We, The Survivors

Review of Tash Aw’s We, The Survivors (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019)

Review

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 license.

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The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth

Review of Veeraporn Nitiprapha’s The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth, translated by Kong Rithdee (River Books, 2019)

Review

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 license.

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Scales of Injustice: The Complete Fiction of Lōa Hô

Review of Lōa Hô’s Scales of Injustice: The Complete Fiction of Lōa Hô, translated by Darryl Sterk (Honford Star, 2018)

Review

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 license.

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Tsunami

Review of Anatoly Kurchatkin’s Tsunami, translated by Arch Tait (Glagoslav Publications, 2017)

Review

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 license.

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Hidden Words Hidden Worlds

Review of Lucas Stewart and Alfred Birnbaum’s (eds) Hidden Words Hidden Worlds: Contemporary Short Stories from Myanmar (British Council, 2017)

Review

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 license.

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Malay Sketches

Review of Alfian Sa’at’s Malay Sketches (Gaudy Boy, 2018)

Review

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 license.

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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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