A Struggle to Preserve One’s Home-grown Asian Identity
Review by Neil Leadbeater
Asia is our largest and most populous continent, the site of many of our first civilizations, the birthplace of most of the world’s mainstream religions, and home to 4.5 billion people constituting roughly 60% of the world’s population. Within that number there is a wide variety of ethnic groups, cultures, environments, historical connections and government systems. Compiling and editing this volume of short stories from such a vast area offering such a wellspring of experience must have been a daunting task and Monideepa Sahu is to be congratulated on fulfilling her commission with such enthusiasm, dedication and professionalism. Credit should also be given to the translators in cases where their services were required.
The idea for the anthology came from Zafar Anjum, founder of Kitaab International. Calls for submissions were posted on the Internet and Kitab’s own site and Monideepa Sahu approached writers whose works she admired, requesting them to spread the news by word of mouth. Over 300 submissions were received. Sifting through them all took months of meticulous hard work. In some cases the editor worked with the individual authors advising them on areas that could be improved upon and encouraging them to resubmit revised versions of their texts.
The 32 stories that make up this anthology originate from writers resident in eleven Asian countries including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, Malaysia the Philippines. They are written by novelists, journalists, playwrights, poets, film translators, editors, content developers, engineers, development workers, social activists and film critics. Many of them are keen on collaboration between artistic disciplines, have already published a substantial body of fiction, won prestigious prizes, appeared in journals of international repute and have had their work translated into several languages. What they have to offer is impressive both in terms of quality and content.
Within these pages we meet a locksmith who has spent years perfecting a skeleton lock, a window cleaner and his colleagues working on a high-rise block, immigrants hoping to make it to a safer shore, refugees who have lost everything, a young boy who is driven to violence because of being bullied at school, a medical student who goes off in search of his stolen mobile phone, a father’s quest for a son-in-law and a woman from India who experiences at first hand the beauty of cherry blossom in Japan.
One of the many strengths of these writers lies in their ability to turn a story that focuses on a specific incident into something that becomes universal. In Ladybugs Fly From The Top, Park Chan-Soon delivers a first-rate description of a man’s fear of falling from a safety board fifty floors up a high-rise building where there’s no room for mistakes. When you’re a beginner, never look down. Humans, however, are full of mistakes and life itself can be like walking on a tightrope. This story quickly translates into a fear about failure with regard to one’s place or status in society. To survive you have to come in first at the top. The tension created by this story is masterful and it is a tension that the writer manages to sustain from the beginning to the end.
Srinjay Chakravarty’s Skeleton Lock tells the story of a locksmith who has spent years perfecting a skeleton lock, that is, one which any key can open. It is totally superfluous and yet he is so proud of it. This translates very quickly into a philosophical question: does everything need a purpose to exist? Why do I exist? The transition from a human story to a universal one is achieved with great economy.
The way we appear to ourselves and to others is a major theme running through this collection. The young girl in Shoma Chatterjee’s Chitrangarda wakes up to find that her café mocha burnt sienna complexion has turned into the colour of peaches and cream. This girl knows all about colour. It turns out that her doctorate is a dissertation on the black goddess Kali. Within her blackness is the dazzling brilliance of illumination. Chitra finds herself facing an identity crisis. Although the theme is about cultural attitudes towards skin colour in India, skin colour being an indicator of identity, ethnicity and status, Chatterjii tells us that it is the person inside and what that person achieves in life that matters, not looks.
Preoccupation with the way people look and interact with each other, especially between the sexes- is a dominant theme in N. Thierry’s story, Soft Boy, where specific descriptions of clothing become a metaphor for defining ones status at any moment in time. Power dressing and other forms of dressing are used skillfully in this story about a young Singaporean male who is pressurized into projecting a false image of himself in order to conform to social norms. The subject of ones place in society features in Mithran Somasundaram’s entertaining story, The Yakuza Under The Stairs where the yakuza becomes a status symbol and brings acceptance into the community’s elite for a former London cab driver who inherits a large sum of money and goes off in search of a new life in Thailand.
Cultural differences are explored in Geeta Kothari’s The Spaces Between Stars where the differences between an Indian woman married to an American man are carefully delineated. The woman comes across as being indecisive whereas her husband is depicted as a confident academic who has achieved a measure of success in life. The woman, whose sense of feeling and compassion for others, is seen in the end to be the more advanced. Food plays a big part in this and other stories where it is used chiefly as a cultural determinant. In Geeta Kothari’s story, Maya is horrified by her participation in the death of another creature when she goes fishing. The sunfish metaphor recurs several times throughout the story. She dreads telling her aunt, who is a vegetarian, what has happened. Tired of cultural differences and how they are affecting her life, Maya wanted out of this skin, out of this life and into another, one that fit her, not one that she had to fit.
