Southeast Asian Literature: Life of One’s Own Caught Within Tangled Histories

Benedict Anderson, the forefather of Southeast Asian Studies, once wondered why throughout the last 110 years, this region is the remaining in the world to never have a writer crowned Nobel Laureate in Literature. Indeed, though not widely known, let alone read in the West, the literature of modern Southeast Asia has produced some of the most outstanding works on the nature of mankind. Extremely diverse and divided in history, politics, languages, and cultures, these countries nevertheless share some of the most common denominators of the 20th century: from being colonized by imperialist powers such as the Dutch, the French, and the British, to the Japanese Occupation during World War II, and subsequently undergoing the fight for independence, nation-building, and development. In reading the literature of three leading Southeast Asian countries—namely Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore—we embark on the ebbs and flows of ever-shifting histories projected from the deepest, most intimate corners of each and every character whose stories extend the legacy of their native cultures to navigate a world of postcolonial pain and trauma. 

Beauty is a Wound, by Eka Kurniawan –
Beauty in a chaotic world

Credits: Photographer Quang Lam. Photo taken at Tu Duc Palace in Hue, Vietnam.

Eka Kurniawan, the first Indonesian author ever to be nominated for the Man Booker International Prize, is credited with drawing the attention of the world to the contemporary literature of Indonesia. His first work, Beauty is a Wound, was translated into English in 2015 to critical acclaim. 

Beauty is a Wound tells the story of four generations in the family of the beautiful Indonesian prostitute Dewi Ayu, set in the fictional port city Halimunda located in the South of the country. A grand historical epic, the story portrays in great detail the violent modern history of Indonesia—laden with sexual, physical, spiritual, and political violence—from the 1920s toward the end of the 20th century. The novel even daringly addresses the Communist massacre in 1965. From the first sentence, readers are immediately catapulted into an uncanny shock from the quirky matter-of-fact tone: “One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years.”, a shock that is sustained and even enhanced throughout the 500-page novel through a series of dark twisted crimes of incest and killings. 

Dewi Ayu, the heroine of the story, was the product of forbidden love between step-siblings and abandoned to be raised by her grandparents since birth. Her grandmother was originally a native Indonesian woman who was captured and became the mistress of her grandfather, a Dutch plantation owner. The rich, privileged life of Dewi Ayu’s colonial family was turned upside down as the Second World War befell, marking the collapse of the Dutch sovereignty over Indonesia and the subsequent takeover by the Japanese. Dewi Ayu, then 15 years old, was imprisoned along with other women in the jungle and subjected to prostitution to serve the Japanese army. At this watershed moment in her life, Dewi Ayu herself made a name for herself as Indonesia’s most loved and treasured prostitute, and went on to give birth to four daughters from four different fathers. 

In addition to the life of Dewi Ayu, Beauty is a Wound also revolves around the lives of her beautiful daughters, be it the first child Alamanda, who was forced into an arranged marriage with the Japanese general Shodancho, or the third child Maya Dewi, married off at the age of 12 to her own mother’s lover. In Beauty is a Wound, connections criss-cross over each other forming a complicated network of twisted and immoral relationships, where affairs of in-laws or husband’s rape of wife are not only tolerated but even accepted unflinchingly, and where perpetrators and victims are all subjected to the brutal force of history.

Symbolically, the fate of Dewi Ayu and her children is deeply intertwined with the fate of Indonesia. This nation has gone through endless cycles of violence, looting, and struggled with the aftershock of wars. Yet the people of Indonesia never cease to demonstrate their preservation and spirit in fighting for control over their own destinies. Even after endless torture, Dewi Ayu has managed to retain her undying sense of humor and optimistic spirit that has helped her adapt to every hardship and find the joy in living and in life. 

Utilising a hybrid of genres encompassing historical epic, ghost stories, and martial arts, this novel situates itself within the magical realism of the local folklore in which pigs turn into humans and pregnant women give birth to wind and air, all told in an extremely humorous and delightful tone. Beauty is a Wound would undoubtedly remind readers of Gabriel García Márquez’s magnum opus One Hundred Years of Solitude while proudly proving itself the counterpart of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children

The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng –
Working through trauma and memories

Credit: Photographer Quang Lam. Photo taken in Kyoto, Japan.

The Garden of Evening Mist shares the same theme from Beauty with A Wound, yet Malaysia’s very own Tan Twan Eng has chosen an entirely different approach in The Garden of Evening Mists, a novel that was awarded the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize. In reconstructing history, he dives deep into the legacy of loss and destruction that every person has to come to terms with during and after the Japanese occupation of Malaya. 

The Garden of Evening Mists follows the plight of female judge Teoh Yun Ling who is suffering from aphasia, a medical condition that causes her to gradually lose command over language, communication, and eventually her memories. Divided into three separate historical periods, the story zooms in on the years between 1941-1942 when Yun Ling and her older sister Yun Hong were held captive by the Japanese army in the jungle, the 1950s when Yun Ling studied gardening, and the present-day during the 1980s when she finally retires. 

Tan’s novel is an attempt in which Yun Ling, ridden with guilt and survivor complex, tries to record everything before her memories disappear forever. She does this essentially by recounting the time when a young Yun Ling sought out Aritomo, a former garden artisan for the Japanese Emperor living on the Cameron Highland to commission him to build a Japanese garden in memory of her sister. Aritomo refused but suggested that he took her in as his disciple. Thus Yun Ling remained on the highlands and studied gardening under Aritomo, eventually becoming a kindred spirit to this talented yet mysterious soul. 

