democracy?

An important piece of the puzzle, which is almost always overlooked, goes back to the very nature of that first democratic revolution. Though the revolution may have been “democratic”, it most definitely wasn’t “liberal”.

The real challenge for Thailand is that, despite its repeated attempts at an expansion of democratic processes and inclusion, the nation has sorely fallen behind in its commitment to the natural liberties of its citizenry. Thais, when they do experiment with democracy, almost always place democratic processes over liberal institutions in their understanding of the liberal democratic regime.

Recent events in Thailand have illustrated this problem. The accession and fall of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, with his palpably democratic pedigree after multiple wins at the ballot box in 2001, 2005, 2006 and by proxy in 2007, 2011 and 2014, proved to be as exciting for some voters as it was horrifying for others. The military coups in 2006 and 2014, and the months of public demonstrations in downtown Bangkok that always preceded them, were downstream from a fundamental disagreement between those who emphasise liberal principles of government and those who emphasise democratic principles.

The contention here is that by embracing democracy without first securing liberal rights and institutions, Thailand has had to swing widely from the excessive, utopian-like embraces of democratic elections to even more pathetic retreats into the faux security proffered by the men in olive green.

Revisiting the People’s Party founding document of the 1932 revolution is instructive. One can argue that the seeds of the current calamity were already sown in the six principles of the revolutionary vanguard at that time:

1. Maintain securely the independence of the country in all forms including political, judicial, and economic etc.;

2. Maintain public safety within the country and greatly reduce crime;

3. Improve the economic well-being of the people by the new government finding employment for all, and drawing up a national economic plan, not leaving the people to go hungry;

4. Provide the people with equal rights (so that those of royal blood do not have more rights than the people as at present);

5. Provide the people with liberty and freedom, as far as this does not conflict with the above four principles;

6. Provide the people with full education.

Not until the fifth principle in the People’s Party demands did liberty and freedom make an appearance. Furthermore, those natural liberties were allowed only as long as “this does not conflict with the above four principles”. Basic components of liberalism like natural liberties, balancing institutions, freedom of expression, religious liberties and the right to one’s own property were an afterthought at best—some not mentioned at all.

The reason we can refer to this event in 1932 as a “democratic” revolution, despite its brevity, is that it carried with it a commitment to equal voting rights in general democratic elections. The democratic element of the new regime worked fine. So why did this first attempt at democracy in Thailand fail? Perhaps more importantly, why do nearly all unadorned democracies in the world since the time when Plato and Aristotle theorised about them eventually crumble?

One of the more frustrating blind spots in the study of Thai politics today—and comparative politics more broadly—is the tendency to… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Mekong Review by T. F. Rhoden (also here at Academia); photo image credit of the plaque image from Thailand for this re-post goes to The Isaan Record. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

 

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When The Future Comes Too Soon

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Selina Siak Chin Yoke’s When The Future Comes Too Soon.

For those who had been living under Western imperialism in Asia, the sudden loss of presumed superiority in almost all things political, social, and cultural of the European colonial powers after Japan’s sudden attack in late 1941 was a seminal event. Japan’s own, often violent, experiment in colonial administration that immediately took its place, lasting through to the summer of 1945, and its attempts at pan-Asianism reinforced for the many that the “civilizing” project need not demand colonial masters from abroad.

As many historical studies have argued, this changed the course of colonialism in Asia. In fiction, however, this perspective of former colonial subjects (as opposed to the colonials themselves) living through the daily trials brought about by the tumultuous events of the Second World War, particularly in mainland Southeast Asia, has been less well explored.

Selina Siak Chin Yoke’s novel When the Future Comes Too Soon is an important corrective—as well as an exciting read—on the subject. The story follows Mei Foong, a Malaysian-Chinese wife and mother, as her family attempt survival during the Japanese occupation of British Malaya.

A picturesque scene of colonial Malaya is developed throughout the novel. Its richness brings the reader closer to the baju styled garb, the sleeping barlay raised platforms of Malayan homes, the Hokkien, Hakka, and Cantonese dialects of Malayan Chinese, the Kempeitai secret police of Japan, the betel nut chewing of commoners, the local parang machetes of workers, the official British Resident, the hardwood chengai of the tropics, and an innumerable number of traditional honorifics and kinship terms of multilingual Malaya. The protagonist Mei Foong’s interactions in this world are colorful.

The struggle of multiethnic Malaya is paralleled in the… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of Malaysian jungle for this re-post goes to this Leo from FWallpapers. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Notes of a Crocodile

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Qiu Miaojin’s Notes of a Crocodile, translated by Bonnie Huie.

Taiwan’s top court just recently ruled in favour of gay marriage, culminating in what could be Asia’s first jurisdiction to allow members of the same sex to marry. Despite many challenges that still persist politically with the ruling, it indicates a more liberal attitude toward non-heterosexual relationships than when Qiu Miaojin published the novel Notes of a Crocodile in the early 1990s.

Qiu’s frank exploration of lesbianism was a breakthrough for the island’s literature and for modern Chinese fiction as a whole. More than twenty years on, the English-speaking world can now also enjoy this daring, youthful and insightful book in a translation by Bonnie Huie.