Loh Guan Liang’s Three For A Dollar a piece of flash fiction also focuses on food, this time it is epok epok (fried Malay pastry):
“He never ate what he sold, which was why he never knew how when his customers bit into the fried pastry filling they got reacquainted, like oil surfacing on water, with that which they had lost. His epok epok became part of a morning ritual of recollection and forgiveness. Some ate it for breakfast, others brunch. Some saved it till the end of the day when they were alone. Through some preternatural prudence the epok epok man sagely limited each customer to three pieces. Too much of a good thing, even if it is cheap, is no good.”
Food features again in Ammulu by Poile Sengupta. In this story, a father asks a marriage merchant “What do young men want these days from a wife?” Putting in a good word for his daughter, who is running a snacks business in Trichy, he says that one day she may become an international cook. Later he reluctantly concedes that today’s boys only want wives that look like film stars.
In Jeremy Tangs harrowing story, 1997, food is seen as a means of survival. An aunt reveals to the young teenage girl in her charge, who does not want to move away from Hong Kong, how terrible things were when she herself left China for Hong Kong. “We avoided the Cultural Revolution by going where we did, but even so, the year we went was the most terrible. No food. Nothing could be worse than no food.”
In Water On A Hot Plate, Murli Melwani comments that “food is a wonderful destroyer of inhibitions.” In this story, Melwani uses both food and language as cultural identifiers. The loss of native language skills among the younger generations living in exile is beautifully portrayed in this story.
“Anand and his generation understood the Sindhi language but could not speak it. Teenagers and younger children nowadays neither understood not spoke it. They spoke English, Hindi, Tagalog, Portuguese, whatever, depending on the country where they lived.”
This too is viewed in a positive light when Melwani writes “You can’t integrate with a society if you don’t speak the local language.” Melwani sums it up neatly when he writes “People like Vivek and I saw it all; our culture was like a puddle of water on a hotplate effervescing, vanishing.”
Immigration and the plight of the refugee is another theme that is handled with sensitivity in this collection. In Samar, Amir Darwish gives a realistic portrayal of the human tragedy of boatloads of immigrants hoping to make it to a safer shore and the beginning of a new life. Partition refugees who have lost everything, including a piece of their homeland, are the subject of Shashi Deshpande’s Independence Day which begins with a heartfelt description of one of the many stages of grief that one human being can experience for the loss of another, but later becomes something more universal when a woman recollects girlhood memories of Partition refugees. Deshpande gives us an emotional picture of children looking for Sindh on a map of the new India, a map that “seemed incomplete. As if someone had clipped its wings.”
Siddhartha Gigolos The Umbrella Man takes place in an asylum. According to Monideepa Sahu, “the story indirectly alludes to victims of the persecution of Hindu Pandits in Kashmir, which resulted in a mass exodus of the community from their homeland.” Here, however, the focus is on one individual, referred to as Number 7, and speaks of how the smallest of things (in this case, an umbrella) can take on the greatest significance when one is in confinement. Gigoo uses rain as a metaphor for freedom:
“Somehow, Number 7 was hopeful of the rain that evening as well. He felt lucky to have chanced upon the umbrella with yellow-and-red stripes. It had become his playmate. Like him, the umbrella too, had not seen the battering of rain at all. What good was an umbrella if it had not been used in the rain? The dance of the raindrops on the nylon cloth held together by slender aluminum strips was a distant dream. It was the rain which defined the umbrella, gave it its purpose, its essence and meaning. The umbrella was utterly worthless without the rain.”
But then there was the waiting a long and lacerating wait for the clouds and the rain. On many evenings, Number 7 had seen the swelling clouds waft by and hover over the asylum compound. And without fail, he would excitedly unfurl the umbrella and leave his ward with hope in his heart, thinking of the rain, expecting it to come down.
People who have to face change in some form or another, usually, the change that comes from moving to a completely different country and culture, is one of several key themes to be found throughout these stories. In Jeremy Tang’s 1997, the aunt tells the teenage girl in her charge “I understand, change is frightening. It’s difficult to leave familiar things behind. But sometimes, they leave you.” Changing tack and, in the case of Shikhandin’s Patchwork, one’s religious convictions, are seen as being just another means of survival for one family who have escaped from one identity into another.
In Chit Mahal’s The Enclave history is played out through a game of chess as the protagonist hops between borders, in this case the border between India and Bangladesh. Seeing the same sea, sky, mud and water, he ponders the question “how different is our religion from theirs, then?….How different is our life from theirs, then?”
