Stories From a Changing Continent
A son worries whether his mother, who is travelling alone, will be able to haul her luggage down from the conveyor belt. An elderly couple from Karachi holds hands for the first time in broad daylight when crossing the road together in Atlanta. Window cleaners perching outside the 15th floor without proper safety equipment sing to “get rid of” their fear. Distinctly familiar and relatable moments such as these are exhilarating to find in any book, and the Best Asian Short Stories contains many.
The first in what is planned to be a series, with a name reminiscent of the Best American Short Stories, this edition stretches from Japan to Jordan in longitude. No one region foreshadows another. However, unlike its North American equivalent, this collection did not have the luxury of cherry-picking from stories published in already acclaimed literary magazines and instead, these tales had to be curated from direct submissions. At a time when the Asian label is still usually misunderstood to be East Asian, and we are more accustomed to seeing the word Pan-Asian in restaurant tag lines than in literature, this collection offers a mélange of nuanced stories that go beyond the usual tropes. While it may be ambitious to divulge the intimacies of an entire continent’s people in one 450-something paged volume, it is worth studying the intricacies of the resulting mosaic.
Even as the South Asian oeuvre is increasingly recognized, when it comes to Asian literature in English, the spotlight shines disproportionately on diasporic writers in English-speaking countries or on a handful of better-known names. Here, the stories set outside Asia by writers residing in America blend seamlessly into the broader thematic arcs of migration and the exploration of evolving identities. In “The Spaces Between Stars,” the Indian-American protagonist grapples between embracing each side of her hyphenated upbringing. Being raised a vegetarian, she feels horrified while going fishing. She also finds herself reluctant to go on a ski trip—a treat she had been denied while growing up. “Perhaps Shyamma had not been preparing her for anyone but herself,” she realizes, when remembering how her aunt had insisted on showing her recipes, including one for aloo paratha. She had dismissed that as a vestige of the practice of preparing girls for marriage. In “Jellybeans,” the elderly Pakistani couple overcomes their initial prejudices, to find happiness with their white daughter-in-law and her child from a previous marriage. These stories also share the common narrative of women who build a life for themselves in America when traditional South Asian plans do not pan out.
As Asia changes, so do the choices available to women. “Free Fall in a Broken Mirror” is dramatically symbolic of that conflict between traditional mores and tempting ways to break free. In “Chitrangada,” the central character wakes up to find that she has transformed over night from a dusky beauty to one with a “peaches and cream” complexion. In “The Muse,” the eponymous heroine decides against neutering her own existence.
The continent’s version of toxic masculinity is also examined. Bullied in school, and at home by his father, a Filipino boy takes revenge. A young man trains as an alpha lady killer to compensate for being hurt during his adolescence. As the queer community takes steps towards greater visibility in Asia, the neighbors share their nosy judgments when one such unusual couple turns up to live in their compound.
Linked by shared histories—by that of Partition, for example—the countries where many of these ideas originate are as similar as they are unique. Migration among these lands, along with one-way journeys to the West, has been a common denominator. Tales of Partition have almost come to the be the modern equivalent of classics to the imagination of the communities that the process fractured. On Independence Day 1947, a Sindhi refugee laughs hysterically, and then wails at the sight of a girl child dressed as Mother India for a school pageant. Just weeks earlier, her classmate looked for Sindh—her homeland, on the map only to find that it was no longer there. A Sindhi couple from Taiwan strikes up a conversation in Toronto with a restaurant-owner who is of Chinese origin, but has grown up in Mumbai—their camaraderie as fellow intergenerational nomads drawing them together. “Samar” by Amir Darwish depicts the most painful recent migration of all, from Syria to Europe—fleshing out the human details of the multiple tragedies that three-year-old Alan Kurdi gave a face to, when his small, helpless body was washed ashore.
In a continent that is home to both established and emerging economies, booming megacities with exacerbating inequalities, more and more people are entering the middle class. A high school student aspires to a better future, so he pins his dreams on finishing his education and maintaining a clean legal record. Yet in “Ladybugs Fly from the Top,” degrees and certifications fail as means to the white-collar job market and a decent life in Seoul. Under such circumstances, concerns for workers’ safety are easily overlooked.
