Thursday 31 December 2020

'Cross Over To Me': Our favourite Asian poetry from 2020!

At so many uncertain points over the past year, I've found myself turning to poetry for its uncanny ability to cut through the chaos of the moment. So many friends too (both writers and readers), have told me of how poetry has afforded them words of comfort or moral clarity amid the chaos of 2020. To round up the year at the Asian Books Blog, we asked four poets from around the world to share their personal picks for the 'Best Asian Poetry from 2020': resonant voices from a difficult year, that will carry us forward into 2021.  

– Theophilus Kwek

Mary Jean Chan: 

I have a lot of admiration for Will Harris’s RENDANG (Granta Books / Wesleyan University Press), which won the 2020 Forward Prize in the Best First Collection category. This is a debut that is by turns philosophical, contemplative and revelatory, and which rewards re-reading. One of my favourite poetic sequences in this collection is “The white jumper”, which reflects on a dream in which a white jumper recurs, touching on themes as varied as video games, race, Nietzsche and of course, the colour white:


Lid and lip are little words. Little
things, too. The short i associated with
lightness and pith.

“The pith of my system,” said Coleridge,
“is to make the senses out of the mind
– not the mind of the senses.”

The mind’s white
  rind, not the white
    rind’s mind.


Friedrich Nietzsche recounts a dream:

Once the distance between us was so small
you could have crossed over to me
by footbridge. 

            Cross it, I said to you.
Cross over to me.
            But you didn’t want to. 

And when I asked again, you were silent.

Now mountains and rivers have come
between us, and at the mention
of the footbridge you cry.

                                             (from “The white jumper”)

Mary Jean Chan is the author of Flèche, published by Faber & Faber (2019). Flèche won the 2019 Costa Book Award for Poetry and was a Book of the Year in The Guardian, The Irish Times and The White Review. In 2020, Flèche was shortlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize. Chan is currently Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Oxford Brookes University.

ko ko thett:

How does one reconcile contemporary American poetry with the pre-Buddhist nat cult of Myanmar? The answer is Storage Unit for the Sprit House by Maw Shein Win (Omnidawn). In this exciting new collection of nat-themed poems, interspaced with ink illustrations by Mark Dutcher, Maw Shein Win goes back to her ancestral home, at least, in spirit. Her poems traverse between tangible spaces (Inya Lake, El Cerrito) and intangible spaces (the realms of nats) , between memories (as a child, I did not climb trees) and lived experiences (a detachment of hips, Jimi Hendrix Experience!). 

I suspect the poet has been to Myanmar in the flesh, and yet, lines such as “childhood / a burning kingdom / slap clap // pearl lantern /  bruised hands / clung to rowboat” mean that her Burmeseness is not short-changed. Maw Shein Win is a poet who “often collaborates with visual artists, musicians and other writers”, and her visual imagery in this lovely collection continues to delight me. 

There is a genre of traditional Burmese poetry called natchin, songs dedicated to nats. I am happy to pick this collection of American natchins, which has already gathered some critical acclaim and appeared on PEN longlist, as my favourite for 2020.

ko ko thett is a Burma-born poet, poetry translator and poetry editor for Mekong Review. He lives in Norwich, UK, and writes in both Burmese and English. 

Melizarani T. Selva: 

Hands down, the most powerful poetic energy I witnessed this year came from Kuala Lumpur’s homegrown livestream poetry fundraiser, If Walls Could Talk - Fever Dream Edition. On April 9, during Malaysia’s Movement Control Order, 21 poets from 7 countries, namely Australia, India, Philippines, Singapore, Syria, USA and all over Malaysia, embraced the virtual stage to raise funds for 600 refugee families. Within 3 hours of non-stop poetry readings, RM7,890 was raised for the purchase of groceries and basic needs. 

Having run ‘Walls’ for more than 3 years, my teammates Afi Noor, Daniel Cerventus Lim, Lily Jamaludin and I are still in absolute awe of the poets’ tenacity to pivot their poems and presence online in spite of timezones and irregular internet connectivity. Nothing could stop them from crafting the most wholesome multi-lingual pandemic-y poetry performances. We were also amazed by the roaring kindness of 1,100 strong live global audience who offered generous applause, ringgits and even a word/sentence to complete a social distance inspired ensemble poem, prompted by the phrase ‘Though I am not with you, I am…”. Some of our favourite moments were captured within the verses of Takahara Suiko, Bani Haykal and Ila and Omar Musa. If 2020 could be truthfully summed up in a poetry anthology, this would be it. 