Clara Chows story, Girls’ House, hovers between imagination and reality as a girl imagines the lives of her grandparents and later finds out some shocking truths. Imagination is sometimes kinder than reality:
“Life is not neat. It goes wherever it wants to go, dragging you with it, like the owner on the other end of a dog leash.
For the longest time, I thought I was the dog sniffing around the story of my grandmother’s Girls’ House, trying to uncover it like a long-buried bone nobody could remember the location of. Turns out that it was the story that was yanking me along on a chain. Winding itself around my ankles. Being immobilized to one spot is a narrative. Unable to take a step, because one is so paralyzed by history, by everything that makes us, us, is one narrative. Falling over is another narrative.”
In Damp Matches, Farouk Gulsara shows himself to be a master of suspense as his protagonist becomes more and more edgy at the prospect of being found out for his misdeeds. Moinul Ahsan Saber is another writer who is a master at keeping the reader in suspense. The opening pages of his story, Powerless, are taken up with the reaction of one man to two words that are spoken to him by his accomplice. Will he smile or will he turn violent? We are kept guessing for quite a while and the tension never lifts as the story develops into an horrific account of a violent husband who forces his wife into prostitution so that he can live off her earnings.
Violence rears its ugly head again in Pigs where Francis Paolo Quina gives us a graphic account of how one boy is subjected to bullying at school and witnesses domestic violence in the home only to eventually become violent himself.
One should not fall into the trap of thinking that all stories should have a beginning and an end. The cross cultural stories in this anthology give us a snapshot of what it must be like to live in exile, to experience some of the life-changing events of a country’s history, to seek refuge from war and internal conflict and to struggle to preserve ones home-grown Asian identity. Each story is a moment in time. Murli Melwani puts it succinctly when he writes :”And so the present extends into the future. Stories seldom end with full stops, as they do in books. In life they end with commas.”
Notes on the contributors are given at the end. Fully recommended.
Link to the source:
A Brave Attempt to Collect Stories of the ‘Asian Experience’
I often hear editors and agents lament, “…nobody reads short stories. They don’t sell.” Still, every year, some wonderful collections are published, reviewed and read. Frank O’Connor said the form could be best used to tell tales of the marginalized. Much like its characters then, the form too carries the burden of being in perpetual shadow, always under threat from the novel. Existing on the margins of literary hullabaloo around the novel, the form quietly survives.
So, in these times, when the form is fraught with such a strange disdain, an anthology of short stories is a welcome event. The first ever compilation of 20th century stories written by writers based in Asia or who have deep connections with the region is worthy of special mention. The Best Asian Short Stories (2017) edited by Monideepa Sahu (series editor, Zafar Anjum) deserves attention. One needs to give credit to the Singapore-based publisher, Kitaab for thinking of and bringing out this collection of short stories. The introduction to the authors and their works and a detailed foreword makes this book an important addition to the wealth of narratives from the Asian region.
The Best Asian Short Stories edited by Monideepa Sahu (Kitaab, 2017)
This anthology contains 32 works from 11 countries, including a few from the Arab region. Perhaps, a few of the stories would be familiar to readers. For example, I had already read Siddhartha Gigoo’s ‘The Umbrella Man’ (awarded the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, 2015, Asia), Shashi Deshpande’s remarkable ‘Independence Day’ and Farah Ghuznavi’s ‘Big Mother’ (from her collection, Fragments Of A River Song).
Like in all anthologies some tales work better than the others. There are stories that use the traditional structure, while many others move to more experimental forms. Out of the nine Asian countries featured, six were British colonies and thus there are many references to the post-colonial experience.
The settings might seem more familiar to an Asian reader. But in today’s times of transnational migration and multicultural societies, the anthology would easily appeal to a non-Asian reader too, as the themes of migration, identity, belonging, love, economic disparity, and the idea of home are quite universal.
Migration within cities and villages or between nations for economic, social or political reasons is one of the most dominant themes in the anthology. Amir Darwish’s ‘Samar’ is a visceral tale of a woman’s escape from Aleppo, Syria, with her little son Ahmed. The story corners the reader into imagining the innumerable people who took those boat rides out of Syria. Samar slices through time and memory on the boat. We get glimpses of Aleppo’s past glory, of our protaganist’s ‘normal’ love story. The references scare the reader, as before Aleppo became Aleppo-from-which-one-has-to-flee, it was just like another city: your city or my city.