Visible in this panorama, too, are the etchings Bangladesh has made on the horizon of Asian literature. Farah Ghuznavi’ s “Big Mother” is the tale, in parts, of a village girl named Lali who finds herself employed, along with her lover, in a factory housed in what has now become the infamous Rana Plaza. Memorable is the presence of a towering and abusive matriarch, who gives the story its name. The loving, supportive and protective elder brother is becoming rarer in real life as it is in fiction. A laborer’s body killed in the collapse remains contorted in pain even as he is being laid to rest—one of the manufacturing sector’s innumerable casualties. This creates a heartbreaking and haunting image.
It is perhaps telling that one of the most famous movies to come out of the continent in this decade is Slumdog Millionaire. Moinul Ahsan Saber writes about Moyna, who escapes from her husband’s clutches in one slum to seek refuge with her aunt in another—only to be dragged back. Her husband beats her, forcing her into sex work, but when a crisis arrives, Moyna takes matters into her own hands. Brought up once again are a woman’s individual choices and the patriarchy that polices them. In the end, the reader is left with a delightful sense of irony.
The only representation that remains incomplete in this offering is that of Central Asia, from where more stories would have been welcome. But this collection is a good stepping-stone to some of these writers’ other work, a platform for the continent to speak for itself on the world stage and reassert the power inherent in its own lore. This is agency not always granted to Asia, especially in a Western language. As an inaugural taste, what has been put together here will have readers eagerly awaiting the next iteration—especially those who have not come across enough books featuring either mynah birds, or the indomitable persona of Moyna the survivor in them.
Mayeesha Azhar works with environmental management, and has been the assistant editor for a Dhaka-based business bi-monthly. She wades in stories by reading, listening to podcasts and performing monologues for theatre.
ONE OF THE FINEST COMPILATION OF SHORT STORIES
Review by Mitali Chakravarty
The Best Asian Short Stories is one of the finest compilations of short stories I have read in a long time. The short stories cover a diaspora of Asian cultures, histories, societies in transit, shifting borders and values. They embrace an array of emotions that are universal and touch the heart of the reader. Established authors (Shashi Deshpande, Poile Sengupta, Farah Ghuznavi, Park Chan Soon, to name a few) and newcomers (N.Thierry, Wah Phing Lim, etc.) rub shoulders with stories that nudge one another, creating a wide range of reading experiences.
In this one book, I have travelled from the backstairs of Singapore’s government subsidized flats to Malaysian ports, to Phillipino slums, to Mao’s China, to Korea’s madly competitive society, to the lonely world of an Old Japanese, to a Syrian refugee’s boat, to the shifting borders of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, to the rebellion against restrictions in the conservative Middle East, to Canada, America and England. These stories have grasped values that leave the reader absolutely spellbound.
Universal truths are stated by the characters that come to life with a few strokes of the creator’s skilled pen. When a dying man discovers, ‘I’m neither Indian nor Bangladeshi. I’m human’, the character reaches out beyond the pages of the book and brings home that politics and nationalism draw borders where none exist for the poor man. In another story, around the eve of Indian independence, a little girl is ‘bewildered’ when she fails to find her homeland, Sindh, on the map of the new country and says, ‘It’s gone’. One is startled by the pathos that these two words can create and compelled to question why Indians mutely accepted the line drawn by Cyril Radcliffe. When in Canada, a middle aged Sindhi befriends a Hindi speaking Chinese, he contends, ‘I knew that we immigrants, Sindhi, Indian or Chinese, needed to look after each other’. This is an eternal truth faced by universal globetrotters traipsing through countries. The whole world becomes their home.
