Monday 13 November 2017

Final SWF Roundup: Imagining Asia, The Absurdity in Everyday Life; Hope and Resistance in the Age of Dystopia. Reflections by Elaine Chiew

Imagining Asia

Panel on Imagining Asia, featuring (L to R) Tash Aw, Madeleine Thien, Boey Kim Cheng and
University of London Professor of Humanities Roger Kain, courtesy of Elaine Chiew

Rabindranath Tagore had a construct for Asia; he called it “a continental mind of Asia.” Asia thus was conceived as more than geographical landmass and the surrounding oceans, but even mapping it geographically can prove tricky as its Western borders are conjoined with Europe.  Asia as a continent also encompasses a multitude of languages, cultures, ethnicities, religious practices, economic pursuits and livelihoods. Keep in mind also the strategic configuration of powers and militarism which accompanied the formation of ASEAN, APEC and various other regional affiliations, as well that the turn-of-the-century ideological conception of Asia as envisioned by Okakura Kakuzõ in Ideals of the East was as a foil of the East against the encroachments of the West, already forecasting Japan’s military ambitions at that time.  Thus, returning to the question of “imagining Asia” and specifically how Asian writers like Tash Aw, Madeleine Thien and Boey Kim Cheng imagine Asia, already implicate deeper framing issues of how long we will remain locked within this semantical conception of Asia as a singular, cohesive entity, Asians who are immigrants to the West as writers with fragmented identities, and all of this understood with reference to the West. 

Cosmetically, as a panel moderated by Sarah Churchwell and hosted in collaboration with the Being Human Festival from the U.K., the whiff of ex-colonial assertion here only underscores the fact that there is no imagining Asia within Asia, that physical distance as individually experienced is needed for a hyphenated-identity to rethink Asia.  Asia as an idea, thus, is always not Asia as it currently is, nor Asia as it was, but Asia as it could be.  It obscures deeper epistemological conundrums for me: is there even an Asia as it currently is, or as it was?  All the generalisations we make, if we were to examine them, might not only be specious, they reveal how much these generalisations were formed in order for the West to be able to imagine, conceive of and tame Asia. 

This uneasiness can be seen in all three panelists’ response to the question of imagining Asia.  As Tash Aw said, when he’s in Asia, he’s really thinking of “the specifics of being in Malaysia or Singapore” or wherever he is in time and space (the idea ‘Asia’ here is irrelevant).  Madeleine Thien also offered a more nuanced understanding of what it is to be a hyphenated-identity. Rather than the simple model of fragmentation, perhaps a pluralistic identity is more like “a series of photographs super-imposed upon one another with multiple exposures.”  East-West as a form of dialectic can be an invidious framing device that forces the East constantly to define itself as a self with reference to the West, without which it by implication wouldn’t exist.   If, however, we were to see Asia as a loose agglomeration of disparate elements, for which Asia as nomenclature, as category, isn’t even all that useful, perhaps we can start from Boey Kim Cheng’s idea instead – any form of ‘border crossing,’ for anyone, is an act of self-translation. This act, as Tash Aw started out with saying, “is an intimate act.” Asian writers with multiple super-imposed identities whose works converge upon specific locales within Asia should not be tasked with producing an Asia imaginary, but rather, let’s pursue specifically what country, whose burden of history, what timeline, what context, who acts or is acted upon, and what knitted web of interstitial meaning can then arise.

The Absurdity in Everyday Life

Etgar Keret, reading Pipes, his
first short story, courtesy of Elaine Chiew
Etgar Keret is no stranger to those of us who regularly write bite-sized fiction (or wrestle with the genre called flash fiction or short-short fiction), or those of us who love stories that mine the surreal in the banal.   His stories are characterised in English translation by his lean, spare, often ‘talky’ prose, and their subject matters are often wonderfully offbeat, where the bizarre walks hand-in-hand with the quotidian.  SWF 2017 featured the irrepressible Etgar Keret in person, and indeed, his sessions in the PlayDen were packed to the gills (the Chamber would have turned less people away).

Listening to Keret, what hits home is that we are made of stories.  Stories grow from anecdotes.  Reality and gritty magical realism may canter cheek-by-jowl but our sense of our world is limned by our crazy emotional reactions to situations-at-hand.  What makes perfect sense to one is nonsense to another, and one person’s intimate revelation can transform another’s understanding (his story Asthma is a perfect example). Keret regaled the audience throughout his session with anecdote after anecdote:  he wrote his first story at age 19 while in the military and his father served coffee and cookies to the enemy and his brother was tried for totemism because he tied up a military antenna the way he’d tie up shoelaces; when his brother read his story for the first time he was so engrossed he didn't notice that his dog had fallen on its side; his mother’s absurd rules during his childhood that didn’t stand him in good stead in the military (“If there’s something you don’t like to do, you’re allowed to ask the reason why”, which really pissed off the army when he practiced it).