The Kashmir conflict
Siddhartha Gigoo’s ‘The Umbrella Man’ and Ilakshee Bhuyan Nath’s ‘The Wetland’ situate themselves amidst the ongoing conflict in Kashmir. ‘The Umbrella Man’ waits for rain in an asylum. The tale questions the meaning of exile and belonging, a metaphorical telling of the forced eviction of Pandits from the Valley. Perhaps, it is true, we can belong in various ways and at times, they have to be constructed within our inner selves. In ‘Wetland’, choosing sides is never an option. Rati makes two bonds after she arrives in the Valley with her husband on an army posting. Her first friend, a fellow army man’s wife, Swati, loses her husband just as she is preparing to leave Kashmir forever. The second friend is a young Muslim boy, Shabbir, who works as a domestic help in Rati’s house. Shabbir is an outsider, a civilian, who becomes a window for Rati to see beyond her sheltered army life. He shows her the other side, the side where young men disappear without warning.
Food and memory are the elements that Jeremy Tiang uses to portray the same anxiety in 1997. Here an elderly aunt who fled China as a young girl is now trying to cajole her young niece to move to London, as Hong Kong is about to accede to China from the British. Tiang’s story elucidates the gentle violence of people who love you: be it a starving daughter who chews on her mother’s fingers during the great famine in China or an elderly aunt retelling the horror of those days over a feast to convince her niece to leave her homeland.
Keeping with the theme of migration and displacement, the anthology has two stories on the Sindhi community, placed in very different times. Shashi Deshpande’s ‘Independence Day’ narrates the loss of a homeland during partition. It is told through the point of view of a young woman living in south India. ‘Independence Day’ seems like a prequel to Murli Melwani’s ‘Water On a Hot Plate’. Melwani’s Sindh travels constantly, a culture in eternal migration. The story never situates itself in a physical space, it only belongs to the idea of the Sindhi, wherever they go, be it USA, China, Taiwan, Bombay, Sindh goes with them. These stories, like many others in the anthology make you wonder on the varied ways in which forced migrations and displacements affect families over generations. The assiduous ways in which violence enters our homes, our relationships, in times of war and conflict, be it Syria, China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Hong Kong.
‘Jelly Beans’ by US-based writer Soniah Kamal is a textured exploration of tussle between two generations, between East and West. It tells the tale of an angry Karachi-based couple, the Hafeezes, who fly to America overnight to stop their son from marrying a white divorced woman with a little girl. Similarly, Suzanne Kamata’s ‘Mon-chan’ also explores this inter-generational fissure peculiar to Asian societies. The story unfolds between two daughters and their elderly mother whose memory is failing. To the daughters’ chagrin, the mother forgets a lot of things but she never forgets her teenage memory of catching a glimpse of the honeymoon couple, Marilyn Monroe and Joe Di Maggio landing at the airport in Narita, Japan. Marilyn Monroe or Mon-chan, as she is known in Japan, was one of the biggest foreign box office draws in Japan. ‘Mon-chan’ is a tale of alienation, love and memory as they play out in post-industrial Japan.
Yu-Mei Balasingamchow’s ‘Fits and Starts’ is a window to the complex identity politics in contemporary Singapore. Fits and Starts begins when a young Chinese woman, Lilly, joins a 24-hour McDonald’s outlet as a delivery rider and meets a Malay boy, Rashid. Through their sexual encounters, we come to know more about the claustrophobia in urban Singapore and the frustration of the young in the so-called fastest growing East Asian economies. Similarly, Park Chan Soon’s ‘Ladybugs Fly from the Top’, one of my favorite stories in the anthology is set in contemporary South Korea and is a surreal reflection on the life of window cleaners of high-rise buildings.
There are other stories, though some strike me as less successful, either because they are too episodic or because they resort to using overused settings. The anthology would have been helped with some more editing. It is still not wholly representative of Asia as some countries like Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal and Myanmar are glaring in their absence. On the other hand, India has an overwhelming presence. Also, Asia has a vibrant language publishing culture, and thus any collection from here would have to explore translated works to become truly representative of the region.
What constitutes an Asian experience?
The pertinent question this anthology raises is: Is there something like an ‘Asian’ short story? We know that Asia is made of a set of deeply diverse nations. So, can one collect these people under one umbrella without subsuming their individuality? What defines that Asia, or can we define at all? What constitutes an Asian experience?
The themes chosen by the writers in this anthology provide some answers. Apart from the colonial experience, most of the stories focus on cross-cultural migration, gender violence, uneven economic growth and the struggle to keep their cultural identity as they change to keep pace with the globalised world.
Over the years, we have seen the American short story grow to robustness with regular annual boosts from the famous Best American Short Stories (BASS) anthology, published since 1915. Like BASS, the editors can standardize the process of selection in the future if it is to become an annual feature.
Time will tell if all these Asian countries can form an annual assemblage representative of the extraordinary diversity of the whole region. This is surely one such brave beginning.
Anubha Yadav teaches broadcast studies in University of Delhi. When not in classroom, she reads and writes fiction. Her work has been published in magazines and journals around the world.
