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.

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