We get a glimpse of the suffering generated by movements like Mao’s Great Leap Forward where the leader is blind to the suffering of millions. That poverty does not recognize religion, caste or creed is highlighted in some of the stories that transcend boundaries drawn by wealth and power. The uncertainty of life is highlighted in the struggles faced by a soldier’s wife in Kashmir. That constant repression, poverty, humiliation and provocation can transform a quiet child into someone beyond judgment is exemplified by stories from both Philippines and India. Social customs are called into question when a Pakistani girl tells an American, ‘You know, you are no different than any other daughter- in-law back home. You all want to get rid of your in-laws’. The universal issues taken up are not just of social and political intent but also deal with the inner angst of the characters, including teenagers who are trying to be macho or are trying to make a living. The stories are multi-layered and deeply absorbing.
The characters play out their drama sometimes with a happy outcome and sometimes with a sad or horrific aftermath. One feels compelled to pause after each story as it resonates and lingers to create a distinct impression. Sometimes, the experience can be disturbing and sometimes happy.
Monideepa Sahu, the editor, has justifiably pointed out in her foreword,
‘These stories come from the heart of Asia… The home-grown Asian identity runs as a strong undercurrent.’ And it is with this current that the reader flows to discover a multi cultural and variegated universe brought together with a skilful play of words and excellent editing. The distinct style of each author is like a uniquely coloured thread deftly woven to create an exquisite fabric truly Asian in its discernment. The narratives are fluid, the language and styles suited to the story told.
The 32 stories have one thing in common – they all inculcate compassion, a love for mankind and a view of a world beyond borders. This is a book I would cherish for the rest of my life, a must read. Hats off to Zafar Anjum for visualizing this fantastic collection and Monideepa Sahu for her excellent editing!
Bio:Mitali Chakravarty writes essays, short stories, poetry and reviews. She has a book online, ‘In the Land of Dragons’(2014, ISBN; 978-1490704333). She blogs at 432m.
Here is the link: https://kitaab.org/2017/12/12/kitaabs-the-best-asian-short-stories/
The Emphasis on Family
Review by Madhulika Liddle
Several years back, I was talking to a European journalist who’d travelled fairly extensively across Asia. During our conversation, she said, “One thing that strikes me as a big difference [between Asia and Europe] is the emphasis on family here. Back home, once you grow up and move out of your parents’ home, there’s only occasional contact. Here, family is very important.”
The Best Asian Short Stories echoes that sentiment in many, many stories. In some way or the other, both good and bad. There is the mother visiting her son in Tokyo and slowly beginning to adjust to an alien lifestyle in Geetanjali Shree’s March, Ma and Sakura; there are the horrified parents, trying desperately to break up their son’s ill-advised (to their way of thinking) marriage to an American divorcee in Soniah Kamal’s Jelly Beans. There are mothers: the frighteningly biased and cruel stepmother of Farah Ghuznavi’s Big Mother; the self-sacrificing mother who hides her poverty from her son in Park Chan-Soon’s Ladybugs Fly From the Top; and the unforgettable Samar, fleeing war-torn Aleppo with her ten-year old son in Amir Darwish’s Samar. There is love and affection, but in equal measure (perhaps more) there are the other things that make families: the rifts, the anger, the hatred that festers in us but which is mellowed by the ingrained belief of blood being thicker than water, and family being paramount. There is nostalgia, there are the warnings passed on, born of experience, to the younger generation. There are chilling secrets that stay hidden for years before bursting forth.
Not that family is all the theme there is to these stories. There are others, very different ones: a Brit expat in Thailand, with a trophy wife in tow, discovers he’s accidentally bought himself a yakuza in Mithran Somasundrum’s darkly hilarious The Yakuza Under the Stairs. A poor schoolboy finds himself in a tight spot while trying to smuggle matches in Farouk Gulsara’s Damp Matches. And, in the vivid and almost lyrical Free Fall in a Broken Mirror (Hisham Bustani), a woman expected to stay veiled all her life tries desperately to break out—to let her spirit free.
It is hard to rate an anthology, and that too one with so many stories: some will appeal more to a reader and some less. For me, too, some stories stood out with the sheer brilliance of their storytelling, their language, and their appeal to the heart (these include the ones I’ve mentioned above, though there are others too that I liked a lot). Some stories were a little less appealing. A handful, it seemed, had escaped editing or proofreading and had typos that got in the way of my enjoyment of them. On the whole, though, this was a collection I liked: a varied bunch of stories, in varied styles, and presenting an intriguing picture of the diverse nature of Asia, its cultures and societies and values.