A Symphony of Diverse Voices
Review by Zahra Somani
Short stories are meant to be read as just that – a solitary, self-contained story. Something one can pick up without much commitment, a quick rendezvous in the backseat of a cab, a snack between meals. Which is why, when reading the selection of tales featured in The Best Asian Short Stories, it was a pleasant surprise to find that rather than its stories being occasional snacks, they felt more like small bites adding up to a savory, satisfying meal. Each story has its own adventure, but when read in its entirety they creates a symphony of diverse voices that harmonize on common themes such as identity, migration, family, and race, themes that resonated deeply with my own blended Asian background. familiar to those of us with exposure to Asian influences and contexts. The book features stories that struggle with understanding oneself as an Asian – what this means for certain values, lifestyles, and worldviews as well as the compromises some characters must take to fit it in. What I appreciated most was seeing how the collection spoke to my own experiences but also helped me to see the diversity within this broad category of “Asian.” When issues of relationships, particularly marriage, arose I laughed at the similarities between myself and the Sindhi kids sitting at the Chinese-Indian restaurant trying to not acknowledge the awkwardness of a stealth set up. But when Moyna struggles with her identity being usurped by her pimp husband in Powerless was both frustrated at her plight and reawakened to facets of marriage, feminism, and self-hood that I hadn’t explored in quite some time.
Chatterji’s Chitrangada plays with identity tied to skin color. In this story, the main character wakes up to find that her mocha-toned skin has transformed into a peaches-n-cream complexion. After the initial panic and awkwardness wear off, she begins to ask some fundamental questions about the relationship between skin tone and privilege.
Is it our color that affords us opportunities? Does it make our accomplishments more worthwhile because of the struggle that darker skin implies? The questions raised are enough to make anyone uncomfortable: if I had the chance to change my complexion, accepting the privilege, beauty, and ease that it brings to life, would I take it? As an Asian who has often been singled out for my light complexion, this story made me particularly uncomfortable in the way only a skillfully thought-provoking piece can. I found myself asking what I would do if my color was taken from me, and reflecting on the secret panic that ensues when come summer’s end I am reaching for the darker makeup I have stashed away. My color affords me privileges that I am embarrassed to acknowledge, but am afraid to give away. I loved that this story got right to the heart of a very sensitive subject without guiding me through elaborate metaphors and hidden messages. Sometimes a bare bones approach is all you need to break down walls.
Marriage, power, and the female voice feature again and again in these stories. Like lemon sprinkled throughout a dish, the sharp taste of casual misogyny is both familiar and surprising in its audacity. Ghuznavi’s Big Mother, Darwish’s Samar, and Saber’s Powerless each slice into a slightly different segment of the conversation surrounding women in Asian cultures, and yet each one leaves the reader with a distinct aftertaste: anger and frustration mingling with resignation and a grudging appreciation for the story being told. Though the messages are sometimes difficult to swallow, we are reminded of the power of storytelling and the importance of bringing all voices to the table.
An important theme among this collection centers around nationalism and land-based identity. This is hardly surprising given the continent’s recent history and turbulence, relative to other parts of the world. Asian countries have seen borders broken and erected, lands erased from the map by politics or by modern thinking, families uprooted and displaced, and a new generation that is left to grapple with the aftermath of it all. This is poignantly illustrated in the story Independence Day when Padma walks over to a map of India to explain the difference between Punjab and her hometown of Sindh only to find that Sindh no longer exists on the map. The pause I took before continuing to read was profound. It is a feeling that I haven’t experienced outside of the stories of my parents and grandparents and yet reading it from this perspective haunted me.
Kamal’s Jelly Beans, Kothari’s The Space Between Stars, and Melwani’s Water on a Hot Plate feature perspectives of both the old and the new generation, providing a flavorful dynamic of tension, transnational identities, self-reflection, and more importantly, self-realizations about what it really means to transcend the borders on the ground and the ones in our minds. Less whimsical but equally powerful are stories such as Independence Day, Chit Mahal, and 1997 which capture the ugly byproducts of nationalism and border wars. These stories brought an invaluable human voice to the maps I studied in history class.
What makes these stories more chilling is realizing that they are not just tales of the past, but they are our present. Samar captures the fear, anxiety, heartbreak, and inhumanity of being a refugee and sneaking across borders. It sounded so much like my parents recounts, but it was a stomach-churning realization that this isn’t the story of a generation ago, but rather the story of now.