Half journal and half epistolary, the story follows the troubled protagonist Lazi as she tries to understand her place in society during her years at university. Something of a misfit, Lazi explores the counterculture of Taipei as she struggles to embrace an identity that is labelled “queer”. The plot is driven by her relationships – some romantic, others more platonic – and the numerous failed attempts at lasting love for individuals who don’t fit the traditional, Taiwanese notion of heterosexuality.

In “Notebook #1” of the book, Lazi starts with an explicit admission. Her tone is straightforward and continues throughout the novel:

In the past I believed that every man had his own innate prototype of a woman, and that he would fall in love with the woman who most resembled his type. Although I’m a woman, I have a female prototype too.

However, regardless of the exploration of gender, the detailed self-inquiry of Lazi’s listless move from high school to college to her first post-university job constitutes a universal and empathetic coming-of-age story. Indeed, lesbianism is incidental to the power of the story.

Woven in between the chapters on Lazi’s story of young love is… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden with this edition of review published in South China Morning Post; photo image credit of Taipei for this re-post goes to this link. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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The Sad Part Was

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Prabda Yoon’s The Sad Part Was, translated by Mui Poopoksakul.

Thailand’s most popular literary writers rarely get an introduction onto the world stage. An English language newspaper like The Bangkok Post will hint at the greatness of one seminal Thai author or another in their arts and culture section. But non-Thai readers will be clueless as to why. That short stories by the Thai writer Prabda Yoon are now available in his first English language anthology The Sad Part Was is at least one significant corrective. Nearly two decades after Prabda caught the attention of Thai readers and won the S.E.A. Write Award, non-Thais are gifted this rare opportunity to enjoy his works through Mui Poopoksakul’s fluid translation.

Prabda’s writing is playful and creative. For international readers, the breakdown of plot structure, cryptic and sudden endings, and wordplay in general are well understood techniques. But when short story collection Probability came out in 2000, Prabda hit upon a freshness and spontaneity that was less well represented in the realistic writing in Thailand at the time.

One example is in the story “Marut by the Sea”. The burgeoning storyline of the main character Marut’s story is suddenly interrupted by a voice meant to represent some stylized, self-loathing voice of the author’s subconscious. The reader is forced to grapple with this interjecting voice as it obliterates the narrative logic:

You should comprehend by now, given my elaboration thus far, that whoever wrote that book dearest to you is no finer a human being than anybody else. He has no clue what he’s done. Do you know how I got the opportunity to pop up and communicate with you today? It’s simple. Prabda hasn’t come up with a plausible reason for why Marut is sitting by the sea.

You might be thinking that I’m part of his genius. Don’t.

The uninvited authorial voice does not let up. It continues to hold the plot of Marut’s tale hostage, speaking directly to the reader, until the last few words of the story itself. For Thai literature, the effect of the author’s interruption is striking.

All of the short stories work from a vantage point not normally accessible to non-Thai readers. Some comment on how… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of downtown Bangkok for this re-post goes to the awesome Philippe Lai. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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The Last Gods of Indochine

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Samuel Ferrer’s The Last Gods of Indochine.

Exoticism and marketable anguish were an unavoidable trope during Hollywood superstar Angelina Jolie’s premier event last week at Angkor in Cambodia. Amidst the harrowing tales of Khmer Rouge-era suffering, cameras and lights were focused on the actress as she munched on fried “a-ping” zebra tarantulas in one corner of the Angkor temple complex. Such are the sorts of clichés that Samuel Ferrer must—and prudently does—eschew in his enjoyable historical novel The Last Gods of Indochine set in the shadows of Angkor.

The novel unfurls over two distinct and widely separated periods of the Kingdom of Cambodia’s past. The first is embodied by the protagonist Jacqueline Mouhot in her visit to Angkor during the interwar years in French Indochina. The second period is set in opposition to, and ultimately intertwined with, the 13th-century struggles of a peasant by the name of Paaku against a despotic monarch of the ancient Khmer Empire.

Jacqueline Mouhot is the granddaughter of explorer and naturalist grandfather Henri Mouhot (1826-61), whose steps she seeks to retrace after receiving an invitation by the École française d’Extrême-Orient to an opening of a temple restoration project in his honor.  Her story is a familiar one of self-discovery in foreign lands, complicated by the tragic choices she had to make as a volunteer nurse with the Anglo-French Red Cross during the Great War and her struggle to face that earlier period in her life.

The granddaughter Jacqueline and her interactions with her contemporaries in colonial Cambodia are fictional. Many of the names that appear in her travels—archeologists Louis Finot (1864-1935) and Henri Parmentier (1871-1949), curator Henri Marchal (1876-1970), and the White Russian soldier and historian Victor Goloubew (1878-1945)—are however historical. They all represent a bygone era during which to be a professional “Orientalist” did not immediately connote a problematic image of western imperialism.

The story itself is driven not so much by the adventures of Jacqueline, but rather by the preternatural connection she has with… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of Angkor Wat for this re-post goes to the talented Randall Collis. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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