Watch the show here

Melizarani T.Selva is a spoken word poet and author of the poetry collection ‘Taboo’. She co-founded If Walls Could Talk - Poetry Open Mic and co-published an anthology of 100 poems by 61 poets from Malaysia titled ‘When I Say Spoken, You Say Word!

Marylyn Tan:

My pick for best Asian poetry of 2020 is Mok Zining’s The Orchid Folios (Ethos Books). With a voice both cutting and considered in its articulation, Mok intertwines technical floristry with lyric sentiment, then wields it to pry at questions of language, society and the body. Mapping personal disparagements and devastations onto a painstakingly researched, multitextual geography, she reveals a Singapore narrative as engineered as a commercial orchid. I particularly love how she uses the storied history of the Vanda Miss Joaquim, and its questions of who gets to claim ownership, conquest and discovery, as the fulcrum upon which her practice of docupoetics turns, in turn investigating and splicing side-by-side (de-)colonial concepts and emotional intimacies. 

I feel I must also mention two other poems/poets that have stuck with me: Darlene Silva Soberano’s 'The Weekend', whose queer poetics make me 17 and nervous to touch the first lesbian I’ve ever encountered in the wild again. The gay-ass yearning and singular intimacy of ‘after you leave i keep looking over / to see if maybe you’re still here’ is a feeling I guess I’ve been chasing over and over in a time where everything feels so fever-same and the sanest thing I can do is write myself out of it. There is also Innas Tsuroiya, whose gorgeous poem Your Name Means Garden holds the lines “There is a story of faith somewhere, like / magnificent clash. What if what remains / was only a door for departure not for / returning. What if there could be both but / after you molder the globe." which speak to me, personally—a line of inquiry that interrogates g*d and departures is something I’ve been wrestling with, in particular, this entire harrowing year. 

Marylyn Tan is a poet and artist. She aims to build community and emancipate the endangered body. Her first title, GAZE BACK (SLP 2020; Lambda loser), is the trans-genre lesbo witch grimoire you never knew you needed. Find her @marylyn.orificial on Instagram. 

Wednesday 16 December 2020

A round-up of new fiction for the young in age, and the young at heart


Nicky Harman reviews three books for young readers translated from Chinese


I have to confess that I am an absolute sucker for young adult novels. Given half a chance, I devour them. So I was excited to be given the opportunity to read and review the latest Cao Wenxuan novel, and decided to add two of my own by different authors.

Dragonfly Eyes


Cao Wenxuan is easily the most-translated Chinese writer for young readers, and he and Helen Wang, his translator, have won major awards. (Cao Wenxuan, the Hans Christian Andersen Award 2016; Helen Wang, the Marsh Award for Children's Literature in Translation 2017 for her translation of Bronze and Sunflower.)

 With Dragonfly Eyes, Cao and Wang have given us a substantial read (384 pages in paperback), pitched at 12+ years. This is a family saga spanning fifty years and three generations, which takes the reader from 1930s France where Ah-Mei's grandparents, Nainai and Yeye, met and fell in love, to poverty-stricken post-war Shanghai and the turbulent decades that followed in China. Ah-Mei and her French grandmother, Nainai, share a rare bond – Ah-Mei is the only granddaughter, and takes after her Nainai in looks too. Times are hard in Shanghai – money and food is in short supply ­– but she has loving parents, cousins, uncles and aunties, as well as Nainai and Yeye, and the family is resilient.

Cao Wenxuan has a lush, lyrical style which is beautifully translated by Helen Wang (anyone who has read Bronze and Sunflower will know what I mean) and I was lulled by the sweetness of the beginning into thinking that it was really intended for younger readers. But with the 1960s, life gets darker and more complex for Ah-Mei: society disintegrates around the family, Nainai is attacked simply for being foreign, and the story ends with what might be a natural death or might be suicide. Enthralling.

Dragonfly Eyes by Cao Wenxuan, translated by Helen Wang (Walker Books, January 2021)

 White Horse 

I was delighted when my translation of White Horse, a novella by Chinese writer Yan Ge, made it onto the short-list of the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation 2020. It was in serious company: Tove Jansson and Natalia Ginzburg were also on the short-list, chosen from 132 entries in 34 languages, but White Horse is a book that can hold its own. As the judges said, ‘[This novella] portrays adolescence as heartachingly-recognizable the world over. Translated with charm and wit by the outstanding Nicky Harman.’

