Monday, October 19, 2009

Book Review: The Routledge Concise History of Southeast Asian Writing in English

It can be argued that Southeast Asian Writing in English has not achieved as much attention as African Writing in English or Indian Writing in English, even though English as a language reached most parts of the world wave after wave as a result of colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries. Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Manila have been major outposts under British and American colonialism, but the output in English from these big Asian cities has not made much impact on the global literary landscape, the same way that writings from India or Africa have. Where is Southeast Asia’s answer to Midnight Children or a House for Mr. Biswas or Things Fall Apart?

Moreover, many colonial era writers made this region their hunting ground for exotic tales –Anthony Burgess in Malaysia, Orwell's work on Burma (Burmese Days), Graham Greene's on Vietnam (The Quiet American) and the stories by Somerset Maugham (The Casuarina Tree), to name a few expat writers. Did they leave any impact on the local writers? What kind of writing emerged in Southeast Asian countries (mainly, The Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong) in the latter half of the 20th century when colonial powers receded from the region? What kind of themes and issues are being investigated into by contemporary writers and poets in Southeast Asia?

In the book under review, the authors, associate professors in the Department of English and Literature at the National University of Singapore, try to answer these and many more questions. The volume traces the development of literature (focusing on fiction, poetry and drama) in the region with its historical and cultural contexts.

To attempt a volume like this is clearly a challenging endeavour as the authors themselves admit that this kind of literary historiography works within two limiting factors—linguistic and regional. The authors, in their introduction, submit that their aim in writing this book is not for the chimera of ‘objectivity’ but for persuasion and critical awareness.

Post introduction, the first two chapters in the book provide historical and literary contexts of writing in English in the region. The fourth chapter surveys Malaysian and Singaporean writing up to 1965, followed by a chapter on Filipino writing to 1965. Then there are three chapters, each providing a regional overview of narrative fiction, poetry and drama between 1965-1990 in Southeast Asia. After this, there is an independent chapter exploring the expatriate, diasporic and minoritarian writing—this is where you can read about the writings of Burgess or Maugham. The last four chapters look at contemporary fiction, poetry and drama. It also explores the prospects of Southeast Asian writing in English (where does it go from here) in indulges in future gazing. This last chapter also includes some details on publishing in the digital medium—the medium of the future—and how it is not just replacing text but has also led to increased generic experimentation and creation of a larger audience. It is a good sign as it indicates that the authors understand the increasing importance of digital media’s role in the dissemination and consumption of literature.

Overall, The Routledge Concise History of Southeast Asian Writing in English is a very useful companion for those who seek a handy understanding of Southeast Asian writing in English. The astute authors of this volume have enriched it with maps, box items, a glossary of terms, and references. There is also a guide to further reading that can help quench the thirst of those who want a deeper understanding of the Southeast Asian literatures and cultures.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Review: Inglourious Basterds

Before we get to talk about Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), let’s have a quick quiz. Who, among the three infamous dictators—Hitler, Stalin and Mao—caused the maximum number of civilian deaths in his country (“democide”)?

If your answer is Hitler, then you are wrong. According to historical estimates, the Chinese communist leader Mao Tse-tung’s policies and actions led to the deaths of nearly 77 million of his countrymen, surpassing those killed by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler (20 million) and Soviet Premier Josef Stalin (61 million).

And yet how many Hollywood films are made with Mao as the arch villain? Or even Stalin?

It’s not that Hitler becomes less evil because he killed less number of people than Stalin or Mao did. The German dictator’s genocidal atrocities or policies of eugenics were despicable. Still, the constant projection of Hitler as the only evil doer in the western man’s consciousness baffles me. Excepting Idi Amin, I haven’t seen Hollywood going after other dictators as vigorously as they go after the fuehrer.

Clearly, Hollywood is fascinated by Hitler: Almost every year, Hollywood studios plan a slate of anti-Nazi movies. Last year, the offerings peaked (with "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," "Adam Resurrected," "The Reader," "Valkyrie") as The New York Times film critic A. O. Scott noted: “A minor incursion of this sort is an annual Oscar season tradition, but 2008 offers an abundance…” (Why so many Holocaust films now, and for whose benefit?)