Madhulika Liddle has a page of her own on this website:http://indianshortstoryinenglish.com/reviews/madhulika-liddle-my-legally-wedded-husband-and-other-stories/
South Asian Writers Shine in this Bouquet of Short Stories from Asia
Review by Kanishk Singh
2017 has been a great year for fiction coming from the Indian subcontinent. Booker winner Arundhati Roy released her second work of fiction after a gap of 20 years — The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Pakistani-UK writer Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West got shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize and became an instant bestseller upon its release, selling thousands of copies. Another Pakistani-UK writer Kamila Shamsie came out with her seventh work of fiction—Home Fire—which is a reimagining of Sophocles’ Antigone.
But is the same true for short fiction coming out of Asia? Perhaps, yes.
The Best Asian Short Stories 2017 is a compilation of 32 short stories penned by authors who hail from different countries in Asia. Edited and compiled by Monideepa Sahu, the collection introduces you to different cultures, customs and traditions that are as different from each other as is sugar from salt. The collection has stories from Singapore, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Syria, Pakistan, Jordan and Korea, however, most of the stories are centered on Indian characters.
Some of the short stories are really compelling. Singaporean writer Yu-Mei Balasingamchow’s Fits And Starts portrays a snippet from the lives of two delivery persons working late at night. Shoma Chatterji’s Chitrangada tells the story of a dark-skinned woman who wakes up to find that her skin is no longer dark and ponders upon the mythological and cultural portrayals of dark skin. Clara Chow’s Girls’ House focuses on the erasures of past and how people are not always what they seem to be. Filipino writer Francis Paolo Quina writes about the build-up anger of being bullied in Pigs and how the anguish is released in the most unfortunate circumstances.
Perhaps one of the best among the lot is Bangladeshi writer Farah Ghuzanvi’s Big Mother which tells the story of a Hindu family living in Bangladesh. From the outlook, it might seem like any other story of oppression within a family, but the story beautifully unravels as does the life of the protagonist Lali who enters the city life as she grows up. Another gem in the collection is US-based writer Soniah Kamal whose story Jelly Beans tenderly describes the enigma of a Karachi-based couple whose son marries a white divorced woman. “Mr. Hafeez rose with his hand on his heart and immediately booked a call to Jamal even though it was very late night in America: let his hardworking accountant of a son be woken up from his sleep. This nonsense had to be put to an end.”
What doesn’t work?
Even though the title claims the short stories to be the ‘best’ of 2017, they aren’t. Several stories either get lost in the shadows of the above-mentioned gems or are either too ill-constructed or too pretentious. Srinjay Chakravarti’s The Skeleton Lock ostentatiously tries to make the reader a character but fails miserably. Kurdish poet Amir Darwish opens a window to the lives of Syrian refugees in Samar, but there is nothing poetic about the narrative. The dialogues are his biggest enemy. Even the famous Indian writer Shashi Deshpande fails to leave a mark in Independence Day, which is a retelling of Partition through a school pageant.
Why should you pick it up?
Though there are hits and misses, the compilation thrives on the sheer diversity of the writers who hail from all corners of the world’s largest continent. There are translations, flash fictions and even award-winning fictions which take you across countries, cultures and histories as well as into the private lives of characters who are living in a conflict. The compilation acts as a window to the seemingly foreign, yet relatable world of people living in Asia.
SONI WADHWA presents a fine, individual perspective in her review, IT’S TRULY ASIA.
Here’s the link: https://www.deccanherald.com/sunday-herald/sunday-herald-books/it-s-truly-asia-681140.html
A Lofty Claim
Review by Kumar Sharma
‘The Best Asian Short Stories’, published last year by Kitaab Singapore, comprises of 33 short stories, two amongst them flash fiction of a few hundred words, from 32 different authors, all from Asia. It’s clear that the publishers wanted to come up with a collection of stories that is truly Asian in both its content and its feel. The question is: Do stories narrated by natives come across as original just because they have a local voice? What about the aesthetic aspects and the old-fashioned craft of storytelling?