From here on horrible events in the past are slowly revealed. During the Japanese occupation, the siblings were interned in a concentration camp. Once separated from each other, Yun Hong was forced into prostitution while Yun Ling had two of her fingers chopped off after she got caught red-handed stealing food. It is thanks to the sheer act of building an imaginary Japanese garden in their minds that the siblings gained the willpower and strength to weather the hardships, so much that when living with Aritomo, Yun Long learned to build a Yurigi (evening mists) garden to slowly, yet surely, resolve the trauma deep within herself. 

Tan’s novel illuminates Milan Kundera’s idea that humans are separated from the past by two forces: when we forget the past, we are essentially erasing memories, whereas remembering the past enables us to change and transform for the better. Historically, Malaya was a peaceful land that rarely suffered through such a traumatic event like the Japanese occupation. Therefore, to many of her people, including the author, this was an event of a colossal scale, ridden with monstrosity and devastation. Through the medium of fiction, Tan implores the contemporary audience to be aware and conscious of this period in history, while exploring how humans interpret, remember, and make peace with memories. 

The Garden of Evening Mists opens to a singsong tune like that of a tranquil bell echoing through the pages, “On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan.” Tan Twan Eng delivers a slow, rhythmic flow of verses, in the spirit of zen that, subtle yet far-reaching, transports readers to a place where mountain mists embrace the solitude of tea plantations, quietly calming individuals of private wounds. 

Spider Boys by Ming Cher –
A Singapore of large villages and street gangs

Credit: Photographer Quang Lam. Photo taken at Tu Duc Palace in Hue, Vietnam.

Another work that describes the pre-independent period of a nation, yet blurring the historical background to give way for man-made dramas, is one of Singapore’s quintessential, Spider Boys by Ming Cher. Originally published in 1995 by Penguin New Zealand, the novel became famous worldwide, but it is not until 2012 when it made its official domestic debut.

Ming Cher the author is quite a remarkable man: he dropped out of school at the age of 13 and went on to hustle through many jobs, from “managing” a construction site in Southern Vietnam to working as a sailor on an ocean steamer. As a result, he became fluent in many languages such as Mandarin Chinese, Hokkien, Cantonese, Bahasa Melayu, Bahasa Indonesia, and even Vietnamese. As a child growing up on the streets, Ming Cher has come into contact with all kinds of lives and hopes to recapture all of these teenage experiences in a Singapore that is radically worlds away from the modern metropolis that we know today by writing a novel whose characters are modeled after his real-life friends and acquaintances.

Spider Boys is set in 1955 Singapore, following a group of children living in Ho Swee Hill neighborhood who often capture spiders and train them to participate in spider fights with other gangs, where they make money from collecting bets. Their childhood is one enthralled in adventures and discovery, from catching spiders in tin-roofed houses or under banyan trees, to fooling around in a large village where residences hustled for life, carrying buckets of fresh water from wells in the ground, telling folk stories at the Temple in full-moon nights, and so on. All of these are recounted by the 14-year-old protagonist Kwang, the leader of the spider gang, Kim, his neighborhood girlfriend, and Chinatown Yeow, Big Mole, Sachee, leaders from rival groups. 

As the leader, Kwang is on the constant lookout for Chai, his arch-enemy, and both of these teenage gangsters are aided by their sidekicks Ah Seow and San. Spider Boys details the clash between groups and gangs, culminating in Kwang’s ascension as the boss champion of an all-Singapore Spider Olympic. Even more so, Ming Cher has carefully crafted the plot twist so that Kwang comes into contact with Chinatown Yeow, the leader of another weathered gang, who wants to take over and reduce both Kwang and Chai to his underlings. To make matters worse, Yeow has his eyes on Kim, Kwang’s girlfriend. Over the Ho Swee Hill horizons, conflicts brew restlessly and arise ever more palpable. 

Ming Cher has created a strange and unusual world, not just to foreign audiences, but even to the readers of his own Singapore. Almost 60 years after the story, Singapore has gone through a process of complete globalization and modernization. The contemporary Singaporean reader will not, or cannot, find any traces of a Singapore that is a hybrid between large kampongs and street gangs, where natives still practice traditional customs, and where youngsters come of age in pursuit of freedom and sexual passion. 

Spider Boys is written in a street English that is charmingly mixed with other colloquial languages, creating a uniquely distinct yet poetic world, albeit a fictional one. Talentedly crafted by a grandmaster, the free-spirited work of Ming Cher reverberates an undying vigorous spirit, attesting to the ambition to stand up against and overthrow conventional social norms in the name of youth. 

“Văn học Đông Nam Á: Những mảnh đời riêng trong lịch sử rối ren” © 2018 by Zét Nguyễn, translated by Aimei Lee.

About the author
Zét Nguyễn, who in another incarnation holds a PhD on James Joyce from NTU, Singapore, is currently building her academic CV of journal articles and book contributions. She is a Hanoi-based translator, editor and the founder of Zzz Review, a quarterly readers’ journal of Vietnamese and world literature.
Aimei Lee is an aspiring young writer and visual player in Southeast Asia.

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