Scott goes on to ask: “The number of Holocaust-related memoirs, novels, documentaries and feature films in the past decade or so seems to defy quantification, and their proliferation raises some uncomfortable questions. Why are there so many? Why now? And more queasily, could there be too many?”

Perhaps Scott wrote the piece too late in the day. Or maybe the failure of Death Proof hastened it. Apparently Tarantino had been working on the script of Inglourious Basterds for ten years, even before he did Kill Bill. He is said to have delayed the project because he was not finding the right ending. I can understand his dilemma but he never resolved it. In a relatively well-made Holocaust revenge film, it is the ending that rankles, that seems a bit forced and contrived. A brilliant opening sequence should have been offset with a masterful last scene but it doesn’t. It is a narrow miss that prevents a good Inglourious Basterds from leapfrogging to being great.

I was curious about the film’s title from the beginning (and thought Vishal Bhardwaj stole it for his Kaminay) but like most other motifs in Tarantino’s films, this too turned out to be derivative (or homage, whatever you may choose to call): It comes from a European film Quel maledetto treno blindato (1978) which was released in the USA by the title The Inglorious Bastards. Maybe that’s the reason why Tarantino film’s title is slightly misspelled. Major change that one, huh?

Set in the second world war, Tarantino’s fairy tale Inglourious Basterds(it was earlier meant to be titled as "Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France") has a four track narrative underpinned by a main villain—Christoph Waltz as the Nazi Col. Hans Landa, a polyglot evil genius and a Jew-sniffer par excellence. There is the perpetrator (the Nazi occupiers of France, represented by Col. Hans), the victim (Mélanie Laurent as Shosanna Dreyfus), the spy (Diane Kruger as double agent Bridget von Hammersmark) and the avenger (Brad Pitt and his team of Inglorious Bastards).

As I have mentioned earlier, the opening scene of the film is excellent, classy as a masterpiece, more visceral and evil than scenes of scalping mined throughout the film. Christoph Waltz establishes himself in this very first scene and you look forward to seeing him time and again on the screen. After Waltz’s introduction, when Pitt and his mates make their onscreen appearance, they don’t make that much of an impact—even though Pitt’s voice and body language are well-directed. Eli Roth (as Sgt. Donny Donowitz), with his deadly clubbing scene, is chilling—more chilling than the scalping scenes that looked a bit fake to me.

When it comes to violence and bloodshed, Tarantino seems to take unpretentious pleasure in making people suffer and bleed. He did it with some sophistication in Jackie Brown (Samuel Jackson’s killing of Chris Tucker and Robert De Niro) but it has all been gruesome and in-your-face in Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2. His films, one can argue, document the ways in which violence can be inflicted upon people, good or bad. Inglourious Bastards abounds in some new (different from his past oeuvre) methods of sending folks to the next world: scalping, clubbing and even the good old technique of strangulation.

What redeems Tarantino’s nearly B-grade penchant for portrayals of violence is his great ear for dialogues. And there are plenty of clever lines in this film. I loved the line by Goebbels in the film when he says, ‘America’s gold medals can be weighed in negro sweat’. But my favourite still remains the Harvey Keitel line from Reservoir Dogs: “If you shoot me in your dream, you better wake up and apologize to me.”

Despite the unusual screen time (nearly three hours), the revenge drama flows smoothly. As the scenes roll out, you recognize the typical Tarantino stamp on them: the book-like chapterisation, the set-piece of the theatre’s burning down (the revenge), the shootout scene in the restaurant (reminiscent of the garage scene in Reservoir Dogs but amazingly executed), and the imagined sex scene between Goebbels and his assistant (reminiscent of the sex scene between Robert De Niro and Bridget Fonda in Jackie Brown). Tarantino’s favourites Samuel L. Jackon and Harvey Keitel are also present in this film through their voices.

Even though cinema is all make-believe and cinematic reality is different from historical reality, it is the film’s ending that is dissatisfying—or more than dissatisfying, irrational (yes, even fiction, to succeed, must make us suspend our disbelief!). Why would a hardcore Nazi officer change side? If he did not believe in Hitler’s philosophy, why did he comply with his orders for so long? Oh, yeah, he was just doing his job and somebody tipped him offscreen that the Hitler was anyway going to lose the war!