As mentioned by Monideepa Sahu, editor of the book, in the foreword, Asian experiences can be simple, yet deceptively complex with so many cultures and traditions associated with the reality of being Asian. Speaking on the same vein, it could not have been an easy task for the publisher to search, discover, and compile stories from so many different parts of Asia. There are stories from Jordan to Syria, and from Malaysia to Singapore—almost unheard of territories when it comes to literary work—in addition to stories from India, Bangladesh and Korea, the stalwarts of Asian fiction.
‘Jelly Beans’ by Soniah Kamal is a story that warms your heart. The story revolves around an elderly couple from Pakistan struggling to reconcile with the fact that their youngest son who lives in United States has married a divorced American with a four-year-old daughter. It is a beautifully crafted story that carefully depicts the reluctance of most Asian parents from earlier generations in accepting anything that is not remotely theirs—from cultures to people. The end, however, shows that even the staunchest practitioners of beliefs do eventually come to terms with the reality in the face of time and situation. It would not be an exaggeration to say that ‘Jelly Beans’ is the best story in the collection, a pillar that holds the anthology together.
Farah Ghuznavi’s ‘Big Mother’ is another highlight of the collection. Farah is not a new name in Asian fiction as her debut collection of short stories ‘Fragments of Riversong’ was published by Daily Star Books in 2013, and was received well by readers and critics alike. In fact, the story ‘Big Mother’ was one of the stories in her maiden short story collection. It’s about a young girl who happens to revisit her troublesome memories from childhood in Bangladesh as she stands outside the American Embassy, eager to leave behind her past and venture into the world of possibilities and dreams. The practice of polygamy, indifference and atrocity of a stepmother, and resilience to rise above troubles reverberate in this story that is uniquely Bangladeshi and, by extension, South Asian.
Having said that, the anthology, however, has certain shortcomings. Many stories are frustratingly short. As a reader, you would have wanted to read more of it, but with abrupt endings they often leave a bad aftertaste. ‘Ammulu’ by Polie Sengupta is one such story. It has a promising start but falls apart right in the end with its hurried ending. Sometimes stories are better not being wrapped up in a rush but left at the crossroad with readers coming up with their own imaginative conjectures as to what might have happened in the end.
‘Offspring’ by Subrata Sengupta is another story with a promising beginning but gives way right towards the end owing to its uncharacteristic ending. Often times, it felt as though the stories did not come to an end but they were forcefully brought to an end, preventing the stories to occupy readers’ mind and create a lasting impression.
Stories like ‘Independence Day’ and ‘Water on a Hot Plate’ dabble on India-Pakistan partition and how it affected people’s lives but they don’t delve deep on the matter, and hence are unable to paint a comprehensive picture. As a result, it just appears as an outline. Likewise, ‘Chit Mahal’ (The Enclave) tries to explore the long-standing tension at the India and Bangladesh border, but with little success.
Amir Darwish’s ‘Samar’ is an emotional portrayal of a mother who flees the war-ravaged town of Aleppo in Syria with her young child, leaving her husband behind in search of safe and better land, only to realise that the path she has chosen to tread is even worse. Since it is one of the better stories of the collection, after reading it, readers will rue the fact that it wasn’t long enough to appease the hunger of reading a good story. ‘Mon-Chan’ by Suzanne Kamata is a fascinating tale of a daughter struggling to come to terms with her elderly mother’s deteriorating dementia and the frustration associated with it.
Harsh as it may sound, a majority of the stories feel amateurish, with a lack of professional flair that the craft of short story writing requires. In hindsight, it can be said that the publisher and the editor, in particular, should have been more selective while choosing the stories for publication. Nonetheless, this initiative by Kitaab Singapore to compile short stories from various parts of Asia is a laudable effort as we can only expect to read better stories in the next volume, should there be one. But one has to hope that the subsequent installment will do better justice to the title of the book than the current volume.