Compiled by Jan Russell, Christine Colton and Catriona Mitchell
MALAYSIA – Bernice Chauly: Malaysian writer, poet, teacher and curator of the George Town Literary Festival
On whether people in the region are beginning to have a better understanding of their neighbouring countries, a sense of South East Asian identity: “I think the problem that we have is because we speak so many different languages…we don’t read each others’ work. We have shared histories, but we don’t have shared literature. This is why I think translation really needs to come to the fore…we need to translate each others’ work, we need to start reading each others’ work.”
On the question of Malaysia ‘stealing’ Indonesian cultural artifacts, language, songs: “We are known as ‘Malingsia’, yes? We share so many things. We share wayang kulit, we share batik, we share the songs, we share language… so we have to stop looking at borders. I think we have mistreated a lot of Indonesians, I mean Malaysians are terrible, we are very very bad. We mistreat your maids, we mistreat your construction workers…so you know, maybe this is your way of saying, you know, treat our people better! And respect us. And I think that it really is a question of respect, we have to respect each other as neighbours and we have to respect our traditions but also remember that we share a lot of these things, we share everything, and that has to be accepted. I think that’s the hard thing, to accept the fact that we share all of these issues, these cultural traditions, language, music, history. We share history.”
INDONESIA – Ahmad Fuadi: best-selling novelist:
On running literacy classes with his wife for pre-school children in Java, free of charge: “Our intention is to grow the habit early on, introducing them to books and good characters. Corruption is executed by well-educated people. Why do they still want to do that? It’s not a lack of power, wealth, education, but a lack of ethics. We want to grow good characters from very young. There was no magic in my [Islamic] boarding school, but we had a mantra – an Arabic proverb, which means “he who gives will surely succeed”. This was shouted loudly on my first day at school and we had to repeat it. So powerful.”
THE PHILIPPINES – Angelo V. Suarez, a proponent of conceptual writing in the Philippines:
“I self-identify as a conceptual writer. Some of you may be familiar with the tradition of conceptual art in the visual arts – conceptual writing is an appropriation of that tradition from the visual arts into literature. In much of conceptual writing, you don’t even need to make the work; all you have to do is build the concept. And as they used to say in the sixties or in the seventies when conceptual art was flourishing, you just need to have the concept; it may or may not be constructed. So the kind of literature I do, specifically in poetry is, I come up with particular concepts or procedures. They may or may not be pursued, although I tend to pursue them myself. Others may pursue the procedures if they want. But what matters to me most is the concept. So whether you read it or not is not very important to me. My work is work that does not need to be read. All that you need to know is what the concept is… frankly you don’t even need to read it.”
Speaking about an anthology he edited (Circuit: The Blurb Projects): “There are things that constitute the work, but are not directly part of the work. So for instance, in books you have the introduction, you have the blurb, you have the foreword – most of these things are normally not considered part of the work and yet these are the things that give the work ‘cred’. There are certain books I would read based on who gave the blurb to it. So I curated a book that was constructed purely out of blurbs about the book itself. So books normally have blurbs about them on the back – this book, everything is just blurbs about it.”
BRUNEI – Kris Karmila, a musical poet from Brunei who writes poetry including syair, a traditional Malay form:
“In Brunei, we try to avoid politics. You know why? Because we have to follow our Sultan. We have MIB (Melayu Islam Beraja) which stands for Malay Islamic Monarchy…in Brunei we’re well taken care of in healthcare, education, everything is free in Brunei. So we don’t say anything bad. That’s why in most of my poetry I would like to highlight telling stories about my country. That my country is taking care well of our welfare…very very kind to all the people of the nation. So we are very blessed.”
When asked by an audience member about the trade-off between being ‘looked after’ and having democratic freedoms – ‘can you say what you want if you don’t agree with the Sultan?… Do you feel that you’ve traded economic prosperity for democratic freedom?’ Kris Karmila replied, “I don’t know if I can say whether I agree or not, because we are trained to be this way. Whatever it is, when we would like to voice a complaint, we have to complain to the right person, to the right authority in Brunei.”
INDIA – Pallavi Aiyar, award-winning Indian journalist who spent more than six years reporting from China:
On shifts in writing trends in India: “Once Indian children grew up reading Enid Blyton and other English and Europeans, thus developing a certain false consciousness. Now Indian writers in English write not only about the myths and marriages version of Indian life, but also of contemporary modernity in the country’s growing metropolises and in other Asian countries – subjects which were not previously encouraged as acceptable from Indian writers by the Western marketplace.
In the post post-colonial world, Indians now write, publish, buy and read an enormous number of books. “What – you are not writing a book?” They determine their own subject matter and styles, and the Indian book market is now big enough for Flipkart to have emerged as a rival to Amazon.
Literary agents and new genres are increasing – the latter including “journalism as literature” eg Maximum City by Suketu Mehta and non fiction such as Panka Mishra’s Ruins of Empire. There is also a new south-to-south dialogue with writers in English in countries like Nigeria. The legacy of the British has been to give an advantage in English language and literacy to former colonies that is not available for example to China, where there are also a growing number of writers emerging and practising in a potentially huge market. Translation then has become an issue requiring much attention, and good translators and editors are few and much in demand in both China and Indonesia.”