Etgar Keret with moderator Amanda Lee Koe, courtesy of Elaine Chiew

Moderated by writer Amanda Lee Koe, who displayed a stage vulnerability that complemented the fragile emotional heart of many of Keret’s stories, some of the most affective segments of this dialogue were Keret sharing the story of his best friend’s suicide, Keret explaining the different registers of Hebrew (as the holy language of Scripture) and Yiddish (the colloquial form of linguistic transportation in Israel), and how using both in writing a single sentence sounds “half like the King James Bible and half like rap,” and finally, that writing is a profoundly private act, and Keret often does not think about the reader until he is done writing.  More importantly, it is the act of allowing the absurd to enter our daily consciousness that liberates our writing and emancipates us from ourselves. Writing from a private space means writing true, writing close to the bone; it exposes not just your voice, but also your soul.

Keret also emphasised that it’s not structure but movement that really energises a short-short.  Movement here targets not just language, but also rhythm, tone, pace.  By movement, Keret could also be extrapolated to mean the internal movement (the journey) the writer undergoes as he mows through his own reasons and emotions for writing this story and not another, for telling it this way and not another. Thus, even though the character may not change, the writer has.  To have this happen at the level of each single story is indeed writing close to what Robert Olen Butler called the ‘white-hot center of you.’

Hope and Resistance in the Age of Dystopia.

Junot Diaz with moderator Carolyn Camoens, courtesy Elaine Chiew

At least 600 people attended Junot Diaz’s keynote lecture, held in a jam-packed Victoria Theatre, on the topic of 'hope and resistance in the age of dystopia.'  Rather than bang on about how to be better writers (because "writers aren't threatened as a species, readers are"), for which Diaz humbly says he’s not instrumental for other people's vocational training, he prefers rather to talk about the ‘civic imaginary’, and how in an age of dystopia, exercising your aesthetic function as an artist in no way exempts you from your civic function.  Quoting William Gibson who said, “The future has arrived, it’s just not evenly distributed yet,” Diaz went on to say that dystopia too has “arrived but also not evenly distributed."  In speaking about the issue of the Boston Review concentrated on dystopia, Diaz introduced Tom Moylan’s term ‘critical dystopia’ by following Lyman Tower Sargent’s train of thought, a nonexistent society that readers view as “worse than contemporary society but that normally includes at least one eutopian enclave or holds out hope that the dystopian be overcome.” This bears contemplation because of our normalisation instincts while ensconced deep within dystopia itself – that’s how it is, keep calm and carry on! – but dystopia in literature jerks us out of a state of comatose complacence through its function of mapping, warning and providing hope.

Junot Diaz, courtesy Elaine Chiew

“We are all border guards,” Diaz said, and the border guard in us draws lines between us and them, insider/outsider, belonging/non-belonging, somewhere/elsewheres. It masks the fact that each of us are composite beings, with individualised complicated relationship to ‘nation’.  As Diaz commented, “Anyone who has an uncomplicated relationship to nation, I commend you and I am terrified of you.”   

Stressing that our current times is no more dystopian than similar periods of the rise of alt-right and white supremacy in the past (”Even beneath abysses, there are deeper mines; even in our worst objections, we find ways to deepen hell”), what Diaz highlighted is the inherent danger in militarised neoliberalism – it encourages people to retreat from public life, it wants to deal with ‘atomised individuals’ because that makes us easier to control.  

The proliferation of multiple dystopian narratives encourages self-disenfranchisement, self-disregulation.  It discourages us from building utopias with deeper connective tissue to others. 

We become anesthethised to the fact that we are continuously "cruising on fictions."  To the helplessness and powerlessness we feel when trying to engage with those who hold violently different beliefs, Diaz urged that we should stop ‘intellectualising’ or logicalising ‘anger’.  The fact that “our purchase on society is narrow” and that we despair in no way mitigates our ability to “step into the breach,” to do the civic labour that we can do, and model to those close to us.  Close to the end of his session, Diaz provided this reminder: Art is excellent for resilience.  Community work is excellent for resilence.  And resilience is a long muscle. It can be a ‘bulwark against barbarians.’ 

Copy that, Mr. Diaz.

Details: Tash Aw is the author of The Harmony Silk Factory (2005), Map of an Invisible World (2009), Five Star Billionaire (2013), and Strangers on A Pier (2016).  Madeleine Thien is author of Simple Recipes (2001), Certainty (2006), Dogs at the Perimeter (2011) and Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016).  Boey Kim Cheng is author of Somewhere Bound (1989), Another Place (1992), Days of No Name (1996), After the Fire: New And Selected Poems (2006), Between Stations: Essays (2009) and Clear Brightness: New Poems (2012).  Sarah Churchwell is the author of The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe (2005), What Americans Like (2010) and Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of the Great Gatsby (2013).   Translations of Etgar Keret's work in English were published as The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God (2001 and 2004), the Nimrod Flipout (2006), Missing Kissinger (2008), The Girl on the Fridge (2009), Suddenly, A Knock on the Door (2012), just to name a few.  He has also produced comics and directed award-winning films.  Jellyfish won the Camera d’Or prize at Cannes Film Festival.  Among several top literary awards, Keret received the Chevalier Medallion of France’s Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.  Amanda Lee Koe is author of Ministry of Moral Panic (2013)Junot Diaz is the author of Drown (1995), The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) (for which he received the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction), and This is How You Lose Her (2012). He received a MacArthur grant in 2012.  These books are published in all formats, widely available at local currencies.