This collection isn’t just a reflection of my roots or my values and culture, but a commentary on where I stand today, both as an Asian and as a human. Like many an Asian meal, this collection of stories achieves an enticing blend of the sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. Stories about love, family, ageing and change are peppered throughout the collection, nestled within the nooks and crannies of its larger themes. And while every story may not resonate with a reader’s individual taste and preferences, together they provide a flavorful taste of lived experiences from diverse Asian cultures – something that every palate can appreciate.
Link to the source: http://theasianwriter.co.uk/2018/09/14/review-best-Asian-short-stories/
Zahra Somani hails from the city of gusty winds, deep dish pizza, and Michael Jordan. She received Masters in Teaching and Masters in Islamic Civilizations from the University College London and has since spent her time putting on dog and pony shows and spectacular juggling acts – also known as teaching middle and high school students. When she’s not swallowing swords, she travels the world in search of lost artifacts and baby elephants. People who spend time with her often say she smells like vanilla frosting, but this is usually so they can get their hands on the test treats she makes for her at-home moonlighting gig: head (and only) baker at Wee Little Bakery, the house for cakes that could.
A Varied Asian Platter
Review by Richa Bhattarai
In ‘March, Me and Sakura’ by Geetanjali Shree, a 70-year-old Indian mother travels to Japan to be with her son. At first wary of the unfamiliar country and afraid of venturing out, she ends up an adventurous soul, freeing the child within in the new land, far from judgment and societal restrictions. It is enthralling to travel with her and shed our inhibitions alongside.
This amalgamation of cultures and identities, of a country’s tone clashing with—and yet matching—another, of physical and psychological journeys, of the delicate link that binds all humanity together and the rough blades that hew them apart—all 32 stories compiled in The Best Asian Short Stories (2017) try to hold this element within them. Some elegantly, others bluntly, still others in a nonchalant manner.
Take Mithran Samasundrum’s ‘The Yakuza under the Stairs’. A cab driver-turned-real estate agent travels from London to Bangkok in search of greener pastures, even managing to acquire a Thai wife and a Japanese gangster, but is humbled to discover that even when circumstances are totally transformed, some emotions and ways of life cut across all cultural traits and traditions.
This unity and dissonance of thought and feeling is imbibed vividly in the very first story, ‘Fits and Starts’ by Yu-Mei Balasingamchow. A Chinese woman and a Malay man come together briefly at a fast-food joint, unlearning some of their pasts to mold into the other, relearning, teaching.
Meanwhile, in ‘The Spaces Between Stars’ by Geeta Kothari, an Indian woman squirms to find a common foothold with her American family, while trying to battle her own feelings of inadequacy and puzzled by moral and ethical dilemmas. Just a couple of stories away, in ‘Water on a Hot Plate’, Murli Melwani reminds us that the world is melting into one, even as individual identities evaporate quicker than, well, water on a hot plate. A Sindhi family in Canada, with business in Taiwan, goes out to eat at a Chinese restaurant. Ironically, one of the owners, brought up in India, sports a gold pendant of the Hindu deity Ganesha. There is no turning back from this fascinating yet improbable-seeming cohesion—so what is the way forward?
Plenty of stories in the compilation pose this question, that so resonates with our multicultural, cosmopolitan, salad bowl times. Some of them offer answers, others fear disruption. Some report it with glee, others with apprehension. In this multitude of voices, narratives, queries and doubts, there is one chain that links the stories in a commonality—as much as trade, connectivity, dreams of open orders, diplomacy and protocol, it is actually stories, art, literature and civilizations that connect us—with their strands of a shared history and culture, family and relationships, the constant struggle and pleasure of being part of the complicated Asian tapestry.
It is wonderful that the stories are not limited to South Asia as is usual, but sweep across the continent to encompass similarities and peculiarities from Singapore and Malaysia, Japan and Syria, Pakistan and China. The attempt to branch out to many countries is praiseworthy. India does take up a large chunk of the anthology, and there is no representation from nations like Nepal and Iran, Vietnam and Bhutan. However, the process of selection was transparent and open, as explained by editor Monideepa Sahu in her intelligent and patiently drafted foreword. But this will not stop readers from expecting writing from their own countries to enhance the bright patchwork quilt of stories pouring in from different quarters.
There are quite a few translations in the collection, another laudable fact. The joy of accessing and enjoying soulful translations from languages and authors we might never have heard of otherwise is a good thing to happen in literature. Indeed, this volume includes some stalwarts we know, and introduces us to many more who are a pleasure to read and analyze.
One such story, pleasurable in its art yet touching and painful in content, is ‘Big Mother’ by Farah Ghuznavi—a powerful observation on polygamy, childhood sexual abuse, and the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh. A story of the survival of the fittest, a resignation towards life’s surprises and atrocities that the story exhorts us to develop. ‘Ammulu’ by Poile Sengupta starts off as a slow family tale, a father searching for a son-in-law for his demure daughter well-versed in homely arts, yet rejected for her ‘homeliness.’ Her transformation, coinciding with a sudden shift in the tone, is both exhilarating and frightening to witness.