If you don’t have a higher threshold for suspension of disbelief, you may as well forgive the film’s somewhat irrational ending (or not even notice it) and come home thoroughly entertained. As for me, I would like to ask Tarantino what was the alternative ending that he had in mind.

Friday, October 09, 2009

War, love & sex

The Deer Hunter, a 1978 war drama co-written and directed by Michael Cimino, is not your typical Vietnam war film. It's not your Apocalypse Now or Platoon. Perhaps its appeal lies in its small town characters, primarily factory workers, played by Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage and some other actors. Meryl Streep plays the love interest of Christopher Walken. Robert De Niro is also interested in her. The innocence and playfulness of their lives suddenly vanishes when they are thrust into the Vietnam War. The war upturns their lives and they are never the same again. The scenes in Vietnam, especially the underwater prison scenes and the Russian roulette scenes, are unforgettable.

More than the performances (though Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage and streep have given fine performances in this film), it's the film's structure and its editing that struck me as unique. The film starts with scenes of happiness, a bunch of wild, playful factory workers, wedding and frolicking scenes in the small town and ends with a death and a funereal atmosphere engulfing the townsfolk. But life goes on. The editing is without frills. Notice it especially when the story goes back and forth between America and Vietnam.

It is difficult to imagine soldiers like Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage and many others coming to Singapore for R&R during the Vietnam war. But this is largely what happens in Saint Jack, a 1979 film based on 1973 novel by Paul Theroux.

The movie, which was banned in Singapore until a few years ago (2006), is about Jack Flowers, an Italian American pimp in Singapore, who tries to make money by setting up his own bordello. His plans go awry when he is beaten up by the Chinese mafia and his brothel is destroyed. He goes a little more deeper into more humiliating circumstances before he finally wakes up to his own dehumanization and finds his moral compass.

Ben Gazzara plays the main character in the film, and I loved his performance. He is totally into the role. The film's director, Peter Bogdanovich, has done a great work--at least it shows us the Singapore of 1970s. This was the first Hollywood film to be shot on location in Singapore.

According to the director, the film was suggested by Orson Welles to Peter's Guru, Roger Corman. Corman bankrolled the project and Peter came over to Singapore to shoot the film. The Singapore government was opposed to the film's shooting. Peter had to create a fake synopsis (more than 35 pages long!) for a film called "Jack Of Hearts". The film was shot and made purported to be "Jack Of Hearts" and not Saint Jack. Peter counts it as one of his two best films (his most famous and acclaimed film being The Last Picture Show, 1971). It won him the best director award at Venice.

The film is part of, as it were, Singapore's history now. Though there is some nudity in it, there is an uncanny charm in Ben Gazzara and his friend's character, who dies in the film. Even Peter Bogdanovich plays a part as Eddie Schuman.

There is something in the picture--maybe it is Ben's moodiness, his interpretation of the Jack character, his walk and talk, his gait, his soulful gaze, his philosophical smile--that makes you aware that you are watching a classic. I was moved (and disturbed) by the scene where Jack sends his dead friend's ashes to Hong Kong via post and the post office girl flicks the pack (Jack says the packet contains personal effects) into a pile of postal stuff. Life, gone--just like that! What if it were me in that box? Is life so meaningless that it could be flicked off and forgotten like that? It is elements like these that ennobles the film, despite its seedy setting, and in turn, the viewers.

Monday, October 05, 2009

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

I recently published a review of Daniyal Mueenuddin's collection of short stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, at To read the full text of the review, go here. Excerpts:

Though the stories do reveal and expose the poverty and the exploitation of the poor by the rich, and the human desire of doing better in life, escaping the trap of being limited by one’s circumstances, they also tell us about the dying feudal world of Pakistan—“the farm and the old feudal ways, the dissolving feudal order and the new way coming, the sleek businessmen from the cities.” All this is happening in a Pakistan which was supposedly carved out of India to develop as an exemplary Islamic country (with secular values). Instead of establishing an egalitarian society, Pakistan came to be ruled by the feudal lords who control all levers of power in the country. The vast majority of its poor citizens, as a result, suffer, struggling for their survival, conniving and scheming to come up in life by any means. Religion is the last thing on their minds.