White Horse is about Yun Yun, a young girl growing up in a small West China town. Her mother has died in mysterious circumstances, but she lives happily enough with her father, aunt and uncle and older cousin Qing. Until her once-secure world falls apart, that is. Her cousin, who is a couple of years older than her, gets a boyfriend and clashes with her repressive parents, and Yun Yun is inevitably affected by the ensuing rows. Gradually, terrible family secrets are revealed, and Yun Yun is left isolated and alone as the adults, and her cousin, struggle to live with them.  It takes a while before we learn about Yun Yun’s mother (and I’m not going to spoil the plot here) but in the meantime, Yun Yun finds relief from the stresses and strains of growing up in this toxic atmosphere: she starts seeing a white horse. Is the white horse a friend? Is it a sign of something much more sinister? It’s certainly a fantasy, liable to pop up when Yun Yun is feeling at her most vulnerable and abandoned. 

This story is funny as well as spooky. It’s pitched as a teen novel, but don’t let that put you off if you’re a teen-plus. It’s creepy, and it gets under your skin, and it’s worth reading slowly, because some of the clues that the author drops are very subtle. Give them time to sink in.

White Horse by Yan Ge, translated by Nicky Harman (Hope Road, 2019)

 I Want to be Good


Huang Beijia is another writer who is famous for her books for young readers. I’ve translated two of her novels, I Want to be Good, and Flight of the Bumblebee (forthcoming) and I’m struck by the differences. Flight of the Bumblebee is a wartime novel, while I Want to be Good is contemporary and deals with that bugbear of Chinese children and their parents – school exams. You think that doesn’t sound like a racy read? Think again. It’s a mark of Huang’s skill as a writer that she creates two great characters, Ling and her put-upon mother, who, when they’re not struggling with her maths marks, live life to the full. Ling is an average sort of kid: cheerful, kind, brave when she needs to be, good at writing stories, but hopeless at maths. Her mother is an unexpected heroine: she had ambitions of her own as a young woman, but had to ditch them when her husband gets a demanding job. She tries so hard to support her daughter but she’s anything but a Tiger Mum.

 Ling and her friends get ready for their middle school entrance exam in their last year at elementary school, and the pressure piles on.  We share Ling’s adventures and misadventures, enjoy her small triumphs, and despair with her over her test marks. Then, just before the exams, something really special happens to Ling, something she is determined to keep a close secret. As the school year comes to an end, Ling has learnt a lot about life, and herself, and is ready to face the next stage of growing up.

I Want to be Good by Huang Beijia, translated by Nicky Harman (GDB Books, Delhi, India. A UK edition is also forthcoming in January 2021.) Ages: 10+

 For more information on translated Chinese fiction for young readers, see Chinese books for young readers.



Sunday 6 December 2020

Human Bullets by Tadayoshi Sakurai - A Memoir of the Russo-Japanese War

The Russo-Japanese War is a fascinating conflict that, arguably, was one of the most important events in the 20th century. It contributed to the decline of the Russian Empire, paving the way for the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and gave rise to the Japanese Empire, paving the way to Pearl Harbor. And yet, this war is often overlooked in the West, leading to a dearth of first-hand English language accounts. Thankfully, Human Bullets (1906) by Tadayoshi Sakurai survives to fill that void.

Thursday 3 December 2020

Backlist books: The Golden Chersonese by Isabella Bird

Backlist books is a column by Lucy Day Werts that focuses on enduring, important works from or about Asia. This post is about The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither, as it was originally titled, which details the author’s travels through China and Southeast Asia from December 1878 to February 1879, and was published in 1883. The book consists of Bird’s letters to her sister, “unaltered, except by various omissions and some corrections as to matters of fact”. She says they lack “literary dress” because she wishes to convey her “first impressions in their original vividness”.

Readers will be favourably impressed by Bird’s appetite for the unfamiliar and tolerance for heat, mud and pests, whether she is drinking from a fresh coconut fetched by a tame monkey, slipping down from the back of an uncooperative elephant or discovering leeches feasting on her bloodied ankles.

See below to find out what you need to know to decide whether you should read The Golden Chersonese, or what you should know about it even if you never do!