A similarly shocking tale is ‘Pigs’ by Francis Paolo Quina, in which a victim of bullying retaliates. It is quite a macabre scene, yet perfectly illustrates just how dangerous bullying is to both bully and victim. Other thrilling tales include ‘Deep Matches’ by Farouk Gulsara, wherein a South Indian descendent tries to play with customs laws in Malaysia, and ‘Girls’ Home’ by Clara Chow, with dashes of mystery and the charm of old-world China. Also worth mentioning for their thoughtfulness are ‘Powerless’ by Moinul Ahsan Saber and ‘Offspring’ by Subrata Sengupta, both of which untangle complexities of the woman’s body and mind.
And yet, despite a sincere effort to present a varied Asian platter, the collection will not appeal to all palates. Because the stories are not created equal. Some of them, either by virtue of the writers’ own effort or that of the editor, sparkle and seduce, with wonderful nuance and technique. The majority of the stories are above-average in their thought, style and presentation—but this is woefully inadequate for an anthology that sets the benchmark high by proclaiming to contain the ‘best’ stories. At least six stories in the anthology are shoddy, whether due to theme or execution. There are grammatical and linguistic errors that feel as gritty as sand between the teeth. The lackluster stories with sub-par language needed the work of a merciless copy editor before they came together in this volume.
The ambitious collection gives us some great moments, but is unable to deliver on its promise of serenading us with the best stories from Asia.
Link to the source:
The Asian Perspective is Always Present
Review by Melanie Ho
In her introduction to the Best Asian Short Stories 2017, editor Monideepa Sahu offers a number of notes and considerations into some of the questions that might be asked of this volume: What is this book about? How did it happen? What is Asia and the stories from it?
The 32 stories themselves reveal some of the answers. Sahu has selected stories (and two pieces of flash fiction) from Japan to Jordan, from Korea to Pakistan. There’s a deliberate attempt to be inclusive and, in Sahu’s words, to focus on “stories [that] come from within the heart of Asia”. The Asian perspective—as vast and diverse as it might be—is always present, even if stories are set outside of Asia.
As such, readers are given the opportunity to explore a number of themes—characters seek refuge from war and displacement, they struggle between tradition and a global world or are pulled between cultures.
Opening the anthology is Fits and Starts by Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, who writes about a night-time delivery rider at a 24-hour McDonald’s in Singapore, a lone female among her male colleagues.
Lilly pulled over a chair and sat between Rashid and Zul, facing the four Malay riders. She was wearing thick-soled, rainbow-striped shoes, dotted with diamantes, that looked like something out of a teenie-bopper Korean music video.
Rashid turned to her. “How’s your customers tonight?”
Lilly shrugged, peeling open the wrapper around her burger. “Ang moh teenagers, American School that kind.”
Through Rashid’s relationship with Lilly and through their petrol runs to Johor Bahru, the reader learns Lilly’s story and some of the daily struggles she faces.
Soniah Kamal’s Jelly Beans opens with Mr. and Mrs. Hafeez receiving a letter at their home in Karachi from “their own obedient son in America”. The premise of the story arrives at the end of the opening paragraph: “As soon as Mr. Hafeez slit open the envelope a photo fell at their feet: Jamal with a white woman.”
Kamal follows Mr and Mrs Hafeez, as well as a cousin who was supposed to be engaged to Jamal, as they travel to Atlanta to confront Jamal before it’s too late. It’s a different take on the child bringing a spouse back to the home country and Kamal’s version is thoughtful, at moments humorous, and ultimately touching.
Poile Sengupta’s Ammulu was shortlisted for the 2012 Commonwealth short story prize. A story about a father who feels a responsibility to arrange a marriage for his first-born daughter Ammulu, Sengupta talks about family, tradition and relationships, before delivering a sharp and unexpected ending.
The anthology includes a few stories in translation, an important and necessary part of trying to achieve the anthology’s goal of inclusiveness. But with just four translations, these stories also raise a larger question of how little is available in translation and, if one is to really tell the stories from Asia, how this can be addressed.
As with any anthology, there are opportunities for readers to dip in and out, to be moved by one story, to linger on another and then be spun in a completely different direction. The anthology succeeds in bringing together a multitude of voices between the covers.
And as eye-catching and marketable as it is, the title also raises questions. Although the foreword attempts to answer some of a reader’s questions, perhaps a larger question remains. What is “the best” and, when dealing with a region that is, as Sahu writes “vast and complex as Asia” how is one certain that the best has been found? In making “the best” the common thread that links the stories, it can be difficult to read each piece without trying to evaluate it against what the best could or might be.