For an Indian, it is not difficult to understand the moral ambiguities of the feudal rich. But what surprises me, and must would have done to most other readers of this book in the West, is the lack of morality—be it in business dealings, law enforcement or matters of sex and matrimony—in the characters, cutting across layers of society (even though, perhaps Daniyal is a little biased as he shows Helen, an American in love with a Pakistani Sohail, in Our Lady of Paris, to be morally upright, and not deviant as he shows Husna in In Other Rooms, Other Wonders or Zainab in Provide, Provide).

One might read a book on Pakistan and expect to read a story or two on fundamentalists and Islamic terrorists (his three fellow expat Pakistani writers’ recent books directly or indirectly deal with terrorism: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamshie, and The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam). Daniyal’s book is about Pakistan but there is not a single character in his stories who is a fanatic. There are devout Muslims, they tell their rosaries, say their prayers but they still indulge in amoral acts. This juxtaposition, this revelation, must be interesting to most readers, affording one the satisfaction that Pakistani Muslims too are like any other people—the rich and poor not necessarily being gentle, innocent and benevolent. This (realization) was so at least in my case. That was the biggest reward of reading this book.

What do you look for in a great, even good, writer? A unique and exact way of looking at things and finding the right context for expressing that way of looking, as Raymond Carver once said. In Daniyal’s case, that talent is very much on display. I rate Daniyal’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders very highly and can safely say that this debut collection can be put in the same league as The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (US/India) and A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li (US/China). With his very first book, Daniyal has shown the talent of a special way of looking at his universe. A writer like him should be around for a time. I wish him longevity.


Thursday, October 01, 2009

Suhayl Saadi Uncensored

I met the Scottish novelist and writer Suhayl Saadi (he was born in Yorkshire in 1961 of Afghan-Pakistani parents, and grew up in Glasgow, becoming a medical doctor) a couple of years ago in Singapore during a lit fest. He came across as a very charming, fearless and articulate speaker during one of the panel discussions. It's been a while since I caught up with him, but when his new book, Joseph’s Box (2009) came out, I could not resist the temptation of asking him a few questions. Always courteous, Suhayl obliged and the result is a fascinating interview with this writer who treads a path less traveled by most authors of South Asian descent. Please read the full interview here to understand what I mean by the road less traveled in this case.


What is your take on e-publishing and the future of books? Will e-publishing and Google’s espresso instant books (machines can print and bind a paperback in 4 minutes flat) change the future of publishing, how writers distribute their books and reach out to the readers? Will the publishers cease to be the gatekeepers of content?

I hope so. It needs a revolution. I would like to (here, I have delusions of Sidney Poitier) ‘knock that big old white bastard off his hill’. Let’s democratise but try not to continue to dumb-down. There are far too many stupid, and stupefying, books out already by chefs, gardeners, estate agents, DIY experts and vacuous ‘celebrities’ which are heavily promoted in the ‘front fifty feet’ of bookshops and this mirrors the inanity of much television. Give ‘em what they want! is a big lie and is a recipe for the incipient snuff-movies and ritual humiliation which now pass for entertainment and which, ultimately, are tools of social control and mechanisms for the concentration of wealth. It’s not really about gatekeeping - that’s merely an instrumentalisation of these strategies - it’s really about what kind of human society, what kind of world, we want. The bottom line is that writing, invented in Iraq 5,000 years ago, is important and at some level, is feared by those in power. Stalin, the one-time published and acclaimed poet, knew - and stated - this perfectly well when he attempted to justify banning Dostoevsky’s works. Stalin was terrified of Dostoevsky and even eventually, of Gorki. The process of capitalist censorship is more systemic, less directed, more subtle, less obvious, but in the end it is even more effective in the engineering of pliant societies. Of course, Google is a big white corporation, too. We have to be attentive - to paraphrase from the Spanish writer, Ibn Tufayl, in order to stay alive, we have to remain awake!