Asian writers today are very exciting, but they are usually perceived through an Anglophone Western lens – except for when read in their original language. There are a lot of sci-fi and speculative fiction authors writing in Chinese who subvert expectations. We have one at the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) this year called Xia Jia, who has been translated by the Chinese-born American writer Ken Liu. What’s exciting about her is that she deals with socio-economic issues that are similar to those in the West, but also peculiar to China – issues that are seen in dystopic terms in this part of the world, but in the West wouldn’t be viewed as such. There’s a slightly different moral compass at play.
We can start seeing the power of readership shifting to India or China or Southeast Asia – with billions of potential readers.”
And at the same time, there are Anglophone authors in Singapore who address social and minority issues in ways that go beyond the usual tropes. For example, poet and playwright Pooja Nansi’s recent show “Thick Beats for Good Girls” deals with an Indian-Singaporean girl’s deep, complicated and at times problematic love for hip-hop. The show is a juxtaposition of seeming impossibilities that are in fact possible. That, to me, is refreshing and expands the conversation on what it means to be Asian.
Some Anglophone Singaporean authors have recently been published by Western houses, such as Amanda Lee Koe, Sharlene Teo and Rachel Heng. At the moment, if an author is read in Asia, their catchment is small. If they’re read in the United Kingdom or the United States, it’s much bigger.
Rather than an Asia-versus-the West dichotomy, though, I look at it more as traditional power versus new power. And the new power has the potential to be amazing. As countries get more educated, more cosmopolitan, more familiar with ideas, we can start seeing the power of readership shifting to India or China or Southeast Asia – with billions of potential readers. That’s where Singapore may have a part to play. Singapore was traditionally the printing centre of Southeast Asia. If you were to browse a bookstore abroad, a lot of the books are printed in Singapore, and we’re also the region’s translation centre.
As a multilingual society composed of immigrants, it makes sense that we are open to different types of languages that may not be heard in the West. Singapore has the opportunity and responsibility to make available texts written in other languages that have yet to be translated. When that happens, Asian authors won’t have to always go to the West to get published first.
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This article was originally published in the November 2018 issue of SilverKris magazine