But ultimately it’s a title that attracts interest—a good thing when exploring new authors, whose voices can leave you wanting more.
Melanie Ho is a writer who has reviewed for publications in Hong Kong and Canada.
Malaysians get into ‘Best Asian Short Stories’ book on life as an Asian
Review by Terence Toh
A father compelled to offer his accomplished but dark-skinned daughter in marriage to a stranger. An urban man forced to sacrifice who he is to become an alpha male. An elderly woman treats her niece to a grand feast, while remembering her own childhood during China’s Cultural Revolution.
These are very different stories, told by authors with different styles, from homes across Asia. But each draws us in, inviting us to consider new perspectives, explore unique narratives, and escape momentarily into a different world.
The stories – Annamalu by Poile Sengupta; Soft Boy by Thierry; 1997 by Jeremy Tiang – are part of The Best Asian Short Stories 2017 anthology, edited by Indian author/columnist Monideepa Sahu and published by Kitaab Singapore.
The collection represents the cream of 350 entries, which Monideepa received after putting out a submissions call. “All the submitting writers felt they were offering their best work to us. The selection fell squarely upon my shoulders,” she tells us over email.
“It was difficult. I re-read many excellent submissions before being compelled to send them back, because they couldn’t all be accommodated in a single volume. I tried my best to offer constructive feedback to encourage the authors whose stories didn’t make it,” she says.
“‘The best’ is a subjective and challenging term. I loved these stories and hope they will resonate with readers,” she writes. Monideepa’s other works include Going Home In The Rain And Other Stories (Kitaab/Singapore), Riddle Of The Seventh Stone (Zubaan) and Rabindranath Tagore: The Renaissance Man (Penguin/Puffin).
Her short fiction appears in collections from Central Michigan University and Northeastern Illinois University in the US, Marshall Cavendish in Singapore, Puffin and Scholastic India. But the idea for a series of Asian short stories came from Singapore-based journalist, writer and Kitaab founder Zafar Anjum.
“The concept of a variety of good stories from all over our vast and wonderful continent appealed to us. Excited, I agreed to take charge of this volume,” says Monideepa.
“I wanted to create this collection of stories from the heart of Asia, stories told from the Asian viewpoint, as distinguished from stories from western perspective trying to decipher the quaint and exotic,” she explains.
“So much exciting new writing is happening in Asia, as well as in the rest of the world. Sadly, only the bestsellers and most talked about books make it to readers beyond the writers’ own country.
“We hope this collection will address this issue by enabling readers to sample the writing of many talented writers from other countries, which they would otherwise never have encountered,” she adds.
The collection comprises 32 short stories from Bangladesh, India, Japan, Jordan, Pakistan, Singapore, South Korea, Syria, Thailand and The Philippines. Two Malaysian writers have also contribute stories – Farouk Gulsara’s Damp Matches and Wan Phing Lim’s Snake Bridge Temple.
Damp Matches is about a Malaysian boy treading the line between a life of crime and his struggle to pay for an education. Meanwhile, Wan presents a slice of life in Snake Bridge Temple.
The shortlisting process wasn’t easy. Among the stories chosen, Monideepa was drawn to stories that showed her things she wouldn’t have known about, and stories that showed the common ground binding humanity across boundaries.
“1997 struck me for revelations of extreme love and horror. Jeremy’s pivotal image of the terrible famine in China was unique, yet reminiscent of my mother’s childhood memories of the Great Bengal Famine,” she says.
“Park Chan Soon’s Ladybirds Fly From The Top is about an educated man risking his life to eke out a living in Korea. Suzanne Kamata’s concerned daughter and ageing mother slip rapidly into dementia in Mon Chan. These stories come to my mind for their insight into the diversity but also commonalities in Asia’s myriad cultures.”
As a seasoned editor and curator, Monideepa looked out for a good tale with convincing characters, told in an engaging style, and a memorable story that throws fresh light on the familiar. For the stories that didn’t make the cut, she points out: “I feel the most common mistake short story writers make is to dash off a story before it is ready to face editors and readers. Another common mistake, to which I plead guilty, is to continue to dwell upon achieving perfection by endless revisions before moving on to a fresh story.”
She says The Best Asian Short Stories 2017 is the first in a series and that another collection is on the cards. “Each future volume is going to be unique,” says Monideepa.
(Fiction writer) Debotri Dhar has already made her selection for the second volume. The manuscript is going to the press as we read this. Launches in various countries are being planned. Look out for the books every year
Link to the source:
Stories From a Changing Continent
Review by Mayeesha Azhar
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!
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 re-imagining 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.
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.